This is part 3 of a four part series on how the believer should respond to a person who believes that the theory is false and even brutal that Jesus died under the wrath of God in the place of sinners. See part 1, for a synopsis of this view, and part 2 for my initial responses to it.
So, how do we respond to the denial of penal substitution?
3. Demonstrate that a sin-payment was necessary. If God’s settled purpose is to punish sin (and it is, Romans 1.18, Romans 6.23); and if God settled purpose is also to save sinners (and it is, 1 Timothy 2.4)…then the only way those two purposes can be brought together is if someone, who is not himself guilty, is willing and able to take the sins of others upon himself and pay the penalty. If we take the Bible seriously, then this is the only option with which we are left. God can either punish us for our sins…or He can punish another. And those who would wish to deny the idea of penal substitution must be shown this.
When that happens, we will likely discover that their real problem is not with the atonement itself. Their real problem is a cavalier attitude toward sin. The reason why people are outraged by the idea of atonement is because they don’t really think God should be all that angry! ‘If God is God’, the argument goes, ‘He can just forgive our sins. He doesn’t need all this blood and gore.’ The only reason we could ever think that God can ‘just forgive our sins’, with no justice required, is because we don’t understand how serious sin is! We don’t understand that, in our consistent rebellion, we have put our middle-finger, as it were, in God’s face. And thus, we don’t think that God has a right or reason to be all that upset about it.
Not until we understand the depths of our sin will we understand the need for the atonement.
4. Explain that God’s will is multi-layered
Part of the argument against penal substitution is built on the idea that it is unjust. ‘How can a just God punish the innocent, and let the guilty go free?’ Here is where our debate is most serious. Because our opponents are, at this point, asking a very good question. How can a God of justice seemingly invert justice by punishing sinless Jesus and letting the guilty go free? It seems like a grand miscarriage of justice, doesn’t it? And on a human plane, it would be. But we must remember that the ways and will of God are complex.
God has both a moral will (what ought to be) and a sovereign will (what will be). And sometimes, for good and wise purposes, God allows for—even plans for—His immediate moral will to be transgressed so that His sovereign will may be carried out. For instance, God allowed—even planned for—His moral will to be transgressed by Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37). But Genesis 50.20 reminds us that God orchestrated this immediate transgression of His moral will for the long-term good of His people (which is why He cannot be called the author of evil)—“God meant it (not turned it…meant it!) for good”!
The same thing happened at the cross. No one will argue the fact that Jesus died undeservingly. In a very real sense, Jesus’ death in the place of sinners was an inversion of justice. But God’s will is complex. In this case, He planned (Acts 2.23) what was, immediately, against His moral will…in order to accomplish His sovereign will of saving sinners!
So, to say that God was acting unjustly in sending Christ to die in our place is not only ungrateful; it also reveals an inadequate understanding of God. Simply put, God is wiser and more sophisticated than we are. His will and ways are more finely contoured than ours. He can, on the one hand, inflict pain; and, on the other hand, say that He doesn’t like doing so (Lamentations 3.33). And He can, on the one hand, punish the innocent (punish Himself, mind you) and acquit the ungodly; and, on the other hand, be completely just in doing so (Romans 3.25-26). He is God!
Let me summarize, then, what we have seen so far. The denial of penal substitution stems from a low view of the Bible; a low view of the nature of Christ; a low view of the nature of sin; and a low view of the nature of God. Tommorrow, one final piece of advice in discussing this subject with a skeptic…