In atonement, justice is served by judging a second party and transferring the guilt of sin to this innocent person. That is, an innocent person can redeem a guilty person by paying the penalty owed by the guilty person. Thus, Jesus suffered the anger of God in payment for sin, and a person can be forgiven in Christ without directly paying the price for his or her sin. In chastening, the guilty party, even though redeemed, still has to suffer some consequences for their sin. In this case though, the affliction is designed to bring moral improvement to the person, is a sign of God’s approval, is not applied in anger, and does not result in death or destruction.
Punishment is the direct judgment of a person’s sin, in payment for sin, and flows from the justice and holiness of God.
Punishment and chastening have a lot in common. The main difference is that chastisement is intended for correction, whereas punishment may have no goal beyond justice. For example, if a society imposes the death penalty on a man for committing forcible rape, then the punishment is designed to remove a dangerous person from society and to show other citizens that such a crime will not be tolerated.
Additionally, punishment implies an element of anger and justice that can be lacking in chastisement. In the example above, the man being punished deserves to be punished. Not to punish such a crime is in itself wrong. Justice demands a closure. Even if the person was no longer a danger to society, and even if no one else was dissuaded from crime by his punishment, justice still must be carried out. To let the man live free from punishment is to fail to do right.
Finally, in punishment there is no guarantee that the person being punished is being helped by the punishment. In chastisement, the person’s correction is the goal of the imposed suffering.
The response of God to sin can be chastening, punishment or some combination of these actions. For example, if we compare God’s response to King David with His response to King Saul, we can see how these terms can apply to us. In 1st Samuel 15, we read that Saul sinned against God by refusing to carry out a command to wipe out an enemy tribe of Israel. When confronted by the prophet Samuel, Saul would not repent. In 2nd Samuel 11, we read that David sinned against God by committing adultery with a woman named Bathsheba and by murdering her husband. When confronted by the prophet Nathan, David repented. God told Saul that He was going to kill him and take the kingdom away from him because of his unrepentant sin. God told David that He was going to kill his child born to Bathsheba, and then cause his own son Absalom to rebel and try to take away his kingdom, but He would let David live and still be King. Saul did not learn from his punishment, but David did learn and was later described by God as being “a man after my own heart.” We can apply the word punishment easily to God’s action towards Saul. God’s “punishment” of David’s sin did function to show God’s justice and it warn the citizens of Israel. But it also improved David’s ability to be honest with God and to obey Him. So it would be accurate to say that God punished both Saul and David, but that He only chastened David. Likewise today, “God chastens His children, and scourges every son He receives” shows that an application of mercy can temper justice and be used to improve us in our walk with God.
We are told in I Corinthians chapter 10 that the punishments imposed on God’s people in the Old Testament were done for our instructions. Done as an example for us, the New Testament people of God, that we might learn holiness. The people of the Old Testament cited in I Corinthians never did learn from their punishment.
So, whether we are being merely chastened or also punished, we should endure affliction when God judges our sin. As we humble ourselves and stay committed to following God, we display the type of attitude that our chastening needs in order to bear fruit. Likewise, a meek and humble submission to God’s Holy dealings with us will release His mercy. We can then benefit from the truth that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”