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; cf. 17:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9).
To sin willfully is to be proud and presumptuous in one’s defiance of God (Psalm 19:13; Hebrews 10:26). Willful sins bring God’s judgment, sooner or later, but sins of ignorance are not excusable, either: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed” (Ephesians 4:17-19; see also Acts 3:17-19; Acts 17:30-31). 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. 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: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13). Yet for those who willfully and habitually sin, Peter makes it clear that “if they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them” (2 Peter 2:20-21).
John gives us clarity on the matter of 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).