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Why were there times in the Old Testament when God forgave people who did not offer a sacrifice?

translate forgiveness without sacrifice

Forgiveness of sin is a dominant biblical theme, both in the Old and New Testament. When God forgives a person’s sin, He pardons or excuses that person, freeing him or her from the guilt and consequences (or punishment) that offense deserves. One of the primary Hebrew terms translated as “forgive” is nasaʾ, which means “to carry, lift up, or to bear away.” This word is especially associated with the forgiveness of sin as opposed to forgiving a debt. To forgive sin is to lift up and carry away the faults, offenses, and shortcomings of another.

Only God can forgive sin (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21). When He forgives, He releases the sinner from judgment and frees him from the divine penalty of sin, which is death (Romans 5:12; 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:56; James 1:15).

In the Old Testament, even before the sacrificial system for the forgiveness of sin was established (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 28, 31; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22), God was distinguished as a God who forgives sin (Exodus 32:32; 34:6–9). By nature, God is forgiving (Nehemiah 9:17; Daniel 9:9), but He is also just. He does not let sin go unpunished (Exodus 34:7).

The Bible clearly illustrates that repentance is necessary for God to forgive sin. Repentance was required in the Old Testament, just as it is in the New Testament. Several scriptural examples show God withholding His forgiveness from those who did not truly repent (Deuteronomy 29:20; Numbers 15:30–36; 1 Samuel 15:27–35; Isaiah 2:9; Hosea 1:6). However, when people repented of their sins and returned to the Lord, God extended forgiveness (Hosea 14:2; Isaiah 33:24; Jeremiah 33:8; Psalm 65:3; Psalm 78:38). The psalmist declared, “Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone” (Psalm 32:5, NLT).

God offers eternal forgiveness of sins to repentant believers based on the once-for-all atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Hebrews 10:11–12; cf. Leviticus 16:1–34; 17:11). Christ shed His blood to confirm “the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many” (Matthew 26:28, NLT). The death of Jesus paid the entire sacrificial price to lift up and carry away the past sins of Old Testament believers and the future sins of New Testament believers (Psalm 130:8; Matthew 20:28; Ephesians 1:7).

Genesis 15:6 says, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6, NLT). Abraham was made righteous before God by faith (see also Romans 4:3–8). Believers in ancient times looked forward by faith to Messiah’s coming, just as believers today look backward by faith to His coming. The sins of all people who repent and put their faith in the Messiah, God’s Son and Savior of the world, are no longer held against them because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

The sacrificial system of the Old Covenant was never effective in forgiving or taking away sin (see Hebrews 10:1–10). It did show the seriousness of sin and the need for a substitute to carry away sin (Leviticus 16:7–10, 20–22, 26; Isaiah 53:4). Most importantly, it pointed forward to the day when Jesus Christ would pour out His blood on the cross to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

No sacrifice or ritual is required of humans to cover sin. The only truly indispensable sacrifice is the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:13–14). He laid down His life once and for all people, from Adam and Eve to the final family at the end of days. “So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven. . . . With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever” (Hebrews 9:11–12, NLT).

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Why were there times in the Old Testament when God forgave people who did not offer a sacrifice?
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This page last updated: July 13, 2023