A reader writes:
” Acts 17:30: ‘And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.’ Does this mean that the heathen before Christ were excused and will be saved?”
As our reader obviously realizes, it would be contrary to the Scriptures to maintain that ignorance is an excuse to sin. It is true, of course, that to sin knowingly is far worse than to sin in ignorance. But Scripture does teach that sin committed in ignorance is still sin in the sight of God. We need only refer to the high-priestly prayer of our Savior on the cross, where He prayed for His people who had joined in with the others in committing that atrocious deed of killing the Lord of Glory without realizing the import of their offence, pleading, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” See also Hebrews 2:1-4.
That still does not explain what Paul meant in his address to the Athenians, who professed to believe in “an unknown god,” when he said that in times past God winked at the ignorance of the heathen.
The first question that arises is, what is meant by “this ignorance?” The second question is, what does it mean that God winked at this ignorance?
In general, we can answer both questions by saying that the last part of the text interprets the first part. That is, God left the heathen of the old dispensation outside of the preaching of the gospel, and beyond the call to repentance. Now in the new dispensation the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth, wherever God in His good pleasure wills to send it, accompanied with the call to all nations to repent of their sins and turn to the living God. There is a much broader and clearer presentation of the gospel, with an added responsibility to those who reject it.
More specifically, what, then, is meant by the “ignorance” of the pagans of the old dispensation? This cannot possibly mean that they were entirely ignorant of God, that they did not know that God is God. Their idol worship was not, as some would have it, an attempt to seek out and to find the living God, a reaching out for salvation. This is blatantly contrary to the Scriptures, particularly to Romans 1.
In the last part of Romans 1 Paul writes, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” The reference is to the heathen outside of the sphere of the gospel, who made themselves guilty of ungodliness, i.e., living apart from God; and of unrighteousness, that is, transgression of God’s holy law. Moreover, they held the truth in unrighteousness. The idea is that they knew the truth, yet they suppressed it in their wicked opposition to the living God.
We ask, how is it possible for “ignorant” pagans to suppress the truth? The answer is in verse 19, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them.” Even those who never heard the preaching of the gospel nor had any acquaintance with the Scriptures still have a certain knowledge of God. They not only know that there is a god, but they know also thatGod is God, for God shows it unto them. They know, Paul goes on to say, “God’s eternal power and godhead.” Creation speaks to them of God. The daily happenings of God’s providence are a testimony to them that God is the almighty, sovereign God. There is a testimony of the Holy Spirit which no one can escape that God must be served. Imagine those foolish Athenians, who had a number of false gods, yet to play it safe also had an altar to “an unknown god.” Paul exposes their ignorance by showing them how ridiculous it is to serve all sorts of gods, when there is only one God, Whom they profess to serve in their ignorance. If they truly confess this God, there is no place left for their idols, which are mere sham, for the true and living God is in the heavens, besides Whom there is and can be no other.
Thus, specifically, in the old dispensation God winked at this ignorance, overlooked it, as it were, ignored it. The preaching of the gospel did not go out to these pagan nations, but was limited to the narrow confines of national Israel. Only with rare exceptions, as was the case with Nineveh, did God reach out to proclaim His Word to the heathen, calling them to repentance. In Jerusalem was the temple. There were the sacrifices. In Palestine the prophets lived and spoke. Even Christ limited His ministry almost completely to the Jews in Palestine.
But that was no longer the case in Paul’s time, for the new dispensation had come. After Pentecost the church becomes universal, and the gospel goes forth even to the ends of the earth, “commanding all men everywhere to repent.”
Even that does not mean that God causes every man, woman, and child upon the face of the earth to hear the gospel, offering them salvation upon sincere repentance. The gospel comes only where God in His good pleasure sends it. “Everywhere” in the text means exactly that, “wherever God in His sovereign good pleasure causes His Word to be preached.” And the “all men” refers to all nations, tribes, and tongues, in distinction from the narrow confines of Israel.
Paul speaks of that preaching of the gospel as the call to repentance. He impresses upon the Athenians that they may have served idols in the past in ignorance. In that ignorance they also had an altar to an unknown God. But now they can no longer plead ignorance. The preaching of the Word has come to them as a savor of life unto life and a savor of death unto death. God proclaims to them His glorious salvation of eternal life through the resurrection of His dear Son Jesus Christ. Anyone who rejects that gospel by refusing to repent from his idolatry and all his sins only proves the hardness of his heart and deserves a greater condemnation. Woe to those who reject so great a salvation!