Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Numbers 15:27-31 Intentional and unintentional sins

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, September 6, 2021

In this passage Moses compares two kinds of sin: unintentional and intentional. The aim of the law is to show that the difference in the way the sin is handled (atoned for, or not atoned for) lies in the way the sin was committed. What was the attitude of the sinner’s heart?

27 If one person errs unintentionally, he must present a year-old female goat for a sin offering. 28 The priest will make atonement for the person who erred unintentionally, since by that unintentional error he sinned against the LORD. When the priest makes atonement for him, he will be forgiven. 29 You shall have a single law for anyone who commits an error unintentionally, whether a native-born Israelite or an alien who resides among you. 30 But a person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native-born or an alien, is blaspheming the LORD. That person must be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the LORD’s word and has broken his commands, that person will be completely cut off. His guilt shall remain on him.

Fear of punishment, a terror over the agonies of hell, and the realization that our sins merit such punishment and agonies, is the beginning of repentance. For the sinner, fear also descends in a passage like this one because the Christian asks: “Can I be forgiven?” We should review what the Bible teaches about sin. Actual sins are sins in our actions, words and thoughts as opposed to original sin and guilt, which we inherit. Actual sins are committed against the law and the will of God. Depending on how much the will participates in an actual sin, one can divide actual sins into intentional sins and unintentional sins. Verses 27-29 above describe an unintentional sin which is nevertheless an actual sin and required an atoning sacrifice. Leviticus 4:2 describes the same sin. In Acts 3:17, Peter allows that the Jews who condemned Jesus, including the crowds that were manipulated to shout “Crucify him!” were acting in ignorance, and committed an unintentional sin even though they “killed the author of life” (Acts 3:15). Jesus also acknowledged this: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). With repentance (and therefore faith), those sins could be forgiven.

Sins of ignorance most often come because of corrupt preaching or lax parenting, so that even a very zealous Christian might not understand that what they have done is sinful. This is especially true when their actions seem to correspond to the laws of the nation (slavery, prostitution, “no-fault” divorce, abortion, domestic abuse, vigilantism, genocide, homosexuality, bisexuality, racial bigotry, eugenics, etc.). There was a time when ministers of almost all denominations were warned not to preach against smoking because of the confusion that early advertising had caused (even doctors were convinced that smoking was better for one’s health than not smoking).

When the educational system, the permissiveness of the society, and corrupt preaching all work against a Christian, we can define this as an almost unconquerable ignorance. God, however, has certainly not established any hindrance to the correct knowledge of his divine will and divine law. We must also recognize sins of weakness and of the inclination of man to sin. Paul said: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). And Paul took Peter to task over a sin of weakness in Antioch (Galatians 2:12-14). God overlooks these sins even though they are damning, because the person has faith in Christ and because repentance follows these sins.

However, when a person has no faith and commits a sin, there is no forgiveness because there is no repentance. In fact, for the unbeliever, even doing something which outwardly follows the law and seems to agree with God’s will (i.e., loving his wife, refraining from murder, honoring his parents, etc.) has no merit before God because it comes from unbelief. “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

It follows then that the second part of Moses’ comparison here is about someone within the community of Israel, living as a hypocrite in the family of God. If that person sins in such a way that their sin is apparent and known to everyone, and they do not repent, then their unbelief has been exposed. That is what this second law (Numbers 15:30-31) is about. At the very least, Moses judges, they should be removed from the community. This is similar to the laws about leprosy or mildew. If their sinful attitude might spread and infect the people, then it would be better to drive them out and cut them off from the community. Unbelief has no room for faith. Unbelief demands that those with faith must tolerate the unbeliever, but unbelievers constantly, consistently and always show nothing but intolerance for those with faith.

The Lord saw something growing inside the tents of Israel at this time, and so he reaffirmed this law with Moses and the people. Shortly, several examples of this growing unbelief would appear. First, a single individual who scorned the Sabbath laws, and then a whole rebellion led by men with names still familiar to us today: Korah and Dathan.

Where there is faith, there is forgiveness, since faith is trust in the merits of Jesus whose death atoned for the guilt of our sins. Whether you, O Christian, struggle with a sin of ignorance, an intentional sin that came from lust or desire or weakness, or an unintentional sin that came from you but abetted by the sins of others, do not give up your faith in Christ. Each and every sin of yours was covered by his precious blood on the altar of the cross. “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more. And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:17-18). God’s wrath has been turned aside, and God in his holy compassion has sent his gospel into your heart. Pray along with the ancient believers and be happy with them: “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger” (Psalm 85:2-3). The Lord our God will be good to you. He has forgiven us through Jesus; he has forgiven you and me both. Praise him and thank him for his mercy today.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


Browse Devotion Archive