I’ve spent many posts on this blog defending penal substitution, not because I think it’s the only biblical way of understanding God’s atoning work on the cross, but because penal substitution is the point at which the rubber meets the road for me. I need to know that on the cross God accomplished something objective to deal with my sins—my ugly, wrath-deserving sins—and it has nothing to do with my (feeble) subjective response.
By all means, Christ won a victory over sin, Satan, and death and demonstrated the love of God to the fullest extent possible, but where does that leave me and my guilt? I need to know that he paid for my sins in full.
Trevin Wax has a nice reflection on N.T. Wright’s affirmation of penal substitution. Wright often gets criticized in more Reformed corners of the evangelical world for refusing to justify Reformation-era doctrines on anything other than biblical grounds as construed by him rather than Calvin, Zwingli, or Luther. Wright will often say something like, “Of course they’re right, but there’s so much more to it than that!”
As Wax points out, Wright does the same with penal substitution.
One insight I hadn’t considered before is that Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane also speaks to penal substitution:
When speaking of “the wrath of God” on Jesus at the cross, Wright turns to the Gethsemane narrative, and specifically Jesus’ use of the “cup” terminology from the Old Testament. Since, in the prophetic writings, the “cup” refers to God’s wrath, Wright believes it is historically sound to affirm that Jesus was referring to God’s wrath when He willingly faced the cross, in order to drink of the cup. Nowhere does Wright articulate the idea of the “cup” more powerfully than in his Matthew commentary:
“The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself.”
Notice how Wright maintains the “cup of wrath” in historical context. This is the way he avoids the picture of God as a tyrant taking out His vengeance on His Son for others’ mistakes. Wright sees the wrath of God in historical events. “Jesus takes the wrath of Rome (which is…the historical embodiment of the wrath of God) upon himself…” In fact, God has set Jesus forth as a hilasterion (propitiation).
It is because Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God in order to shield His people that He uttered His cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. In that moment in which Jesus was most fully embodying God’s love, He found Himself cut off and separated from that love. Furthermore, Jesus’ taking upon Himself the wrath of God against sin (through the Roman crucifixion) frees us from sin and guilt.
“Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again.”
Again and again, Wright affirms the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Theologians may quibble with him for not putting this at the center of his atonement theology; others may chide him for not speaking of it more often. But no one who has read Wright fairly can charge him of denying this doctrine. I close this section with a paragraph from one of Wright’s early works, which he has since affirmed in other ways in later writings:
“On the cross Jesus took on himself that separation from God which all other men know. He did not deserve it; he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God; but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment which that sinful humanity deserved was laid fairly and squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the ‘cup’ offered to him. He knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it. He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually… Here is the bill, and on it the word ‘finished’ – ‘paid in full.’ The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished.”