Growing up in the church, I remember winking at my brothers exaggeratedly after inflicting some pain — a pinch with a twist on the chubby thigh or throwing something at them in the car. What Mom doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
This idea of ignorance went both ways for a house full of mischievous kids. If mom was oblivious to our wrongdoings, there were no wrongdoings. Similarly, if we incited chaos but then feigned ignorance, no punishment followed.
What Paul Really Said
As part of his speech at the Areopagus in Athens, Paul said, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30, ESV). It is a verse from the Bible often misquoted.
“God winks at the ignorant!” preachers sometimes tell new believers. “In order to sin, you have to know the law.” “Ignorance is bliss.” And so forth and so on. But the verse often used for this teaching is often taken out of context and often leads to some misunderstandings about God.
This false belief that God ignores our sins as long as we don’t know we’re sinning is problematic. It’s as if we go to the community pool and plug our ears while the lifeguard reads the rules. It’s as if we continue swimming despite the whistle blowing. We are in deep water but ignore the signs that say so.
The overlooked context of Acts 17 explains what Paul meant and why he spoke this to the people.
Paul travels all over to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ following His death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. During this mission work, Paul encounters the Areopagus people who worship idols of exanimate gods. These people do as they wish because their unseeing, unknowing gods have no clue what they do!
He teaches the people about the Living God, who (compared with their gods of silver and gold) is not ignorant to the ways they’ve been living. On the contrary, He sees all.
God Calls Us to a Better Standard
In quoting the scripture about God overlooking our ignorance, we often forget to emphasize the second part of the verse: Yes, “the times of ignorance God overlooked” but, it goes on to say, “Now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
God “winked” at the ignorance of those who created and formed a god of their imagination, but once they knew of the Living God, Paul says, He required obedience and repentance. Why? Because we are His offspring. He is King. We have no say in the rulebook. God is almighty.
If we know God, we cannot remain ignorant of His character and His law. This would be like marrying a stranger and then refusing to get to know them. Our ignorance would ruin our relationship.
To understand God is to realize that He is not a lifeless gold or silver idol. He is the opposite of ignorant. He designed you and me to be brilliant, fantastic, resourceful, and wise. God did not design us to be ignorant.