God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy it. If he were not the Maker, he might not be bound to destroy sin; 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. And God is always destroying sin. He is always saving the sinner from his sins, 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. If the sinner and the sin in him are the concrete object of the divine wrath, then there can be no mercy; 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, which cannot be made except by the man who has sinned. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, that the sinner should suffer—continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? What setting-right would come of the sinner’s suffering? To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word. That word is an eternally evil thing; nothing but God in my heart can cleanse me from the evil that uttered it. Sorrow and confession and self-abasing love will make up for the evil word; suffering will not. I may be saved from evil by learning to loathe it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.
by Jess Lederman
At the conclusion of yesterday's post, MacDonald stated that "If [punishment] were an offset to to wrong, then God would be bound to punish; but he cannot be, for he forgives. Punishment is not directly for justice, else mercy would involve injustice." He then concludes that punishment must be a means to an end. The Reformed tradition, of course, would counter that God must indeed punish to offset wrong, and He satisfies both justice and mercy by punishing His Son in our stead; but this notion of penal substitution is rejected not only by MacDonald, but by most of the other Christian traditions. It's a bit ironic that the best that C.S. Lewis, an iconic figure to many Reformed Christians, including John Piper and Tim Keller, could say about penal substitution is that "this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to."
The doctrine of penal substitution, so prevalent in the Protestant West, has been a stumbling block to many--even a cause for turning away from God. This is precisely what motivated MacDonald, who had no desire to argue with true believers in eternal torment, to write sermons such as Justice; he wanted searching souls to see that there was another way of understanding Scripture. For so many of us, the opening words of today's post, "God is not bound to punish sin, he is bound to destroy it," are more precious than rubies, as are the closing words: "The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner."
Are MacDonald and others only engaging in their own exercises in logic, detached from Scripture? Well, no, there's plenty to support the notion that God will not settle for anything less than the complete destruction of sin itself. Certainly the most thorough apologetics on this and the closely related issue of universal reconciliation can be found in Robin Parry's The Evangelical Universalist, written under the name of Gregory MacDonald. That book, Thomas Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God, and Parry's edition of Thomas Allin's Christ Triumphant make up a pretty good trio for anyone wanting a comprehensive discussion of the Greater Hope.