The Good News of Penal Substitution

by Jonathon Woodyard July 4, 2017

Steve Harmon and Curtis Freeman, two Cooperative Baptist theologians, responded to a recent resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Though there were a number of resolutions passed by the messengers, these two theologians responded to the one resolution on the atonement. Owen Strachan and Malcolm Yarnell, two systematic theologians that teach at SBC seminaries (Strachan at MBTS and Yarnell at SWBTS), submitted a resolution affirming the convention’s belief in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. According to Harmon and Freeman, passing this resolution undermines ecumenical progress made between Protestants and Catholics over the last few decades. Furthermore, this theory of the atonement contradicts their understanding of the non-violent nature of God.

Harmon and Freeman do not “reject everything in [the penal substitutionary] approach…” Indeed, penal substitution “is rooted in biblical passages.” How they understand passages they cite (Isaiah 53, Deuteronomy 21:22–23, and Galatians 3:13) isn’t explained. Nonetheless, even though they believe penal substitution is “rooted” in the Bible, they still find fault with the doctrine.

According to Freeman and Harmon, “the root of [their] disagreement” lies in the “location of the ultimate source of the violence of the cross.” If God is the one who unleashes violence at the cross, “then the cross reveals God as violent and the endorser of violence.” Stephen Chalke asserted something similar when he said penal substitution is akin to “cosmic child abuse” (Steve Chalke and Allan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, 182). For Harmon and Freeman, they’d rather see the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8) as the ones who were violent at the cross.

It is certainly correct to say that the “rulers of this age” are the ones who acted in violence towards Jesus at the cross. Those who advocate for a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement do not deny the real wickedness and violence committed by those who tortured and crucified Jesus. However, in their murdering of Jesus, the rulers of the age were “gathered together…to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27, 28). God was guiding history even while Roman soldiers carried out the horrific act (cf. Eph 1:11). Harmon and Freeman rightly locate violence in the rulers of the age. However, they are wrong to remove God’s wrath (i.e. violence) from the picture.

We know that God acts in wrath towards those who sin against him. Sodom and Gomorrah felt the wrath of God (Gen 19:24). God strikes down the firstborn of both man and animal in Egypt (Ex 12:12). While the Egyptians bury their dead, the Lord exercises judgment against the so-called gods of Egypt (Num 33:4). Nadab and Abihu are consumed by God’s wrath when the offer unauthorized fire (Lev 10:1–7). The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, is “smitten” and “put to grief” by God (Isa 53:4, 10). And at his return, Jesus himself will unleash his wrath (Rev 19:19–16). Clearly, the Lord acts, even violently, in wrath.

Couching the terms in violence versus nonviolence frames the issue in a sympathetic way for Freeman and Harmon. However, if we couch the conversation in terms of justice, we begin to speak biblically about the issue. Remember, God delights in justice. Jeremiah writes, “…I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD” (Jer 9:24). This is bad news for those who are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). For those who do not believe in Jesus, “the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Indeed, as a “son of disobedience” (Eph 2:2; 5:6), the wrath of God would come upon me were it not for the cross!

Jesus enters the game for us (substitution), goes to the cross, and bears God’s judgment (penal). Therefore, “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:14) is set aside and God’s wrath is satisfied (i.e. “propitiated”; Rom 3:25). The picture is violent, as Harmon and Freeman would certainly concede. They say, however, that the violence comes from the hand of man and not God. This simply will not work because the men who acted violently at Calvary were carrying out the divine purposes of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; cf. Eph 1:11).

Harmon and Freeman are, or course, correct when they say this issue “is not merely a matter of how one interprets specific texts.” However, it is not less than how we interpret biblical texts! Indeed, we must interpret specific biblical passages and let them speak honestly. Yes, we must pay attention to the meta-narrative. But any meta-narrative that causes us to cast aside clear biblical teaching is a meta-narrative that went wrong somewhere along the line. The larger story of the Bible, far from undermining penal substitution, upholds the doctrine.

The story of the Bible is the story of a divine rescue plan. God is going to save his people, but judgment and justice will not be sacrificed in the process (Ex 34:7). When Adam and Eve fall in the Garden, they sinned against God and must deal with him. It is to God that payment is owed. All of us are born sinful and have gone astray (Ps 51:5; Rom 3:9–18). Like David, we have sinned against God and are in debt to him (Ps 51:4; cf. Rom 3:23). And without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (Heb 9:22).

The Jewish sacrificial system prepares us for the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). And we know that the Lamb of God takes the away the sin of the world by satisfying the demands for justice and thus propitiating God’s wrath (1 John 2:2). People from every tribe and tongue gather around the throne to sing to a crucified, risen, and reigning Lamb (Rev 5:6–10).

On the final analysis, the picture is one of justice. It seems the ancient Egyptians would understand the violent nature of God’s justice when they lost their firstborn children and livestock. The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, would certainly have felt the wrath of God when consumed by fire. And I do not know of any way to read Isaiah 53 other than to see God’s wrath landing on the Suffering Servant.

If God’s wrath has not fallen on Jesus at Calvary, then his justice is not satisfied. That is bad news for those who have committed cosmic treason. But this is the good news. This is the message of penal substitution. There is a penalty, a debt, that sinners must pay. Yet, the spotless and sinless Jesus has taken our place and paid the debt. Now, those who are found to be “in Christ,” there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1).

Therefore, Keith and Kristin Getty are right to help us sing,

“In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
'Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live, I live"