Written by Vladimir Moss



     Fallen man has a persistent tendency to “make excuse for excuses in sins”. But are some sins in fact excusable? And is there a sin that is inexcusable?


     We may divided the excuses made for sins into three main categories: (1) ignorance, (2) environment, (3) genetics.


     I. Ignorance. Real, involuntary ignorance is certainly a valid excuse in certain cases. It is grounds for clemency according to God's justice, as it is according to man's. Thus the Lord cried out on the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23.24). For as St. Peter said: “I know that you did it [crucified Christ] in ignorance, as did your rulers” (Acts 3.17). One of those who was forgiven, the apostle Paul, declared: "I obtained mercy because I acted in ignorance” (I Timothy 1.13). And the same Paul declared of the times of paganism, before Christ: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17.30). For our Great High Priest is truly One "Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way" (Hebrew 5.2).


     However, there is also such a thing as voluntary ignorance. Thus St. Paul says of those who do not believe in the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, that "they are without excuse" (Romans 1.20), for they deny the evidence from creation which is accessible to everyone. Again, St. Peter says: "This they are willingly ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgement and perdition of ungodly men" (II Peter 3.5-7). Again, claiming knowledge when one has none counts as wilful ignorance. For, as Christ said to the Pharisees: "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9.41).


     Wilful ignorance is very close to conscious resistance to the truth, which receives the greatest condemnation according to the Word of God. Thus those who accept the Antichrist will do so "because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (II Thessalonians 2.10-12). And if it seems improbable that God should send anyone a strong delusion, let us remember the lying spirits who, with God's permission, deceived the prophets of King Ahab because they only prophesied what he wanted to hear (I Kings 22.19-24).


     Conscious, willing resistance to the truth is the same as that "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" which, in the words of the Lord, "shall not be forgiven unto men… in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12.31, 32). As Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) explains: "Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or 'sin unto death', according to the explanation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (VIII, 75), is a conscious, hardened opposition to the truth, 'because the Spirit is truth' (I John 5.6).”[1]


     Wilful ignorance can be of various degrees. There is the wilful ignorance that refuses to believe even when the truth is staring you in the face – this is the most serious kind, the kind practised by the Pharisees and the heresiarchs. But a man can also be said to be wilfully ignorant if he does not take the steps that are necessary in order to discover the truth – this is less serious, but still blameworthy, and is characteristic of many of those who followed the Pharisees and the heresiarchs. Thus we read: "That servant who knew his master's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and he to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12.47-48). To which the words of St. Theophylactus of Bulgaria are a fitting commentary: "Here some will object, saying: 'He who knows the will of his Lord, but does not do it, is deservedly punished. But why is the ignorant punished?' Because when he might have known he did not wish to do so, but was the cause of his own ignorance through sloth."[2]


     II. Environment. Does a hard, vicious or anti-Christian environment serve as an excuse?


     Suppose a man steals because he is hungry. During the Irish famine, writes Robert Kee: “The autumn and winter of 1847-8 were as bad as anything the country had yet experienced with evictions increasing and corpses lying unburied even in a town like Limerick for days on end. Even in the kinder weather of June 1848 one inspector of roads near Clifden, County Galway, had to bury 140 corpses he found scattered along his route, while a man from the same district up on a charge of sheep-stealing was saved from imprisonment by stating in open court that his wife, maddened by hunger had been driven to eat the flesh of her own dead daughter.”[3] We do not, of course, know the judgement of God on this man and his wife. But if an Anglo-Irish court saved him from imprisonment, clearly taking the horrific fate of his family as some kind of mitigation of guilt, it is difficult to believe that God would have been less generous.


     Multitudes of female slaves in various countries were forced into sexual bondage to their masters. Clearly their lack of freedom mitigated or excused their sin, if it was a sin.


     Children born to drunken or vicious or unbelieving parents clearly have more excuses for sins than those born into loving, disciplined, Christian families.


     However, the lives of the saints are full of stories of how the saints withstood sin even in the most unpropitious circumstances. Conversely, if a man renounces the faith out of fear of torture, the difficulty of his circumstances does not acquit him of the charge of apostasy. For not only does man have free will, but to the man who was a good will, God will give the opportunity to escape out of any temptations: “God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10.13).


     III. Genetics. We are not only pushed to sin from the outside, but also pulled towards it from the inside, from our fallen nature. In his conversation with Motovilov, St. Seraphim of Sarov alluded to the fact that some virtues – for example, chastity – come easier to some people than to others because of the nature they have inherited. Some men are naturally more aggressive or lustful than others. Since the fall of Adam, human nature has been naturally inclined to sin. This inclination does not take away the sinfulness of the works of our fallen nature; but if the inclination to sin is very strong, this very strength of this inherited proclivity may serve as an excuse for, or mitigation of, the sin. God, Who know all the secrets of our hearts, and is just as well as merciful, takes all such factors into account.


     The most unique and inexplicable of all sins was the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Their environment was perfectly free of incitements to sin. Their nature was pure and free of all sin. They were in full communion with God, and received a very simple, very clear and very easy commandment given by Him Who loved them and Who was loved by them. So it should have been a joy to fulfill; there was absolutely no reason not to fulfill it; they had no excuse for sin. But the perfect creatures in the perfect environment, full of the grace of God and possessed of full knowledge of the Law of God and the consequences of its transgression (death), still sinned. It was inexplicable. It was inexcusable.


     In spite of that, God forgave them – after a very long penance of many thousands of years in hades – because before eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they did not fully know what they were doing. After eating it, they knew what they had done and knew that it was inexcusable. But after they had wept and repented continuously for thousands of years, Christ paid the penalty for their sin and raised them from sin and death.


     So is sin excusable? Strictly speaking, all sin is inexcusable, for if it were excusable it would not be sin. What is the need of forgiveness for that which really cannot be helped? The saints attained sinlessness by refusing to make “excuse for excuses in sins” – that is, by true repentance. They knew that, whatever the possible excuses for sin, there is almost always a hidden, inexcusable element of wilfulness that is extremely difficult for the fallen mind to detect. Therefore if excuses can be made for our sins, let God make them – after all, He not only knows everything: He can also evaluate everything, weighing our sins, ignorances, weaknesses and passions on the perfectly calibrated scales of His Justice. We, on the other hand, neither know all our sins, nor can we evaluate them. As David puts it: “As for transgressions, who will understand them?  From my secret sins cleanse me, and from those of others spare Thy servant” (Psalm 18.12). Therefore the saints were always blaming themselves, leaving it to God to excuse them if there was some element in their behaviour which really was excusable. Therein lies repentance and salvation.


September 9/22, 2020.



[1] Metropolitan Anthony, "The Church's Teaching about the Holy Spirit", Orthodox Life, vol. 27, 3, May-June, 1977, p. 23.

[2] St. Theophylactus, Explanation of the Gospel according to St. Luke 12.47-48.

[3] Kee, Ireland. A History, London: Book Club Associates, 1981, p. 100.

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