The penal substitution model has been criticized for depicting a kind Son placating a fierce Father in order to make him love man, which he did not do before. The criticism is, however, inept, for penal substitution is a Trinitarian model, for which the motivational unity of Father and Son is axiomatic. The New Testament presents God’s gift of his Son to die as the supreme expression of his love to men. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16 KJV). “God is love. . . . Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:8–10 KJV). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Similarly, the New Testament presents the Son’s voluntary acceptance of death as the supreme expression of his love to men. “[He] loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends” (John 15:13–14 KJV). And the two loves, the love of Father and Son, are one: a point that the penal substitution model, as used, firmly grasps.
Furthermore, if the true measure of love is how low it stoops to help, and how much in its humility it is ready to do and bear, then it may fairly be claimed that the penal substitutionary model embodies a richer witness to divine love than any other model of atonement, for it sees the Son at his Father’s will going lower than any other view ventures to suggest. That death on the cross was a criminal’s death, physically as painful as (if not more painful than) any mode of judicial execution that the world has seen; and that Jesus endured it in full consciousness of being innocent before God and man, and yet of being despised and rejected, whether in malicious conceit or in sheer fecklessness, by persons he had loved and tried to save—this is ground common to all views, and tells us already that the love of Jesus, which took him to the cross, brought him appallingly low. But the penal substitution model adds to all this a further dimension of truly unimaginable distress, compared with which everything mentioned so far pales into insignificance. This is the dimension indicated by Denney—“that in that dark hour He had to realize to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race.” Owen stated this formally, abstractly, and nonpsychologically: Christ, he said, satisfied God’s justice
1. Publisher’s note: Denney, Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation, 273.
for all the sins of all those for whom he made satisfaction, by undergoing that same punishment which, by reason of the obligation that was upon them, they were bound to undergo. When I say the same I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all accidents of duration and the like.
2. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (London: Banner of Truth, 1968), 10:269. 96
Jonathan Edwards expressed the thought with tender and noble empathy:
God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of his dreadful wrath. This made all the sufferings of Christ the more terrible to him, because they were from the hand of his Father, whom he infinitely loved, and whose infinite love he had had eternal experience of. Besides, it was an effect of God’s wrath that he forsook Christ. This caused Christ to cry out . . . “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This was infinitely terrible to Christ. Christ’s knowledge of the glory of the Father, and his love to the Father, and the sense and experience he had had of the worth of his Father’s love to him, made the withholding the pleasant ideas and manifestations of his Father’s love as terrible to him, as the sense and knowledge of his hatred is to the damned, that have no knowledge of God’s excellency, no love to him, nor any experience of the infinite sweetness of his love.
3. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. E. Hickman (London: Banner of Truth, 1975), 2:575.
And the legendary “Rabbi” Duncan concentrated it all into a single unforgettable sentence, in a famous outburst to one of his classes: “D’ye know what Calvary was? what? what? what?” Then, with tears on his face—“It was damnation; and he took it lovingly.” It is precisely this love that, in the last analysis, penal substitution is all about, and that explains its power in the lives of those who acknowledge it.
4. Publisher’s note: See Alexander Moody Stuart, The Life of John Duncan (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991). 98
What was potentially the most damaging criticism of penal substitution came not from Socinus but from McLeod Campbell, who argued such by saying that God must punish sin but need not act in mercy at all (and in fact does not act in mercy toward all). Reformed exponents of this view reduced God’s love to an arbitrary decision that does not reveal his character, but leaves him even in blessing us an enigma to us, “the unknown God.” The real target of Campbell’s criticism is the Scotist model of divine personality with which, rightly or wrongly, he thought Reformed theologians worked; and a sufficient reply, from the standpoint of this lecture, would be that since the Bible says both that Christ’s death was a penal substitution for God’s people and also that it reveals God’s love to sinful men as such, and since the Bible further declares that Christ is the Father’s image, so that everything we learn of the Son’s love is knowledge of the Father’s love also, Campbell’s complaint is unreal.
5. J. Mcleod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, 4th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1873), 55.
But Campbell’s criticism, if carried, would be fatal, for any account of the atonement that fails to highlight its character as a revelation of redeeming love stands self-condemned.
The ingredients in the evangelical model of penal substitution are now, I believe, all before us, along with the task it performs. It embodies and expresses insights about the cross that are basic to personal religion, and that I therefore state in personal terms, as follows:
1. God, in Denney’s phrase, “condones nothing,” but judges all sin as it deserves, which Scripture affirms, and my con- science confirms, to be right.
6. Publisher’s note: See Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 302.
2. My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.
3. The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.
4. Because this is so, I through faith in him am made “the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21 KJV), meaning, I am justified; pardon, acceptance, and sonship become mine.
5. Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. “If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.”
7. Owen, Works, 10:284. 101
6. My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me—that is, the cross procured it.
7. Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.
8. Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.
9. Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love, and to serve.
Thus we see what, according to this model, the cross achieved and achieves.
Editor’s Note: the Above article is an excerpt from What Did the Cross Achieve? by J.I. Packer. It is used here with kind permission from Crossway Books.