Justin Taylor|12:17 pm CT

Why the State Should Punish Offenses against Human Beings, Not God

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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