Question: "How could Jesus say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' before He died on the cross?"
Answer: We know that God forgives sins on the basis of Jesus’ shed blood on the cross (Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 1:7). Yet, before He went to the cross, Jesus told two people that their sins were forgiven. This fact puzzles some people. How could Jesus forgive sin before the sacrifice was even made? After all, Hebrews 9:22 says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Let’s identify the two people to whom Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” before He died on the cross. The first is the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus by friends and lowered through a roof to be healed. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven’” (Luke 5:20). The second person is the sinful woman who came to Jesus while He ate at Simon the Pharisee’s house. Seeing her reverence, the Lord contrasted her love with Simon’s lack of love. “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (Luke 7:48). In both cases, Jesus’ words caused quite a stir among the hearers (Luke 5:21; 7:49).
When Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven”—even before He died on the cross—He was not speaking empty words. He had the power to forgive sin, just like He had the power to heal paralysis. In fact, Jesus used the physical healing to confirm His authority to dispense spiritual healing: “‘I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (Luke 5:24–25).
Turning to the Old Testament, we find other people whose sins were forgiven before Jesus died on the cross. David prayed for forgiveness (Psalm 51:2) and received it. “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven” (Psalm 32:1). As he touched Isaiah with a coal from the altar, an angel declared the prophet’s forgiveness: “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). The atonement provided by the animal sacrifices resulted in forgiveness (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35).
The principle found all through the Bible is that forgiveness is God’s business. “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4, ESV). “You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive” (Psalm 86:5, NASB). “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness” (Daniel 9:9, ESV). When Jesus displayed His power to forgive sins, He clearly showed that He was the Son of God wielding God’s authority in this world. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). No one; Jesus is God Incarnate.
Forgiveness of sin in every dispensation has always been based on Jesus’ death on the cross (see Hebrews 9:15). In the Old Testament, sins were forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross, of which the animal sacrifices were but a foreshadowing. During the life of Christ, sins were forgiven on the basis of His yet-future death on the cross—the benefits of that sacrifice were granted to those who had faith in Jesus. Now, by faith, we look back on the death and resurrection of Christ and receive God’s forgiveness. The good news is as Paul preached, “My friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38). When we trust Christ, the word to us is the same as that spoken to the forgiven woman in Simon’s house: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).