A readily accepted principle of law is that “ignorance is not an excuse”
(There’s an interesting discussion of this, and some of the implications, at the Heritage Foundation website outlining the basis for this principle and some of the issues associated with it. As the article points out, it would be ridiculous if someone could claim that they didn’t know murder was wrong and so escape punishment. Although it does recognise that when laws speak about things which are not “inherently wrong” this principle gets a little more difficult to follow.)
And there are probably “border-line” cases that we could all think of. If I deliberately went out to steal money from a bank I would do so just knowing that this was wrong (even if I didn’t know the exact legal statute which made it unlawful) whereas if I was prosecuted for speeding on a road where the speed limit signs were hidden by overgrown trees I might feel that being found guilty was a little unfair.
But, in general, most of us accept that this is a valid and reasonable principle. And it is a long-standing one.
In the Old Testament, as God outlines the ways in which his people could receive forgiveness for breaking his laws it is clear that the provision made is for those sins which are unintentional (Leviticus 4:1-35). Numbers 15:27-31 spells out the different implications for unintentional and defiant sin with the first carrying the possibility of atonement and the second resulting in them being cut off from God’s people. But in either case there is a recognition that wrong was committed – even if unintentionally – and this needs to be dealt with. Ignorance wasn’t an excuse.
In the New Testament, we see this distinction between unintentional and intentional sin being removed, with the promise of all sins being forgiven as we confess them and seek forgiveness based on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross
the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7b–9)
But there is still the requirement on us to recognise our failing and to ask for forgiveness.
But, in preparing for Easter, I was reflecting on the words Jesus spoke from the cross and it struck me that – for a brief moment – this principle was suspended in an amazing way. As Jesus is crucified, he calls out to his father asking him to forgive the soldiers who are ignorant of the crime they are committing.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a)
For the soldiers it would have been a routine task on an ordinary day. A man had been tried, had been convicted, had been condemned to death and had been handed over to them by their superiors in order for them to carry out the sentence. Something they would have done many times before and something they would do many times again. Even on this occasion they were crucifying three people together. They didn’t realise that the one in the centre was different – that the man they were crucifying was God-in-flesh, the Son of God who had taken on humanity and was walking among them.
What danger were they in, what punishment were they due as they treated God’s well-beloved Son so shamefully? From their perspective it was an unintentional sin – they really didn’t know what they were doing – but there was no thought in their mind of needing to seek God’s forgiveness and so they were exposed and vulnerable.
And in the midst of all that was going on, through the pain and anguish which Jesus was experiencing, very much aware of the awful agony he was about to endure, Jesus reaches out in love and mercy and compassion and calls on his Father to hold back from judgment and punishment and to forgive. What an incredible demonstration of the love of Jesus as normality was suspended and forgiveness was sought on behalf of those who had no awareness that anything they were doing was wrong. They were not required to carry out a sacrifice to receive forgiveness, the request of the Son to the Father was sufficient.
Jesus knew that a sacrifice was just about to be made, as he willingly gave himself for the sins of the world including the sin of these soldiers who were instrumental in his death and it is as though he is adding this specific sin to all the others which he would bear and carry.
This Easter as we reflect on all the things which Jesus accomplished, let’s rejoice in the love which he demonstrated and the love which he continues to extend to each one of us.