The Concept of Atonment in 'Pierced for our Transgressions'
by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach
Pierced For Our Transgressions - Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois
This mention of God’s justice being vindicated in the death of Christ raises the question of what happened before Christ came. What was God doing about the sins of those people in the Old Testament who enjoyed his favour? Surely he cannot have been ignoring them, for as we have seen that would impugn his justice. Paul’s answer, which constitutes a third reason for seeing penal substitution in these verses, is that God was delaying his judgment of those sins until they could be punished in Christ. This is implicit in the use of the Greek word anoche, translated ‘forbearance’ in verse 25. This word appear only once elsewhere in the New Testament, in Romans 2:4, where it refers to God’s patience in delaying the ‘day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed’ (v. 5). Paul’s argument, of course, is that God’s ‘forbearance’ (his delay in punishing sin) is no longer in force now that Christ ahs died, for God has punished sin in him.
Penal substitution upholds the truthfulness and justice of God: it is the means by which he saves people for relationship with himself without going back on his word that sin has to be punished.
First, it preserves our understanding of God as a perfect being, all of whose attributes are in harmony: love, goodness, justice, holiness, truthfulness and so on.
In more technical terms, penal substitution preserves what is often called the doctrine of God’s simplicity. This does not mean that God is easy to understand! It refers to the truth that he is not composed of different ‘parts’, as though he could be dismantled somehow into separate components. We cannot speak of God’s love as though it were a ‘part’ of God, separate from his holiness. Rather, all of God’s attributes are in harmony with each other: his holiness is a loving holiness, a merciful holiness; his justice is a truthful justice, a holy justice, and so on. Within this framework, none of God’s attributes should be regarded as more ‘central’ or ‘essential’ that any of the others.
Secondly, penal substitution preserves the truth that justice is firmly rooted in the character of God.
Thirdly, in relating Christ’s death to the important biblical themes of God’s truthfulness and justice, penal substitution actually provides the basis of other dimensions of the atonement.
It is thus by the gift of his Spirit that God grants faith, thereby giving a believing people to his Son. The Spirit does not just work after we are converted, prompting us to holiness of life or endowing with particular gifts. He works our conversion. As Calvin comments, “Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.
…penal substitution, for it is on the basis of this union that our guilt is justly imputed to him, and that we are credited with his righteousness and receive all the benefits of his perfect life, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection.
…penal substitution stirs us to action. First, it reminds us that God is concerned for justice. God saves sinners not by finding a loophole in his righteous law, but by fulfilling its demands. God has not dispensed with justice in overlooking our sins: he has demonstrated it in the death of his Son. God is passionately concerned about justice, so we must be too. It will not do for us to ignore oppression in the world as if it does not matter. The instincts that compel us, in our better moments, to do something about our messed-up world are entirely right, for they are in line with God’s concerns. Penal substitution provides a moral foundation for working for justice.
John Chrysostom (c. 350-407)
John was born in Syrian Antioch some time between 344 and 354. Baptized as a young man, he adopted the life of a hermit, living in a cave on a hill outside the city. This austere lifestyle made him so ill that he was forced to return in 378, and shortly after this he was ordained before ministering in Antioch for almost two decades. During this period John became widely known as an extraordinary preacher, a talent that later earned him the nickname ‘Chrysostom’, meaning ‘Golden-mouthed’.
Towards the end of a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21, John illustrates his point with the analogy of a king who takes pity on a miserable, condemned criminal. The king gives his only son to receive the guilt and punishment of the criminal, and to be killed in his place, and then exalts the criminal to a place of glorious dignity. Surely, he argues, that criminal would be overwhelmed with gratitude; he would do anything rather than further outrage the king who treated him so kindly. John then applies the lesson to his Christian hearer. God’s past mercies ought to produce in us not presumption but remorse:
If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son (who was himself of no such character), that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse.
This claim has gained prominence since the publication of Steve Chalke and Aland Mann’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus. They raise the issue thus: ‘How …have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ Chalke and Mann are not the only people to make this criticism. In his contribution to Atonement Today, a collection of essays edited by John Goldingay, Colin Greene claims that ‘when substitution is understood in a punitive and exclusive sense…Christ becomes…the whipping boy who appeases the wrath of God’.
Eleonore Stump states this argument succinctly:
[Penal substitution] maintains that Christ pays the penalty for all sin in full so that humans do not have to do so. But it is fundamental Christian doctrine that God justly condemns some people to everlasting punishment in hell. If Christ has paid the penalty for sin completely, how is God just in demanding that some people pay the penalty again?
It is helpful to break down this argument to see exactly how it works:
(a) According to penal substitution, Jesus’ death fully pays the debt of those for whom he died.
(b) Jesus died for all people.
(c) From (a) and (b) it follows that Jesus’ death fully pays the debt of all people.
(d) But the Bible teaches that some people will pay their own debt in hell.
(e) From (c) and (d) it follows that God is unjust, for in hell he demands payment for a debt already paid in full by Christ. In other words, he punishes the same sins twice.
(f) This conclusion (e) is unthinkable, and so we must reject penal substitution (a) on which the whole argument rests.
The benefits of laying out the argument in this way is that it reveals a premise hidden in Stump’s argument, but not stated explicitly – namely (b), the notion that Jesus died for all people. Step (f) assumes that the only way to avoid the argument that God is unjust is by jettisoning penal substitution, premise (a). However the same end could be achieved by instead rejecting premise (b ).
Roger Nicole helpfully clarifies:
The question is not about the value of the death of Christ. There is no one I know of in mainline Calvinism who would be inclined in any sense to say there are limits to the value of Christ’s death. It is freely granted that what Christ suffered is so immense, in fact so infinite, that it would be amply sufficient to atone for all the sins of all the people of all ages in the whole world and in a thousand worlds besides, if these existed. It is freely granted by all parties that the work of Christ is strictly infinite in its value…
The question is really the design of the atonement. The intention of God the Father in sending the Son and the intention of the Son in offering himself as a substitute are the issue. For whom did Christ die? Who were the people whom he had on his mind and in his heart as he was offering himself as a substitute for the new humanity?
…particularly redemption affirms that the Son’s intention in dying to save particular people corresponds with the Father’s intention to elect those people to salvation and the Spirit’s intention to apply the benefits of Christ’s death to those same people. By contrast, universal redemption divides the persons of the Trinity. The Son’s intention to save all is in conflict with the Father’s decision to choose only some, and with the Spirit’s work in uniting only some to Christ by faith. Such a conflict flies in the face of orthodox Trinitarian theology, particularly as revealed in the Gospel of John (see chapter 3 and chapter II, sect. I.) It also determines the sovereignty of the Son by implying that his will is ultimately frustrated, for the Father’s decision that only some will be saved finally prevails.
Excerpts from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey & Andrew Sach
With the central Christian doctrine of penal substitution increasingly under attack, these authors articulate a series of responses to specific theological and cultural criticisms.
The belief that Jesus died for us, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place, has been the wellspring of hope for countless Christians through the ages. However, with an increasing number of theologians, church leaders, and even popular Christian books and magazines questioning this doctrine, which naysayers have described as a form of “cosmic child abuse,” a fresh articulation and affirmation of penal substitution is needed. And Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach have responded here with clear exposition and analysis.
They make the case not only that the doctrine is clearly taught in Scripture, but that it has an impeccable pedigree and a central place in Christian theology, and that its neglect has serious consequences. The authors also systematically analyze over twenty specific objections that have been brought against penal substitution and charitably but firmly offer a defining declaration of the doctrine of the cross for any concerned reader.