By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
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Several times, I have heard the statement made that God will only forgive the sins of those who sin in ignorance.
In other words, it is claimed that if a person commits a sin while knowing that it is a sin, God will not forgive said person, even if they repent.
It is usually argued that there are several passages in the Book of Hebrews which teach this.
In this article, we will study one of the passages which (it is claimed) teaches this.
Let’s open our Bibles and study together.
Hebrews 9:7-Sins Committed In Ignorance
While discussing the various works and responsibilities of Old Testament priests, the writer of Hebrews points to the responsibility of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. This particular holiday was one of the seven feasts of Israel, and it was held each year in the Fall. The priest would go in and sprinkle blood of sacrifices on the Ark of the Covenant.
Speaking of this, we read in Hebrews:
Hebrews 9:7-But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance;
Many read this and conclude that the only sins which were forgiven by God were the sins committed by the people in ignorance.
Notice several things with me.
The Range Of Forgiveness On The Day Of Atonement
The Old Testament is clear that the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement provided forgiveness for ALL the sins of the Old Testament saints of which they repented. Notice what we are told in Leviticus:
Leviticus 16:16-So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.
Please observe how this is rendered in different translations:
Leviticus 16:16 (GW)-So he will make peace with the LORD for ALL THE SINS the Israelites committed against the holy place. These sins happened because the Israelites were unclean and because they COMMITTED REBELLIOUS ACTS. He will do the same for the tent of meeting which is among an unclean people.
Leviticus 16:16 (Jewish Publication Society)-And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the children of Israel, and because of their TRANSGRESSIONS, even ALL THEIR SINS; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.
These translations are pointing out something that is often overlooked, in regards to the “type” of sins being committed and atoned for.
Throughout the Old Testament, there are different words in the Hebrew language which are translated as “sin.” Gareth Reese has provided an excellent study of this:
“It has been said that there are three classes or kinds of sin in the Hebrew Old Testament. (1) The lightest infractions are those that are called chet, chata, chatta’ah, or chattah, a fault, a shortcoming, a misstep, to sin, err, miss the mark. (2). Of a more serious nature are the sins described by ‘avon, avah, or ‘aven, a breaking of a commandment, iniquity. (3) The most serious sins are those called pesha’ (transgression) and resha’ (wickedness). There is the idea of rebellion involved in pesha’, and of what has become a habit or state in resha’. Psalm 106:6 mentions all three words, “We have sinned (cheta) like our fathers, we have committed iniquity (avah), we have behaved wickedly (resha’).” A similar threefold list is found in Exodus 34:7, “Who forgives iniquity (avon) , transgression (pesha’) and sin (chatta’ah).” (Gareth Reese, Commentary On Romans, 216; Joplin, Missouri; College Press).
Please notice that here in Leviticus 16:16, we are assured that God forgives all of the sins of the people when they repent and obey His Law of forgiveness.
With this understanding, it helps us to better understand other passages of Scripture. think of what God promised through Moses regarding intentional sins:
Leviticus 6:1-7-1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
2 “If a person sins and commits a trespass against the LORD by lying to his neighbor about what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or about a pledge, or about a robbery, or if he has extorted from his neighbor,
3 or if he has found what was lost and lies concerning it, and swears falsely—in any one of these things that a man may do in which he sins:
4 then it shall be, because he has sinned and is guilty, that he shall restore what he has stolen, or the thing which he has extorted, or what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or the lost thing which he found,
5 or all that about which he has sworn falsely. He shall restore its full value, add one-fifth more to it, and give it to whomever it belongs, on the day of his trespass offering.
6 And he shall bring his trespass offering to the LORD, a ram without blemish from the flock, with your valuation, as a trespass offering, to the priest.
7 So the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any one of these things that he may have done in which he trespasses.”
There can be no doubt that the sins here described were intentional sins! Yet, when repentance was manifested, forgiveness was abundant.
Consider further what God declared through Isaiah the Prophet:
Isaiah 55:6-7-6 Seek the LORD while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.
We read later:
Ezekiel 18:23-Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?
Ezekiel 18:27-Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive.
God extends His invitation of forgiveness to all sinners-even to the most wicked!
Clearly, the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement provided forgiveness for all the sins of the people of which they repented.
Understanding What The Word “Ignorance” Meant To The Hebrews
However, that still leaves the question as to the meaning of Hebrews 9:7.
What did Paul mean when he wrote that the High Priest provided atonement for the sins of the people committed in “ignorance?”
The answer is found in how the Jewish people defined the word “ignorance.” Famed scholar William Barclay wrote:
“The sin of ignorance is pardonable; the sin of presumption is not. Nevertheless, we must note that by the sin of ignorance the Jews meant more than simply lack of knowledge. They included the sins committed when someone was carried away in a moment of impulse or anger or passion or was overcome by some irresistible temptation, and the sins were followed by repentance. By the sin of presumption, they meant the cold, calculated sin for which the perpetrator was not in the least sorry, the open-eyed disobedience of God. So, the priest existed to open for sinners the way back to God –as long as they wanted to come back.” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letter To The Hebrews, 54 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)
So to the Jewish people, the idea of a sin of “ignorance” included any sin that a person committed, for whatever reason, so long as there was repentance of that sin.
To many in our modern world, this concept is difficult to grasp. One researcher named Michael Brown has studied the ancient Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic traditions for years, and has written a four part several of books on the topic, entitled Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus. At one point in his studies, he carefully examines the question of the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, and whether or not they were only for “unintentional sins.” Speaking specifically of Leviticus 16:20-22, Brown writes:
“Notice carefully what the text says: The High Priest is to confess over the head of this goat “all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites-all their sins”-and “all” means “all.” Notice also that the text specifically speaks of the “wickedness” (or “iniquity”; Hebrew, ‘awon) and “rebellion” (Hebrew, pesha, meaning willful transgression) of the Israelites, not merely their unintentional sins. “But what do the rabbis say about this? What is written in the Talmud?” With regard to the kinds of sins atoned for by the sacrificial goats of Yom Kippur, the Talmud is even more explicit than the biblical text. Here are two different translations of m. Shevu’ot 1:6, a well-known text in traditional Jewish law: A. And for a deliberate act of imparting uncleanness to the sanctuary and its Holy Things, a goat [whose blood is sprinkled] inside and the Day of Atonement effect atonement. B. And for all other transgressions which are in the Torah-C. the minor or serious, deliberate or inadvertent, those done knowingly or done unknowingly, violating a positive or a negative commandment, those punishable by extirpation [karet] and those punishable by death at the hands of the court, D. the goat which is sent away [Lev. 16:21 ] effects atonement.22’ And for uncleanness that occurs in the Temple and to its holy sacrifices through wantonness, [the] goat whose blood is sprinkled within [the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement] and the Day of Atonement effect atonement, and for [all] other transgressions [spoken of] in the Law, light or grace, premeditated or inadvertent, aware or unaware, transgressions of positive commands or negative commands, sin whose penalty is excision or sins punishable by death imposed by the court, the scapegoat makes atonement.”‘ As codified and explained by Maimonides almost one thousand years later (Laws of Repentance, 1:2): Since the goat sent [to Azazeil]229 atones for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses on it as the spokesman for all of Israel, as [Lev. 16:21 ] states: “He shall confess on it all the sins of the Children of Israel.” The goat sent to Azazeil atones for all the transgressions in the Torah, the severe and the lighter [sins]; those violated intentionally and those transgressed inadvertently; those which [the transgressor] became conscious of and those which he was not conscious of. All are atoned for by the goat sent [to Azazeil]. This applies only if one repents. If one does not repent, the goat only atones for the light [sins]. Which are light sins and which are severe ones? Severe sins are those which are punishable by execution by the court or by premature death [karetJ. [The violation of] the other prohibitions that are not punishable by premature death are considered light [sins].230 Here, then, is a perfectly clear statement from the most authoritative sources of traditional Judaism that the sacrifices offered and the ceremonies performed on the Day of Atonement effected atonement for all kinds of sins, intentional and unintentional, willful and inadvertent. The only question raised by the Rabbinic sources is to what degree repentance was a necessary part of the equation, a question that all Messianic Jews would answer by saying, “Repentance plays a vital part in the equation!”…The rabbis (see b. Shevu’ot 2b; 6b-14a) comment specifically on the words rebellion (transgressions in Hebrew) and sins, explaining that “transgressions” refers to acts of rebellion-which are certainly intentional-while “sins” refers to inadvertent acts.232 And it is the goat whose blood is sprinkled in the Most Holy Place that effects atonement for the people, just as the blood of the bull offered up by the High Priest effects atonement for him (m. Shevu’ot 1:7, following Lev. 16:11, “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering.”). Notice also that it is a sin offering that effects atonement for Aaron and the people of Israel, demonstrating that it is not only the guilt offering that effects atonement for willful sins.-“‘ Let me also remind you of the prayer of Solomon offered up at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 6), in which he asked God to forgive his sinning people when they turned to God in repentance and prayed toward the Temple. The Lord promised that he would, in fact, forgive and restore-because of the sacrifices offered up in the Temple (see 2 Chron. 7:12-16, and the discussion above, 3.9)-and the text makes clear that inadvertent or unintentional sins were not the only things covered by Solomon’s prayer. See, for example,, I Kings 8:33-36, 46-50; 2 Chronicles 7:14, clearly referring to all kinds of sins and transgressions.” (Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus-Volume Two: Theological Objections, 129-132 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
Please notice with me that the Old Testament (as well as the New Testament) explicitly taught that all sins of which a person was guilty could be forgiven if there was repentance and adherence to God’s Word.
In fact, Michael Brown (in continuing his comments on the aforementioned subject) has some more excellent commentary on this subject. Due to the fact that it is relevant to our present study, I will include it here:
“How then should we understand Numbers 15:22-31 ? These verses seem to teach that sacrifices could be brought to atone for unintentional sins, but for willful, defiant sins no sacrifice was possible. The sinner’s guilt would remain on him. Let’s look at this passage, allowing some Jewish biblical scholars to explain its meaning: Now if you unintentionally fail to keep any of these commands the LORD gave Moses-any of the LORD’s commands to you through him, from the day the LORD gave them and continuing through the generations to come-and if this is done unintentionally without the community being aware of it, then the whole community is to offer a young bull for a burnt offering as an aroma pleasing to the LORD, along with its prescribed grain offering and drink offering, and a male goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement for the whole Israelite community, and they will be forgiven, for it was not intentional and they have brought to the LORD for their wrong an offering made by fire and a sin offering. The whole Israelite community and the aliens living among them will be forgiven, because all the people were involved in the unintentional wrong. But if just one person sins unintentionally, he must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement before the LORD for the one who erred by sinning unintentionally, and when atonement has been made for him, he will be forgiven. One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whether he is a native-born Israelite or an alien. But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD’S word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.” Milgrom explains: The possibility of sacrificial atonement is explicitly denied to the individual who presumptuously violates God’s law (Num. 15:30-31). This, however, does not mean, as many critics aver, that sacrificial atonement is possible only for involuntary wrongdoers. To cite but one exception, the askant offering is prescribed for that premeditated crime called by the rabbis asham gezelot (Lev. 5:20ff.; Num. 5:5-8). A more correct assertion, then, would be that the priestly system prohibits sacrificial atonement to the unrepentant sinner, for the one who “acts defiantly … it is the Lord he reviles” (Num. 15:30). This is an explicit postulate of post-biblical literature: “the hattat, the asham, and death do not atone except with repentance” (Tosef., Yoma 5:9; cf. Yoma 8:8).-” Or as expressed concisely by Rashi, “Only at the time when his iniquity is upon him shall he be cut off, meaning, as long as he has not repented” making reference to b. Sanhedrin 90b, where the Talmud mud explains that Numbers 15:31 leaves open the possibility that the sinner might still repent. Thus, his guilt remains on him as long as he fails to repent. Interestingly, there is almost an exact New Testament parallel to this warning in Numbers 15:30-31, and it is found-not surprisingly-in in the Letter to the Hebrews: If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge edge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:26-31 The point in both cases is clear: There is no sacrifice, no forgiveness, no atonement for those who commit-and continue in-willful, defiant sin. If they don’t turn back in repentance, nothing will atone for them. As noted by R. L. Harris with reference to Numbers 15:30-31, “Here the NIV has correctly caught the sense of the unpardonable sin-not one done intentionally, but one done ‘defiantly,’ i.e., in rebellion, sinning against light (cf. Matt. 12:31-32).”1″‘ The Hebrew image is quite clear: The sinner transgresses “with a high hand” (bevad ramah)-almost challenging God to punish him or hold him to account. But God is not one to be challenged! As Moses reminded the children of Israel, “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him” (Deut. 7:9-10). But for those who would repent and perform the required Temple service, abundant mercy and pardon was available (see vol. 1, 1.11, and below, 3.21). Looking back, then, at what we have seen so far, we can say categorically that sacrifices were not for unintentional sins only. The sacrifices on Yom Kippur argue against this position, specific sacrifices (the’asham and the hatta’t) argue against it, other scriptural principles argue against it, the Talmud and Law Codes argue against it, the custom of kapparot argues against it, and the concept of repentance offered in conjunction with sacrifices argues against it.” (Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus: Volume Two-Theological Objections, 132-134 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
Jesus-The Ultimate High Priest
Finally, we need to remember the point that the writer of Hebrews is making. From Hebrews 2-9 (and continuing through Hebrews 10), Paul has been arguing that Jesus’ Priesthood is greater than that of the Old Testament Levitical system, and that all of the ordinances of the Old Testament actually foreshadowed what Christ would accomplish. Jesus is the ultimate High Priest, and everything through the Old Testament pointed to this reality!
To more fully appreciate this, consider several passages from Hebrews which help to make this point more clear:
Hebrews 2:14-15-14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
Hebrews 2:17-18-17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
Hebrews 4:14-16-14 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.
16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 5:9-10-9 And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him,
10 called by God as High Priest “ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK,”
Hebrews 7:25-27-25 Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
26 For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens;
27 who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
All of the ordinances of the Old Testament were but a shadow of what Christ Himself would accomplish as our High Priest!
Hebrews 9:9-9 It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—
Hebrews 9:23-23 Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.
The God of Creation graciously offers redemption to all people.
Revelation 22:17-And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.
Friends, if you have believed or have been taught that you committed a sin which cannot be forgiven, please know that this is not true.
God WANTS to forgive you (1 Timothy 2:4)!
God WILL forgive you (Mark 16:15-16)!
There is no sin so great that the blood of Jesus cannot provide atonement (1 John 2:1-2)!
God wants you to be saved and He has made it possible. The entire Godhead-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-were involved in paving the way for mankind to be forgiven. Our sins have separated us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2). We cannot bring redemption for ourselves, no matter how many good works that we do (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet the Lord loves us so very much that He sent His Son to die on the Cross of Calvary, to pay the price for our sins (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). Yet do not think for a moment that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not also willing to make this Sacrifice, for they were; and we are assured throughout Scripture that all Three were involved in the horrible events of Calvary (Isaiah 48:16). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). The Lord promises salvation to whoever will “call on His Name” (Acts 2:21), which simply means to serve Him and to obey His Word (cf. Zephaniah 3:9).
What has God commanded we are to do in order to be saved?
His Word commands us to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (John 8:24), to repent of our sins (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30-31), to confess Jesus as God’s Son (Acts 8:37), and to be baptized into Him to receive the remission of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38).
He commands us to be faithful until death (Revelation 2:10), as a part of His church which He adds us to be when we are baptized (Acts 2:41-47).
When we sin as Christians, He promises forgiveness to us if we will repent and pray to Him for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9).
Why not turn to Him today?
If I can assist you, please call upon me.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.