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Acts 8:22 records Peter’s command to Simon the Sorcerer after he sinned by asking to purchase the miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit. He was told to “repent” and “pray” to God that the thought of his heart might be forgiven. This is much the same thing that John commanded in 1 John 1:9—“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NKJV). Clearly, the Bible teaches that repentance and confession to God are necessary conditions in order to receive forgiveness of sins. We cannot teach that any known sin can be forgiven without repentance and confession. However, it is important to understand that while repentance and confession are conditions of forgiveness, they are not acts that merit forgiveness. It is the gracious mercy of God, demonstrated in the shed blood of Christ that pays the price necessary to merit forgiveness. God is the One who forgives—our duty is to obey.
What about sins of ignorance—that is, sins we commit without realizing it, or commit concerning matters of which we are ignorant? The Law of Moses taught that sacrifices were to be offered for sins of ignorance. These included matters in which a person violated God’s law “though he does not know it” (Lev. 5:17-19) or when the congregation might “sin unintentionally” (Num. 15:22-26). The Law of Moses taught that when those sacrifices were offered such sins were forgiven. Certainly, this did not mean that it was better for the people to remain ignorant and just offer sacrifices. They were commanded to teach God’s law (Exod. 18:20) and to learn His commands in order to follow them (Deut. 5:1). Ultimately, God in His omniscience knew when the people’s ignorance came from rebellion and when it came in the midst of sincere efforts to serve Him.
In the New Testament, the Hebrew writer speaks only once of “sins committed in ignorance” in describing the arrangement of the tabernacle. He spoke of the High Priest entering the Most Holy place once a year for his own sins, and “the people’s sins committed in ignorance” (Heb. 9:7). Now properly, the Hebrew writer was talking about Old Testament sacrifice, but he goes on to compare what the High Priest under the Old Law did with what Christ has done for us under the New Covenant—“with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all” (Heb. 9:12). That infers that Jesus’ sacrifice (like that offered by the High Priest) also addressed “the people’s sins committed in ignorance” just as it addressed all other types of sin. There is no other sacrifice that can now be offered for sin.
Unlike the Law of Moses, the New Testament does not teach animal sacrifices—Jesus’ sacrifice was offered “once for all.” However, the New Testament teaches that we access Jesus’ sacrifice by obedience to the gospel. Acts of worship to God are considered “spiritual sacrifices” that we offer up to God (1 Peter 2:5). Like the Israelites, we cannot stay in willful ignorance. We must be workers “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) who seek diligently to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). If this is our attitude, like the faithful Israelites, we will acknowledge the possibility that we may have sinned “unintentionally” even though we did “not know it.” How do we acknowledge this? Just as we do any shortcoming to God, through prayer and confession. Songs we sing are sometimes prayers offered in song. Such prayers in song may acknowledge known sins or sins of ignorance. This doesn’t exclude repentance, but it simply communicates a humble attitude that appeals to God for mercy.
Just as under the Old Law, it has always been God’s prerogative to forgive the sincere worshipper who comes to Him. In Christ, we must confess and repent of all sin. The penitent soul will come to God with a humble recognition of his own weakness. He cannot stay it willful ignorance, but it ever remains God’s prerogative to forgive all sin—whether known or “the people’s sins committed in ignorance.” This forgiveness, just like all other forgiveness, comes to man in accordance with God’s mercy in Christ.