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a t o n e m e n t

Penal – and more

Jesus took our sin, but His death wrought even more.

John McClean

el Gibson’s The Passion of trine distorts our view of God. It presents
the Christ showed the hor- God as a mean and angry tyrant who has
ror of Jesus’ death — an to be placated and who delights in the suf-
innocent man tortured fering of Jesus and demands a violent
and, when bloodied and beaten, cruelly death for satisfaction. Critics point out
executed. Read one of the gospel that we expect far more of ourselves and
accounts slowly and picture it in your we admire people who forgive without
mind and you’ll see how awful the cross revenge. Why would we think God to be
was. Beyond the physical horror lies the vengeful — and toward his own Son? If
blasphemy that those who should have For some Christians, we allow that God is like that, then we will
worshipped him executed the author of the horror lies in penal become like that as well. People suspect
life and the prince of glory (Acts 3:15; 1 that telling Jesus’ death as a story of vio-
Cor. 2:8). substitution itself, as lence and anger justifies a society locked
In those horrible events Christians much as it does in the into a cycle of violence.
have found God’s grace expressed most. events of the crucifixion. Your response to these criticism might
It was the great demonstration of God’s be that whatever we would like to think
love (Rom. 5:2) as He did not spare His about God and His ways, the Bible says
own Son (Rom. 8:32) and the Son in His could be described as a just penalty for that Jesus’ death was a penal substitution
love laid down His life for us (1 Jn 3:16). sin, or God’s wrath, or God’s curse. and so we have to say the same. However
Martin Luther challenged the whole of Whichever term is used, there is a similar the critics are not finished. They suggest
Christendom with the “theology of the idea, that Jesus’ death saves us because that the doctrine of penal substitution
cross”. He realised that he did not know He suffers what should have been ours. misinterprets the Bible. They suggest
God from looking at the obviously glori- After Martin Luther, John Calvin that the God of love cannot be said to be
ous things, rather he saw God’s glory in expressed this view even more precisely a God of implacable wrath, and that sal-
the ignominy of the cross. In the theses in The Institutes of Christian Religion vation in the Bible is God’s victory for us,
for the Heidelberg Disputation he wrote (III.xvi.5): “The guilt that held us liable not Him demanding a penalty.
that “He deserves to be called a theolo- for punishment has been transferred to They argue that the Bible uses a vari-
gian … who comprehends the visible and the head of the Son of God. We must, ety of ways to describe Jesus’ death and
manifest things of God seen through suf- above all, remember this substitution, the penal substitution suppresses all the
fering and the cross.” That is, the true lest we tremble and remain anxious other metaphors for one about wrath
theologian sees grace and glory in the throughout life — as if God’s righteous and punishment. They observe that
horror of Jesus’ death. vengeance, which the Son of God has evangelicals seem to have an unhealthy
In his commentary on Galatians taken upon Himself, still hung over us.” obsession about the horrible events of
Luther wrote that “when He took the sins the cross. “There is more to gospel than
of the whole world upon Himself, Christ
was no longer an innocent person. He
was a sinner burdened with the sins of a
F or some Christians, however, the
horror lies in penal substitution
itself, as much as it does in the events of
that,” they say.
Not all critics use all these arguments
and not all are as strident. The infamous
Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened the crucifixion. For a number of reasons comment that penal substitution is
with the sins of a Peter who denied many Christians and theologians are “divine child abuse” is a very extreme
Christ; burdened with the sins of a David wary of saying anything about Jesus’ attack. Thoughtful criticisms are more
who committed adultery and murder, death which might sound like “penal sub- important. Our instinct may be to ignore
and gave the heathen occasion to laugh stitution”. For a long time the main crit- criticisms and keep on talking about the
at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged icism has been that the view is illogical or cross the way we always have.
with the sins of all men, that He should unjust. How can an innocent man, a third There are two reasons why we need to
pay for them with His own blood. The party, suffer for guilt of others? We do more than that. First, if penal substi-
curse struck Him.” would not allow such a thing in our own tution is a right and important way of
Luther expresses the “penal” view of courts, so why would we imagine that understanding Jesus’ death, then reject-
atonement. In this view Jesus died as a God, the just judge, would accept such an ing it will harm Christian faith. Second,
substitute for His people and received arrangement. as we think about criticisms we develop a
what they deserved. What they deserved A more recent criticism is that the doc- better and deeper appreciation of Jesus

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a t o n e m e n t

death and our salvation. Christ (IVP, 1986) by John Stott; The explain and illustrate the work of Christ
It is important to admit that some of Glory of the Atonement (IVP, 2004) by in his death.
the criticisms have a point. For instance, Charles Evan Hill, Roger R. Nicole and There are three things that we need to
Jesus’ death is presented in different Frank A. James and Pierced for Our keep in mind as we try to understand the
ways in the Bible. The cross is a wound Transgressions (IVP, 2007) by Steve atonement.
which heals us (1 Pet. 2:24), it is Christ’s Jeffery, Andrew Sach and Michael Ovey.
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
The criticisms of penal substitution
give a serious warning that there are
ways of talking about penal substitution
F irst, we need to remember the point
from the earlier paragraph: God’s
word portrays Jesus’ death in a variety of
example for us to follow (1 Pet. 2:21-23). which dishonour God. If we make God ways and we should appreciate all of
The Bible paints the picture of Jesus’ sound like a fuming tyrant who is only them. Second, we must avoid giving any
death in many colours; we must not limit impression that God’s anger overwhelms
ourselves to a monochrome palette. or threatens His love or that the Father’s
However, penal substitution is an wrath requires that Son’s love. Instead
important element in the Bible. When we have to emphasise that Jesus’ death
Jesus’ death is described as a sacrifice expresses the eternal love of the triune
(Heb. 9:26, 10:12) or as bearing the curse God. The cross is God’s loving response to
for sinners (Gal. 3:10-14) then the idea of our sin. The famous words of John 3:16
Jesus bearing a penalty as a substitute is are that God’s love led Him to give His
clear. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 explains that Son for the sake of the world.
God has made Christ to be “sin”. There are Martin Luther’s insight was to find
debates about exactly how to understand Understanding that the grace of God is in the horror of the
this description, yet however you under- the cross was planned cross — not the grace of the Son alone,
stand it, it implies some kind of substitu- but of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
tion of the innocent for the sinful.
within the Triune God Reformed theology has spoken of a
The New Testament also declares that does not remove its covenant between the Father and Son (or
forgiveness is offered on the basis of horror, but does under- better between Father, Son, and Spirit)
Jesus’ death (Heb. 9:22; 10:18, Eph. 1:7, line its splendour. which is the basis for Christ’s work.
Col. 1:14) and this implies that Jesus’ The strength of this theological con-
death offers on our behalf something our struction is that it emphasises that the
sin deserved. Even the idea of a ransom work of salvation starts in the Triune
or redemption price (Mark 10:45, Eph. placated by the satisfaction of His blood love of God for His creation. There is no
1:7; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 9:12,15) implies lust by the self-sacrifice of the heroic final tension between God’s love and His
that Jesus’ death is offered in our place. Jesus — we give entirely the wrong pic- anger (no matter what tension they may
ture. Even if we think of the cross as the create in our thinking), nor is there a hint

T hese few references and comments

are only a brief reminder that the
idea of substitution is important in 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
of conflict between the Father and the
Son. Penal atonement is not based on the
suffering of an innocent third party. The
New Testament. We need biblical schol- God’s glorious wisdom and grace. We incarnate Christ is not a third party, but
ars to keep showing the presence and have to think carefully about how we is God the Son who is equally offended by
importance of this doctrine. This was a
task accomplished by Leon Morris
(1914-2006) the great Australian New presbyterian church of victoria
Testament scholar. His book The
principal, presbyterian theological college
Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, first pub-
lished in 1955, shows convincingly that The Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Australia, is seeking a Principal for its theo-
the New Testament presents Jesus’ logical college, the Presbyterian Theological College (PTC), to commence duties in
death as achieving something in God’s January 2012.
relation to us, not simply changing our The PTC trains candidates for the ministry and for service in Victoria and beyond,
relation to God. In particular, he showed provides ongoing education for those already engaged in ministry, and is a vital
that when the New Testament writers part of the life of the wider PCV.
use the word which the NIV translates as The appointment offers exciting opportunities to the successful candidate to pro-
“sacrifice of atonement” it means a sacri- mote the gospel of our Lord Jesus by training faithful gospel ministers, encourag-
fice which turns away God’s anger. The ing those already engaged in gospel ministry throughout the state, and by sup-
contemporary challenges to the idea of porting the work of church planting being undertaken by the Presbyterian Church
penal substitution demand more schol- of Victoria.
arship like Morris’s. Applicants should obtain a position description from the website
Some of the points in the paragraph www.presbyteriancollege.org.
above are taken from I. Howard Applications close on October 31st, 2010.
Marshall’s book Aspects of the Atonement Please submit applications and curriculum vitae to The Convener of the Theological
(Paternoster, 2008). Other books which Education Committee: Rev. Neil Chambers
admirably present the biblical case for 163 Martins Lane Viewbank Victoria 3084 Australia
penal substitution are the The Cross of Email: nchamber@bigpond.net.au

australian presbyterian April 2010 13

a t o n e m e n t

sin and who willingly accepted the mis- the whole work of Christ it cannot be ing essay “Justification and Violence.
sion of incarnation and death in order to seen as a celebration of violence and suf- Reflections on Atonement and
redeem those His Father had given Him, fering (as the critics sometimes suspect). Contemporary Apologetics” in Justified
those who had been chosen in Him. In fact, rather than supporting violent In Christ: God’s plan for us in justification
Understanding that the cross was injustice, an understanding of substitu- (Mentor, 2007) argues that if we do not
planned within the loving fellowship of tionary atonement supports real justice. recognise that God has provided the sub-
the Triune God does not remove its hor- Hans Boersma, in his book Violence, stitute for our injustice, then humans
ror, but does underline its splendour. will internalise the need for a substitute
and express it in treating other individu-

T hird, we need to remember that

Jesus’ work of redemption includes
His whole history: His life, death, resur-
als or other groups as our scapegoat.
Boersma and Edgar argue that substitu-
tionary atonement does not encourage
rection, ascension and return. The cross violence but challenges injustice and
saves us because it is the death of the human violence, and lays the foundation
incarnate God, and the end of His life of for the reign of God’s peace in the king-
faithfulness to the Father. It saves us dom.
because death did not defeat Jesus but He The substitution of the incarnate Son
rose again and has ascended to the Rather than supporting to bear the penalty due to those given to
Father’s presence to rule and represent us. violent injustice, an Him by the Father is the great act of
The critics might say that evangelicals understanding of sub- grace. We have no need to be embar-
talk about the cross too much. Since the stitutionary atonement rassed about it. We need to think about it
New Testament has so much to say about carefully and present it in its proper con-
Jesus’ death, that is not a criticism which
supports real justice. text of God’s love. In that context, we
will hold much weight with us. However should believe it whole-heartedly and
our problem can be that we isolate Jesus’ proclaim it with passion. Our glorious
death from the rest of His life. A verse Hospitality and the Cross (Baker, 2004) hope lies in the horror of the cross.
such as Romans 4:25 shows that even argues that true justice can only be estab-
justification is related to Jesus’ resurrec- lished when God is ready to act, and an
tion as well as to His death. action against injustice always requires a John McClean lectures in
systematic theology and ethics
When Jesus’ death is presented as an kind of violence, though that is not the
at the Presbyterian
expression of the love of the Triune God goal of God’s justice. Theological Centre, Sydney.
in response to human sin and as part of Similarly William Edgar in an interest-

Pioneers Presbyterian Church

PCA Ministries – Cheltenham
South Australia Outreach Worker
Did you know? We urgently need Cheltenham is an established congregation
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Mike Wharton (PresData Services) is There’s an urgent need for Ministers, Home The congregation is a mix of old and young,
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If this is you then you may be the person but developing context.
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This is a positive opportunity for a ministry
you control the site. The person we envisage for this challenge
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Website development is also PCA Ministries (copy available on request) person or someone who prefers collegiate
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For more information contact:
We’re looking forward to hearing of your For further information please contact
Mike Wharton interest in this challenge for the Kingdom. the minister:
Phone: (03) 9580 5940 Rev. David A Brown
Contact: Rev. Kevin Stow
Email: mwharton@pcvic.org.au jeanflynnpcsa@hotmail.com P.O. Box 2815 Cheltenham 3192
Website: presdata.com.au or Ph. 03 9583 2785
Phone: (08) 8284 1719 Email: dar.brown5@gmail.com

14 australian presbyterian April 2010