When Does One Become Guilty of Sin?

By Bobby Witherington

The purpose of this article is not to point out at what age one becomes accountable and thus a fit subject for gospel obedience. With reference to this question, it is my conviction that the “age of accountability” is an intellectual age, and is not based upon a person’s previous calendar years per se’. Children, like adults, manifest great variation in their ability to grasp facts and to make intelligent decisions based upon a proper evaluation of those facts. So it is really impossible for one to sit in an editorial chair and issue a definite, no-mistake statement that a child becomes accountable to God and thus guilty of sin at such and such age.

The question, “when does one become guilty of sin,” insofar as this article is concerned, pertains to an intelligent, accountable individual. Some say “ignorance is bliss,” and contend that a person is guilty of sin only if he is aware of his transgressions. The logical conclusion to this would be to believe that man would be universally saved if he remained Universally ignorant of the existence of God and the requirements of His will. Others, however, contend that a person becomes guilty of sin when he transgresses the law of God (cf. 1 John 3:4). Obviously both divergent positions can not possibly be right – regardless of how strongly one may believe that it does not make any difference what a person sincerely believes.

In the 4th chapter of Leviticus there are four references to sins committed “through ignorance.” Herein the inspired writer mentioned four different people and/or groups of people and their sins committed “through ignorance.” “If a SOUL shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord . . .” (v. 2). “And if the WHOLE CONGREGATION of Israel sin through ignorance . . .: (v. 13). “When a RULER hath sinned, and done somewhat through ignorance . . .” (v. 22). “And if any of the COMMON PEOPLE (note: the marginal reference says, “people of the land,” b.w.) sin through ignorance . . .” (v. 27). Hence, it is evident that ignorance of God’s law did not prevent a violation of that law from being classified as SIN. Moreover, in three of these instances (vs. 13, 22, 27), the word “GUILTY” is used to describe the person or persons who sinned “through ignorance.” And in each instance God specified the offerings He required of those who became “guilty” because of having sinned “through ignorance” -offerings that were to be made when such sins became “known” (cf. v. 14) to those thus “guilty.” These facts necessitate that we draw two necessary conclusions: (1) A person can sin “through ignorance.” (2) When a person sins, whether, “through ignorance,” or presumptuously, he is “guilty” of sin, and must suffer the penalty that sin imposes (cf. Rom. 6:23) unless he, through compliance with God’s law, receives forgiveness.

With reference to WHEN one becomes guilty of sin, it is the same in the New Testament; namely, “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). The fact that the sinner may not know the “law” does not remove the guilt; it only lessens the likelihood of his seeking and obtaining forgiveness through compliance with the terms of the gospel of the grace of God. This sad fact is borne out in Matthew 25:41-45. Herein we note that certain ones, placed as “goats” on the Lord’s “left hand,” were condemned because of having committed sins (of omission), but of which they were ignorant – but that does not change the fact that the Lord said of such persons, “these shall go away into everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46).

Bear in mind that a person is not guilty of sin because he is ignorant; he is guilty because he transgressed God’s law (I John 3:4). His ignorance is not that which separates him from God; rather this separation takes place because of his sin (cf. Isa. 59:1, 2). This is why the ignorant should not remain ignorant – and why those who know the will of God should TEACH others. A person, lost in the forest, does not rejoice because he does not know how to get out, nor does a person, trapped in a burning building, rejoice because he does not know an escape route. A person in sin is guilty; he is lost – his ignorance is not bliss; instead it serves to keep him lost and trapped in a state of guilt and doomed to eternal perdition.

In view of the fact that an accountable person’s guilt is determined by his transgression of God’s law, and is not nullified by his ignorance of the law; we exclaim, HOW IGNORANT IT IS FOR THE IGNORANT TO BRAG ABOUT THEIR IGNORANCE!

Truth Magazine XXIV: 13, p. 218
March 27, 1980