Can God Forgive Without Punishing?

  • By: Jac Filer
  • Time to read: 6 min.

As Christians, we know that we have been forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross. Yet it seems that when we sin, the consequences and our guilt punish us all over again. Sometimes, the fallout from our sins might last years—or even a lifetime.

But if Jesus’ paid the price for our sins, why do we still have to deal with consequences? Can God forgive without punishing us, too?

God’s forgiveness frees us from eternal punishment. But God uses discipline and correction in this life to grow us in our faith and conform us to His likeness.

When Adam and Eve did the original sin they were punished by God, being banished from Eden.

Forgiveness and Sacrifice

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Hebrews 9:22

Many Christians are familiar with this oft-cited verse from Hebrews, which is used to explain both why Christ had to die, and how his death secures our forgiveness.

But let’s unpack this passage a little further and revisit the Old Testament law that it refers to.

Why Blood?

Because blood represents life, God forbade the Israelites from drinking blood, consuming meat with blood still in it, or shedding blood unjustly. Even the method of executing a person found guilty of a capital sin—stoning—was chosen in part because it minimizes bloodshed.

Returning, then to Hebrews, in the preceding verses of chapter 9 the writer describes how Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed animals on the scrolls, the tabernacle, and all of the sacred instruments used in worship (v 19-21).

And that point was built on an earlier illustration where the writer used the example of a will, which only goes into effect upon the grantor’s death, to describe the necessity of blood in God’s covenant with Israel (v 16-18).

All this to set up the point that our new covenant is established in the death and spilled blood of Jesus:

But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:26b-28

Even though the mechanics changed (from animal sacrifices to Jesus’ sacrifice), the spilling of blood is necessary to both covenants because blood represents life, and the penalty for sin is death:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

Leviticus 17:11

Sacrifice in the Old Testament

Because the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), a system of sacrifices was established whereby God’s people could receive forgiveness by shedding the blood of an animal.

The sacrificial animal paid the death penalty for the presenter’s sin, but still placed a demand on the person. The animal, having come from the presenter’s own flock, or having been purchased, cost the presenter something.

In this way, the sacrifice was punitive, just as death is a punitive response to sin.

One Sacrifice or Many?

In the Old Testament, sacrifices were carried out regularly for ritual washing, and annually (during the Day of Atonement) for forgiveness. That system has been fulfilled and completed by Christ, as we read a moment ago in Hebrews, who became the final and total sacrifice.

Jesus’ sacrifice paid the penalty of spilled blood (required by Old Testament Law) and death (the consequence of sin) in place of the punishment due us:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.

Romans 3:25

We no longer perform the sacrifices of the old covenant because our punishment has been fully satisfied. There is nothing that we can add to Jesus’ completed work to make it more complete. God’s wrath, having been poured out on Jesus on the cross, is no longer directed toward us:

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!

Romans 5:9

So we are free from the ultimate penalty (separation from God in eternity) because Jesus has received our punishment.

Why Does it Seem Like I am Being Punished?

Even though we are saved, Christians still struggle with sin, and we still live in a broken world full of evil and pain. Forgiveness does not give us a free pass to carefree living without any consequences. Jesus’ blood pays for the eternal consequences of our sin. But in this life, we still have to deal with the temporal consequences of our sins.

Natural Consequences

Many sins lead to adverse circumstances or changes in our situation. Sexual promiscuity, for example, might result in an unexpected pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. These are natural, earthly effects of our actions.

Relational Consequences

Hatred, bitterness, jealousy, and violence levied at other persons can have lasting and damaging effects on our relationships. Sinful choices in our treatment of others might sever trust, inhibit closeness, or cause a relationship to end altogether.

Legal Consequences

If our sins involve criminal actions such as stealing, assault, or vandalism, those actions carry penalties that are imposed and enforced through our judicial systems. A person convicted of a crime might have to serve jail time, pay restitution, or be prohibited from interacting with certain persons.

God is sovereign over the world, and He can choose to intervene in our individual circumstances if it suits His purposes. But He usually allows our earthly consequences to remain because punishment isn’t His only objective.

Punishment or Correction?

We know that God can forgive without punishing us because He has already satisfied the punishment due us through Jesus. But once we have been forgiven (justified), we begin the lifelong process of being made holy (sanctified), and for this God allows us to experience trials that help us grow.

If you’ve read our article about suffering, then you are familiar with how our suffering draws us closer to God.

When our suffering is related to (or caused by) our sin, corrective action may be necessary to help us to overcome the thinking or the habits that led us to sin in the first place. In some cases, our consequences might include barriers that make returning to old sins more difficult.

While these actions may seem strictly punitive, they are ultimately acts of love that God uses to make us more like Him:

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,

    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,

because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?

Hebrews 12:5b-7

By using discipline, God empowers us to overcome sin in our lives—even if the vestige of its impact remains—so that we may live more fully in His peace and righteousness:

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:11