Sin: To be cured, or to be punished?

March 13, 2008 at 9:01 am 4 comments

In the past week, I’ve been reading two separate books that both deal at length with the subject of sin.

One is John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, and the other is David Well’s Losing Our Virtue. Both refer to American psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who wrote on the disappearance of sin in the modern era.

According to Menninger, what used to be understood as sin is now often understood either as a crime or as a disease. With respect to the latter, sin has ceased to be a moral issue and has become instead a symptom of sickness, so that the notion of punishment is replaced by treatment. Sin (if it is ever called that) is now something to be cured, not something to be punished.

Wells stridently objects to this notion of sin as a sickness. He argues that the redefinition comes at a cost, namely that “sin loses its sinfulness, at least before God.” (43)

Elsewhere, he notes that “In our therapeutic culture, the notion of what can be classified as a disease has grown exponentially, and moral responsibility has been diminished in proportion.” (183)

Well’s basic concern thus seems to be that viewing sin as a disease somehow lessens the seriousness of sin and destroys the idea of human guilt.

Stott shares Wells’ objections, noting that “The Bible everywhere views human death not as a natural but as a penal event”—i.e. not as the result of a disease of the soul but as the outcome of divine retributive justice. (67)

I am sensitive to the arguments of both men, particularly the concern that sin as disease undermines human responsibility. This latter point is not an insignificant issue: One of my professors, who has also been discussing the issue in class, recently pointed out that all kinds of offenders in the court system make use of their “sicknesses” to evade responsibility for their crimes. In the Bible, however, people are not just victims, but are held responsible for sin.

That said, I disagree with Stott’s argument that the Bible views death as a penal event, not a natural event. There is a significant body of evidence that sin is something akin to a soul-cancer that destroys the normal workings of the human mind, and that death is the natural result of this cancer.

For example, consider the following:

  • “When lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:15). Every indication here is of an inevitable natural progression of events, not an externally imposed punishment.
  • “…whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8). Again, the sowing and reaping principle implies a natural, organic relationship between sin and death.
  • “There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin….My wounds grow foul and fester because of my folly” (Ps. 38:3, 5). Although the Psalmist speaks of God as being responsible and able to relieve him of his misery, it is noteworthy that he specifically draws on the metaphor or disease here in connection with sin.
  • “I see a…law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:23-24). Here Paul pictures a “law” which works in him, producing sin and death within him. Clearly, this is an involuntary process, like the outworking of a disease: something happens within Paul’s own body that he cannot control.

Personally, I’m not sure exactly what to conclude, but I suggest that it is not entirely obvious, contra Stott, that sin is a penal offense rather than a disease.

The broader ramifications of the issue, of course, relate to the concept of atonement and the question of just exactly what God was doing at the cross. The point at issue is whether the atonement a penal/judicial event, wherein God was meting out the just punishment for our sins, or a therapeutic event primarily aimed at curing sin-sick souls.

Either way, the answer has significant consequences for our view of sin, atonement, and salvation.

Thoughts to add? Biblically, is sin an offense to be punished or a sickness to be cured?

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

The mutableness of God Storyteller’s Creed

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Pate  |  March 13, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Hi Jamie.

    Even those who see sin as a sickness think that people shouldn’t do it. Isn’t that what’s important?

  • 2. Charles Churchill  |  March 21, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I think that some of the reason there is a discrepancy here is because of the sort of semi-Manichean views we hold today. Because the physical and the spiritual are two different things, we begin to think they are unrelated. Cancer may not be sin, but cancer is in the world because of sin. Can a child be born a homosexual and homosexuality still be a sin? Well, I don’t know, but if a child is born a liar, does that make lying ok? We try to separate these things farther than they can be separated, and in doing so, we create a lot of confusion.

    Thanks for the post,

  • 3. Corey Zimmerman  |  June 20, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    It seems to me that man is trying to accurately point to a specific common denominator to understand something that is unknown to describe. We know that sin is really and see the effects upon our world, but the unknown is the accurate description of it in a way that we can relate it to another human being, therefore be able to say it is this. Stott is trying to relate these concepts, but it is a failure in attempt to say that it is a cancer all together and a penal retribution to clean up sin.

    Could we argue in a way that God had His son pay the price for sin. The receiver of payment is unknown, because we would not comprehend why, but it happened in order that restoration could be possible. This idea is pulled from Dr. Dedern in a class that he taught on Doctrine of Christ. The idea of Jesus being a redemption, like that of sending in point to Wheaties for an item that a person wants. The redemption takes place so that restoration happens not only between us and Jesus, but also with Holy Spirit and God the Father. We are restored into all three aspects of the trinity.

    I have always heard that restoration happens to the Father on behalf of the Son, but it seems to me that the three are one, but diverse functions, would have equal value in being restored to humanity from Jesus’ commitment to the redemption process.

    I am unable to scripturally strengthen my point of view, but through a word study a conclusion would be derived to the same point of view. The exception is the idea of humanity restored to trinity.

  • 4. Jamie  |  June 22, 2008 at 7:34 pm


    It seems to me that man is trying to accurately point to a specific common denominator to understand something that is unknown to describe. We know that sin is really and see the effects upon our world, but the unknown is the accurate description of it in a way that we can relate it to another human being

    I think you’re totally right about this. The Bible is quite clear about the reality of sin, but it’s much less clear about exactly what sin is or how it is rectified. The ambiguity is evident from the fact that the Bible uses a ton of different metaphors (commercial, familial, judicial, etc.) to describe sin and its consequences.

    I’m at the point now of saying there is no one “correct” metaphor; all of them capture certain truths that God apparently wanted to get through our heads. My original question–that is, whether sin is to be cured or to be punished–is probably inappropriate, because I made it sound like an either/or answer. It’s not. It’s both/and.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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