Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

Ignorantia juris non excusat is a legal principle holding that a person is liable whether or not the offender knows that law exists.  Mankind does not like a strict, disciplinarian, all-or-nothing approach to governance.  Guilt remains, though a judge may be lenient in the administration of judgment because of ignorance or in cases of mental deficiency or incapacity.  Martin Luther noticed this when he wrote: "In the affairs of government there is room for invincible ignorance, as when someone is at fault because he is encumbered by sickness or is insane" (Lectures on Genesis, Gen 12:17).  Where leniency goes awry is in the application.  Attempting to mitigate the effects of our wrongful actions to our fellow man, we excuse ourselves by claiming ignorance or diminished mental capacity in hopes of escaping the due penalty for willful actions.  What is meant to administer mercy in justice becomes a weapon to allow unbridled expression of our innate depravity.

The same principle of inexcusable culpability is in effect before God.  He has established a law consistent with his character against which all offenses are capital.  The first statute imposed on humanity was simple and clear: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:17).  Obedience is required; disobedience carries the death penalty.  As the Lord continued to reveal more of himself through his commands, the norm never changed.  Man responded by excusing himself rather than acknowledging the problem.  Luther continued:
But these ideas [of invincible ignorance] should not be carried over into religion and matters of conscience.  We are born with the blindness of original sin.  That evil is invincible in the sense that it holds even the regenerate captive; but this does not make it excusable, the way the scholastics have declared invincible ignorance excusable, so that it directly excuses…, that is, does away with sin entirely.)
Ibid, Lectures on Genesis

The reasoning went like this: if the nature of the offense and its penalty could be sufficiently ignored, it never existed at all.  But while people and nations have done this to one another on a regular basis, "God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap" (Gal 6:7).  You and I are guilty, without excuse.

To deal with both the demands of the law and our inability and unwillingness to abide by it, God the Son took on our human nature, fulfilled all the righteous requirements, and freely accepted in himself the full penalty due to us (Rom 3:21-26;1 Pet 3:18).  This he did, not because we deserved any of it, but because he loves us (John 3:16; Rom 5:8).

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