I mentioned a while ago (for example, here) that I was reading a few books about the cross. I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned it much on this blog before, but basically the reason I’ve been reading about the cross is because of the various different views on Jesus’ death I have come across recently. There seems to have been a real backlash against penal substitution (for example, Steve Chalke’s infamous comment about “cosmic child abuse”) and I wanted to look at both sides of the issue and come to a conclusion myself.
So, I’ve now read the following books on the subject:
- Consuming Passion – Why the killing of Jesus really matters (edited by Simon Barrow and Jonathon Bartley)
- Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Joel B. Green & Mark D. Baker)
- Evil and the Justice of God (N.T. Wright)
- Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach)
- The Cross of Christ (John Stott)
I would just like to point out (before anyone else does) that not all of these books are exclusively about the cross, but all of them have at least some relevant points to make.
Anyway, now I’ve read through all of those books, I think my conclusion is that penal substitution is definitely Biblical, and definitely very important in terms of Jesus’ death! This is not to say that other ways of looking at Jesus’ death are unhelpful. For example, some people see Jesus’ death as overcoming evil by taking everything that evil could throw at him and coming back to life again. It’s ‘turning the other cheek’ to the point of death, but still God / good overcomes the Devil / evil. I don’t think this is incompatible with penal substition – I think the problem only comes when you try to see that as the only reason Jesus died. A lot of things were accomplished on the cross.
This is not to say, of course, that penal substition has never been caricatured / misrepresented – I’m sure it has. In fact, I think this is what a lot of people have reacted against – the idea of a vengeful father punishing an innocent son. This is not penal substitution at all.
I don’t really want to ramble on about this, but John Stott mentioned this passage in “The Cross of Christ” and I really think it sums things up for me:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10, NIV)
In other words, penal substitution is the supreme act of God’s love, not God’s wrath. I see why Tom Wright, in his article “The Cross and the Caricatures“, said that he approved of churches changing one line on ‘In Christ Alone’: replacing ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ with ‘the love of God was satisfied’. The cross was God’s supreme act of love towards us.
So… there are my thoughts in a nutshell!