Unintentional Sin


Leviticus makes a striking contrast in Israel between sin that is produced through the ignorance of the person or people and sin that is produced through the rebellion of the person or people. The striking contrast isn’t between the innocence of those who are ignorant and the guilt of those who are rebellious, both are guilty.

The striking contrast is this

1. The Israelite who was ignorant could be forgiven if they responded properly when they learned that the act violated God’s commandment.

2. The Israelite who knowingly rebelled against God’s commandment faced God’s wrath.

The KJV translation refers to a sin produced by a lack of knowledge as a sin of ‘ignorance.’ The NKJV and NIV translations refer to a sin produced by a lack of knowledge as an ‘unintentional’ sin. Consider several examples from Leviticus 4-5.

 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them.’ Leviticus 4:2

Following are instructions for sacrificially caring for this ‘unintentional sin.’

 ‘‘If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realize their guilt’. Leviticus 4:13

This speaks of what was to occur if ‘the whole congregation of Israel’ committed such sin.

 ‘When a leader sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the commands of the LORD his God, when he realizes his guilt.’ Leviticus 4:22

This speaks of what was to occur if a ‘leader’ committed such sin.

 ‘If any member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, when they realize their guilt’. Leviticus 4:27

This speaks of what was to occur if a ‘common person’ committed such a sin.

‘If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible. ‘If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt; or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt—when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.’ Leviticus 5:1-6

This speaks of some situations in which the ‘ignorant’ or ‘unintentional’ sin might occur, failure to be a witness; touching something unclean; touching human uncleanness; thoughtless oaths.

The issue was not guilt. The issue was forgiveness!

In ‘ignorant’ or ‘unintentional’ sin the person either didn’t know they were sinning or had no intention of defying God. The person didn’t realise when the act or behaviour occurred that they did something God forbade Israel to do. When the act or behaviour occurred, the Israelite person had no realisation the deed involved loyalty to or trust in God. Yet, the act or behaviour that occurred was a violation of God’s commandment.

The question is this, what did the person do when they ceased being ignorant? What was done when they became aware of the sin? Leviticus 4:14 / Leviticus 4:23 / Leviticus 4:28 / Leviticus 5:5-6.

Again, the issue isn’t guilt, Leviticus 4:23 / Leviticus 4:28 / Leviticus 5:6 / Leviticus 5:17. Even if the person didn’t know they had violated a commandment from God, they were still guilty of sin.

The issue wasn’t, have they sinned?

The issue was, will they receive forgiveness or wrath?

Forgiveness wasn’t cheap! If one chose to ignore an unintentional sin when it was discovered, it immediately became a sin of rebellion. If there was to be forgiveness, the matter had to be addressed at once. The appropriate sacrifice had to be offered immediately. There was no ‘I will care for this later when it is convenient.’

If the sin involved a ‘holy thing,’ full restitution must be given, plus a 20% penalty! Leviticus 5:16.

The apostle John tells us that ‘sin is the transgression of the law’, 1 John 3:4. Most people understand that when God gives us a ‘Thou shalt not’ He means business. We understand that sin carries with it the penalty of spiritual death, separation from God, Romans 6:23.

Have you ever thought about what God calls it when you commit some act He has called a sin, but you didn’t know that what you were doing was wrong, and so sinned you’re in ignorance? Though some today have the attitude that ‘if ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,’ God has always held men accountable for their actions.

In the Old Testament, God said, ‘If any one of the common people sins unintentionally by doing something against any of the commandments of the Lord in anything which ought not to be done, and is guilty, or if his sin which he has sinned comes to his knowledge, then he shall bring as his offering a kid of the goats, a female without blemish for his sin which he has sinned’. Leviticus 4:27-28

Even though one might have sinned unintentionally, the Lord still considered their action to be sinful, and thus held them accountable for their actions.

The apostle Paul tells us that the Old Testament was written ‘for our learning’, Romans 15:4. While we’re not under the Mosaic Law today, we can learn many valuable lessons from it. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Paul himself had been responsible for the death of Christians, even though he ‘did it ignorantly in unbelief’, 1 Timothy 1:13 and maintained a clean conscience the entire time, Acts 23:1.

We need to remind people today that sin is a serious matter, whether we sin intentionally or unintentionally, 2 John 9.

Personal forgiveness for a Christian, 1 John 1:5-10.

1. What does John say about a Christian who claims to be in fellowship with God while intentionally, deliberately living a sinful lifestyle? 1 John 1:5-6

2. When a Christian seeks to live a godly lifestyle and maintains fellowship with Christians, what are they assured? 1 John 1:7

3. What is said of Christians who claim not to sin? 1 John 1:8

4. What happens when Christians confess their sins? 1 John 1:9

5. When Christians claim that they have not sinned, what two things are true? 1 John 1:10

A forgiveness comparison in Old Testament Judaism and New Testament Christianity

1. In which forgiveness was blood required?

2. In which did the form of sin determine the means of forgiveness?

3. Which was dependent on an appointed human to administer the rites?

4. Which involved multiple rituals?

5. In which did a person receive forgiveness for sins that he/she did not realize that he/she had committed?

6. In which did the forgiveness come from God?

Through which would you prefer to receive forgiveness? Why?



"But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me"