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My students in the Psalms & Wisdom Literature course are starting to write their final sermons on a psalm, and inevitably each semester some come to me with a question.  Sooner or later it is a question all preachers encounter when dealing with certain Old Testament texts and the question is: “How do we preach on texts that make it sound like God regularly punishes us for specific sins?”  Over the weekend I had an email exchange with a student on this very question.  It is an issue for Christian pastors to handle with care.

My professor and later Calvin Seminary colleague John Cooper was always very firm in stating that God does not punish baptized believers for their sins.  We have to take the New Testament seriously when it says that ALL of the punishment for our iniquities was laid upon Jesus.  “Jesus paid it all” as we sing in some way or another in many songs and hymns. 

Yet many of us were raised in an environment in which somewhere along the line we picked up some version or another of a kind of divine-human quid pro quo.  We do something bad, God zaps us accordingly.  It is basically a version of the theology Job’s so-called “friends” tried to foist on him (we are studying Job this week in class too).  Job knew it was a bad way to look at things.  But historically Job was a long ways off from the reality of Easter.   Job could not articulate lots of reasons why he believed what he did.  He just knew that the wicked often prosper and the righteous often suffer and so any effort at making simple formulas that suggest any kind of quid pro quo where God is concerned is doomed to fail.

Yet pastors and elders often hear a version of this from people.  “I just know God is punishing me for . . . my adultery, my bad language, my viewing of pornography.”  Fill in the blank.  Again, however, the New Testament says that is wrong.  God does not go around zapping people for their sins.  Or for sure God does not do so to God’s beloved baptized children who spiritually dwell “in Christ.” 

But at this point we need to note a brief caveat: if God ever sent punishments for sins (and in the Old Testament you’d be hard pressed to deny that this is exactly what the biblical text says now and again), God no longer does so to those who are in Christ.  That does not mean, however, that God has severed the nerve that connects actions with consequences.   God is under no obligation I am aware of to head off lung cancer in a 3-pack-a-day smoker.  And despite all the “faith versus fear” bad theology we have heard from some over the last year, God is also under no obligation to head off a COVID infection in believers who recklessly flout public health guidelines and so expose themselves to the coronavirus.  Biblically there is such a thing as morally culpable folly.

Consequences like that, though, are still not a divine punishment.  The full weight of sin’s punishment fell onto Christ’s shoulders on the cross and that weight was so great, it crushed even God’s Son and sank him clear down to hell itself.  No mere human could have done that, which is why when the Apostle Paul encountered believers—think of the Galatians as a premiere example—who believed their own works could somehow contribute to or complete a work that Jesus only started, Paul would blow a theological gasket or two.  Given what Christ had to do to save us, what are we doing in offering up our feeble deeds?  Christ shines like the light of a million suns and yet we bring a 25-watt bulb and think it might help brighten things up a bit.

But if it is true that we cannot add to our completed salvation, then it is also true that God is not punishing those who get baptized into all that power and light.

Yet even all of us who know better often find ourselves slipping into this way of thinking.  Is it because that is how the rest of the world works?  Is it because some of us experienced no grace at the hands of our parents growing up?   Or is it because few work places or corporations operate this way?  We live by the grades we get in school, by the performance evaluations we get at work, by the promotions we get or fail to get all based on how well we do via our own efforts. In most of life we call this simple fairness.

The Gospel makes clear, however, that whatever else God’s grace in Christ is, it is decidedly not fair.  Just ask the folks who labored for twelve long hours in the hot sun who then had to just stand there and watch when the lazy bums who dawdled away all but one working hour of the day got paid the exact same amount as the all-day folks received.   (The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is the reference here of course.)   “That’s not fair” they cried.  To which the owner of the vineyard essentially replied, “Nope but this is just how I roll, friends.”

In a world of rules and comeuppances, of retribution and punishment, the Gospel calls on us to learn a new paradigm.  We didn’t deserve to have our punishment laid upon Jesus.  But that’s what God did.   Now we have to do all we can not to undo that Good News by importing the world’s way of operating into God’s way of saving.

Scott Hoezee

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

12 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m with you, and John Cooper, as far as you go. But then what about the unbaptized? I think I would go further. I believe that for all of us, as of Good Friday, God limit’s God’s zapping to the Word.

  • Tom Brandt says:

    Thank you for this. As Christians, we are supposed to know this, but we need constant reminding both that God’s grace is unconditional, and that faith in Jesus does not grant us immunity from disease, injustice, misfortune.

  • mstair says:

    Joining you today (sorry for the rant)

    “ … God is also under no obligation to head off a COVID infection in believers who recklessly flout public health guidelines …”

    Nor, is He under any obligation to head off a COVID infection in believers who meticulously observe those guidelines …

    We are told that we who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ – and Christ IS life – and we (no matter what occurs) have life..
    but we do not –
    (and instead desperately cling to our certain knowledge “life is too short and we …” – and then view all life threatening diseases and occurrences as punishment for something – and thus our ultimate end)

    We Believers should stop quoting that old platitude – it insults the Work of Our Lord.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for your take on God’s retribution for some but not for others. You speak of three packs daily smokers dying of the natural consequence of their sin, or the guy who doesn’t socially distance, wash his hands, or wear a mask, dying of Covid 19. But what about the person who has never smoked or who obey all the safety cautions for Covid 19 and yet still die of lung cancer or Covid 19? Don’t you get sick and tired of making excuses for God? Next to praising God for the salvation of some people (the elect), the Christian’s next big task is trying to explain God’s apparent inequitable treatment of people. He saves some but not others according to his own inscrutable will. Apparently good people (according to our reasoning) go to hell for eternity while unfathomably sinful people go to heaven and eternal bliss. As much as God’s actions don’t make sense on the eternal level, they don’t make sense on the more immediate level either. And yet, let’s just praise God for the inequties of his grace and justice system. Maybe, just maybe, the myriad of other religions have it right, and Christianity has it wrong, especially if we have to go to such lengths to explain and excuse the Bible’s God.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    This is a wonderful explanation, Scott. Thank you.

  • William Harris says:

    Can we really discount the subjective experience? If ‘Jesus paid it all’ then how do we read the Psalms? There are profound moments there where the psalmist experiences what seems to be and what the psalmist identifies as God’s judgement. And then I wonder about the question of judging of the nations—again, if there is no judgement here (or if judgement has been rendered) then what happens to justice?

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Scott, this reflection just didn’t make sense to me. I’m with Daniel and generally agree, but why leave those out in the cold who can’t find a way to faith for whatever reason? Why do we need to be dualistic-God punishes or God sets it all on Jesus? Could it be that God disciplines? I mean we call him Father (some of us call her Mother). Isn’t a parent’s role to correct and guide? Why are those who could only find work in the last hour lazy? Could these day laborers been waiting on the corner all day ready to work but been skipped over because there were more workers than jobs? Do you really think that people are mainly motivated by the performance evaluations at work? I see people motivated by appreciation, knowing their work makes a difference, personal and professional growth, working with a team. It just seems like there are so many assumptions in this reflection. In addition, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. defined sin as the “culpable disturbance of shalom.” It seems to me that God in Christ is working to restore that shalom and in our vision of justification and sanctification on the cross that peace is restored, but sanctification is an ongoing reality as much as a completed one, so why would God not offer a correction for all people and even more so for baptized believers? I agree that punishment is laid on the shoulders on Christ and paid for completely, but imagining that God only offers blessings or takes a deist approach to the ongoing disturbance of shalom after the cross feels odd. Maybe you’re right, but it doesn’t quite add up to me.
    Thanks for pressing me with this difficult reflection. It gave me pause.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Thanks, Rodney. A reflection along these lines introduces multiple other lines of inquiry that I could not possibly tackle in 800 words. Some have been raised here in other Comments: what about faithful Christians who get sick despite not being reckless? Why doesn’t God head off every traffic accident or every germ? That gets into theodicy and is another whole, vast area of thought. Or a point you raise here: can we distinguish between due discipline (which even the New Testament indicates is part of the equation for believers) and punishment? Probably we can tease these subjects apart and ponder them. Part of the discipline process might also be something I do broach briefly: viz., actions still have consequences. Like human parents who know that sometimes you need to let a child fail at something before they understand how things work, maybe God grants us enough freedom to mess up, suffer an unhappy consequence, but then the Spirit uses that to teach us something we need to know. That might qualify as loving discipline. Finally, this area broaches also another thing you bring up in terms of how is God handling the sins and such of those who are not in Christ, who are not baptized? Is it possible God still judges and punishes them? Possibly. Probably. This is why we call people to come to faith in Jesus. But if we take our cues from the Apostle Paul, we will leave it to God to handle the wider world outside the church. Paul’s concern–think of 1 Corinthians–was always for those already inside the church. This is where we need to be willing to confront and rebuke one another in love to address what you mention as culpable disturbances of shalom. We don’t have to go around punishing unbelievers or spending undue amounts of time wondering what God will do to them. We have enough to tend to within the Body of Christ. Anyway, thanks for your reply.

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        Scott, you are ABSOLUTELY right. You can’t cover the ocean of thought these ideas bring up in 800 words. The sign that you have touched off a lot of thought though is the variety of comments in response. I think this is healthy.
        Today is beautiful in NJ. I hope it is as well in Michigan. Signs of new life as spring approaches! Have a great day!

  • David E Stravers says:

    Wow. Reading through the comments, it seems that sin, grace, and forgiveness are still mysteries for many of us, leading us to disagree on some pretty foundational matters? Thanks for addressing this topic, and perhaps RJ authors should give more attention to it?

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