Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

V. The Punishment of Sin

Sin is a very serious matter, and is taken seriously by God, though men often make light of it. It is not only a transgression of the law of God, but an attack on the great Lawgiver Himself, a revolt against God. It is an infringement on the inviolable righteousness of God, which is the very foundation of His throne (Psa_97:2), and an affront to the spotless holiness of God, which requires of us that we be holy in all manner of living (1Pe_1:16). In view of this it is but natural that God should visit sin with punishment. In a word of fundamental significance He says: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me," Exo_20:5. The Bible abundantly testifies to the fact that God punishes sin both in this life and in the life to come.


A rather common distinction applied to the punishments for sin, is that between natural and positive penalties. There are punishments which are the natural results of sin, and which men cannot escape, because they are the natural and necessary consequences of sin. Man is not saved from them by repentance and forgiveness. In some cases they may be mitigated and even checked by the means which God has placed at our disposal, but in other cases they remain and serve as a constant reminder of past transgressions. The slothful man comes to poverty, the drunkard brings ruin upon himself and his family, the fornicator contracts a loathsome and incurable disease, and the criminal is burdened with shame and even when leaving the prison walls finds it extremely hard to make a new start in life. The Bible speaks of such punishments in Job_4:8; Psa_9:15; Psa_94:23; Pro_5:22; Pro_23:21; Pro_24:14; Pro_31:3. But there are also positive punishments, and these are punishments in the more ordinary and legal sense of the word. They presuppose not merely the natural laws of life, but a positive law of the great Lawgiver with added sanctions. They are not penalties which naturally result from the nature of the transgression, but penalties which are attached to the transgressions by divine enactments. They are superimposed by the divine law, which is of absolute authority. It is to this type of punishment that the Bible usually refers. This is particularly evident in the Old Testament. God gave Israel a detailed code of laws for the regulation of its civil, moral, and religious life, and clearly stipulated the punishment to be meted out in the case of each transgression, cf. Exo_20:1-26, Exo_21:1-36, Exo_22:1-31; Exo_23:1-33. And though many of the civil and religious regulations of this law were, in the form in which they were couched, intended for Israel only, the fundamental principles which they embody also apply in the New Testament dispensation. In a Biblical conception of the penalty of sin we shall have to take into account both the natural and necessary outcome of wilful opposition to God and the penalty legally affixed and adjusted to the offense by God. Now there are some Unitarians, Universalists, and Modernists who deny the existence of any punishment of sin, except such consequences as naturally result from the sinful action. Punishment is not the execution of a sentence pronounced by the divine Being on the merits of the case, but simply the operation of a general law. This position is taken by J. F. Clarke, Thayer, Williamson, and Washington Gladden. The latter says: "The old theology made this penalty (penalty of sin) to consist in suffering inflicted upon the sinner by a judicial process in the future life . . . The penalty of sin, as the new theology teaches, consists in the natural consequences of sin. . . . The penalty of sin is sin. Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap."44 The idea is not new; it was present to the mind of Dante, for in his famous poem the torments of hell symbolize the consequences of sin; and Schelling had it in mind, when he spoke of the history of the world as the judgment of the world. It is abundantly evident from Scripture, however, that this is an entirely un-Biblical view. The Bible speaks of penalties, which are in no sense the natural result or consequences of the sin committed, for instance in Exo_32:33; Lev_16:21; Num_15:31; 1Ch_10:13; Psa_11:6; Psa_75:8; Isa_1:24; Isa_1:28; Mat_3:10; Mat_24:51. All these passages speak of a punishment of sin by a direct act of God. Moreover, according to the view under consideration there is really no reward or punishment; virtue and vice both naturally include their various issues. Furthermore, on that standpoint there is no good reason for considering suffering as punishment, for it denies guilt, and it is exactly guilt that constitutes suffering a punishment. Then, too, it is in many cases not the guilty that receives the severest punishment, but the innocent as, for instance, the dependents of a drunkard or a debauchee. And, finally, on this view, heaven and hell are not places of future punishment, but states of mind or conditions in which men find themselves here and now. Washington Gladden expresses this very explicitly.


The word "punishment" is derived from the Latin poena, meaning punishment, expiation, or pain. It denotes pain or suffering inflicted because of some misdeed. More specifically, it may be defined as that pain or loss which is directly or indirectly inflicted by the Lawgiver, in vindication of His justice outraged by the violation of the law. It originates in the righteousness or punitive justice of God, by which He maintains Himself as the Holy One and necessarily demands holiness and righteousness in all His rational creatures. Punishment is the penalty that is naturally and necessarily due from the sinner because of his sin; it is, in fact, a debt that is due to the essential justice of God. The punishments of sin are of two different kinds. There is a punishment that is the necessary concomitant of sin, for in the nature of the case sin causes separation between God and man, carries with it guilt and pollution, and fills the heart with fear and shame. But there is also a kind of punishment that is superimposed on man from without by the supreme Lawgiver, such as all kinds of calamities in this life and the punishment of hell in the future. Now the question arises as to the object or the purpose of the punishment of sin. And on this point there is considerable difference of opinion. We should not regard the punishment of sin as a mere matter of vengeance and as inflicted with the desire to harm one who has previously done harm. The following are the three most important views respecting the purpose of punishment.

1. TO VINDICATE DIVINE RIGHTEOUSNESS OR JUSTICE. Turretin says: "If there be such an attribute as justice belonging to God, then sin must have its due, which is punishment." The law requires that sin be punished because of its inherent demerit, irrespective of all further considerations. This principle applies in the administration of both human and divine laws. Justice requires the punishment of the transgressor. Back of the law stands God, and therefore it may also be said that punishment aims at the vindication of the righteousness and holiness of the great Lawgiver. The holiness of God necessarily reacts against sin, and this reaction manifests itself in the punishment of sin. This principle is fundamental to all those passages of Scripture that speak of God as a righteous Judge, who renders unto every man according to his deserts. "He is the rock, His work is perfect: for all His ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He," Deu_32:4. "Far be it from God, that He should do wickedness; and from the Almighty, that He should commit iniquity. For the work of a man shall He render unto him, and cause every man to find according to his ways," Job_34:10-11. "Thou renderest to every man according to his work," Psa_62:12. "Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments," Psa_119:37. "I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth," Jer_9:24. "And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgest according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear," 1Pe_1:17. The vindication of the righteousness and holiness of God, and of that just law which is the very expression of His being, is certainly the primary purpose of the punishment of sin. There are two other views, however, which erroneously put something else in the foreground.

2. TO REFORM THE SINNER. The idea is very much in the foreground at the present time that there is no punitive justice in God which inexorably calls for the punishment of the sinner, and that God is not angry with the sinner but loves him, and only inflicts hardships upon him, in order to reclaim him and to bring him back to his Father's home. This is an un-Scriptural view, which obliterates the distinction between punishment and chastisement. The penalty of sin does not proceed from the love and mercy of the Lawgiver, but from His justice. If reformation follows the infliction of punishment, this is not due to the penalty as such, but is the fruit of some gracious operation of God by which He turns that which is in itself an evil for the sinner into something that is beneficial. The distinction between chastisement and punishment must be maintained. The Bible teaches us on the one hand that God loves and chastens -His people, Job_5:17; Psa_6:1; Psa_94:12; Psa_118:18; Pro_3:11; Isa_26:16; Heb_12:5-8; Rev_3:19; and on the other hand, that He hates and punishes evil-doers, Psa_5:5; Psa_7:11; Nah_1:2; Rom_1:18; Rom_2:5-6; Rom_11:1-36; Heb_10:26-27. Moreover, a punishment must be recognized as just, that is, as according to justice, in order to be reformatory. According to this theory a sinner who has already reformed could no more be punished; nor could one beyond the possibility of reformation, so that there could be no punishment for Satan; the death penalty would have to be abolished, and eternal punishment would have no reason for existence.

TO DETER MEN FROM SIN. Another theory rather prevalent in our day is that the sinner must be punished for the protection of society, by deterring others from the commission of similar offenses. There can be no doubt about it that this end is often secured in the family, in the state, and in the moral government of the world, but this is an incidental result which God graciously effects by the infliction of the penalty. It certainly cannot be the ground for the infliction of the penalty. There is no justice whatever in punishing an individual simply for the good of society. As a matter of fact the sinner is always punished for his sin, and incidentally this may be for the good of society. And here again it may be said that no punishment will have a deterring effect, if it is not just and right in itself. Punishment has a good effect only when it is evident that the person on whom it is afflicted really deserves punishment. If this theory were true, a criminal might at once be set free, if it were not for the possibility that others might be deterred from sin by his punishment. Moreover, a man might rightly commit a crime, if he were only willing to bear the penalty. According to this view punishment is in no sense grounded in the past, but is wholly prospective. But on that supposition it is very hard to explain how it invariably causes the repentant sinner to look back and to confess with contrite heart the sins of the past, as we notice in such passages as the following: Gen_42:21; Num_21:7; 1Sa_15:24-25; 2Sa_12:13; 2Sa_24:10; Ezr_9:6; Ezr_9:10; Ezr_9:13; Neh_9:33-35; Job_7:21; Psa_51:1-4; Jer_3:25. These examples might easily be multiplied. In opposition to both of the theories considered it must be maintained that the punishment of sin is wholly retrospective in its primary aim, though the infliction of the penalty may have beneficial consequences both for the individual and for society.


The penalty with which God threatened man in paradise was the penalty of death. The death here intended is not the death of the body, but the death of man as a whole, death in the Scriptural sense of the word. The Bible does not know the distinction, so common among us, between a physical, a spiritual, and an eternal death; it has a synthetic view of death and regards it as separation from God. The penalty was also actually executed on the day that man sinned, though the full execution of it was temporarily stayed by the grace of God. In a rather un-Scriptural way some carry their distinction into the Bible, and maintain that physical death should not be regarded as the penalty of sin, but rather as the natural result of the physical constitution of man. But the Bible knows of no such exception. It acquaints us with the threatened penalty, which is death in the comprehensive sense of the word, and it informs us that death entered the world through sin (Rom_5:12), and that the wages of sin is death (Rom_6:23). The penalty of sin certainly includes physical death, but it includes much more than that. Making the distinction to which we have grown accustomed, we may say that it includes the following:

1. SPIRITUAL DEATH. There is a profound truth in the saying of Augustine that sin is also the punishment of sin. This means that the sinful state and condition in which man is born by nature form part of the penalty of sin. They are, it is true, the immediate consequences of sin, but they are also a part of the threatened penalty. Sin separates man from God, and that means death, for it is only in communion with the living God that man can truly live. In the state of death, which resulted from the entrance of sin into the world, we are burdened with the guilt of sin, a guilt that can only be removed by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We are therefore under obligation to bear the sufferings that result from transgression of the law. The natural man carries the sense of the liability to punishment with him wherever he goes. Conscience is a constant reminder of his guilt, and the fear of punishment often fills the heart. Spiritual death means not only guilt, but also pollution. Sin is always a corrupting influence in life, and this is a part of our death. We are by nature not only unrighteous in the sight of God, but also unholy. And this unholiness manifests itself in our thoughts, in our words, and in our deeds. It is always active within us like a poisoned fountain polluting the streams of life. And if it were not for the restraining influence of the common grace of God, it would render social life entirely impossible.

2. THE SUFFERINGS OF LIFE. The sufferings of life, which are the result of the entrance of sin into the world, are also included in the penalty of sin. Sin brought disturbance in the entire life of man. His physical life fell a prey to weaknesses and diseases, which result in discomforts and often in agonizing pains; and his mental life became subject to distressing disturbances, which often rob him of the joy of life, disqualify him for his daily task, and sometimes entirely destroy his mental equilibrium. His very soul has become a battle-field of conflicting thoughts, passions, and desires. The will refuses to follow the judgment of the intellect, and the passions run riot without the control of an intelligent will. The true harmony of life is destroyed, and makes way for the curse of the divided life. Man is in a state of dissolution, which often carries with it the most poignant sufferings. And not only that, but with and on account of man the whole creation was made subject to vanity and to the bondage of corruption. The evolutionists especially have taught us to look upon nature as "red in tooth and claw." Destructive forces are often released in earthquakes, cyclones, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and floods, which bring untold misery on mankind. Now there are many, especially in our day, who do not see the hand of God in all this, and do not regard these calamities as a part of the penalty of sin. And yet that is exactly what they are in a general sense. However, it will not be safe to particularize, and to interpret them as special punishments for some grievous sins committed by those who live in the stricken areas. Neither will it be wise to ridicule the idea of such a causal connection as existed in the case of the Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah), which were destroyed by fire from heaven. We should always bear in mind that there is a collective responsibility, and that there are always sufficient reasons why God should visit cities, districts or nations with dire calamities. It is rather a wonder that He does not more often visit them in His wrath and in His sore displeasure. It is always well to bear in mind what Jesus once said to the Jews who brought to Him the report of a calamity which had befallen certain Galileans, and evidently intimated that these Galileans must have been very sinful: "Think ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Luk_13:2-5.

3. PHYSICAL DEATH. The separation of body and soul is also a part of the penalty of sin. That the Lord had this in mind also in the threatened penalty is quite evident from the explication of it in the words, "dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return," Gen_3:19. It also appears from the whole argument of Paul in Rom_5:12-21 and in 1Co_15:12-23. The position of the Church has always been that death in the full sense of the word, including physical death, is not only the consequence but the penalty of sin. The wages of sin is death. Pelagianism denied this connection, but the North African General Synod of Carthage (418) pronounced an anathema against any man who says "that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that whether he sinned or not he would have died, not as the wages of sin, but through the necessity of nature." Socinians and Rationalists continued the Pelagian error, and in even more recent times it was reproduced in the systems of those Kantian, Hegelian, or Ritschlian theologians who virtually make sin a necessary moment in man's moral and spiritual development. Their views found support in present day natural science, which regards physical death as a natural phenomenon of the human organism. Man's physical constitution is such that he necessarily dies. But this view does not commend itself in view of the fact that man's physical organism is renewed every seven years, and that comparatively few people die in old age and from complete exhaustion. By far the greater number of them die as the result of sickness and accidents. It is also contrary to the fact that man does not feel that death is something natural, but fears it as an unnatural separation of that which belongs together.

4. ETERNAL DEATH. This may be regarded as the culmination and completion of spiritual death. The restraints of the present fall away, and the corruption of sin has its perfect work. The full weight of the wrath of God descends on the condemned. Their separation from God, the source of life and joy, is complete, and this means death in the most awful sense of the word. Their outward condition is made to correspond with the inward state of their evil souls. There are pangs of conscience and physical pain. And the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever. Rev_14:11. The further discussion of this subject belongs to eschatology.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Why do many modern liberals deny all positive punishments for sin? Is the position at all tenable that the punishments of sin consist exclusively in the natural consequences of sin? What objections do you have to this position? How do you account for the widespread aversion to the idea that the punishment of sin is a vindication of the law and of the righteousness of God? Do the punishments of sin also serve as deterrents, and as means of reformation? What is the Biblical conception of death? Can you prove from Scripture that it includes physical death? Is the doctrine of eternal death consistent with the idea that the punishment of sin serves merely as a means of reformation, or as a deterrent?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 158-198; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Peccato, pp. 93-112; Strong, Syst. Theol., pp. 652-660; Raymond, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 175-184; Shedd, Doctrine of Endless Punishment; Washington Gladden, Present Day Theology, Chaps. IV and V; Kennedy, St. Paul's Conceptions of the Last Things pp. 103-157; Dorner, Syst. of Chr. Doct. III, pp. 114-132.