Essay

Punish No More

By April 3, 2012 One Comment
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Since this post will appear early in Holy Week 2012, my thoughts have turned toward questions of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice.   In a seminary class the other day in a discussion on how to preach the Minor Prophets (what with all that judgment and all) I repeated something my colleague John Cooper has said in a seminar we’ve led together in the past.   Cooper points out that because of Jesus and the biblical fact–well attested in many passages–that God laid all our iniquity on him and that Jesus has indeed borne the punishment of us all, it is now theologically incorrect–and pastorally injurious–to think that when bad things happen in our Christian lives, this is the result of God’s punishing us for this or that sin.   God no longer punishes us for our sins.  All of that fell upon our Lord and on the cross (and perhaps Jesus suffered for our sins across the whole course of his life, too, as a couple other Bible passages indicate).   By the way: please note that Cooper makes this claim about those who now dwell “in Christ.”   Whether non-believers still suffer a punishment for sins is an important, but discrete, question in all this.

I think Cooper is correct.   Believers in Christ who have had their sins washed away in baptism and who now live “in Christ” don’t keep getting whacked for past sins nor for new sins that still crop up in our lives.  

But when I mentioned this in class the other day, I got some curious push-back from a few students.   One in particular brought our attention to I Corinthians 11 where Paul seems to say that the wrong way in which the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated in Corinth is what accounts for some of the Corinthians’ having fallen ill and even having died.   “That sure sounds like a punishment from God to me” this student asserted.   He made an interesting point.   My rejoinder to him was that if that passage seems out of sync with the lion’s share of New Testament witness to God’s having laid the iniquity and punishment of us all upon Jesus, then it is that verse in I Corinthians 11 that needs to be interpreted in the light of the majority of the biblical text and not the other way around.

It still seems to me to be corect that God does not punish us for this or that sin or for this or that cluster of sins in our lives.  And as a pastor I know that most every time I have heard someone say to me that he or she suffered some tragedy in his or her life and that this constituted a direct punishment of God for some long-ago indiscretion, I know I am on solid pastoral ground to counsel them to think otherwise.  The Bible itself–and our Lord Jesus himself–makes it clear that we’re almost always on shaky ground when we try to connect a given bad circumstance with some sin that is, therefore, being punished.  “Lord, who sinned . . . that such-and-such a tragic situation obtains?”    Jesus’ answer was generally “Nobody sinned.  It’s not about that.”

Still . . . it may be that God allows certain consequences to flow from our own actions.  If we are reckless with our health, God is under no obligation I know of to head off the natural fallout from too much smoking or drug abuse or lack of exercise.   If we abuse our marriage vows and the marriage falls apart as a result, that’s less punishment and more natural fallout of bad choices.   We may still suffer the consequences of our actions without having to construe that as punishment.   And it may also be true–as some key texts like Romans 8 make clear–that God can work inside the bad and sad and even outright tragic circumstances of our lives to generate some greater good (like a more steadfast faith or a sturdier Christian character just generally) but even that can be (and should be) fruitfully distinguished from a direct punishment for sin in some quid pro quo, tit for tat, scheme.

Well and good.   But it’s still curious to me when I encounter Christians–and I am not alleging this about my student from the other day, by the way–who seem to want to hold out for God’s whacking Christian people for bad behavior.   Sometimes this comes up when we are face to face with an enemy, even a sister or brother in the Church, who wounded us and whom we’d like to see God slap around a bit in retaliation (and punishment) for the sin that hurt us so badly.   Even some preachers seem to relish the idea of being able to warn the congregation that if they don’t shape up, straighten up, and fly right, God will punish them.   “So be good . . . or else!”  Indeed, I’ve had some conversations with preachers who wonder what oomph is left to preaching if we cannot threaten even believers in Christ with a punishment of God in case they don’t heed the preacher’s words.   If it’s all Grace and all the bad stuff got (and gets) laid on Jesus’ shoulders, do we still have anything terribly persuasive left with which to lure and goad and push people toward better living?   The Gospel is great but a rolled-up newspaper held over one’s head can really get one’s attention!

I cannot go into all the specifics of these last points in this post (though suffice it to say that yes, even as the Apostle Paul quite consistently discovered, there are plenty of good ways to motivate Christian believers to live out their baptismal identity short of threatening them with some hellish punishments as though Jesus had never already died for all their sins to begin with).  

But in this Holy Week 2012 and as we turn our eyes to that cross once again, we need to revel in the fact that Jesus really did pay it all, bore it all, suffered it all for us.   Whatever reason we may have to want to hold on to some prospect of ongoing punishments delivered from the hand of God to his own children will never be sufficient reason to do an end-run on the cross and all that Jesus did there.

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my soul, my all.”

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

One Comment

  • Grace says:

    I know it is your TULIP theology but please be careful with it. I had a run in as a teenager with a Calvinist who thought he had a get-out-of-Hell-free card. It wasn't pretty. I am still haunted by it.

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