Imagine a man returning home from a hard day’s work. Upon entering the house he erupts in anger; the place is trashed. In a rage he screams at the first kid he sees. As soon as she opens her mouth to talk he slaps her on the face. His daughter drops to the ground. She tucks her head into her folded arms and legs and sobs. The father’s anger gives way to remorse and love for the whole family. Normal life can resume. Thankfully, he only struck one child, instead of the entire family.
I hope that scenario repulses you.
This story is a caricature of the historic meaning of the cross as the propitiation of God’s anger against sin, and Christ as the atoning sacrifice in the place of elect sinners.[i] Critics repaint penal substitutionary atonement like this: at the cross God exhausted his anger on his helpless Son so that the Father might begin to love the people for whom Christ made the ultimate sacrifice. In the caricature the Son is the whipping boy, enabling sinners to get away with what roused God’s displeasure in the first place.
If this is the message of the cross, we would be right to reject it. Would we even want the gift of salvation if it resulted from a cosmic travesty of justice? More importantly, what does the Bible teach about the cross?
At the cross Christ suffered for God’s chosen people (Rom. 4:23–24). Isaiah prophesied a salvation in which God’s servant paid the penalty for our sin. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed…And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:4–6). The New Testament affirms Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus “bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).
The historic creeds are equally clear and blunt. Christ “was crucified also for us” (Nicene Creed). “He suffered for our salvation” (Athanasian Creed 38). “By suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier [Jesus] has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 44).
The cross is scandalous. Jesus suffered terribly. In Gethsemane he recoiled from the horrible prospect of finishing his work (Matt. 26:37–38). On the cross he admitted a sickening sense of abandonment (Matt. 27:46). Isaiah foresaw the ugliness of Jesus’ encounter with sin at Calvary: who wouldn’t hide their face from such intense suffering (53:3). Our Lord’s agony on our behalf shocks our sensitivities. Jesus’ cross was the ultimate concentration of pain and shame. But to deny that Christ died to pay the divine penalty for our sins requires a rewrite of Scripture and historic Christianity.
So how can we respond to concerns that penal substitutionary atonement makes God an abusive Father? And how can we better appreciate the meaning of the cross? Five propositions can help us answer these questions.
The Atonement Didn’t Coerce the Father’s Love
Christ’s death on the cross satisfied divine justice, it didn’t kick-start the love of a begrudging deity. John Owen says it well: The father’s “love…is antecedent to the purchase of Christ.” Christ’s intercession doesn’t make the Father love his children; “There is no need of any intercession for that; for eminently the Father himself loves you.”[ii] The Heidelberg Catechism clarifies: God “is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as our actual sins… His justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty” (Q/A 10–11). Why would God provide “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given to us for our complete deliverance and righteousness” (Q/A 18)? “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). The cross didn’t purchase God’s love for his children; it proved God’s love for his children (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:4–5).
The Atonement Is a Work of the Triune God
The Triune God—not the Father only—eternally planned the redemption of the elect through the Son (Westminster Confession of Faith 8.1). The Father chose Jesus to the office of mediator and promised the Son a reward for his faithfulness (Luke 22:29). The Son agreed to take on humanity to fulfil every requirement for the salvation of the elect (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:14–25). The Spirit pledged to uphold the Son through the trials of his calling (Is. 42:1; Mark 1:10).
To suggest that the Father acted unilaterally in crucifying the Son on behalf of sinners ignores the Bible’s insistence on the unity of the Godhead. The model of child abuse denies the Trinity by presupposing inherent inequality between the persons; abusers are shrewd and powerful, victims are naïve and weak. But historic Christianity insists that in the Holy Trinity “The divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son and such is the Holy Spirit (Ath. Creed 6–7). At the cross the blood that covered our sins was the blood of God (Acts 20:28). God didn’t abuse his Son. God died in our place.
The Trinity Must Not be Anthropomorphized
The very idea of the cross as child abuse squeezes the Trinity into a manmade mold. It suggests that the Father-Son relationship is inherently authoritarian and therefore non-mutual. It implies that anger always reveals a lack of self-control; the need for appeasement indicates an unforgiving, vengeful attitude. But God isn’t like us.
The divine Father-Son relationship is incapable of power-struggles, manipulation, misunderstanding, and codependency. Christ wasn’t confused about his Father’s love for him. When Jesus said “My Father loves me” (John 10:17) he wasn’t betraying traits of a battered child, misreading as affection a Father’s utilitarianism. The Father’s anger isn’t like ours. God hates sin sinlessly, even the sin Jesus covenantally acquired for us. The Father-Son analogy gives us familiar categories for appreciating the divine persons. But we mustn’t use the analogy to judge God.
Jesus Is a Willing Victim
The Father’s will to bruise Christ (Is. 53:10) harmonized with Jesus’ will. Jesus says of his life, “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18). Medieval hymns sometimes referred to Christ as a victim. Here’s an example from the sixth century: “Praise we him whose love divine gives his sacred blood for wine, gives his body for the feast, Christ the victim, Christ the priest.” But victim does not suggest that at the cross a vengeful Father tyrannized an unsuspecting Son. The Latin victima simply describes a sacrificed person or animal. Christ is, as the hymn says, the “Mighty victim from the sky” who vanquishes the powers of hell. He is the “victorious king” not a helpless martyr. Christ willingly assumed human nature, and the penalty our sins had earned (Phil. 2:5–8) so that he could do the holy will of the Triune God (Ps. 40:6–8; cf. Heb. 10:5–10) and lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Christ is a victim, but not of a capricious Father’s rage—he fully consented to shed his blood for our sin. On the cross he earned the right to say, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Jesus’ Self-sacrifice Brought Him Great Reward
Christ’s decision to become the sin-bearer was calculated to glorify the Trinity. Christ deliberately endured the cross, despising its shame for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2; cf. 11:26), the reward promised by his Father. Christ receives the devotion of the redeemed. Isaiah foresaw that he would “see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By his knowledge My Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong” (53:11–12). Christ receives authority over his enemies. The Son requested (through his humiliation) and receives (through glorification) the nations for his inheritance (Ps. 2:8). Paul seized on the victory theme of Psalm 68, depicting Christ as a warrior who from the agonies of battle returned home a hero, leading captives, and sharing the spoils of victory (Eph. 4:8). Christ was right to sow his life in dishonor and weakness to have it raised up in glory and power (1 Cor. 15:43).
Jesus’ cross has always been a scandal. It seems foolish to trust that a terrible death 2,000 years ago could atone for my sins. But God’s children take refuge in his power and wisdom revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18–25). “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood: Hallelujah, what a Savior!”[iii]
[i] For a contemporary critique of penal substitutionary atonement in favor of a gnostic, moral influence theory see Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking, 2007).
[ii] The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 11, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghosts, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 20.
[iii] Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 352.