I’ve been outspoken on this blog and in sermons over the past few years about my support for the good, old-fashioned “penal substitution” theory of atonement. It argues that on the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins, dying our death and experiencing our hell—in our place, so that we wouldn’t have to: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Indeed, when I hear “In Christ Alone,” I want to hear the couplet: “And on the cross where Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied.” That sounds like great news to me.
In the last Billy Graham television special, Christian hip-hop artist LaCrae put it like this: “Jesus lived the life that we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved to die.” That sounds exactly right to me. I’ve used that in sermons since then.
Still, to say that I believe in penal substitution isn’t to say that I believe that that theory exhausts the full meaning of the cross. By all means, throw in some Christus Victor and even a dash of Abelardian Moral Example (because it does move us by the power of love it demonstrates).
I’m with C.S. Lewis who said that it’s less important to know how the cross reconciles us to God than to know that it does. And, I would add, it’s important to know that whatever the cross means, it means that something objective has happened that takes away our sins, and it doesn’t simply depend on our subjective response to it. Because if it depends on my response (aside from saying “yes” to the gift of forgiveness that it affords), I’m in trouble.
So for my brothers and sisters who object to penal substitution (usually because they object to some caricature of it as “cosmic child abuse”), I would ask them to at least agree with me that the cross represents something objective. I don’t know of a better alternative to penal substitution that makes more sense of the full scope of scripture.
In this blog post, Scot McKnight puts his finger on one interesting problem with the Moral Example theory and its variants (so popular in mainline Protestant circles):
But the Abelardian and Girardian have an oft-missed sinister side, even if you may object to my saying so. In these theories we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death. We end up being the good guys, the victims, while the bad guys — Roman and Jewish leaders, the gutless disciples, the whole damned human race — are the ones who put him there. We, on the other hand, know better. We’re innocent, they’re guilty.
We are not the authorities, pockmarked as they are by injustice; we are for justice, and we see Jesus as suffering a colossal injustice. We tell a story in which we side with Jesus against the world and against the sinners and against the perpetrators of injustice. We thereby become guiltless and just. The opposite of what the cross’s message teaches. We end up where the Holocaust perpetrators were: we see in the leaders those who killed God. But not us, we are on Jesus’ side. We find Jesus as our model for sacrifice for justice. He becomes a moral example — not against us but as one of us.
Such approaches mask their inner reality: self-righteousness.
To use the words of Francis Spufford, in Unapologetic, we make the crucifixion scene “a story about a special shiny person, whose side we’re all on as we listen, being abused by especially evil persons.” He says such an approach to the crucifixion scene is no longer about Jesus being crucified but Jesus being crucified. He’s innocent, we know it, and we’re for him. Cheer the just man on, folks, cheer him on! Raise a toast for justice as activists for justice!
But the cross contains another message: that we, each of us, because we are sinners and hate to be confronted with the utter sickness that stains us, are the ones who put him there. To read that narrative well is to see ourselves as complicit in the condemnation of the innocent man.
The only “theories” of the cross that make any sense of the cross then are theories that begin right here: I am guilty of that death.