Does Penal Substitutionary Atonement Rupture the Trinity?
Recently, Thomas McCall published an article in Christianity Today entitled “Is the Wrath of God Really Satisfying?” As a Christian (and pastor and professor) who believes in penal substitutionary atonement —that Christ died in our place to assuage the wrath of God—I found McCall’s article helpful in places, but also confusing and misleading. After reading it several times, I’m still not sure if McCall is trying to undermine penal substitution, rescue it from abuse, or avoid it altogether.
At the very least, the article felt like a poke in the eye to the millions of Christians who believe that Good Friday is good precisely because Christ was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God for our sake.
The main burden of McCall’s piece is to show that some popular preaching on the cross is at odds with orthodox Trinitarian theology. According to McCall, “God against God” theories of the atonement imply (or explicitly teach) that God’s Trinitarian life was ruptured on Good Friday. And yet, McCall argues, God could not turn his face away from the Son, because the Father is one with the Son. “To say that the Trinity is broken—even ‘temporarily’—is to imply that God does not exist.”
While I’m not convinced that Christ bearing the wrath of God implies a Trinitarian fissure, McCall is right to warn against misreading the cry of dereliction in literalistic fashion, as if the first person of the Trinity was coming to blows with the second person of the Trinity. Whatever else it might mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does not mean that the eternal union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was interrupted. We should be careful not to speak of the Son suffering in complete absence from the Father, or speak as if the Father was disgusted with his Son on the cross.
As usual, Turretin explains the matter—in this case the “punishment of desertion” (Matt. 27:46)—with careful precision. The desertion on the cross was not “absolute, total, and eternal (such as is felt only by demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative.” Likewise, the desertion Christ experienced was not with respect to “the union of nature,” nor “the union of grace and holiness.” Neither was Christ deprived of the Father’s “communion and protection.” Instead, God suspended “for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness.” In other words, the Son’s “sense of the divine love” was “intercepted by the sense of divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him” ( Elenctic Theology 13.14.5). Whether McCall would approve of that last line or not, clearly Turretin meant to affirm Christ’s forsakenness in a way that avoids any notion of Trinitarian rupture.
McCall also dings R. C. Sproul for his explanation of Christ’s accursedness, but it seems to me Sproul was trying to make the same point as Turretin when Sproul observes, “On the cross, Jesus entered into the experience of forsakenness on our behalf. God turned his back on Jesus and cut him off from all blessing, from all keeping, from all grace, and from all peace.” This sounds more like withholding “the favorable presence of grace” than a Trinity-busting Father-Son brouhaha.
SCREAM OF THE DAMNED
McCall is also concerned that some popular notions of the cross turn Christ into the damned of God. To be sure, we must be careful with our language. The Son of God experienced the horrors of damnation, but he was not himself damned. It would be better to say that Christ’s sufferings were hellish or that he bore the weight of eternal punishment than to say that Christ entered the place of the damned.
Again, Turretin is helpful:
As he is properly said to be damned who in hell endures the punishment due to his own sins, this term cannot be applied to Christ, who never suffered for his own but for our sins; nor did he suffer in hell, but on earth. Still there is no objection to saying that the Son of God was condemned for us by God, just as elsewhere he is said to have been made a curse and malediction for us. (Elenctic Theology, 13.16.10)
Does this mean Sproul was wrong to speak of “the scream of the damned”? Granted, the phrase is provocative and easily misunderstood. It’s not a phrase I would use, but we should remember—and here I’m using McCall’s own quotation—that Sproul said it was “as if a voice from heaven said, ‘Damn you, Jesus’” (emphasis mine). Sproul’s use of the phrase was homiletical/metaphorical more than technical/analytical, although I see McCall’s point (and Turretin’s).
HOW DOES THIS WORK?
The CT article makes clear what McCall does not believe about the cross:
There is no biblical evidence that the Father-Son communion was somehow ruptured on that day. Nowhere is it written that the Father was angry with the Son. Nowhere can we read that God “curses him to the pit of hell.” Nowhere it is written that Jesus absorbs the wrath of God by taking the exact punishment that we deserve. In no passage is there any indication that God’s wrath is “infinitely intense” as it is poured out on Jesus.
If this is what did not happen on the cross, then what did take place? McCall believes in sin and guilt. He also affirms the wrath of God, but how he thinks this wrath is turned away was unclear to me. He says, “The Son enters our brokenness and takes upon himself the ‘curse’ caused by humanity’s sin.” McCall acknowledges that the Old Testament bears witness to “both the wrath of God and the sacrifices offered for sin” and that the New Testament “draws these connections” and presents Jesus as our sacrifice and substitute. Elsewhere he says, “Christ came to get us out of hell” and that “Christ’s sacrificial work saves us from the wrath of God.”
So how does this happen if Jesus did not absorb the wrath of God? It’s good to point out the New Testament “connections” between wrath and sacrifice, but what specifically is the connection? How does Christ’s sacrificial work actually save us from the wrath of God?
Most evangelical Christians would affirm that “Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 37). As the curse for us (Gal. 3:13), Christ reconciled us to God, making a way for a just God to justify ungodly sinners (Rom. 3:21–26). Just like the bloody atonement of old, Christ’s death was a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God to atone for our sins (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; Eph. 5:2). In fact, the very notion of propitiation implies that God’s righteous anger had to be assuaged (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Christ did not feel forsaken by God for no reason. To be sure, the Trinity was not broken on Good Friday, but it was still “the will of the Lord to crush” the suffering servant (Isa. 53:10). If on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was not satisfied, how was it then appeased?
In support of his overall argument, McCall enlists two Reformed heavyweights. He quotes John Calvin to the effect that the Father could not be angry with his beloved Son, and then quotes Charles Hodge denying that Christ’s death was a quid pro quo arrangement where the Son suffered exactly what sinners deserved. Both quotations are accurate and important, but given their original context I wonder if they help McCall’s case or point us in a different direction.
Calvin’s statement is part of a larger discussion about the cry of dereliction in Matthew 27:46. Calvin rejects the ideas that Jesus was merely expressing the opinion of others or using Psalm 22 to give voice to Israel’s lament. No: “his words were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart.” Christ felt himself forsaken and estranged from God.
And then comes the line McCall quotes: “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, ‘in whom his heart reposed’?”
But notice Calvin’s next sentence: “How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” Clearly, Calvin does not see the idea of wrath-satisfaction as being at odds with unbroken Father-Son communion. “This is what we are saying,” Calvin continues, “he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God” (Inst. 2.16.11).
We should never say that on the cross, the Father hated the Son. And yet, we can say—and must say if we are to make sense of the cry of dereliction in Matthew 27 and the curse language of Galatians 3—that Christ, bearing the imputed sin and guilt of his people, bore the wrath of God in our place. As Calvin says later, “If the effect of his shedding blood is that our sins are not imputed to us, it follows that God’s judgment was satisfied by that price” (Inst. 2.17.4).
We see something similar when we examine Hodge’s larger argument. In discussing the atonement, Hodge highlights two kinds of satisfaction. The one is “pecuniary or commercial,” as when a debtor pays the demands of his creditor in full. This is the quid pro quo (this for that) arrangement Hodge rejects. Christ does not satisfy our debt in a commercial sense, because in a commercial transaction all that matters is that the debt is paid. It doesn’t matter who pays it or how it gets paid, so long as the debt is covered. The claim of the creditor is upon the debt, not upon the person.
The other kind of satisfaction, and the kind Hodge approves, is “penal or forensic,” wherein Christ makes satisfaction not for a generic debt but for the sinner himself. Christ’s “death satisfied divine justice” because it “was a real adequate compensation for the penalty remitted and the benefits conferred.” True, as McCall points out, Hodge maintains that Christ “did not suffer either in kind or degree what sinners would have suffered.” But this should not be construed as an argument against penal substitution. For in the next sentence Hodge affirms, “In value, his sufferings infinitely transcended theirs. . . . So the humiliation, sufferings, and death of the eternal Son of God immeasurably transcended in worth and power the penalty which a world of sinners would have endured” (Systematic Theology, 2:470-71).
Hodge would agree with McCall’s point that Christ did not suffer exactly what sinners deserve, but would McCall agree with Hodge that Christ suffered the weight of what sinners deserved? More to the point, would he agree with Hodge’s understanding of forensic satisfaction? “The essence of the penalty of the divine law,” Hodge writes, “is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favor. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God.” For sinners this would lead to “hopeless perdition,” but for Christ it meant “a transient hiding of the Father’s face” (473). And lest this be confused with a breach of Trinitarian relations, Hodges makes clear that the “satisfaction of Christ” was a “matter of covenant between the Father and the Son” (472).
Granted, McCall is from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so he may deny all that Calvin and Hodge affirm. But at the very least, they show us a way to deny what McCall wants to deny—a crass Father versus Son Trinitarian breach—while still affirming a wrath-satisfying, God-appeasing, Father-turns-his-face-away penal substitutionary atonement.
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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Kevin’s blog on The Gospel Coalition.