For this blog, I am deviating from my normal theme of ethnic diversity in the church (mostly), but because it is Holy Week, and because these thoughts have been on my mind, I feel compelled to write about them.
Two years ago, the Presbyterian Church (USA) wanted to change the words to a verse of Keith Getty's and Stuart Townend's modern hymn classic, "In Christ Alone," before they included it in their new hymnal. The line the church was tripping over was in verse two: "Til on that cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied..." That concept was abhorrent to these church leaders, and they wanted to change it to "Til on that cross where Jesus died, the love of God was magnified." The hymn authors would not allow the change, so the church dropped the song from their hymnal. In light of recent events with this denomination, their reaction is perfectly consistent.
What's the problem? There are many today who cannot embrace the idea of penal substitution - that on the cross, Christ offered propitiation for our sins. This is a New Testament word and concept that even some modern translations, including the vaunted NIV, felt it necessary to change to "atoning sacrifice." But the idea of propitiation is found in more than one place in Scripture. It speaks of the idea of "turning away wrath," just as the Getty-Townend hymn suggests.
While it is true that there is more than one aspect of Christ's death on the cross during those six hours on Golgotha, (John R.W. Stott's The Cross of Christ handles this masterfully) it is also true that penal substitution is a key and central focus. And yet, many Christians want to shrink from it today. Because they cannot contemplate a God whose wrath would need to be satisfied, they find it easier to ignore or deny this element of Calvary.
I fear that we have taken our sin too lightly. Because we are beginning to lessen the radical depravity of our nature (radical in the classical sense of being to the root of our being), we also feel it necessary to belittle the idea of such a radical solution to our problem. Sin is nothing less than cosmic treason against our Creator, and it must be dealt with by extreme measures. We are not all as bad as we can be, but we are all as bad off as we can be. "Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness." (Hebrews 9:22) God hates sin, and the only solution is blood which represents the life of the sacrifice. (Leviticus 17:11) All the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament era could cover for sin, but they could not take it away. "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." (Hebrews 10:4) Only the sacrifice of a perfect Lamb could do that, and this is what all of these sacrifices were pointing to, until one day, by the Jordan River, John the Baptist pointed to his cousin in the flesh and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29). "But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God." (Hebrews 10:12)
So where do we find penal substitution in the Bible? The clearest passage, I think, is in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 53:5. "He was pierced ... crushed ... punished ... wounded." That is penal. "For our transgressions ... for our iniquities ... for our peace ... for our healing." That is substitution.
"But I thought Jesus died mainly as an example of love." Partly, He did. Yet in the New Testament, when this or any other aspect of the cross is mentioned, it is generally connected to penal substitution. Two examples: First, 1 Peter 2:21-23 speaks about being called to His example of non-retaliation in the face of suffering. But this is immediately followed with these words: "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; 'by His wounds you have been healed.'" (1 Peter 2:24). Second, Colossians 2:15 refers to the Christus Victor aspect of the atonement. "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." But just prior to this, in verses 13-14, Paul writes, "He forgave all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross." You simply cannot take penal substitution out of the equation. It is why Jesus was abandoned by His Father for three hours on the cross, when the world turned the darkest it has ever been. The wrath of God came upon Jesus as He died in our place. God's wrath is found in His turning away from us because of our sin. This is the cup Jesus recoiled from drinking in Gethsemane, not all the physical suffering He would endure. He knew that all of that was coming. But in the final moment, when he contemplated separation from His Father (on ouir behalf), He struggled intensely. But then, those magnificent words, "Not my will, but Yours be done." From that moment of sublime surrender, Jesus remained calm and serene while His enemies were going crazy with hatred, rage, and fear.
Dr. R. C. Sproul suggests that if the great blessing of God is that He "bless you and keep you ... and make His face shine on you ... and turn His face toward you and give you peace," (Numbers 6:24-26), then the curse of God would be the opposite - which is why Jesus prayed the one prayer of His life where he did not address God as 'Father." "My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?" (Mark 15:34). This is why Galatians 3:13 says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.'"
So if God's wrath had to be satisfied to save us from our sins, then that must mean that God is a vengeful and angry Father who had to be appeased by the intervention of His loving Son. No! That would be a blasphemy to believe. Who initiated our salvation? Scripture is clear. The capitalization of "God" is my emphasis.
"GOD so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
"This man was handed over to you by GOD'S deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross." (Acts 2:23)
"Yet it was (YAHWEH'S) will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer..." (Isaiah 53:10)
"He (GOD) who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all - how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)
"...that GOD was in Christ, reconciling the world to Hinmself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them..." (2 Corinthians 5:19)
God loved you so much that He conceived the only way that there was to bring us back. A sinless substitute was needed - and Jesus stepped forward to take His role, to die and bear God's wrath against sin in our place. That is how bad our sin is. Until we get that, this will not make sense to us.
Today, Brian McClaren and other emergent and liberal theolgians have promoted the idea that the concept of penal substituion is nothing more than "cosmic child abuse." I thought about that. They would be correct IF there were any other way to God. If you could also come by being moral and ethical or by works of compassion, or by transcendental meditation, or by fasting for Ramadan, then yes, this would be child abuse, because it would be pointless. Imagine God the Father saying to God the Son, "Listen. I need you to go down and become a man and suffer unimaginable torture and abuse at the hands of wicked men and then be abandoned by Me for a time as you bear their sins, so that those who choose to trust in this can come to heaven. But of course, they can also come a myriad of other ways, because I just love them all, and so they all get in." Ridiculous! and blasphemous!
Jesus said there is only one way through Him (John 14:6) and so did the apostles who gave their lives for this gospel (Acts 4:12). So this is not child abuse. This is the greatest gift God could offer, because He is under no obligation at all to forgive us, unless He so chooses - but oh, there is a great cost to forgiveness. And this Holy Week, we'd better remember this. Eternal life really does depend on it.
We don't sing hymns about the cross like there used to be. Instead. we get upset about one line from a new hymn that offends us. Shame on us! In 1804, Thomas Kelly, an Anglican priest who later became a "dissenter" wrote one of over 750 hymns he composed in his lifetime. This one, entitled "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted," has been recorded by Fernando Ortega. They don't write them like this anymore, because we don't like to be reminded of our great need. But let these words sink in, especially on this coming Good Friday.
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, see Him dying on the tree!
'Tis the Christ by man rejected, yes, my soul, 'tis He, 'tis He!
'Tis the long expected Prophet, David's Son, yet David's Lord,
By His Son God now has spoken, 'tis the true and faithful Word.
Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning, was there ever grief like His?
Friends thru fear His cause disowning, foes insulting His distress;
Many hands were raised to wound Him, none would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that Justice gave.
Ye who think of sin by lightly, nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate;
Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load,
'Tis the Word, the Lord's Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.
Here we have a firm foundation, here the refuge of the lost,
Christ's the Rock of our Salvation, His the name of which we boast;
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt,
None shall ever be confounded who on Him their hope have built.
In closing, may I reminde you that this message is for everyone on planet earth - because the vision of Revelation 7:9-10 is this: "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb; they were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."
Praise the Lamb of God who died in my place. He is my only hope, my only merit, my only righteousness. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling. Sola Deo Gloria!