Again, this whole post is an excerpt from my favorite book. The ideas contained here are dangerous. 🙂 I have debated for some time as to whether I should post whole chapters from this book – but it’s just too good not to share it. And I would think it would only motivate the readers of these posts to buy the book for themselves as there is much more content like this contained therein.
God the Destroyer of Sin
An excerpt from Discovering the Heart of God
Written By George MacDonald
Compiled, Arranged and Edited by Michael R Phillips
God Is not Obligated to Punish Sin
In the hope of giving a larger idea to the justice of God I ask, “Why is God bound to punish sin?”
If God punishes sin, it must be merciful to punish sin – for God is merciful. And if God forgives sin, it must be just to forgive sin – for God is just.
How then do we harmonize mercy, justice, and forgiveness into the oneness of God’s character?
Every attribute of God must be infinite as himself. He cannot be sometimes merciful, but not always merciful. He cannot be just, but not always just. Mercy belongs to him, and needs no contrivance of theologic chicanery to justify it.
“Then do you mean it is wrong to punish sin, and therefore God does not punish sin?”
By no means.
God does punish sin, but there is no opposition between punishment and forgiveness. The one may be essential to the possibility of the other. We are back to my question: Why does God punish sin?
“Because in itself sin deserves punishment,” do you answer?
Then how can God tell us to forgive it?
“He punishes, and having punished he forgives.”
That will hardly do. For if sin demands punishment, if the making right for sin is punishment, and righteous punishment is given, then the man is out from under sin’s claim upon him; he is free. Why should he now be forgiven?
“He needs forgiveness, because no amount of punishment can make up for the sin that is in his nature. Nothing will fully give him all he deserves.”
Then why not forgive him at once, if the punishment is not essential, if it does not adequately remedy the whole of the problem of sin? And this points out the fault in the whole idea.
Punishment is nowise an offset to sin. Punishment, deserved suffering, is no equipoise to sin. Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin. If sin sits on one scale, it will move it not a hairsbreadth to lay punishment and suffering on the other. They are not of the same kind, not under the same laws, any more than mind and matter. To attempt to equate them would be like placing a cubic inch of lead on the one scale, and attempting to balance it by placing a cubic yard of air on the other. The sin is unmoved. It remains where it is though an eternity of punishment and suffering be brought to bear against it.
If it were an offset to wrong, then God would be bound to punish for the sake of punishment. But he cannot be, for he forgives. Then it is not for the sake of punishment, as a thing that in itself ought to be done, but for the sake of something else, as a means to an end, that God punishes.
Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. If he were not the Maker, he might not be bound to destroy sin – I do not know. But seeing he has created creatures who have sinned, and therefore sin has, by the creating act of God, come into the world, God is, in his own righteousness, bound to destroy sin.
Destruction, not Punishment, Is Required
God is always destroying sin. In him I trust that he is destroying sin in me. He is always saving the sinner from his sin, and that is destroying sin. But vengeance on the sinner, the law of a tooth for a tooth, is not in the heart of God, neither in his hand. If the sinner and the sin in him are the concrete object of the divine wrath, then indeed there can be no mercy. Then indeed there will be an end put to sin by the destruction of the sin and the sinner together. But thus would no atonement be wrought – nothing be done to make up for the wrong God has allowed to come into being by creating man. There must be an atonement, a making up, a bringing together – an atonement which cannot be made except by the man who has sinned.
Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer – continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? Would it show God justified in doing what he knew would bring sin into the world, justified in making creatures he knew would sin? What setting-right would come of the sinner’s suffering? If justice demanded it, if suffering be the equivalent for sin, then the sinner must suffer, and God is bound to exact his suffering, and not pardon; and so the making of man was a tyrannical deed, a creative cruelty. But grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word.
An unjust word is an eternally evil thing; nothing but God in my heart can cleanse me from the evil that uttered it. But it does not follow that I saw the evil of what I did so perfectly that eternal punishment for it would be just. Sorrow and confession and self-abasing love will make up for the evil word; suffering will not. For evil in the abstract, nothing can be done. It is eternally evil. But I may be saved from it by learning to loathe it, to hate it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.
The True Opposite of Evil
Sin and punishment are in no antagonism to each other in man, any more than pardon and punishment are in God. They can perfectly co-exist. The one naturally follows the other, punishment being born of sin, because evil exists only by the life of good and has no life of its own, being in itself death.
Sin and suffering are not natural opposites. The opposite of evil is good, not suffering. The opposition of sin is not suffering, but righteousness. The path across the gulf that divides right from wrong is not the fire, but repentance.
If my friend has wronged me, will it console me to see him punished? Will that be a rendering to me of my due? What kind of friendship would I be fit for if that were possible, even with regard to my enemy? But would not the shadow of repentant grief, the light of reviving love on his face, heal it at once, however deep the hurt had been?
Take any of those wicked people in Dante’s hell, and ask wherein is justice served by their punishment. Mind, I am not saying it is not right to punish them, I am saying that justice can never be satisfied by suffering.
Human resentment, human revenge, human hate may find satisfaction in it. But there can be no destruction of evil thereby. The destruction of sin must begin where the sin originated in the first place, in the depths of a man’s heart.
When a man loathes himself, he has begun to be saved. Punishment tends to this result. Not for its own sake, not as a make-up for sin, not for divine revenge, not for any satisfaction to justice. Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. God is bound by his love to punish sin in order to deliver his creature. He is bound by justice to destroy the sin in his creation.
Love is justice – is the fulfilling of the law, for God as well as for his children. This is the reason of punishment; this is why justice requires that the wicked shall not go unpunished – that they, through the eye-opening power of pain, may come to see and do justice, may be brought to desire and make all possible amends, and so become just. For Justice, that is God, is bound in himself to see justice done by his children – not in the mere outward act, but in their very being. He is bound in himself to make up for wrong done by his children, and he can do nothing to make up for wrong done but by bringing about the repentance of the wrongdoer.
Righteousness – The Beginning of Sin’s End
When the man says, “I did wrong; I hate myself and the deed; I cannot endure to think that I did it!” then, I say, is atonement begun. Without that, all that the Lord did would be lost. He would have made no atonement. Repentance, restitution, confession, prayer for forgiveness, righteous dealing thereafter is the sole possible, the only true make-up for sin. For nothing less than this did Christ die. When a man acknowledges the right he denied before, when he says to the wrong, “I loathe you. I see now how you are. I could not see it before, because I refused to see it. God forgive me, make me clean, or let me die!” then Justice, that is God, has conquered sin – and not until then.
“How, then,” you may ask, “does the atonement of Jesus conquer sin, if all the doing must come from within man? What atonement is there then by his shed blood?”
All the atonement that God cares for; the work of Jesus Christ on earth was the creative atonement, because it works atonement in every heart. He brings and is bringing God and man, and man and man, into perfect unity. “I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.” His death is what makes such atonement, such one-making, possible.
“That is dangerous doctrine!” some will say.
More dangerous than you think to many things – to every evil, to every lie, and among the rest to every false trust in what Christ did, instead of in Christ himself. Paul glories in the cross of Christ, but he does not trust in the cross; he trusts in the living Christ and his living Father.
Justice, then, requires that sin should be put an end to. And not only that, but that it should be atoned for. And where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death. If suffering cannot serve this end, we need look for no more hell, but for the destruction of sin by the destruction of the sinner. That, however, would, it appears to me, be for God to suffer defeat.
If God be defeated, he must destroy – that is, he must withdraw life. How can he go on sending forth his life in irreclaimable souls, to keep sin alive in them through the ages of eternity? For in such a case, no atonement would be made, and God would remain defeated, for he has created that which has sinned, and which would not repent and make up for its sin.
But those who believe that God will thus be defeated by many souls must surely be of those who do not believe he cares enough to do his very best for them. He is their Father. He had power to make them out of himself, separate from himself, and capable of being one with him. Surely he will somehow save and keep them! Not the power of sin itself can close all channels between the Creator and the created.
The Saving Redemption of Suffering
The notion of suffering as an offset for sin comes first of all, I think, from the satisfaction we feel when wrong comes to grief. We hate the wrong, but, not being righteous ourselves, to a degree we cannot keep from hating the wronger as well. In this way the inborn justice of our nature passes over to evil. It is not pleasure to God, as it so often is to us, to see the wicked suffer. To regard any suffering with satisfaction, unless it be sympathetically with its curative quality, comes of evil and is a thing God is incapable of. His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes. Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant. But there is no refuge from the love of God. That love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.
“That hardly sounds like love,” you say. “It’s certainly not the sort of love I care about.”
No, how should you? How should any of us care for it until we begin to know it? But the eternal love will not be moved to yield us to the selfishness that is killing us. You may sneer at such a love, but the Son of God, who took the weight of that love and bore it through the world, is content with it, and so is everyone who truly knows it.
The love of the Father is a radiant perfection. Love and not self-love is Lord of the universe. Justice demands your punishment, because it demands that your Father should do his best for you. God, being the God of justice – that is of fair-play – and having made us what we are (apt to fall and capable of being raised again) is in himself bound to punish in order to deliver us.
There are tenderhearted people who would never have force used nor pain suffered, who talk as if kindness could do everything. Yet were it not for suffering, millions of human beings would never develop an atom of affection. It is folly to conclude that a thing ought not to be done because it hurts. There are powers to be born, creations to be perfected, sinners to be redeemed – all through the ministry of pain – that could be born, perfected, and redeemed in no other way.
The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins is a false notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God’s ways of thinking and feeling. It is salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure.
To such a heart, sin is disgusting. It sees a thing as it is – that is, as God sees it, for God sees everything as it is. Jesus did not die to save us from punishment. He was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins.