Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Logic of Penal Substitution

If you haven't read it, of the best brief treatments of the "penal substitutionary atonement" is a 1974 Tyndale Bulletin essay entitled "What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution." You can download it here. (You can find Tyndale Bulletin here, where you can get hundreds of their published scholarly papers.)

Packer deals with a number of issues, including a brief discussion of the nature of mystery as it relates to theology. In fact, despite what currents critics of evangelicals say in their straw man and ad hominem misrepresentations, Packer writes:
The passion to pack God into a conceptual box of our own making is always strong, but must be resisted. If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remain a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably. (12-13)
All of God's revelation is "condescension" and therefore includes the use of parable, model and word pictures to help us get a small inkling of it means when we say "the immortal dies" or "Christ redeems us". As Packer acknowledges even with revelation at some point this breaks down into a mystery.

On substitution:
Stage one is to declare Christ's death substitutionary. What does this mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines substitution as 'the putting of one person or thing in the place of another'. One oddity of contemporary Christian talk is that many who affirm that Jesus' death was vicarious and representative deny that it was substitutionary; for the Dictionary defines both words in substitutionary terms! Representation is said to mean 'the fact of standing for, or in place of, some other thing or person, esp. with a right or authority to act on their account; a substitution of one thing or person for another.' And vicarious is defined as 'that takes or supplies the place of another thing or person; substituted instead of the proper thing or person.' So here, it seems, is a distinction without a difference. Substitution is, in fact, a broad idea that applies whenever one person acts to supply another's need, or to discharge his obligation, so that the other no longer has to carry the load himself. (17)
Packer is further clear that penal substitution has never denied other aspects of the atonement and it is the critics of PSA that make these items mutually exclusive. Furthermore, PSA does not deny representation, union with Christ (the participatory) and all views affirm the necessity of the resurrection. In fact, Christ cannot be our exemplar if he does not also remove our sins.

On the use of the word "penal"
Now we move to the second stage in our model-building, and bring in the word 'penal' to characterize the substitution we have in view. To add this 'qualifier', as Ramsey would call it, is to anchor the model of substitution (not exclusively, but regulatively) within the world of moral law, guilty conscience, and retributive justice. Thus is forged a conceptual instrument for conveying the thought that God remits our sins and accepts our persons into favour not because of any amends we have attempted, but because the penalty which was our due was diverted on to Christ. The notion which the phrase 'penal substitution' expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity. (25)


Packer will go on to argue that the legal and forensic is not cold and impersonal, as some opponents have said.

Packer discusses PSA under five heads:
  1. substitution and retribution;
  2. substitution and solidarity;
  3. substitution and mystery;
  4. substitution and salvation;
  5. substitution and divine love.
On this last point, Packer takes on a common objection:
The penal substitution model has been criticised for depicting a kind Son placating a fierce Father in order to make him love men, which he did not do before. The criticism is, however, inept, for penal substitution is a Trinitarian model, for which the motivational unity of Father and Son is axiomatic. The New Testament presents God's gift of his Son to die as the supreme expression of his love to men. 'God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son' (John 3:16). 'God is love. . . . Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins' (1 John 4:8-10). 'God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us' (Rom. 5:8). Similarly, the New Testament presents the Son's voluntary acceptance of death as the supreme expression of his love to men. 'He loved me, and gave himself for me' (Gal. 2:20). 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends . . .’ ( John 15:13f.). And the two loves, the love of Father and Son, are one: a point which the penal substitution model, as used, firmly grasps. (pp.39-40)
Packer, following Scripture and the great theologians, takes it one step further: PSA shows us a greater love than we could imagine.
Furthermore, if the true measure of love is how low it stoops to help, and how much in its humility it is ready to do and bear, then it may fairly be claimed that the penal substitutionary model embodies a richer witness to divine love than any other model of atonement, for it sees the Son at his Father's will going lower than any other view ventures to suggest. That death on the cross was a criminal's death, physically as painful as, if not more painful than, any mode of judicial execution. that the world has seen; and that Jesus endured it in full consciousness of being innocent before God and man, and yet of being despised and rejected, whether in malicious conceit or in sheer fecklessness, by persons he had loved and tried to save—this is ground common to all views, and tells us already that the love of Jesus, which took him to the cross, brought him appallingly low. But the penal substitution model adds to all this a further dimension of truly unimaginable distress, compared with which everything mentioned so far pales into insignificance. This is the dimension indicated by Denney—‘that in that dark hour He had to realise to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race.’ Owen stated this formally, abstractly and non-psychologically: Christ, he said, satisfied God's justice 'for all the sins of all those for whom he made satisfaction, by undergoing that same punishment which, by reason of the obligation that was upon them, they were bound to undergo. When I say the same I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all accidents of duration and the like . . .’Jonathan Edwards expressed the thought with tender and noble empathy: 'God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of his dreadful wrath. This made all the sufferings of Christ the more terrible to him, because they were from the hand of his Father, whom he infinitely loved, and whose infinite love he had had eternal experience of. Besides, it was an effect of God's wrath that he-forsook Christ. This caused Christ to cry out . . . "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" This was infinitely terrible to Christ. Christ's knowledge of the glory of the Father, and his love to the Father, and the sense and experience he had had of the worth of his Father's love to him, made the withholding the pleasant ideas and manifestations of his Father's love as terrible to him, as the sense and knowledge of his hatred is to the damned, that have no knowledge of God's excellency, no love to him, nor any experience of the infinite sweetness of his love.' And the legendary 'Rabbi' Duncan concentrated it all into a single unforgettable sentence, in a famous outburst to one of his classes: ‘D'ye know what Calvary was? what? what? what?' Then, with tears on his face—It was damnation; and he took it lovingly.' It is precisely this love that, in the last analysis, penal substitution is all about, and that explains its power in the lives of those who acknowledge it. (pp.40-41)
Here then are what we find in the Biblical notion of the PSA, according to Packer:
  1. God, in Denney's phrase, 'condones nothing', but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.
  2. My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God's presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.
  3. The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.
  4. Because this is so, I through faith in him am made 'the righteousness of God in him', i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.
  5. Christ's death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. 'If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.'
  6. My faith in Christ is God's own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ's death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.
  7. Christ's death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.
  8. Christ's death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.
  9. Christ's death for me calls and constrains me to trust,to worship, to love and to serve. (pp.42-43)
Packer's article is well worth a careful read and you can find it here. As I mentioned it is probably one of the best places to start in a study of PSA but certainly such reading should not be the finish of study.

The Bible teaches us a concept of Christ's death that includes at its core the notion of PSA. In fact, the Biblical picture is both clear and understandable. It is core to the gospel: Christ died for our sins. This accomplishes a great victory for God and His people. To sum finally in a footnote (p.28 n.28) we find this quote: "'the Christian religion has thought of Christ not only as Victor and as Victim, but also as "Criminal"', and all three models have biblical justification". All true thinking about the atonement and the PSA should begin and end with such biblical justifications.

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