Were Old Testament Saints Truly Forgiven?

Were Old Testament Saints Truly Forgiven?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 12:34pm

QUESTION: I have heard it said that God could not truly forgive sins until Jesus died on the cross; therefore the Old Testament saints were in a real sense “put on hold” and were not actually forgiven and allowed into Paradise until after Jesus died. Until that time, according to this view, they were in a kind of neutral “holding pen,” or state of limbo called the “limbus patrem,” the “limbo of the fathers,” where (as one writer says) “the just of the old covenant were in ‘Abraham’s Bosom’ waiting for the gates of heaven to be opened by Christ’s sacrifice.” What do you think of this view?

ANSWER: This idea is false. It is based in part on a false understanding of Romans 3:25, which says that Christ’s cross was a propitiation that shows “God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (ESV), or “left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (NIV). The “former sins” in this passage are sins committed in OT times, prior to the cross. The issue is whether God could truly forgive such sins, even for repentant and believing sinners, since the basis of that forgiveness—Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—was not yet a reality. Under such circumstances, how could a righteous God forgive sins and leave them unpunished?

In my commentary on Romans 3:25 I explain it thus, that the only basis upon which sins may indeed be forgiven is the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ; and it was upon this basis that God did forgive sins even in the OT era, even before the historical event of the atonement had occurred. It was absolutely certain that the cross WOULD occur (Acts 2:23); thus God freely dispensed its benefits before the fact. An analogy is a person who knows his paycheck is going to be deposited tomorrow, so he writes checks on it today, knowing the funds will be there when the checks reach the bank.

The problem Paul is addressing in this verse was not God’s ability to forgive pre-cross sins as such, but the appearance this gave as to God’s violating his own righteousness or justice in doing so. But, says Paul, any doubts concerning the integrity of God’s justice that were thus raised are completely dispelled by the actual event of the cross, which was a public event presented before the whole world.

Some think the meaning of the word “paresis” in Romans 3:25 (translated “passed over” or “left unpunished”) falls short of full forgiveness. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant, since saying the sins were passed over does not DENY that they were fully forgiven; it is simply stressing the main consequence of that forgiveness. But in fact, we know from other texts that forgiveness was a reality in OT times. Paul’s main paradigm for justification (i.e., forgiveness) in Romans itself is Abraham (see ch. 4). See also the quote from David in Rom. 4:7-8. There is no basis for the idea of a “limbo” for OT saints until Christ came, or for the idea that the sins of OT saints were just “rolled back” until the time of the cross.

What, then, does Ephesians 4:8 mean when it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men”? Some have taken this “host of captives” to refer to the OT saints who have finally been released from their state of limbo and allowed to enter Paradise. A much better understanding, though, is that the “host of captives” are Satan and his demonic angels, who have just been soundly defeated through Christ’s death and resurrection, and who are (figuratively) being led in chains as Christ’s captives in His triumphal victory march into heaven. (Cf. the binding of Satan in Rev. 20:1-3, which happened as the result of Christ’s redemptive work accomplished during his first coming. Cf. Matt. 12:29.)

As a follow-up to the above discussion, someone has asked about Isaiah 22:14, where the LORD Almighty says, “Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for” (NIV). What is this sin? If God was forgiving sins in OT times, why was this sin not forgiven? How can any sin not be atoned for? And how does this compare with Isaiah 27:9, “By this, then, will Jacob’s sin be atoned for, and this will be the full fruitage of the removal of his sin” (NIV)? To what does the first “this” refer, and how does it atone for Jacob’s guilt? How can anything outside the cross atone for sin’s guilt?

My reply is thus: First, regarding Isaiah 22:14, the reason for the declaration of nonforgiveness (“this iniquity shall not be forgiven you,” literally, “shall not be atoned for”) is the people’s attitude of nonrepentance as expressed in vv. 12-13. Verse 12 says God called on them to repent, but verse 13 says they continued in their sinful revelry. This is always true: no forgiveness without repentance. Second, regarding Isaiah 27:9, this is addressed to the nation of Israel as a whole, not to any individual or individuals within Israel. It has to do with God’s dealing with Israel as a nation. Because of their national idolatry and sinfulness, God punished them (with temporal, not eternal, punishment) by sending them into captivity first in Assyria then in Babylon. This is the point of verse 8. Then he says in verse 9 that this time of captivity has been ample punishment for “Jacob,” i.e., the nation of Israel. The time spent in captivity is what “atoned” for their national sin. “By this” refers to their time in captivity. Remember that Isaiah is talking here about punishment during this life, and about redemption for the nation of Israel; he is not talking about eternal punishment and atonement for individuals as such.

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