Now I know this is a common question, but how do we reconcile the ordered execution of those who commit sexual immorality in Leviticus 20 with the forgiveness of people in the New Testament? I mean, Christians aren’t supposed to run around stoning people to death. How do we bridge the gap between God saying “Murder these people” and then saying “Forgive them”?
I really appreciate you raising this question! It is an important one.
If we get it wrong, perhaps we would dishonor our Lord and his moral standards - or - start murdering people!
I think Tim Keller offers helpful clarity on this point:
Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties.
But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how a case of incest in the Corinthian church is dealt with by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1ff. and 2 Corinthians 2:7-11.) Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.
That is to say, the ‘gap’ in consequences that you’ve noted is explainable because of a more fundamental difference between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the Israelites are part of a theocratic nation that is called to holiness and worship of YHWH. In the New Testament, the people of God are part of the universal church that is called to holiness and worship of YHWH.
However, in either place, the principle is the same: flagrant sin should lead to the removal of a person from the community of God’s people.
I think there’s another complexity to your question that deserves its own response. In the Old Testament, there are places where sin is a capital crime punishable by the community. But in the New Testament, we are taught to forgive even the worst sin. I think of how Paul, a murderer, became an apostle who wrote most of the New Testament. Further, we are called to be a people who forgive others. As Matthew 6:14-15 reads,
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Charles Stanley explains the differences between forgiveness and consequences well:
Forgiveness is relational. The Father sent Jesus to make a sacrifice on our behalf, and by so doing reconciled us to Himself. By His mercy alone, we can have communion with the Lord.
On the other hand, consequences are circumstantial . The man who drank for many years and developed cirrhosis of the liver knows that his disease has a direct link to his alcohol abuse. The woman who had an affair realizes, deep in her heart, that her ruined marriage was a direct consequence of her sinful choice. The promiscuous person knows his sexually transmitted disease is a result of an immoral lifestyle. God does not often remove consequences like these simply because someone trusts Christ as Savior or confesses sin.
I could go into other illustrations, but perhaps the most compelling one comes from the cross itself. Christ made it clear that the thief dying with him was completely forgiven (Luke 23:39-43). Yet moments later, the man died an excruciating death. His sins had been erased in God’s sight, but he suffered the punishment for his crime.
There are many, many situations where we can wholeheartedly forgive someone and also provide consequences to that person. A dad may, for instance, forgive his child for hitting him, and also give them a short time-out to teach the child that hitting is not acceptable in the family. A teacher may forgive a student for obscene insults and send the student to the principal’s office. And so on.
To sum it up, I believe that Christians are called to be both forgiving and wise. We don’t want to become bitter, angry, or harsh. We want to maintain a tender compassion and kindness towards all people as we seek their best. At the same time, we recognize there is a wisdom to consequences and we allow (or implement) these as part of what it means to love another person.
I hope this is helpful to you. I would be curious to hear your further thoughts as well as insights from other members of the community.
I cannot add to this @CarsonWeitnauer . You summed it up very well. Thank you!
Hey @Shimmy! This question is not an easy one for sure. I don’t know if you, like me, also struggle with the rest of leviticus and the various laws stated. I tend to peek at them through a common window, carefully though. But first, I like how @CarsonWeitnauer covered many aspects in his answer. I hope you elaborate more in the differences between the Sin itself, its consequences, and its punishment, and whether there are different kinds of consequences or not.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a while. In the garden of Eden, God commanded Man not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and He said, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”. Later on, the serpent told the woman, “You will not surely die.” And if you know how the story goes (spoilers alert!) they don’t die when they eat from the tree. But the serpent also told them, “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Good and evil doesn’t mean good and evil it means ‘everything’. The same play of words where you use two opposite word to indicate the whole, (I looked for you east and west = everywhere, I kept thinking day and night = all day). And if Adam and Eve were in a position where they knew everything, they would be in no need for a god to tell them what to do and not to do. They become the moral compass for themselves. They became gods themselves. And since then, we have not been doing a great job in this area. The root of all sin is self-centeredness. So, when God told them they would die, He weren’t lying them. If you told your child, ‘if you put your hand in the electric socket, you’ll die’ you are not lying. If you decide to be a sophisticated parent and told him, 'If you put your hand in electricity and there is a conductive medium, an electric discharge of x volts will be transmitted to your skin of your finger and your nerve receptors will pick them up and neurotransmitter will rapidly rupture due to high load and …your heart stops and you die." Your kid will be dead by the time you finish, by boredom But both are true. Sometimes we think God is exagerating and making a big fuss about Sin because this sequel of events, unlike electric shock, takes a lifetime, a human history even. Sin is dealt with seriously in the Old Testament not because God is harsh but because He is Holy and He called His people to be like Him. In Joshua 7:1 it says the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, then he goes on to say, “for Achan…took some of the devoted things” then, “the anger of God burnt against the people of Israel”. Did you see that? People - a person - people. Wrongdoing doesn’t affect individuals, it affects the whole community. The people of Israel are in a special covenant with God. And that covenant has terms. They were a living experience to all nations for Yahweh’s interaction with humans. This is how the people of Yahweh look like.
Also, there is something to point to here is that there is nothing that say that those people (stoned) will be condemned in hell for eternity.
It is such a grave mistake to believe that God is more lenient with Sin or less angry about it in the New Testament. He was so angry with it that it cost Him His Son’s life! That’s way huge than anything else. I guess there are two aspects of the cross: the reconcilation and the judgement. Jesus unites with the us on the cross so we die for the sins. The punishment was lifted from us and fell on Him. The consequences, some are wiped, some are still to be dealt with. I hope @CarsonWeitnauer that you tell us what do you think about it, whether, in the cross and us accepting the salvation of christ, some of the consquences we might experience on earth are lifted??
Yes, I can think of ways that God, in his grace, has mitigated some of the consequences of my sin. But this has usually come through repentance and making changes in my life, by the power of his Spirit.
I think, for instance, of the Apostle Paul. Given the trajectory of his early life and career, you would expect him to be eaten up by a competitive, ambitious, angry spirit even into old age. Yet rather, we see that he has become a humble, tender encourager of others, who finishes well even as this roving missionary finds himself constrained to the confines of a Roman jail cell.
God can make it so that, for at least some of our habitual sins, what used to tempt us now reminds us of the kindness and grace of our God, so that we are sweeter and better than we might have otherwise been.
Thank you Carson for your response. I wonder if you watched the movie “Paul, apostle of Christ” (real spoilers ahead!)The movie depicted him having flashbacks about the people he persecuted in his earlier days, how they were scared and running away from him. Apparently, tortured by guilt. He always wakes up and says: “your grace is sufficient”. And then, the last scene, after his persecution, Paul is in Heaven and a crowd of people greet him joyfully, including all those he once persecuted and killed. He is last seen walking towards Jesus filled with peace.
I loved it so much! And I loved how it’s communicated that God also deals with guilt and remorse. I remembered it when you mentioned him.
Hi Sara! I haven’t seen that movie, but I think that captures a good theme of his life!
Philippians 3:4-11 reads,
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Remembrance of his past life continued to spur him deeper into the experience of God’s grace and living a renewed, obedient, wholly God-glorifying life.
Those verses are very dear to my heart!
I really appreciate your answer Carson, but it leads me to a smaller, more insignificant question. Since God’s people were a theocratic nation-state in the Old Testament ruled by God, and therefore sins had civil punishments, does that mean that during the Millennium, when Christ reigns on Earth, sins will once again have civil punishments? And if they do, will the punishments be as severe as they are in the Old Testament?