Was the Cross Legal or Personal?

I am currently taking a class on the doctrine of the atonement.  We have been reading a number of different books expressing a number of different viewpoints on what exactly the cross means and what it achieved.  In recent years the traditional Reformed view of the atonement (a view known as “penal substitution”) has come under fire from many different sides.  According to this view, Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, bearing their guilt, having their sins imputed to him, bearing the wrath of God in their place.  To my mind, penal substitution is not the only thing that can be said about the cross, but it is the central category for explaining how the atonement works.  I believe that it is biblical, even central to the gospel itself.

Therefore, I am distressed to see so many people reacting against it today.  Most of the authors we have read who have some kind of objection to it say that it portrays God’s relationship with man in rigid, legal categories rather than in the warm, personal tone of Scripture.  According to them (i.e., Greg Boyd, Hans Boersma, Joel Green, and others), the traditional penal substitution view makes God an exacting judge rather than a loving Father.  The purpose of this post is to make two points that I hope will expose the inadequacy of this objection to penal substitution.

1. The legal is personal.  I suspect that the authors I have referred to object to “rigid, legal categories” because they are drawing their understanding of the adjective “legal” from human legal systems.  Human legal systems are impersonal.  A judge represents the state, which is an impersonal institution.  The judge has not been personally offended, but he administers justice as a representative of the impersonal state.  If we understand “legal” in this sense, then it does seem to be at some distance from personal, relational categories.

However, with God, things are different.  God is a judge, but he is not a representative of an impersonal institution.  He stands over us and against as one who has been personally offended by our sins.  The cross does not satisfy some abstract notion of justice that is removed from God the personal being.  It satisfies justice as the demand of the character of a holy, personal God, and thereby repairs our broken relationship with him.  Far from depersonalizing the atonement, penal substitution gets right to the heart of the God-man relationship by addressing a fundamental legal issue that keeps God and man apart: sin.  In the biblical teaching about God and his relationship to humanity, the legal is very personal.

2. The personal is legal.  I have a closer relationship with my wife than with anyone else on earth.  We live together, sleep in the same bed, partner together in raising our son, and share the same goals and dreams for our family.  We truly have one life shared by two people (three if you count our son, though he will go his own way eventually).  The marriage relationship is the most personal relationship imaginable.  Yet it is first of all a legal relationship.  Before God and the state, we declared our vows in a legally binding ceremony that sealed our union and brought us into a state of marriage.  That was no trivial event.  It marked a turning point in our relationship.  Prior to that event, we did not live together or sleep in the same bed or share one life or any of those things.  In fact, though it has become more accepted today, I frown on the idea of two people living as though they are married when they are not legally joined to one another.  I think that is putting the cart before the horse, and I know I am not alone in that view. 

So the legal relationship of marriage is immensely important, and yet no one would accuse me of being rigid, cold, and impersonal with my wife because we sealed our union in a legal manner.  To give another example, no one believes that my father and stepmother acted in a cold, impersonal, rigid manner by going through the proper legal channels to establish themselves as the legal parents of my adopted sister.  Without the legal basis, adoption (also one of the most warm, personal relationships in human society) would not exist.

Scripture portrays our relationship with Christ as analogous to marriage, and it portrays our relationship with God the Father as analogous to adoption.  These are legal categories that are at the same time very personal.  We need to get over this false dichotomy that what is legal is necessarily impersonal and that what is personal is necessarily not tied up with legal matters.  The cross is very legal in nature.  Jesus Christ paid the penalty demanded by the law for our sins and thereby satisfied the justice of God by removing his wrath from us.  And just as in human relationships, the legal serves as a foundation for the personal relationship with God through the cross.     


One Response to “Was the Cross Legal or Personal?”

  1. LeStourgeon Online » Blog Archive » Penal or Personal Says:

    […] (Re)Publican has a nicely worded post about the substitutionary aspect of the atonement. We need to get over this false dichotomy that what is legal is necessarily impersonal and that […]

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