Perhaps one of the most controversial issues among brethren today is that which arises concerning the child of God and his sins of ignorance. Some brethren teach that if a child of God sins through ignorance, that sin of ignorance will not separate him from God; rather, this sin of ignorance will be cleansed with the blood of Christ unconditionally. In this lesson, we shall see that this is simply not taught in the Bible. Throughout the history of God's dealings with man, provisions for a sin committed in ignorance have been made, but these provisions were conditional.
Sins of Ignorance Under the Law of Moses
As one studies the law of Moses, he will learn in Leviticus 4 that it was possible for a man to sin through ignorance under the law of Moses. If you will take the time to read Leviticus 4 in its entirety, you will learn that it was possible for the priest to sin through ignorance (Leviticus 4:2); that it was possible for the whole congregation to sin through ignorance (Leviticus 4:13); that it was possible for the rulers to sin through ignorance (Leviticus 4:22); and that it was possible for the common man to sin through ignorance (Leviticus 4:27). But, as you read this chapter you will also learn there were provisions made in the law for the sins these people committed in ignorance. God had provided for an atonement to be made for their sins of ignorance, but only after they had learned of the sin and only as the conditions were met (notice Leviticus 4:3,14, 23, 28). The provisions for the sins of ignorance committed under the law of Moses were conditional.
In Leviticus 5:17-18, we learn that not only was it possible for a person to sin through ignorance but also that these sins of ignorance brought with them guilt (Leviticus 5:17). Thus, the sins of ignorance committed under the law of Moses separated sinners from God. This is consistent with other passages found in the Old Testament dealing with sin such as in Isaiah 59:1-2 or Ezekiel 18:4,20. God said, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." Leviticus 5:17 teaches that this is just as true of a sin committed through ignorance as it is of any other sin; "though he wist it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity." Leviticus 5:18 goes on to teach that sins committed through ignorance could be forgiven, but only as the conditions were met. It does not teach that sins of ignorance were unconditionally forgiven. Provisions were made, but they did not provide for unconditional forgiveness.
As you study further in the law of Moses, there were provisions made for the sins of ignorance, but you will also see that there were no provisions made for the man that had sinned presumptuously (Numbers 15:22-31). Even in this passage, however, the provisions that God made for the sins committed in ignorance were conditional. As long as a man had not met the conditions for the forgiveness of a sin committed in ignorance, he was guilty of that sin.
In Ezekiel 18, we learn that "the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die" (Ezekiel 18:20, 21). Again we see that a man is guilty of his sins (whether committed in ignorance or not) and that he shall bear the iniquity of those sins unless he meets the conditions that God has given. He is a sinner and must seek forgiveness on God's terms.
It is quite common for those who teach an unconditional cleansing of the sins which a child of God commits in ignorance to refer to Psalms 19:12 where David said, "Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults." Therefore, let us look at this passage and see if it teaches unconditional forgiveness of sins of ignorance. In the first place, let us consider, "Who can understand his errors?" Is David here teaching that we cannot understand what our sins are? Of course not! Sin is defined by John as "transgression of the law." (I John 3:4). Thus, if a man could not understand what his sins were, he could not understand what the law of God is. Paul said that we could understand God's law when we read it (Ephesians 3:3-5). Thus, David could not be saying that it is impossible for a man to understand what his sins were, for we can understand that, if we will read the word of God and study it. The word of God gives warning to the servant of God and he receives the reward for keeping the word of God (Psalms 19:11). I suggest to you that David is here saying the same thing that Solomon said in Proverbs 16:2, i.e., "every man's way is clean in his own eyes." We have the tendency to say, "I am satisfied with my life," but those who say that are confused about the whole matter. The question is not, "Am I satisfied," but "Is God satisfied?" Man has a tendency to think in terms of his own reasoning and understanding and thus, by my own understanding, it is not possible for me to understand my errors. But I can understand my errors by looking into the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25; Jeremiah 10:23). This is what David is saying in Psalm 19. No man, in and of himself can understand his errors. We must rely upon the word of God (Psalms 19:7-11), rather than on human wisdom.
In the second place, when David said, "cleanse me from secret faults," of what was he speaking? Was he speaking of sins committed through ignorance? Well, that certainly is one opinion! But, that is not the only opinion. It could be argued as well that the secret faults of Psalm 19:12 are those faults of which other people were not aware. The whole argument made from Psalm 19 is based upon an opinion of what is said, rather than the fact of what is said. It begins with an assumption, and thus, if the assumption is false, then the conclusion that follows from that assumption would also be false.
However, let us assume that David is speaking of sins that he has committed of which he is unaware. Would this mean that David was asking for unconditional forgiveness of his sins of ignorance? Not at all! The whole point that David makes in Psalm 19 is that the word of the Lord reveals the will of the Lord and that as we study and learn the will of the Lord, we can keep His will and be rewarded when this life is over. Nature reveals the existence of God (Psalms 19:1-6). The word of God reveals the will of God (Psalms 19:7-11). Keeping the will of God secures the reward of God (Psalms 19:11). Thus, David is not here asking for unconditional forgiveness (i.e., forgiveness without the appropriate sacrifices) of sins of ignorance; rather, he is asking for the ability to learn of his sins, so that he can turn from them, keep God's will, and receive the reward. As Paul said in II Timothy 2:5, "And if a man strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned except he strive lawfully." David had to learn the rules and abide by them to receive the prize, the reward.
Jesus' Teaching on the Sins of Ignorance
In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus makes a distinction in the punishment of the man who sins against his knowledge and the man who sins in ignorance. The man who sins against his knowledge will be "beaten with many stripes," while the man who sins through ignorance will be beaten with "few stripes." It should be observed that the man who sinned through ignorance was still accountable for his sins. He was punished for them; he did receive stripes, though they were few stripes. Thus, ignorance does not excuse a man from the responsibility for his sins. Jesus taught that the man who sinned in ignorance, "though he wist it not, yet is he guilty, and he shall bear his iniquity."
Sins of Ignorance and the Crucifixion of Christ
Concerning those who crucified Christ, Jesus prayed, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Peter acknowledged in Acts 3:17 that Jesus was crucified because of ignorance, but in Acts 2:38 he also commanded them to "repent and be baptized every one of you." Jesus prayed that they would be forgiven, and that prayer was answered only as they met the conditions that God gave. Sins of ignorance are forgiven only as the conditions are met.
Sins of Ignorance and the Israelites in Paul's Day
In Romans 10:1-3 we learn that the Israelites of Paul's day were zealous, but they were ignorant of God's righteousness (the gospel - Romans 1:17). Thus, they set out to establish their own righteousness. Theirs was a sin of ignorance, yet, they were lost and in need of salvation. Yet, Paul went on to teach that they could be saved if they met all of the conditions that God gave them (Romans 10:9-10).
Sins of Ignorance and the Works of the Flesh
In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul gives a listing of some of the works of the flesh, and he states that "they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." If you will notice the first of these sins of the flesh, you will see that it is "adultery." There are some people who are members of the body of Christ and yet are engaged in an adulterous relationship (perhaps it is an unscriptural marriage relationship). Sometimes this baptized believer is ignorant of there being anything wrong with his unscriptural marriage relationship, and so, he continues to be united with a woman that he is unscripturally married to, thinking that there is nothing wrong with it (some preachers take the position that baptism will somehow wash away the first marriage of the person involved in a second unscriptural marriage relationship). Does this man have any grounds on which to hope for a home in heaven when this life is over? Will God automatically cover his sin of ignorance with the blood of Christ until he learns better? The Apostle said that it was not possible for such a person to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Ignorance will not change the law of God, and the violation of the law of God will not go unpunished because of ignorance (Hebrews 2:2). This is true of adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, etc. The only way that we can read in the Bible for a man to be forgiven of his sins of ignorance is for him to repent and turn from them, confessing them to the Lord and asking forgiveness of them. "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?" (I Corinthians 6:9).
Sins of Ignorance and I John 1
In I John 1:5, John said, "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all." Whenever a Christian sins through ignorance, is that sin in the light or is it in darkness? John said that it was in darkness, for there is no sin in God. John went on to say, "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." Whenever a child of God sins, even if he sins through ignorance, he is in darkness. If he is in darkness, he is not in fellowship with God. Thus, the only way that he can have fellowship with God is to get back into the light (I John 1:6). How does a man get from darkness to light? John tells us in I John 1:9. He said, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We enter fellowship with God when we obey the gospel; we continue in fellowship with God as we walk in the light. We depart from fellowship with God when we sin. We re-enter fellowship with God when we turn from our sins and ask God to forgive us of them. Thus it is that Jesus said, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). The only way that one can read in the Bible by which the sins of a child of God are forgiven, including those committed in ignorance, is to learn of them, turn from them, and seek forgiveness on God's terms. He must meet the conditions that God has given. Not one passage in the Bible teaches that God forgives sins of ignorance unconditionally!