Atonement Demands A Penal Substitute

Delivered as a pre-communion message at Woodland Christian Church on October 28, 2018.

Christ bore the wrath of sinners on the cross as their substitute. Or did he? If you think this doctrine is universally accepted amongst all professing Christians today, you would be completely wrong. In fact, you’d be wrong if you thought this was the predominant understanding of the atonement throughout church history. The reality is that our evangelical Protestant view of the atonement, which is called Penal Substitution Theory, is as much a fixture of the Protestant Reformation as the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Just as justification by faith alone is offensive to legalists, so the penal substitution theory is offensive to those who dislike the idea of a vengeful, wrathful, angry God who is intent on punishing sin. This is not the loving God they claim to see in scripture. Indeed, critics of penal substitution frequently refer to it as “divine child abuse”, since God the Father caused unfathomable suffering toward God the Son. So while the cross might show Christ’s incredible self-sacrifice, or God’s hatred of sin itself, or his desire to free us from sin’s bondage, punishment is not part of it.

Interestingly, the best critique I’ve ever read of those opposing penal substitution came not from a Christian but from an atheist. He was a former evangelical Bible college professor who had deconverted partially due to his disgust with the theory of penal substitution. He was so convinced, however, that the Bible taught penal substitution that he realized that intellectual honesty demanded that if he abandon penal substitution then he also abandon Christianity. And that he did. So what was his argument?

Simply put, penal substitution must be true because the Bible promotes retributive justice. This theory of justice says that some actions are inherently wrong and deserve to be punished for that reason alone. Not to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, not to deter them from doing more evil, not to make society safer, but simply to make them suffer in proportion to the crime they committed. This is the only form of justice that deals appropriately with sin against an infinitely holy being.

Consider what God told Adam and Even after their first sin: “You shall surely die.” Consider how the world population minus eight people were destroyed a flood for their wickedness. Consider the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Consider why Paul says that believers should not avenge the wicked: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Consider what Paul tells the Thessalonians about Hell: “It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you … in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God … These shall be punished with everlasting destruction.”

As you can see, an atonement without punishment does not satisfy God’s demand for justice. If such were the atonement then we would be left in our sins and still have, as the saying goes, hell to pay. Thank God that such is not the case. Peter got it right in his first epistle: “For Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” As we partake of the elements, remember the wrath of God against sin, but also remember the love of God that dealt with that sin through Christ as our penal substitute.

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