There is a deep powerful idea at work in the church today. It responds to the question: Why did Jesus die and how does it relate to us? The answer might surprise you.
This idea is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory. In short, it says that Jesus died on the cross as a punishment (penal) for your and my sins (substitution). Furthermore it implies that this provides Justice for God as an injured party and without which God’s honor is insulted.
This might not sound that bad considering the Bible says, “God made you alive together with him, when he forgave all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” Col. 2:13b, 14
Some major questions and problems are created though:
- Is God the Father punishing Jesus?
- Can’t God forgive without punishment? Isn’t this the heart of grace?
- How could divine justice be earned through an act of injustice (an innocent person being punished)?
- Doesn’t this exemplify punishment and wrath rather than mercy and grace?
It’s okay if you’re confused… Theologian J.I. Packer called this doctrine:
“a distinguishing mark of the word-wide evangelical fraternity: namely, the belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution, and that it was in virtue of this fact that it brought salvation to mankind.”
We’ve been told for nearly 300 years in America that we are “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (Jonathan Edwards, 1741).
The problem lies is not in the idea of substitution, nor punishment of sin, but in the need for justice of the atonement idea. Not surprisingly, the legalistic and honor/insult language associated with atonement became prevalent in medieval times. It becomes almost mathematical by the Reformation. The end result is to extrapolate that God the Father cannot and will not forgive until someone suffers, namely his own Son. The gift of salvation is reduced to a debt payment and God’s love even becomes conditioned and limited.
In short Jesus is not dying because he loves you; he’s dying to appease the wrath of God.
But wait a minute… can’t Jesus die for both reasons? Well, I suppose he can if you can’t live without the wrath of God motif. At the same time, Three may be better (and older) options.
Saint Athanasius (4th century) said:
- Christ’s sacrifice put an end to the law of death and made a new beginning
- His sacrifice was made to death and not to the Father
- Served to rescue us, not appease the Father
And, I think we’ve inherited some unintentional outcomes in the church today. Pastorally, I see:
- People feel that God is angry with them rather than at sin.
- People feel that God’s love toward them is less when they sin.
- People continue to live in a legal accounting of sin/forgiveness triggered by guilt.
Thankfully we also have these amazing words by Swedish Pietist PP Waldenstrom (1838-1917)):
“On what foundation does our justification stand most securely? (1) on the foundation that in Christ’s death, God was appeased, or (2) on the foundation that in Christ’s death the we were made righteous…
In the first case… we get a Savior, upon whom God quenches his wrath in order to not ‘need to be angry with us, despite the fact that we are sinners.’ In the second case, we get a Savior upon whom God places our sins in order to thereby make us righteous and thus save us from the death…
In the first case, this would be a conversion to Christ in order to escape the Father… In the second case, conversion would be conversion to the Father through Christ as an accomplishment of our salvation. Which portrait of God most resembles the father of the prodigal son, or the God whose name is love?
To the extent that this is a sacrifice or substitution, the debt is paid to us as a gift from God, not paid to God – nothing could ever pay the debt of sin; only us being made righteous could ever satisfy God’s demand for righteousness; this God accomplishes.”