Why Are Old Testament Sacrifices Incapable of Completely Dealing with Sin? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Although virtually no Christians advocate a return to the sacrifices enumerated in the Law, especially in the Book of Leviticus, we should still ask ourselves why this system was not sufficient to completely deal with the sins of mankind.

Duane Lindsey provides a very helpful explanation of the issues in The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Lindsey first notes that the sacrifices did accomplish something. Atonement for sins is mentioned several times in Leviticus. According to Lindsey,

[S]acrificial atonement involved the actual removal of the guilt and punishment for the particular sin(s) involved. The broad scope of the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement . . . extended this principle to include “all the people” (Lev 16:33) and “all their sins” (v. 22), that is, “all the sins of the Israelites” (v. 34). The complete forgiveness of the Israelites’ sins for the past year is further described in terms of cleansing from sin in verse 30.

But Lindsey notes that there were several limitations of these sacrifices that made them unable to finally and completely deal with mankind’s sin problem.

First, the sacrifices were limited in their moral efficacy. Since empty ritualism was never an acceptable option to God, a truly acceptable sacrifice must have been prompted by genuine faith and moral obedience to the revealed will of God (26:14–45, esp. v. 31; Pss. 40:6–8; 51:16–17; Prov. 21:27; Amos 5:21–24; Heb. 10:5–10; 11:4, 6).

Sacrifices that were not brought in faith were perhaps sufficient at times for restoring ceremonial cleanness and meeting civil requirements (e.g., the restitution connected with the guilt offering), but did not really please God because they were empty formality. . . .

Second, with the possible exception of the Day of Atonement ritual, the sacrifices were limited in scope to certain kinds of personal sins. Theologically they did not atone for the sin nature, or for the imputed sin of Adam. Nor did they even include willful acts of sin which were committed in defiance of God (cf. Num. 15:30–31, and comments on Lev. 4:1–2). Therefore Levitical sacrifice was not a complete and final scheme whereby all forms of sin could be removed.

It was mainly concerned with sins of ignorance, accident, carelessness, and omission, including sins of ritual defilement and misdemeanors that violated property rights. Sins for which there was no individual sacrifice were those done in defiance of the Lord and His commands—willful violations of the Ten Commandments (except minor violations of the eighth and ninth commands), willful disregard for ceremonial regulations, and any other violations of covenant relationship between Israel and the Lord. Such sins could be immediately forgiven only on the basis of unqualified grace in response to faith and repentance (cf. Pss. 32; 51). Otherwise they awaited the cleansing of the Day of Atonement ritual.

We’ll look at three more limitations of the Levitical sacrifices in part 2.

One thought on “Why Are Old Testament Sacrifices Incapable of Completely Dealing with Sin? Part 1”

  1. The sacrifices were never meant to deal with man’s sin problem. They were a way for Israelites to approach God. Sometimes, ritual impurity had to be removed, which is what the sin and guilt offerings were for. But other offerings–burnt offerings, daily and festival offerings, thanks offerings and peace offerings–never had anything to do with the commission of sin. The Israelites understood that they were at God’s mercy for their sins of commission and that He would provide a way, although they didn’t understand until Messiah came what that way would be. Now we know.

    The sacrificial system, according to prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, will once again function after Jesus returns. Scripture makes that very clear. It will not be needed in the World to Come, however, as Hebrews makes clear.

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