Perhaps two decades ago or longer I got into a discussion with the editor of one of the brotherhood periodicals over the topic of how a Christian is cleansed from sin that he may commit from time to time. He had taken the position that a Christian had to confess every single sin he committed or else he was lost. There was a general debate among brethren back then about this topic which they were calling “continual cleansing.” I am not here to look at the tenets of that doctrine except in the case of sins of ignorance. Hopefully the article will be self-explanatory.
I think most Christians agree that when a Christian sins he must repent of his sins and confess them to the Father in prayer asking forgiveness and depending on the particular sin and the circumstances surrounding it there may be a need to confess to others as well, even before the church in some instances. Some think that it is never necessary to publicly confess sins but I am not one of them. Any and all sin is against God but in addition some sin is against others as well (Matt. 18:21, 1 Cor. 8:12) and one can commit sin against the church (1 Cor. 10:32, 1 Cor. 11:22, Gal. 1:13). We need to confess to whomever we have sinned against.
My editor friend of years ago was taking the confession of sin to an extreme so that any sin not confessed to the Father doomed one, including sins of ignorance. Now if it was hardness of heart and impenitence that prevented one from confessing a sin that is one thing but ignorance is quite another. Sins committed in ignorance cannot be repented of and confessed unless it be at a later date when one knows more and has learned better and remembers his past.
However remembering is part of the problem, a big part of it. We do not realize we have sinned so the event or occasion when we sinned does not stick in our memory. There was no reason to remember what to us at the time was meaningless. We generally remember the evil we have done but if we did not consider our action at the time we committed it as evil we are not likely to remember it a few days (should I say hours) down the road to say nothing of years down the road.
Now do not get me wrong, ignorance is not an excuse for sin. In fact I have an article I wrote on my web site entitled “Ignorance Does Not Excuse Sin.” If ignorance excuses sin then all those living in lands where they have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel, say North Korea for example, are saved and are better off if they never have an opportunity to hear it. Before you jump to any conclusions about what I am saying in this article go read the one I have referred you to just now. In fact, if ignorance was an excuse for sin we would all be better off remaining ignorant.
Nevertheless there was a problem with my brother’s position. It is impossible for the Christian to know every single sin he has committed even as he attempts to live the Christian life in all sincerity and faithfulness. I am to obey the laws of the land, of the government under which I live, but as I drive down the highways and streets of this country I do not see every speed limit sign. Am I eternally lost because I violated a traffic law I was totally unaware of? I am certainly guilty under the law but am I guilty and condemned under grace? This brother was taking his “I must confess every sin to be saved” to this extreme a degree. His idea was absolutely no sin could or would be forgiven without its confession.
There is no Christian security, no sense of peace, no freedom from fear of condemnation, no assurance of salvation, and no sense of living under grace versus law when we go that far afield. John said he wrote 1 John so “that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:4 nkjv) but where is the joy if I must live in fear of my ignorance? I wonder how many sins we have all committed over the course of our life which at the time we committed the sin we had no idea we were sinning.
Is the teenager who has just been baptized supposed to have the knowledge and understanding of the faithful Christian who has read and studied for 50 years? Is there no room under the grace system under which we live for growth in knowledge and understanding? “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18 nkjv)
So what is my point? It is we live under grace, not law. We do not know every sin in our life or sin that has been there. We repent of and confess what we know which is all we can do. I think probably most of us add in our prayers to God a request that we be forgiven for all those sins of which we are unaware or know not even as we confess the sins we do know.
Do you today, even as you read this, not only know every commandment found in your New Testament but know exactly how to apply each one of them in every possible scenario that arises in your life? Can you define every sin listed in the New Testament? Pray tell what is the difference between a temptation which is not sin according to the New Testament and an evil thought which is (Mark 7:20-23), draw me a line in the sand and tell me exactly when one crosses over into the other. Is the thought only classified as evil when it is acted upon and thus becomes sin retrospectively only because it was acted on?
At what exact point in time does a healthy self-esteem turn into pride which is sin? Draw the line in the sand and tells us exactly when. My point is there are a lot of things that are black and white when we see them in the extremes to which they can be carried but who is so perfect in judgment as to be able to draw these lines when they are not so extreme. We can certainly be ignorant of crossing the line on occasion. These are only examples of many similar things that could be listed.
I want to make it clear I believe in strict commandment keeping. I could quote verse after verse after verse until you would tire of reading them on the need to obey from the pages of the New Testament. Every reader of the New Testament knows that but the bottom line is we are saved by grace and not by perfection in law keeping.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9 nkjv) “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Gal. 2:21 nkjv) The word “the” that comes before the word “law” in Gal. 2:21 just quoted is an added word added by the translators which is not in the Greek thus Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible translates the passage, “I do not make void the grace of God, for if righteousness be through law–then Christ died in vain.”
John tells the Christian how he is saved day by day in 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (nkjv) The word “cleanses” in this passage is in the present tense meaning it is a constant process, a continual thing. Brother Guy N. Woods says of the cleansing of this verse by the blood of Jesus that “it cleanses from sin, not merely or solely the conscience, but sin (amartias), all sin, whether of thought, word, or deed, rash sins, sins of ignorance, of malice, of omission or commission, sins of the flesh, sins of the disposition, sins of pleasure or of pain, sins of every type and kind committed at any time or place.” (See his commentary on 1 John 1:7.) I quoted this only because brother Woods mentions “sins of ignorance.”
Brother E. M Zerr in his commentary on 1 John 1:7 says, “If a man is a worker in the Lord’s vineyard and his life as a whole is one of obedience to the law of Christ, he does not need to worry about the mistakes he might make which he does not realize, for the blood of Christ will take care of it and wash them away.” I am in agreement but be reminded I am only talking about sins of ignorance which are obviously impossible to confess and I think that is all brother Zerr had in mind in his statement too.
I quoted these two brethren not because what they say makes a thing true but just to show I am not the only brother who holds this position which is castigated by some scholarly brethren who truly believe me and others like me to be in error.
But what does it mean to “walk in the light?” The Bible describes God’s word as light. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalms 119:105 nkjv) “The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalms 119:130 nkjv) To walk in the light is to walk in or by God’s word. It is to be directed by God’s word which is the same as to be directed by God.
But it might be objected that would require perfection in the knowledge of the word and anything short of that would not be truly walking in the word, in the light. I concede it does place a responsibility on a man to not be lazy or lukewarm in studying and learning God’s word. If we fail to walk in God’s word because we were too indifferent and uncaring to find a desire to read and study the word then how can we expect our sins committed in ignorance to be forgiven when it was willful ignorance we lived in? There comes a point in time when we are old enough in the faith to know better as the saying goes but even then we each have different God given abilities to learn and to retain knowledge.
Whatever subject a man sets out to learn it takes time and that goes for learning God’s will as well. Peter said to those new in the faith, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.” (1 Peter 2:2 nkjv) God thus allows for growth and no babe ever became an adult overnight. Elsewhere the writer of the book of Hebrews says, “Everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.” (Heb. 5:13 nkjv) If he is unskilled it surely means he has a ways to go to maturity and thus is prone to sins of ignorance.
Heb. 5:14 sums up the end goal of spiritual growth in knowledge, “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:14 nkjv) It thus takes time.
Yes, I believe we must repent of and confess every sin to God of which we are aware in order to be forgiven. John teaches, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 nkjv) I also agree, as already stated, that those too indifferent to study and learn are not going to get a free pass because of ignorance. I would also include in that group those who through hardness of heart are unable to learn the truth (God will judge). But, to say a Christian man who having a good and honest heart sins in ignorance and thus fails to repent of that sin and confess it is condemned is a thing I do not see the Bible teaching.
Walking in the light is the key (1 John 1:7) but the best any man can do is walk in the light he presently has. I have more light today than I had 30 years ago because I know more today than I did then. How about you? You surely know more today than you did 5 or 10 years ago.
Some may say where does one draw the line on this ignorance thing and being cleansed. You and I do not have to draw the line or make the judgment call. Jesus is going to judge the living and the dead, not me or you. I am not a judge. Let Jesus be the judge.
Whichever side of this debate one takes there are problems or objections but I think I have taken the correct position on this subject for the opposing position pretty much puts us back under a strict law keeping system for salvation where one slip up condemns you and one must be fully mature from the moment he arises out of the waters of baptism in knowledge and understanding. That just cannot be a correct.
I know some are likely to object to what I have written but they had better hope I am right for if I am wrong we are all lost, each and every one, or so it seems to me. Even if you saw every speed sign on the highway and obeyed them all over your many years I ask you something here that ought to give you a sleepless night tonight if you are such a legalist as I have been speaking about. The question is this—how can you be sure your speedometer was registering correctly? Ignorance is no excuse. You were going too fast, disobeying the law, and you are guilty. Did you confess that sin of ignorance? I live under grace, not under law. You worry about it; I am not going to.
By Denny Smith
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