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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why God Must Punish Sin according to Jonathan Edwards

The Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (PST) rests upon the foundation of the theory of retributive justice (see this prior post). The idea is that an evil act inherently deserves to be punished or "paid-back" (in order to balance the scales of justice). To fail to punish the evil act for any reason is a failure of justice according to the retributive theory of justice. Since God is perfectly just (and holy), according to the defenders of the PST, it would violate his very nature to let sin go unpunished. Note how Jonathan Edwards makes the case in his article entitled, "Concerning The Necessity And Reasonableness Of The Christian Doctrine Of Satisfaction For Sin," (in The Works of President Edwards in 4 volumes [1844], vol. I, 582-611).

1.The crime itself deserves punishment (retributive justice).

Justice requires that sin be punished, because sin deserves punishment. What the demerit of sin calls for, justice calls for; for it is only the same thing; in different words. For the notion of a desert of punishment, is the very same as a just connection with punishment. None will deny but that there is such a thing, in some cases, as the desert or demerit of a crime, its calling for, or requiring punishment. And to say that the desert of a crime does require punish. ment, is just the same thing as to say, the reason why it requires it is, that it deserves it. So that the suitableness of the connection between the crime and the punishment, consists in the desert; and therefore, wherever desert is, there is such suitableness. None will deny that some crimes are so horrid, and so deserving of punishment, that it is requisite that they should not go unpunished, unless something very considerable be done to make up for the crime; either some answerable repentance, or some other compensation, that in some measure at least balances the desert of punishment, and so, as it were, takes it off, or disannuls it: otherwise the desert of punishment remaining, all will allow, that it is fit and becoming, and to be desired, that the crime should be severely punished. And why is it so, but only from the demerit of the crime, or because the crime so much deserves such a punishment. It justly excites so great abhorrence and indignation, that it is requisite there should be a punishment answerable to this abhorrence and indignation that is fitly excited by it. But by this, all is granted that needs to be granted, to show, that desert of punishment carries in it a requisiteness of the punishment deserved. For if greater crimes do very much require punishment, because of their great demerit, lesser crimes will also require punishment, but only in a lesser degree, proportionally to their demerit; because the ground of the requisiteness of the punishment of great crimes, is their demerit. It is requisite that they should be punished, on no other account but because they deserve it (pp. 582-83).
2. Crimes against God deserve infinite punishment.

And besides, if it be allowed that it is requisite that great crimes should be punished with punishment in some measure answerable to the heinousness of the crime, without something to balance them, some answerable repentance or other satisfaction, because of their great demerit, and the great abhorrence and indignation they justly excite; it will follow that it is requisite that God should punish all sin with infinite punishment; because all sin, as it is against God, is infinitely heinous, and has infinite demerit, is justly infinitely hateful to him, and so stirs up infinite abhorrence and indignation in him. Therefore, by what was before granted, it is requisite that God should punish it, unless there be something in some measure to balance this desert; either some answerable repentance and sorrow for it, or other compensation. Now there can be no repentance of it, or sorrow for it, in any measure answerable or proportionable to the heinousness of the demerit of the crime; because that is infinite, and there can be no infinite sorrow for sin in finite creatures; yea, there can be none but what is infinitely short of it; none that bears any proportion to it. Repentance is as nothing in comparison of it, and therefore can weigh nothing when put in the scales with it, and so does nothing at all towards compensating it, or diminishing the desert or requisiteness of punishment, any more than if there were no repentance. If any ask, why God could not pardon the injury on repentance, without other satisfaction, without any wrong to justice; I ask the same person why he could not also pardon the injury without repentance. For the same reason, could he not pardon with repentance without satisfaction. For all the repentance men are capable of, is no repentance at all, or is as little as none, in comparison with the greatness of the injury; for it bears no proportion to it. And it would be as dishonorable and unfit for God to pardon the injury without any repentance at all, as to do it merely on the account of a repentance that bears no more proportion to the injury, than none at all. Therefore, we are not forgiven on repentance, because it in any wise compensates, or takes off, or diminishes the desert or requisiteness of punishment; but because of the respect that evangelical repentance has to compensation already made.

Again, if sin's desert of punishment be the proper ground of the fitness of its connection with punishment, or rather be that wherein fitness of the connection consists; it will thence follow, not only that it is fit that sin that deserves punishment, should be punished, but also that it should be punished as it deserves.

It is meet that a person's state should be agreeable to the quality of his dispositions and voluntary actions. Suffering is suitable and answerable to the quality of sinful dispositions and actions; it is suitable that they that will evil, and do evil, should receive evil in proportion to the evil that they do or will. It is but justice that it should be so; and when sin is punished, it receives but its own, or that which is suitably connected with it. But it is a contradiction to say that it is suitably connected with punishment, or that it is suitable that it should be connected with it, and yet that it is suitable it should not be connected with it. All sin may be resolved into hatred of God and our neighbor; as all our duty may be resolved into love to God and our neighbor. And it is but meet that this spirit of enmity should receive a turn in its own kind, that it should receive enmity again. Sin is of such a nature, that it wishes ill, and aims at ill to God and man; but to God especially. It strikes at God ; it would, if it could, procure his misery and death. It is but suitable, that with what measure it metes, it should be measured to it again. It is but suitable that men should reap what they sow, and that the rewards of every man's hand should be given him. This is what the consciences of all men do naturally declare. There is nothing that men know sooner, after they come to the exercise of their reason, than that, when they have done wickedness, they deserve punishment. The consciences not only of Christians, and those who have been educated in the principles of divine revelation, but also the consciences of heathens inform them of this: therefore, unless conscience has been stupified by frequent violations when men have done wickedness, there remains a sense of guilt upon their minds; a sense of an obligation to punishment. It is natural to expect that which conscience or reason tells them it is suitable should come; and therefore they are afraid and jealous, and ready to flee when no man pursues
(pp. 583-84).
3. The justice of God demands that he punish sin.
Seeing therefore it is requisite that sin should be punished, as punishment is deserved and just; therefore the justice of God obliges him to punish sin. For it belongs to God, as the Supreme Ruler of the universality of things, to maintain order and decorum in his kingdom, and to see to it that decency and righteousness take place in all cases. That perfection of his nature whereby he is disposed to this, is his justice: therefore his justice naturally disposes him to punish sin as it deserves.
The holiness of God, which is the infinite opposition of his nature to sin, naturally and necessarily disposes him to punish sin. Indeed his justice is part of his holiness. But when we speak of God's justice inclining him to punish sin, we have respect only to that exercise of his holiness whereby he loves that holy and beautiful order that consists in the connection of one thing with another, according to their nature, and so between sin and punishment; and his opposition to that which would be so unsuitable as a disconnection of these things. But now I speak of the holiness of God as appearing directly and immediately in his hatred of an unsuitable, hateful disconnection between sin and that which is proper for it; but in his hatred of sin itself, or the opposition of his nature to the odious nature of sin.

If God's nature be infinitely opposite to sin, then doubtless he has a disposition answerable to oppose it in his acts and works. If he by his nature be an enemy to sin with an infinite enmity, then he is doubtless disposed to act as an enemy to it, or to do the part of an enemy to it. And if he be disposed naturally to do the part of an enemy against sin, or, which is the same thing, against the faultiness or blameworthiness of moral agents; then it will follow, he is naturally disposed to act as an enemy to those that are the persons faulty and blameworthy, or are chargeable with the guilt of it, as being the persons faulty. Indignation is the proper exercise of hatred of anything as a fault or thing blamable; and there could be no such thing either in the Creator or creature, as hatred of a fault without indignation, unless it be conceived or hoped that the fault is suffered for, and so the indignation be satisfied. Whoever finds a hatred to a fault, and at the same time imputes the fault to him that committed it, he therein feels an indignation against him for it. So that God, by his necessary infinite hatred of sin, is necessarily disposed to punish it with a punishment answerable to his hatred (pp. 584-85).

4. God must actually punish sin and not just state his displeasure against it.
It does not become the Sovereign of the world, a being of infinite glory, purity and beauty, to suffer such a thing as sin, an infinitely uncomely disorder, an infinitely detestable pollution, to appear in the world subject to his government, without his making an opposition to it, or giving some public manifestations and tokens of his infinite abhorrence of it. If he should so do, it would be countenancing it, which God cannot do ; for "he is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity," Hab. i. 13. It is natural in such a case to expect tokens of the utmost opposition. If we could behold the infinite Fountain of purity and holiness, and could see what an infinitely pure flame it is, and with what a pure brightness it shines, so that the heavens appear impure when compared with it; and then should behold some infinitely odious and detestable filthiness brought and set in its presence; would it not be natural to expect some ineffably vehement opposition made to it. And would not the want of it be indecent and shocking?

If it be to God's glory that he is in his nature infinitely holy and opposite to sin; then it is to his glory to be infinitely displeased with sin. And if it be to God's glory to be infinitely displeased with sin; then it must be to his glory to exercise and manifest that displeasure, and to act accordingly. But the proper exercise and testimony of displeasure against sin, in the Supreme Being and absolute Governor of the world, is taking vengeance. Men may show their hatred of sin by lamenting it, and mourning for it, and taking great pains, and undergoing great difficulties to prevent or remove it, or by approving God's vengeance for it. Taking vengeance is not the proper way of fellow subjects, hatred of sin; but it is in the Supreme Lord and Judge of the world, to whom vengeance belongs; because he has the ordering and government of all things, and therefore the suffering of sin to go unpunished would in him be a conniving at it. Taking vengeance is as much the proper manifestation of God's displeasure at sin, as a mighty work is the proper manifestation of his power, or as a wise work is the proper manifestation of his wisdom. There may be other testimonies of God's displeasedness with and abhorrence of sin, without testifying his displeasure in condign punishment. He might declare he has such a displeasure and abhorrence. So there might be other testimonies of God's power and wisdom, besides a powerful wise effect. He might have declared himself to be infinitely wise and powerful. But yet there would have been wanting the proper manifestations of God's power and wisdom, if God had only declared himself to be possessed of these attributes. The creatures might have believed him to be all-wise and almighty; but by seeing his mighty and wise works, they see his power and wisdom. So if they had been only a declaration of God's abhorrence and displeasure against sin, the creature might have believed it, but could not have seen it, unless he should also take vengeance for it (pp. 585-86).

5. Sin must be punished in order to maintain respect for the law.
God is to be considered, in this affair, not merely as the Governor of a world of creatures, to order things between one creature and another, but as the Supreme Regulator and Rector of the universe, the orderer of things relating to the whole compass of existence, including himself; to maintain the rights of the whole, and decorum through the whole, and to maintain his own rights, and the due honor of his own perfections, as well as to preserve justice among his creatures. It is fit that there should be one that has this office; and this office properly belongs to the Supreme Being. And if he should fail of doing justice to himself in a necessary vindication of his own majesty and glory, it would be an immensely greater failure of his rectoral justice, than if he should deprive the creatures (that are beings of infinitely less consequence) of their right.

There is a necessity of sin's being punished with a condign punishment, from the law of God that threatens such punishment. All but Epicureans will own, that all creatures that are moral agents, are subjects of God's moral government; and that therefore he has given a law to his creatures. But if God has given a law to his creatures, that law must have sanctions, i. e., it must be enforced with threatenings of punishment: otherwise it fails of having the nature of a law, and is only of the nature of counsel or advice; or rather of a request. For one being to express his inclination or will to another, concerning any thing he would receive from him, any love or respect, without any threatening annexed, but leaving it with the person applied to, whether he will afford it or not, whether he will grant it or not, supposing that his refusal will be with impunity; is properly of the nature of a request. It does not amount to counsel or advice ; because, when we give counsel to others, it is for their interest. But when we express our desire or will of something we would receive from them, with impunity to them whether they grant it or not, this is more properly requesting than counselling. No doubt it falls far short of the nature of law-giving. For such an expression of one's will as this, is an expression of will, without any expression of authority. It holds forth no authority, for us merely to manifest our wills or inclinations to another; nor indeed docs it exhibit any authority over a person applied to, to promise him rewards. So persons may, and often do, promise rewards to others, for doing those things that they have no power to oblige them to. So may persons do to their equals: so may a king do to others who are not his subjects. This is rather bargaining with others, than giving them laws.

That expression of will only is a law, which is exhibited in such a manner as to express the lawgiver's power over the person to whom it is manifested, expressing his power of disposal of him, according as he complies or refuses; that which shows power over him, so as to oblige him to comply, or to make it be to his cost if he refuses.

For the same reason that it is necessary the divine law should have a threatening of condign punishment annexed, it is also necessary that the threatening should be fulfilled. For the threatening wholly relates to the execution. If it had no connection with execution, it would be wholly void, and would be as no threatening: and so far as there is not a connection with execution, whether that be in a greater or lesser degree; so far and in such a degree is it void, and so far approaches to the nature of no threatening, as much as if that degree of unconnection was expressed in the threatening. As for instance, if sin fails of threatened punishment half the times, this makes void the threatening in one half of it, and brings it down to be no more than if the threatening had expressed only so much, that sin should be punished half the times that it is committed
(pp. 586-87).

The problem with Edwards theory, as shown previously, is that God does not punish Jesus with the same infinite punishment that he says sin deserves. The death of Jesus is only a punishment in a sense and is not equal to the punishment that is really deserved. Thus, Edwards view of the atonement does not meet the standard for the punishment of sin that he outlines here.


  1. I wonder if William Lane Craig would consider crimes committed against God to be actual infinites.

  2. Well, the same reasoning applies to the punishment here. Since the glory of Christ is infinite in value and worth then the suffering and punishment He endured was enough to cover an infinite amount.