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SINS OF IGNORANCE.
“SPEAK unto the children of Israel, saying. If a soul shall sin through ig
norance against any of the commandments of the Lord"-Lev. iv. 2.
If this be a just supposition, then we may justly draw this conclusion from it:
That men may sin through ignorance.
I shall first show that men may sin through ignorance; and then show how this may come to pass.
I. “If a soul sin through ignorance;" this carries the idea that the thing supposed may take place, or that men may actually sin through ignorance. This will appear if we consider,
1. That God appointed particular sacrifices to be offered for the sin of ignorance. This institution immediately follows the text. In this chapter, God requires the priest, if he sin through ignorance, to bring a young bullock without blemish unto the Lord, for a sin-offering. Or if the whole congregation sin through ignorance, he requires them to bring a sin-offering. Or if a ruler sin through ignorance, he requires him to bring a sin-offering. Or if one of the common people sin through ig. norance, he requires him to bring a sin-offering. The appointment of sin-offerings to such various characters, is a clear evidence that persons of all characters might be guilty of the sin of ignorance. Besides,
2. The scripture gives us an account not only of some sins, but of very great sins, which were committed through igno
Those who crucified our blessed Saviour, were in the time of it, ignorant of their criminality and guilt. So the apostle represents them. “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: which none of the princes of this world knew ; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” And Christ considered their conduct in this light, when he hung expiring on the cross. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The Jews thought they were crucifying a vile impostor, while, with wicked hands and hearts, they were actually crucifying the Lord of glory. Paul ignorantly persecuted Christ and his followers. He solemnly declared, " I verily, thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” And speaking of himself as a blasphemer, and persecutor, and injurious, he said, " But I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” Christ foretold this conduct of Paul and of other persecutors. Speaking to his disciples, he said, “ They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father nor me.” This prediction has been often fulfilled. There is reason to believe that some of the most cruel persecutors in every age of the Church, have verily thought they were doing God service, while imbruing their hands in the blood of the most faithful followers of Christ. Now if both Jews and Gentiles, and professed Christians have from age to age been guilty of such numerous and atrocious sins of ignorance, there can be no doubt but men may still sin through ignorance. This leads me to show,
II. How it may come to pass, that men may sin through ignorance. There seems to be a difficulty. For both reason and scripture tell us that ignorance excuses men for doing things which are injurious to themselves and others. Upon this ground, God appointed several cities of refuge in Israel, where men might flee and abide, if they had killed any through ignorance. Their ignorance was to be a complete excuse and security. And we know now, that if one man kills another through ignorance, his ignorance will excuse him before the most solemn tribunal on earth. If the man accused of murder can make it appear, that he killed the person through total ignorance, without malice prepense, he will be acquitted as innocent. But how can ignorance excuse at one time, and not at another? The answer is easy. There are two kinds of ignorance. Involuntary ignorance always excuses; but voluntary ignorance never excuses. The cities of refuge were provided for such as injured or killed a person through involuntary ignorance. This is plain from the account given in the twenty-first chapter of Exodus. “He that smiteth a man so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man lie not in wait, but God delivereth him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee." The design of the city of refuge is more fully explained in the nineteenth chapter of Deuteronomy. “ And this is the case of the slayer which shall-flee thither, that he may live ; whoso killeth his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past; as when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbor that he die, he shall flee unto one of these cities and live." This case clearly illustrates the nature of involuntary and unavoidable ignorance, which totally excuses any action which flows from it. Having premised the distinction between voluntary and involuntary ignorance, I proceed to show how men may sin through voluntary ignorance. And here I would observe,
1. That men may sin ignorantly, by not attending to what is their present duty. If men act without considering whether they ought, or ought not to act, they may act wrong without knowing it. This we have reason to believe is the case in ten thousand instances. How often do we act without putting the question to ourselves, whether duty requires or forbids us to act! In such circumstances, we may sin by acting, or not acting. The most deliberate and conscientious persons too often act, or refrain from acting, without perceptibly attending to what conscience dictates in the case. As to the young
and inconsiderate part of mankind, they habitually act without the least attention to duty. And indeed, good men seldom put the question to themselves, whether they ought, or ought not to act, or how they ought to act, except in some very important, difficult and doubtful cases. In such cases, they can remember they put the question respecting duty, and how they answered it, when they acted or refused to act. But in common cases, where no doubt lay upon their mind, and where they were governed by immediate intuition, they can rarely recollect why they did, or did not act; or what motive governed their conduct. All they can say is, that they have no remembrance of counteracting any dictate of scripture, or conscience. It is easy to see, therefore, how men may sin through ignorance, by not considering what their duty is. They may do wrong without knowing they do wrong in the time of it, and what they would not have done, if they had only attended to the dictates of conscience. Had they only put the question · whether they ought, or ought not to act, they would have heard the voice of conscience which always speaks, and would have done their duty. Many such sins of ignorance are undoubt edly committed by mere inadvertency, which is itself sinful.
2. Men may commit sins of ignorance by acting, or not acting according to a false rule of duty. Men are so fond of ap
a pearing to themselves and to others to act consistently, that they are very apt to set up false rules of duty in order to jus. tify their conduct. There is not a man in the world but loves to do what he calls his duty, and dreads to act contrary to it. For this reason sinful men have sought out many inventions to indulge and gratify the corruption of their hearts, consistently with some rule of duty. Conscience and scripture are in truth the only infallible rules of duty; but these are not favorable to the depraved and corrupt principles of human nature, and on that account, are often set aside, and other rules of duty substituted in their room. By this substitution of false rules of duty, a door is opened for the commission of innumerable sins of ignorance.
Here I may say in particular, that tradition is a false rule of duty, which is often substituted in the place of conscience and scripture. The Jews often did this, for which Christ openly and sharply condemned them. Whatever was said of old time, they regarded as sacred, and sufficient to justify their conduct. By thus adopting the traditions of men, they made void the commandments of God, which were infallible rules of duty. And by acting agreeably to such tradi. tions they sinned grossly, while they really thought they were doing their duty in the sight of God. They would injure and abuse their kind and aged parents, and plead tradition in excuse. They would indulge their selfish affections, and justify themselves in hating their enemies, by the same rule. Nor has tradition lost all its influence with mankind. How many feel entirely satisfied with their conduct, if it be supported only by this authority!
Example is another false rule of duty, which is often followed in preference to conscience and the word of God. Many seem to think that they may follow the example of those whom they love and esteem. Subjects are apt to follow the example of their rulers and teachers. The people in Christ's day asked, " Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him ?" in order to determine whether it was their duty to believe on him. Almost every man looks up to some other as a rule or pattern to follow. Example has a powerful and imperceptible tendency to lead men into the sins of ignorance, while they imagine they are actually doing their duty.
There is a still more absurd principle, which some are ready to adopt as the rule of duty; and that is, to do to others, as others do to them. Though few would be willing to allow this to be a universal rule of duty; yet many do make it a rule of right to themselves, and inwardly justify their conduct by it. But this and all other false rules of duty directly tend to make men imagine they are doing their duty, while they are grossly violating the divine commands and gratifying the corruptions of their own hearts.
3. Men may sin ignorantly, by applying the right rule of duty to their external conduct merely. They are extremely apt when they consult conscience, or scripture, in order to learn their duty, to consult the one or the other, or both these rules, with respect to their mere outward actions. They want to know whether such and such external actions are agreeable to the rule of duty, leaving the heart or internal motive of conduct out of the inquiry; and if they find they have not externally violated any divine precept, or prohibition, they conclude they are innocent. This was the practice of the Jews, who consid. ered the divine commands as a rule of their external conduct only; and if they found they had not externally disobeyed any divine law, they felt entirely guiltless. The Pharisee that went up to the temple to pray, completely justified himself, because he had not externally transgressed, but externally obeyed the divine commands. He had no sin to confess; he had only to thank God for his restraining grace. The young man in the gospel was confident he had kept all the commandments of God, because he had not externally broken them. Upon the same ground Paul himself could confidently say, that “as touching the righteousness which is in the law, he was entirely blameless." The Pharisees judged of their characters by their mere external conduct; and finding they had externally done those things which the moral and ceremonial law required, they supposed they were absolutely blameless, and free from sin. Their mistake lay in applying a good rule to but a part, and the least essential part of their actions. Mankind still run into the same mistake. They inquire only whether their external conduct be conformable to the precepts and prohibitions of the Bible. In this way they may and do commit innumerable sins, and persuade themselves that they have done their whole duty. The merely moral man judges of himself in this man
He asks himself, Does the Bible require me to labor six days in the week? Then I have done my duty, for I have labored so. - Does God require me to read his Word every day? Then I have done my duty, for I read it every day. Does the Bible require me to pray every day? Then I have done my