Was There Forgiveness of Sins Prior to the Cross?
Was there forgiveness of sins prior to the cross? Some teach that under the old covenant sins were not forgiven, rather rolled forward until the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In order to accurately answer this question one must look at what the Holy Spirit has revealed on the subject.
Moses penned these instructions from Jehovah to His people:
If you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments which the Lord has spoken to Moses— 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day the Lord gave commandment and onward throughout your generations— 24 then it will be, if it is unintentionally committed, [a]without the knowledge of the congregation, that the whole congregation shall offer one young bull as a burnt offering, as a sweet aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the ordinance, and one kid of the goats as a sin offering. 25 So the priest shall make atonement for the whole congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them, for it was unintentional; they shall bring their offering, an offering made by fire to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord, for their unintended sin. 26 It shall be forgiven the whole congregation of the children of Israel and the stranger who dwells among them, because all the people did it unintentionally. 27 ‘And if a person sins unintentionally, then he shall bring a female goat in its first year as a sin offering. 28 So the priest shall make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally, when he sins unintentionally before the Lord, to make atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. (Numbers 15:22-28)
Notice what Jehovah said would happen when the congregation of Israel or an individual offered the commanded animal sacrifice for sins. God stated that their sins would be forgiven.
How is one to harmonize these verses with N.T. texts that point to the inadequacy of animal sacrifices in forgiving sins? The Hebrew author penned these seemingly contradictory words, “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4).
Next, give consideration to the message of John the baptist as he was preparing the way for the Messiah. “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark1:4). One must bear in mind that John’s message of baptism for the forgiveness of sins was prior to the cross.
What did God promise to the worshippers under the Law of Moses? What was being promised those who obeyed the Lord’s command to be baptized by His prophet, John? His promise was that these individuals would be forgiven. When would this forgiveness be granted? In the case of those addressed by Moses, it was when they obeyed Jehovah’s command to offer the proper sacrifice. John promised the same to those who submitted to God’s command to repent and be baptized.
One might ask, “How could there be forgiveness without the blood of Christ?” The answer to that question is obvious. There is NO forgiveness apart from the blood of Christ! Then how could Moses and John offer forgiveness prior to the sacrifice of God’s Son upon the cross?
Men are creatures whom God has placed in a sphere where time is counted in seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years. Because we are in this “box of time,” we sometimes think of God as being limited in that same “box.” However, God exists outside of man’s limits of time. An individual, who sinned under the Law of Moses and complied with Jehovah’s conditions to obtain forgiveness, was forgiven based upon their repentance and obedience and the blood of Jesus Christ. God did not have “to wait until the time” that Jesus died to forgive these sins because time is irrelevant to Him. Thus we have these words written by the Holy Spirit, “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15).
This same was true as John preached forgiveness of sins through faith, repentance and baptism according to his message. God did not “roll forward the sins” of the people who obeyed His words. He forgave their sins on the same day that they complied with the conditions which He set forth while basing their forgiveness on the sacrifice of His Son.
God’s transcendence to time allowed Him to forgive sins based upon the blood of Jesus Christ before the event actually transpired in our sphere called “time.” This transcendence to time allows Him to look back some two thousand years later and forgive the sins of those who through faith in His Son, repent of their sins and are united into His death through baptism.
Let’s not put God in our “box” by teaching that no one’s sins were forgiven until after Jesus “stepped into time” and offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice. God did not say that He would roll their sins forward until the cross anymore than He promised to put our sins “on hold” when we come to Christ.
Today, God forgives the sins of those who though faith are united into His Son’s death through baptism (Romans 6:3-4, Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21).