What Does the Cross Mean?

Did the death of Jesus on the cross satisfy the wrath of God against sinners?  Did Jesus Christ bear the sins of his people such that he became a substitute in their place, receiving and exhausting in himself the punishment we deserved?  In recent years, many self-proclaimed evangelicals have answered these questions negatively.  The doctrine of penal substitution (that Christ bore the penalty of the Law as a substitute in our place, thereby satisfying the just wrath of God) has come under fire from many corners. 

A number of objections have been raised against penal substitution, and a number of answers have been given to those objections by proponents of penal substitution (see the new book Pierced for Our Transgressions for an exhaustive list of answers; it will be out in the USA in November).  In this post I merely want to offer a general reflection on what I believe is the often unspoken assumption behind many of the objections that are raised against this doctrine. 

I think, more often than not, people reject the idea of penal substitution because it makes God out to be so exacting.  He demands punishment for every misdeed.  He cannot make sinners right with himself apart from full satisfaction of his wrath.  A God who demands this kind of strict perfection does not seem like the God of Scripture who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  After all, he commands us to forgive others when they sin against us without demanding any form of payment.  Does he command us to do something that he himself will not do?  Isn’t it more compatible with love simply to sweep offenses aside and have done with this tedious legal business?

This line of thinking, whether pursued consciously or not, is one symptom of an age that has remade God in our image.  I have argued before that God does many things that we cannot do precisely because he is God and we are not.  In our human relationships, of course the person who forgives without payment demonstrates greater love than the person who demands some kind of restitution, especially an exacting restitution.  But the Bible does not command us to forgive just because forgiveness is grand.  Repeatedly, it gives a specific theological basis for our forgiveness of others.  And that basis is precisely that God is the one who exacts vengeance for sin, not us.  Our mandate to forgive is predicated on the fact that God is a righteous judge who will exact the full penalty for every sin, whether from Christ on the cross or from the unrepentant at the final day of judgment.  Either way, vengeance is not ours to pursue.  But this does not mean that the demands of God’s holy Law have been obliterated at a whim; it means that we do not have the right to press those demands–only God does.  Here are two biblical examples of what I am talking about:

Romans 12:17-19: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.  Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath.  For it is written: ‘Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord.‘” 

On what basis did Jesus himself refrain from lashing out against those who abused him?  Peter answers that in 1 Peter 2:23: “When reviled, He did not revile in return; when suffering, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to the One who judges justly.”   

God demands perfection.  This has been a distinctive mark of Christianity for centuries.  Every other religion denies this tenet and ends up with some version of salvation by personal effort.  Other religions teach that if you jump through certain hoops, your good deeds will in the end suffice to overcome your bad ones, and you will find favor with God.  Perfection is not necessary, but being good enough is, and we have it in our power to jump through all the right hoops.  Christianity has always proclaimed otherwise.  The church has always proclaimed that the demand for perfection (James 2:10) rules out all hope of any of us ever attaining salvation by our own efforts.  And this is why Jesus Christ came for us–to satisfy the demand for perfection in our place.  He obeyed the Law and bore its full penalty against us, thereby upholding the justice of God even while lavishing us with the grace of forgiveness. 

The objection that penal substitution is incompatible with a loving God can only be sustained if God is brought down to our level and treated as though he is one of us.  I cannot demand that my wrath be satisfied against those who have offended me, but that is because I am not the creator and judge of the universe.  But if God is honored as God, who stands above us and whose holiness will not be compromised, penal substitution is the only means of atonement that could possibly answer our need. 


4 Responses to “What Does the Cross Mean?”

  1. Andrew O'Kelley Says:

    Thinking of the wrath of God on Jesus Christ on the cross drives me to ask this question that I have been pondering of late; what was the most painful for Christ on the cross- the physical pain of being tortured, or the spiritual pain of bearing my sins and facing God’s wrath as the perfect Son of God Himself? I have concluded myself that only Christ knows, but what do you think?

  2. Andrew O'Kelley Says:

    you need to go to bed earlier. 2:44 am is a time when only criminals are up.

  3. Andrew O'Kelley Says:

    ok…with my own post, i realize that your blogging clock is 5 hours ahead of CST, which puts it 4 hours ahead of you, which means you really posted it at 10:44 pm. My dearest apologies for paralleling you with criminals.

  4. fenderpooh Says:

    I don’t know if we can make a sharp distinction between the physical and spiritual pain of Christ. It was in the pain that he suffered on the cross, in all its dimensions, that he bore the penalty for our sins.

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