Is it sin if it’s unintentional?

My daily Bible reading plan had me in Leviticus 4 and 5 yesterday and got me to thinking about the Bible’s teaching on unintentional sin. The Bible makes a distinction between sins committed intentionally and those that are unintentional. The Law of Moses, for instance, distinguishes premeditated murder from manslaughter and assigns the death-penalty for the former but not necessarily for the latter (Numbers 35:6-34). Intentional evil brings greater judgment under God’s law.

Does this mean, therefore, that the sins that we commit unintentionally are okay with God? When we do something wrong that we didn’t mean to do, are we therefore innocent before God? Biblically the answer is clearly no. We are not acquitted by our ignorance. Let me give you three texts to consider and some implications.

In Leviticus 4, God sets forth what the children of Israel must do when any one of them “sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done” (Leviticus 4:2; cf. 4:22, 27; 5:15, 18). In every case, God calls the unintended act a sin for which the worshiper must bring a sin offering of atonement. In other words, God does not overlook unintended sin and will call it into account.

In Luke 23:34, Jesus prays for his executioners and accusers as he dies on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus acknowledges that his tormentors do not know the evil that they have perpetrated. At least in their own minds, they have not recognized who Jesus is and the infinitely heinous crime of executing the only begotten of God. In one sense, they were sinning unintentionally. Nevertheless, Jesus does not treat them as innocents by saying, “Oh nevermind the fact that they that have crucified God. They don’t know what they’re doing so they are not sinning.” No, Jesus plainly says that his opponents need forgiveness, which presumes that they have sin for which they are accountable. Their ignorance does not get them off the hook.

After the resurrection in Acts 3:13-19, Peter holds Jewish leaders accountable for the death of Jesus, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and… put to death the Prince of life.” Having accused them, Peter adds, “I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also.” Nevertheless, Peter commands them to “repent” of their “sins” (v. 19). They are not excused by their ignorance.

So what do these texts teach us? Let me suggest some implications for you to consider.

1. We need the gospel more than we think we do. We are fallen and often sin without even thinking about it. Sin comes natural to us (Romans 7:18). It is likely that we have far more sins that we don’t even know about than ones that we do. We cannot, therefore, even begin to reckon our debt before God. This knowledge should not drive us to despair, but to an even greater awareness of our need for Christ’s blood-bought forgiveness.

2. We need to repent before God of our unintentional sins. Hopefully you are in the habit of confessing your intentional sins, but we all need to reckon with the fact that our offenses before God are worse than we let ourselves imagine. We are worse than we think we are.

3. We need to pray for the Spirit’s sanctifying work to eliminate our unintentional sins. We have them, and our prayers should reflect that fact. We don’t know our own hearts as we should, but God does. He wants us to ask Him for help. This is what King David modeled for us when he prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. . . And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

4. Our ability to commit unintentional sins should cause us to be humble in our relationships with others. How many of us try to justify bad behavior with our spouses and friends on the basis of it being unintentional. “I didn’t mean to do it, so you shouldn’t be hurt.” Oftentimes, words like that reveal the very insensitivity that led to the unintentional sin. This is not to say that there’s no moral difference between intentional sins and an unintentional ones. There is. It’s just that in either case there is still an offense that must be dealt with.

There is, of course, much more that could be said on this topic, but I will stop there. Lest any reader come away from this post feeling hopelessly condemned, perhaps the best way to end is with a gospel word for sinners:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).

7 Responses to Is it sin if it’s unintentional?

  1. Nate Martin February 4, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Dr. Burk,
    I found this post, especially the implications section, very helpful. You reminded me of the depravity of my nature and then ended with a stress on the Gospel. I am reminded of what Spurgeon once said “You can’t slander human nature, it’s worse than words can paint it.” Thank you for leading me to the cross in this post,and throughout your ministry at Boyce.

  2. Joel M. Hoffman February 4, 2010 at 1:15 pm #

    Intentional evil brings greater judgment under GodÂ’s law.

    The passage in Numbers doesn’t just dictate greater punishment for intentional evil, but also in circumstances that demand greater care.

    For example, someone who kills accidentally with a wooden object is spared the death penalty. But accidental killing with a stone object is punishable by death whether or not the assailant intended to kill anyone.

    The message seems to be that not taking care in dangerous situations is like intentionally doing wrong.

    I have a long discussion of this in Chapter 7 (“Wanting, Taking, and Killing: How We Live”) of my And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.

    Does this mean, therefore, that the sins that we commit unintentionally are okay with God?

    Even in Numbers, the accidental killer, though not put to death, is punished to a near equivalent of jail. (This is in stark contrast to most modern legal codes, where accidentally killing a person is not usually a punishable crime.)

    -Joel

  3. Derek Taylor February 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Good commentary. Many people – including many churchgoers – would say that as long as we’re not intentionally sinning, God is just going to let that stuff pass or maybe we’ll just be mildly rebuked.

    Virtually all religious people are comfortable with the idea that God will judge, but they assume that a sin nature is more of a learned behavior or moral breakdown than something that we are born with.

  4. Heather Roach February 6, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Burke. I have been in a season of the Lord showing me many sins of my past that I never thought of as sinful. Truly, “we cannot even begin to reckon our debt before God.” This really can drive us to utter despair if it really hits home to us – so thank you for ending with the words of Life given to us by the blood of Christ.

  5. Mark February 6, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    Such a timely post in a time when so many evangelical churches downplay the awfulness of sin.

  6. Mike March 1, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    I am with you on the fact that we are responsible for our unintentional sin. But I have a question. The scripture tells us that sin is from our inappropriate response to temptation. The scripture also tells us that we are not exposed to a temptation that we are not able to bear. So how is an unintentional sin even possible if we sin by choice. If there is always a way of escape how does that fit the concept of unintentional sin?

  7. stephen April 16, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    i have learnt that our past sins are washed away by baptism but if we sin after that intentionally or unintentionally we are NOT forgiven
    i hope i have been mistaken but it does say so in scripture
    i have also learn that i cannot partake of the passover as i have not been circumcised [ although i’m sure i read that paul stated circumciscion was not a requirement ]
    i am learning that what GOD requires is not what most churches are teaching
    all HIS laws are STILL in effect except sacrifice of animals
    i would appreciate some guidance on this as i am VERY depressed at the thought of being condemned to the pit of eternal suffering

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