Author: Ron Graham
Ignorance and Innocence
—Is there a difference?
How does God view sins committed in ignorance? Does he deem a person innocent who sins without realising it?
If I am ignorant in my heart, am I therefore innocent in my heart?
1 Still Guilty Before the Lord
¶“17Suppose someone sins by doing something forbidden by the LORD’s commandments, yet that person does not know that he has sinned. When he realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity. 18He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or a similar offering. It is a guilt offering. The priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made though he did not mean to. And he shall be forgiven. 19It is a guilt offering; he has surely incurred guilt before the LORD.” (Leviticus 5:17-19).
In former times, when someone sinned unintentionally and did not know it, they were still held accountable before the Lord. As soon as their sin was brought to their attention, they had to make a guilt offering to be forgiven, for they were "certainly guilty before the Lord".
2 Distinction Between Sins of Ignorance and Defiance
¶“27Suppose a person sins but doesn't mean to sin. He shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for one who makes a mistake. When he sins unintentionally, and the priest makes atonement for him, he shall be forgiven” (Numbers 15:27-28).
¶“29You shall have one law for anyone who does any sin unintentionally —one law whether he is a native among the people of Israel or a stranger who sojourns among the people” (Numbers 15:29).
¶“30But suppose a person does any wrong arrogantly with a high hand. Whether he is native or a sojourner, he reviles the LORD. That person shall be cut off from among his people. 31Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off. On him shall be his iniquity” (Numbers 15:30-31).
God certainly made a distinction between sins of defiance and sins of ignorance. He saw a difference in the guilt of one who was defiant and contemptuous, and the guilt of another who was misled and mistaken. But let us be clear that this was a distinction between two modes of guilt, not between guilt and innocence.
3 God's Way of Dealing With Ignorance
¶“1For every high priest chosen from among the people is appointed to act on behalf of the people. He offers to God gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3For this reason, he is obliged to offer sacrifice for his own sins, just as he does for those of the people.” (Hebrews 5:1-3).
The ministers of God's word dealt "gently with the ignorant and misguided" but did not leave them in their ignorance.
¶“12I thank him who has given me strength —Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank him because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13Jesus did this although I used to be a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1Timothy 1:12-13).
¶“14And the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance —that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief” (1Timothy 1:14-15).
¶“16But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the chief of sinners, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience. He made me an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life.” (1Timothy 1:16).
Look how God dealt with Paul. God did not treat his ignorance as an excuse or a desirable state, but as needing correction by the enlightenment of truth.
¶“17Now brothers I know that you acted in ignorance, and so did your rulers. 18Nevertheless what you did fulfilled God’s prior announcement, speaking through all his prophets, that Christ should suffer. 19So change your hearts and turn again, to have your sins blotted out, and then times of refreshing will come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:17-19).
¶“29Since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone formed into some image by human art and design. 30Therefore whilst God overlooked the times of ignorance, he now commands that all people everywhere should repent. 31The reason is that he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained. He has given assurance of this to everyone, by raising that man from the dead.” (Acts 17:29-31).
¶“13So [as a soldier] girds his loins, prepare your minds for action. Be sober-minded. Fix your hope fully on the grace that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed [at his return]. 14As obedient children, don't be conformed to your former ignorant passions, 15but rather [be transformed]. Just as he who called you is holy, so you also be holy in all your conduct” (1Peter 1:13-15 ).
As you can see in those verses, God calls on those who have sinned in ignorance to repent.
4 In Some Cases God Blames People For Their Ignorance
¶“12These people act like irrational beasts —beasts born as creatures of instinct to be caught and destroyed. These people blaspheme in ignorance and it will destroy them.” (2Peter 2:12).
¶“17I bear witness in the Lord that you must no longer walk in the way that heathen do. Their thinking is futile. 18Their understanding is darkened. They are alienated from God’s life. All this because of the ignorance in them through their hardness of heart. 19They've become unfeeling, given to sensuality, impurity and of course greed. 20That is not the way you have learned Christ” (Ephesians 4:17-20).
These are strong condemnations of ignorance. In some cases people are wilfully ignorant, and their ignorance is their own fault.
5 God's Son Sojourned On Earth To Dispel Ignorance
The people walked in darkness,
But have seen a brilliant light.
They sat in lands death-shadowed,
Then light dawned [and banished night].
(Matthew 4:16, Isaiah 9:2).
Jesus came into the world to "shine upon those who sit in darkness" and thus he was called by Zacharias "the Sunrise from on high" (cf Luke 1:78-79).
6 We Have a Ministry To Dispel Ignorance
¶“6God said, 'Let light shine out of darkness'. God has shone in our hearts to radiate the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Corinthians 4:6).
We too must shine. To our minds, the ignorance of some might seem not far from innocence, but we cannot think of that ignorance as good. Ignorance is the want of knowledge.
Wherever we find that want, we are obligated to "give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ". Otherwise we can never look Jesus in the face.