The moral sense of mankind makes a distinction not in degree, but in kind, between forging a note, and falling asleep in a prayer meeting, or forgetting to keep a promise, or disproportioning food to exercise, or indulging too long in sleep, or having an impure dream, or a wandering thought in church, or treating a neighbor coldly under a misapprehension of his worthiness. The universal conscience discriminates between a sin and a weakness or an error.
Ethical writers insist that the moral sense of mankind pronounces innocent the inadvertent doer of an act wrong in itself. They declare that there is a broad distinction between wrong and guilty, on the one hand, and right and innocent, on the other; and that guilt always involves a knowledge of the wrong, and an intention to commit it. Hence, in the light of the moral philosophies filling our libraries and taught in our colleges, a sin of inadvertence or ignorance needs no expiation. But this is a superficial view.
Notwithstanding the broad distinction between infirmities and sins, in one respect they are alike, they both need the atonement. This is shown by human laws. So great are the interests entrusted to men in certain positions that severe penalties are attached to carelessness, as in the handling of poisons by physicians and apothecaries, the involuntary sleep of a weary sentinel at his post, or in the case of the bridge-tender who through a faulty time-keeper has the draw open when the express train arrives. These are infirmities of judgment or memory which men regard and punish as crimes. Now, what the exigencies of human society require for its safety in a few cases, the perfect moral government of God demands in all cases — satisfaction for involuntary sins. But there is a difference in God's favour. He always provides an atonement for such sins, and never executes sentence till the atonement has been rejected. Where the expiation cannot be known and applied he forbears to inflict the penalty. "The time of this ignorance God overlooked." Hence the law of God is more merciful than the statutes of men, which, in the cases specified, make no provision for escaping the punishment of involuntary offences. The objection which some have raised against the Divine Government for holding errors and inadvertencies as culpable and penal, falls to the ground when we find the first announcement of this accompanied by the institution of the sin-offering. See Lev. iv.
Though a well-meant mistake does not defile the conscience and bring into condemnation, nevertheless when discovered it demands a penitent confession and a presentation of the great sin-offering unto the God of absolute holiness. The refusal to do this after the sin-offering has been provided involves positive guilt. Says John Wesley:
Not only sin, properly so-called, that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law: but sin, improperly so-called, that is, an involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown, needs the atoning blood. I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions, which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorances and mistakes inseparable from mortality. Therefore, sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself. I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to involuntary transgressions.
Hence Charles Wesley sings —
Every moment, Lord, I want
The merit of Thy death.
In view of this truth it is eminently appropriate for the holiest soul on earth to say daily. "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."