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Does Sin Deserve to Be Punished?

September 19, 2013

crossChristopher Wright addresses a critical question in our understanding of what Jesus accomplished on the cross:

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As I ponder all aspects of the cross and try to assess what it means to include the word ‘penal’ in our understanding of Christ’s substitutionary death, I cannot escape asking the question again, Does sin deserve to be punished? And is such proper retribution part of God’s sovereign, holy, loving justice in ruling the universe he created?

If not: then great swathes of the Bible make no sense or are clearly in error. For the Bible affirms from cover to cover that there is a dimension of just and proper punishment with which God in holy, loving justice responds to human wrongdoing.

If not: then we would seem to be adrift in a universe of ultimate moral indeterminancy. We can have no confidence that justice will finally be done, that God himself will be vindicated, or that all the evil in the history of the world will ever be fully dealt with.

If not: then the very concepts of grace and mercy seem to be emptied of meaning. It has been said that grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve, while mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve. Certainly, in the Bible grace and mercy override all that we could ever, or actually do, deserve. But if there is no such thing as ‘what we deserve’ at all, no moral relationship between our behaviour and its consequences, then it seems vacuous to speak of grace or mercy.

But if so: then it seems inescapable that we should include this dimension in the great cosmic achievement of the cross of Christ. To say that ‘Jesus bore my sin on the cross’ must mean not only that he bore the worst that my sin could inflict on him (though it truly does mean that), but also that he bore the consequences of what my sin would otherwise incur for me. It means not just that Christ bore my unjust deeds, but also that he bore my just deserts. He not only took what I did to him; he took what I deserve from God.

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– Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 152-153.

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