Christ_at_the_Cross_-_Cristo_en_la_CruzThree Important Truths I learned about Penal Substitution

It’s troubling that some theologians don’t see penal substitution for what it is—a Holy God affecting retributive justice at immoral man for committing a crime against Him. Some of their objections are absurd. To me, it’s perfectly clear that the doctrine of penal substitution is not only Biblical, but an amazing gift of God—to offer Himself up as a substitute to take the place of the punishment I deserve? How could someone not recognize the generosity in this act? Apparently some do not see it.

1. Cosmic Child Abuse

There are those whose primary objection to the death of Christ on the cross at Calvary is that it appears to be some kind of “cosmic child abuse”[1] from a Father towards a son. How can this be consistent with a loving God? Others wonder how Jesus could be cursed without having been guilty of sin. Here is where “perceiving the paradox” comes into focus.[2] We need to understand God is loving, yet expresses anger; He is forgiving, yet consequences to sin are enforced; He is one, yet three, and so forth. To suggest that God enacted any kind of abuse shows the ignorance of comprehending the intricacies of God’s attributes.

One misunderstanding is how Jesus could be punished for a sin He did not commit. Believers are united in Christ since He is the head of the whole body (the Church), and thereby our sin is transferred to Him.[3] This makes it clear as to why Jesus could pay the price for sin in the penal substitutionary act even though He was sinless. Then the righteousness of Christ, in turn, can be imputed to us!

Despite this good news, we were warned of the bad. God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or they would surely die. The words of God that threaten punishment cannot be unsaid, or that would make God liar. When they disobeyed, God kept His word. Death eventually came. However, goodness was promised, too, in the coming Messiah who would restore mankind through His ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

Still some don’t see why the cross was necessary. Can’t God just forgive and forget? Absolutely not! “His eyes are too pure to look on evil; his voice shakes the heavens; at his sight the angels in glory hide their faces.”[4] Today, in the “feel good” culture that surrounds us, some are too comfortable with sin — they don’t even see what they do as sinning (even many Christians)! We have lost touch with why sin is an offense to God.

Instead, we should be ask: “why does God even bother with us? How could He be with such sinful people?” In the Old Testament, the answer was through a system of atoning sacrifices the Jews had to perform, with the Day of Atonement at its heart. This foreshadowed what Christ has now done on the cross as work of atonement, propitiating sin once-for-all in a substitutionary sacrifice.[5]

2. Distorts the Trinity

Still others cannot grasp how this act does not separate the Trinity. Doesn’t penal substitution undermine the oneness of God? How can a single God become a separate individual subjected to His own wrath? Some theologians see this as distorting and misrepresenting the biblical picture of God. However, it is perfectly biblical for one person of the trinity to perform an action upon another. For example, God the Father spirates the Holy Spirit; the Father gives and the Son receives; it is never the other way around. Each person of the Trinity has distinct purposes yet are in complete union (asymmetry).[6]

3. Creation Set Right

The bigger picture to the doctrine of penal substitution is of great importance: the Son became incarnate in order to bring completion to creation. This was part of God’s plan all along. Since “human sin is an act of de-creation,” God’s plans are to restore creation.[7] Penal substitution, therefore, is fundamental for God’s purposes for creation; just as He declared “Let their be light” (Gen. 1:3) at the dawn of creation, so now the light shines within the hearts of man as a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Penal substitution reconciles sinful man to God, and helps us to victory from oppression. Without God, we cannot even save ourselves, as we are captive from delusions of false faith often times caused by the devil.[8] Penal substitution simultaneously punishes sin and restores creation to God’s original purpose: to know, love and worship our Creator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, (Nottingham England, Inter-Varsity Press: 2007), 203.

[2] Ibid, 262.

[3] Ibid, 174.

[4] Jeffery, Ovey & Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 152.

[5] Ibid, 52.

[6] Jeffery, Ovey & Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 129.

[7] Ibid, 116.

[8] Ibid, 125.