It has suddenly become fashionable to cast doubt on the substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, so I thought in this Easter season to look at the Biblical evidence for this most fundamental of Christian doctrines. Does the concept of penal substitution, in which the Lord Jesus Christ is considered to have suffered for our sake and in our place, taking upon Himself a punishment we deserve for our sins, make God a 'psychopath,' or is it evidence of His loving, sacrificial gift of Himself to a sinful humanity in need of redemption?
The latest antagonist to the theory of penal substitution is a homosexual clergyman who narrowly missed being made a bishop by the skin of our teeth. Of course, even given the platform of a BBC Radio 4 Holy Week broadcast, in which he rubbished the concept of God visiting punishment upon sinners and spoke admiringly of a dissolute unrepentant uncle who 'died a happy man', the cleric in question did not so much make a theological, let alone a Biblical case against his target, but simply lampooned it:
Jesus, says the Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, for it is he, 'got himself crucified. Crucifixion,' continued Dr John, 'May or may not be the worst form of torture in the world, but it had a particular theological significance we mustn't miss. As
explains, crucifixion was the method of execution which, according to the Law, was the special sign of God's ultimate punishment, his absolute curse: "Cursed be he that hangs upon a tree". On the cross, says Paul, Jesus took the place of all those who were supposed to be punished according to the Law. "God made him into sin who knew no sin". "He became a curse for us".'
Jeffrey John didn't finish there, in fact he had hardly started:
'But hang on - you may well say - what exactly does that mean - "Jesus took our place" ? Does it mean, then, that we are back with a punishing God after all, and that the Cross is somehow to be understood as God's ultimate punishment for sin?
'That's certainly what I was told in my Calvinistic childhood. The explanation I was given went something like this: God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.
'Well, I don't know about you, but even at the age of ten I thought this explanation was pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical.'
'What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own son?' he asked. 'And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we would say they were a monster.'
I really try these days not to criticise other Christians. I have been on the receiving end of it, but above all, I realise it is not an edifying sight for those outside the church. So you will not find me knowingly attacking denominations, their dignitaries, archbishops, bishops, or Christian believers of any sort. My instinct is to give brethren the benefit of the doubt, and to be as generous and forbearing as I can. There are enough proper targets in the world as it is.
Having said that, I am shocked at Jeffrey John's scorn at Christian belief as some form of words you just say without meaning them, his pleasure in his uncle's sin, his sneering denial of God's wrath, and by the same token his denial of any form of divine justice, his caricature of the God revealed in the totality of Holy Scripture, his unceremonious binning of any scripture with which he does not agree, his open contempt for his roots, his unrepentant homosexuality, and finally his mockery, which I find as repulsive as he finds the wrath of God. All these together simply prevent me from seeing him as a fellow-Christian. That is not something I say lightly. I do not know him as God does, but from these fruits, I just cannot recognise the man as part of the body of Christ. My failing, no doubt, but there we are.
A BBC spokesman said that Dr John, reacting to criticism, had added two extra lines to 'pre-empt any further misunderstanding or misinterpretation'. One of the extra lines was: 'On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God.'
That, sadly, is western thinking, informed by Greek philosophy, at its most shallow. It has, in that hopelessly simplistic, blinkered way of looking at it, to be the one or the other. Dr John maintains the price has to be paid either to God or by God. But hold on a minute; why can it not be both? Another minister, speaking on the furore, asked: 'What is at the heart of salvation, punishment or love? Liberals, like myself, believe it is love.' Why all these mutual exclusives? Let us open our eyes. What is wrong with the word 'and'?
IT'S AN 'AND' CLAUSE
I have no degree in theology. But despite that short-coming - or maybe because of it - I think I can prove from scripture that the price was paid both by God and to God, and that lying at the heart of salvation are both punishment and love. In truth, the 'by God' part is relatively straightforward if we accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, and see Him, as in fairness Jeffrey John says he does, as the Incarnate Son of God. To establish the other part, we shall need scripture to view the offering of Jesus explicitly as a sacrifice or offering to a holy and righteous God.
We can start earlier in scripture than Isaiah, in fact we shall have to look at Genesis 3 and Leviticus 17, but the 'Servant Song' prophecies of Isaiah are the key, and remarkable for their radicalism. The most explicit prophecy of Christ's atoning work and of the doctrine of penal substitution (both 'by God' and 'to God') is in the fourth Servant Song:
Isa. 53:3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
This prophecy caused a great struggle in Judaism because it identified the Messiah so clearly with suffering and death. In human terms it was impossible to see how one enduring so much could be a conquering hero. For that reason, some Jewish scholars proposed two Messiahs; one who would suffer, the other who would reign. They too, like the liberals today, could not make the vital 'and' connection. That this debate was still raging in the first century is clear from the way in which both Peter in Jerusalem, and then Paul in Thessalonica and before Agrippa, stress the fulfilment in Jesus of the suffering Messiah:
Acts 3:18 But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled.
Acts 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.
Acts 26:23 That Christ should suffer, ...
Jeffrey John tries to finesse the Servant Song not just by ignoring it altogether, which he does, but by relegating 'the bits (of the Bible) that date before the Babylonian exile', which includes Isaiah, and as it happens, 85% of the Old Testament, and which, he says, contain all the material about the punishment of the wicked, to a sub-league of 'nonsense.'
During and after the Exile, he says, the Biblical writers saw that 'The Lord preserves the way of the righteous but the way of the ungodly shall perish' was 'a theory' which 'doesn't work'. Again, there is no Biblical defence of this view - he just says it.
And his Very Reverence is plain wrong, since the same theme of cause and effect, sin and retribution, action and judgment, runs right through all the prophets from Ezekiel onwards. Indeed, the prophets say it is
's sin - including the abominations of ritual homosexuality and child sacrifice, which has landed them in exile in the first place. 'Ye shall pine away for your iniquities,' says Ezekiel 24:23, and 'Then shall ye remember your own evil ways ... and shall loathe yourselves.' (Ezek 36:31). Precisely because
ignored God's law in general and the Sabbath in particular, God Himself 'gave them statutes that were not good' (Ezek 20:25).
As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of
? Ezek 33:11
There is not a half-penny-worth of difference between those sentiments and the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28, and mocking the idea that God 'personally' sent a thunderbolt on York Minster 'in a fit of pique' at Bishop David Jenkins' consecration doesn't make any. I wonder in passing if God, in Dr John's mind, wouldn't do such a thing, or couldn't?
OUGHT NOT CHRIST TO HAVE SUFFERED?
On the road to Emmaus two of the disciples were privileged to receive a teaching from the Lord on this very subject. The fact that Moses is mentioned grounds the ministry of Messiah right back in the Old Covenant. What would any of us give to have heard such a sermon:
Luke 24:25 Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:
26 Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?
27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Later, in the Upper Room, the disciples all received the same benefit:
Luke 24:45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,
46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at
48 And ye are witnesses of these things.
It would be enough to have the Lord Jesus Christ as a fulfilment of Isaiah 53 for the doctrine of penal substitution to be established. However, God revealed quite explicitly to the Apostles precisely what Jeffrey John denies, that Jesus Christ took our sin upon Him in order to reconcile us to God. Paul, as well as indeed explaining how Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for us (2Cor 5:21), says He was: delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Rom. 4:25
SAVED FROM WRATH
Far from their being a tension between judgment and love in Christ's substitutionary sacrifice, Paul writes that Christ died precisely because of God's love:
Rom. 5:8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.
There is so much more which could be quoted, so we shall have to pare it down. In Romans, we read that despite our 21st-century liberal mindset, 'the wages of sin' is still death (Rom. 6:23) but that God's offering of Jesus is typical of His generosity:
He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Rom. 8:32
To the Corinthians, Paul writes not just 'that Christ died for our sins' but that He did so 'according to the scriptures' (1 Cor. 15:3) which in context is the Old Testament. God 'hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ', 'not imputing their trespasses unto them' (2 Cor. 5:18-19). To the Thessalonians, Paul says that Jesus has delivered us from the wrath to come (1Thess 1:10).
A SACRIFICE TO GOD
Writing to Titus, the Apostle shows that by giving Himself for us, Christ redeems us 'from all iniquity' (Titus 2:14) and in the Epistle to the Ephesians, we find the words 'love' and 'sacrifice' in the same sentence:
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. Eph. 5:2
The sacrifices of the
were offered to appease the wrath of God, so in that one verse all opposition to the doctrine of penal substitution disappears as the mist in the morn. 'To God' is now proven.
Peter also links the Cross to Isaiah 53:
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. 1 Pet. 2:24
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 1 Pet. 3:18
And, to the Apostle John, Christ's sacrifice on the Cross speaks gloriously of the love of God:
Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 1 John 3:16
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10
THE LIFE OF THE FLESH IS IN THE BLOOD
The Ethiopian eunuch began with Isaiah before making his confession that 'Jesus Christ is the Son of God' (Acts 8:26-39). It is not enough to see Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God if we cannot see Him as the ultimate sacrifice given, not just by God (Gen 22:8) but to God (Gen 22:13), giving His life, and pouring out His blood as an atonement for sin:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Lev. 17:11
Christ's sacrifice and His priesthood form the subject of virtually the entire Epistle to the Hebrews:
Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's: for this he did once, when he offered up himself. Heb. 7:27
So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. Heb. 9:28
For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Heb. 13:11
Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Heb. 13:12
Hebrews draws explicit, and obvious, parallels between the
sacrifices, themselves prefigured as far back as Genesis 3:21, and the Cross of Calvary. The connection establishes an intellectual coherence within the whole canon of Holy Scripture. The entire book of Hebrews would be, to use a Dr John word, 'nonsensical', without it. And that there is a judgment is clear from Hebrews as well:
And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: Heb. 9:27
THE JUDGE PAID THE PENALTY
Worryingly, for their sake, it is clear that those who object to Christ's penal substitution are coming not from a dispassionate and intellectually honest view of the Atonement in isolation, but from a lightweight dislike of the idea of divine punishment as a whole. The thinking seems to be that if Christ was not punished, neither shall we be, no matter how disobedient or rebellious we have been. The sense of scripture, of course, is the exact opposite.
A lack of punishment might sound superficially attractive to those stuck in sin, but what kind of world would it be without God's wrath and judgment? Let us think it through. If there were not 'That Day' of which the Lord Jesus spoke, and which we find the Psalmist longing for, where wrongs will finally be righted and the oppressed lifted up, what kind of God would we have? One who did not care, it seems to me. If the likes of an unrepentant Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Herod, and even more modest murderers like Fred West, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ian Huntley did not face a final judgment, we could truly say, 'There's no justice'.
And if there were no justice on earth, and there is precious little of it as it is, then would we be happy? Suppose rapists, perjurers, thieves, pimps, the violent and the brutal, the callous drunk driver who kills a young mother and her child and drives on, drug-dealers and torturers and all the rest of the wicked never faced any consequences. Is such a world one in which we should joy to live? I can't see it, nor can I see God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven in such a society.
But that is just my opinion. It is Scripture itself which maintains that God is a God of justice and that there is a Day of Judgment. I have a picture in my mind of a book with something like 'This is Your Life' on the cover which will be opened. In the face of my misdeeds, I shall stand condemned in the highest court of all, waiting for sentence of death to be passed. But there is another book, the Lamb's Book of Life, and those who truly believe in their heart and confess with their lips the name of the crucified, risen, ascended, glorified Lord Jesus Christ will find their names written in that book. My name will be searched for and found in that book. And at that very moment, the exalted Judge will remind the accuser that He came down Himself from the judge's bench, and paid the penalty for my sin in His own body.
That glorious Gospel is better news for sinners this Easter than the sneering we heard in Holy Week on Radio 4. It requires repentance, but it brings forgiveness and the blessed assurance of justification and salvation. How good is that?