Was there forgiveness of sins under the Old Covenant?

(c) Copyright 2000, David A. Duncan

Many people in the church today have been taught and believe that the most significant difference between the New Testament covenant and the Old Testament Law is that we in the New Testament era have forgiveness of sins and the Jews under the Old Testament law did not. Some will even misquote Hebrews 10:4 as:

'For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could forgive sins.'

Where they quote 'forgive' the word in the KJV is really translated 'take away' and properly so. Thayer says concerning this word that it can mean: "to take from, take away, remove, carry off ... to cut off ... to take away sins, of victims expiating them, Heb x.4 ... of God putting out of his sight, remembering no more, the sins committed by men, i.e. granting pardon for sins..."

Is there a difference between "taking away sin" and "forgiving sin"? "Taking away" sin involves not only forgiveness but also God putting that sin out of his sight - i.e. not remembering it anymore. In Hebrews 10:4 and 10:11 it is plainly stated that the Old Covenant could NOT "take away" sins, but the clear contrast in verses 12‑18 is that the New Covenant made provision through Christ for taking away sin. In justification the writer quotes from Jeremiah 31:34 where Jeremiah says:

"For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

The same greek word translated "take away" in Hebrews 10:4 is also used in Romans 11:27 where Paul quotes from Isaiah 59:20,21:

 "For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins."

The thing that the Old Covenant could not do is "take away" sin. From Jer. 31:34 and Rom. 11:27 we learn that "taking away" sins involved not only forgiveness but also God not remembering the sin anymore. Now Hebrews teaches that the O.T. Law could not take away sin and the reason is given in Hebrews 10:3:

"But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year."

Sins were not "taken away" under the O.T. Law. They could not be, as long as there was a reminder of sins every year, because "taking away" sins involves God remembering sins no more.

Sins Were Forgiven Under The Old Law

Were sins forgiven under the Old Testament Law? A simple example is given in Leviticus 4:31 concerning a common person who sinned unintentionally (thru ignorance - KJV):

"So the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and it shall be forgiven him."

Concerning the Day of Atonement Leviticus 16:30 says:

"For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD."

The Old Law plainly says that their sins would be forgiven (if they obeyed the law) and that they could stand clean from all their sins before the LORD. Would they have to wait until Jesus died or was that effective during their time? The writer of Hebrews says that it was effective during their time - i.e. that the blood of bulls and goats cleansed the worshipper:

Hebrews 9:22 - "... according to the law almost all things are purged with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission."

Now since he says that without shedding of blood there is no remission, it is plain that he implies that with the shedding of blood there was remission. According to Thayer, the greek word here in Hebrews 9:22 means: "1. release, as from bondage, imprisonment, etc." and is also used in Luke 4:18 where it is translated 'deliverance' - "he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, To preach deliverance to the captives ..." (NKJV). Under the Law the shedding of blood brought deliverance from the wrath of God, so that within the scope of the covenant he could be reconciled to God.

Defining Terms

The key to understanding the difference is in defining the words atonement and forgiveness. Forgiveness under the old law was brought about by atonement (Lev 4:31). Atonement, or expiation, according to Keil & Delitzsch (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p 276) '"does not signify to cause a sin not to have occurred, for that is impossible, nor to represent it as not existing, for that would be opposed to the stringency of the law, nor to pay or make compensation for it through the performance of any action; but to cover it over before God, i.e. to take away its power of coming in between God and ourselves" (Kahnis, Dogmatik i. p. 271).'

To forgive means simply to "give up all claim to punish or exact penalty for (an offense); to overlook" (Webster's unabridged dictionary).

Now, under the Old Covenant, by the sacrifices prescribed in the covenant a man could obtain atonement (so that his soul was 'covered' from the wrath of God) and forgiveness (so that God gave up all claim to exact punishment under the covenant). The limitations of this are primarily:

  1. the conscience of the worshipper was not cleansed (Heb. 10:1-2),
  2. the worshipper was still in bondage to the effects of sin, that is a fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15), and
  3. redemption of those sins to provide entrance into the eternal inheritance still needed to be made (Heb. 9:15).

The writer of Hebrews argues that under the Old Covenant "gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience ..." (Heb. 9:9). Also he argues that all those who lived before Christ were "through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (Heb. 2:15). The entrance into heaven for God's children was not clearly revealed under the old covenant (Heb. 9:8), but was purchased by Christ (Heb. 9:15) "... 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." Barnes, in his commentary on this verse notes: "That blood is effectual alike to save those under the ancient covenant and the new - so that they will be saved in the same manner, and unite in the same song of redeeming love."


Forgiveness of sins, in the New Testament, is usually thought of as 'forgiveness of or deliverance from the guilt and penalty of sin.' (Webster's unabridged dictionary). Now, in this sense, the Old Covenant could not provide forgiveness of sins since under the Law the entrance into heaven had not yet been purchased (Hebrews 9:15), so that man was prevented by sin from entering heaven and the Law made no provision to remove this penalty.

Now was there forgiveness of sins under the Old Covenant? In the sense in which the word was used in the Law and under the scope of the Law, Yes. In the sense in which the phrase 'forgiveness of sins' is used in the New Testament and under the scope of the New Testament, No. However, it should be noted that even though we have a forgiveness of sins that was unavailable to those under the Law at that time, God has still provided for those who kept the Law by the redemption provided in Jesus (Heb. 9:15).

(Heb 9:15 NKJV) 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.

While it may be accurate to state that the Old Law did not provide for the forgiveness of sins (in the sense that the New Covenant does) it will be of greater benefit if the distinction between the forgiveness in the Old Law as compared to the New is taught, so that people are not confused when they plainly read in the book of Leviticus that sins were forgiven under the Law.

Concepts of Forgiveness

There are several concepts that are taught in an attempt to explain that there really wasn't forgiveness of sins under the Old Law. Two are dealt with here: (1) The 'Loan' Concept, and (2) The 'Shadow' Concept.

The 'Loan Concept' of Forgiveness

The 'Loan Concept' of forgiveness is commonly used to explain the difference between forgiveness under the Law and forgiveness in Jesus. It says that just as a man has fulfilled his obligation when he makes a payment on a loan and thereby postpones the debt he cannot pay, so the Jew who owed a debt of sin that he could not pay (he could not present his soul pure and sinless before God who gave it) could by offering his sacrifice upon the altar fulfill his obligation before God under the Law and so postponed the debt.

The language of the Old Testament stands opposed to this concept. When a man makes a payment on a loan, he has not fulfilled his entire obligation, but only temporarily - he must still make retribution. The Israelite under the Law however was told to provide atonement (Lev. 4:27-35) and he would be forgiven and it is significant that this was the end of matter and his obligation under the law regarding the covering of God's wrath for this particular sin and not just one payment.

The effect of his sin however was not done away with by the atonement. The cumulative effect of the sins of the nation caused the people to become unclean before God and because God's tabernacle dwelt in the midst of this unclean people it too was affected by the sins of the people and became unclean. The Day of Atonement provided a cleansing for the people and the tabernacle so that the people could stand clean before God (Lev. 16:16). Now even though atonement is mentioned in Leviticus 16 forgiveness is not. The reason is simple. The sins of the people, although having been forgiven (i.e. the people were covered from the wrath of God so that he no longer sought punishment against them for those sins), had not been forgotten (Hebrews 10:1-3) and the stain of sin had caused them to be unclean. Forgiveness is not under consideration but cleansing.

Even here in Leviticus 16, although this was a yearly event (which may be reminiscent of a regular loan payment), the language does not speak of an obligation which is only temporarily taken care of. Furthermore, the language does not lend any credence to a related mistaken concept of 'rolling the sins forward'. This concept is related to that of the loan payment in that it describes the sins of the people as something which cannot be expiated and can only be temporarily rolled forward year-by-year until the Christ should come. Instead the language of Leviticus 16 describes the effect of the atonement provided by the priest as allowing the people to stand 'clean' before God (Lev. 16:30). To say that the sins were merely rolled forward is to say that the atonement was not affective. The Law provided for no further obligation on the part of the congregation or individual concerning these sins.

It is evident from the language of the Law that the Law did provide atonement and that the worshipper could stand clean from all his sins before God. There is no mention of these as temporary payments or that their effects were only temporary. The real thing that the law could not accomplish was to put man back into the same relationship with God as he enjoyed before his fall in the garden of Eden. The Law was not for that purpose and therefore its forgiveness of sins did not preclude the coming of the Messiah, but rather pointed to that need (Job 19:25-27). So this debt that man could not pay God paid for him. But it should be noted that the atonement under the Law was not for temporary payments toward this debt and should not be viewed as such.

The Shadow Concept of Forgiveness

Since the shadow is used in Hebrews to speak of the Old Law (Heb. 8:5, 10:1), some have argued that the forgiveness of sins under the Old Law was not a true forgiveness of sins, but rather a shadow of the true forgiveness that would occur in Jesus. It is true that the forgiveness of sins under the Old Law may be considered a shadow in the sense that it had the shape of that which was to come. The Old Law stated clearly that blood was required to atone for sin (Lev 17:11, Heb. 9:22) and the New Covenant confirmed that in the death of Jesus for the sins of the world (Heb. 9:14). The Old Law used the Lamb as a sacrifice - a lamb without blemish - and so Jesus is pictured in the New Testament as a lamb without blemish (sinless) (Rev. 5:5,6). With many details the Old was indeed a shadow of that which was to come and as the writer of Hebrews points out (Heb. 10:1) the Old Law "having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image" could not with its sacrifices perform the redemption of man which the sacrifice of the Christ could.

The danger here is that some may view the Old Law as ineffective in forgiving sins and view the sacrifice for sins in the Old Law as effecting only an appearance of forgiveness (the shadow) with forgiveness only to really occur when the Christ should come (the very image). This is true only in that the forgiveness under the Law was not the complete redemption that Christ purchased for us, but limited in scope as defined under the Law. God did intend for the forgiveness of sins in the Old Law to be effective and so he stated to Moses (Lev. 17:11): "the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for you souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul." Let us understand the distinction that the shadow was effective, but not the end of the redemption that God planned for mankind.

In Conclusion:

Often the differences between the Old and New Testaments are presented with an emphasis on the Old Law as weak and insufficient, and this view is indeed in the scriptures as Paul says (Rom. 8:3):

"For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,

But let us also present the fact that the Old Law was a glorious covenant as did Paul (2 Cor. 3:7-9):

"But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.

A fuller understanding of the Old Law will indeed make us to appreciate the blessings we have in Christ Jesus to a fuller extent and the fullness of the forgiveness that is available in Him in that not only are our sins atoned for so that we are covered from the wrath of God and can stand clean before Him, but that He has taken away our sins as Jeremiah prophesied ("... and their sin I will remember no more") and has purchased for us eternal redemption and the eternal inheritance in heaven. Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ forever!

And finally, when we speak of the forgiveness of sins available under the Old Covenant, let us agree with the Bible (Lev. 4:31) that there was forgiveness of sins under the Old Law, but then go on to explain how that forgiveness is different from the "taking away" of sin in Jesus Christ.