Penal and More Jesus took our sin, but his death wrought even more
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ showed the horror of Jesus' death — an innocent man tortured and, when bloodied and beaten, cruelly executed. Read one of the gospel accounts slowly and picture it in your mind and you'll see how awful the cross was. Beyond the physical horror lies the blasphemy that those who should have worshipped him executed the author of life and the prince of glory (Acts 3:15; 1 Cor. 2:8).
In those horrible events Christians have found God's grace expressed most. It was the great demonstration of God's love (Rom. 5:2) as He did not spare His own Son (Rom. 8:32) and the Son in His love laid down His life for us (1 Jn 3:16). Martin Luther challenged the whole of Christendom with the "theology of the cross". He realised that he did not know God from looking at the obviously glorious things, rather he saw God's glory in the ignominy of the cross. In the theses for the Heidelberg Disputation he wrote that "He deserves to be called a theologian ... who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." That is, the true theologian sees grace and glory in the horror of Jesus' death.
In his commentary on Galatians Luther wrote that "when He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men, that He should pay for them with His own blood. The curse struck Him."
Luther expresses the "penal" view of atonement. In this view Jesus died as a substitute for His people and received what they deserved. What they deserved could be described as a just penalty for sin, or God's wrath, or God's curse. Whichever term is used, there is a similar idea, that Jesus' death saves us because He suffers what should have been ours.
After Martin Luther, John Calvin expressed this view even more precisely in The Institutes of Christian Religion (III.xvi.5): "The guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life — as if God's righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon Himself, still hung over us."
For some Christians, however, the horror lies in penal substitution itself, as much as it does in the events of the crucifixion. For a number of reasons many Christians and theologians are wary of saying anything about Jesus' death which might sound like "penal substitution". For a long time the main criticism has been that the view is illogical or unjust. How can an innocent man, a third party, suffer for guilt of others? We would not allow such a thing in our own courts, so why would we imagine that God, the just judge, would accept such an arrangement.
A more recent criticism is that the doctrine distorts our view of God. It presents God as a mean and angry tyrant who has to be placated and who delights in the suffering of Jesus and demands a violent death for satisfaction. Critics point out that we expect far more of ourselves and we admire people who forgive without revenge. Why would we think God to be vengeful — and toward his own Son? If we allow that God is like that, then we will become like that as well. People suspect that telling Jesus' death as a story of violence and anger justifies a society locked into a cycle of violence.
Your response to these criticism might be that whatever we would like to think about God and His ways, the Bible says that Jesus' death was a penal substitution and so we have to say the same. However the critics are not finished. They suggest that the doctrine of penal substitution misinterprets the Bible. They suggest that the God of love cannot be said to be a God of implacable wrath, and that salvation in the Bible is God's victory for us, not Him demanding a penalty.
They argue that the Bible uses a variety of ways to describe Jesus' death and the penal substitution suppresses all the other metaphors for one about wrath and punishment. They observe that evangelicals seem to have an unhealthy obsession about the horrible events of the cross. "There is more to gospel than that," they say.
Not all critics use all these arguments and not all are as strident. The infamous comment that penal substitution is "divine child abuse" is a very extreme attack. Thoughtful criticisms are more important. Our instinct may be to ignore criticisms and keep on talking about the cross the way we always have.
There are two reasons why we need to do more than that. First, if penal substitution is a right and important way of understanding Jesus' death, then rejecting it will harm Christian faith. Second, as we think about criticisms we develop a better and deeper appreciation of Jesus death and our salvation.
It is important to admit that some of the criticisms have a point. For instance, Jesus' death is presented in different ways in the Bible. The cross is a wound which heals us (1 Pet. 2:24), it is Christ's victory over the powers and authorities (Col. 2:15), it is the debt paid to redeem us from slavery (1 Cor. 6:20) and an example for us to follow (1 Pet. 2:21-23). The Bible paints the picture of Jesus' death in many colours; we must not limit ourselves to a monochrome palette.
However, penal substitution is an important element in the Bible. When Jesus' death is described as a sacrifice (Heb. 9:26, 10:12) or as bearing the curse for sinners (Gal. 3:10-14) then the idea of Jesus bearing a penalty as a substitute is dear. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 explains that God has made Christ to be "sin". There are debates about exactly how to understand this description, yet however you understand it, it implies some kind of substitution of the innocent for the sinful.
The New Testament also declares that forgiveness is offered on the basis of Jesus' death (Heb. 9:22; 10:18, Eph. 1:7, Col. 1:14) and this implies that Jesus' death offers on our behalf something our sin deserved. Even the idea of a ransom or redemption price (Mark 10:45, Eph. 1:7; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 9:12, 15) implies that Jesus' death is offered in our place.
These few references and comments are only a brief reminder that the idea of substitution is important in the New Testament. We need biblical scholars to keep showing the presence and importance of this doctrine. This was a task accomplished by Leon Morris (1914-2006) the great Australian New Testament scholar. His book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, first published in 1955, shows convincingly that the New Testament presents Jesus' death as achieving something in God's relation to us, not simply changing our relation to God. In particular, he showed that when the New Testament writers use the word which the NW translates as "sacrifice of atonement" it means a sacrifice which turns away God's anger. The contemporary challenges to the idea of penal substitution demand more scholarship like Morris's.
Some of the points in the paragraph above are taken from I. Howard Marshall's book Aspects of the Atonement (Paternoster, 2008). Other books which admirably present the biblical case for penal substitution are The Cross of Christ (IVP, 1986) by John Stott; The Glory of the Atonement (IVP, 2004) by Charles Evan Hill, Roger R. Nicole and Frank A. James and Pierced for Our Transgressions (IVP, 2007) by Steve Jeffery, Andrew Sach and Michael Ovey.
The criticisms of penal substitution give a serious warning that there are ways of talking about penal substitution which dishonour God. If we make God sound like a fuming tyrant who is only placated by the satisfaction of His blood lust by the self-sacrifice of the heroic Jesus — we give entirely the wrong picture. Even if we think of the cross as the clever solution which God came up with for the dilemma that our sin put Him in, then we do not give a proper picture of God's glorious wisdom and grace. We have to think carefully about how we explain and illustrate the work of Christ in his death.
There are three things that we need to keep in mind as we try to understand the atonement.
First, we need to remember the point from the earlier paragraph: God's word portrays Jesus' death in a variety of ways and we should appreciate all of them. Second, we must avoid giving any impression that God's anger overwhelms or threatens His love or that the Father's wrath requires that Son's love. Instead we have to emphasise that Jesus' death expresses the eternal love of the triune God. The cross is God's loving response to our sin. The famous words of John 3:16 are that God's love led Him to give His Son for the sake of the world.
Martin Luther's insight was to find the grace of God is in the horror of the cross not the grace of the Son alone, but of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Reformed theology has spoken of a covenant between the Father and Son (or better between Father, Son, and Spirit) which is the basis for Christ's work.
The strength of this theological construction is that it emphasises that the work of salvation starts in the Triune love of God for His creation. There is no final tension between God's love and His anger (no matter what tension they may create in our thinking), nor is there a hint of conflict between the Father and the Son. Penal atonement is not based on the suffering of an innocent third party. The incarnate Christ is not a third party, but is God the Son who is equally offended by sin and who willingly accepted the mission of incarnation and death in order to redeem those His Father had given Him, those who had been chosen in Him. Understanding that the cross was planned within the loving fellowship of the Triune God does not remove its horror, but does underline its splendour.
Third, we need to remember that Jesus' work of redemption includes His whole history: His life, death, resurrection, ascension and return. The cross saves us because it is the death of the incarnate God, and the end of His life of faithfulness to the Father. It saves us because death did not defeat Jesus but He rose again and has ascended to the Father's presence to rule and represent us. The critics might say that evangelicals talk about the cross too much. Since the New Testament has so much to say about Jesus' death, that is not a criticism which will hold much weight with us. However our problem can be that we isolate Jesus' death from the rest of His life. A verse such as Romans 4:25 shows that even justification is related to Jesus' resurrection as well as to His death.
When Jesus' death is presented as an expression of the love of the Triune God in response to human sin and as part of the whole work of Christ it cannot be seen as a celebration of violence and suffering (as the critics sometimes suspect). In fact, rather than supporting violent injustice, an understanding of substitutionary atonement supports real justice. Hans Boersma, in his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross (Baker, 2004) argues that true justice can only be established when God is ready to act, and an action against injustice always requires a kind of violence, though that is not the goal of God's justice.
Similarly William Edgar in an interesting essay "Justification and Violence. Reflections on Atonement and Contemporary Apologetics" in Justified In Christ: God's plan for us in justification (Mentor, 2007) argues that if we do not recognise that God has provided the substitute for our injustice, then humans will internalise the need for a substitute and express it in treating other individuals or other groups as our scapegoat. Boersma and Edgar argue that substitutionary atonement does not encourage violence but challenges injustice and human violence, and lays the foundation for the reign of God's peace in the kingdom.
The substitution of the incarnate Son to bear the penalty due to those given to Him by the Father is the great act of grace. We have no need to be embarrassed about it. We need to think about it carefully and present it in its proper context of God's love. In that context, we should believe it whole-heartedly and proclaim it with passion. Our glorious hope lies in the horror of the cross.