God Punisheth not Sin, by Necessity of Nature

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Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
I just started reading Rutherford's Covenant of Life Opened. So far the content has been great, although a little rough following the flow of thought at times. For those who are familiar with the book I have a question. In chapter 7 Rutherford seems to argue that God's nature does not require Him to punish sin. Am I totally confused? Because it seems to me that although wrath, justice, etc are not necessary attributes of God they are ones that are necessarily contingent due to His attributes such as Holiness, perfection, love, goodness etc.
 
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MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
God said, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Justice says, "the soul that sins shall die." The End!

And yet it is not the end. Where sin abounded grace did much more abound. Christ is substituted in the place of sinners.
 

Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
I get that Christ is substituted in our place, but that is my point- sin was still dealt with. Granted, I haven't gotten very far in the book and Rutherford might flesh it out further, but Ch 7 seems to say that God doesn't have to punish sin. Im just trying to see if Im understanding what he is trying to say at this point.
 
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py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
This is an area where there has been disagreement in the Reformed world. Some (and this seems to be the majority position today) argue that the exercise of vindicatory justice is natural and essential to God, meaning that God cannot but punish sin. John Murray would argue this way. Others take the view that since everything God does ad extra is part of his most sovereign and free decree, the only necessity that can be posited is the necessity caused by God's own will. Luminaries such as Thomas Goodwin and Emily Shore would join Samuel Rutherford on that side of the debate.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I get that Christ is substituted in our place, but that is my point- sin was still dealt with. Granted, I haven't gotten very far in the book and Rutherford might flesh it out further, but Ch 7 seems to say that God doesn't have to punish sin. Im just trying to see if Im understanding what he is trying to say at this point.

That Christ is substituted in the sinner's place means the sinner is not punished in his own person, whereas justice requires the soul that sins shall die. Since God has the choice as to the objects of mercy and justice the exercise of mercy or justice in the case of particular persons is subject to His will.
 

Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
This is an area where there has been disagreement in the Reformed world. Some (and this seems to be the majority position today) argue that the exercise of vindicatory justice is natural and essential to God, meaning that God cannot but punish sin. John Murray would argue this way. Others take the view that since everything God does ad extra is part of his most sovereign and free decree, the only necessity that can be posited is the necessity caused by God's own will. Luminaries such as Thomas Goodwin and Emily Shore would join Samuel Rutherford on that side of the debate.
So I was understanding what Rutherford was writing. That's a relief : ). Okay let me try to roughly explain what Im thinking and how I understand this. And go ahead and let me know where Im not getting it. Im completely open to learning but I see punishment of sin not as something essential to God but neither does it seem its simply something God decided He would do. I think of it more in the middle of both those ideas. I look at it in terms of an out working of His love, perfection, and Holiness which are essential attributes of God. If God never created He would never need to display justice. Therefore it seems that vindicatory justice is not nor could be an essential attribute of God. However, because He did freely create and freely decreed that man would sin, God's essential Holiness, Love, etc seems to dictate that sin had to be dealt with in some way. Therefore the punishment of sin is not something that God merely decreed but that he decreed it as a result of His essential attributes.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
I would imagine that everyone agrees that what God does, he does like himself. Heppe quotes a line about how God could will otherwise, but not otherwise will; meaning that the content of his decree could have been different, but could not have been other than godlike.

So the point of tension is not over what God has decreed, nor over whether that decree is entirely conformable to his holy character; but whether one part of the decree constrained God to act in one way rather than another. The affirmative position argues that given the reality of sin, God was constrained to punish and that given the determination to save, no other way than substitutionary atonement was available. The negative position would see the whole of God's decree (which is singular, though we divide it up for analysis) as most free.
 

Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
The affirmative position argues that given the reality of sin, God was constrained to punish and that given the determination to save, no other way than substitutionary atonement was available. The negative position would see the whole of God's decree (which is singular, though we divide it up for analysis) as most free.
I guess as of now I would fall into the affirmative position. Rutherford falls into the latter correct?
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Yes, he would. My uninvestigated impression is that the earlier Reformed tradition was more in line with Rutherford, but over time the preponderance of opinion shifted, although with some survivals of the earlier view. It has now come to the point where it can be difficult to find a fair statement of Rutherford's view.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Owen and Turretin on the atonement are necessarian. Owen and Turretin on federal theology or imputation of sin and righteousness are voluntarist. One must redefine "necessity" in order to be reformed and necessarian.

The soul that sins shall die. The bare fact some sinners do not die in their own person substantiates voluntarism. In other words, grace and salvation are "necessarily" voluntarist concepts.
 

Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
The soul that sins shall die. The bare fact some sinners do not die in their own person substantiates voluntarism. In other words, grace and salvation are "necessarily" voluntarist concepts.


I agree that Grace and salvation are solely voluntariist concepts. I understand imputation and that it was not necessary for God to send Christ to stand in our place. God could have allowed us to die in our own place. He could have freely passed over everyone.

What I'm having trouble with is trying to understand Rutherford's position (at least how I'm understanding him) that God did not have to punish sin -He could have chose otherwise. In other words God could have chose to let people sin without any repercussions. There would be no wages for sin; whether to the soul that sins or through imputation.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
In other words God could have chose to let people sin without any repercussions.

No voluntarist holds to this. Even the hypothetical (contrary to fact) instance of God pardoning sin without a satisfaction supposes the sin requires pardon, which means that the sin in itself has repercussions.

There would be no wages for sin; whether to the soul that sins or through imputation.

Demerit and punishment (wages) are personal in quality. It is the soul that sins that must die. The fact that the person in himself is not personally punished, and that Another could bear that punishment, demonstrates it is not by necessity of nature.

Whether one is supra- or infralapsarian, to believe in predestination is to believe that God chose some men to be for the praise of His justice and others to be for the praise of His grace.
 

Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
No voluntarist holds to this. Even the hypothetical (contrary to fact) instance of God pardoning sin without a satisfaction supposes the sin requires pardon, which means that the sin in itself has repercussions.

I'm agreeing with you. This is why I'm trying to figure out what Rutherford is actually saying. I must be mis-reading him. So what is Rutherford saying in Cov. Of life Opened ch7 in the section titled "God punisheth not sin by necessity of nature"?
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I'm agreeing with you. This is why I'm trying to figure out what Rutherford is actually saying. I must be mis-reading him. So what is Rutherford saying in Cov. Of life Opened ch7 in the section titled "God punisheth not sin by necessity of nature"?

"Necessity of nature" means the fire must burn, the sun must give light. It is absolutely necessary in the nature of the thing. Rutherford argues there is degree and measure and time in the punishment of sin, which shows it is not a thing of nature.

Probably the best place in English for understanding it simply is found in the Letter in which Rutherford discusses the subject in plain terms. In the BoT edition it is found on pp. 467-469, Letter 234, to James Lindsay.
 

Goodcheer68

Puritan Board Sophomore
"Necessity of nature" means the fire must burn, the sun must give light. It is absolutely necessary in the nature of the thing. Rutherford argues there is degree and measure and time in the punishment of sin, which shows it is not a thing of nature.

Probably the best place in English for understanding it simply is found in the Letter in which Rutherford discusses the subject in plain terms. In the BoT edition it is found on pp. 467-469, Letter 234, to James Lindsay.


Thanks for the resource. I found it online and read it. Guy Richard sums up what I understand Rutherford to be saying. If this is an accurate summary of Rutherford, and it seems to be, I would at this point disagree with Rutherford. Not that I am anyone just stating where I fall on this as of now.

“Rutherford argues that, although justice is a divine attribute ad intra, God is in no way required to exercise that justice ad extra, towards his creatures. Because ‘God’s own free will’, Rutherford continues, ‘was above, beyond, and before’ his ‘set and decreed law of justice’, God is not required by any necessity of his nature to punish sin. He freely decrees to be just and to punish sin, but no essential necessity —i.e., no necessity resulting from his essence — forces the decree upon him”
The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford
By Guy M. Richard


Here is Carl Truman writing on Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice which was somewhat of a response to Rutherford’s views on this issue.

“Owen regards God’s justice simply as God’s perfection:

‘The justice of God, absolutely considered, is the universal rectitude and
perfection of the divine nature; for such is the divine nature antecedent to all acts of his will and suppositions of objects towards which it might operate.’

In other words, God’s justice as it is in himself, is simply the sum of all his perfections, and these perfections stand logically prior to his acts of will, acts that therefore have to be consistent with his perfection. The implications for God’s external works are immediately
obvious, and Owen proceeds to make the connection explicit. God’s justice, he says, performs two kinds of external acts: those that are absolute and that he characterizes as words (i.e., when God speaks or legislates, his utterances are based on eternal, absolute truth); and those that are necessary and that he speaks of as deeds (i.e., when God acts toward an object outside of himself, he necessarily acts in a manner consistent with his perfections, e.g., he gives to each what they deserve.)
This distinction parallels another that Owen makes between the attributes:
those that presuppose no external object and those that do. Among the former, Owen lists wisdom and power. God can be said to exercise these simply in his very act of existence. Among the latter, Owen specifies vindicatory justice: God cannot be said to exercise such sin-punishing
righteousness unless one presupposes the existence of sin and thus of something external to the Godhead.

The key element that emerges from this argument is the relational nature of God’s vindicatory justice. Having deemed God’s essential justice to be the sum of all his perfections, he argues that vindicatory justice is one part of the outworking of God’s perfect nature, simply the external working of God’s perfections in the manner demanded by the sinfulness of the creature.

There is, in other words, no single internal attribute that corresponds to God’s justice and upon which his vindicatory justice is based. As a consequence of this, God’s vindicatory justice must be understood not as something that possesses existence of its own right but as something that
exists only as part of the relationship between a perfect God and his creatures.”
 
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MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
John Owen redefined necessity to include "concomitant liberty in acting." Hence he did not outrightly oppose Rutherford's stated objection to necessity of nature.
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
As one who holds Rutherford's view, I've been wondering.... If God acts by a necessity of nature instead of by freedom, does this make God's actions impersonal? On this view, God is simply acting and re-acting as by a strict law of Physics. Since there is no freedom of choice, God's actions become an impersonal Force of nature. This impersonal Force of nature chooses to save some out of a "love" that could not be helped but have instead of freely setting this love on elect sinners. I suppose one might object that sinners necessarily sin, but the bondage of their will is a moral, rather than a natural, one: they still freely choose to sin, and the natural liberty of the will could allow them to choose an action that is not sinful.

Also, if God acts by a necessity of nature, how do God's attributes dictate God's actions? God is just, but he is also merciful, so which attribute wins out in any particular case if they are all equally basic? I see that the portion quoted from Truman seems to make God's justice more basic than other attributes. But if this is the case, why would God show mercy at all? God is necessitated by his nature to exercise vindicatory justice and justice is more basic than mercy. On the other hand, if one makes God's mercy more basic than justice, than why aren't all sinners pardoned or all saved by Christ's work? God is necessitated by his nature to mercy and mercy is more basic than justice.

(Edit: Perhaps this is why "concomitant liberty in acting" is included in Owen's definition of necessity; I'll have to check it out at some point/think about it some more to see if that really gives freedom.)

And of course, if "absolutely considered" (by which I understand: God as he is in himself), some attribute is more basic than another and is the sum and substance of divine perfection, than issues with divine simplicity seem to arise: God's mercy is not his justice is not his wisdom, etc. But I am more interested in thoughts on the above two questions. Although, I wonder what makes "justice" the sum of divine perfections. Why not holiness? Or why not "goodness" (vindicatory justice is good; so is mercy)? Mercy also presupposes sin; why does God not act consistently with that in his external works? Before you know it, it seems to me that the author of Death of Death is going to be forced to have an unlimited atonement in some sense....
 
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MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
So far as intrinsic value is concerned Christ has satisfied what divine justice requires for the punishment for sin. There is no limitation in the value of Christ's work in relation to the law and justice of God. Christ has fully and sufficiently satisfied justice irrespective of the objects for whom He has done it. The specific persons for whom He satisfied justice can only be determined by the election of God. This is entirely an act of the divine will and is a manifestation of grace. "The Death of Death" teaches this. The "Dissertation" explains the necessity of the atonement in relation to satisfying justice. It does not touch on the extent of the atonement as to the persons for whom He made satisfaction.

For Owen the difference between mercy and justice is not in God Himself but in the intervening of "natural obligation," that is, something in the Creator-creature relationship which God has established. Sin acts against that relationship and compels justice. No such obligation intervenes in the exercise of mercy.

The voluntarist will respond, of course, that the relationship God has established is "voluntary." He maintains that this relationship introduces a condition which makes the atonement necessary, but this condition in itself was "freely" established by God. This brings us back to where we started.
 

Afterthought

Puritan Board Senior
Would it be fair to say that, like the supralapsarian can accommodate the infralapsarian in the execution of the decree, so the voluntarist can accommodate the necessarian in the establishment (maybe there's a better word; trying to pinpoint the idea that once the decree has made things necessary, the necessarian's arguments and views can be acommodated at that point) of the decree?
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Would it be fair to say that, like the supralapsarian can accommodate the infralapsarian in the execution of the decree, so the voluntarist can accommodate the necessarian in the establishment (maybe there's a better word; trying to pinpoint the idea that once the decree has made things necessary, the necessarian's arguments and views can be acommodated at that point) of the decree?

Like the lapsarian debate it comes to be a point of logic (apex logicus) rather than a dogma of Scripture per se; and like that debate the voluntarist can affirm everything the necessarian asserts; so it is fair and reasonable to make that accommodation.
 
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