An Analysis of the Sacrificial System and Its Relationship to Salvation



It is no secret to Bible-believing Christians that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice efficacious for the forgiveness of those who believe on Him (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 1 John 2:2, etc.). That one would link the death of Christ on the cross as sufficient for his/her personal salvation is a fairly basic doctrine of Christianity. One doctrinal matter that may seem foreign to Christians, especially in the 21st century, is the Old Testament sacrificial system. Such a doctrine poses a serious question, therefore: “What was the relationship between the sacrificial system and one’s salvation?[1]” The Bible is abundantly clear in that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but such dogmas may seem somewhat out of place when considering Old Testament ceremonial sacrifices. Therefore, to determine the meaning of the sacrificial system and its place within soteriology, it is necessary to analyze what the Scriptures teach and come to a satisfying theological conclusion.

Biblical Observations of the Old Testament Sacrificial System

            Even before the sacrificial “system” was developed with commands and specifications under the Mosaic Law, sacrifices were a part of life. The very first sacrifice was actually instated by God Himself, covering Adam and Eve with animal skins to hide their shame resulting from sin (Genesis 3:21). There are other instances between Eden and the Mosaic Law (Genesis 4, 6, 12, etc.), but the main concern of this paper is to focus on the latter’s sacrificial system and the theological conclusions that can be drawn in relation to soteriology.

According to John Swann, “Levitical sacrifices were carefully regimented according to the guidelines of the covenant, and they were the exclusive purview of the priests.”[2] Under the Law, the types of sacrifices included the following: burnt offerings, grain (or “meal”) offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt (or “trespass”) offerings. While each type of sacrifice held its own distinct importance, there are general principles that can be seen. A few examples would include the quality of the sacrifice, the location of where these sacrifices would need to be made, and the idea of substitution.[3] These descriptions, of course, do not answer the question of how sacrifices are related to one’s salvation, but they do provide an overview of “what” a believer under the dispensation of the Law was instructed to follow.

Synthesizing the Sacrificial System With Biblical Soteriology

That participating in these sacrifices would bring salvation was never a purpose for the Law as a whole, or in the sacrificial system specifically. F.F. Bruce writes,

The blood of slaughtered animals under the old order did possess a certain efficacy, but it was an outward efficacy for the removal of ceremonial pollution…. They could restore [the believer] to formal communion with God and with his fellow-worshippers…. Just how the blood of sacrificed animals or the ashes of a red heifer effected a ceremonial cleansing our author does not explain; it was sufficient for him, and no doubt for his readers, that the Old Testament ascribed this efficacy to them.[4]

Bruce’s words are in complete harmony with Hebrews 10:1-2, which states, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.” Verse four confirms that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Speaking more generally on the Mosaic Law (but including the Old Testament sacrifices), Paul says in Romans 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” Therefore, it is abundantly clear what the Old Testament sacrifices did not do, namely, bring salvation to the one who participates in them.

The next answer to obtain is what the Old Testament sacrifices did do. Bruce already alluded to it in the above quotation, but Walvoord also helps in this discussion. He says,

Such sacrificial blood could never cleanse the conscience or save the soul (Heb 10:1–2), so God repeatedly sent prophets to call his people to love and obey their God from the heart. Apart from such genuine faith, all the ceremonially “kosher” animals in the whole world would avail nothing in the spiritual realm (Ps 50:7–15; Isa 1:12–20; Amos 4:4–5; 5:20–27; Hos 5:6; Mic 6:6–8; Jer 6:20; 7:21–23). It was not to be either faith or sacrifices; rather, it was to be both faith and sacrifices (cf. Ps 51:19).”[5]

The call to Israel was to obey God in the sacrifices in order to be “ceremonially clean.”[6] Walvoord explains that during sacrifices, “What happened was temporal, finite, external, and legal—not eternal, infinite, internal, and soteriological. Nevertheless, what happened was personally and immediately significant, not simply symbolic and/or prophetic.”[7] The uncleanness of those who sacrificed was covered, but ceremonial cleanness was not sufficient for salvation.[8]

Furthermore, Jerry Hullinger clarifies that “the foundational rationale of the Mosaic sacrificial system is the presence of the divine glory. The Mosaic system was instituted in Leviticus subsequent to the descent of the Shekinah in Exodus. Because of the communicability of uncleanness, the purity of God’s presence needed to be protected.”[9] Overall, then, the sacrificial system was not instituted to bring salvation; it was apparently two-fold: for pronouncing worshippers ceremonially clean and to provide a way that God’s presence would be able to dwell with Israel. “[T]he animal offerings of the Old Testament and the offering of Christ were instituted for different purposes, each efficacious on its own respective level.”[10] Therefore, the sacrificial system’s relationship to salvation is only associated insofar that it foreshadows an even greater sacrifice, namely, the Lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world.

[1] The term “salvation” will appear several times in this research. In each instance, salvation is not referring to a temporary deliverance (one sense of the word) but to the reconciling, converting, regenerating, and justifying work of God in a believer’s life – spiritual salvation.

[2] John T. Swann, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[3] Ibid.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 201, 204.

[5] John Walvoord, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” GTJ 6:2 (Fall 1985), 210. Italics added.

[6] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrew, 201, 204.

[7] John Walvoord, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” GTJ 6:2 (Fall 1985), 209.

[8] Romans 3:25 makes the clear statement that God “passed over” former sins (not just ceremonial uncleanness) in His forbearance, but that Jesus’ death provided the means for salvation.

[9] Jerry Hullinger, “The Divine Presence, Uncleanness, and Ezekiel’s Millennial Sacrifices,” BSAC 163:652 (Oct 2006). See also especially Leviticus 16:16, 19.

[10] Jerry Hullinger, “Two Atonement Realms: Reconciling Sacrifice In Ezekiel And Hebrews,” JODT 11:32 (2007).


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