Does Forgiving Mark Sanford Mean the Elimination of Consequences?

Chris —  May 9, 2013

Should Christian voters who forgive Mark Sanford for his betrayals of trust have voted him back into office? He thinks so. Mark Sanford interpreted his return to the national political stage through a biblical lens.

To be sure, it was something of a political resurrection for Sanford whose career imploded in 2009 when an extra-marital affair with a woman in Argentina was uncovered.

Ross Douthat rightly questions Sanford’s theological analysis. Douthat writes:

Part of [my concerns with Sanford], I admit, stems from the combination of my personal preoccupations and the experience of reading quotes like these, from Sanford’s victory lap:

“Some guy came up to me the other day and said you look a lot like Lazarus,” Sanford told the crowd Tuesday night, referring to the man who, according to the Bible, Christ raised from the dead. “I’ve talked a lot about grace during the course of this campaign,” he said. “Until you experience human grace as a reflection of God’s grace, I don’t think you really get it. And I didn’t get it before.”

“I want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances,” Sanford said in his victory speech in Charleston, referring to his first TV ad in which he asked voters to support him despite his past problems. “But a God of third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth chances because that is the reality of our shared humanity.”

Because of course when Jesus told his disciples to forgive sinners seven times seven times, what he really meant was that they should affirm people in whatever they’ve done and want to do and then return them to high office as swiftly as possible. And when he raised Lazarus from the dead, it was likewise a sign that no political ambition need ever be set aside or abandoned, no matter how the politician in question has failed the public trust. For that matter, who can forget the famous gospel passage where John the Baptist officiated at King Herod’s second marriage, and then encouraged the Roman government to give Herod a few new titles and honors? I’m surprised Sanford didn’t reference that one!

Douthat is right to question Sanford’s theology. Below is an excerpt from Unpacking Forgiveness:

Forgiveness does not mean the elimination of all consequences.

If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you are saved (Acts 16:31). So far as east is from the west, so far does God remove the transgressions of his children from them (Psalm 103:11-12). There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). Nevertheless, these truths do not teach that those forgiven by God face no consequences for sin. On the contrary! This side of heaven, we will continue to work through the consequences of our rebellion against God. One of the most famous examples of this are the consequences David faced for his adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent attempts to cover up the sin through deceit and murder.

When God used the prophet Nathan to confront David, he realized the magnitude of his sin and was truly repentant (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan told David that God would forgive him for his sin (2 Samuel 12:13). However, there were still consequences, and severe ones at that. Nathan told David that there would be violence amongst his family (2 Samuel 12:10) and that the baby Bathsheba and he had conceived would die (2 Samuel 12:13). Even after the death of the baby, David faced those horrible consequences of ongoing violence in his family. One son, Amnon, raped David’s daughter Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22). Another son, Absalom, then killed Amnon (2 Samuel 13:23-33). Later, Absalom attempted to take over David’s kingdom (Samuel 15-19).

The reality of consequences raises a question: If God truly forgives, if he no longer holds the sin against the forgiven, then why are there are consequences? The answer is that God disciplines His own, not for the purpose of punishing them but for his glory and their joy in the future. These consequences are not punishment. Rather, they are how God trains and teaches.

The author of Hebrews stressed this point in Hebrews 12:5-12 when he wrote that God disciplines his children as a father the son he delights in. Two words are used to refer to the idea of disciplining. The first one means “to train.” This word was used in relation to raising children.Believers can expect to be “trained” by God. The second word we see is a harsher one. It means to scourge or punish. The ESV translates it “chastises.”This word appears seven times in the New Testament, and every other time it refers to literal “flogging.” Hebrews 12:6 says that we can expect discipline and direction from God, and at times it will be painful.

The reason God disciplines his children is given in Hebrews 12:10-11.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 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 12:10-11

God allows us to face the consequences of sin for our own ultimate good, that we may eventually share more fully in his holiness and reap an abundant harvest of righteousness and peace.

Once when our son Christopher was only two, he made an unauthorized trip to our neighbor’s house. He snuck out our front door and crossed the street before my wife Jamie even missed him. He trotted up to our neighbors’ front door, knocked, and asked if he could play with their sons. Now obviously, we could not allow a toddler to leave our home without permission and cross a street again. So, we did our best as parents to make that a painful memory for Christopher. We lovingly sought to associate pain with his memory of disobedience.

Why did we do that? It certainly wasn’t that we wanted to “get him back” for going out on the street. Jamie and I weren’t thinking, “Okay, buddy, now you’re gonna pay.” Rather, we were seeking to train and instruct him for the future.

If you choose to disobey, then expect consequences. God loves his children too much to allow you to “play in the road.” But don’t confuse discipline and penalty. Discipline is the loving correction of a parent. Penalty is the price required for the offense. If you are a believer, the purpose of God’s discipline is not to inflict upon you the punishment you deserve. If that were the case, then God would send you to hell. God disciplines his children so that they might understand the seriousness of sin and be increasingly conformed to the image of his Son.

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One response to Does Forgiving Mark Sanford Mean the Elimination of Consequences?

  1. Great insight on this whole subject. Isn’t it interesting that we tend to justify our actions and even lend biblical support for them? I loved your excerpt from your book. Thank you for sharing this!