By Mike Willis
Recent articles in some of the periodicals and conversations related to me have asserted that God will overlook the sins of ignorance committed by the Christian. By the theory propounded, the sins which are committed in ignorance by the honest but sincerely mistaken Christian will be forgiven because Christ lived the perfect life in my stead. I would like to examine this theory with you in this article.
Not A New Argument
Contrary to the belief of some who are presently enthusiastically supporting the idea, the theory that God will overlook sins of ignorance is not a new theory. Anyone who has discussed the plan of salvation with a Baptist preacher has heard him make the same argument, which goes as follows: “What will God do with the sincere, un-baptized believer who died without being baptized?” Some years ago, we heard the same argument made with reference to God’s law concerning marriage, which argument tried to exempt the non-Christian from God’s law because he was ignorant of it. Now, we are hearing the same argument made with just a little different twist. Instead of discussing the non-ember, we are discussing the citizen of the kingdom. The argument goes as follows: “God will not send to hell the pious, sincere but ignorant believer who __________ fill in the blank with any or all of the following: (1) uses instrumental music in worship (2) endorses the sponsoring church arrangement (3) supports human institutions of benevolence (4) believes in premillennialism).” I am certain that you can perceive the similarities in the arguments.
Just a word needs to be said about this type of argument to prove one’s position. It is situationism. The person begins his argument from the situation, or from the human predicament, and Argues from that to his ultimate position in order to arrive at his doctrine. The scriptural method of argument is just the opposite; the individual goes to the revelation to determine what to believe and how to act in any given situation. Too, whether acknowledged or not, the basis of acceptability before God is made to be piety and sincerity. If God can overlook the sins of a Christian who is pious and sincere, but unfortunately ignorant, why can he not also, and equally justly, overlook the sins of the pious and sincere, but ignorant, non-Christian? Therefore, if the situationists’ argument proves anything, it will prove just as much for the pious and sincere, but ignorant, unbeliever as it will for the pious and sincere, but ignorant, believer.
To The Revelation
We have heard enough human predicament arguments, which prove only that humans can get themselves in some unfortunate predicaments. Now let us go to God’s revelation to see what He has promised to do about sins of ignorance.
1. The Old Testament:
“Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still is he guilty, and shall bear his punishment” (Lev. 5:17).
“When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’; and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand …. Again, when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I place an obstacle before him, he shall die in his sins, and his righteous deeds which he has
done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezek. 3:18, 20).
Some observations seem appropriate. Notice that ignorance of God’s law was not sufficient reason for God to overlook the sin of the individual committing the sin. David did not pray, “Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults” (Psa. 19:12) because he was a super-pious person but because one is held accountable for sins of ignorance.
2. The New Testament:
“Therefore having, overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world. (Acts 17:30).
The observation needs to be made that God did not overlook the sins of ignorance of the Jews, the people with a revelation, as we have already noticed. The doctrine taught by Paul in this passage is that since God has given a revelation to all men, Jews and Gentiles alike, all everywhere are now accountable to God for knowing and obeying that revelation!
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, ‘ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father, who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles. And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness”‘ (Mt. 7:21-23).
” . . sin is lawlessness” (I Jn. 3:4).
Anomia means “prop. the condition of one without law. -either because ignorant of it, or because violating it” (Thayer, p. 48). Anomia is the Greek word translated “lawlessness” in these verses. Thus, one can be a lawless, iniquitous, wicked person and not be consciously or deliberately defying God.
“And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of flogging, will receive but few” (Lk. 12:4748a).
Although God took into account the difference between deliberate sins and sins of ignorance, notice that both received punishment. Unless we believe that some will receive punishment in heaven, we must conclude that both will be in hell!
The record of the conversion of Saul demonstrates that one who is in ignorance can still be the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1: 15). Thus, the biblical teaching regarding sins of ignorance is crystal clear: Man is held responsible for the sins he commits even in ignorance!
Those who are arguing that God will overlook sins of ignorance are not too sure which sins He will overlook Obviously, they, expect God to overlook doctrinal errors-at least part of them (I cannot understand how God can consistently overlook the doctrinal errors of mechanical instruments of music in worship, the sponsoring church, benevolent institutions, and premillennialism but not overlook the doctrinal errors surrounding baptism!), but they are not too sure that God will overlook sins of ignorance against His moral laws. One preacher, when pressed to answer the question, “If a Christian died while committing the act of adultery, would he go to heaven?” replied, “Yes, if his heart was right”! At least, he was consistent.
A Premium on Ignorance
The position that God will overlook sins of ignorance places a premium on ignorance. If I am committing a sin in ignorance and God will forgive me for it because I am ignorant, why should a person go to the trouble of trying to convert me from the error of my ways? (Perhaps this is the reason that some of the preachers among us have never spoken out very strongly against their brethren’s corruptions of the worship and work of the church.) If I believed that God would overlook my sins of ignorance, I would prefer that no one speak to me about my errors. I would rather stay ignorant, enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, and go to heaven when I die than to be taught, repent, and go to heaven when I die!
If anyone knows any passage of scripture that reveals that God will overlook sins committed in ignorance, please let him call it to our attention. A person may reach the conclusion that God will overlook sins of ignorance through the situational argument, but he will not reach that conclusion from the Scriptures. Recently, I read a statement in a bulletin which contained a splendid gem of truth which said, “When a man believes sin will go unpunished, he will believe anything.” Some among us will apparently believe anything!
Truth Magazine, XVIII:36, p. 12-13
July 18, 1974