“The punishment for sin is sin.” My mind bridled a bit upon first seeing Augustine’s words in print. They seemed to be suggesting that all of sin’s consequences were limited to this - worldly inconveniences. What about judgment? What about hell? I remonstrated. But second thoughts on the matter have left me feeling that the words are more true than false. The punishment for sin is built-in. No arbitrary add-on penalties are needed to enhance the total disaster that sin by its very nature produces.
There is a fundamental reality which most human beings hae never faced - the universe we inhabit is spiritual. It is the handwork of the spiritual God (Jno. 4:24) and is governed in such a way as to always be in harmony with the great spiritual principle that emanate from the very nature of God Himself. The “world” that is at war with the Almighty (1 Jno. 2:15-17) is not the one which He created but a pseudo-world of dark values which has been imposed by Satan on the face of truly spiritual cosmos. The real world is wholly resistant to evil because the universe that God made is in league with Him. As Deborah and Barak sang of the defeat of the Canaanite hosts led by Sisera: “From heaven fought the stars. From their courses they fought against Sisera” (Jdgs. 5:20). As for the righteous, they shall be “in league with the stones of the field; and the beast of the field shall be a peace with thee” (Job 5:23). To live as a carnally minded man in a spiritual world is a swim upstream, an endless and hopeless struggle against the grain of reality.
The sinner is a one-dimensional man in a three-dimensional universe. He will never fit in. C.S. Lewis once observed that trying to make a man run on sin was like trying to make a gasoline engine run on water. First of all, by its very nature it will not run on water; and secondly, if the effort to make it do so is continued long enough, it won’t run on gasoline either.
I have said all this to make the point that the punishment for sin is not arbitrary, but is intrinsic to the nature of sin, the nature of God and the nature of the world. The punishment for jumping off a ten storey building or eating a pint of arsenic is not arbitrary either. The consequences are built into the nature of the act when attempted in the kind of world we live in. The law of gravity and the nature of the human digestive system will exact their own penalty. The same is true for sin. Sin doesn’t work. Not in this world. Not with this God.
Sin and wickedness will not work with Jehovah because He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab. 1:13) and cannot by His very nature have fellowship with sin (1 Jno. 1:5,6). The fact that a man’s sins separate him from God (Isa. 59:1,2) rests not on divine whim but upon divine nature and the moral rule of the universe demand this alienation. The “law of sin and death” (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23) functions out of this reality. The separation from God that sin brings results in spiritual death. No man can live apart from the source of life. Adam and Eve learned this to their dismay.
Sin will not work with man. The spiritual rebel is at war with his own nature. As Augustine noted in his well known address to God: “Thou has made us for Thyself and we are restless until we rest in Thee.” There is in every man created in the image of God a deep affinity for goodness and love. That should be no surprise to us. Like Paul, we “delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22) but sin sets us to fighting against ourselves until we are left in wretchedness (Rom. 7:23,24). The transgression of Adam and Eve caused them to cower in fear before God had ever accused them (Gen. 3:8). Their flight was from an accusing voice within (Prov. 28:1) We all learn soon enough that our headlong retreat from God is also a futile effort to escape ourselves. If we continue on this escape routine it will eventuate in a kind of intellectual and moral suicide (Rom. 1:21; 1 Tim. 4:2).
Sin will not work with others. A man at war with God and with himself cannot be at peace with his fellows. The delight that Adam felt when first he saw his mate (Gen. 2;23) was turned to accusation and recrimination when sin entered the picture (3:12). Man’s refusal to reverence God always leads to strife and injustice in his treatment of others (Rom. 1:28-31). The problems that plague all himan relationships from families to international relations find their genesis not in poor technique but in sin. From the day that man declared his independence from God he has followed a crimson path of violence and inhumanity (Gen. 4:8; 6:5,10).
In his letter to Titus Paul looks back briefly at how things were before the kindness and love of God had intervened: “For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving diviers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (3:3). That is the kind of “success” we can expect our rebellion against God to bring us. It is remarkable that we ever thought we could win in a war against God, against our very own nature, and against the nature of the universe. It should have been seen as a hopeless venture on the face of it, with all the marks of inevitable disaster. Sin just doesn’t work. And it never will.