Question: "In regards to forgiveness, is there a difference between willful sin and ignorant sin?"
Answer: Though God makes a distinction between those who sin in ignorance and those who sin willfully (Numbers 15:27-31), repentance is always necessary to receive forgiveness (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38; Acts 26:18). Repentance is literally a change in one's attitude about God and accompanies saving faith in Christ (Acts 3:19; 20:21; 26:20). Without it there can be no forgiveness. Jesus said, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3; 17:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9).
To sin willfully is to go back to trusting oneself rather than the blood of Christ for our forgiveness (Hebrews 10:26; Hebrews 6:4-6). However, sinning in ignorance is not excusable, either: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:17-19; see also Acts 3:17-19; Acts 17:30-31).
Those who crucified Christ sinned in ignorance, yet they were still held responsible for their actions. Jesus, while hanging on the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). However, of all those who were present at Christ’s crucifixion, only one accepted His forgiveness and, correspondingly, His salvation (Luke 23:43). Jesus had the power to forgive all the evil people gathered around His cross and make them right with God, but the only person who repented was one of the criminals beside Him. All the others, who rejected Christ and His forgiveness, apparently died in their sins. There is no record that they ever repented. Forgiveness is available to all, but we leave it to God’s sovereign grace to cause the transgressor to truly repent in order to be pardoned (Ephesians 2:4).
Those who reject Jesus and His gospel in ignorance must accept Him in repentance in order to receive forgiveness of their sins (Luke 17:3). Jesus made this abundantly clear: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). It doesn’t matter whether someone misses the way because of ignorance or because of willful rebellion—he has still missed the way.
People are not as ignorant as they may claim, however. No one can be utterly ignorant of God, and no one has an excuse to live in disobedience. The Apostle Paul said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20).
Though we may at times sin in ignorance, we can always be assured of God’s forgiveness. The Apostle Paul is a classic example of this truth: “Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13). Yet for those who willfully and habitually sin, Peter makes it clear that “if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:20-21).
John gives us the bottom line when it comes to forgiveness: ”If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).