Satisfying the Penalty

I suppose that one of the most significant criticisms that can be made of the church in America today is that pastors often downplay the seriousness of our sin. The late Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say that “sin used to be ashamed of itself,” yet by his day, in the church, it no longer was. People think of sin as mere misbehavior that ought to be addressed with a mild scolding and not as criminal behavior that needs to be addressed by the formal authorities who enforce the law. Of course, in many ways, the American justice system itself has shown itself to be inequitable when it comes to how it punishes those who break civil laws — yet that is a conversation for a different day.

I suppose that this brave new culture in which we live has something to do with the changes taking place. While little more than a generation ago, children were taught in school that there was right and wrong and there were absolute rules that governed each category of action. Today, ethics are considered relative to the situation, absolute rights and wrongs are only a matter of preference or upbringing and thus only apply to the individual, and definitions have their meanings blurred so as to either make one view sound like something it is not or to cast another view into contempt and make its holder “guilty by association.” The greatest American virtue now seems to be a blithe acceptance of anything or everything that would flaunt historical and orthodox Christian beliefs.

And so, churches often downplay sin and wrath and judgment, they teach us that we should never hate anything, and that God loves us just the way we are and will bless our lives if we just follow him. Sadly, that is neither true nor reflective of the Bible’s teaching of the character of our God. Further, it presents an notion that we are not as bad as we really are in the eyes of God and reduces the notion of grace to merely good favor. 

Yet, God presents sin as being outward and open rebellion against God. It is lawlessness and deserves more than misbehavior. It is criminal and deserving of punishment from a just and righteous judge — that judge being God himself. And a just judge will not relent in his punishment until the demands of the law are satisfied — the penalty for the lawbreaking is paid in full.

From a Christian perspective, that is where our hope lies…not in God loving us just the way we are, but in God’s own Son perfectly fulfilling the demands of the law not only in his life but also paying the penalty for our lawbreaking in full. Christ satisfies the demands of the law for his people completely, permitting us to go free. The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1 words it this way: “With his precious blood he has fully satisfied the penalty for all my sins.” 

And so, if we wish to show our gratitude, we will live in light of that gracious work that Christ has done on our behalf as believers — seeking to honor him in all things. To go on living how we want conveys an attitude of ungrateful arrogance and a rejection of the significance of Christ’s work. And to teach others that sin is acceptable, that it is not that bad, or that God does not demand that you grow in holiness is to dishonor God’s Word and to lead others into dishonoring it as well. Or, in the words of Jesus himself:

“Therefore, if one loosens one of these commandments, even the least, and teaches the same to men, he will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever does them and teaches them, this is the one who will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

(Matthew 5:19)

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