There is a central issue within Christianity today (at least in my own church!) that has generated multiple discussions in very recent books, sermons, journal publications and on-line conversations. The essence of the question is this: Does sin carry an inherent natural consequence, or does God need to impose an additional penalty? In other words, we would all agree that sin does carry inherent natural consequences. For example, an individual who becomes consumed by hatred toward his neighbor will (as a natural process) develop negative character traits as a result of this “sin”, just as consuming a liter of alcohol per day will result in negative natural consequences. But the real question being asked is, “does God also need to impose an additional penalty because of sin?”
Let me give several examples of the context in which this is being discussed today. But first, let me say that as I attempt to explain the “other side” of this issue, let me quickly add that many individuals that I know who disagree with me on this are some of the nicest and most genuine Christians one could meet. I sincerely do not mean to offend as I try to articulate their position. “Winning the argument” does no good if you have simultaneously caused offense! With that said, here we go….
Many believe that sin is something that can be separated from the sinner. In other words, sin can be described in such a way that it sounds like a quantity that can be placed on a table and hit with a hammer. The claim is made that “God needs to punish sin in order to be a God of justice.” The atonement, for example, is sometimes described such that the primary purpose was to punish sin. “All the sins of the world were placed on Jesus. God poured out his just wrath on sin at the cross and for those who accept what Jesus accomplished in his or her place, they are now justified before God.” (While I agree with the short-hand description that Jesus took upon Himself the sins of the world, this has a very significant and deep meaning that calls out for explanation!)
The quote above would again suggest that sin is a quantity that can be separated from the sinner. All of these “quantities” of sin in all the thousands of years before and after the cross were then somehow directly and physically placed within the body of Jesus. Once the sins were placed on Jesus, God (the Father) did not merely abandon his Son – He actively punished him. This punishment for sin was necessary from God’s perspective – “the price was paid” and now salvation is possible for those who accept this. This concept of what Christ accomplished on the Cross will require much future discussion!
But this subject of “imposed penalty or natural consequence” ties in with so many different areas of theology beyond the atonement. For example, the final death of sin and sinners is also explained as either natural consequence or an imposed penalty. Some will be burned in a literal fire longer than others – because they deserve it and because: “God must be just and sin must be punished. If [insert my worst enemy] does not burn in the flames for an appropriate period of time, then God would not be a God of justice.”
But there is another way (a beautiful way in my opinion) of understanding that terrible and sad event such that we see God as crying as He gives up his dying children to the natural consequence of sin, rather than terminating their lives and also punishing them as they die.
Over the next several weeks, I will approach this question from several different angles. How we understand this issue has a significant contribution to our picture of who God is and since “Eternal life is to know God” (John 17:3) each of us should be fully settled in our own mind about God’s intervention with the problem of sin.