Willful vs. Ignorant Sin
1 - Different Kinds of Sin?
John's first letter to the Churches contains a pair of verses that some think are very unusual. They read, "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not unto death." (1John 5:16, 17)
Both of the verses talk about "a sin not unto death." What does this mean? Bible readers might be a little confused by this, especially since in another place the Apostle Paul tells us, "The wages of sin is death." (Romans 6:23) At first, this might seem like a contradiction, because Paul tells us that the result of sin (and he doesn't separate sin into different kinds) is death. In other words, the result of ALL sin is death, but John appears to be saying something different.
Now, that verse is a powerful one, because it does not merely say that God will do things The confusion can be cleared up when we understand that the words from Romans 6 were only a part of the verse. The full verse reads, "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23 complete)
Now we have a fuller picture. The result of sin is death, BUT there is a gift that provides life instead of this natural result. In the most famous verse of the New Testament, we read, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)
Jesus Christ offers Himself as a sacrifice for all who wish to accept the gift of everlasting life. But what does John mean when he says, "I do not say that he shall pray for it," when speaking of the sins unto death? The truth is, although wages of all sin is death, the Bible does make a difference, a very important difference, between two kinds of sin.
In the Old Testament, the Bible says this: "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. 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." (Numbers 15:28, 30, 31)
This is a very simple idea. We have spoken already about what "atonement" means. It means to be restored to unity with God. If a sin was committed by a citizen of Israel through ignorance, a sacrifice could be offered, and that soul could be restored. But if someone who was a member of God's people committed a sin "presumptuously," that person was separated from the holy people.
That word means "pridefully and deliberately." King David said in one of his Psalms, "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." (Psalm 19:13)
The Bible tells us that for the members of Israel, ignorant sins could be forgiven by means of a sacrifice, but David prayed to be kept away from presumptuous sins, otherwise he would not be innocent in God's eyes.
How do these Old Testament verses relate to the ones in the New Testament?
2 - The Cure for Ignorance
For people who are in the world, it does not matter if their sins are deliberate or ignorant, for they have not accepted Jesus as their sacrifice anyway. Unless they come to know the Father and Son, their sins will destroy them. This is why it is so important for those of us who know the truth to tell others about it. This is called "evangelism."
For those who already know Jesus, however, there is a difference between these two types of transgression.
As we have already seen, those who are born of God do not "commit" sin. They do not do deliberate or (to use our new word) "presumptuous" sins. The reason for this is that deliberate sins are "unto death," and not cleansed by the sacrifice. God is willing to forgive any sin, of course, but there is a reason why the Bible says these things - someone who commits deliberate sins is not truly born again, and therefore has no atonement through Christ's sacrifice.
John tells us this very plainly, "Whosoever abideth in [Jesus] sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil." (1John 4:6-8) And also, "We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not." (1John 5:18) These things are not written to discourage those who read it, but only to describe the difference between those who have really come to Jesus, and those who have not yet done so. They were written to show us that the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is very clear, no matter what some churches or preachers say.
Those who commit deliberate sins are of the world, and not of Christ. Those who are of Christ may sometimes discover that they are doing something wrong, but they did not know that God considered it to be sin. This is the difference. We are free from known sin, but this does not mean we become proud of this. We must also be open to the guidance of the Spirit, and be willing to learn.
Of course, the cure for all ignorance is knowledge. If we wish to be free from all sin, and ready for all the blessings that Heaven has to offer, we must be willing to learn what righteousness is. As we grow, and as we learn, we will discover that some of the things we believed were proper were actually not pleasing to our Father. He does not condemn us for this. He does not abandon us. Instead, He accepts our confession of these things as ignorant sins, and His Son's sacrifice is able to restore us in cases like that.
The natural result of all sin is death, but ignorant sins by God's children can be cleansed away by the Blood of Jesus if, when we discover them, we repent and give them up.
3 - Summary
The Bible tells us that "the wages of sin is death." This is true in every case, and for every sin. For God's people, however, who have accepted Jesus as their Savior, we are given everlasting life, instead of the results of the wrong acts we have done.
But accepting Christ is not the end of our journey… it is only the beginning. During that journey, we may discover that some of our actions are actually "sinful." Because we are born again, we did not do them on purpose. These are not "presumptuous" or prideful and deliberate - they were done in ignorance of God's judgment. As a result of this, the Bible says, we can confess these sins, and repent of them… and then we can be restored.
There is no difference in the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. Not every detail may work the same way, but it is the same God who provided us with both. Just as holiness has never changed, sin has never changed either… and it is our blessing to learn more and more of our Savior from Sin, Jesus, who receives all who come to Him sincerely, and ready to make a commitment to live the sin-free life that is His gift to us.