I thought of this when I was researching this question.

Leviticus 4 goes into great detail about the sacrifice that must be made in order for a sin to be forgiven. However, we see here that God actually provided a way for these sins to be forgiven.

Specifically, Leviticus 16 shows that this sacrifice and the Day of Atonement did provide forgiveness of sins:

Leviticus 16:30 (NIV)Emphasis added
because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.

Now, Jews no longer provide sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, however God has still provided a way for these sins to be forgiven. (See Why don't Jews sacrifice animals anymore? for more information.)

So, if God has previously given us a way to have forgiveness of our sins, why did he send Jesus to be our ultimate sacrifice?

I believe that there is some doctrinal basis for this. I'm not sure which specific doctrine would best be applied to this, but I am seeking a mainstream Protestant doctrine on the matter.

  • I want to re-emphasize that this is not a straw man. I believe there was forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament and Leviticus shows this!
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 16:33
  • As long as one keeps on sinning, one has to continually offer up sacrifices. Christ lived a life devoid of sin, and, through God's grace, gave His followers the power to do the same, ending the cycle.
    – user46876
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 2:20

11 Answers 11


Actually, it never worked.

Hebrews 10:4 (ESV)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

All the OT sacrifices were useless in an of themselves. What they did all along was not actually solve something but point people to the idea that something needed to be solved and the way that had to happen was through sacrifice. All the OT sacrificial rules only served to point us to Christ, who was already arranged as the Lamb to come.

In other words, the forgiveness for sins that God "provided" in the Old Testament was through Jesus from day one, so you can't just take him out of the picture. There isn't another way.

See also: How were people saved before ~33AD?

  • 3
    Leviticus 16:30 makes it sound like it did (and that atonement was made on that very day, not at some point in the future). However, the rest of the Hebrews passage (10:1-18) does somewhat answer my question. Those sacrifices took away sin, but in Jesus we are made perfect.
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 14:13
  • 1
    Yeah it's the difference between washing a dirty pair of jeans and making a new pair.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 16:24
  • 2
    @Richard I guess I need to re-word this. I think there was forgiveness granted through the OT sacrifices too, but not through something intrinsic in them but through their faith and Christs eventual completion of God's side of the bargain. Leviticus makes it sound like the sacrifices did something because THEY DID do something, but they were not the only mechanism at work.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 20:51
  • 1
    Okay, but your comment goes against your opening statement, that they did nothing. Just pointing out an incongruency.
    – jchaffee
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 14:52
  • 1
    "The Lord said to Moses...you will be clean from all your sins." This is the word of God that you're saying "never worked". I'd postulate that 10:4 is speaking about future sin, especially when its preceding verse 10:3 speaks about "annual reminder of sins" suggesting an ongoing thing.
    – adamdport
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 16:54

One indicator that the Levitical sacrifices were insufficient is that they had to be offered each year for the nation and more often for individuals, depending really on the frequency of offenses. In essence, they were only effective for past offenses. The next time a sin was committed, the person and nation were susceptible to judgment if a sacrifice was not offered at the appropriate time.

Furthermore, there was nothing in the sacrificial system for some sins, including adultery and murder.

The Levitical Law only existed from the time of Moses as well, while Abraham lived 400-500 years before that. "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness." Salvation has always been through faith in God's provision rather than through our own works.

Adam and Eve's attempts to cover their own shame with the fig leaves in the garden were insufficient. They needed the clothing that God provided (and the promise of a Deliverer who would crush the work of Satan that brought death to the world).

In Isaiah, God actually tells the nation of Israel to "stop bringing meaningless sacrifices". The issue was that they were "honoring God with their mouths while their hearts were far from Him." Dutifully carrying out rituals was never a means of salvation.

Judaism may believe that God no longer requires animal sacrifices and that there is forgiveness apart from those and apart from Jesus, but the Bible is very clear that this is not the case. The sacrifices were an act of faith in God, and the sacrifice of Jesus is the only thing that has ever provided atonement for sins, "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." (Hebrews 10:14)

There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Christianity is very clear that Judaism without Christ cannot provide forgiveness of sins. In fact, nothing else can provide forgiveness of sins.

Romans 3 states the following:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Note that it says, "He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished". God's justice requires that all sins be punished. No sin was punished until Jesus died and endured the righteous punishment of God for sins.

So, neither Levitical Law nor good deeds nor being religious can achieve forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness comes by faith in Christ and in His work of atonement.

  • You seem to have shown proof that the Levitical laws were not sufficient (which I appreciate). However, it doesn't answer the problem about how sins were forgiven in Leviticus 16:30. Admittedly, when they were done in vain they were useless (per Isaiah and Hebrews that you site). However, they were effective for a time.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 16:51
  • I think that this answer might help me formulate my own theory, though. Thank you for a longer answer to this issue.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 16:51
  • @Richard Included in the list you cited are thieves, slanderers and drunkads. 1 Corinthians 6:11 (the verse after the ones you mentioned) say "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." So, when sin is unaccounted for/unforgiven, judgment is due. Yet, when sin is, in fact, forgiven, judgment has already been made and the punishment has already been paid.
    – Narnian
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 18:29
  • Nice catch! And fair enough. I removed that comment. I know that line of logic is kind of chasing our tails, anyways.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 18:32

Caleb is pretty close to the answer.

Remember that the greatest of all commandments is to love God "with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matthew 22:37) that Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments," (John 14:15) and that at the final judgment, everyone is judged according to their works. (Revelation 20:12)

As Hebrews 10:4 points out, the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament had no intrinsic value for redemption or remission of sins; all forgiveness comes through the Atonement of Christ and in no other way. But the sacrifices provided two important things: they served as a way to point people's minds forward to Christ, which helped them to have faith, and they were a commandment of God to obey, giving them an opportunity to show their devotion. (And remember that these sacrifices were sacrifices; to a nation of shepherds, giving up the best of their flocks did indeed require an act of faith!)

Simply because the blood sacrifices did not provide forgiveness of sins in and of themselves did not make them worthless. It was the people's faith and their acts of obedience that allowed them to have claim on the cleansing power of the Atonement, the same as in modern times. That's the missing link here. This is why various Old Testament prophets (Isaiah and Samuel come to mind immediately, and I know there were a few others) talked about how the sacrifices themselves were worthless and abhorrent to the Lord when the people were disobedient, unrighteous, and unfaithful. This was not a new concept that Paul came up with.

  • So, you're saying that the combination of faith and sacrifice provided for forgiveness of sins? I completely agree with this! It reconciles Leviticus with Isaiah. However, since God provided the mechanism (faith, obedience, and sacrifice), why did we need the sacrifice of Jesus? (I disagree on a minor point: that their faith in the Messiah was the faith that God was after. I believe God was after faith in God himself, not faith in future salvation. This can be seen from the Leviticus verse.)
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 17:33
  • @Richard: Yes, if you only look at that verse in isolation, but remember that Moses gave them the promise of the Messiah elsewhere, and that we have several indications throughout the Old Testament that they understood the promise of a Redeemer, and that that promise was bound up with sacrifices, the forgiveness of sins, and the Resurrection. And we need the sacrifice of Jesus because the Atonement is what provides the actual cleansing power. Our faith and obedience are what allow us to apply the Atonement's cleaning power to ourselves. But without the Atonement, there could be no forgiveness.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 17:41
  • 1
    @Richard: To give a (highly oversimplified) analogy, consider an electric light. You need to have a valid lightbulb installed and do the work to flip the switch to turn it on, but even if you do all that, if there is no power connected to your house, you won't get any light. It was Christ's sacrifice that provides the power for the forgiveness of sins, and the people's faith, obedience and sacrifice that made them able to use it.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 17:55
  • I want so badly to believe this. Could you provide some scriptural examples of how Moses gave the promise of the Messiah and how that promise was bound up with sacrifices? I simply haven't seen any evidence of that, but would love to have solid proof of it.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 17:57
  • @Richard: I can do that, but not right now. It would require more time for research and looking up references than I have time for right now at work. If anyone else can provide references, they'd be welcomed.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 18:24

To try and answer your question with brevity instead of wordiness, I will just say that the OT sacrifices were sufficient for a time seeing as they were instituted by God. However, they were to forshadow the day when instead of us making sacrifices, God would provide the unlimited and infinite sacrifice, Himself.

As long as there was finite sacrifices, only finite forgiveness was achieved. But once there was an infinite sacrifice, then, infinite forgiveness was achieved.

For instance, when there was the sacrifice of small animals, there was small forgiveness. But when an infinite being, the incarnate creator God of the cosmos is sacrificed so much more is acheived.

Here is Colossians 1:19-20

  • 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Thus, through Christ, God reconciled to Himself "ALL THINGS," which interestingly enough includes things in heaven that apparently needed reconciliation. The self-sacrifice of an infinitely good, holy, and loving God can acheive far more than we could ever imagine!


The reason we need Jesus is because all the sacrifices in the Old Testaments were, by substitute, Jesus himself being sacrificed on the Cross. Even if they didn't realize it yet. They had no meaning unless Jesus did come and did die. On their own, all they did was cook some animal flesh. They only represent forgiveness because they are a shedding of blameless blood and flesh to take on the sins of the sinner. And that flesh and blood took on all the sin and was burnt and given to God as a valuable sacrifice (that's why it was always the best, blemish free lamb or the first fruit of the harvest). It was burned to symbolize that God got it all and that none was kept for anyone else's use.

But none of it would matter if Jesus didn't come in the future and put his own flesh and his own blood on the 'fire' (the cross) for all men's sins forever. HE is the blemish free Lamb. And he is more valuable and worthy than all the blameless lambs in inexistence. He is God's own son. He is worth so much, that his blood can cover all mankind that has ever lived- even retroactively. That's the reason the Old Testament faithfuls' obedient sacrifices and belief saved them.

If you examine whom God forgave in the Old Testament and why he forgave them, it was not merely the sacrifice that created forgiveness. It was always FAITH/Belief that brought righteousness. It is righteousness that allows salvation and entry into heaven. Faith and the accompanying obedience is what mattered to God. Just as it is today. Example: In Genesis 15, God told Abraham that he would have many children, even though he was old. And he also foretold of Jesus coming from his lineage. And because Abraham believed him, God considered him righteous. See:

"4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram BELIEVED the Lord, and he credited it to him as RIGHTEOUSNESS."

and in Genesis 22, God foretold of the coming of Jesus, through whom all the world would be saved. Jesus is the 'seed' in the following verses. Please note that it says, "BECAUSE YOU HAVE OBEYED ME.

"15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

So, I hope you see that without Jesus actually coming and fulfilling the promise of salvation, the symbolic acts that represented Jesus' sacrifice would have no meaning at all. Their only meaning stemmed from his future actions. His future actions retroactively gave meaning to those sacrifices and saved all those who had faith in God and the hope of the Savior to come. If he never came, they would just be having a barbeque and nothing more.



The old testament sacrifices were valuable only because God Himself would become, at some time in the future, the Sacrifice Himself. Gen. 3:15. So until He became a Man and died on the cross, a system of sacrifices were given to Abel-Gen.4:4;to Noah-Gen.8:20,21; to Job-Job 1:5;42:8;to Abraham-Gen.15:9,10 and to the nation of Israel-Ex. 12:3;Lev.3;4;5;16, etc.,etc.Therefore the concept, since Adam's fall, that man could no longer approach God without the shedding of blood of an innocent victim, was cemented in their minds. They were righteous but were not innocent as Adam was BEFORE he fell. God could no longer be approached without the death of a victim-covenant. You need to accept the fact that Jesus is the fulfilment of Hebrew prophecies as in Psalm 16;10;22;Isaiah 9:6,7;53; Daniel 9:24-27. In Psalm 22,verses 14-17, David is describing the agonies of execution by being nailed to something. He wrote this about 900 years before the death of Christ, even before crucifixion was invented. And in Isaiah 53:9, it is stated that someone will die with the wicked and be buried with the rich. Jesus Christ was surrounded by thieves at the cross and afterwards was buried in the brand new tomb of a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, Matt. 27:57-60. Daniel 9:24-27 predicts the coming of someone Who would bring everlasting righteousness, reconciliation for iniquity with exact precision of time-483 years from the order to reconstruct Jerusalem by the Persian king Artaxerxes until the birth of Christ. His rejection would bring the complete destruction of Jerusalem again. All these events have been fulfilled by the Person of Jesus Christ. These prophecies should make you think. May the Lord help you to reason from the Scriptures the truth that you desperately need in order to be saved and avoid the lake of fire


Yes, God forgave people before Jesus died. But take a look at the situation back then. In Numbers chapter 31, the Israelites, at God's orders, slaughter thousands of captive Midianite women and children. Deuteronomy chapter 13 says, "If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods... Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death."

This kind of brutality is difficult to imagine. We have been living under the New Covenant so long that we forget that God is a god of wrath. He is a jealous God who gets angry. He hates evil. Jesus came to appease that wrath so that we no longer have to live in fear of messing up. Leviticus chapter 10 describes how the priests Nadab and Abihu died because they "offered unauthorized fire before the Lord". But because of Jesus is now our high priest, we can "approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).


Catholic Perspective

Definitions are always useful.

113. What is sin?

A. Sin is an offense against God, by any thought, word, deed or omission against the law of God. - Source: Penny Catechism, 113.

Therefore since sin is an offense against God, only God can forgive sins (my thinking, no sacrifice needed except some kind of making up - restitution - needs to be done because God is Just),

CCC 430 Jesus means in Hebrew: "God saves." At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel gave him the name Jesus as his proper name, which expresses both his identity and his mission.1 Since God alone can forgive sins, it is God who, in Jesus his eternal Son made man, "will save his people from their sins".2 in Jesus, God recapitulates all of his history of salvation on behalf of men.

1. Cf. Lk 1:31.

2. Mt 1:21; cf. 2:7.

and establishes the manner for the forgiveness of sins. cf. CCC 430 above and CCC 614 below

CCC 614 This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices.3 First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.4

3. Cf. Heb 10:10.

4. Cf. Jn 10:17-18; 15:13; Heb 9:14; 1 Jn 4:10.


From CCC 614 above, it is clear that the other sacrifices were genuine sacrifices which were made complete by the unique and surpassing sacrifice of Christ. Only God is capable of making adequate restitution to an offense against the infinite dignity of God.

Further reading:


Since God provided for the forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament, why do we need Jesus?

There are several distinct aspects that need to be considered.

  1. Forgiveness for relationship.
  2. Forgiveness for judicial sin debt.
  3. The receiving of eternal life.

The idea that the forgiveness is relational can be supported by comparing the following;

Leviticus 16:30 For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The emphasis on "cleansing" in both verses can be seen to lend support that the "forgiveness" being discussed is not a judicial / salvation forgiveness, but a restoration of relationship forgiveness.

The 1 John verse indicates that Christians still need to be cleansed for a close relationship with their Savior. However, New Testament Christians at the moment they are saved are sealed with the Holy Spirit, have eternal life, and have a judicial / salvation forgiveness of their sins.

John 5:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

Ephesians 1:13 In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,

Colossians 2:13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;

The New Testament Christian gets everything at once. The Old Testament believer accumulated throughout his life. His forgiveness of sins was also a result of faith, however, he would not receive eternal life until his resurrection.

Romans 4:5-8 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

Daniel 12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

The reason Jesus is needed is that without Jesus there would be no way to impart eternal life.

1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

In addition, it would not be possible to impute righteousness or offer forgiveness unless a payment had been made.

1 John 2:2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.


The answer is clearly found in Deuteronomy 30 which is referenced by Paul in Romans 10. And how was Abraham declared righteous? Romans said we are justified the same way Abraham was and that the gospel was preached to Abraham before hand. I encourage you to seek this out and you will see the gospel and the blood of Christ from Genesis to Revelation.


Hosea 6:6 says

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

Take this verse and the predicament humanity found itself in after Adam and Eve committed the first human sin. We had just followed in the footsteps of Satan and disobeyed a holy God, which in numerous verses of the Bible says is punishable by damnation.

Proverbs 12:10 English Standard Version (ESV)

10 Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.

God explicitly states that the righteous loves his animals in this verse and if you believe God is a righteous God the he is clearly stating that he loves all animals because he created them and therefore owns them.

The next verse says:

Psalm 145:9 ESV

The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. This very plainly states that God will have mercy on all who he has made. It can be concluded that he means animals as well.

This is another verse that explains God cares for even the smallest in his creation, although it was used by Jesus in a different context, the fact of the verse remains.

"Not even a sparrow, worth only half a penny, can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." Matthew 10:29, New Living Translation

If all of these verses are true, then God cares about animals and loves them and it pains him to see them die. God also loved humanity so he, being the all-powerful super intellect he is took upon himself the responsibility of ending the suffering of the world.

He sent his son to die on the cross for our sin as the perfect sacrifice. You see, it states in the Bible that God commanded us to sacrifice animals because only the clean could metaphorically "sponge" the dirty. A better metaphor would be a clean sheet covering a dirty bed.

His ultimate plan was that one final, all-encompassing sacrifice would "cover" all of humanity. This prevented the continual suffering of the innocent, sinless animals and effectively limited the pain and suffering that atonement required to one perfect individual.

I hope this answer shed some light on the matter and I was pressed to look up the verses. If you want to study the concept of animal sacrifices you should study's the first five books of the bible collectively referred to as "Books of the Law" in which God puts forth most of his commandments and the statutes by which his followers should adhere to.

  • So your answer is that Jesus was sent to be the sacrifice out of mercy for the animals? Does any particular set or tradition believe this or is it just based on your own personal exegesis? Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 16:33
  • I asked my pastor and he agreed with my logic....he sent Jesus to give US mercy and I simply drew the conclusion from these verses that since he also loved animals he would not want them to suffer either....I go to a non-denominational church.
    – Jax
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 16:42

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