CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Sin, Forgiveness and Consequences

Oct 14, 2007

More than once I have been involved in debates with fellow believers over the broad issue of God’s forgiveness and what that entails. More specifically, some have argued that since Christ forgives us, we should not only forgive others, but fully relinquish them from the consequences of their actions. Now to freely forgive is the biblically correct position. But it is an altogether different matter to suggest that once forgiven, a person is free from any consequences of his or her sin.

My critics often take this position in the context of the death penalty debate. They argue that Christians cannot support capital punishment, since to do so would be to repudiate the example of Christ in offering us free and full forgiveness. They argue that we should not demand that the state punish wrongdoers – at least by capital punishment – when Jesus has forgiven us.

But is this in fact the case? As mentioned, Scripture makes it clear that just as God has forgiven us, so we are to forgive others. As individual believers, this is our calling. But what we are commanded to do as individual believers is a different matter from what God has called the state to do.

The responsibilities of the state are in fact different from those of individual believers. God has appointed the state to maintain justice and punish wrongdoers. Thus it has an obligation to carry out punishment when crimes are committed.

consequencesConsider an example. Suppose someone breaks into my house and steals a lot of valued property. Then the criminal is caught, brought to trial, and sentenced to spend some time in jail. The state has performed its God-ordained task of delivering justice.

Now if I wish to personally forgive this robber, I am certainly free to do so. But while I may extend forgiveness to the criminal, the state has an obligation to administer justice. Of course it is possible that if I catch the burglar in the act, and then the police arrive, I might decline to lay charges. I can tell the police I do not wish to press charges, but instead will forgive the robber and let it go at that.

While that is an option for the believer, the state does not have that option. It has a job to secure justice and maintain order. If it decided simply to forgive every criminal, or grant clemency for every criminal act, we would be living in anarchy. There are consequences for our actions, in other words, which the state must recognise.

But leave aside for a moment the role of the state. What about on the individual level? Can a person expect that upon coming to Christ and experiencing total forgiveness that all consequences of past sinful actions are automatically suspended or eliminated? Is that how we should understand the forgiveness which God offers?

Let me give a few examples. Suppose I have been smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for many years. I then become a Christian and become convinced that I should stop smoking. I experience new birth and God’s grace and forgiveness. Does that mean the consequences of thirty years of heavy smoking simply vanish overnight?

Well, it is certainly possible that God can undo the effects of sinful living. But generally speaking, we are stuck with the consequences of our actions. God may have forgiven us, but we usually still reap what we have sown. I may still die young of lung cancer, unless God seeks to intervene and nullify the effect of my tobacco addiction. And that is something he can and sometimes does.

But usually we are left to face the consequences of our actions. Becoming a Christian does not automatically undo the effects of past habits and actions. If I covered myself with tattoos as a non-believer, just because I come to Christ does not mean those tattoos will suddenly disappear. Of course God is fully able to miraculously eliminate such tattoos, but normally I will be stuck with the consequences of my past actions.

As food for thought, let me raise a few other cases. What if someone has had a history of abusing children? They may become a Christian, and experience grace and forgiveness, but prudence may still dictate that such a person not be put in the care of children, as in a Sunday school. Or what about someone with a record of financial impropriety who is forgiven by God? Would it be wise to allow him to become the church treasurer? Maybe, maybe not. But the point remains: forgiveness does not necessarily mean all consequences of past behaviour disappear.

Let me give another example, which also happens to be a true story. A former missionary colleague who I had come to know in Europe had an interesting background as a non-believer. He was a member of the IRA and had been involved in acts of terrorism, including murder. Upon coming to Christ he of course experienced total forgiveness by God. But does that mean his past actions were now consequence-free? He rightly did not think so. After spending some time as a free man, and a forgiven Christian, he turned himself in to the authorities. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to a prison term.

I believe he may still be in prison today. Now some might ask, “Is that right? Doesn’t the fact that Christ has forgiven him mean that the state should as well?” He did not think so, and neither do I. While the punishment for our sins had been dealt with at Calvary, we often still have to face the music; we often still have to accept the consequences of our actions. It is the church’s business to forgive, but the state’s responsibility to execute justice, which includes the punishment of crime.

One Old Testament story will serve as a closing illustration. We all know the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba. In the end he committed two capital offences: adultery and murder. Nathan the prophet was sent by God to confront King David about this (see 2 Samuel 12). He tells a parable about grave injustice and treachery. David is rightly incensed, and says, “This man deserves to die”. Then Nathan pronounces those fateful words: “You are the man”.

David is immediately stricken with grief and guilt, and he deeply and genuinely repents of his sins. Because of his real repentance, Nathan pronounces God’s forgiveness on him, telling him he will not die. Yet do all the consequences of his actions simply disappear? No. Some severe consequences indeed are to follow, including the death of his son, losing some of his wives, and generations of division and conflict (“the sword will never depart from your house”). God had forgiven David, but the consequences of his actions remained.

Of course in this episode some legitimate questions arise. Why was David not executed for his crimes as the law had demanded? Several responses can be given here. Since God is the author of both life and death, he is free to decide if and when punishment is handed out. Also, there were other penalties applied: David’s son dies, and bloodshed and divisions within the family will long afflict David’s descendents. And the messiah is of course to come through David and his descendants.

Also, why did an innocent person – David’s son – die for the wrongdoing of David? The remarks of Bill Arnold (from his NIVAC commentary) are worth recording here: “The answer lies in the Bible’s distinction between punishment and consequence. The child’s death is a result of David’s sin, but this is not the same as punishment. It is a fundamental principle of life that God may forgive and cleanse us of all wrongdoing, but the consequences of our sin may, and in fact, often, remain. The innocent suffer for crimes committed by someone else, but such suffering is not punishment for those crimes. A crack [cocaine] baby may die soon after birth because the mother used crack during pregnancy. The child dies, the mother lives. The child’s death is not the punishment but the consequences of the mother’s sin. Her punishment will take a different form.”

But this story nicely illustrates the fact that while a person may be forgiven, there still can remain very real consequences. Arnold is again worth citing: “At the same time as [2 Sam.] 12:13 illustrates God’s merciful forgiveness, 12:14 illustrates the unmitigated consequences of sin, even though forgiven by God. The punishment of death has been turned aside from David because of his repentance, but the aftermath of sin remains; the child will die. Sin that has been forgiven and forgotten by God may still leave human scars.”

In sum, we have a wonderful saviour who offers complete and amazing forgiveness. He has taken upon himself the penalty for our sins. But sometimes we still must bear the consequences of our actions. Indeed, if I, as a forgiven and redeemed Christian, go out and murder someone, why should I expect to be let off the hook? I may repent and be forgiven by God, but I still must pay off my debt to society.

So we all can rejoice in God’s marvellous forgiveness. But his forgiveness has come at a price – the death of his son. And the principle of sowing and reaping is not just an Old Testament concept. It is found in the New Testament as well. Thus the biblical Christian takes seriously both the tragedy of sin and its consequences, and the matchless grace and forgiveness as found on Christ.

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34 Responses to Sin, Forgiveness and Consequences

  • This is most relevant for the case of Karla Faye Tucker, a murderess who became a born-again Christian. The then Texas governor George W. Bush was attacked for not granting clemency and allowing her execution. But he did the right thing: Tucker may have been completely forgiven by God, but she still needed to face the consequence of her actions, including her execution.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Very well argued Bill. God’s forgiveness is not at the expense of justice for it is only in Christ that mercy and truth meet, righteousness and peace kiss each other. (Ps. 85:10) “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
    The State is charged with upholding justice but is not in a position to provide a substitute.
    John Nelson

  • I don’t disagree entirely Bill, but I want to toss in an argument for argument’s sake.

    Through Christ, it is possible for regeneration and restoration of the soul, indeed it is a major theme of the New Testament. 1 Cor 6:11 “… and that was what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the LORD Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

    Who are we to continue to prosecute those whom God has forgiven? The offender’s offence against us is trivial compared to the offence God has forgiven.

    The second point I would mention is that God does take the consequences of our actions away on salvation. The earthly consequences are the trivial ones and I see that even there, God alleviates many of those. The spiritual death and rejection resulting from sin are the main consequences of our actions and are outworked here on earth as we continue without God. For example, Paul describes himself correctly as a murderer and the least of the apostles, yet he is continually amazed at God not visiting on his own head the consequences of his past actions, which is grace.

    Hence, I find myself disagreeing with your examples of who to choose for what positions within the church. Each of us is no better than any other. While prudence may dictate to remove temptation from our brothers and sisters in areas they have been known to fail, I feel that it is incorrect in light of grace to continue the label of a past life within the church “Who are we to judge another’s servant?”.

    I am fairly disturbed by the Queensland Government’s use of the blue card and child safety management systems which have now been stringently applied to the church in QLD for teaching Sunday School, RE and youth groups. It dictates to the church who they may appoint for such roles. The gospel and thus the church is the only agent capable of the regeneration of society and individual’s lives. If it were not so, we could hold no hope for our fallen race. To dictate as the QLD gov has done to deny the church its power and God his grace.

    I would like to add Plutarch’s (who was no Christian) comments on divine justice taken from Philip Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church”

    “He answers the various objections which arise from the delay of justice and vindicates Providence in his dealings with the sinner. He enjoins first modesty and caution in view of our imperfect knowledge. God only knows best when and how and how much to punish. He offers the following considerations: 1) God teaches us to moderate our anger, and never to punish in a passion, but to imitate his gentleness and forbearance. 2) He gives the wicked an opportunity to repent and reform. 3) He permits them to live and prosper that he may use them as executioners of his justice on others. He often punishes the sinner by the sinner. 4) The wicked are sometimes spared that they may bless the world by a noble posterity. 5) Punishment is often deferred that the hand of Providence may be more conspicuous in its infliction.”

    Lennard Caldwell, QLD

  • Thanks Lennard

    Concerning, “Who are we to continue to prosecute those whom God has forgiven?” We are nobody, and we may not have any right to prosecute – as individual believers. We are to forgive as Christ forgave. But that is different from the obligation of the state. They have a divine calling to punish evil and mete out justice. Thus no individual has a right to do this, but the state certainly does.

    But I think it is wrong to say God takes away the consequences of our sin. He takes away the punishment due to us, because he applied it to his son. But consequences remain. They certainly did for King David.

    You are right to say our offence against God is always greater. And yes, none of us is better than another. But that misses the point. Jesus said often the children of the world are wiser than the children of light.

    Let me give an example. I know of a pastor who was found to be molesting children in Sunday school. What should the church do in this case? Forgive and forget? In this case, they had no policy, so they simply shifted him to another church! Please, let’s get real here. Here should be in jail for abusing children, for heaven’s sake, not making the rounds of other churches!

    With all due respect, if I knew I guy was messing around with kids, I don’t care if he is a believer or not, or even claims to have been forgiven – I do not want him hanging around with my children. As Jesus also said, we should be wise as servants, harmless as doves. Sometimes we are not too wise, and allow real garbage to go unchecked in our churches, all in the name of grace.

    Sure, we are all dirty rotten scoundrels, and all exist only because of the grace of God. But that does not mean we show no wisdom or discernment in some of these areas. We need to take very seriously indeed things like the potential abuse of children in our churches – or anywhere else for that matter.

    Admittedly these are tough cases, and believers will disagree on how to proceed at times. What do others think?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your considered reply. I accept the distinction between consequences and punishment. There are always consequences for every decision we make whether good or bad.

    I agree with your example of the pastor who should of been handed over to the secular authorities, but would like to point out that it differs from my main point of regeneration. Paul makes the distinction between the sin of confessing Christians and the past sin of pre-salvation. He says to put out of the church those who continue to sin after receiving grace and presents cases which disqualify members of the church from leadership due to their sins within the church. I certaintly don’t agree with the policies of certain churches to sweep it under the carpet lest Christ be maligned by outsiders. The church must maintain its integrity if it is to be any witness at all.

    I would suggest that the church is a type or model for the state. That to introduce independance is the slippery path to secularism. The convictions of Christians in regards to justice and reformation should be transfered to the state. This was the attitude of the church around the time of Constantine.

    There is also an attitude of Christians ( a reflection of the culture perhaps) to regard some sins (such as paedophilia) as worse than others. In terms of Biblical Christianity, this is artificial.

    I am not advocating putting in your local Bible bashing paedophile in charge of the local sunday school (blind grace, if you like), only that it is an abuse of the state’s power to interfere within the church’s operation in this way because it doesn’t recognise the power of regeneration that Calvary brings. Of course, a church needs to be very sure of the character of an individual before affording such a responsibility.

    It is not naive to believe that the gospel can transform the souls of even hardened offenders. Without the regeneration of individuals, culture can not be redeemed. The gospel has shown time and time again that it is capable of doing just that.

    There has been long debate in Christian circles about the criminal justice system, about the possibility of reformation and the severity of punishment of offenders. I can only point out that attitudes moved away from the severe punishments and capital punishment of the 18th century because of the Christian ideas of reformation and restraint not because of humanistic equivalence or misguided ideas of pyscological engineering.

    I admit and I think that the Bible proves it, there is no easy way of dealing with sin and thus, administrating justice.

    Lennard Caldwell, QLD

  • Bill, an excellent debate.

    From Lennard Caldwell QLD 16.10.07 / 8am:

    “I would suggest that the church is a type or model for the state.”

    Sorry Lennard but I disagree here. The Church and the State are different instruments for administering God’s authority on earth, have different purposes, different constituents, and definitely different authority and accountability to God.

    “It is not naive to believe that the gospel can transform the souls of even hardened offenders.”

    True, but actions have consequences (as Bill made the point and as you acknowledged). One of the consequences is that some actions (of sin) disqualify a person from holding certain offices/positions.

    For example, God says “I hate divorce” and “what God has joined, let no man separate.”

    I would say that if a couple decide they cannot live together as husband and wife, they may separate – but not to re-marry. That is, their action of marriage remains fixed in history and their separation has the consequence of preventing any “further marriage” (now there’s an oxymoron! 🙂 )

    Similarly, using Bill’s illustration, apart from God’s specific direction, a person with a criminal record of fraud and financial embezzlement has probably precluded himself from any office involving sums of money – especially other people’s money. This would be in addition to the caution to avoid putting temptation in a person’s way and causing them to stumble.

    That may be tough – but that’s justice, not mercy. And the State is not called upon to administer mercy.

    John Angelico

  • Sorry John but I also disagree here. “The Church and the State are different instruments for administering God’s authority on earth.”

    I thought we believed in separation of church and state? you don’t seriously propose that the state is accountable to god? there must be some kind of misunderstanding here I hope?

    Luke Quisquater, Belgium

  • How do you know if God, Jesus et al has forgiven you? Do they communicate this message to you in some way or is it an assumption? If a priests says God forgives you, what does it mean? Does the priest ask God about the forgiveness and does God reply?
    Ben Green

  • Interesting point John about marriage. I was pondering the question of forgiveness and consequences in marriage. There’s the paradox of the fact that we are told to forgive as many times as the person asks for forgiveness and shows repentance, yet we are also instructed to be wise when trusting and cautioned about continuing in a situation where repeat offences are made. So where does the forgiveness end and the consequences start? And what are acceptable consequences? And at what stage is it okay to call it quits on a person? Maybe that’s where we have to be, on one hand, led by the boundaries set in scripture, and on the other, the strictures that the state puts on us.

    And in regards to church positions – the scriptures seem to say that divorcees should not be running churches. Surely that’s the consequence – exclusion from positions of leadership – or should we just forgive and forget? It seems to me that there’s good natural reasons for excluding people from positions due to past sins – even if it’s just for accountability sake. Should we not seek to be (not just appear) spotless in the sight of the world, as before God?

    I think this is an aspect of the role that the state plays which is essential to the accountability that we should all live by.

    Garth Penglase

  • Thanks Ben

    Being an atheist (as you indicate in your previous posts), I am not sure if this is a serious question on your part or merely a rhetorical question. But let me offer a serious answer. God has spoken to us through his son Jesus Christ, and clearly told us that we can know how our sins can be forgiven.

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)

    “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)

    Of course if one rejects the very idea of God, his son Jesus, and an inspired Bible, then these passages may not mean much. But those three big ticket items can also be argued for and defended, if that path needs to be gone down.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Luke

    Biblical Christians have no problem whatsoever in believing that the God of the universe holds both individuals and nations accountable. The Bible speaks about this throughout both Testaments.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    Yes it was a serious question. Does an open ended forgiveness give people an excuse not to be responsible for their own actions? That can be a very dangerous state of mind. I read your passages above and I still do not understand the connection between being “saved” and “forgiveness”.

    Ben Green

  • Thanks Ben

    These are very important and somewhat complex questions you are asking. Let me try to give a quick answer.

    The biblical doctrine is that we are all a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels (sinners) and none of us deserve forgiveness. But yes it is freely offered to us based on the fact that our sins were not left unpunished, but somehow transferred to Jesus. He suffered our punishment so that we do not have to get our just deserts (eternal separation from God, or hell).

    So yes, salvation is all of grace, freely offered to all of us. The first question is whether we will receive that offer. It involves recognising and confessing our own selfishness (sin), and accepting what Christ has done on our behalf. But it does not end there, with just a simple pardon.

    Salvation is just the beginning. The rest of the Christian life is about progressively letting the spirit of God remake us, to be less and less selfish, and more and more Christlike. It is not something we can do ourselves, but God’s spirit in us helps to transform us.

    So we are freely forgiven, but that is just the start. The rest of our life is supposed to be about being what we were originally intended to be: people in a love relationship with God, reflecting that love to others.

    The apostle Paul actually raised the very question you did, in Romans 6:1-4. People said, gee Paul, if it is all of grace, then we can keep on sinning, so that more grace may be manifest. Paul says no way Hose (or words to that effect). Once saved, we have a responsibility, with God’s help, to say no to sin and yes to God.

    Does that mean believers become perfect in this life? No. We still all blow it, but a real Christian seeks to be transformed, knowing it is a lifelong process. And yes you are right to raise issues of justice and fairness here. Being freely forgiven is not meant to be an excuse to go on living selfishly and sinfully.

    As you rightly ask, we are to be responsible for our actions? Yes, but it is a somewhat tricky equation here. Grace is free – we do absolutely nothing to earn our initial forgiveness and inclusion into the family of God. But that grace was not cheap: it cost God his only son. And the ideal which all believers are to strive for (again, with God’s help, not just by our own efforts), is to go on to become more like our heavenly father, and less like our own sinful selves. And yes, some people who have been saved may not let God fully work in their life, and it seems like they are getting away with murder, even though forgiven. But Scripture also teaches that we believers will also face our maker and judge (who is aso our loving heavenly father) one day, not to deal with the issue of salvation, but how we lived our life after conversion.

    I hope that does not sound all too airy fairy. It is, very sketchily, the New Testament picture of conversion and beyond. Consider the two thieves who were crucified along with Jesus. One scoffed at Jesus, the other recognised Jesus as saviour, repented and asked for, and received, eternal life.

    This is an example of a so-called death bed conversion. It may not seem right that someone can live a sinful life for decades, and then just find pardon at the very end. It may not seem fair. But then again, as I said, none of us deserve eternal life. None of us deserve God’s forgiveness. We all deserve a lost eternity away from God. Thus salvation is all of grace. God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

    Thus in the end there are only two groups of people: those who see their need, acknowledge their sin, and cast themselves upon the grace and mercy of God, and those who reject that offer. That John 3 passage I cited earlier is as good a summary as any of these two paths we can follow.

    If you are really keen to learn more, I would recommend getting a copy of the New Testament, and read for yourself the life, claims and teachings of Jesus in one of the Gospels, say the Gospel of Mark, or John. Thanks again for your questions.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hello Ben.

    It is very hard to understand the concept of forgivness and accountability if you haven’t been saved by the grace of God. It is only by his grace that we are saved, (or another way to put it, a born again experience of the Holy spirit). Jesus sent us a comforter, being the Holy Spirit, so that we could have a personal relationship with him in our every day lives. Because we are human we are not perfect and it takes the whole of our lives to understand the love of Jesus and his teachings and to follow him. It is only by grace that we are forgiven and yes as Christians we are accountable for the life we have led after our conversion.

    Bill suggested that you read the New Testament because this will give you a better understanding of what Jesus’ teachings are all about.

    Rae Wallace, Devonport

  • Hi Rae,

    I have read much of the bible over the years and am currently researching the origins of it. I also fully understand the concept of forgiveness and accountability. I live my life by it every day. Suggesting that you need to be “saved” to understand such things is quite odd.

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the lengthy reply though I still find the concept of open ended forgiveness dangerous. I understand the concept but really, what purpose does it serve other than to make the perpetrator “feel good”? It can never be validated. As you pointed out there are many examples of death bed conversion some of which are people on death row. Why should someone who has lived an absolutely violent life be granted a pardon right at the end. There is no justice for the innocent victims there. Shouldn’t forgiveness come from the victims? Having some intangible 3rd party take responsibility violates the rights of the victim. Of course I am taking a rather extreme case but let me bring it back. If child A does something to child B and is told if you seek forgiveness from God all is ok. Well, I disagree. All is not ok. Forgiveness has to come from each other. It is in essence, an agreement. One of the parties must offer remorse and the other must accept. Having an unrelated 3rd part just ignores the victim and allows for an escape clause.

    I pose another question. Is a baby born without sin?

    Ben Green

  • Thanks Ben

    As usual, some very good questions, but as usual, not something I can properly respond to in a short comment, but I will nonetheless try.

    As to your response to Rae, the New Testament actually supports her view. Paul for example says that to the “unsaved,” the things of the spirit are foolishness. He argues that spiritual truths can only be properly discerned and understood by spiritual people (those who have the Spirit of God – 1 Cor. 2:6-16). A poor analogy might be the difference between being blind and having perfect vision. The things described by a seeing person may sound odd at best, or incredulous at worst, to a blind person.

    And you raise a concern which I did already address. Yes it does seem unfair. But a few points. I am not sure that a concept of fairness makes any sense, unless there is some standard apart from you and I with which to measure fairness and unfairness. In a totally materialistic universe, such a non-material concept as fairness seems to be out of place.

    Also, it is not quite as you suggest: a person does wrong, repents and is forgiven by God, and “all is OK”. There are consequences for actions, as I said. And God takes seriously what we do in this life. His forgiveness is not cheap grace, or a license to get away with anything. His grace is partly meant to lead us to reconsider what we are doing. “The goodness of God leads us to repentance” says Paul in Romans 2:4.

    Part of the work of Christ on the cross is to show us the enormous gravity of our sin, and to show us it must be avoided at all costs. So again, no cheap grace here. If a person does wrong, and repents, he should have some real grief over his wrong doing, and as I said in my article, should be willing to face the music. Thus my IRA friend who was a murderer did find full and complete pardon and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. But he also lamented his sin greatly, and turned himself in, and is now paying the price in prison. So that should allay some of your concerns about a lack of justice here.

    And as I tried to argue in my last point, in one sense, no mercy is fair. If we take seriously the biblical position about fallen humanity, that we are all sinful and selfish, and all have effectively sought to usurp the role of God and take his place as the centre of the universe, then why should God show mercy on any of us? We are all guilty. None of us deserve mercy. That is a constant theme of Scripture. So in a sense it is not fair that God should forgive any.

    So yes, it may seem unfair. What if Hitler had a death bed conversion? It would seem most unfair that he received pardon in the end, and sins forgiven, despite all his years of horror. Yet that is what grace and mercy are. They are for the undeserving. And as the Bible makes clear (and must be realised and accepted by us), we are all guilty. None of us are deserving.

    God offers forgiveness because of what Jesus did on our behalf. This is really the starting point of all else. We will get nowhere in understanding the gospel of availing ourselves of it, unless we first accept God’s prognosis of our condition. Sin has not just left us ill, but as Paul says, we are dead in our sins. Dead people can’t help themselves. They need outside help big time.

    Which is exactly why Jesus came. He said people who are well have no need of a doctor. He said he came for sinners, not the righteous. And he made it clear that no one is righteous; we are all sinful, in need of a saviour. That is rock-bottom Christianity. But for those too proud or too self–righteous, that will always be a stumbling stone, a rock of offence.

    Finally, most Christians believe in what is known as original sin. Thus we not only individually choose to sin, but sin is passed on, if you will, from those who have gone before. So we are sinners both by actions and by nature. All the more reason why we need help, and why we cannot help ourselves.

    But again, Rae has a point. All this will seem like so much foolishness to some, especially if their intent is just to score points or win debates. It is more than an intellectual exercise, in other words. It is a matter of life and death quite literally, and thus these questions should be approached with all due seriousness and earnestness. Thanks again for asking. Hope this helps.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • bill, “original sin” is something I find instinctively repulsive: how could you blame an innocent baby for something so serious that – I suppose – it could cost eternal damnation ? it is an idea I could never accept (and have never accepted); is it based on the scripture? or was it invented later on? and when does the original sin supposedly begin: at conception or at birth?
    Luke Quisquater, Belgium

  • Thanks Luke

    It is a large and complex topic which I can only skim here. Not all Christians hold to the idea. It was especially promoted by Augustine and has stronger acceptance in, say, the Reformed churches, than in some others. But there are numerous places in Scripture which attest to the basic belief. Consider a few:

    Romans 5:12-21 is the main passage in which Paul lays out this doctrine. The first verse says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”

    Or as he says in Ephesians 2:3: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.”

    The Old Testament also speaks to it. Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Or Psalm 58:3: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.”

    While it is not fully clear how this all happens, there are ways to address the seeming unfairness of it all. First, other passages do speak to the fact that we are responsible for our own sin: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.” (Ezekiel 18:20)

    Also, many hold that those dying in infancy, before an age of accountability, are covered by the grace of God. But once we reach an age wherein we can be responsible for our actions, and accountable, then what we do with the gospel determines our destiny. But both cases are covered by the shed blood of Christ,

    Also some understand the idea of us all being in Adam in different ways. Some, like Pelagius said it means we imitate Adam. We sin like Adam. And there is merit to this. The biblical train of thought would suggest that if you or I were in the place of Adam, we would have gone the same way as he has.

    Others look at Adam as our representative, or corporate head, and so on.

    But on the whole, it fits with the biblical message that we live in a fallen world, and everything has become corrupted and distorted from God’s original intention. And the fact that God has done everything he could to get us out of this predicament, including not sparing his only son, means whatever unfairness we see in it all is more than offset by what God has done on our behalf. The ultimate unfairness is really that a perfect, innocent and guiltless Jesus should take our sin and its penalty upon himself so that we do not have to suffer the consequences.

    So we need to see all this from God’s point of view as well.

  • Hi Ben, great to read your posts. Can I just comment on something you said? …

    “Forgiveness has to come from each other. It is in essence, an agreement. One of the parties must offer remorse and the other must accept. Having an unrelated 3rd part just ignores the victim and allows for an escape clause.”

    What is forgiveness – an agreement, a contract, a mutual understanding? And what does forgiveness do? does it mean that it only works when both people agree on it?

    Firstly, we have done nothing to earn God’s forgiveness. It is given freely not because we asked for it. We can accept it or reject it, but God’s forgiveness is there, done and complete. He has no unresolved issues with us and as such is totally loving toward us.

    In the same way, there have been countless examples of abused children etc. coming to a place of forgiveness through repeatedly forgiving their abusers until they were free of what had been wrought upon them. And often without any contact with the perpetrator. Interestingly the result of forgiveness is that one can again love the other person for who they are.

    Our forgiveness of others sets us free to love again as much as it sets them free. Only when the perpetrator can actually accept the forgiveness offered in his/her heart are they set free.

    Forgiveness isn’t about lack of accountability for the perpetrator, however it is about us no longer holding them in debt to us, no longer exacting a price for their actions.

    The truth is that the truly forgiving heart wants no vengence on the other or price to be paid by the other, and has love for the other and this results in freedom for the offended, while the perpetrator continues to suffer for his deeds until he comes to a place of repentance. There is no escape for either without forgiveness or repentance because God has put immutable laws in place that make it to be so. We may think that people ‘get away with murder’ but in truth they don’t – if they truly repent and change their ways they will still suffer the consequences of their actions but they will be able to move forward to better things for their life, and if they don’t they not only suffer the consequences but they continue to bring destruction upon themselves, to their soul and to those around them.

    And lastly, God’s laws are hard to understand sometimes but, even though we cannot see why, they do work. Even though it may seem to be foolishness for Jesus to say ‘if a man strike you on one side of the face, offer him the other’ and ‘if a man takes your cloak from you offer him your garment too’ or ‘if man compels you to go with him one mile, go another as well’ it is because God’s love conquers all. God’s justice is not our justice. Our justice is based in our rights, his is based in love for others. That’s why forgiveness works.

    Garth Penglase

  • So far we have talked about punishment and consequences. I would like to bring in a third concept — responsibility. We propose that the consequences of my sin are not lifted because of Christ’s work (even there our language is pretty loose, because what greater consequence could there be than the wrath of God which is lifted? So when we say our sins still have consequences we must mean something more narrow than simply “the consequences of our sins”. Maybe we mean some effects of our sins, on ourselves and others may not be lifted? I say some, because again, the biggest effect of my sin on myself is the wrath of God, which is lifted.)

    So, my sin still has some effects on myself and others. Here comes responsibility. If I have been forgiven, should I still feel the weight of responsibility for these effects of my sin? If my sin caused something bad to happen to someone else, should I feel the burden of responsibility for that the rest of my life, even though I have been forgiven by God? The New Testament talks about a cleansing of the conscience as a benefit of the blood of Christ. Would that mean I should not feel a burden of responsibility — wouldn’t a life long burden of responsibility indicate a dirty conscience, not a clean conscience?

    How does God’s sovereignty fit into all this? The fact that although he gives us a degree of free will, he has not given up his complete authority and control over all things? Is my sin really the primary reason that consequence happened, or are other factors at play? Who decides what are the consequences of my sin? Do I get to decide that? Does God? Sometimes we believe it is clear, my cause A had effect B. But often it is much more complicated than that. Can I ever really know the consequences of my sin, or is the understanding of those repercussions, at play with myriad other factors a thing “too great and wonderful for me”?

    I don’t really have a handle on this, and I wish I did. I pray that God will give us spiritual wisdom and knowledge in these things, as Paul prayed for in Ephesians.

    But I can say this — in our efforts to argue an issue like capital punishment, let us strive with God’s grace and help to not make God smaller and less powerful than he is, or to make the finished work of Christ smaller and less powerful than it is. I am not accusing anyone of having done that, just saying I see that as a real danger in this kind of discussion.

    Bo Eaton

  • Update on my last post. Now that I read it again, I think I really meant “guilt”, where I had “responsibility.” Feel free to substitute “guilt” for “responsibility” as you read it. Although, the responsibility question is still valid as well. What if I made a sinful mistake that caused 100 billion dollars of damage (It could happen in certain occupations.) Even though I’m forgiven by God, do I still need to try and pay back 100 billion dollars?
    Bo Eaton

  • Thanks Bo

    I guess the distinction between the State dealing with crime, and the church dealing with sin, comes into play here. If the guy lost 100 billion, either through neglect, fraud, carelessness or whatever, he has an obligation to pay for the crime (he may not be able to pay it back, but he might serve some jail time). God and believers may well forgive him, but that does not mean he is fully off the hook, at least in terms of the State.

    And yes, we all should be more aware of and appreciative of the grace of God.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bo, a very valid post. Christ came to set us free from sin, not necessarily the effects of sin, and certainly not from guilt about our sin. Much of what is taught in churches could be considered to be ‘cheap grace’ where God’s forgiveness is used to cover pre-meditation and intention of sin instead warning the believer against their sinful ways and actions and expecting real repentance (not just remorse), and also to encourage the person to move ‘forward’ in their life without dealing with the root causes of their sinful actions. What has happened to teaching on responsibility and restitution? This is not just a stats issue of expecting people to ‘make good’ for what they have done.

    A good and real life example comes to mind: a staff pastor in a church committed adultery and it became known to the senior pastor and the other staff. Whereas a lot of churches would keep the fact hidden and ‘work through the issues’ privately with the offending pastor, the senior pastor called it what it was, sin, and expected repentance from the offending staff pastor. As he had dishonoured the position of authority, the staff pastor was expected to make restitution for it and it was agreed by both parties that he would step down from pastoral duties for over a year , apologise to the church and the people he had offended, and he would be expected to seek ministry to assist him with coming to deal with the root cause of his actions.

    Echoing Ben’s concerns about ‘open ended forgiveness’ being dangerous, I strongly agree with him. It could be dangerous if viewed purely form a natural, non-spiritual, perspective, and Bill rightly links that back to the state’s natural responsibility of punishing wrong-doers. But church authority also has a responsibility to uphold a standard of holiness, openness and accountability – this is why the New Testament speaks about sin being brought out in the open, into the light, and dealt with and the person held accountable, and where it recurs, for the offending person to be disciplined and even put out of the body.

    To answer Ben, from a spiritual point of view, sin and forgiveness works a bit differently than he thinks. The Apostle Paul clearly states that a person walking in the ‘light’ of God’s truth will be convicted of their sin by the Holy Spirit and will take steps to renounce and turn from it, not to seek sin nor repeat it. So God’s forgiveness is continual but our need for it in a particular area should not be, otherwise we are not hating the sin enough and seek God to help us change and grow, and there’s a problem in our lives that we are not dealing with. God’s love leads us to repentance and gradual transformation out of sin toward holiness. If that isn’t happening then it’s questionable wihether sin is actual being dealt with.

    Garth Penglase

  • I hope you can answer a question for me. Before becoming a christian I lived a life that I am not proud of. I committed adultry, lied, and was just totally messed up. I learned that my behavior came from a childhood of abuse and violence. Now, as a christian my husband is attempting to get attention from women. I have never cheated on my current husband nor have ever wanted to but I can’t help but to wonder if I am facing consequences of those things I have done in the past by having to deal with man who may be cheating on me. Is this reeping what I have sowed? Please can you answer this for me.
    Mary

  • Thanks Mary

    Although you have provided your full name (as I require) I have not printed it all here in order to protect your privacy. I of course do not know all the details of your situation so I am not well placed to answer you specifically. My article lays out general principles which seem to still apply here. But the thing I would emphasise is our God is a forgiving God and a God of new beginnings. He tells us he will not remember our sins, and will remove them as far as east is from west.

    It is always a bit dangerous to say that current troubles or misfortunes are the result of past sins. That is what Job’s friends tried to tell job, but they were wrong and God rebuked them for their wrong advice. The truth is, living in a fallen world, we all experience hardships and troubles and trials. It is part of living in this sin-affected world. As I mentioned in my article, sometimes a direct link can be tied in (say between lots of smoking and lung cancer), but usually we are just not sure why troubles afflict us and whether they have any earlier causes.

    So my very general advice to you would be that our God delights in mercy and forgiveness, and he is not going around looking to thump people for past sins. He offers full and complete forgiveness, and we need to accept that and agree with God about it. That does not mean we will live problem-free lives as Christians, or not have some repercussions from past bad choices, but for the most part we need to just trust God and believe he is not in the business of vengeance or pay back. As long as you have fully and freely acknowledged your past sins and repented of them, as far as God is concerned, it is as if you never sinned – so free and complete is God’s forgiveness. So instead of trying to second-guess God here, just rejoice in his lavish grace and enjoy his forgiveness.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I disagree with you but it may just be semantics. I see punishment as something that is imposed by God, the state or some other authority. Consequences come about naturally via cause and effect. I can see how some of David’s troubles were caused by his sin but I can’t see how his child dying was a natural consequence. God caused the death of the child and therefore it was a punishment, though a different punishment than that required by law.
    Kylie Anderson

  • Interesting discussion. I know I come in a bit late but it ain’t much out there discussing this important topic.
    A man I counsel just asked me a question. He has come to the Lord and after that just found out that he is a father to a ten year old daughter. He is not married but he is now dating and doesn’t want to let his girlfriend know about this. She knows he has a wild past. I advice him to tell her the truth before they are married but he cannot accept this.
    This child is the consequences of his sin, the sin God has forgiven and now he wants to forget it. All legal things are cleared out, he says, and now he wants to live for the future. I cannot find a Bible verse to help him. What would you do in a situation like this? He thinks I am judging him for his background. I want to help him make the right decision and prepare for a good marriage. What would be your advice to him.
    Ben Svensen

  • Thanks Ben

    I am not a counsellor and I do not all the details of this case. But it seems honesty is the best policy here. It will be far worse if she finds out about this later on, perhaps from a third party, I would think.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thank you, Bill, for the fast reply!
    Honesty wins for sure! That is my firm belief.
    But generally, it is rather common with children that came to be in sin, children that are all wonderfully made by God, gifts from him, right?
    Sin complicates your life and there are consequences and responsibilities that might effect your whole life, even though the sin is forgiven.
    A child is not erased just because the sin is.
    The state demands you take responsibility but how about God?
    Ben Svensen

  • Ben, I would say that if the state “demands you take responsibility” then this should be enough of a reason for a Christian to comply since God commands that we obey the laws of the land (unless those laws contradict any of God’s laws). And I don’t see that a law that compels parents to take responsibility for their children to be in conflict with any of God’s laws. In fact it would seem to be totally consistent with God’s intentions and is probably the case that such laws originally had their grounding in a biblical view of family, law, and government.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Do you think it is okay to pray for remittance of punishment for those suffering these consequences? Should we instead just pray for the wisdom to accept the punishment? For example, I have a nephew who has been in jail for drug use, has stolen from others, and was accused of battering his girlfriend. He is out now, trying to work. Yet to the extent he does not work, he relies on us; he has no one else. Some of our prayers along those lines would appear to be selfish, and probably are, because we feel sorry for him, but also know that he often asks more than we can give. But we’d like to see him turn his life around, in general. Comments will be appreciated.

    Judy Ford

  • The problem here is a false and seriously deadly mixture of spheres of sovereignty. God has ordained the Church through Christ to be the ministers and administrators of His grace. He has likewise ordained the State (see Romans 13 for starters) to be the minister and administrator of justice. The problem is that both the State and the Church have forgotten this, and so the State assumes the role of the Church in administering grace instead of justice…in this case the death penalty.

    Have a read of R J Rushdoony’s Law and Liberty for starters.

    Steve Swartz

  • I understand the crack baby dying as a consequence of mother’s sins. And that converted murderers still must take their punishment, and even the child of King David’s adultery dying but I don’t understand the sins David’s children committed as many say (his subsequent family problems) being a consequence of David’s personal sins, as his sons also had a choice to sin or not to.

  • The greatest re-generation, the greatest miracle in my life happened when finally I answered Jesus calling, when I came to a state of understanding the enormity of the consequence of my actions. They have left a deep mark of hurt on a number of people, among them my wife. And yet I can rejoice in the fact ( undeserved as it may be ) that God’s love is unconditional for a repentant sinner. And back again to the core message of the Scripture in John 3: 16 ” for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. It is such a mystery, that there is such a pure, undeserved love, a love big enough to sacrifice His only Son for, not his friends, but enemies. Incredible. It demands obedience out of thankfulness, if nothing else. The greatest problem for me prior to meeting my Lord and Savior, was distinguishing between life here on earth ( short as it may be), and eternal ( “everlasting”) life. Life that will have no end. My life changed as I started receiving a dim view, a blessed assurance of the reality of life with this ever loving Father. Though thankful for life in flesh apportioned to me, I no longer cling onto it, but am looking forward to eternity in God my Savior’s presence. How wonderful it will be living an “eternity” in a world of perfection, where there will be no more sin. where neither I can cause distress to anyone, nor can anyone cause distress to me. I presume that every truly repentant wrongdoer, should be longing for the same, whatever their crime against humanity may be. It should be everyone’s aim to rid themselves of all that separates them from a perfect communion with God.

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