It is not a controversial thing to announce that God is Love. D.A. Carson observes, “If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God—however he, she, or it may be understood—is a loving being…nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised.” But when we begin to talk about the manner in which God showed that love, the gloves tend to come off!
Many modern scholars have abandoned penal substitution (define) because it is too violent. Steve Chalke, a loud voice of opposition wrote, “The church’s inability to shake off the great distortion of God contained in the theory of penal substitution, with it’s inbuilt belief in retribution and the redemptive power of violence, has cost us dearly.” Chalke is the one who has re-defined penal substitution recently as “divine child abuse.” I think this has been fueled in part by a misunderstanding of the work of Christ on the cross and the justice of God.
In other words, can God be truly loving and unconcerned about justice? And how are justice and substitution linked? And if God is a just God, shouldn’t we be people who fight against injustice in our society? We have a responsibility to stand against injustice in society but we must never make the mistake of thinking hat such efforts are the means by which God’s creation will be restored…It is only the gospel that can transform the world in this way. God will one day put an end to injustice. Only God can recreate his crooked and decaying world.
Another reason for the reaction of modern folks to the doctrine of substitution is that we tend to compromise on our definitions and thinking about sin. The Bible does not. Biblically speaking, sin is stubborn rebellion against God’s rightful authority, flagrant transgression of his holy law and willful perversion of his good creation. Sin is filth that defiles and stains. And the Bible clearly tells us that we are guilty of it. Of course, we live in a time when right and wrong are mainly determined by feelings and comparison. The biblical teaching on sin is blurred by the overwhelming depravity we see on our TV screens every evening…I’m not that bad…I’d never do that. So, our self confidence is boosted, and the sinfulness of our heats is downplayed, ignored or forgotten. But should be by hypnotized by our wickedness and paralyzed by our depravity? Where can we find a right perspective in understanding our sin without succumbing to despair?
What if we had a picture of sin that was accurate? One that underscores the seriousness of it and reminds us that it has brought a curse upon the whole creation and that nothing short of a recreation can put it right. One that sees sin bringing God the Son down from his heavenly throne to live and die among us. One that gives the Martyrs of the past the strength to face horrific deaths with joy as they anticipate being in the loving arms of their Lord. But one that does not shy away from an unspeakable, terrible endurance of just wrath by the Son on the Cross…one that shows the horror of sin as the perfect and innocent is pummeled for rebels and murderers. If we look on sin from this perspective, the justice of God, which once aroused a fear of punishment in us, now becomes a source of joy and comfort. Only an unjust judge would demand payment for the same sin twice…once by Christ and once by us in eternal hell.
I owe this introduction to Jeffery, Ovey, Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, (Crossway: 2007).