How did forgiveness take place in the Old Testament?

Marriage-Gods-Way-author-Scott-LaPierre - Forgiveness in the Old TestamentDid forgiveness in the Old Testament take place through sacrifices or human effort? Forgiveness was received in the Old Testament the same way it’s received in the New Testament: by grace through faith.

Psalm 25:14 says, “The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and the Lord will show them His covenant.” The Lord reveals the New Covenant and the grace and mercy of it through David, before Jesus instituted the New Covenant at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20).

According to God’s Law, David committed two sins that should’ve resulted in death: adultery and murder. A few things made David’s terrible sins even worse:

  • David’s accountability. He knew God’s Law well.
  • David had been very blessed. God brought him of that shepherd’s field where he was a nobody born to a no-name family. Then God turned him into the rich and powerful king of Israel.
  • David’s sins were premeditated. He planned out all the details, even writing a letter to Joab that he had Uriah himself carry. It was one of the darkest moments in the Old Testament.

David’s sins should not have received forgiveness

If anyone deserved death it was David, but this is also why David’s situation provides one of the greatest examples of God’s grace and mercy in all of Scripture. Nathan the Prophet confronted David, and he responded, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13a).

This is how we should respond when we sin. In these few words David provides a number of lessons:

  • Take ownership: “I have…”
  • Call it what it is: “sin.”
  • Acknowledge the sin was “against the Lord”
  • Avoid excuses and blame shifting.

Then Nathan said, “The Lord also has taken away your sin” (2 Sam 12:13b).

These are some of the most amazing words in the Old Testament. It’s almost hard to capture the greatness of what Nathan said. Despite the enormity and wickedness of what David did, his sin was “taken away.”

Hebrews 10:4 and 11 both state, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Sacrifices couldn’t forgive sins, say nothing of take them away.

So how could David be told this? His sins were taken away the same way ours are taken away:

  • When John the Baptist saw Jesus he said, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
  • 1 John 3:5 says “[Jesus] was manifested to take away our sins.”

If any Old Testament sacrifices had been able to do what Jesus did, His sacrifice wouldn’t have been necessary. David looked forward in faith to a Savior the way we look backward in faith to our Savior.

A window into New Testament forgiveness in the Old Testament

The grace and mercy David received provide a beautiful glimpse – a wonderful foreshadowing – of the New Covenant under the Old Covenant. What did David do to receive this forgiveness? Psalm 51:16-17 records:

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.

David didn’t offer any sacrifices. He said he would’ve provided them if that’s what God wanted, but he knew no animal’s death could atone for what he did. David had a spiritual insight that was tremendous. He knew parts of the New Testament before they were written, and he knew no Old Testament sacrifices could make up for his sins.

But he did know there was a “sacrifice” he could “give” to God. He knew there was an “offering” God “desired”: “a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.”

So that’s what David offered. That sort of humility and brokenness God would accept. David knew all he could do was humble himself, confess his sin, and it resulted in the taking away of even the horrific sins he committed. This is without personal merit, human effort, or penance. This is New Covenant forgiveness by grace through faith.

Forgiveness that provided life instead of death

David’s sins demanded death, but there’s something else he found: life. Nathan also said, “You shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13c). These words mean David was going to die. The Old Covenant – the Law – demanded what it always demands: death. But David was able to find life.

David recognized the greatness of what took place and wrote about it: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1).

Discuss: have you wondered how people were forgiven in the Old Testament? What did you previously think?

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5 thoughts on “How did forgiveness take place in the Old Testament?

    1. Hi Augustine,
      I’m not sure if I completely understand your comment. If you mean why wasn’t David punished for his sins, I’d say the answer is the main point of the post. David wasn’t punished for his sins – he received mercy – even though punishment was deserved. This is the case for us in the New Testament as well. We deserve to be punished, but Jesus took that punishment on Himself.

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