The “penal” in the doctrine of penal substitution, being tied to God’s wrath, has long been a source of controversy inside the church and out. It’s criticized as overly “legal” or “forensic.” People want to look to the cross and talk about Christ’s love, not his enduring the divine penalty.
But it’s worth stopping for a moment and meditating on what is behind a penalty. What is behind wrath? The answer is God’s worthiness or God’s worth. God’s wrath is equal to God’s worth, and that the “penal” in penal substitution therefore reveals this very worth.
Wrath and worth are perfectly matched together. The former takes the measure of the latter and expresses itself accordingly. One is as precious as the other.
So drop the “penal” from penal substitution and you diminish God dramatically. Despise his wrath and you despise his worth.
To see this, it’s worth meditating for a moment on what the purpose of law is. The Reformers talked about the law as restraining sin, condemning sin, and revealing God’s character. Political and legal philosophers will point to the law’s role in maintaining order, protecting the defenseless, or guaranteeing freedom. Each of these is helpful for its part.
But a theme that runs through all of these explanations is the idea of protecting something precious or worthy.
It’s against the law to murder because life is precious. It’s against the law to steal because property is precious. It’s against God’s law to lie because truth is precious. Every five year old who values his toys and every king who values his gold understands this much about law. That’s why both will declare, “Don’t touch these things, or else!” One might say that laws function like a castle wall or a security systems. People erect walls and install alarm systems when they want to guard something precious.
This is why breaking a law results in a penalty. Penalties are typically measured to match the significance of the violation, that is, the preciousness of the thing being protected by the law. The more precious the thing being protected, the severer the penalty. When no penalty follows a broken law, one assumes the matter must not be that important or precious.
Penalties teach. They declare the worth of something.
My siblings and I discovered at a young age that lying to our parents yielded a stronger penalty than squabbling over a toy. The lesson we learned from the difference? The truth is more precious than toys.
No one likes the idea of penalties, of course, but a penalty is the very thing that makes a law meaningful as a guardian of worth. If the law is the sentry guarding that which is precious, the penalty is the sentry’s pointy bayonet. It gives the law its prick, substance, meaning.
Looking at God’s law from this angle, we see that God’s law is the infinitely high wall that protects his infinite worthiness and glory. It’s the guardian and revealer of his glory. To contravene his law is to disregard his infinite worthiness. When you say “no” to God, you effetively say, “God, what you think doesn’t mean much to me, because you don’t mean much to me.”
Though Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement didn’t say everything that should be said about what happened at the cross, what he said, I think, captures an element of Christ’s work that formulations of penal substitution sometimes forget to mention: God’s honor is impugned by sin. And that honor must be vindicated, or satisfied. And that satisfaction must be infinite. The doctrine of penal substitution fills out the details of Anselm’s theory by observing that the offense against his honor is made manifest, as it were, through the transgression of God’s law. The law requires a penalty. The penalty is God’s wrath. God’s wrath, after all, is the jealous guardian of God’s glory. God’s glory was then demonstrated at the cross—among other ways—by showing that God’s law really did require a penalty for transgressions against it (Rom. 3:25-26).
Why do we want to preserve a “legal” or “forensic” understanding of the atonement and a strong concept of wrath? Because, unless we want to be idolaters, we must concede that the most precious thing in the universe is God and his glory. God’s infinite worthiness and preciousness will, intrinsically to itself, yield a counterpart—God’s law. God’s law is the fitting and perfectly matched protector of God’s infinite worthiness. To depreciate God’s law is to depreciate God’s worthiness, plain and simple.
The penal in penal substitution, likewise, is matched to the infinite preciousness and worthiness of God. His wrath is an indication of how infinitely glorious and precious he is.
To say that Adam’s sin should not have resulted in death; to say that our sins do not result in God’s wrath; to shy away from mentioning God’s wrath in private or public; to say that penal substitution is overly obsessed with legal categories or overemphasizes the role of God’s law; to say that the significance of Christ’s death is diminished by bringing it into the realm of the law court; to say that the demands of God’s law do not have to be satisfied; to declare a forensic declaration of “righteous” merely a “legal fiction”; to caricature the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath as “divine child abuse”—all this is to miss the role of God’s law in protecting and declaring the worthiness of God; and therefore it is to belittle his ineffable worthiness and glory, like trampling on a precious flower times infinity.
Let me ratchet it up one more notch: if the world, the flesh, and the devil desire, above all else, to diminish the godness of God, and to deceive us into thinking we can be “like God,” there can be no more dangerous lie in the universe than to deny God’s wrath and to redefine the gospel in a way that subtly massages the penal out of penal substitution—kind of like when someone said to Eve, “You will not surely die.”
But in a world of self-justifiers and wannabe gods, the idea of God’s wrath will always be the first domino the devil tries to topple. “You surely won’t die. Nah, you are worth far too much!”
Jonathan Leeman (@JonathanDLeeman) is the editoral director at 9Marks, an elder at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and the author of several books on the church.
Preaching from the book of Romans (7:7-8:4) Tchividjian explains how the law shows us our need and the Gospel shows us how Christ fulfilled that need:
Some people might suppose from a superficial reading of Matthew that Matthew asserts almost pure continuity of the law, and enjoins us merely to keep the same old law in the same form as always, only now empowered with the presence of Christ. In fact, however, the coming of Christ is the coming of the kingdom of God, the climactic fulfillment of all to which the Old Testament pointed. Reality supersedes shadows. Hence radical transformation of the law is included.
Conversely, some people might suppose from a superficial reading of Paul that Paul primarily asserts only discontinuity in the law. The law is dead and gone, not to be obeyed, virtually irrelevant for Christian living (cf. Eph. 2:15; Rom. 7:1-6; Gal. 2:19). But Paul too sees the law as comprehensively fulfilled in Christ (Rom. 15:4-6; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; cf. Rom. 8:4; 13:10-14). When understood properly it is a most impressive means of communion with Christ (2 Cor. 3:15-18).
The apparent differences between Matthew and Paul arise largely from the differences between their immediate concerns and goals.
Paul asserts the abolition of the law loud and clear, lest anyone miss it and destroy the unity of Jews and Gentiles as free people in Christ.
Matthew asserts the continuation of the law loud and clear, lest anyone miss it and think that Jesus is not the true Jewish Messiah.
But at a deep level they agree.
Matthew’s assertions are qualified by the idea of fulfillment, which involves radical transformation through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Paul’s denials are qualified by his vigorous affirmations concerning the character of the law: it is God’s prophetic revelation looking forward to Christ and still now revealing him in his righteousness and mercy. The law is abolished in the sense that the fulness has come and the temporary has come to an end. The law continues in the sense that seen in the light of Christ, it still speaks his word to us.
In short, we may speak either of abolition or of continuation, as we wish, provided we understand the depths and richnesses involved in what we should affirm in a total picture.
—Vern S. Poythress, “Fulfillment of the Law in the Gospel according to Matthew,” The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 281-282.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
It’s worth noting, as many have, that the Heidelberg Catechism included its exposition of the Law in the gratitude section and not in the guilt section. This choice reflects the widespread Reformation belief in the so-called third use of the law. The law is given (1) to restrain wickedness and (2) to show us our guilt and lead us to Christ. But, according to Calvin, the “third and principal use” of the law is as an instrument to learn God’s will. The law doesn’t just show us our sin so we might be drawn to Christ; it shows us how to live as those who belong to Christ.
In one sense Christians are no longer under the law. We are under grace (Rom. 6:14). We have been released from the law (Rom. 7:6) and its tutelage (Gal. 3). On the other hand, having been justified by faith, we uphold the law (Rom. 3:31). Even Christ recoiled at the idea of coming to abolish the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17). Christians are free from the law in the sense that we are not under the curse of the law–Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:4)–nor is the law a nationalized covenant for us like it was for Israel. But the law in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular, still give us the principles which instruct us how to live.
The Ten Commandments were central to the ethics of the New Testament. Jesus repeated most of the second table of the law to the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). The Apostle Paul repeated them too (Rom. 13:8-10) and used them as the basis for his moral instruction to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:8-11). The commandments are holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). How could they be anything else? They are an expression of God’s character. If we do not love what God commands us to do, we do not love what God is like.
We obey the commandments, therefore, not in order to merit God’s favor but because we have already experienced his favor. The Decalogue was given to Israel after God delivered them from Egypt. The law was a response to redemption not a cause of it. In one sense, the law shows us our sin and leads us to the gospel. But in another sense, law ought to follow the gospel just as the giving of the Decalogue followed salvation from Egypt. We obey God’s words not because we cower under threat of judgment, but because we stand confidently with our Deliverer and gladly accept his good rule for our life.
The law of God has one ministry, and the gospel has another. They do different things, and though both are important only one offers hope, freedom, cleansing, righteousness, and security. The gospel perfectly answers the law on our behalf.
The law says, “Thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shalt be damned;” Rom. vii. 2.; 2 Tess. ii. 12.
But the gospel says, No; “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;” and therefore “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” 1 Tim. i. 15t Acts xvi. 31.
Again the law says, “Knowest thou not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God; be not deceived,” 1 Cor. vi. 9. And therefore thou being a sinner, and not righteous, shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the gospel says, “God has made Christ to be sin for thee, who knew no sin; that thou mightest be made the righteousness of God in him, who is the Lord thy righteousness,” Jer. xxiii. 6.
Again the law says, “Pay me that thou owest me, or else I will cast thee into prison,” Matt. xviii. 28. 30.
But the gospel says, “Christ gave himself a ransom for thee,” 1 Tim.ii. 6.; “and so is made redemption unto thee,” 1 Cor. i. 30.
Again the law says, “Thou hast not continued in all that I require of thee, and therefore thou art accursed,” Deut. xxvii. 6.
But the gospel says, “Christ hath redeemed thee from the curse of the law, being made a curse for thee,” Gal. iii. 13.
- taken from The Marrow of Modern Divinity