Christian theology springs from worship. This is especially true for the Christian understanding of Christ’s death on the cross. For the believer whose faith is nurtured on a diet of classic hymns, nothing is more assuring than knowing that Christ bore God’s punishment for our sins and secured pardon for us through his blood when he died on the cross. A few examples from the hymns would suffice.
Man of Sorrows! What a Name (Philip P. Bliss, 1838–1876)
2. Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood:
Halellujah! What a Savior!
3. Guilty, vile and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full atonement! Can it be?
Halellujah! What a Savior!
Thankfully, the same thought is reflected in a recent popular song by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend.
In Christ Alone (Keith Getty & Stuart Townend, 2001)
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.
A Debtor to Mercy Alone (Augustus Toplady, 1740–1778)
1. A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with thy righteousness on,
My person and offerings to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.
Worship then expresses the deep gratitude of the sinner when he sings of his eternal debt to the Savoir who delivered him from the wrath of God. But alas, many contemporary Christians, including evangelicals, have yielded to the temptation to abandon the doctrine of the penal substitution of Christ (PSA). Instead of singing about Christ bearing our guilt and shame, many are now ashamed of the PSA of Christ to save us from the penalty for sins. In the words of Sam Storm “the repudiation of the truth penal substitutionary death of Christ as the most serious and severe departure from biblical faith in our day.” [See, The Most Serious and Severe Departure from the Faith in Our Day]
In our day, there are many heretical and deviant notions circulating within the professing evangelical church. But I am persuaded that the most serious and severe departure from biblical faith in our day is the repudiation of the truth of penal substitutionary atonement (together with the wicked, childish, inexcusable, or as J. I. Packer has put it, “the smarty-pants” caricature of penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse”).
Some theologians argue that Christ’s death was merely a fortuitous outcome of his ministry to ‘save’ the world. Surely the God of love would repudiate violence that is displayed on the cross? For these critics PSA only provides a bad example of violence which evil men imitate and excuse themselves when they inflict violence on one another. On the contrary, God’s forgiveness requires no prior condition of Christ bearing God’s wrath on our behalf. Indeed, Jesus death is merely an act of exemplary, sacrificial love that overcomes our rebelliousness and wins us over to God.
In contrast, Sam Storms argues that Christ’s substitutionary death is a divine necessity
The shocking tragedy in our day is that professing evangelicals are attempting to speak meaningfully of God’s love, the death of Christ, and the forgiveness of our sins without reference to the righteous wrath of God which Jesus suffered and exhausted in himself on the cross. It was there that he died in our place, as our substitute, where we should have died. The reason why his death has delivered or set us free from the well-deserved consequences of our sins is that he shed “his blood” as a penal, sacrificial offering for sinners like you and me.
It was our “blood” that should have been shed. The punishment due unto our sin was eternal judgment and separation from the glorious presence of God. But Jesus made atonement for our transgressions by enduring in himself on the cross the penal consequences of our rebellion and idolatry.
If Jesus did not in fact voluntarily, lovingly, and freely take upon himself the guilt and condemnation that our sin deserved, thereby setting us free from the well-deserved consequences of our moral and spiritual rebellion against God, we have no hope. More than that, we have no “good news” (no “gospel”) to proclaim to a lost and dying world. To lose this is to lose Christianity. This denial of the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ is, in my opinion, the most serious and severe departure from the faith in our day.
Read also the more extended discussion that answers common objections to PSA by Derek Rishmawy – “The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
For evangelical Christians whose doctrinal formulation begins with biblical exegesis and linguistics rather than on human philosophical or psychoanalytical insights, I strongly recommend the works by Leon Morris.
Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. IVP, 1984. Also his more technical dissertation, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. 3ed. Eerdmans, 1955.
Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey et.al. Pierced For Our Transgressions: Recovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Crossway, 2007.
Charles Hill and Franks James III. The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives. IVP, 2004
For a critique of psychoanalysis which has become a popular framework for secular thinkers who deny PSA, see “the brilliant…caustic and infuriating little essay” by Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. 3ed. Blackwell, 2003. For a more historically and contextually situated discussion, see Richard Webster, Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. HarperCollins, 1995.