Few doctrines are more beautiful than penal substitution. To behold it is to stare into the Godhead itself.
Penal substitution shows us a God who is three in one. Only by the Trinity could God absorb the wrath of God—what John Stott calls the self-substitution of God.
It shows us the simplicity of God. Penal substitution affirms that God’s love cannot be separated from his justice and his justice cannot be separated from his love, his holiness from his goodness and his goodness from his holiness.
It shows us the self-sufficiency of God. Christ can undertake to pay our penalty and count that transfer of guilt as just because the moral law of the universe is his law. It is not outside of him but is the expression of his own character.
Penal substitution shows us the love of God and the nature of that love. When he stands in our place, he makes a covenantal vow, like Adam declaring “Her bone is now my bone; her flesh is now my flesh.” Only Christ says, “Her sin is now my sin; my righteousness is now her righteousness.” His love is love for a bride—not a pristine one, but one who has played the whore.
It shows us the righteousness and justice of God. Other theories of the atonement leave some injustices—at least those of the saved—unpunished, unaccounted for. Yet penal substitution insists that every sin and injustice must be punished, so just and righteous is our God. It says to the victim, “Every injustice will be addressed,” and to the sinner, “He will show his justice in your salvation if you belong to him. He cannot forsake himself.”
It shows us the holiness of God, meaning the atonement is wholly consecrated to him. God is the ultimate focus of Christ’s death. He is its subject and object. It is from him and through him and to him, sweeping us up into the arch of its swirl.
Penal substitution is good news for those who have hurt and those who have been hurt. It speaks to the oppressor and the oppressed. It reveals God as the wisest and the humblest. Who else would have conquered kingdoms through a cross, stooped low to raise others up, created life out of death?
And yet, amidst this beauty and glory, our world and our sin conspire to render penal substitution nonsensical, knocking out every conceptual buttress. The world teaches us to measure morality in relation to ourselves, leaving no room for the holiness of God. It says we are bound only by standards or laws that we create or consent to, leaving no space for the judgment of God. We define love by whatever is most conducive to self-discovery and self-expression, and so reject the Son-exalting love of God. We believe that truth and goodness is found only by looking inward, and so reject our need for the vicarious righteousness of God. On every front the Evil One has placed roadblocks to comprehension and belief of this sacred doctrine.
Therefore, to enjoy the glory and to wage the battle, 9Marks devotes this Journal to penal substitutionary atonement. Speaking personally, working through each of these articles has edified my soul and fortified my faith. The theological and practical meditations alike should create a joy which you will want to share, like the woman who has found her lost coin. We commend to you every piece. Read them with a spouse or a friend, your fellow elders or members. As the hymn invites,
Come behold the wondrous mystery
Christ the Lord upon the tree
In the stead of ruined sinners
Hangs the Lamb in victory
See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold
(From Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery, by Matt Boswell, Michael Bleecker, Matt Papa 2013)
— Jonathan Leeman
* * * * *
Check out the Table of Contents here.