Is ignorance an acceptable excuse for my sin?

Question
Is ignorance an acceptable excuse for my sin?
Answer
From the United States criminal justice system, here are two Latin phrases that can help answer this question just from a legal standpoint: (1) ignorantia juris non excusat, meaning "ignorance of the law excuses not" and (2) ignorantia legis neminem excusat, meaning "ignorance of law excuses no one." In essence, and in plain English, this legal principle maintains that a person who is unaware of a law doesn't escape liability for violating said law merely because they were ignorant of it.

The same is true concerning the law of God. Ignorance of God’s law excuses no one. Leviticus 5:17 states, "If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity" (cf. Lev. 4:2, 13-14, 22-23, 27-28; Num. 15:22-31). Once a sin of ignorance was discovered under the old covenant, there were special sacrifices and other instructions to be followed (cf. Heb. 9:7). However, a sin of ignorance was still a sin!

Ignorance does not excuse sin. Sin is sin, whether it was done in ignorance or not, and there is still a payment due concerning sins of ignorance. However, God deals somewhat differently with sins of ignorance than he does outright rebellion. Consider Luke 12:47-48:

And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

But penalty beatings of any kind still hurt and leave scars. For those who don’t know Christ, the ultimate penalty for every and all sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Why? Because God hates all sin and he hates lovers of sin (Lev. 26:30; Psa. 5:4-6; 11:5-7; Prov. 6:16-19). He is utterly holy (Isa. 6:3) and can't bear to look upon iniquity (Hab. 1:13). The good news is there is forgiveness of all sin at the cross of Christ.

The truth is that we are far greater sinners than we ever thought we were. We have hills of known sins and mounds of ignorant ones. There is absolutely no doubt that each and every one of us is a sinner. Yet, at the cross, there is a mountain of grace that removes one's sins as far as the east is from the west (Psa. 103:11). His loving mercy reaches to the heavens and his steadfastness the clouds (Psa. 36:5; 57:10).

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).