Many today who profess Christ deny that sin committed unintentionally or in ignorance—that is, not willfully–is sin. Such a man denies that what he would call failings, or shortcomings, or errors, are soul-dangerous sins that he must confess and repent of before God.
Let us put in mind what God teaches us in His Word about sins of ignorance so that we may be prepared to warn our neighbor while it is day.
In the Old Testament, God teaches His people about His character through His Law. There were several different types of offerings: the sin offering was not for willful transgressions. It was for unintentional breaking of the law. God devotes an entire chapter (Leviticus 4) to this:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them…’” – Leviticus 4:1-2
And then there was the guilt offering, whose whole purpose was to atone for sins of which a man was unaware when he committed them. Again the Lord devotes an entire chapter (Leviticus 5) to this. Toward the end of the chapter God summarizes,
“Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty and shall bear his punishment…It is a guilt offering; he was certainly guilty before the LORD.” – Leviticus 5:17,19
Our Lord declares that on the Day of Judgment many will be ignorant of their sin—and be eternally condemned:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’” – Matthew 7:21-23
“But Lord, we know of no willful transgression against your law!”
Again, tremble at the culpable ignorance of the goats :
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’” – Matthew 25:41-44
“But Lord, it was unintentional! We have no sin!”
The apostolic witness
The apostles also clearly identify sin committed in ignorance as sin. Look at the second sermon recorded in the book of Acts: Peter is preaching to the Jews and he says this:
“But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses…And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also.” –Acts 3:14-15,17
They acted in ignorance in crucifying Jesus. Does this mean it was not a sin?
We lusted in our ignorance:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior – 1 Peter 1:14-15
They sin in ignorance:
So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart…that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit… – Ephesians 4:17-18,22
What about willful sin?
Willful sin is in a different category. Under the ceremonial law there was no sacrifice for it:
“‘But when you unwittingly fail and do not observe all these commandments…if it is done unintentionally, without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one bull for a burnt offering…So all the congregation of the sons of Israel will be forgiven…for it happened to all the people through error…But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.’” – Numbers 15:22,24,26,30-31
The starkness of this is not softened or abrogated in the New Testament, but amplified:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment… – Hebrews 10:26ff
Unintentional sins and sins of ignorance are the bulk of our sin. We refuse to confess such sin at our peril:
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:8-9
O may the Lord in His mercy open our eyes to see our sin, that we may live lives of repentance and faith!