One of the most remarkable (true) stories in all of Scripture is the story of David and Bathsheba. I assume the readers are familiar with it. If not, it’s a good read and found in 2 Sam 11-12. Go read it.
Now, under the Law of Moses, sacrifices only worked (to the extent they worked at all) for unintentional sin. For example,
(Lev 4:27-28 ESV) “If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, 28 or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed.”
Intentional sins — sins committed with a high hand — resulted in being cut off from Israel —
(Num 15:30-31 ESV) 30 “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
(Deu 29:18b-20 ESV) Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
In Num 15:31, the meaning of “cut off” — found several times in the Torah — is unclear.
The exact meaning of this phrase in priestly tradition is not clear. It may have a collective sense, meaning a family line is discontinued. This meaning would qualify the more individual focus of 14:26–38. But it may also be more individual in its meaning, in which case it would signify a loss of status, excommunication, death, or even a judgment by God after death. The bad report of the land by the leaders of Israel (who die instantly) and the murmuring of the people (who are condemned to die in the wilderness) are instances of premeditated transgression that fall under the final category.
Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” in Numbers-2 Samuel (vol. 2 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), n.p.
In any event, David’s sin with Bathsheba couldn’t more clearly have been with a high hand. It was as premeditated and intentional as sin can be. And yet God chose this sin to display his incredible grace (chesed).
Now, sin can have any of three types of consequences. First, there are the natural consequences. His adultery led to a pregnancy and to David’s desire to hide the sin. Second, there are earthly punishments imposed by God. In this case, the death of the baby born to the union. Third, there is the possible loss of relationship with God, loss of his Spirit, and loss of salvation — that is, there are eternal consequences to sin, especially high handed sin.
David did not escape the first two types of consequences. But God forgave him (subject to his earthly punishment).
(2Sa 12:13-14 ESV) And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.”
“Shall not die” likely means “You won’t suffer being cut off as the Torah specifies for a high handed sin.”
David responded to this with a series of Psalms —
(Psa 32:1-5 ESV) Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
As we’ve seen earlier, Paul quotes this Psalm in Rom 4:7 to describe Christian salvation, based on God’s covenant with Abraham. When God forgave David, he wasn’t being true to Torah, but he was being true to his covenant with Abraham to treat faith as righteousness.
Even more famously, David writes in Psa 51,
(Psa 51:1-4 ESV) Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
(Psa 51:7-12 ESV) 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
(Psa 51:16-17 ESV) 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
David, like Christians today, possessed the Holy Spirit. Unlike Saul, when David sinned, he proved to have a broken and contrite heart, and so he kept the Spirit.
King Saul committed far less egregious sins (sacrificing before a battle without Samuel; granting mercy to his enemies after a defeat, contrary to Samuel’s instructions), but Saul was not penitent as David was. Both rebelled and sinned contrary to known laws, but David was brought to repentance easily. His tender heart resulted in his salvation.
And so when Jesus forgave sins to the tenderhearted among the Jews, he was not establishing a new covenant or violating Torah. He was doing more than Torah promised, but no less than what the covenant with Abraham promised. He was forgiving sins just as God had done for David, for much the same reason.
The “faith” of the Jews in the Gospels is the faith of the tenderhearted, often the blind, demon-possessed, or diseased. These are the very people scorned by society, as many Jews thought disease was a result of sin. The scorn produced a heart open to Jesus — in an irony typical of Jesus’ ministry — resulting in their healing.
“Faith” is no different from the “broken and contrite heart” of David. Although he was a king who’d gotten too full of himself, he remained open to rebuke and God’s discipline. He was ultimately willing to submit. And “faith” includes submission to God.
My point, I guess, is that it’s the same thing. When God’s people approach him with tender hearts, open to his word and correction, ready to accept whatever God offers, whether it be healing or punishment, God sees the faith of Abraham and he grants forgiveness.