Did sacrifices forgive sins?


Good day,

Recently the topic of "rolling forward" sins came up in a Sunday School class, and I decided to study the matter. This led me to the following web page: Were sins rolled forward under the Old Law?

The compelling part of the argument given is Leviticus 4:20, which states that "the priest shall make atonement for them, and [their sins] shall be forgiven them." This seems to make it clear that animal sacrifice forgave sins.

This brings us to Hebrews 9-10. As I understand it, the argument of the entire book is to show the superiority of the second covenant and its complete supersession of the first covenant. In chapters 9 and 10, he does this by showing how Christ was a better sacrifice. The web page states that it wasn't that animal sacrifice couldn't forgive particular sins but that it could not permanently remedy the problem of sin. And for this reason, sin would always be a problem as long as the institution of animal sacrifice was in place, leading to the need for a permanent solution: Christ's sacrifice. However, it seems that Hebrews 9:9-10, in stating that animal blood "cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper" but are only "regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation" demonstrates that they were not even suitable for that. Hebrews 10:4 seems to make this case as well.

On the other hand, the following verses make the webpage's argument:

Hebrews 9:13-15: For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh.

Hebrews 9:26: he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

I would very much appreciate further thoughts.


"Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation" (Hebrews 9:9-10).

The tabernacle and the acts of worship under the Law of Moses were symbolic of things in the Christian age. But they also demonstrated that the way to heaven was not yet open while the tabernacle stood. In fact, these items and rituals were unable to give the worshiper a perfect conscience.

The ordinances were given as a temporary measure until the time of reformation. This is a reference to the change in law brought in by Jesus’ death on the cross. The worship in the New Testament places emphasis on the spiritual instead of the physical (John 4:24). Thus, we see the acts of worship today emphasizing the heart (Ephesians 5:19; I Corinthians 11:23-29).

"But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:11-12).

Under the New Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest of our salvation. Like the priests of the Old Covenant, he entered the true Holy of Holies (heaven) after a sacrifice of blood. However, it was not the sacrifice of animals, but the shedding of his own blood (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; I Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 1:5). Unlike the priests under Moses’ Law, Jesus does not have to continually enter into the presence of God but is able to enter once for all time (Daniel 9:24; Zechariah 3:9). Thus, he obtained eternal redemption for mankind's sins. This does not mean that each person is given permanent forgiveness but that the sacrifice for each person's sins does not have to be repeated because the one sacrifice gained a permanent solution.

"For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:13-14).

Offerings of animals, such as goats and bulls, were made to ask God for forgiveness of sin (Leviticus 16:15-19; 4:20,26,31,35; 5:10,13,16,18; 6:7). The ashes of a heifer were used to make the waters used to purify people who had become unclean (Numbers 19:2-10). The purification rituals took care of the physical uncleanness of a man so that he might worship God. If animal blood could do this, the writer asks us to consider how much more the blood of Christ is able to do to cleanse us from sin (dead works - Ephesians 2:1) so we may serve the living God. The purification here is not from physical uncleanness but an uncleanness of the spirit (the conscience) (Mark 7:21-23; Ephesians 4:22-24; I Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5-6; I Thessalonians 5:23).

"For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance" (Hebrews 9:15).

Because of Jesus’ superior sacrifice, he has mediated a superior covenant. Those who are called are able to receive eternal life (II Timothy 1:9; Ephesians 1:11-14; 3:8-12). In terms of that covenant, Jesus' death was not just for future sins but also covered the sins committed under the prior covenant so that those forgiven then can also inherit eternal life.

"For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you" (Hebrews 9:16-20).

For a will to go into effect the testator (the one who had the will made) must die. It is drafted prior to a person’s death, but the terms don’t take effect until the person dies. The New Covenant went into effect at the death of Jesus (Colossians 2:14). Even the Old Covenant went into effect with the death of animals and the shedding of their blood (Exodus 24:3-8). But notice that the blood used to inaugurate the Old Covenant was inferior to the blood of Christ, which inaugurated the New Covenant.

"And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these" (Hebrews 9:21-23).

The blood was used for more than just sealing the covenant. It was also sprinkled on the tabernacle and the implements in order to dedicate these things to the service of God. Thus, they were rendered clean. If the copies of heavenly things in the Old Testament required blood, then the heavenly things require a greater sacrifice – Christ’s own blood (II Peter 1:18-19).

The cleansing of the tabernacle was also a shadow of the New Covenant. Christians are the temple of God (I Corinthians 3:16). We are made clean by the blood of Christ (John 17:19; Romans 5:9; Ephesians 1:7). As a result, we are dedicated to the service of God (Romans 12:1-2). As the writer of Hebrews points out, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin (Leviticus 17:11).

"For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him" (Hebrews 9:24-28).

The high priest under the Old Covenant entered the tabernacle – a tent made by craftsmen at God’s orders – after being cleansed. Jesus entered a greater temple – heaven itself. He stands in the very presence of God.

Because of the perfection of his sacrifice of his own blood, there is no requirement for repeated sacrifices and repeated entering of the temple. This is unlike the high priest who entered after a sacrifice of blood that was not his own. Because people are appointed to die only once, it only took the single offering of Christ to put away sin.

And because after death comes judgment, Jesus will return a second time to bring salvation to his people. In that second appearing, there will be no need for another sacrifice for sin – that was taken care of in his death at his first appearance on earth.

"For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:1-4).

The Old Law could not achieve what Christ accomplished. It required repeated sacrifices, showing that it could not offer a permanent solution to the problem of sin. In fact, the continual offerings constantly reminded people of their sins.

And in reality, the blood of the lesser (animals) cannot take away the sins of the greater (humans) (Micah 6:6-7). This is why Jesus came into this world. God didn’t desire the death of animals to fulfill some need of His. But Christ was designated before the world was created to be the sacrifice for sin.

Thus, we can say that the sacrifices under the Old Law granted provisional forgiveness for sins until Jesus came to enact the only truly permanent solution to the problem of sin.


Hello Jeffrey,
I read your reply again today. It is clear and balances well Leviticus 4 with Hebrews 9 and 10.
Thank you again for providing the response to my question and the many others seeking to truly understand the Creator.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email