Pastor John Piper says the difference between the punishment for sin versus the pain of discipline and suffering from past sin is "infinite."
In response to a question from a listener of his Desiring God podcast, the Reformed theologian addressed the topic "Is Pain Punishment for My Sin," saying that the key distinction is between how God treats his children as opposed to his enemies.
"When I speak of God's judgment upon his enemies, I am referring to the misery that He brings upon them, not for any purifying or restoring or rehabilitating purposes, but solely to express His holy justice, His retribution, not restitution," Piper said. "And it is purely on the basis precisely of what the enemies deserve. It is not to demonstrate mercy. It is to demonstrate righteousness and justice."
The book of Revelation further bolsters this view, he says, for God's retributive justice against His enemies is not temporary nor is it for the purpose of them becoming holy.
Revelation 19:1–3 reads: "After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in Heaven, crying out, 'Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for His judgments are true and just; for He has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the Earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of His servants.' Once more they cried out, 'Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.'"
By contrast, the pain that comes from discipline is not retributive, it's temporary, and is intended to improve those whom God calls children.
Hebrews 12: 8–9 reads that without discipline "you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness."
Piper further reiterated that there is "an infinite difference between the painful things that come into our lives and discipline us — designed for our good that we may share God's holiness as loved children — and that terrible experience of pure retribution where we simply bear what we deserve and experience God's justice forever. It is called Hell."
With regard to whether or not pain from past sin is an instrument of God's judgement or discipline, like financial hardship because of self-centered overspending, Piper believes it's critical to not make the error of thinking that God's discipline is only the result of our righteous behavior through persecution. Also, he argues, it's a mistake to view God's punishment only as a result of sinful behavior.
"There is an infinite and precious difference between God's retributive justice in punishment and God's purifying discipline in our pain. And that difference does not lie in the origin, the human origin of the pain — whether good or evil. It lies in the purpose and the design of God in our suffering," he said.