Is ignorance an adequate excuse for sin?

ignorance of sin
Question: "Is ignorance an adequate excuse for sin?"

Answer:
If by “excuse” we mean that because of our ignorance God will overlook our wrongs, then there are no adequate excuses for sin. Sin is any thought, word, or deed committed by human beings that is contrary to the perfection of God. When Adam and Eve were first created, they did nothing that was contrary to the perfection of God (Genesis 1:27–31). They were created in a perfect state and remained flawless until they gave in to temptation (Genesis 3:6–7). It could be argued that, having never seen death, they were somewhat ignorant about the severity of sin’s consequences. But that did not excuse their sin.

When God gave His Law to the Israelites, He included special instructions about sacrifices when a person, or the entire nation, sinned in ignorance (Hebrews 9:7). Leviticus 4 outlines God’s provision for those who sinned unintentionally or in ignorance. Numbers 15:22–29 restates this provision and gives details about the special sacrifices required to obtain forgiveness from the Lord when someone sinned in ignorance. Leviticus 5:17 makes it clear: “If someone sins and violates any of the LORD’s commandments even though he was unaware, he is still guilty and shall bear his punishment.” Ignorance did not excuse sin; sins the Israelites committed in ignorance still required an atoning sacrifice.

Although ignorance does not excuse sin, it can mitigate the punishment. The Law’s punishment for unintentional sin was significantly lighter than that for deliberate rebellion or blasphemy. Jesus reiterated this principle in Luke 12:47–48: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (emphasis added).

We must learn to take sin as seriously as God does. One reason for all the sacrifices and continual purification rituals in the Old Testament was to show the people how far they were from God’s holiness. The purpose of negative consequences is to teach us to see sin the way God does and hate it as He does (Psalm 31:6; Proverbs 29:27). When we commit a sin in ignorance, God brings consequences to help us learn. Once we know better, He expects us to do better. We do the same with our children. Simply because a four-year-old had not been specifically told not to squish the bananas in the store does not mean Mom is fine with it. There will be consequences, even if he can claim ignorance of that specific rule, and he will be told clearly that squishing bananas will not be tolerated again. Of course, his consequences the first time may not be as severe as they are likely to be if Mom catches him squishing more bananas after being instructed not to.

Most claims of ignorance fall flat, however. Romans 1:20 says that there is no excuse for not believing in God’s existence: the invisible qualities of God are “clearly seen” in creation. Micah 6:8 also counters our claims of ignorance: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” If ignorance does not excuse sin, then feigned ignorance is even worse.

God is a Father, and He loves His children (Romans 8:15). He does not delight in punishing us but in conforming us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). He does not tolerate excuses, including the excuse of ignorance; rather, He gives us opportunities to learn from our consequences so that we make better choices. He knows what each of us has been given and holds us responsible for what we do with it (Matthew 13:11–12; Acts 17:30). We’ve all committed sins in ignorance, but God does not leave us ignorant (1 Peter 1:14). He has given us His Word to show us how to live, and He expects us to apply it to our lives and seek holiness, “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Recommended Resource: Hard Sayings of the Bible

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