and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will
|A Look at Penal Substitution
The Cross and the Curse
By Edgar Jones
What did Jesus accomplish on the cross?
Christian Evangelicals heavily subscribe to the Doctrine of Penal Substitution, according to which Jesus, on the cross, was a substitute for sinners, bearing our sins and becoming a curse in our stead. James Packer expresses it in these words:
The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. 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.
This is our subject. It is false. It is the very heart of the soteriology of the many Evangelical Christians who believe and promote it. Our purpose is to point to the utterances of the Lord that teach, through the teaching activity of the Holy Spirit, what Jesus truly accomplished on the cross. We should see clearly that it was not a case of penal substitution.
I. The Biblical Basis for Penal Substitution
Polemicists such as James Packer, who support the doctrine, are not without scriptural grounds. Texts to which they appeal include these from Paul:
They also appeal to Moses and the Prophets, and to at least two utterances of the Lord from the gospels. Here we will not question their appeals to any scripture apart from the Lord's utterances; if the Bible were inerrant, we might accept this doctrine because it is amply supported. However, Paul is their ultimate source and, without Paul, they would not have a good case on biblical grounds; indeed, they would be hard put to conceive the doctrine without him.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become the curse in our behalf, for it is written: Cursed is everyone hanging upon the tree,
14 in order that the blessing of Abraham become to the nations in Christ Jesus, in order that we receive the promise of the spirit through faith.
21 He made him sin in our behalf, he who knew not sin, in order that we become the justness of God in him.
Penal substitution is one of the many reasons for discarding biblical inerrancy because it contradicts the Lord's teaching, from the gospels, concerning the meaning of the cross. If you are chained by biblical inerrancy, you will not appreciate our testimony here. Paul and his disciples -- all who seek to come to the Father by Paul -- have misled you. Jesus clearly states that he alone is the Door and the Way, and that he is the exclusive access to the Father:
6 I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father except through me.
Did Jesus become a curse for us on the cross -- for all men -- as taught by Paul? Did he become sin for us, who knew no sin? Did he take our licks that we might go free? Was he our penal substitute? Surely we need to go to Jesus himself with such questions because, as seems obvious, one's eternal salvation hangs on the answers. Jesus knows why he went to the cross, and surely he explained it? In what follows we will refer to penal substitution simply as PS.
II. Utterances Advanced to Support PS
As mentioned above, certain utterances of the Lord are advanced to support PS. The primary ones are the ransom utterance, Matthew 20:28 (Mk. 10:45) and the Last Supper utterance, Matthew 26:26-28 (Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19,20). We must examine them first to see whether they are truly supportive.
1. The Ransom
27 And whoever wishes to be first among you, he will be your slave, 28 Just as the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many.
There is no mystery here that requires a theologians expertise. When I was a little child, six years of age, Charles Lindbergh's baby, two year old Charles Lindbergh Jr., was kidnapped. That was in 1932. The kidnapper left a note demanding $50,000 for the return of the baby. That was the ransom. It was counted the crime of the century and I recall hearing the news. Perhaps someone in the family explained it to me, but I had no difficulty comprehending. The kidnapper announced that he wanted lots of money to release the baby. That's a ransom that any six year old is able to understand. So in the biblical context it's meaning is clear: someone is holding "many" captives and requires a ransom, the life of Jesus, to set them free. The Father sent Jesus into the world to pay the ransom and lead His children home.
I have discussed this utterance elsewhere and will not delve into the details here, where it is only necessary to show that it does not support PS. There would of necessity be a substitution, and there is none; further, there would necessarily be a punishment for sins committed, and there is none. Simply stated, Satan, who was (prior to the crucifixion of Jesus) the ruler of this world, kidnapped the children of God and held them in captivity within the world. He required, for their release, the life of the Son of God. The Father sent his Son into the world to pay. Satan moved to collect the ransom, and when he did so, was himself overcome and had all his authority stripped from him so that Jesus, resurrected, could later truly announce:
This is the significance of the ransom utterance. No one can rightly cite it in support of PS because it involves neither penalty nor substitution.
18 All authority in heaven and on the earth has been given me.
2. The Last Supper
Matthew 26He gives instructions to eat his body (his flesh) and to drink his blood. The overt fact that bread and wine are the actual elements should not distract us from the point he is making, for they are only metaphors for the body and the blood. We learn what he intends that we understand by these 'elements' in the Fourth Gospel where he instructs as follows:
26 Now while they were eating, Jesus having taken bread and having blessed it broke it and having given it to his disciples said: Take, be eating. This is my body. 27 And having taken the cup and having given thanks he gave it to them saying: Drink all of it. 28 For this is my blood of the new contract, being poured out for many to forgiveness of sins.
This was very, very offensive to the Jews, including his disciples, so that they grumbled. He knew they would:
53 Therefore Jesus said to them: Truly truly I say to you: if you do not eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. 54 The one eating my flesh and drinking my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 The one eating my flesh and drinking my blood abides in me and I in him. 57 Just as the living father sent me and I live through the father, also the one eating me, and that one will live through me. 58 This is the bread having come down out of heaven, not just as the fathers ate and died. The one eating this bread will live to eternity.
Again, it doesn't require a theologian to draw the correct conclusion. Any group of attentive children would get the point -- it is by means of his body, his flesh and blood, that his words are introduced into the world. It is the words, not the flesh and blood that delivered them, that one must eat and drink to receive eternal life. They constitute the Living Bread. They are the true manna from heaven. This is also the meaning of the utterances at the Last Supper. The disciples, and we also, must eat his body, the Living Bread that is the Living Word, and drink his blood, the Living Water that is the Living Word, that we may receive eternal life. When we do that, the Holy Spirit comes into us with the Word -- the two are inseparable -- and eternal life is the result. We are born from above. He said it many ways, of which this is one:
61 Now Jesus having known in himself that his disciples murmur concerning this, he said to them: Does this stumble you? 62 What if you beheld the son of man coming down from where he was formerly? 63 The spirit is that which makes alive, the flesh profits nothing. The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
24 Truly truly I say to you that the one hearing my word and believing the one having sent me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but is moved out of death into life.
The flesh, his flesh with its blood, gains nothing for anyone or, as Jesus said it,
. . . the flesh profits nothing.
Of course, the Christians who hold to PS do so because they believe, on the grounds of other scripture from Paul's epistles, that Jesus suffered on the cross in our stead, bearing the penalty for out sins. This, they usually explain, is required to provide satisfaction to God who has suffered an infinite offense that must be punished. To come to this conclusion, however, they must ignore the testimony of the Lord to the contrary, for he fully explained his crucifixion.
III. The Cross According to Jesus
PS requires that the cross of Jesus (to be substitutionary) be a singular, once-and-for-all event. Again, they have ample biblical sources to back up this aspect of the doctrine. We go again to a Pauline text for the typical statement:
Jesus quickly demolishes this teaching:
Hebrews 7 (other citations, see also Romans 6:10 and I Peter 3:18)
For such a chief-priest is also becoming for us approved, without evil, undefiled, being separated from sinners, and become higher than the heavens, 27 who does not have daily necessity, as did the chief-priests, first in behalf of their own sins to offer sacrifice, and then in behalf of those of the people. For this one made once and for all himself offered.
34 And calling upon the crowd with his disciples he said to them: If anyone would come after me, let him renounce3 himself and take up his cross, and be following me. 35 For whoever would save his life4 will lose5 it, but whoever loses6 his life7 because of me8 and the gospel will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his life9?
The cross of Jesus was not a once-and-for-all event! He said it himself. Each one has one's own cross to bear, and if one has any hope of eternal life with the Father in heaven, one takes it up and follows Jesus, each bearing his own cross as Jesus bore his.
Mark 8:35 above is one of Jesus' classic statements of the Great Principle. It is the core of his deeds and doctrine in each gospel, and is itself the simple explanation of the cross. By means of his Word, he presented and explained this principle; by means of his deed -- I speak of his cross -- he demonstrated the principle at work so that all who do not comprehend the Truth of it are utterly without excuse. The Great Principle is applicable to every child of the Father who is in heaven, beginning with Jesus who was the first man to understand and exemplify it. The Principle has universal application such that no one will see God apart from full compliance. So, when Jesus took up his cross, he was demonstrating in his own person what he means by hating ones life in this world. Not saving it, he chose rather to leave this life through the suffering of death so as to return to his Father as our leader and example.
The motive is critical. Hating one's life because it has become unbearable or for any other negative reason is far from Jesus. Such a life would be no price to pay for the hope of eternal life, since it has no value to the one who lives and pays it. A suicide never pleases God. The only acceptable motive for cross bearing is our love for our Father in heaven, a love so strong as to overwhelm the love of temporal life and turn it to hatred. To express this perfectly and fully, Jesus brought forth this commandment:
This Great and First Commandment defines the only acceptable motive for desiring to leave this world. If a little child loves its father, the child wants to go its father. So our only acceptable motive for wanting to leave temporal life is this love of the Father that draws us to Him. Put these two together -- the Great Commandment and the Great Principle -- and we have a Great Correlate that is the essence of the Gospel According to Jesus. We must also factor in the wonderful revelation of Jesus, which is that the Father loves us and desires that we come to Him to inherit his Kingdom and Life Eternal.
37 So he said to him: You will agape-love the Lord your God in all your heart and in all your soul and in all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment.
That's what Jesus did on the cross. He demonstrated the Great Principle and the Great Love that drew him home to his Father in heaven. His cross is emblematic of this Great Correlate. His resurrection confirms the Truth of it!
IV. Sin and Curse -- The Cross According to Paul
Paul has Jesus on the cross becoming sin in our behalf and becoming a curse in our behalf. It is not true, not a word of it, and there is no doctrine so hateful to the Lord and so deceptive to men as this. Jesus was doing the most wonderful thing by manifesting his love for his Father and being fully obedient to the Father unto death to this world. He was the Great Correlate in action for our sake, that we know and understand that the Way to the Father involves a cross, for us as it did for him. So there was no curse and no substitution and no punishment, but only a solitary soul expressing a mighty Love for his Father, and doing it publicly such that all who will might see, understand and follow.
Will you yet ask, "What about sin?"
Don't you yet see? it is the love of life in this world that is sin! Every wrong and sinful act, every unjust and evil deed has as its foundation the love of life in this world. When one follows Jesus, taking up one's own cross as Jesus lifted up his cross, one has overcome sin by following the Lord. One has become pleasing to the Father by doing the one thing that is the Father's will that one do -- come home to Him! For all who can hear him, Jesus stated this definition of the Father's will.
38 For I am come down from heaven not in order that I do my will, but the will of the one having sent me. 39 This is the will of the one having sent me, in order that everything which he has given me I not lose any of it, but raise it up in the last day. 40 For this is the will of my father, that everyone beholding the son and believing in him have life eternal, and I will raise him up in the last day.
There it is -- a full definition of the will of God, simple and precise. If we are in any way otherwise minded, we are in bondage to sin. The only will of God for us is that we rise to him. It is that we who are his children no more abide in the bondage of the world, but that we cast off the yoke of Satan, take up our crosses and follow the Son. A loving Father has sent a loving Son to break the bond that held other children in sin, and to give them peace while they remain here and freedom to depart when the hour of each has come. All else is sin.
But how can sin be covered if one does not plead the blood of Christ as his substitute, becoming sin in one's behalf?
The simple answer is one word: repentance. Far from hovering over his wandering ones in retributive wrath as Pauline doctrine suggests, the Father is looking down the Way to see if He might see a wandering child coming home. Suppose, then, he sees one. What does he do? Does he reach for his rod? Consider the Prodigal Son and you know the answer. As Jesus stated the case, we see the Father, rejoicing, rushing to meet and embrace the returning prodigal.
There is no curse to become and no sin to bear and no sacrifice for sin that Jesus might be a penal substitute for sinners. Our Father loves us, even as -- nay, especially as -- sinners. And in his love he desires only that we come home. Repent and we will be forgiven, provided only that we forgive each one who, having wronged us, also repents. All of the Christian polemic to the effect that God requires 'satisfaction' and is compelled to punish sin is false. They do not know the limitless mercy of God.
. . .there will be likewise joy in heaven over on sinner repenting than over the ninety nine just ones who have no need of repentance.
Jesus teaches the very opposite, in that one who follows him is blessed. He complied in himself with every blessing of his Beatitudes. Look at them and see the promise:
3 Blessed are the poor in the spirit
For theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
4 Blessed are those mourning,
For they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the gentle,
For they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for justice,
For they will be fattened.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they will be called the sons of God.
10 Blessed are those persecuted because of justice,
For theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
11 Blessed are you when they reproach you and persecute you and say all evil against you falsely because of me.
12 Be rejoicing and be being glad, for great is your reward in the heavens. For thus they persecuted the prophets before you.
Referring to these blessings, and in particular verses 10-12, we can see Jesus, on the cross, being persecuted for the sake of justice and as a result of false accusations. Far from being accursed because he was hanged on the cross, he is the Most Blessed because he hanged on a cross and endured the pain and suffering for our sakes so that we, seeing his example, would understand and follow him.
Blessed are those mourning.
Every child of the Father must claim this blessing; truly we mourn as we consider the consequences of Paul's false doctrine -- the sin and the curse -- and grieve for the thousands of millions of deceived Christians who place their trust in one who became both sin and curse for them, for that one does not exist. Perhaps the very worst of their condemnation is the simple fact that Jesus leaves them no excuse whatsoever, no pretext, no cloak to conceal their sin from themselves. They have read or heard his words. I say no pretext, because Jesus said no pretext.
John 15It is compounded all the more because not only do they see the Lord's Word in the gospels, but they also sing the Truth aloud and in their services of worship, and never for one second consider that they are testifying against themselves before heaven. Here is but one example:
22 Except I came and told them, they would not have had sin. But now they do not have pretext concerning their sin.
Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?
By Thomas Shepherd, 1692
Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No; there's a cross for every one,
And there's a cross for me.
How happy are the saints above,
Who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love,
And joy without a tear.
The consecrated cross I'll bear,
Till death shall set me free,
And then go home my crown to wear,
For there's a crown for me. Amen.
For the son of man came to seek and to deliver the perished.