Friday, 5 April 2013

No substitute for penal substitution

The doctrine of penal substitution states that the Lord Jesus Christ bore the judgment of God in the place of sinners so that they can go free. It means that the Christian Gospel is the only message in the world that maintains that God is a righteous God and a Saviour (see for example Isaiah 45 v 21).
This doctrine was being discussed recently on the Unbelievable? radio show. There was a contribution from Greg Boyd with which I was very disappointed it seemed to me he could run a course on straw-man making and well-poisoning! Here are some reasons why.

Firstly, he initially spoke about penal substitution promoting "redemptive violence". Now violence is not usually used as a synonym for justice or punishment. Violence usually means an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, and so the use of the word is an example of Greg assuming what he needs to prove, i.e. that the Lord bearing God's wrath in the place of sinners is unjust. God was not engaged in violence against His Son, but the Son willingly bore from the hand of God the just judgment due to sin. He said that penal substitution really promotes violence. This is almost slanderous but certainly silly - do people tremble in their homes for fear of a group of evangelicals breaking in after Bible class and beating them up? When we contemplate Calvary does it put us in the mood for a fight? Christ gave Himself on behalf of those who hated Him, He loved them despite their hostility, He didn't execute wrath on them but endured it for them, how does that inspire violence??

Secondly, I was so disappointed at his complete unwillingness to fairly represent the penal substitution view - he claims it portrays God like a "rageaholic" who needs to vent His rage at someone, "it doesn't matter who, but somebody's gotta take the hit." He says it presents a God motivated by wrath. This really could not be further from the truth. If God were motivated by wrath He never would have given His beloved Son, He just would have let us take what was coming to us. 
Penal substitution shows us God was motivated by love, and because He could not compromise His righteousness He gave Himself in the person of the Son to bear that penalty we deserved. He wasn't venting at whomever He could get - God provided Himself as the sacrifice because only He could satisfy the claims of infinite justice. 

That brings me on to a third point, Greg asked "If sin demands an eternal punishment then how is it that Jesus' short suffering on the cross makes atonement for that?" But this is a question that has been answered loads of times by theologians for two thousand years! Sin doesn't demand an eternal punishment, it demands an infinite punishment. That is why Christ (who is God) could pay it and say it is finished (the resurrection proves that), and that is why lost sinners will never be able to pay it and will never say it is finished.

Fourthly, he says it makes Christ's life superfluous, this of course is not true - His life was necessary for a great number of things, but scripture does say that it was on the tree He bore our sins (1Pet.2:24). Just because every second of His life wasn't atoning doesn't mean it was superfluous - there were other reasons why His life was necessary.

Fifthly, he then said that the penal substitution view makes no difference in the life, results in cheap grace and isn't inspiring. This is just an assertion and a wrong one at that. Of course there are people who profess faith in Christ and it makes no difference, but that is not a criticism of penal substitution, that is a criticism of a Gospel without repentance. Where there is repentance and true faith in Christ there will be a real difference, because the result of new birth is new life, and if there is no new life then there has been no new birth. When someone looks at the cross and understands that the hell I deserved was borne by Christ, the debt I owed was paid by Him, such a person is never the same again, it is the greatest inspiration and motivation for holy living and sacrificial giving there could ever be. It shows us that grace is not cheap - it was the most costly thing ever provided. It shows us that sin is not a light matter, but something that cost Christ everything. It makes a real difference objectively as well as subjectively because Paul says in Romans 6 that the death of Christ not only frees us from the penalty of sin (chapters 3 and 5), but it frees us from the power of sin, and the believer enters into the life of the risen Christ.

I love debate and discussion, but I am dismayed by misrepresentation, and I don't think Greg Boyd said one thing about the penal substitution view that any believer in it would recognise or own.

The simple truth of the Gospel is that sin brings a penalty, and God in grace has provided a perfect Substitue, a sufficient Sacrifice, a mighty Saviour. If you refuse that offer then you bear the punishment yourself, and you really don't want to go there.