Author: Ron Graham

Sin and Legalism

Sinning in Ignorance
—Conscience, guilt, and the truth

People sometimes do what is sin, without realising it is sin. They do wrong, yet in their ignorance they believe that they do right. They are guilty of sin in practice, but innocent in conscience.

At other times, people do what is not sin, under the impression that it is sin. They do right, yet in their ignorance they believe that they do wrong. They are innocent in practice, but guilty in conscience.

The question arises, of course, as to how such people stand with God: are they guilty or not guilty in his eyes? Let's look at each case in turn.

1 When one does something wrong, thinking it is right

God may regard something as a sin. But what if someone thinks otherwise and does the thing in good conscience, ignorantly believing it not to be sin? Will God's verdict be "Guilty"?

In former times, when people did wrong in ignorance, it was still held against them. Although people sinned unintentionally and did not know it, they were still held accountable and were "certainly guilty before the Lord". As soon as the sin was brought to their attention, they had to make a guilt offering, to be forgiven (Lev 5:17-19).

God certainly made a distinction between one who sinned in ignorance, and another who sinned in defiance (Num 15:27-31). But that distinction was not between innocence and guilt, but between different kinds of guilt. Take a moment to think about that.

How God Dealt with Sins of Ignorance.

God's way of dealing with sins of ignorance was very simple and sensible. He caused the sin to be brought to the offender's attention, so that the guilt might be realised, and the path to forgiveness taken.

Paul is an example of this. He regarded himself as "chief among sinners". Yet he claims that the terrible things he did were done "ignorantly in unbelief". God took this ignorance into account and showed mercy. By the love, the power, and the grace of Christ Jesus, Saul the sinner was enlightened, and became Paul the apostle (1Tm 1:13-15).

Ignorance is not a desirable state. Nor is it a state of excuse. God deals patiently and kindly with the ignorant, but he wants people to know their guilt and repent (Acts 3:17-19, 17:30-31). Likewise, the ministers of God's truth deal "gently with the ignorant". But they do not leave them ignorant; they enlighten them (Heb 5:1-3).

In many cases, God looks upon ignorance as blameworthy in itself. Perhaps the strongest and plainest statement concerning ignorance is this:

"Walk no longer as the pagans walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to filth" (Ephesians 4:17-19).

Whilst ignorance may not always be so bad as that, and in some may seem not very far from innocence, we should never think of ignorance as good. Ignorance is the want of knowledge. Wherever we find that want, we have a ministry to enlighten by imparting the truth of the gospel (2Corinthians 4:1-6).

2 When one does something right, thinking it is wrong.

God may regard something as not a sin. But what if someone thinks otherwise, and does the thing with a guilty conscience, ignorantly believing it to be sin? Will God's verdict be "Guilty"?

We have already seen that if we think something is not sin, but God thinks that it is, God's mind hold's sway, and we are held guilty in God's sight..

Now does that work the other way round? If we think something is sin, but God thinks that it is not, does God's mind hold sway, and are we held innocent in his sight?

The answer to that is a bit tricky, and we had better think it through carefully. Let's take an example. Paul says,

"No food is unclean in itself, but if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean... He who doubts is damned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans & 14:1423).

We have here a case where someone's conscience sees sin in something which is not really sin at all. If he does it, then he thinks, in his ignorance, that he has committed a certain sin. In fact, of course, he has not committed that sin, because there is no such sin in reality. He only imagines there is such a sin.

We might have expected, therefore, that this person is not guilty in God's sight. But obviously, from what Paul says, the person is guilty. Obviously God does not hold the person guilty of an imaginary sin. But there is something else, in this case, that God regards as sin, and that he holds the person guilty of: The person acted against his own conscience.

So the person is held innocent regarding the thing he ignorantly imagined he was guilty of. But he is not off the hook, because he is guilty, and condemned, for violating his own conscience.

3 Principles of Conscience

The first principle of conscience therefore, is that we must take care not to lead people into the sin of acting against their conscience. That is a sound principle. But this principle does not stand alone. It is only the first of a set of principles that must be balanced against each other.

A second principle is that conscience should never be regarded as the authority that determines what is sin. It is not a person's ignorant conscience, but God's word, and that alone, which determines what is sin.

A third principle is that people of ignorant conscience ought to be educated with the truth. God does not want anyone's conscience to condemn them falsely. God wants each person's conscience to reflect God's word. Bearing with people's scruples involves leading them gently out of their ignorance, so that they can, in due course, unburden themselves (and ourselves) of their scruples.

A fourth principle is that we should curb any eagerness of the misguided conscience to propogate itself. A person who holds something to be sin when it isn't, is weak in the faith. That person should not be allowed to disturb the consciences of others and infect them with the same weakness.

By observing these principles, we avoid what otherwise becomes a tyranny of the ignorant conscience. We call that tyranny "legalism". The very thing that characterises legalism, is that it makes people think they are committing sins when they are not.

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