Vern Poythress:

We must first seek to determine the scope of state responsibilities. In the area of punishment, I maintain that modern states are only responsible for punishing offenses against other human beings, not offenses directly against God.

To understand the issue, we must distinguish sins from crimes.

A sin is any offense against God. A crime is a legally reprehensible offense against another human being.

Sin describes damage to our relation to God; crime describes damage to fellow human beings. The two are not identical. Every crime is a sin, but not every sin is a crime.

For example, coveting is a sin but not a crime. In the Old Testament no fixed civil penalty attaches to coveting. It is not a “chargeable offense” from the point of view of civil justice. Coveting (unless it leads to overt actions like theft or murder) does not directly damage other human beings, and so the state has no business in overseeing a process of restoration and retribution.

Similarly, within the Mosaic period farming during the sabbath year was a sin but not a crime (see Lev. 25:1-7). God commanded the people not to farm during the sabbath year. But no earthly court was allowed to punish people for violating God’s command.

Every crime is a sin because God commands us to love our neighbors. Hence every offense against a neighbor violates God’s commandment and represents rebellion against him. But not every sin is a crime, because some offenses against God do not directly harm other human beings.

Sins and crimes must each receive the appropriate punishment from the appropriate person. Sins are offenses against God, and hence they are always punished by God. Every sin intends to destroy God’s authority and his claim on all of life. Hence it merits punishment in a corresponding form: the offender, or a substitute, must be destroyed by God. All people who sin must either go to hell or have Christ bear hell for them on the cross. Thus every sin receives a punishment from God.

Crimes are offenses against other human beings, and hence they always ought to punished by restoration and retribution paid to other human beings and supervised by human courts of justice. In typical legal cases in the Old Testament, like theft, murder, or false worship, the fundamental system of recompense involves the principle “As you have done, it shall be done to you,” by the offended party. Governmental authorities supervise the procedures leading to penalties, but in the typical case they are not themselves the offended party. Moreover, the offended party in view is always another human being or a group of human beings.

God is of course offended by every sin whatsoever. But not every sin merits state punishments. Nor is the kind of penalty determined by how God is offended, but by how other human beings are affected. Hence the provisions of the law point away from the idea that the state is responsible for offenses against God as such. The legal punishments supervised by earthly judges make sense only when they are viewed as the fitting payment for offenses against human beings.

—Vern S. Poythress, “False Worship in the Modern State,” The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 294-5.

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11 thoughts on “Why the State Should Punish Offenses against Human Beings, Not God”

  1. SirBrass says:

    Spot on! Very informative. Thanks.

  2. Larry says:

    “Every crime is a sin because God commands us to love our neighbors…some offenses against God do not directly harm other human beings”

    If the offense must “directly” harm human beings then we should also not make crimes out of things such as trespassing as that directly harms nobody.

    I think this makes too little out of our sins against God. All sins against God have an effect on other humans around us. We are unable to love our neighbors as we are called by God to do unless we first love God. Therefore our lack of love toward God as shown in our sins against Him does affect how we love our neighbor.

    “In typical legal cases in the Old Testament, like theft, murder, or false worship, the fundamental system of recompense involves the principle “As you have done, it shall be done to you,” by the offended party. Governmental authorities supervise the procedures leading to penalties, but in the typical case they are not themselves the offended party. Moreover, the offended party in view is always another human being or a group of human beings.”

    How is “false worship” an offense against another human being rather than an offense against God?

  3. I think this is a great article, and it has spurred another question. Wondering if the author addresses this elsewhere.

    Should anything that directly hurts a human being be considered a crime? In other words, smoking negatively affects both the smoker and others around him. Should smoking be illegal? Gluttony negatively affects a human being and could have ramifications on one’s children as well. Is gluttony to be considered a crime?

    Another way or wording my question is, “At what point do we draw the line between crime and ‘freedom’ to exercise one’s choice?”

  4. Daniel says:

    Not every punishable crime in the OT was against humanity. Profaning the Sabbath was punishable by death (Ex. 31:14). That would fall under Poythress’ sin-but-not-a-crime category, but it was treated as a crime under OT law. How does that fit into Poythress’ system?

  5. Hizouse says:

    Does Poythress think the state should criminalize anything involving consenting adults? Gambling, polygamy, pornography, drug use? Who gets to decide what constitutes “direct” harm against another person? Why shouldn’t the state protect me from harming myself (which I do anytime I offend God)?

    Do you really want the government to be merely a rights protector or enforcer without having some role in shaping morality of its citizens?

  6. Reed says:

    This sounds nice, but what about adultery? Should that be a crime? I just don’t think this is well thought-out. (unless there’s more to it not quoted)

  7. Mark says:

    The article does not present a rationale as the title would suggest. It makes assertions but what is the foundation for those assertions? Without that it seems to only suggest a million questions. Is changing lanes without signalling a sin if there’s nobody there? Is smoking a joint immoral? Should there be a tax on alcohol? Why should one have a marriage license, another tax? Why would gays want to pay a marriage tax? Why shouldn’t the government tax (marriage license) gays who co-hatitate? In part gays want the civil and financial protections afforded to hetero couples, and what would be immoral about legislating that?

    Civil law does a lot more than define offenses against humanity. It also regulates a well ordered society; e.g., rules for determining property ownership and financial transaction.

    The article would be more helpful if it actually gave a biblical rationale for addressing issues.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Mark, to clarify: it’s not an article, but rather an excerpt from a chapter that’s part of a larger book. I linked to both so that readers can see the full argument, which is very detailed and explicitly linked to biblical criteria.

      1. Mark says:

        Thanks for the clarifcation Justin. I’m interested in checking it out.

  8. This is a wonderful piece and the larger work, itself, is more than worth reading. A bit different than failure of recognizing contextual nuances and clear demarcations by many Reformed articles which unfortunately seem to be on the increase (state vs the body of christ and the separate protocols for both which are being theological imposed upon each other). Thank you Justin for this piece.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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