At Issue Index
by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf
2. Kinds of Sin
Basically there are several reasons for departure from Gods will. One is a rebellious attitude, reflected in thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Other reasons for departure from Gods will include ignorance of Gods will, or spiritual immaturity or weakness. Such sin could be called "falling short of the mark." All forms of failure to live in accordance with Gods plan for us are sin. However, when the Bible speaks of sin, is primarily concerned with rebellion and with wrongdoing that results from spiritual immaturity or weakness, rather than with sins of ignorance.
The apostle John speaks about the sin of rebellion when he writes: "Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). To say that someone is lawless implies that he knows the law but chooses to disregard That is the meaning in this verse.
Lawlessness, says Westcott, is "the assertion of the selfish will against a paramount authority. He who sins breaks, not only by accident or in an isolated detail, but essentially, the law which he was created to fulfill."1He violates right behavior or the correct government of self; he also forgets his concern for his brother. In both instances he is disloyal to God. First John 3:4 freely translated reads: "He who commits sin is thereby in revolt against God; indeed, sin is nothing but rebellion against God." 2 the essence of lawlessness is resistance to, rebellion against, or departure from, the known will of God. This ruptures the fellowship between God and man.
Deliberate wrongdoing in turn may lead to cultivated or habitual wrongdoing. Through repeated deliberate wrongdoing, a person may come to the place where is almost impossible for him to resist doing wrong. He may become like a person falling from the roof of a 10-story building. After deliberately taking a step out into space such a person can do nothing about stopping his fall.
Leaving transgression*(see Rom. lawlessness, rebellion, or deliberate sin, we now come to unintentional sin, or a falling short of Gods plan for us. This kind of sin is not prompted by rebellion but is caused by ignorance or human frailty (see Lev. 4:2, 13, 22, 27). At the time such a sin is committed, the sinner does not know that what he is doing is wrong. He has not deliberately chosen to go contrary to Gods will or to be disloyal to Him, but nevertheless, he departs from Gods plan.
When I gave my life to God, I tried to make all things right. I made confessions, both face-to-face and by letters; I made restitution wherever such was possible. After having taken care of all I could think of, I asked God to remind me of any wrongdoings I had committed so that I might make confession and restitution. In my prayer I added: "God, if I have done something wrong and You do not remind me of it so that I can confess and rectify then You are responsible for that and not I." With this agreement with God, I was at peace and for 10 or 11 years did not recall anything more from my preconversion days that I still needed to rectify. But then some experiences from my adolescent years came vividly back to me and begged for confession. The memory of my past wrongdoing came with special urgency when I prayed.
I grew up in a part of Sweden where many families would grow a few apple and pear trees by their homes. In the fall when the fruit ripened, teenage fellows would form small gangs and raid these trees. It was a common practice; all the people who owned some fruit trees knew that young fellows would be around stealing apples and pears during the dark autumn evenings. I, together with other youths, had stolen apples in two places in particular.
It was the memory of these apple-stealing escapades that after many years came back to me. I was impressed that I must confess my wrongdoing and make things right .But by that time I was thousands of miles away. I could not even recall the names of the people from whom I had stolen. So I told God, "You know there is nothing I can do about this." But in spite of my telling God that, every time I knelt to pray, the apples came back to mind.
But even though I had forgotten the names of the people from whom I had stolen fruit, I still recalled the locations very distinctly. Finally I sat down and wrote a letter to my father, who was still alive. I drew maps showing the homes and the apple trees where I had stolen fruit. Then I asked him to go to the people from whom I had stolen fruit 15 or more years earlier and make confession for me and offer to pay for the stolen fruit.
Some time later I received a letter from my father in which he told me that he had gone to the different owners and told them what I had said. The owners of the fruit told him to write and tell me just to forget it. They certainly did not worry about it.
Even though the stolen apples did not make any difference to the owners, I had keenly felt that I must confess my wrongdoing in order to clear my conscience and have freedom before God. This is an illustration of a sin of ignorance, or possibly a trespass as spoken of in Leviticus 6:1-7. When the Holy Spirit, even after many years, reminded me of this wrongdoing, became a moral offense that I had to confess and rectify.
Paul illustrates the commission of a sin of ignorance. In his letter to Timothy he candidly admitted that before his conversion he had both "blasphemed and persecuted and insulted" Christ. Although he had not committed known sin, he had nevertheless gone contrary to Gods will and verily sinned. But he added: "But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13). God still judged Paul "faithful" in his sinful ignorance because he had not been intentionally disloyal to God. He had been faithful, and because of his faithfulness God Himself placed him in His service (see 1 Tim. 1:12).
Even while he was a blasphemer and persecutor, Paul had done only what he believed to be right. Thus he could say, as he stood before Felix, that he had always endeavored "to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men" (Acts 24:16). Paul had sinned ignorantly and thus had been innocent, or blameless although not sinless before God.
As sinners we may stand blameless before God, as was Paul in his sinful ignorance. In the judgment, God will not condemn us for sins of ignorance. Such unavoidable sins God will blot out by the shed blood of Christ, if we accept Him as our Saviour. In His words to the Pharisees, Jesus Himself makes it clear that for such sins we are not held accountable. He says, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt" (John 9:41). But the Pharisees had gone against better knowledge. Thus Jesus says, "But now that you say, We, see, your guilt remains." Hence they stood condemned.
In the same way, willful wrongdoing will be held against us. James says, "Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do for him is sin" (James 4:17). Ellen G. White writes: "Jesus has made atonement for all sins of ignorance, but there is no provision made for willful blindness."3"Sins that were once sins of ignorance because of the blindness of the mind can no more be indulged in [after light has come] without incurring guilt. . . As increased light is given, men must be reformed, elevated, and refined by or they will be more perverse and stubborn than before the light came."4
A person who is willingly ignorant is not blameless in his fault. He had an opportunity to learn but refused to improve it. He may have reasoned that if he did not know, he would not be held responsible. On one occasion I had a person tell me, "Dont tell me any more, lest I be held responsible." But with such an attitude a person is already condemned because he does not want to learn, even when he has the opportunity to do so.
Years ago when I was crossing the United States by car, a state patrol officer stopped me one night for driving too fast. I pleaded innocence, stating that I had maintained the same legal speed at which I had been driving in that same state before nightfall. His reply was that the speed limit was lower at night and that had been my responsibility to learn about that upon entering the state. My plea of ignorance availed me nothing.
As Christians we are not held responsible merely for what we actually do know. We are also held accountable for the knowledge we had had an opportunity to acquire but refused to obtain. "God will not condemn any at the judgment because they honestly believed a lie, or conscientiously cherished error; but will be because they neglected the opportunities of making themselves acquainted with truth."5"Our standing before God depends, not upon the amount of light we have received, but upon the use we make of what we have."6
At the judgment the willingly ignorant sinner will stand in the same position before God that I stood in before the state trooper. The person who has failed to improve his opportunity to learn truth will be accounted an unfaithful servant. And there will be no unfaithful servants in the kingdom of God.
In addition to sins of ignorance, which are not prompted by rebellion or disloyalty to God but are stumbled into by lack of knowledge, there are also sins occasioned by falling short of ones desired goals and pure motives. Unintentionally, toddlers do stumble and fall. So do Gods sincere but immature children. In such instances there is no unwillingness on the part of the toddlers, or on the part of immature Christians to do better, just immaturity or weakness.
The first year I attended an Adventist school I became acquainted with a young man in his early 20s who had just joined the Adventist church through baptism. His background was nonreligious, and occasionally when provoked he would lose his temper and begin using swear words not common in his new environment. But as soon as he became aware of what he was doing, he would instantly ask us to forgive him for his outburst. He would also ask God for forgiveness and for help to overcome this habit. As the months passed, it was interesting to see how those outbursts became fewer and fewer, until before the end of the year they had entirely disappeared.
Having stumbled and fallen, we will naturally ask God to forgive us and then ask for help to overcome our weakness, as did my schoolmate. Jesus does not disown us for such failures to live by His will any more than parents excoriate and reject their toddlers for failure to walk without stumbling and falling. "When it is in the heart to obey God, when efforts are put forth to this end, Jesus accepts this disposition and effort as mans best service, and He makes up for the deficiency with His own merit."7We did not intend to do wrong, but we did. "Christ looks at the spirit, and when He sees us carrying our burden with faith, His perfect holiness atones for our shortcomings. When we do our best, He becomes our righteousness."8
God acknowledges us as His own, even though we do commit inadvertent sins and stumble because of our spiritual immaturity. He is pleased with our attitude of fidelity and loyalty, even though our performance may be far from faultless.
All of us are sinners, "for there is no man who does not sin" (2 Chron. 6:36). Solomon correctly observed in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple. We have committed both sins of ignorance and sins of inadvertently stumbling and falling because of spiritual immaturity. We have also occasionally chosen to go contrary to Gods will, as did Adam when he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The gospel prophet Isaiah diagnosis our ailment when he says, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isa. 53:6). In the New Testament the apostle Paul likewise affirms that all men are sinners: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). All of us are alike in that we have departed from Gods will for us, either through rebellion, disloyalty, or willfulness, which are deliberate, or known sins, or through ignorance because of spiritual immaturity, or by stumbling into sin because of weakness.
One might almost speak of moral and amoral sins. Deliberate sin is moral sin, since it involves the sinners choice. But there are no morals connected with either the sin of ignorance or the sin of stumbling because of immaturity or weakness. Such are accidents, and morals have nothing to do with accidents. A person does not choose to have accidents. They are unwanted mishaps. "We may make mistakes, but we will hate the sin that caused the suffering of the Son of God."9But even amoral sins will cause our eternal death unless we accept Jesus as our Saviour. When we do that, they are forthwith blotted out by His shed blood.
The apostle Paul gives the definitive definition of sin when he says that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). In other words, we sin when we refuse to cling to God and trust His will and way for us. On the other hand, as long as we gladly trust Him by placing our wills on the side of His will and obey Him to the extent of our knowledge, He freely absolves us from the sentence of death; He counts us blameless, irrespective of any mistakes we may have made, and reckons us just. As G. Campbell Morgan says: "Sin is alienation from God by choice. Hell is the utter realization of that chosen alienation."10We shall enlarge on this in our next chapter.
References(* The Greek word used here is parabasis, it refers to a violation of a known law. There is sin in its absolute sense, without known law, but there is no transgression or rebellion without knowing the law.) [back]
1 Cited in "The First Epistle General of John," The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1975), p. 79. [back]
2 W. Gutbrod, in Gerhard Kittel ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1967), vol. 4, p. 1086. [back]
3 The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 5, p. 1145. [back]
4 White, in Review and Herald, Sept. 3,1889. [back]
5 ______, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), p. 437. [back]
6 ______, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 239. [back]
7 ______, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 382. [back]
8 Ibid., p. 368. [back]
9 ______, Messages to Young People (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1930), p. 338. [back]
10 G. C. Morgan, The Crises of the Christ (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1903), p. 298. [back]
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