Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The rhetoric of unbelief and the impersonal mechanics of penal substitution

Some people cannot stand the doctrine of penal substitution.

Edward Irving referred to it as "stock-exchange divinity." The relationship between the doctrines of the holiness, justice, and grace of God, the nature of sin and its deserved punishment, the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, and his substitution in the place of his people, are at times regarded quite pejoratively as implying an impersonal and mechanical view of the atonement.

As Letham notes:

Talk of penal substitution as "stock-exchange divinity" is simply a coded message; its author means "I do not like it."

The Work of Christ, p.138

Granted, Irving's description is somewhat tame compared to the epithets "cosmic" or "divine" child abuse. Contrast this with Garry Williams' eloquent, moving, and powerful description:

...Jesus did bear the punishment for bearing it he made atonement, and...he bore it from the hand of God himself. Penal substitution is consonant with the language of reconciliation used elsewhere in Scripture. It does not entail a mechanistic view of the atonement, because in bearing the punishment of sin on the cross, the divine Word as a man endured the consequences of the personal confrontation between God and sinful men and women.

This punishment involved the very being of God himself, since it was punishment on the basis of his holy law executed by the presence of his holy being, the punishment of exclusion from the relationship of love with God expressed by Jesus in his cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46).

So it was that the one who will himself be the acting subject in the Last Judgment became its object in the place of sinners. But as he stood in their place he exhausted the punishment due to them, and the presence of God to Jesus turned from curse to blessing. As the human life of Jesus was spent on the cross, so he rested in the grave only to be raised again under the blessing of God.

Throughout, the Trinitarian God had been there, personally involved in the work of atonement, both as the Judge pouring out his cup of wrath, and in the one judged drinking that same cup. Here indeed is the glorious hope of our salvation which we must proclaim, that the punishment that brought us peace was upon God himself in his incarnate Son.

"The Cross and the Punishment of Sin," in Peterson (ed.), Where Wrath and Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today, p. 97-8

There is a world of difference between these perceptions of penal substitution not only in their value as objective descriptions but also in what they reveal about the subjective appropriation of the truth.