Under the Law of Moses the priests made animal sacrifices and burned them upon the altar for a sweet savor unto Jehovah; and the priest shall make atonement from him and he shall be forgiven (Lev. 4:31). In the first century before Christ’s death, John the Baptist baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). And certainly Jesus Himself forgave sins during His personal ministry (cf. Mark 2:5-11). And yet Paul writes, When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law (Gal. 4:4-5). How can one text indicate there was forgiveness before the death of Christ, while other texts clearly state that there was no pardon of sin until after the death of Christ?
The answer lies in understanding the nature of the word forgiveness. Certainly we know that there could never have been forgiveness of sin without sufficient propitiation given for the sins of man. This could only have come through the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). But it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins (Heb. 10:4). It took, therefore, the sacrificial death of God’s Son. Only then could God remain just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:23-26).
The only way anyone, regardless of what point in time they live, can be forgiven of sin and stand justified in the sight of God is through God’s grace, for by grace have you been saved through faith (Eph. 2:8). Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2).
The fact is, all who lived before Christ’s death reached salvation by grace through faith just like those saved after Christ’s sacrificial death. The Hebrews writer makes this point in chapter eleven as he lists many in both the Patriarchal and Mosaic era that we saved by their faith; a faith which, by the way, was made complete through obedience. Of these saints the writer says, These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Heb. 11:13).
Those who died in faith before Christ’s sacrificial death looked forward in time to the fulfillment of that promise, while the faith of all who have been forgiven subsequent to Christ’s death looks backward to the cross. God knew of the certainty of His promise of redemption. He knew that in the fullness of the time His Son would die for the sins of the world. Therefore, on that basis and because of the immutability of his counsel (Heb. 6:17), God could, and did, forgive the faithful of those previous dispensations.
From a practical viewpoint, Abraham, Moses and all the saints of those earlier eras enjoyed forgiveness of sin even though the actual forgiveness of those sins was achieved at the cross. In other words, the blood of Christ flowed backward just as it flows forward in time. If Christ had never died, those who lived before His death could never have been forgiven. But Christ did die, and God knew He would die, therefore, their sins were forgiven by God just as He will forgive ours.