Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Nature and Punishment of Sin (3)

Herman Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of sin in the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics consists of four parts: (1) the origin of sin; (2) the spread of sin; (3) the nature of sin; and (4) the punishment of sin. In my previous articles, we considered the origin, spread, and nature of sin. In this article, we will consider the punishment of sin. These four main features of the biblical doctrine of sin form the backdrop to Bavinck’s exposition of the biblical doctrine of salvation through the person and work of Christ, the mediator of the covenant of grace.

Identifying the main consequences of the fall into sin through Adam and the sinfulness of the human race in him serves as preparation for a treatment of the doctrine of redemption in Christ. Christ’s work as mediator redresses all of the adverse consequences of sin, and it is, in this respect, a multifaceted and unfathomably deep, extensive work. The triumph of God’s grace in Christ leaves none of the features of the punishment of sin unconquered. For this reason, giving careful attention to the specific ways in which sin is punished within the sovereign and gracious purposes of God not only prepares the way for a treatment of Christ’s work of redemption but also anticipates his gracious work. The darkness of sin, especially in the way God’s punishment of sin comes to expression in history, stands in stark contrast to the light of God’s glorious grace that shines in the face of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6). For believers, all these punishments of sin are vanquished in and through Christ.

Mercy and Justice

Bavinck begins his treatment of the punishment of sin with a brief reflection on the relation between God’s mercy and justice. When God deals with the creature, whether in the pre-fall or post-fall state, he always acts in accordance with his own essential nature. All of God’s attributes are identical with God himself, and therefore God acts in conformity with his nature whenever he deals with the creature’s transgression of his holy law and will.



It is not surprising, therefore, that the biblical record of Adam’s fall—and the fall of his entire posterity by virtue of his appointment as covenant head of the human race—recounts a story in which God’s justice is tempered by mercy. Even though God had threatened Adam with death upon his transgression of the commandment of life, he did not immediately execute the sanction of the covenant of works when Adam sinned. Rather than immediately punishing Adam with death in its totality and fullness, which Adam’s sin justly deserved, God graciously “moderated and delayed this punishment” (RD 3:160). Adam and Eve were permitted to live many years, and Eve became the mother of all living. A human race sprang forth from them that was sustained and nourished upon the earth; in this way grace “went into effect immediately after the fall” and was given a “presiding role in history, not at the expense of, but in union with, the justice of God” (RD 3:160). This moderation of God’s justice in the course of the subsequent history of his dealings with the fallen human race could not have been, in the nature of the case, revealed to Adam before the fall. While the moderation of God’s justice in dealing with the fallen human race reflects his undeserved grace and mercy, it does not mean that human disobedience and sin will escape the consequences of his justice. For God to be true to his own nature, he must repay human disobedience in a manner that accords with his own justice and holiness.

The ultimate purpose of the punishment of sin is “to redress the justice of God that has been violated by sin” (RD 3:160). In the history of God’s dealings with Israel, the so-called lex talionis, or law of retribution (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”), was administered as an expression of God’s justice, even as it was in use also among the surrounding nations. The law of retribution in its proper meaning and application was ultimately rooted in God’s own justice, which requires that sin and disobedience be punished in a manner commensurate with the severity of the misdeed. When the Lord Jesus Christ comments on this law of retribution (cf. Matt. 5:38–42), he does not repudiate it but offers a true interpretation of its meaning in opposition to the false interpretation that prevailed among the Jewish schools. The law of retribution may not be enlisted as “a tool of self-interest, personal vengeance, and hatred” at the expense of the obligations of love and patience toward a neighbor (RD 3:162). Rather, this law underscores the principle of equity that follows from God’s own justice: when an offender disobeys the holy law of God, he or she must be punished in a way that answers to the severity of the offense. In the final analysis, God, in his justice, will require a proper recompense for whatever offenses the creature commits and, in doing so, will take appropriate vengeance in redressing the wrong and making it right.

Crime and Punishment

Only within the framework of a proper understanding of God’s own justice and the administration of the life of the creature that accords with it can we properly address the important issue of crime and punishment. Consequently, Bavinck follows up his brief opening comments on God’s mercy and justice with a fairly extensive treatment of the important, albeit controversial issue of retribution as the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. Bavinck also offers a number of insightful comments at this point regarding the controversial subject of the state’s administration of justice in punishing offenders who have committed crimes against public order and justice.

In the scriptural doctrine of punishment, especially in the legislation of the Old Testament economy, there are three emphases regarding the demands of justice that are grounded in God’s own justice and righteousness: (1) guilty persons may not be regarded as innocent or exonerated of the consequences of their unlawful actions; (2) those who are righteous may not be condemned unjustly; and (3) “the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted” (RD 3:1162). These provisions of God’s law reveal that the punishment of the unrighteous is always grounded in and has no other ultimate explanation than in God’s own justice. “All punishment presupposes that the person who pronounces and imposes punishment is clothed with authority over those who have violated the law. This authority cannot have its origin in humanity itself, for what human being can claim any right as such vis-à-vis others who are of the same nature?” (RD 3:163). Whenever the ultimate ground of the exercise of judicial authority in God’s justice is denied, no warrant remains for the punishment of offenders who violate the standards of God’s holy law. The administration of justice, including the meting out of punishments upon those who transgress the law, can only be explained in terms of the way human agents fulfill a sacred office under God of maintaining his holy law. If the ultimate ground of the holy law of God for the administration of retributive justice by legitimate human authorities (parents, civil magistrates, etc.) is denied, no explanation other than expediency remains to account for the imposition of punishment upon human sin and disobedience.

In Bavinck’s defense of the claim that crime and punishment have no other ultimate basis than the holy and righteous character of God, he offers an extensive, penetrating analysis of the way modern thought has undermined the warrant and application of punishment in human society and jurisprudence. In place of the Christian worldview, which affirms the rule of law and the administration of punishment as an application of God’s own justice, the modern worldview embraces “historicism” and “relativism.” Accordingly, in modern societies, the “concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment” can no longer be sustained (RD 3:163). Atheism in all of its forms militates against the idea of God and the rule of his divine justice in human behavior. But when there is no God, there can be no justice. All that remains is a variety of explanations for human misconduct that tend to diminish human responsibility and accountability and reduce the administration of justice to utilitarian and remedial ends that fall short of true punishment for crimes of which the perpetrator is genuinely guilty.

In one school of thought, the “anthropological or biological,” human misconduct is the fruit of a defect in evolutionary development, or hereditary, so that the individual can scarcely be regarded as culpable. In another school of thought, the sociological, all human misbehavior is ascribed to the unhappy influences of the person’s social environment and upbringing. People who act irresponsibly do so as a “symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity” (RD 3:164). From this standpoint, criminals cannot be regarded as responsible for their misdeeds, and society has no just basis to punish them. Furthermore, two inconsistencies rear their ugly heads. On the one hand, society is treated as morally culpable for the sins of the individual, even though societies are no more responsible for their character from a sociological perspective than are individuals. Why blame society for its wrongs when society is no more capable than individuals of being other than it is? And, on the other hand, no legitimate basis remains for punishing the criminal when he is personally innocent and incapable of acting otherwise. Criminals who disobey the (arbitrary) standards of human society deserve to be pitied rather than punished since they are the product of social factors and influences outside of their control.

Within the framework of modern, non-Christian worldviews, alternatives to the older idea of retribution or punishment of offenders have surfaced. Rather than viewing the state’s responsibility toward criminals in terms of punishment, the improvement or remediation of criminals has become a primary goal of the justice system. However, when the improvement of the offender becomes the goal of the civil magistrate, a number of insoluble problems arise. How can the judge in a civil court truly ascertain all the factors that may have occasioned the commission of a crime? And how can the criminal justice system determine an appropriate penalty without having an accurate assessment of how an individual’s social circumstances, hereditary makeup, and limited personal responsibility may have contributed to his or her offense? Furthermore, when moral improvement or remediation becomes the state’s primary goal, it is difficult to see how the state has the competence or wherewithal to ensure that this goal is met. As Bavinck observes, “Modern criminology, by calling the notions of retribution and punishment antiquated and adopting as its goal the moral improvement of the criminal, takes from the government’s arm the power of justice and assigns to it a task for which it is utterly unqualified and unfit” (RD 3:167). One of the consequences of denying the civil magistrate’s administration of retributive punishment is the degeneration of the state’s use of its power of the sword into mere coercion and exercise of superior power. If the state metes out punishment solely for its utilitarian benefit, it is difficult to constrain the state’s power to punish by the dictates of justice.

In the final analysis, only the Christian worldview can provide a satisfactory warrant for the legitimate power of the state in the punishment of offenders. Because punishment always involves a kind of suffering and deprivation of such goods as property, freedom of movement, and the like, it requires a sanction that goes beyond mere coercion or caprice on the part of the civil magistrate. But where does such a sanction find its source? In Bavinck’s estimation, the only satisfactory answer to this question lies in God himself. “Behind that judicial order stands the living, true, and holy God, who will by no means clear the guilty, and for him punishment rests not on ‘an absolute dominion’ in the sense of Duns Scotus but on the demands of his justice. If he did not punish sin, he would give to evil the same rights he accords to the good and so deny himself. The punishment of sin is necessary so that God may remain God” (RD 3:168).1              1 Traditionally, Duns Scotus, a medieval theologian, is associated with a distinction drawn between God’s “absolute power” (potential absoluta) and his “ordained power” (potential ordinate). In simple terms, this distinction implies that God “could have chosen” to accomplish his purposes, especially in redemption, by some means other than the one he arbitrarily “ordained.” Bavinck’s point is that this distinction fails to affirm that the punishment of sin is a necessary expression of God’s own nature or character; God would deny himself if he did not justly punish sin.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.