I got a speeding ticket recently. It was late at night, and though I had just exited off a highway, I was still on a long, open, empty strip of road. The momentum from the highway coupled with the apparent solitude of the road were contributing factors in the weight of my foot upon the gas pedal. I was tired and just really wanted to be home. I didn’t notice any speed limit signs; I wasn’t aware of my own speed.
Speeding is a traffic violation, and traffic violations are criminal offenses. To commit a crime, you generally have to have two elements: a particular mental state (the mens rea), and an act (the actus rea). There are some crimes, however, that don’t require a mental state; they only require the act. These are called “strict liability” crimes, two of the most common of which are sex crimes and traffic crimes.
When someone is convicted of rape, their culpability is not determined by whether they intended to rape the victim, or whether they knew the victim was underage. They are guilty because of the act of unwanted or underage sex alone. Similarly, when a cop pulls someone over for speeding, their first question is not: “What was your intention? Were you planning to speed?” Rather, the driver is guilty because of the act of speeding alone.
When the lights of the speeding camera flashed that night, my immediate reaction was “crap!” and then “seriously? Not fair. I didn’t even know I was speeding; I didn’t mean to.” As soon as that thought hit me, I was instantly reminded of what I had just read in Genesis 20:5:
“In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.”
“This” refers to King Abimelech’s act of taking Sarah, Abraham’s wife, for sexual purposes. Abimelech declared himself innocent because Abraham had lied to him and given him the false impression that Sarah was a single woman. How could he be guilty if he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong? And yet: “God came to Abimelech in a dream and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife'” (Gen. 20:3). Abimelech committed an evil deed despite his ignorance of the truth, and as such, he still had to suffer the consequences of his action and pay restitution to Abraham.
Is this fair? Our human heads shake “no,” but the purest sense of justice requires it. A wrong is a wrong and a wrong must be redressed.
In this light, we must see our sin. It is as serious and unforgiving as a strict liability crime. Whether we are conscious of our wrongdoing or not, whether we are aware, knowledgable of, intentional, or not – our hands drip red with guilt. In her book Teach Us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel writes: “Sin explains our habit of falling perennially short of our highest ideals. We sin because we do and want what is contrary to God’s will. This criminality is hardly conscious much of the time.”
This is not just true of us before we are saved; this is true of us even now. Daily we are committing sins against God, often without intending to: putting other things before him, valuing and desiring other things more than we do him, believing Christ is not enough, looking to anything and everything except Jesus to fulfill us. These are serious sins; they not only grieve him but gravely harm us.
In addition to our hearts’ condition, we are susceptible to acting in ways contrary to his nature and will – again, often without intending to. Recently, a trusted pastor made a comment in front of his congregation out of purest, pastoral intent, but it ended up making headlines and hurting a lot of Christians. In an interview in which he was “grateful for the opportunity to explain—but not excuse” himself, he states that it was “extraordinarily irresponsible [of] me… My comment was way out of bounds.”
This is really scary. We are riddled with sin. At any moment we could be doing something in “the innocence of our hands” and not know what a deplorable offense we are committing against the God we love.
The night of my speeding ticket, I was ignorant of the law and thereby of my lawless behavior. Similarly, I can be ignorant of God’s standards and my own standard-breaking behavior. This is largely due to one thing: because I don’t make the word of God my highest priority. It is there where I see his beauty and holiness and my blatant antithesis. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it bluntly: “The way to know yourself a sinner is not to compare yourself with other people; it is to come face to face with the Law of God.”
Before conversion, Paul, though he was a Jew, was just like the Gentiles in that he was “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that [was] in [him]” (Eph. 4:18). But!
“But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14).
Ignorance is not a defense. This is just as true in our carnal courts governed by human laws as it is in a spiritual realm ruled by sovereign standards. And yet we have a defense!
Christ who was crucified took on our sin so that we may stand holy and blameless before God. While we were ignorant in our sin Christ died for us, and while we are still ignorant in our sin Christ intercedes for us as our Advocate before the Father. Once and for all, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ; every single day, we are covered by that same single offering. We are perfected for all time (Heb. 10). Perfected for all time.
Paul received mercy because he was ignorant. This is mind-blowing. We were ignorant yet are now enlightened. We were guilty yet are now blameless. We still sin intentionally and unintentionally yet are righteous and holy and perfected. What a mercy! What a deeply undeserved mercy flowing freely from the fountains of an undeniably enticing God.