- Love and Liberty
Can We Sin Unintentionally?
Confusion has been created by the idea that we can sin unintentionally, or ignorantly. Based on this concept, people conclude that we can’t help but sin “every day in thought, word, and deed”, because even if we are living holy lives we sin inadvertently. This thinking has led to destructive antinomian doctrines being taught by churches. According to some people, John should have said the following:
“Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not (expect for those unintentional sins of which we are all guilty) whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.” (1 John 3:6)
Actually, many professing Christians claim it isn’t possible (or necessary) to avoid intentional sin. They do not believe that Christ is a Savior from sinning as the Bible teaches (Acts 3:26). They turn the grace of God into lasciviousness and preach “another gospel.” They are all too happy to “discover” doctrines that comfort them in their sinning.
The topic of unintentional sins stems from the reference to “sins of ignorance” in Leviticus chapters 4 and 5, and in Numbers chapter 15. As always, context matters.
Obligations Under The Law
In reference to the Levitical laws in chapter 4, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary states:
“All sins may be considered, in a certain sense, as committed "through ignorance," error, or misapprehension of one's true interests. The sins, however, referred to in this law were unintentional violations of the ceremonial laws,—breaches made through haste, or inadvertency of some negative precepts, which, if done knowingly and wilfully, would have involved a capital punishment.”
Referencing Leviticus chapter 5, this man states:
“At first glance, reading Leviticus 5:14-16 would seem to indicate that we can sin unintentionally. With a bit of reflection, however, we might be more cautious in this assessment. The reference of “unintentional sins” in this passage has to do with ceremonial uncleanness. These laws were abolished by Christ (Luke 11:37-41). We no longer have (to) fear if touching a vehicle which ran over a dead animal in the church parking lot puts us in bad standing before God as we enter the sanctuary.” (Source)
What is noteworthy is that a sacrifice could be offered for sins of ignorance, but no sacrifice was available for sins of presumption (Numbers 15:30).
“And if any soul sin through ignorance, then he shall bring a she goat of the first year for a sin offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the Lord, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. Ye shall have one law for him that sinneth through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them.But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people.Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.
And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them ; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”
Sinning presumptuously, while done deliberately, is not defined by the deliberateness of the act, but by the nature of the act. A person who sins presumptuously defies and despises God. It is an act of rebellion in which someone defiantly hardens his heart toward God.
“Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.” (Numbers 15:31)
An example is found in the verses following (32-36). A man was found gathering sticks on the sabbath, an undeniable violation of the Old Testament Law. The text indicates this was not merely a situation where a man was collecting firewood, an act that was not sinful, it was a defiant act showing his disdain for the Law, and ultimately for God. It was much more than just a deliberate act. The man sinned presumptuously, defiantly, or “with a high hand” as some describe it. It was not just what the man did, it was why he did it. The condition of his heart was exposed, and there was no provision in the Law to atone for his sin. The Law could not save him.
With the arrival of a “better testament” (Hebrews 7:22), the procedures and regulations of the “first”, or “old” testament are no longer binding. These would include circumcision, resting on certain days of the week and year, food laws, offering of sacrifices, temple worship, purification rites, and strict percentage tithing. Since we do not adhere to these “works of the law”, we cannot unintentionally commit a procedural violation against one of God’s commands pertaining to sacrifices, purifications rites, etc.
Paul told the Christians in Rome:
“Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” (Romans 7:4-6)
Many of the Jews considered this an attack on their religion, but the truth is, even though God had given the Hebrews regulations to follow, the value of the Jewish religious system was in the spirit of the Law rather than the procedures and rites themselves.
“These provisions were all designed to impress the conscience with the sense of responsibility to God…” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown)
A major theme of the Book of Hebrews is that some who had come to Christ were in danger of reverting back to the old system, perhaps out of fear of ostracization or persecution. Under the New Covenant, Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death, something that the Law could not do. Why would anyone want to return to a religious system that could not save them?
Obligations Under Grace
Christ set people free from the laws of sin and death, yet many think that because we are under grace rather than the Law, we can sin with impunity. This is utter falsehood, and the thinking behind much false teaching today. Paul addressed this:
“What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Romans 6:15-16)
Being under a covenant of grace does not relieve us of the obligation to obey God. We are not slaves to the regulations of the Law, but we are to surrender to the Lord of the Law and obey him. The Lord’s moral laws are binding. Being under grace means we can be forgiven of our past sins, no matter what they are, and that we can walk in newness of life. Though no sacrificial provision was made for certain sins under the Old Covenant, under the New Covenant, a sacrifice has been made that is a provision for all the sins of mankind, no matter how great or how small.
Removing the unintentional violations of the Mosaic Law from the conversation, no sin is committed unintentionally, for all sin is voluntary. Sin cannot be committed involuntarily. Knowledge of sin is a necessary requirement of moral obligation. We instinctively claim that babies, infants, and children who die are safe because they lack the necessary knowledge for moral obligation, but some will in turn deny that knowledge is necessary for moral obligation for those who are older. To be consistent, we must say that all sin is deliberate.
Some doubt this because of the Lord’s words in Luke chapter 12, but I believe it is due to a misunderstanding of these verses.
“And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath. But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken;The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
Notice the Lord speaks of a steward. In a sense, all Christians are his stewards, but those who rule in the churches – pastors, elders, bishops – are ministers and servants that have great responsibilities (Titus 1:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1; Hebrews 13:7; James 3:1) as those who build on the foundation of Christ as they preach and teach the Word of God. Though the Lord speaks of the servant who knew not his will, and how he did things worthy of stripes, and how he would only receive a few stripes due to his lack of knowledge, this should not be equated with sinning or working iniquity. The Lord specifically stated what will happen to the worker of iniquity in verse 46. When the Lord returns, this man will receive the same treatment as the unbelievers. Paul said the same when writing to the Ephesians. He warned those believers:
“Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them.” (Ephesians 5:1-7) (Bold emphasis mine)
The children of disobedience were workers of iniquity.
Matthew 7:22-23 reminds us:
“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
Being involved in religious activity in the past, even in sincerity as a follower of the Lord in the past, is not a guarantee that a person will be saved in the end. The servant that abandons the way of holiness and becomes a worker of iniquity will become partakers of the wrath of God with other children of disobedience. This, it appears, is the person described in Luke 12:45-46.
What about the servants referred to in verses 47 and 48? It is important to remember what we have already noted. The servant who became a worker of iniquity is the only individual lumped in with the unbelievers.
To help our understanding, I believe we should look at 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, another portion of the scriptures that is often misinterpreted. Some have said, in support of their erroneous “carnal Christian” theology (certainly, a Christian can revert to carnality in any given situation, but to claim there is a class of Christians in which the people are habitually carnal is false teaching. The carnal mind is at enmity with God; those who are carnal are still in their sins (Romans 8:6-8), that in these verses, Paul reveals that a Christian who lives in sin will have his “bad deeds” burned up (this is the wood, hay, stubble), but he will be saved, while he will be rewarded for his “good deeds” (gold, silver, precious stones). While it is true God will reward every man according to his works (Romans 2:6), this is clearly not what Paul was teaching.
“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
Paul, after referring to the work of ministers (servants) in verse 5, called himself a wise masterbuilder who had laid the foundation of the Church (through his teaching), which is Christ, and said others build on that foundation. He followed those words by saying: “let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” People do many things when it comes to “church work”, “laboring in the harvest field”, or “doing the work of the Lord.” All who labor to build on this foundation will have their works judged, to see whether their work was valuable (gold, silver, precious stones), or worthless (wood, hay, stubble). Considering the servants in Luke 12 (who are not workers of iniquity), those who know the Lord’s will (his building instructions) but fail to follow them, will receive many stripes, perhaps in the form of rebukes or loss of reward. The servants who know not the Lord’s will (his building instructions), but do things worthy of stripes, perhaps in the form of rebukes or loss of reward, because they built on the foundation with worthless material (wood, hay, stubble) will receive only a few stripes. Rather than teaching that people can sin ignorantly, this passage teaches that workers of iniquity will be judged with unbelievers, it teaches how Christ’s servants build on the New Testament foundation will determine their loss and rewards, and it teaches his dealings with us are indeed based on our knowledge.
Some may wonder about David’s words in Psalm 19:7-13.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.”
Should we conclude from this that David thought we can sin without knowing it? What does David mean by secret faults? Might it be faults that the sinner is aware of but keeps secret from others? This possibility has been raised. However, it appears that David had the Jewish traditions of Leviticus and Numbers in mind when he spoke of errors and secret faults (sins of ignorance) and presumptuous sins (sins of defiance). If a man ignorantly or unintentionally violated the Mosaic Law, how would he know it unless it was revealed to him? Indeed, the Levitical laws related the fact these errors could be “hidden from him”, but cleansing was needed, nonetheless. Surely, David did not mean he might have hated someone, killed someone, lusted after someone, or stolen from someone unintentionally, or if he had that he was unaware.
Some have tried to use the following verse to claim we cannot help but sin, or that we sin unintentionally:
“To him that knoweth to do good but doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
They think this means that we sin when we don’t pray as much as we should, when we don’t say a kind word every time we should, or that we sin every time something good could be done and we fail to do it, thus we can be ignorant of our sins. I don’t think this is what the Bible means here at all. It seems evident to me, that any time we are in a situation where we “know” choosing action A is right and action B is wrong, and we choose B, it is sin. Sin is a moral transgression, not something that is an accident.
I affirm that no one can sin unintentionally under the New Covenant, that is, no one can accidentally perform an action that is considered a sin.
Romans 2:14 -15 says:
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)”
All people, without exception, have been created with God’s Moral Law having been written in their heart. We know this because the Bible says so, and we also know this by experience according to verse 15. The human conscience naturally approves of what is right and disapproves of what is wrong. Truly, people harden their hearts against this witness from God, the conscience becomes seared, and they are turned over to a reprobate mind which renders them incapable of forming right judgments. They were not created this way, however. At what point a person is turned over to this reprobate mind no doubt varies from person to person, but it happens. We are created in the image of God, and we instinctively know that it is wrong to murder or to steal something that belongs to someone else. We instinctively know that we should not aggress against the person and property of someone else. Love for God and our neighbor is the fulfillment of the Moral Law of God. We love others by seeking their well-being. Living selfishly is the opposite of obeying the Moral Law of God. There is no act of selfishness that can be committed unintentionally. There is no act of selfishness that one can commit ignorantly. A person may make a mistake, but this is not a sin. A sin is a known moral transgression against the Moral Law of God. No one can have sins in his heart and life of which he is ignorant. Sin is an act of rebellion. All sins of the heart are acts of rebellion. If you unintentionally hurt someone physically or emotionally, this is not a sin, it is a mistake. A mistake reflects ignorance or lack of intent, but a sin reflects knowledge and intent. There can be no sin without knowledge. There can be no rebellion without knowledge. The perfection that is commanded of the Lord relates to the actions of the heart (Matthew 5:48), not the knowledge of the mind. Certainly, a person can be willfully ignorant, but this too is a matter of the heart. It is rebellion.
People have created a correlation between sins of ignorance and sins of presumption, considering the latter to be “deliberate sins.” I affirm that all sins, since the abolition of the sacrificial and purification laws, are willful. However, some look at the fact that God would accept a sacrifice for unintentional sins and conclude he would not for intentional sins (though we have seen it was not a mere matter of being intentional) and relate this to the words of Hebrews 10:26-27. This has caused terror in the hearts of many Christians, both past and present.
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.”
There is disagreement about the phrase “if we sin wilfully.” All agree that it is deliberate, voluntary sin, but some see a specific sin being warned against, that is, since the Book of Hebrews is written to Hebrews, the sin of falling away from Christ back to the Old Testament laws is the sin in view. There is strong evidence that this is the case. Others believe this is a warning against continued sin in general. If after we come to the knowledge of the truth in Christ, and we turn from sin to follow him, yet we decidedly forsake Christ and return to the pollutions of the world, we become apostates and we are worse off than before we were converted. As Peter said:
“For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”
Whether the writer of Hebrews specifically meant the first explanation or the second, both are true, and both should be remembered.
No one that I know of claims that committing a single sin, even a sin of defiance against God, is in view here in Hebrews chapter 10. Again, all sin is deliberate. All sin is rebellion against God. If the Bible meant that an act of rebellion against God after conversion means we are forever doomed, I dare say we would all be doomed (see Galatians 6:1 as evidence this is not the case). However, I do say that any act of rebellion against God persisted in is indeed fatal to the soul. Any sin can be the catalyst for becoming an apostate. God is merciful, but the man that refuses to repent of sin, and sets his heart against Christ is not reachable. God’s mercy is greater than our greatest sin, but his mercy is not infinite. He only forgives those who repent (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9). God seeks to save us from eternal death (Hebrews 12), so he will not let us go without trying to turn us back, but those who commit to their rebellion, despising God and his rule, seal their destruction.
The glory of the gospel is that even though there was no regulatory provision under the Law to save a rebellious man, under the New Covenant, he can turn from his rebellion and be forgiven, because the sacrifice of Christ has fully met the governmental demands of the Law against us. Repentance is a gospel word, not a word of the Law. Here we see the mercy of God under both Covenants, for sinners under the Old Covenant were forgiven after sins of rebellion in the same way we are under the New; by throwing themselves on the mercy of God. God will forgive all who confess and forsake their sins (Isaiah 55:7).
There is no sacrifice that we can make to atone for our past sins, but the sacrifice of Christ is the perfect atonement. He did not “pay” for our sins, rather his sacrifice was a substitute for the penalty we deserve, and now we can be forgiven of our sins, if we repent. We must turn from our sinful, self-ruled lives, we must turn from our rebellion, and we must submit to the rule of Christ. Because he died and now lives again, we can repent and have eternal life with him in his Kingdom forever. Backsliders need not wonder if God will forgive their rebellion. Let them flee to our merciful God for pardon.
A word to the backslider from Charles Finney:
“The parable of the prodigal son may be applied both to the unconverted sinner and to the backslider. To either and to both, God is a father if they will return and seek his face. You may see in the parable how God feels towards everyone in whom He sees the spirit of true penitence and confession. And now, how long ere you will turn your footsteps towards the house and home of your Father above? Hear what He says:
Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For since I spake against him I do earnestly remember him still; therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 31:20).
What a heart stirring verse. What astonishing, indescribable mercy.