I tried to address some of the questions we might have about this passage, whether we’re a Christian or not. However, for all these questions, the basic point of the passage seems reasonably hard to avoid- we should do all we can to avoid God treating us as he did Ananias and Sapphira!
However, in response to this, I received the excellent question in the title to this post and although I touched on some themes surrounding this question in the talk (which will be online soon), I want to spend some more time on it, because it’s a biggy.
Why is this question so important?
I think that it can be fleshed out as follows:
When Jesus died, he took our sins upon himself, and was punished in our place. Therefore, Jesus received the punishment for everything I’ve done, am doing or will do that deserved, deserves or will deserve God’s punishment. The punishment has been served. The debt has been paid. God’s wrath has been satisfied. What great news!
So, with this understood: how then could God punish someone for their sins in this life? Let’s take the example of Ananias and Sapphira- surely, Jesus paid the penalty that their hypocrisy and deception deserved on the cross, so why is the Father punishing those sins again? Either God is going over the same ground again unnecessarily, or even worse, as the question specifically asks, it suggests that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t quite enough to cover this specific sin.
Now any indication that we may be demeaning the work of Jesus on the cross must be taken seriously. I’m certainly not going to cover all that could be said about this question or even all that could be said about the tragic fate of Ananias and Sapphira, but I do want to point you towards two things that have helped me in this area:
Our theological convictions shouldn’t conspire together to make God safe
I love theology. I love thinking deeply about God’s word and exploring ‘the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God’ (Rom 11:33). I love reading what brainy, Spirit filled Christians over the years have discovered as they’ve dug deeper into these treasure troves than I would ever be able to do on my own.
However, while we need our theological systems to act as lenses through which we see the unknowable God more clearly, we have to recognise that He does ultimately remain beyond our understanding. He has given us his word, and most dramatically, He has stooped down to us in the person of his son, not just to tell us what God is like, but to show us what God is like in live action. However, we must always approach him with humility and awe and refuse to use these theological systems to make him safe.
Yes, we are confident of many things. That He is faithful. That He works for the good of his people. That nothing can separate us from his love. But the problem comes when we box him in with these statements and then say ‘therefore, he could never do that.’
Time and time again the Bible presents Him doing unexpected things and doesn’t seem to think it is necessary to fill us in on all the whys. In many cases, this has to do with God’s relationship with sin, and in particular people who sin and Acts 5 is one such example.
The New Testament writers back up such case studies with stark warnings to us if we feel tempted to take God’s grace for granted. Take Hebrews 10:26-27, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Romans 11:19-21, Revelation 3:16 and Matthew 5:13 for a rather sobering set of starters on the topic! And, generally the writers (or the Holy Spirit who is inspiring them) don’t see it as necessary to qualify or soften these warnings in light of other equally compelling teachings about God’s grace, mercy and love to his people.
Our convictions about what Jesus did on the cross are very important for us in our day to day walk with God at providing us with confidence of his grace and favour on us. At least they are when we are walking with him. However, if we are deliberately disobeying God in areas of our lives, and then using these same convictions to justify ourselves, we are going further than the Bible does, and we should be aware that, at least at such times, there is an unpredictability about how God may treat us that should cause us to check ourselves, stop messing about and turn back to our Heavenly Father.
Now, I recognise that this may seem fairly unsatisfactory, but balancing our confidence in what we know about God and our humility in what we don’t is a tricky business. However, there is one other thing that I think is worth considering to give us some sort of framework by which to approach questions like the one raised.
Punishment is not just about retribution
The idea that God punished Jesus on the cross for our sins and therefore will never punish any of us in any way for the same things is certainly a faulty way of thinking about the cross. This is because punishment is a much more complicated thing than we often realise.
Punishment can involve retribution and justice- paying someone back for what they’ve done- and we usually see the death of Jesus most clearly in that regard. However, there are several other reasons for punishing people. Firstly, punishment can act as a deterrent to stop others following a bad example. Secondly, it can be done primarily to protect other people if the offence involved is particularly antisocial. And finally, punishment can be done primarily for the good of the perpetrators of the offence- for their reformation, rehabilitation or future growth as a human being.
The Bible refers especially to the last of these when it talks about God’s discipline of his children (as I mentioned in the talk, focusing on 1 Corinthians 11:32).
And while punishment can be discipline, it’s important to recognise that discipline isn’t always punishment. John Piper puts it like this:
‘We, I think, forget that God’s hand of discipline may be on us not simply to spank us because we have been bad, but to stretch us and broaden us in what we are doing well. . . In other words, God is always disciplining us. He is always doing things good, hard, and gentle to us. . . .’
God uses all sorts of means to discipline us, and these means can seem very extreme. Paul’s thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12) was such discipline. Hymenaeus and Alexander received such discipline when Paul handed them over to Satan (1 Tim 1:20). And the Corinthian Christians who weren’t showing due respect to the blood and body of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper and found themselves sick or dead, also received such discipline (1 Cor 11:32).
Luke doesn’t reveal to us the primary reason for God’s judgement on Ananias or Sapphira, but it could have involved at least an element of loving discipline. Or not. They may not even have been Christians. We really don’t know. God didn’t seem to feel that we needed to have our curiosity satisfied completely on this one.
Back to the brass tacks of real life though- if a Christian were to say to me that they felt that God was punishing them in retribution, without any consideration of their ultimate good at all, then I’d definitely refer them to how Jesus paid our penalty on the cross, and at least suggest that there may well be something else going on here. Whether I could guarantee them that there was no retributive element at all, I’m not 100% sure, but I’d certainly suggest that it’s probably not the case. With that said, passages like Acts 5 would at least lead me to add that it really is very important that we don’t persist in deliberate sin.
A concluding illustration
Let’s tie all this together with a famous illustration. In ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’, CS Lewis writes this brief exchange between Susan and Mr Beaver:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Lewis’ depiction of Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, as Aslan, a king who is good, but not safe, has gripped people for years.
Let’s approach our King with suitable reverence then. While we want to get to know him better and better and understand his mind and heart more, let’s never fall into the trap of thinking that our theological systems or emotional assessments of him can tame him.
He’s not safe. But He’s good. Let’s listen to His wisdom and have a right fear of unleashing his roar.