Does the Bible ever distinguish between intentional and unintentional sin? If it does, does it indicate that unintentional sin is less serious, or, maybe even, not serious at all? For example, if someone sins unintentionally, does that person even need to ask for forgiveness from God (or, if against another person, from the one sinned against)? Does God take unintentional sin seriously? There are a few passages in the Old Testament that address this issue explicitly and two I’ll discuss in the New Testament. Sin is defined as a violation of God’s law which leads to a rupture in the sinner’s relationship with God.
Before diving in to the Old Testament passages, let me make a few comments on the Old Testament law and the Christian. While some people believe that the law for was Israel and has virtually no application to Christians today, I do believe this is a huge mistake. First of all, when Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16, CSB), he was, at the very least, including the Old Testament (it was probably primarily about the Old Testament). If Paul believes the Old Testament is profitable or “useful” (NET), then we should as well. Second, while many of the specifics in the Old Testament law do not apply, one of the primary purposes of the laws is to teach us more about the character of God. There are underlying principles to the laws that are eternal, as God’s character never changes. Let’s begin by looking at Leviticus 4–5.
Leviticus 4–5: Unintentional Sin is Forgivable
Leviticus 4:2 says: “When someone sins unintentionally.” We can now say with clarity that unintentional sins, as a category, do exist. Some of the next questions are: what is the definition of an unintentional sin and how were unintentional sins viewed and/or dealt with in the sacrificial system? Leviticus 4:3–12 describes what a priest must do when he unintentionally sins; Leviticus 4:13–21 describes what must take place when unintentional sin occurs by the whole community of Israel; and Leviticus 4:22–26 describes what must happen when a leader unintentionally sins. Finally, Leviticus 4:27–31 describes what must happen when the “common people” commit an unintentional sin: an unblemished female goat must be sacrificed. When a common person has completed that, “he will be forgiven” (Lev 4:31, CSB). This entire chapter communicates the seriousness of unintentional sin. The fact that forgiveness is bestowed after the sacrifice has been completed provides solid evidence that when someone commits an unintentional sin, God views that as a serious offense that needs forgiveness. However, we still haven’t defined unintentional sin.
Leviticus 5 to the rescue! Verses 2–3 gives an example of someone touching something unclean without realizing it; this would be considered an unintentional sin. Verse 4 says that when someone makes a rash oath, and later realizes it, that would be an unintentional sin. So, these are some examples to help us understand the type of actions that would be considered unintentional sins.
Leviticus 5:5 is very interesting: “If someone incurs guilt in one of these cases, he is to confess he has committed that sin” (CSB). When someone realizes they have sinned unintentionally, they need to confess that they have, in fact, sinned. Verses 6–13 explain the sacrifice that is necessary to receive forgiveness. The ending of Leviticus 5 discusses the seriousness of unintentional sin. Someone who commits an unintentional sin “bears the consequences of his guilt” (Lev 5:17, CSB). After the appropriate offering is given for “the error he has committed unintentionally … he will be forgiven” (Lev 5:18, CSB). Before he makes that offering, “he is indeed guilty before the LORD” (Lev 5:19, CSB). It appears fairly clear from 5:18–19 that the person is not forgiven until restitution is made.
That summarizes Leviticus 4–5. It helps answer a few questions: unintentional sin is a valid category and it is considered a serious offense that requires forgiveness. A few examples were provided, but not enough for a full definition to be understood. Sklar concludes that “lack of intent does not mean the sinner is automatically excused.”
Leviticus 6: Intentional Sin is Forgivable
In Leviticus 6 we appear to transition from unintentional sin to intentional sin. Examples of an intentional sin in Leviticus 6 are deceiving your neighbor, or lying (6:2), and defrauding your neighbor. Then in 6:4–5, Moses says that “once he has sinned and acknowledged his guilt” (CSB) that he must make restitution for the sin he committed. After making restitution with the person he committed the sin against, he then must make the appropriate offering (6:6). Once that is completed, “he will be forgiven” (6:7, CSB). This is a description of an intentional sin that can be forgiven. But, as Sklar concludes: “Provided, of course, that the sacrifice was accompanied by confession of sin and a repentant heart.”
Numbers 15 and 25: Defiantly Intentional Sin is Unforgivable
Numbers 15 discusses various offerings connected to the sacrificial system in the Mosaic Law. Starting in 15:22, the topic of unintentional sin begins. Verses 22–29 summarizes the laws discussed in Leviticus 4–5. Verse 30 turns to a closely related but different issue: defiantly intentional sin. Some translations keep the idiom from the Hebrew: sin with “a high hand” (ESV). The NET Bible has a footnote that helps define defiantly intentional sin, which will help us, in contrast, to understand unintentional sin: “The expression means that someone would do something with deliberate defiance, with an arrogance in spite of what the LORD said. It is as if the sinner was about to attack God, or at least lifting his hand against God. The implication of the expression is that it was done in full knowledge of the Law (especially since this contrasts throughout with the sins of ignorance). Blatant defiance of the word of the LORD is dealt with differently.” The NET Bible concludes (when discussing Lev 4:2) that the term “unintentional sin” “refers to sins that were committed by mistake or done not knowing that the particular act was sinful.” If the text of Numbers 15 supports these definitions, then it would be valid to view defiantly intentional, simply intentional, and unintentional sins differently.
Numbers 15:31 explains the consequence of defiantly intentional sin: “He will certainly be cut off … his guilt remains on him” (CSB). This is immediately followed with a narrative about a man gathering wood on the Sabbath. Connecting narratives with the laws is helpful in understanding both. It appears that the reason this narrative is placed right after the punishment for defiantly intentional sin is to provide an example of this type of sin. There was no sacrifice for defiantly intentional sin in the Mosaic Law. The man gathering wood was put to death. Sklar concludes that a defiantly intentional sinner is “one who has completely rejected the covenant
Lord himself. In short, it is the defiant sin of an apostate that is in view, sin for which no sacrificial atonement is possible.”
Notice that we now have three categories: unintentional sin (which is forgivable), simply intentional sin (which is forgivable), and defiantly intentional sin (which is unforgivable). The difference between simply intentional sin (see Leviticus 6) and defiantly intentional sin (see Numbers 15) is an issue of attitude and the heart. It’s not just the action that is committed, but the attitude and disposition of the heart. Defiantly intentional sin is committed by someone who has rejected the covenant with God.
Leviticus 19:20–22 mentions an offering to receive forgiveness for someone who has committed adultery, but Numbers 25:6–8 gives a different picture. Numbers 25:6 describes an Israelite man who “came bringing a Midianite woman to his relatives in the sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community.” The context (Numbers 25:1–5) makes it clear that the issue was sexual sin and worship of idols. Notice that the man did this in the “sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community.” The reason this is mentioned is so that the reader recognizes that this is defiantly intentional sin. Phinehas kills both the man and the woman with a spear. Defiantly intentional sin brings with it dire consequences.
Much of the sacrificial system was built upon the sins committed being unintentional. But unintentional and simply intentional (non-defiant) sins are dealt with in a very similar way. It is defiantly intentional sin that is different. King David is an example of someone who sinned intentionally, but was quick to be contrite and repent of his sin. Humility and repentance is a key to knowing whether or not a sin is defiant. That is how we know King David was not defiant in his intentional sin. Part of the reason for the sacrifices in the Mosaic Law was to teach the Israelites about the seriousness of their sin. So, while defiantly intentional sin certainly brought with it much more grave consequences, unintentional sin was viewed very seriously as well. This validates dealing with these categories of sin differently, but it does not validate viewing any category as dismissible.
1 Samuel 14: An Example of Unintentional Sin
1 Samuel 14 begins by explaining a battle that the LORD won for Israel. Utilizing Jonathan, the LORD handed the Philistines over to Saul and his army. When we get to 14:24, the story takes a fascinating turn. The Israelite troops were “worn out” because Saul had placed them under an oath: any man who ate food before evening was cursed (1 Sam 14:24, CSB). When the troops went into the forest, there was honey flowing on the ground, but none of them ate it because of the oath. Jonathan, however, “had not heard his father make the troops swear the oath” (1 Sam 14:27, CSB) and he ate some honey. After the troops sinned by eating meat with blood still in it, and Saul made an altar and had animals sacrificed to atone for their sin (1 Sam 14:32–35), Saul decided he wanted to attack the Philistines and finish them off. The priest insisted that they consult God first (14:36). Saul inquired, but God did not answer. Therefore, Saul concluded that there must have been a sin that caused God not to answer. Saul declared that whoever sinned, even if it was his own son, that person must die (14:39). Through casting lots, God selected Jonathan as the guilty individual. Jonathan admitted that he ate honey. Saul was ready to kill Jonathan, but the people convinced Saul not to kill him. So, Saul did not pursue the Philistines.
Interestingly, Jonathan initially defended his action of eating honey (14:29–30). He defended it on the grounds that eating the honey would be helpful for the troops and they could have done much better in the battle with the energy given by the honey. But notice Jonathan’s response when confronted: he quickly admitted to the action and then, in an expression of being contrite, humble, and repentant, said “I am ready to die!” He took ownership for his sin.
The main point to take away from this story regarding unintentional sin is that God himself viewed the sin (see 1 Sam 14:38) as being so serious that He didn’t respond to King Saul. This is a pretty extreme example of “unintentional,” as Jonathan could not have known that what he was doing was wrong. Yet God Himself still held Israel accountable for the sin, though it was unintentional. God takes unintentional sin very seriously.
What about the New Testament?
There does not seem to be much discussion about intentional and unintentional sin in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean the distinction is invalid, however. One of the clearest statements regarding unintentional sin was made by Jesus in Luke 23:34.
Note: I realize that this passage has text-critical issues connected to it. Several early and important manuscripts lack the key statement. Some scholars have concluded it was not original but still an authentic saying of Jesus. This is not the place for a detailed discussion on this issue.
Luke 23:34a: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” There isn’t too much we can draw from this statement. Denny Burk points out that “Jesus does not treat them as innocents.” Instead, He “plainly says that his opponents need forgiveness, which presumes that they have sin for which they are accountable. Their ignorance does not get them off the hook.” Jesus recognizes that unintentional sin is still sin that needs forgiveness.
One other passage in the New Testament mentions the concept of unintentional sin in the context of salvation: Acts 3:13–19. After God uses Peter to heal a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate, a crowd gathers. Peter decides that this is a great opportunity to preach and he says that they “denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to” them (Acts 3:14, CSB). In 3:17, Peter declares, “I know that you did it in ignorance, just as your leaders also did.” In other words, their sin was unintentional. Then Peter explains how they should respond: “repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out.” Unintentional sin continues to be a valid category, but it is never dismissed as inconsequential. Burk concluded: “They are not excused by their ignorance.”
The Bible does distinguish between defiantly intentional, simply intentional, and unintentional sin, in both the Old and New Testaments. Unintentional sins do appear to be less significant, as the punishment for them was less severe than the punishment for defiantly intentional sin. However, they are still sin and therefore still significant. It seems as if simply intentional sins and unintentional sins are actually more closely related to each other than defiantly intentional sins.
Just as God responds to unintentional sin differently than defiantly intentional sin, so should we. If someone intentionally sins against you, that is going to be a much more significant offense and more difficult to deal with emotionally. Forgiveness is still required when the offender repents, but it could be, understandably, difficult to forgive. If someone sins unintentionally against you, forgiving them is much easier. All you should generally need to hear is that they are sorry and they ask for forgiveness. Motives are important in relationships, both vertical and horizontal relationships.
But what if you’re sinned against, it was unintentional, and the person doesn’t apologize, doesn’t repent, and simply brushes it off as excusable because it was unintentional. I believe that one way you can tell if a sin was unintentional is that when you point out the sin to the offender and they see that is was sin, they are instantly contrite. If they aren’t, it probably wasn’t unintentional. Burk notes that the knowledge that we “commit unintentional sins should cause us to be humble in our relationships with others.” His next comments are very insightful: “How many of us try to justify bad behavior with our spouses and friends on the basis of it being unintentional. ‘I didn’t mean to do it, so you shouldn’t be hurt.’ Oftentimes, words like that reveal the very insensitivity that led to the unintentional sin. This is not to say that there’s no moral difference between intentional sins and … unintentional ones. There is. It’s just that in either case there is still an offense that must be dealt with.”
 For a very similar definition, see Jay Sklar, “Sin and Atonement: Lessons from the Pentateuch,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 22.4 (2012): 468.
 Sklar, “Sin and Atonement,” 470.
 Ibid., 481, n. 35. Leviticus 19:20–22 also discusses an intentional sin where the offending person can receive forgiveness with the appropriate offering.
 Ibid., 476.
 Possible New Testament references to defiantly intentional sin include Matthew 12:22–32, Mark 3:22–30, Hebrews 6:4–8, 10:26–31, and 12:25–29.