If God has no wrath, he’s neither good nor just

June 23, 2012

Just as yours truly has re-embraced his latent evangelicalism over the past few years, including that doctrine, penal substitution, that my fellow Mainliners never want to talk about (never mind that all their reforming forebears—Luther, Calvin, Wesley, et al.—took it for granted), I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals are reconsidering it, as well.

C’mon, guys! I just got here!

To give you an idea of where some evangelical heads are on the topic of penal substitution, follow a couple of blog posts over at Scot McKnight’s excellent Jesus Creed blog. See, for instance, this and that. Regarding the former, I offered this comment on Scot’s blog:

I don’t know Greek, so I feel unqualified to nitpick over the details of a Greek word here and there. But not so fast… I think we’re missing the point by doing so. In some ways—if you’ll indulge me—this debate reminds me of the debate over homosexuality—as if a verse here or there can keep us from seeing the big picture: that God’s intention is that sex is reserved for marriage, which is between a man and woman.

Similarly, the big picture in the debate over penal substitution, in my opinion, is God’s justifiable wrath toward sin, which is an affront to God’s holiness, and that sin deserves punishment. This seems uncontroversial, not because of a Greek word here or there, but the thrust of both Old and New Testaments. But you guys tell me.

Speaking personally, I need God to have done something—objectively—about my problem with sin and guilt. Does the cross expiate? By all means. But how? At least penal substitution, as classically formulated—not its many caricatures—provides a coherent account of how God takes care of my problem with sin. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it. I’m a United Methodist pastor whose fellow clergy have mostly abandoned the doctrine and in so doing have left God’s wrath behind. As if, once Jesus came, sin was no longer a big deal to God. Whatever else we say about penal substitution, let’s not say that we don’t deserve punishment and condemnation for sin.

I went back and re-read N.T. Wright’s defense of the doctrine of penal substitution in this excellent essay. Among many other good parts, I’ll leave you with this.

Underneath all this discussion is a deep concern which has emerged again in our own day, notably in the writings of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won’t do, when faced with radical evil, to say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.’ That (as the 1938 Doctrine Report already saw) is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first ‘exclude’, argues Volf, before it can ’embrace’; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again. Somehow I sense that Dr John knows this, since he writes movingly of Jesus Christ as God coming down into the midst of the mess and the muddle to be with us and . . . to rescue us – though he never says how this rescue is effected. But again and again I sense in Dr John’s writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say.

One Response to “If God has no wrath, he’s neither good nor just”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This point is reminiscient of the passage concerning people telling the prophets, “Speak to us easy things,” as opposed to hard truths. The same “easy things” is behind the reluctance of many to accept a hot Hell as the eternal destination of those who won’t turn from their sins in repentance and faith. Talk about penal! (As an aside, I really like the characterization of sin as “despoiling.”)


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