Did animal sacrifices provide for forgiveness of sin?


We read in the New Testament that animal sacrifices did not forgive sin, nor did they clean or purify the ancient Israelites from an evil conscience. That was never the purpose of the animal sacrifices. Forgiveness of sin and the opportunity to inherit eternal life was only made possible through the supreme Sacrifice of Jesus Christ (John 3:14-17).

Hebrews 10:1-4 makes it very clear that animal sacrifices were just reminders of sins, but that they could not take away or forgive sin. They were foreshadowing the death of Christ. We read:

“For the [sacrificial] 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 worshippers, 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Hebrews 9:9-10 confirms that the sacrificial system was only of a temporary nature, to be superseded by the death of Jesus Christ:

“It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices were offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.”

Paul elaborates in the book of Galatians that the sacrificial law was added because of transgression (sin is the transgression of the spiritual law of the Ten Commandments, compare 1 John 3:4, Authorized Version), but only until the Seed—Jesus Christ—would come. We read in Galatians 3:19, 24-25:

“What purpose then does the [sacrificial] law serve? It was added because of transgression [of the spiritual law], till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a meditator [Note that the Ten Commandments were NOT appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator, but they were spoken directly by God Himself]… Therefore the [sacrificial] law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith [but it is an obedient faith, compare Romans 1:5; 16:26]. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor [the sacrificial law].”

Matthew Henry’s Whole Commentary, in his explanations of Leviticus 4:31, points at the temporary meaning and duration of animal sacrifices, and the all-important Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, when stating:

“From all these laws concerning the sin-offerings we may learn, 1. To hate sin, and to watch against it. That is certainly a very bad thing to make atonement for which so many innocent and useful creatures must be slain and mangled thus. 2. To value Christ, the great and true sin-offering, whose blood cleanses from all sin, which it was not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away. Now, if any man sin, Christ is the propitiation (1 Jn. 2:1, 2), not for Jews only, but [also] for Gentiles.”

Matthew Henry’s Whole Commentary, in reference to Leviticus 6:7, points out how the animal sacrifices, as a tutor, foreshadowed the all-encompassing Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He also shows that the spiritual law of the Ten Commandments and the statutes and judgments, explaining and magnifying the Ten Commandments, were not abolished when the animal sacrifices were superseded by THE Sacrifice of Jesus:

“This trespass-offering could not, of itself, make satisfaction for sin, nor reconciliation between God and the sinner, but as it signified the atonement that was to be made by our Lord Jesus, when he should make his soul an offering of sin, a trespass-offering; it is the same word that is here used, Isa. 53:10. The trespasses here mentioned are trespasses still against the law [of God]… and though now we may have them pardoned without a trespass-offering, yet not without true repentance, [obedience], reformation [that is, a lasting change of our thinking and action], and a humble [obedient] faith in the righteousness of Christ [which we must obtain]: and, if any make the more bold with these sins because they are not now put to the expense of a trespass-offering for them, they turn the grace of God into wantonness, and so bring upon themselves a swift destruction. The Lord is the avenger of all such, 1 Th. 4:6.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds the following, regarding Leviticus 6:7:

“And the priest shall make an atonement for him [the sinner] before the Lord,…. By offering the ram he brought, by which a typical, but not real atonement was made; for the blood of bulls and goats, of sheep and rams, could not take away sin; but as they were types of Christ, and led to him, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”

For a thorough discussion of the sacrificial law, as referred to in the book of Galatians, please read our free booklet, “Paul’s Letter to the Galatians—How to Understand It.”

In light of these clear teachings of the New Testament, how are we to explain passages in the Old Testament, seemingly saying that people who were offering animal sacrifices could thereby obtain forgiveness for their sins? For instance, we read in Leviticus 4:20 that upon the sacrifice of a young bull, the priest was to make atonement for the unintentional sin of the congregation, “and it shall be forgiven them.” Also, verse 26 says that upon the sacrifice of a young male goat, the ruler’s unintentional sin “shall be forgiven him.” Also, in regard to an unintentional sin of a common person, we read that upon the sacrifice of a female kid of the goats, “the priest shall make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him” (verses 31, 35).

We need to emphasize that the Bible does not contradict itself (compare John 10:35). We also must understand the Old Testament Scriptures in the light of the New Testament, and not vice versa. As the New Testament clearly teaches that spiritual forgiveness of sin could NOT be obtained through animal sacrifices, what then is the meaning of the above-quoted passages in Leviticus?

The following statements from selected commentaries shed more light on the issue.

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible states: “…the meaning [of forgiveness through animal sacrifices] is, he shall not be punished for it.”

The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary concurs, saying this about Leviticus 4:35:

“None of these sacrifices possessed any intrinsic value sufficient to free the conscience of the sinner from the pollution of guilt, or to obtain his pardon from God; but they gave a formal deliverance from a secular penalty (Heb 9:13, 14); and they were figurative representations of the full and perfect sin offering which was to be made by Christ.”

The (above-mentioned) passage in Hebrews 9:13-14 shows indeed what kind of “forgiveness” could be obtained through animal sacrifices. It reads: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies [sets aside or apart; that is, allowing a relationship between God and man] for the PURIFYING OF THE FLESH, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

Animal sacrifices provided a means of permitting the ancient Israelite who had sinned unintentionally, to remain in the community of the nation, under God’s rule, and to be spared from physical punishment. In case of an unintentional sin by the entire congregation, animal sacrifices prevented that God would turn His back on them and forsake them. They did not provide spiritual forgiveness, and later, Israel misused and abused animal sacrifices in a terrible way, so that God had to remind them that He did not desire animal sacrifices, but an upright and humble heart.

Animal sacrifices were a means of maintaining a relationship between God and man, by “forgiving” the physical transgression and allowing the transgressor to remain within the community of Israel. They were never meant to provide spiritual “forgiveness” of sin. They never abolished or superseded the spiritual penalty for sin, which is eternal death (Romans 6:23), nor did they make possible the means of inheriting eternal life. Only the Sacrifice of Christ can bring about such spiritual forgiveness and allow us to continue on our righteous path (1 John 1:8-9; Romans 8:3-4), to ultimately being given eternal life at the time of Christ’s return.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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