How could there be forgiveness of sins before Christ died (for example, in the Old Testament period), if forgiveness was predicated upon Jesus’ death?”
Let us consider two aspects to this alleged problem. First, do the scriptures assert that, in some sense, “forgiveness” was obtainable before the death of Christ? There should be no dispute about this question being answered in the affirmative. Reflect upon the following.
Though the concept of forgiveness is not predominately pronounced in the Patriarchal age (from Adam to Moses), it certainly is implied in the sacrifices of blood that were offered so frequently in that initial era of human history (cf. Genesis 8:20; 12:7-8, etc.). Job offered burnt offerings for his children in the event that they had “sinned” (1:5). And the concept of “forgiveness,” needed even in the disputes among men (Genesis 50:17), assuredly implies a pardon that is indispensable if one is to stand before the holy God (cf. Habakkuk 1:13).
The concept of “forgiveness” comes into full vision under the Mosaic regime. For instance, in the early portion of Leviticus, in connection with various sacrifices, Moses records that these offerings were a “sweet savor” to the Lord (see 1:9; 2:2; 3:5,16). In 4:31, the nature of that “sweet savor” is defined: “the priest shall burn [the sacrifice] upon the altar for a sweet savor unto Jehovah; and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.” Other Old Testament texts, pledging forgiveness, are far too numerous to need recitation at this time.
Forgiveness was obtainable under the administration of John the Immerser. Mark records: “John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins” (1:4). Those who “rejected” John’s baptism, at the same time “rejected the counsel of God” (Luke 7:30). One may draw his own conclusion about the “forgiveness” status of those who spurned the proclamation of Jehovah’s messenger (cf. Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1).
Jesus Christ, during his personal ministry, also forgave sins. In the city of Capernaum, when a lame man was brought into the house where he was, the Lord said unto him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Then, in order to demonstrate to the doubting and chagrined scribes that he had the authority to forgive the man’s sins, he said to the invalid gentleman, “Arise, and take up your bed, and go to your house” (Mark 2:5-11).
Clearly, forgiveness, at least in a certain sense, was bestowed before the death of Christ. That being the case then, how does one explain texts such as these that follow.
From Another Vantage Point
“ut when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
If the redemption of those who lived under the law of Moses had been achieved before the Savior’s death, in the fullest sense of the term, why was the death of Jesus even necessary? As Paul argued in the same epistle, “if righteousness [i.e., being right with God—forgiven] is [accomplished] through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).
How is one to understand the following text?
“And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there has been death: for it never avails while he who made it lives” (Hebrews 9:15-17).
Of special significance in the passage above is the phrase, “for the redemption of the transgressions.” In the original text, the term rendered by the English word “for,” is the Greek preposition eis. The word denotes a goal as yet not reached. Prior to the death of Jesus, there was no redemption (in some sense) under the Mosaic system.
Here, then, is our problem. One set of texts indicates there was forgiveness before the death of Christ, while another set suggests there was no pardon until after the Lord’s death. Which represents the truth?
In logic there exists a principle known as the “law of contradiction.” Basically, it says this: “A thing cannot both be, and not be, for the same person, place, or thing, at the same time, or in the same sense.” It is this last phrase that presently engages our attention. In the problem at hand, it is possible for there to be both “forgiveness” and “non-forgiveness”—provided the “senses” are different. In what way, then, are the “senses” different?
There could have been no forgiveness available for fallen humanity without the historical incarnation and ultimate death of the Son of God. Without the shedding of blood there would have been no pardon for sin (Hebrews 9:22). But the blood of animals could not provide actual atonement for sin (Hebrews 10:4). Those animal sacrifices under the former dispensations were merely typical (pictorial representations) of the “lamb of God” who was to come and provide a sacrificial offering for humanity (John 1:29). Had Jesus not died at Calvary, those offerings of ages gone by would have been worthless.
On the other hand, God knew that the death of his Son was certain ultimately, and on that basis, and that of his own fidelity to keep his promise of redemption, he could, and did, grant forgiveness to the faithful of those previous ages.
Practically speaking, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the saints of those earlier eras enjoyed pardon; ultimately, though, the actual forgiveness was achieved at the cross. Two different senses are under consideration: forgiveness, contingently granted on the future death of Jesus; forgiveness, completely accomplished at the cross.
F.F. Bruce, in slightly different language, describes the matter as follows:
“The first covenant provided a measure of atonement and remission for sins committed under it, but it was incapable of providing ‘eternal redemption’; this was a blessing which had to await the inauguration of the new covenant, which embodies God’s promise to his people, ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:34)” (The Epistle to the Hebrews—Revised Edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, p. 230).
When the theme is viewed from complementary vantage points, there is no difficulty in resolving the supposed conflict.
...in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power...