Last Sunday’s sermon included my most explicit reference ever to the “penal substitution” theory of atonement. (Atonement is the means by which humanity is reconciled to God.) Penal substitution, in a nutshell, means that Jesus’ death on a cross was in place of sinful humanity, that in some sense Christ received the punishment for sin that was due us, and through this action, humanity finds forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 speak most directly to this idea. “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them… [I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (vv. 14-15, 19, 21).
Penal substitution is also consistent with Old Testament images of the Passover lamb in Exodus and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 40-55. Recall this passage from Isaiah 52:4-5:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
Likewise, when I was discussing God’s attitude toward sin, I said that God hates sin in us and for us.
In fact, God hates [sin] for us so much that through the cross of Christ, God received the punishment that we deserved—God died the death that we deserved to die—so that we could be brought into a saving relationship with God. This is God’s gift of love for us.
I hope more than anything that this statement emphasizes three points: 1) Sin is a cosmically serious problem. 2) God suffered and died for us—in our place—on the cross in order to solve that problem. 3) God did so out of an incomprehensible love for us.
These emphases are important because of the way that penal substitution theory is often caricatured: An angry God sent his Son Jesus, an innocent victim, to die on the cross in order to appease God’s wrath. Its critics reject this caricature on the grounds that it is “cosmic child abuse.” Of course, if this were the meaning of penal substitution, we should reject it too.
Authentic penal substitution means that God himself solved the problem of sin for us by choosing to come to us in Jesus Christ and suffer death on the cross in our place. In Jesus, God subjected himself to the punishment that we deserved.
As I discussed in my sermon, many of us have a hard time reconciling the idea of punishment with love. But isn’t this because we fail to appreciate the enormity of our problem—especially as it applies to ourselves? Mercy doesn’t come without judgment and condemnation. God’s wrath is a consequence of God’s love. Here’s a second-hand quote from this essay that says it nicely:
God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)
I don’t believe that any theory of atonement, including penal substitution, can adequately explain the mystery of the cross. Words aren’t up to the task. Surely this is why Jesus gave his disciples more than words to symbolize it; he gave us a meal: “On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took the bread…”