This is not a simple question. What is the question asking? Is it asking, were OT sacrifices needed for salvation? Or are we asking did a saint, before Christ, need to offer sacrifices to be forgiven?
Salvation has always been by faith alone in God. God says, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'” (Romans 4:3). Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, David, Solomon, and Paul all were saved because they placed their faith in God. “All these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39). Salvation has and will always be by grace alone through faith alone.
So what did an OT sacrifice accomplish? Look in Leviticus — yes, the part of the Bible where your pages may still be stuck together and like new. 🙂 Observe the situation described by the Lord and what happens to the person.
First, the situation. “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the Lord” (6:2).
Second, the offering, “Then he shall bring to the priest his guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering” (6:6).
Finally, the response, “And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.”
There it is. The Israelite (or even alien, sojourner, or foreigner) would bring his offering to the priest, lay his hands on the offering while the offering was slaughtered and the priest would declare his sins forgiven. Did the OT saint have to offer a sacrifice in order to be forgiven? The answer is yes.
Some of us do not like this answer. It probably makes us uncomfortable because it possibly communicates forgiveness by works or undermines Christ. So here are a few points to clarify.
- This was only sufficient for an OT believer. Salvation is by faith alone. The believer had faith in God and brought his sacrifice to the Lord as a believer, obeying Him, and trusting God would forgive him. Faith was essential before you bring your offering.
- Lack of belief invalidates the sacrifice. Isaiah indicts Israels’ sacrifices because they did not believe. (Isaiah 1:11-15) In other words, if your heart was wrong, your sacrifice was wrong too.
- The OT saint was really forgiven. The text declares the man is forgiven. Leviticus emphasizes this throughout the book (5:13, 16, 18; 6:7)
- At other places in Leviticus it says a person is cleansed (12:7; 14:11, 20, 31; 16:30). We must not spiritualize the text to invalidate what it clearly says.
So, if the OT sacrifices are sufficient, then why did Christ need to die? Hebrews provides the answer.
The author of Hebrews supports the effectiveness of sacrifices, “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 . . .” (9:13). The author says the offerings sanctify the believer for the cleansing of the flesh.
In fact, the author says the only way sins can be forgiven is through the shedding of blood (9:22). But there is a difference. Daily, OT sacrifices were offered for the forgiveness of sins because yesterday’s sacrifice could not atone for tomorrow’s sin. Throughout my life I would have offered A LOT (thousands??) of sacrifices for my sins to be forgiven. This was a habitual practice. What was God trying to teach me? Hebrews says the Holy Spirit signifies gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshipper perfect in conscience since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation (not Luther’s) (Heb. 9:8-10).
What Christ offers is different because He is the truly blameless sacrifice. The OT sacrifices forgive, cleanse, and cover, but they do not remove sin and perfect you for all time sake. You will find forgiveness but “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?” (Heb. 9:14).
Hebrews points out, the OT sacrifices were not sufficient for all time and could not perfect you. But Christ, His sacrifice was needed once, for all time, to sanctify and perfect believers (Heb 10:10, 14). Christ forgives my past, present, and future sins. Therefore Christ’s sacrifice ends the sacrificial system and more generally the Law. His perfect nature — holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens (7:26) — makes him the perfect sacrifice.
Did OT sacrifices save a person? No
Were OT sacrifices needed for forgiveness before Christ? Yes
Was Christ’s sacrifice needed for forgiveness? Yes
Is there a greater sacrifice than Christ’s? No
Is faith in Christ needed for forgiveness? Yes