The Necessity of Penal Substitution for Suffering Saints
Someone recently asked if I knew what it felt like to have my life taken from me. It was a rhetorical question. I answered anyways, “Yeah, I really do.”
A SNAPSHOT OF MY SUFFERING
Almost four years ago, my husband and I contracted Lyme disease with its accompanying co-infections, viruses, and inflammatory conditions. I had crushing fatigue, brain fog, radiating pain, twitching and tremors, insomnia, depression, dizziness, nausea, and infections from my face to my ankles. It took two years to get a diagnosis and by then I had steadily deteriorated from the vibrant fireball people knew and loved to “Neal Woollard’s sick wife.” I worked hard to maintain my high energy and fast-paced life, but as treatment began I watched it all slip away. I missed writing deadlines, cancelled discipleship meetings and teaching events, and stepped back from opportunities I had dreamt about. I was losing everything but all I could think about was sleep. I just wanted to sleep. Who was this?
I’m now two years into treatment and remain positive, but we don’t expect remission in the immediate future. Even then, there’s always the possibility of a relapse. I’ve taken a sabbatical from the work I’ve poured my life into so I can spend my days managing symptoms, taking meds, doing therapeutic exercise and detox, going to appointments, and calling insurance. I’m 32. Most people my age are having children, buying homes, and settling into careers. I’m hoping my veins will work at the next blood draw. So, yes, I know what it’s like to feel as if life has been taken from me.
THE GOOD NEWS OF PENAL SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT
But it hasn’t. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (i.e., theological shorthand to explain Jesus substituting himself in the sinner’s place to bear the penalty of sin) reminds me of that every day. It tells me that my greatest loss is not that of health, energy, ministry opportunities, or even personal identity, but the loss of relationship with God because of sin. Apart from Christ, I was a sinner by nature and choice. I deserved the just penalty of sin—death and hell. But God sent his son Jesus as an atoning sacrifice to live the perfect life I never lived and then die the death I should have died to reconcile me back to himself. At the cross, Jesus willingly took on God’s wrath in my place in order to give me his perfect life and righteousness. Through faith and repentance, I now experience reconciliation with God and unbroken fellowship with him in this age and the one to come. Though it feels like disease has taken my life, the reality is I’ve been given true life in Christ.
This doctrine, which is central to the gospel, keeps me sane and secure amid suffering. Despite the fancy name, “penal substitutionary atonement” isn’t some theological mumbo-jumbo that has no bearing on real life; it is life. I can wake up and face another symptom-ridden day with faith intact knowing that my greatest problems—sin, death, and eternal judgment—has been dealt with through Jesus.
For example, when bed-ridden and plagued by guilt, penal substitution tells me that Jesus willingly bore all the guilt and wrath of God for my sin so there’s no longer any sacrifice to offer to make myself more acceptable to God (Romans 3:25–26, 6:23, and 8:1–4). Simply put, God is pleased with me! Through Christ I can rest and heal beneath the divine smile. This also assures me that the penalty of my sin has been paid. Therefore, no suffering I experience is punishment or condemnation for something I’ve done (Romans 8:1). I may not know all the ways God is using my pain, but I do know he’s not using it to punish me.
I could give one example after another of how the saving life and death of Jesus undergirds my suffering. In fact, I wrote the following truths on a large whiteboard next to my desk because they’ve become so central to how I process my pain.
Because Jesus died in my place for my sins:
- I am not guilty (Romans 3:25–26; 6:23; 8:1).
- I am not cursed (Galatians 3:13–14).
- I am not defeated (Colossians 2:14–15; Hebrews 2:14–15).
- I am not crushed (Isaiah 53:5; 2 Corinthians 4:8–10).
- I am not forsaken (Mark 15:33–36; Hebrews 13:5–6).
- I am not unclean (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24).
- I am not without hope (Romans 5:1–11; 8:18-39).
These truths don’t invalidate or minimize the real experience of pain. Nor are they some magical quick fix. I still had to ice my ankles and put on compression gloves (in addition to my daily regimen of meds, detox, etc.) so I could write this morning. I’m hurting from head to toe. That’s real! But they anchor me so that I don’t become truly lost when I’m adrift in a sea of symptoms. That’s what I mean when I speak about penal substitution being grounding—it offers the deeper reality undergirding my current reality. No matter what I face, I can walk, or sometimes crawl, into every day with the unshakable hope that my greatest need—rescue from the just wrath of God—has been met in Christ. If God in his goodness has done the greater, then I’m confident he will carry me through these lesser, momentary afflictions.
A DOCTRINE SUFFERING SAINTS CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE
Why all the talk about objective reality? And why expose my weakness and frailty in such detail? Because I want to highlight the subjective nature of the sufferer’s day-to-day experience and speak to the stabilizing power of penal substitution. I think that’s best done through a concrete example because we never suffer generically; we suffer personally and particularly. Right now, my life is chaotic because of chronic illness. Yours might be because of mental illness or death or cancer or strained relationships or disability or aging parents or sexual confusion. Or, more likely, a whole host of reasons. The reasons for our pain are different but the subjective nature of it—the chaos, the confusion, the doubts, the despair, the frustration, all of it—is a shared human experience.
That’s why suffering saints need the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. We need something to keep us attached to our hopeful reality when we’re spinning out. It’s like my friend who likens her experience of suffering to an astronaut floating in the black void of space attached to the spacecraft by one braided steel tether. All analogies break down, but I see penal substitution (when understood appropriately as central to the gospel) as that steel tether that keeps us from floating into the abyss of false beliefs. When cancer or sudden loss or job cuts come knocking, we need to know that we know God is good and undeniably for us. Penal substitution assures us he is both.
That’s why it pains me to see the current evangelical trend away from penal substitution to more subjective theories of the atonement. Today people want to focus on how the atonement demonstrates God’s love for us or how it offers an example to follow in suffering or how it brings about peace in a broken world. All of this is true about the cross, but only inasmuch as penal substitution lies at its heart. Without the objective reality of penal substitution, these views shift the emphasis of the atonement from Jesus’ finished work on the cross to our experiential response to it—a response, mind you, that sufferers are often too exhausted to conjure up. I’ll let the scholars work out the details of what that means for evangelicalism at large. I’m simply here to point out that so much stability has been taken from sufferers like myself that we can’t afford to lose the certain hope that penal substitution offers.
Allow me to elaborate. If the weight of the atonement rests on our ability to respond to it, it’s no longer good news. It’s simply another thing we can fail at when our lives unravel.
Prominent theories like the moral influence theory, example theory, or governmental theory tell us to meditate on the cross until we’re moved by God’s love for us or to look at Jesus’s example in suffering and do likewise or to contemplate the cross and realize how bad sin really is. All good things. But apart from the objective satisfaction of justice that comes through Jesus willingly dying the sinner’s death and appeasing the wrath of God, how do these theories not turn the gospel into law? And if the gospel is turned into something we must do, what about those of us who can’t do anything?
I want to suffer perfectly like Jesus, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run to Netflix and bed rather than the Bible. I want to be moved by the cross, but many times the detachment that comes with brain fog prevents me from feeling anything. That’s why penal substitution is such good news for suffering saints. It tells us that Jesus suffered perfectly in our place and then died for our sins so that justice would be satisfied and we could freely enjoy the life and love of God regardless of whether we’re having a “good day” or a “bad day.”
THE MOST LOVING THING GOD COULD DO
I’m not here to build and tear down straw men. I think a worthy desire to highlight the love of God in a society that’s thankfully becoming increasingly sensitive to injustice, abuse, and suffering drives many of the subjective theories of the atonement. That’s not bad. I, too, want the world to know how good and loving God is.
But as a sufferer right in the thick of it, I’m telling you the most loving thing God has done for mankind is bringing about perfect justice by offering up his perfect and willing Son as a sacrifice for our sins. Because of this unshakeable historical fact, we can face any trial, including the greatest ones—death and judgment—knowing that we are saved from wrath and promised a life of eternal joy in God’s presence.
What goodness! What mercy! What unshakable hope and true life for those who suffer!