The Significance of the Old Testament Sacrifices.
Joshua D. Meier
The meaning and purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices in Dispensationalism have been often misunderstood. Whi[G1] le there are a small minority of Dispensationalists who teach that Old Testament saints were justified by grace, through a composite of faith and works, (normally referring to themselves as “Pauline Dispensationalists,” referred to by others often as “Ultra-Dispensational”), that position is far from normative. That minority notwithstanding, Dispensationalism teaches that justification is by grace, through faith in every age. Therefore, Dispensationalism generally understands the purpose of OT sacrifices to be distinct from justification entirely. That this is the case is demanded by scripture itself, as Heb 10:4 tells us “…it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” We do not have to dig very deeply into our understanding of God’s character to say that God would not design or purpose a system that is incapable of accomplishing that same purpose. Thus, the sacrificial system can have nothing to do with justification. [G2]
However, stating this in a negative is not sufficient to answer critics, since much biblical material is focused on the practice, neglect, and restoration of the Mosaic system in the OT, emphasizing the important position that system held in the life of the OT believer. The sacrifices obviously had an important, and even necessary purpose within the nation of Israel. That purpose of the OT sacrifices is best understood as a provision for Israel to express and experience love in fellowship with God and with each other, by means of confession.
Jesus’ words demonstrate this in Matt 22:37-39, in which he declares that the whole Law (including the sacrifices, of course) hangs, or depends on, two commandments. First, to love God and then to love one’s neighbor. Meaning, in my understanding, that all the additional material in the Law is an exposition of these two commandments. The sacrifices were part of a system by which love was expressed and experienced within the relationship established by the unconditional covenant made with Abraham. The sacrifices, specifically, provided for confession and restoration of fellowship in which love had been neglected or denied by disobedience. That confession is the central act for this restoration is demonstrated in Lev 26:40-45 in which a future people in exile is guaranteed restoration to a rested and fruitful land simply [G3] on the basis of confession. It must be noted that Levitical sacrifices were unavailable outside the land. In lesser examples, the sacrifice functions as a personal and national signpost. The sacrifice accompanies confession as a tangible reminder both of confession that has been made and the ongoing necessity of confession to continue the experience of fellowship. Namely, the benefits were presence, peace, and abundance in the land.
That confession and love are intrinsically linked, (rather than confession and faith/justification, as is often presumed) is seen in 1 John, in which we are told that the author’s purpose is simultaneously human fellowship between believers and believers’ fellowship with the Father and Jesus Christ. For those believers for whom fellowship is broken, either human or divine, 1 John 1:9 rather famously declares "if we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive us our sins AND cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Meaning that a fellowship once broken by sin is now remediated, or restored by confession. From that point, in logical fashion, John instructs his readers how and why to avoid breaking that fellowship in the future, utilizing the word love forty-six times in just a few short chapters to describe what fellowship is, and is not. [G4] [G5]
An objection may be that the complexity of the OT sacrifices compared to the simplicity of the NT standard of confession are too disparate to have the same function. Yet those who raise such an objection would probably have no issue were to say that Paul’s admonition in Gal 5:16 to “Walk by the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” serves the same purpose for the NT believer as the entire Law did for the OT believer. The OT analogs are characterized by far more specificity than the NT counterparts. The advantage of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit cannot be overemphasized here. The difference might be described as the difference between the ability to memorize the alphabet and authoring a novel. While the ability to understand the alphabet is inherent in a person capable of writing a novel, they no longer give a second thought to the alphabet as they write. [G6]
Some readers might recoil slightly at the analogy between the NT concept of fellowship and the OT sacrificial system. However, there is no disconnect. If we understand that, as Dispensationalism does, justification is by grace through faith in every age, then it is no unreasonable conclusion that fellowship in every age is desirable and needed on the same basis throughout those same ages. The former being a provision for eternity, the latter a provision for the present. If fellowship is desirable and necessary in this world, then a process of restoration will also be desirable and necessary. Confession serves that purpose in both OT and NT. The OT sacrifices were the instruments of confession in the OT.