We’ve got used to the Somerfield press release scenario. The hapless individual who (this Easter) said that the supermarket’s range of Easter eggs and other seasonal products was part of the traditional celebration at this time of Christ’s birthday. A second attempt corrected it to ‘… Christ’s rebirth’. The third vaguely suggested that it was all ‘… something to do with death and resurrection’. We don’t expect much more from someone with apparently little knowledge of the Christian faith.
We’re also not terribly surprised any more when a senior church figure denies something central to our faith. In Easter week, the Dean of St Alban’s, Jeffrey John, gave BBC Radio 4’s Lent talk. You can read it here. He rejects the traditional Biblical understanding of the cross as ‘insane’. ‘… Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him,’ says Mr John. ‘This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we’d say that they were a monster.’
The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘Church figures have expressed dismay at his comments, which they condemn as a “deliberate perversion of the Bible”. The Rt Rev Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, accused Mr John of attacking the fundamental message of the Gospel.’
But we are perhaps very surprised when it is a church leader from the same evangelical wing of the church who is questioning things that we’ve always thought central to our faith. Steve Chalke made comments about the cross of Christ two years ago (in his book ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’, co-authored with Alan Mann), likening the Christian doctrine of penal substitution to ‘cosmic child abuse’.
The Evangelical Alliance then called a public debate to discuss the issue, to give Steve a chance to explain his views, and to clarify that this doctrine was central to the evangelical Christian faith and their statement of faith (here for more). There were articles, discussions and blog posts galore. Some people withdrew support for Oasis, one of the organisations that Steve Chalke leads, and for other initiatives that refused to speak out against him on this issue. Meanwhile, he further clarified his position in Christianity magazine. It was these controversial views that hit the headlines again last week at Word Alive.
Word Alive is one of the weeks of the Spring Harvest holiday convention run each Easter, partnered by Spring Harvest itself, Keswick Ministries (who run the Keswick convention in the summer) and UCCF (the student Christian Union Movement). At this year’s Word Alive event, it was announced that after fourteen years of this partnership, Word Alive will no longer be part of Spring Harvest. In its place, a new Word Alive event is being planned (click here for details).
The question everyone was asking last week was ‘Why?’ And in answer to this, it was explained that these views on ‘penal substitution’, publicly held by one of the Spring Harvest Council of Management and Leadership Team, lay behind the parting of the ways. Click here to read a UCCF Press Release which sets out the reasons for this.
Unity is difficult to maintain, even when disagreement is on secondary issues. But when the issues of difference are fundamental aspects of the Gospel, unity becomes both impossible and undesirable. We can’t have any real unity if we can’t agree on the basic Gospel.
So, what is penal substitution?
Penal substitution is at the centre of the biblical doctrine of the Cross. The Bible teaches that human beings have rejected their creator and do not give God His due. The Holy God of the universe is rightly angry at such human rebellion. This anger is not the irrational temper of a spurned human being but His perfect, considered, deliberate reaction against sin.
This is great news! We have a great God who takes us seriously and cares about what we do. God hates evil. He hates the Holocaust. He hates child abuse. He doesn’t say to Hitler, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure you meant well.’ That god would be terrible. We should be so thankful that the true God is angry at evil.
So, the problem is not only our terrible wickednesses and sins, but also God’s wrath at those things, and at us who do them. How can sinners like us ever come before a holy God?
God’s answer to that is the Cross of Christ. On the cross Jesus is punished for our sin and is cursed in our place. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5).
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled with the reality of what it would mean for him to bear God’s wrath. He prays ‘Take this cup from me’. It was so hard that he sweat blood, but he took it willingly: ‘not my will, but yours’. Our forgiveness was so costly, but he gave himself. ‘This is how we know what love is, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
So, by way of definition, ‘penal substitution’ is the doctrine that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin. In simple terms, ‘penal’ refers to punishment, ‘substitution’ to Christ taking our place.
Why does this issue matter? What’s so wrong with a view of the cross that denies penal substitution (as Steve Chalke, Jeffrey John and others do)?
It doesn’t fit with what the Bible says. The Biblical evidence is clear. ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.’
It denies God’s character. We want to celebrate that God is wonderfully holy and perfect. God has moral standards and there are consequences for those of us who reject them. We can only be accepted by a holy God if our sin has been dealt with.
It has no answer to the problem of evil. The only alternative to penal substitution is that our sin doesn’t really matter. This isn’t true. God, the loving creator and just judge cares about us and what we do.
It denies what Jesus suffered. He did not just suffer human punishment, but God’s wrath. The Cross was so terrible – let’s not devalue how much it cost.
It sends us to Hell. If Jesus did not die in our place, absorbing God’s wrath then we are not rescued. We will one day face God with our sin and be punished.
It robs us of forgiveness. If Jesus has not dealt with our sin, if the penalty hasn’t been paid, then we haven’t been forgiven. But we know we can be forgiven because our sin has already been punished in Christ.
It robs us of security. If Jesus did not pay the penalty for our sin, we can have no confidence that we will not have to pay it ourselves.
We can be so grateful that these other theories about the cross are woefully inadequate. The hymn writer Augustus Toplady wrote:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, else I die.
What should we do now?
Praise God that Jesus died in our place, dealing with our sin, once for all. Meditate on this great truth and wonder at God’s love for us.
Cling to the cross. Trust that there Jesus died in our place, dealing with our sin, guilt and punishment that we might be saved.
Tell the world what God has done, that they too might put their trust in the death of Jesus and know forgiveness.
If much of this stuff is new to you, you may want to talk to someone. You might like to contact Nigel and arrange to talk to him properly about these things.
Pray for Steve Chalke, Jeffery John and others who do not believe that Jesus has paid the penalty for their sins. Pray that the Holy Spirit would be helping us all to understand, believe and live the truths of the Gospel.
Hard, but worth it
John Stott: The Cross of Christ
Jeffery, Ovey and Sach: Pierced for our Transgressions (click here for more information about this significant new book)
Leon Morris: The Atonement
Click here to read an online article by Jim Packer on this topic.
Liam Goligher: The Jesus Gospel
Mark Meynell: Cross-Examined (our recommended book this Easter)