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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sins of omission; unintentional sin

James 4:17 To him therefore who knows to do good, and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.

Matthew 25:26 “But his lord answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant. You knew that I reap where I didn’t sow, and gather where I didn’t scatter. 27 You ought therefore to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back my own with interest. . . .

41 Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’
45 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’
(World English Bible, public domain)

We often think of sin as something bad that we do. Indeed, we shouldn't do bad things on purpose. But the Bible goes further than that. It indicates that, first, sins may be something we think, even though we don't do them (Matthew 5:21-30). Second, it indicates that there are sins of omission -- things we know that we should do, but don't do. The three passages quoted above are part of the evidence for that. Matthew 25 is not exactly factual -- Jesus was using imagination to make a point -- but there seems no good reason to doubt that He was condemning sins of omission.

The Catholic church has official doctrine on sins of omission, which is "a failure to do something one can and ought to do. . ."

As I understand it, to the New Testament writers, and to Christ, sin must be deliberate, on purpose. However, the Old Testament makes provision for unintentional sin. (see Numbers 15:27-30 and Leviticus 4) Sin, again as I understand it, in the Old Testament included a large number of possible transgressions against the ceremonial law -- not making prescribed sacrifices, eating the wrong kinds of food, or food prepared in the wrong way, and other possibilities. If I tell someone that the drugstore is South, when it is North, because I think it's South, that's not a sin. It's a mistake. If given the opportunity, I might correct this with the person I told, and I may be sorry for inconvenience, but I don't need to repent and ask forgiveness. But if I lived under Old Testament Law, and was supposed to avoid a certain kind of food, but didn't know it, I would still have broken the law, and, if I discovered my mistake, I would have needed to offer a sacrifice as penance. Thank God that Christ paid the penalty for all kinds of sin, deliberate, commission, omission, or unintentional.

For more on unintentional sins, see David Jamieson, Commentary on Leviticus 4, and also Matthew Henry's commentary on the same passage.

Thanks for reading. If you know of good to do, and can do it, do it.


atlibertytosay said...

This is very interesting …

Kind of goes along with the greatest injustice isn't injustice itself, it's watching it happen and doing nothing.

FancyHorse said...

Thank God that Christ paid the penalty for all kinds of sin, deliberate, commission, omission, or unintentional.


Martin LaBar said...

Yes, atlibertytosay, that would be a sin of omission.

Yes, Fancyhorse, thank God!

Weekend Fisher said...

Fwiw, the Bible makes a consistent distinction between sins of ignorance and deliberate sins. The Old Testament had that distinction as part of the Law (Numbers 15:22-30). Some New Testament texts that seem to look back to that precedent are, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), and "I acted in ignorance and unbelief" (1 Timothy 1:13), plus a few others like Acts 3:17 (Peter, speaking to his contemporaries who were in some ways responsible for Jesus' death) or Acts 17:30 (Paul, speaking of pagans who had no knowledge of true religion).

Interestingly, the net effect of the "ignorance" clause in Moses' law is to make the sin something that can be atoned by a sacrifice. (And genuine repentance, according to some Jewish writers, was believed to transform the penalty for a willful sin into something that could be atoned for by a sacrifice, also.)

God is good.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Weekend Fisher.

You are right, and I hadn't explored the matter as thoroughly as I should have.