Because He is love, some think God does not, and will not, become involved with punishment. Punishment, it is thought, is somehow inconsistent with love. We are told that if God were to inflict punishment He would no longer be a God of love. Those who take this position misunderstand both the character of God and the nature of punishment.
The God of the Bible identifies Himself as a God of love (1 Jn. 4:8) as well as a God of wrath, vengeance, and punishment (Rom. 1:18; 2 Thess. 1:6-9). Now, if God identifies Himself as being both a God of love and wrath, then who are we, as mere creatures, to argue with Him? Instead, we ought to try to understand how these two attributes coexist in the same God.
Wrath Is A Requirement Of Justice
When God executes wrath, vengeance, and punishment, it appears it is in solely a judicial sense that He does so. When God, as lawgiver, executes judgment, justice demands that one be either vindicated or punished—i.e., one receives either a “blessing” or a “curse” (cf. Deut. 11:26-28; Jas. 4:12). In this sense, punishment is retribution (viz., “the wages of sin…,” Rom. 6:23) to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice. Consequently, God’s wrath is an action based on the principle of Righteousness (viz., “It is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you,” 2 Thess. 1:6).
Without reward and punishment, there is no justice; without justice, there is no judgment; without judgment, there is no law; without law, there is no lawgiver; and if there is no lawgiver, then there is no God like the one described in the Bible. Consider what the Bible says about this: “Because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31); “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” (2 Cor. 5:10,11a).
The Primary Design Of Punishment Is Punishment
Far too often, punishment is thought to be remedial (i.e., many think the primary purpose of punishment is to make one better). Although it is true that correction or reform can be a residual effect of punishment, it has as its major objective the vindication of Law and the satisfaction of Justice. If this is not true, then our atonement in connection with Jesus’ vicarious death is eliminated. (And yes, I believe the Bible teaches Jesus died as both a propitiation of and a sacrifice for sin.) This ought to be obvious. If the punishment the Lord experienced on the cross was actually designed to make those who rightly deserved it better—and not to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice—then there was no way He could have experienced that for us or in our stead. On the other hand, if punishment is designed to uphold Law and satisfy Justice, then it was possible for Christ to be “the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10), and this is precisely what happened. The vicarious death of Jesus on the cross made it possible for God to give those who actually deserved the punishment a 100% righteousness that was not their own through faith in His Son (cf. Php. 3:9). Because Jesus paid the full price or penalty for our redemption (whatever that was), Justice was done (i.e., God remained just) and was able to justify those who exercise faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25,26).
Punishment Is The Reward Of Unrighteousness
There is absolutely no reason why man cannot keep God’s Law perfectly. The Bible makes no excuse for man’s sinfulness. It simply teaches us that although man has the capacity to do so, he has not, does not, and will not keep Law perfectly, i.e., “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (cf. Rom. 3:20, 23). Sin, we are taught in the Bible and know in our hearts, is not forced or coerced, but is clearly a voluntary action (Jas. 1:14-15) committed by creatures of free will (Josh. 24:15), who will be judged by a just God Who will vindicate His Law (Deut. 32:35; Hebrews 10:30).
Punishment, then, is “the just recompense of reward” one receives for unrighteousness (Heb. 2:2). Therefore, those who would make arguments against God’s punishment of those who violate His law because such would make Him, in their opinion, less a God of love and more like a vicious ogre, fail not only to understand the character of God and the primary purpose of punishment, but they really fail to appreciate the most magnificent manifestation of God’s love ever bestowed upon mankind—the sacrificial, redemptive, propitiative death of His only begotten Son (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:10).
Saved By Grace Through Faith
God’s love, mercy, and grace abounded unto us through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The sacrifice of God’s Son was the only means whereby God, Who loved us, could save us from the punishment we all justly deserved. If man would but see his predicament (“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”), he would appreciate what God has done for him (“For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”), and there would be no misunderstanding of either God’s love or His need to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).