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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.