The Cross in All Its Glory: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I recently read an article on why a major mainline Protestant denomination in our country decided to exclude the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” from its forthcoming hymnal because of lyrics that teach that Jesus’ death was the necessary sacrifice for satisfying God’s wrath against sinners. The hymn, written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, includes these words in its second verse:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

The article said that some on the committee argued for inclusion because “the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim.”

Those opposed, however, argued that “a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.”

The article’s author, who was also the chair of this committee selecting hymns, concludes: “The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now. I’d like to say two things. The first is brief, and the second is a bit more lengthy.

First, I don’t see how this hymn, as is claimed by those who opposed its inclusion, says that “the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” The hymn (click here to read the lyrics and hear is beautifully sung) goes on to emphasize the love of Christ for his people and the power of Christ that keeps his people. Apparently, the dispute was over one line—six words! They wanted to publish “the love of God was magnified” in the place of “the wrath of God was satisfied.” This one line hardly controls the primary presentation of the cross, though it is significant and rich. To me, the decision to reject the hymn over these six words reveals a much deeper issue: a rejection (even disgust) of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.

I realize that’s a big churchy phrase—penal substitutionary atonement. But this brings me to my second point:  Rejecting the notion that the death of Jesus was the necessary means for God to both satisfy his wrath for sinners and show them mercy and forgiveness is a rejection of the gospel’s core.

Let me first define the terms. By atonement, I mean the means by which God forgives and removes transgressions from sinners. By penal, I mean that it relates to a legal consequence or punishment for breaking law. By substitutionary, I mean that it was executed vicariously by One on behalf of another. The heart of the gospel is the message that while I am a sinner who deserves the wrath of God for transgressing against him (penal), his Son, Jesus Christ—the One who has perfect righteousness—took upon himself the wrath of God deserved for my sin as he hung on the cross (subsitutionary) so that I can be justified before God (atonement).

I fully admit that the Bible presents other images and metaphors for the atonement, and therefore other views exist (for example, the ransom theory or the moral influence theory). Those motifs show up in the Bible, but none are emphasized to the degree of penal substitutionary atonement.

I would argue that this understanding of what God did through the death of Jesus most glorifies God because it puts on display the full range of who he is. One passage that clearly articulates this is the conclusion of Romans 3. After proving that all human beings are, are unrighteous, under sin and deserving of wrath, Paul writes:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart form the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, though the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show his righteousness, because he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifies of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

Let’s consider a couple of simple questions and look for answers from the passage.

How did God put forward Jesus as a means of redemption? He was a “propitiation by his blood.” To propitiate is the act of assuaging wrath, of turning an angry disposition to an peaceful one. The blood of Jesus (his death) turned God disposition for us from one of wrath to one of peace.

Why did God put forward Jesus as a means of redemption? Certainly sinful humanity had no other recourse. Paul had already confirmed that every mouth is stopped and the whole world is accountable to God because no one is righteous by his or her own words (3:19-20). What does the text say? It says twice that God put Jesus forward as our mean of redemption to show his righteousness (3:25, 26).

The main point of the cross of Jesus Christ, it’s ultimate purpose, is the manifestation of God’s righteousness (3:21, 22, 25, 26). It show, as verse 26 says, that God can both “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” In other words, if God were to simply justify sinners apart from satisfying his wrath for their sins, his justice would be compromised. He would not be a righteous Judge. Yet if he were only a Judge and did not forgive and redeem by justifying sinners, he would not be Savior.

At the cross of Jesus Christ God shows his righteousness: he justifies his own character as One who is simultaneously a holy God who bears wrath against sin and a loving, kind, merciful, gracious Savior who gives himself up for those who have rebelled against him.

To gaze upon the glory of the cross is to contemplate the weight of sin as it bruised the Son and shed his blood, to stand in awe of the holiness of God whose wrath against sin demands justice, and to rejoice in the love of God that would give his only Son for us, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us back to God. When we gaze upon the cross, we see how God can be Judge and Savior, righteous and merciful.

At the cross, God demonstrated in action who he revealed himself to be long ago to Moses:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. (Exodus 34:5–8)

Behold the cross of Jesus Christ, where “righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). May we, like Moses, bow and worship before our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son.

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