Were People Forgiven in the Old Testament? 

By Don Ruhl

Years ago, I visited a congregation where I used to preach. The new preacher there at the time, confronted me in the parking lot, wanting to know who gave the congregation the idea that people in the Old Testament were forgiven.

Then he asked me if I believed people in the Old Testament were forgiven. I said, Yes. He wagged his head in disgust and walked away without hearing anything else from me.

  • What do you believe?
  • Do you believe people in the Old Testament were forgiven of their sins?
  • If you believe they were not forgiven, have you considered the implications?

If God Did Not Forgive the Sins of Old Testament Saints 

Did God lie to people to whom He indicated that He had forgiven them? If God did not forgive them, did they enter heaven with sin? God clearly indicated He did forgive their sins:

And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,  keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exo 34.6–7).

“And he shall do with the bull as he did with the bull as a sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them…And he shall burn all its fat on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of the peace offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him” (Lev 4.20, 26).

“Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”  (Num 14:19).

“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” (Num 15.25).

So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2Sa 12.13).

I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
(Psa 32.5)

Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases…
(Psa 103.1–3)

Indeed it was for my own peace
That I had great bitterness;
But You have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.
(Isa 38.17)

He will again have compassion on us,
And will subdue our iniquities.
You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
(Mic 7.19)

And many, many others!

Why do some people believe Old Testament people were not forgiven? 

I believe this comes from a false interpretation of Hebrews 10.1–4,

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 (Heb 10.1–4).

What does this passage teach and not teach? It teaches that the Israelites had a reminder of annual sins, but not sins of a lifetime. Their sins were forgiven, but not based on the blood of animals. Their sins were forgiven, but there was an annual reminder of them.

If God forgave the sins of Old Testament people, how or why did He do that before Jesus died on the cross? 

The blood of Jesus makes forgiveness of sins possible, that is, when a person complies with God’s will, He forgives that person’s sins based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

How could the people previous to Jesus be forgiven based on His blood? Consider this passage,

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  (Heb 9.15).

The blood flowed both directions, for the people after the cross, and for the people before the cross. In other words, God knew what He would do in Christ, and based on that yet-to-be-event, He forgave people. He did not deceive them, telling them they were forgiven when in fact they were not.

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