With our names upon Thy breast,
In the garden groaning, drooping,
To the ground with horrors pressed.
Holy angels stood confounded,
To behold their Maker thus,
And shall we remain unmoved,
When we know ’twas all for us?
The message of the cross is intended to make a deeper impact upon us than a mere acceptance of its truthfulness. The message of Christ crucified is to engage the mind, and to be received as the wisdom of God, but it is to do more that that. We are to be intellectually satisfied that the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus is no human theory but God's own interpretation in Scripture of the cross. It commands our assent, in all its glorious aspects, as the very truth of God.
Not, of course, that we can ever fathom the depths or fully grasp the mystery of the death of Christ. But the cross was not an event without explanation. Crucially, ever before the hours of darkness at Calvary, the person who would suffer there, the nature of his sin bearing wrath averting death, and the effects of his sacrifice were all foretold. The categories of thought that explained Christ's offering of himself were already laid down in the Old Testament. They demand and deserve our assent. The eye of faith must see and our lips confess that at the cross Christ became sin for us.
The effect of the cross upon those who believe and refuse to believe goes deeper than mental assent or rejection. Zechariah and John speak of those who will mourn on account of the crucified Christ (Zechariah 12:10-12; Revelation 1:7). Paul made his boast in the cross (Galatians 6:14). God commands that we rejoice in his Son with trembling (Psalm 2:11), and that the right response to the free forgiveness that he bestows is to fear him (Psalm 130:4). Peter speaks of our loving an unseen Christ. We believe in him, and rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:9). Indeed the believer's assessment of Christ is that he is precious, and that his precious blood has redeemed us (1 Peter 1:18-19; 2:4).
In the words of J. I. Packer “To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.”
The vital role of the affections has perhaps not always been given due prominence in the more recent exposition and defence of the atoning work of Christ. To see the truth of penal substitution not only rejected but caricatured brings pain and sorrow to those who believe that it is what the Word of God teaches.
Writing about the revolt against penal substitution at the turn of the twentieth century B. B. Warfield noted that those who rejected this doctrine were not only offering to their audiences, in its place, something they believed to be much better but that
“A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.”
(“Modern Theories of the Atonement,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume IX: Studies in Theology, p. 287).
As insulting, inappropriate, and offensive as a phrase such as “cosmic child abuse” may be, the impulse to verbally deprecate penal substitution is, at least, not a contemporary phenomenon. Nor for that matter are 21st century alternatives to penal substitution anything other than older forms of atonement theology repackaged for contemporary audiences. What has perhaps been underplayed is the emotive nature of this attack on the atonement. This was not lost upon Gresham Machen in his landmark work Christianity and Liberalism. Though written in 1923 they deeply resonate with today's conflicts over the cross:
They (liberal preachers) speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner. Against the doctrine of the cross they use every weapon of caricature and vilification. Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy and so precious that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words. It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling on human hearts.”
(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1923, p.120.)