How does Good Friday “work” exactly? Is the Father pouring out His Wrath upon the Son? Or is there a better way of making sense of Calvary?
You are listening to Shameless Popery with Joe Heschmeyer, a production of Catholic Answers.
Welcome back to Shameless Popery. I’m Joe Heschmeyer. So if you’re watching this on the day it’s released, it is holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, a few days before Easter Sunday. And so happy holy Thursday. It may not be holy Thursday for you. It’s actually not holy Thursday yet for me. But if you happen to be celebrating that right now, then happy holy Thursday to you. It seemed like a good time to address the mystery of the Last Supper and even more, the mystery of the cross. So this is a question I think a lot of people, both Christian and non-Christian have, which is how does the cross work exactly? As Christians we say, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and someone who’s not Christian or even depending on the kind of Christian you grew up, might say, “What does that mean? How does that make any sense? Why would Jesus’ death on the cross do anything for my sins?”
And what’s more like, again, how? What’s some mechanism by which Christ’s death on the cross back in the first century somehow does something for me today? So that’s what I want to explore. And I want to kind of give a caveat at the very beginning, which is to say this is a really complicated and multifaceted dimension. There are a number of images used to describe this in the New Testament alone, that Christ is our ransom, that he is what’s called Christus Victor, like the victorious Messiah, that he’s our atonement, all of these different models. And so there’s different models or motifs, and I’m not going to argue in this video that we have to choose one of those to the exclusion of the others because that’s not true. In the Bible, we don’t see one of those being chosen to the exclusion of the other.
This is a difficult thing to put into words, what’s going on and how it’s a profound spiritual reality. What I am going to say is that one of the most popular visions of the cross is actually wrong and dangerous, but wrong in a kind of subtle way, wrong in a way that if you make a few really important tweaks, it’s right. If you don’t make those tweaks, it ends up as we’re going to see making Christianity look much more like paganism and it’s contrary to the trinity, contrary to good christology and contrary to the justice of God. And they might be wondering, “Well, what vision of the cross is that?” That vision is called penal substitution. Now, I should give a second caveat. There are a number of different theological systems that go by the name of penal substitution.
Penal substitution, penal like penalty, substitution, Christ suffers our penalties so we don’t have to. There’s different forms of theology that lead to something like that conclusion. I’m not critiquing all of them. I can’t claim to understand all of them. I want to specifically focus on the forms of penal substitutionary atonement or penal substitution that are taught by a number of reformed thinkers, first and foremost John Calvin. But then by a number of 20th and 21st century reformed thinkers, many of whom are very popular, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, people like that. And so that’s what I want to unpack to explain that is much closer to the misunderstanding of the cross and kind of the pagan vision of sacrifice than it is to anything Christian. So with that in mind, let’s look at the two different visions of the cross.
So you’ve got on the one side an Aztec sacrifice, and on the other side you’ve got the Last Supper. Those are both depictions of sacrifice, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to realize those are radically different understandings of sacrifice. And so let’s go to the first of those, the bad one, the Aztec one. That’s the pagan misunderstanding of the cross. And when I say that, I don’t mean in a pejorative way. I mean that literally this is how pagans understood sacrifice in the ancient world, and this is how some people understand sacrifice today. So with that, let me go ahead and just play a little bit from… this is a history podcast that in a history channel, not the history channel, looking at pagan sacrifice. And I think it gives a sense of what did sacrifice look like for the Aztecs.
Huitzilopochtli was a manifestation of the sun and worshiped at the main temple Templo Mayor. He is celebrated at four of the 18 Aztec festivals. At festivals dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the victim would be ceremonially adorned in the God’s colors and covered in blue body paint before being laid upon a sacrificial stone. A priest would chant before raising a blade to the sky, bringing it down and sharply cutting a line through the victim’s torso. Their heart would be ripped out and still beating, held towards the sun. They then in a move that seems a bit unceremonious, push the body of their sacrifice off the pyramid, the body would be carried away and either cremated or given to the warrior who captured them to begin with. The warrior would either send parts of the body to important people because who doesn’t love getting a thumb in the post?
So that’s the Aztec version that you take an innocent victim, you rip their heart out and you offer it to the gods and then you discard the body. I didn’t even get into some of the other horrific factors. Sometimes they would eat the body. I mean, it was a ghastly system. It was horrible. It was demonic. I mean that not in an exaggerated sort of way. You’re delighting in the torture and murder of the innocent. And I think many non-Christians look at Christianity and say, “Well, isn’t that what you guys are doing with Good Friday? Aren’t you delighting in the torture and murder of the most innocent person in history according to you? And aren’t you saying that’s what your God wants, that he wants this horrible blood sacrifice, not just Christ’s heart, but his mutilated and tortured body killed?” And this is where some really important distinctions have to be made.
And unfortunately, a lot of popular Christian speakers and authors are not only making those distinctions, but they’re really leaning into the kind of Aztec vision of sacrifice, they’re really leaning into, “Yeah, this is all about divine violence and bloodshed,” and that is a profound and dangerous misunderstanding. But I want to let the people I’m critiquing kind of have the first word describing their own theology. So let’s get… There’s plenty of people who do this, and as I said, you’ll find different shades of penal substitution. Some are better or worse than others. Let’s start with John MacArthur explaining how at the core of his theology, it’s the idea that God treats Jesus as if Jesus was personally a sinner and in fact, not just a sinner, the worst sinner in all of history. So here’s MacArthur in his own words.
As if he had personally committed every sin ever committed by every person who would ever believe though in reality he committed none of them.
And this leads to some really shocking kind of places theologically, because if you believe that God, the Father believes that Jesus is the worst sinner in all history or knows he isn’t but is still going to treat him like he is, well, how should God treat the worst sinner in all of history? And the conclusion is, well, he would have to damn him. And so I will warn you, the next clip is a little strong and the language in it is really strong is R. C. Sproul, one of the most popular preachers, thinkers, intellectuals within reformed Christianity. He recently passed, but he was kind of a giant among reformed Christianity. And one of the final appearances that he made preaching that God cursed Jesus and damns him, and here’s Sproul in his own words.
- C. Sproul:
So obviously he had some experience of the beauty of the Father until that moment that my sin was placed upon him and the one who was pure, was pure no more, then God cursed him. It was if there was a cry from heaven, excuse my language, but I can be no more accurate than to say it was as if God Jesus heard the words, “God, damn you.” Because that’s what it meant to be cursed, to be damned, to be under the anathema of the Father.
So what are the problems with this system? As you might imagine, this system is problematic. So I’m going to list six problems that I see with penal substitution understood in this way. The first of them will call the Trinitarian problems, and the idea is really simple, that Jesus is God. And so to say that God cursed Jesus or that God damns Jesus is to say that God damns God. Now it’s true the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, but the Father and the Son are equal in majesty, dignity and glory.
They’re equally divine. And so the first Trinitarian problem is quite simply that you cannot separate the Father, Son and the Spirit in this way, and you can’t treat one of them as more God than the other ones without running into some really profound theological problems. And I thought about putting some clips up where R. C. Sproul actually explains this, but I think this is clear enough that the Christian understanding of the Trinity, and this is something that at least on paper, Sproul, Piper, MacArthur, all these guys are going to agree to, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal.
They’re all fully God or truly God. And there’s actually a funny debate between MacArthur and Sproul about whether we should say Jesus is fully God and fully man or truly God and truly man. And Sproul’s point is, “Well, if you say fully God, that makes it sound like he’s only God,” whichever way you want to say it, we mean that Jesus is entirely divine and entirely human. So that leads of course to the Christological problem, which are the second set of problems that just as you can’t separate the Trinity by having the Father damn the Son, you can’t have the first person of the Trinity condemning the second person of the Trinity. You can’t have the first person hating the Trinity or cutting the second person from the Trinity off. But when you get into Christology, Jesus is due to the nature of the incarnation fully God, fully man as I just said, truly God, truly man, and this is significant. He remains the second person of the Trinity in heaven, the divine God.
He doesn’t leave heaven. Now, this is perhaps an area in which Sproul and MacArthur will disagree because they’ve both said things that seem to suggest that maybe they think God left heaven in the incarnation. That was an early pagan misunderstanding of Christianity and the early Christians had to say, “No, that’s not true.” But I know that if that is the case, if those guys are misunderstanding it, that is not the standard reform position. Calvin was very clear that God remains in heaven in the incarnation and that includes God the Son, that God the Son, the second person from the Trinity in becoming man does not leave heaven behind that He is at once in the manger on the shores of Galilee and ruling the cosmos and holding all things together in himself that if you were to say he left heaven, you would have to say both the Trinity somehow dissolves and that all the universe which Christ holds together dissolves.
So that’s a bad theology, right? So theologically, you just can’t say that the Trinitarian… Look, when we talk about Trinitarian indwelling, we often talk about that in terms of Father Son Holy Spirit coming to dwell within me. But it’s also true the Father Son Holy Spirit are in communion with each other. They are a communion of persons, an inseparable communion of persons. And so the problem with penal substitution is understood in this way the Father is punishing the Son and the Father turns his eyes away from the Son is that it totally undermines both that inter… intra, excuse me, Trinitarian communion and the communion at the ontological level, what’s called the hypothetic union within Christ. Because then either the Trinity is damning itself or part of the Trinity is damning part of the Trinity. Part of the Trinity isn’t talking to part of the Trinity or Jesus in his nature has got this incredible schizophrenia where his divine and human natures aren’t getting along and they’re just sharing the same house.
This is bad Christology, and we can actually see this bad Christology on display by reading something John MacArthur said. Now this is actually I believe a 2000 homily. I couldn’t find it online, but they have a transcript on his website. He says, “Now, if you do not have an eternal Trinity, you have the wrong God. If you have the wrong God, you have the wrong Jesus and the wrong gospel. This is a sweeping heresy because it is a fountainhead heresy that literally pollutes all the rest of theology. Amen.” Absolutely. If you get Trinitarian theology wrong, everything else is going to be screwed up. Completely agree. But in the same homily, he goes on to say that within Christ there is no alienation. This is not a sinner. Now he’s talking here about the baptism of Christ, that Jesus isn’t baptized because he sins, he isn’t baptized because he needs to be restored and to divine communion.
So there is no alienation. He is not a sinner. There is no breach in that relationship. He speaks here of the Trinitarian relationship. There is no separation from eternity through eternity, through time in the middle when Jesus was incarnate, there never was a break in communication with the Father. If he’d stopped there, that would be perfectly profoundly orthodox. But then he says, “Except that moment on the cross when Jesus said, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me when God was executing Jesus for all our sins. But apart from that moment, no alienation existed.” Now, let’s just unpack this for a minute. He’s just said, the eternal nature of God is this Trinitarian indwelling and that in the incarnation, this human nature is brought into the second person of the Holy Trinity. Not that there’s a change in God, but that he takes a human nature to himself.
And this human nature enjoys this Trinitarian indwelling. In technical terms, we would say it this way, Christ enjoys the beatific vision his entire life, and he has the dwelling of the second person of the Holy Trinity in him, not merely the way we might through baptism, through adoption and so forth, but rather he’s a divine person with a human nature. So it isn’t like he’s a human person who has a divine nature floating around in there. No. He’s a divine person with a human nature. And so it is insane to say, “Yes, this is an eternal truth except for three hours,” because for one to God, all things are eternally present. So when you say there’s this three hour gap where the Trinity stop being the Trinity or when the incarnate God stop being the incarnate God, if once you make that kind of logical leap, then just say you don’t believe in the Trinity.
Just deny the Trinity and say, “I’m no longer a Christian,” because that’s where you’re at. Because that’s as profound as it gets of an error. As he just said, if you screw up the eternal Trinity, then all the rest of your theology is on really shaky ground because this is a one kind of priority truth. And if you can know that just from looking at early Christianity, this was the thing they wanted to make sure everybody got right, and he’s getting it wrong in a really profound way by suggesting an alienation in Trinity that makes no theological sense. It just doesn’t work. It can’t work. But I want to go on do the third thing.
These are the moral and legal problems. And this is actually where I find people usually start when they’re complaining about the problems with penal substitutionary atonement or penal substitution is that it certainly makes God out to look more like a very powerful demon than God that this is a God who seems to delight in torturing the innocent and letting the guilty go free. And that may sound like a caricature, but that’s certainly from the outside how it looks. So let’s give John MacArthur kind of a chance to explain what he sees as an appeal. So he’s going to make this analogy about a judge and how a judge can’t just let the guilty person go. So I’m going to give MacArthur the first word, and then I’m going to kind of respond to why I think it’s a fake problem and why I think he solves that fake problem in a kind of disastrous way.
The judge and the guy comes into your court and he has been indicted for all kinds of crimes to which he has confessed. And he says to you, “I’m guilty, your Honor. I’ve done them all. I’m a mass murderer. I’ve killed 25 people, I’ve chopped them up. I’ve eaten a few of them, buried the rest in my yard. I’m guilty of all of it, but I feel really bad now and I’m so sorry I did that and I do want to repent. Would you please forgive me and let me go.” If the judge said, “Sure, I’m a nice guy. I’ve got a lot of mercy in my heart, you’re free to go,” he wouldn’t be a judge anymore. What’s a judge’s responsibility? Uphold what? The law. That’s his responsibility. You can’t do that. You can’t just let that man go. That would be unjust.
So I mentioned before, I think this is a fake problem, and the reason I think it’s a fake problem is because God isn’t just some circuit court judge. This is God of the entire universe. And so to put the law above God is to actually make God not sovereign because the sovereign can freely pardon offenses against the law. That’s a really critical idea, not just in theology, but even in politics, right? The president can issue pardons. The king can issue pardons. A governor can issue pardons against state crimes. We see Pontius Pilate putting Barabbas and Jesus up there asking which of them he ought to pardon. So no, a sovereign who pardons isn’t thrown out as a judge. That’s perfectly consistent with the role of a sovereign. Well, likewise, a judge can also say, “We aren’t going to just blindly follow the law in this case.”
And a good example of that is if you have a repented criminal, if you have someone who’s remorseful, you don’t think prison time is actually going to do them any good. So the first thing I’d say is, no, God freely can pardon. Now, we’re going to see God chooses not just to let us go unrepentant, pardoned from all of our sins. He chooses another course. And Aquinas gives several reasons why he chooses that course, not least of which is that this road, the road of the incarnation and the cross better shows us God’s love and is more keeping with human dignity. But the idea that he had to do this because he was bound by the law is nonsensical. It’s outrageous. And as much as sin is a violation of what we owe to God, well the person violated, he’s always free to let offenses go against them.
A judge can’t forgive something he doesn’t have control over. And the judge may say, “Well, I may have no personal problem with this, but I’m bound by the law,” none of that applies to God, right? Sin is a violation of our relationship with God. It’s a violation of what we owe to God. And God could freely say, “I’m going to let it go,” no matter how grave the offense is. So the first thing I’d say here is that in as much as he argues, “Oh no, he has to punish somebody or else he’s not a good judge,” that misunderstands what it is to be a judge and it misunderstands even more profoundly what it is to be a sovereign. And God is both sovereign and judge. But now let’s think a little deeper about what he’s just said. Well, you’ve got this horrible cannibal murderer and he says he wants to be pardoned, but the judge can’t just pardon him.
So the judge decides to torture and kill somebody else. How is that a solution to the problem? Right? He’s going to torture and kill an innocent person instead. This of course makes no sense. This does not work. Do you cannot punishment like this is personal to the offender. You can’t just transfer it. You can’t just say, “Smith committed capital crimes and we were going to execute him, but he died and so we’re going to kill his neighbor instead.” Nope, doesn’t work. That would be immoral, outrageous, insane.
And again, something closer to pagan or demonic than Christian, the idea that the good and loving God, the God who says, “I am love,” is so filled with W rat that he’s going to start torturing an innocent person, his own Son. It doesn’t sit theologically. It’s not just that, oh, it made offends modern sensibilities. This is how it kind of gets caricatured in by penal substitution defenders. It’s like, no, no. It’s like if you understand anything about justice that makes no sense of justice. You can say God’s justice is higher than ours, but God’s justice isn’t lower than ours. And a person who did this is acting in a way lower than even human justice. So that vision that this is somehow consistent with and required by judicial justice doesn’t work as I see it. It more than doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work as I see, it more than doesn’t work, it’s responding to a fake problem that it just ignores, it pardons exist by creating a monstrous problem, which is it imagines God choosing freely to torture and kill the innocent. And if he does that to his own son, why couldn’t he then take the last judgment? Say, “I promised you guys salvation, but I’m going to torture and kill you all instead because in my justice, that’s just what I do.” So it actually undermines any confidence we would have in the goodness of God or in our own salvation. If you believe in a God who has no regard for what we would understand is justice in any way, shape or form.
And so no, God’s justice does not demand this. This is a human invention that misunderstands judges, misunderstands sovereigns and misunderstands God in a profound and frankly scandalous kind of way. Now, R.C. Sproul actually sees some of the problems here and tries to work around them. So I’m going to give you the… Because he creates a hypothetical and says, “Well, you wouldn’t have a mom step in.” But then he tries to figure out how like, “Well, maybe it’s different for God.” And I’ll let you decide if you think there’s any weight to his excuse out of this apparent monstrosity.
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:23:04]
Why is God just to punish Jesus for our sins when doing a similar thing would be so unjust for a human judge to do? Very good question.
When Jesus died, he said, “Father, the hour has come, glorify your son and glorify yourself.” And the father came back and said, “I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” The way to understand Jesus substitutionary death under God’s wrath is that he is doing it in such a way as to glorify, magnify the infinite worth of the glory of God. God’s glory has been trampled by people like us. Every time we prefer something to the glory of God, we demean the glory of God and we do it every day. Since his glory has been impugned and belittled, he has to exalt his glory by punishing sinners and saying, “My glory is infinitely valuable. If you trample my glory, you lose glory and I restore my glory by your losing glory.”
Jesus enters in and he is able to do what no human could do. This is why there’s a difference. No human ever could do this in a court of law. He is so perfect and he suffers so much and his motives are so Godward that when he dies on the cross what his manifest is, look how valuable the glory of God is. If a mom stepped forward in a courtroom and said, “Let me take my son’s place, please?” We all know that would be unjust. She goes to the electric chair and this son goes on to sin more.
Well, the two differences are she’s not doing that to magnify the worth of the state of God, she’s doing it to magnify the worth of her son and that’s not what’s happening at the cross. And number two, she’s freeing the son untransformed to go into the world and sin some more. And those are the very two things that are different about the death of Jesus. Jesus dies not to magnify the sinner’s worth but to magnify God’s worth and he dies and changes those who escape from hell. He doesn’t just release more sin upon the world, he puts the Holy Spirit in our lives and begins to transform us into the image of Christ so that we bring more glory to the Father than if we had been left in our sin.
So as I said, I don’t find that convincing, I don’t actually understand how any of those distinctions would matter. “Oh, it’s for the good of the state or it’s for the good of the law.” None of that would let you torture the innocent or punish the innocent in this way. So I don’t think Sproul actually resolves the problem, but it’s good that he recognizes it, it’s good that he’s recognizing, “Hey, the theology we’re articulating appears to be immoral. The theology we’re articulating appears to make God a moral monster and not the good God that’s presented in the Bible.” I think he resolves it badly, but it’s good that he at least recognizes something about justice seems like we’ve gotten it screwed up in this presentation. So I’m going to move on now to the next problem, the fourth of the six problems I have with this theology, which is that it seems to require Christ’s eternal damnation.
Now, I will say there’s a division, I mentioned there’s a bunch of different forms of penal substitution, and some actually argue for this and some don’t. That Christ goes to hell or Christ doesn’t go to hell. John MacArthur argues that Christ doesn’t go to hell, but he doesn’t really understand why or how that kind of makes sense. The problem is this, if you say Christ suffers our penalties for sin. Okay, what’s our penalty for sin? Eternal separation from God and eternal damnation in hell. Eternal separation from God doesn’t make sense for someone who is both God and man because you’d have to undo the incarnation and tear apart the Trinity, but eternal damnation makes no more sense, right? But that is what you’d have to believe if you believe that Christ bears our consequences for the sins. Because our consequences for the sins are eternal separation from God. So here’s MacArthur trying to explain why he can kind of work around this. And then I’m going to give you some other reformed theologian, his predecessor John Calvin, who thinks that doesn’t work. But here’s MacArthur first.
On the cross, God poured out on his son all the wrath for all the sins of all the people who would ever believe. All the judgment for all the sins of all the people who would ever believe was poured out on Christ. You say, “Wait a minute. As I analyze the cross, there really were only three hours when this took place.” All of that took place in three hours. How is it possible that the sinners of human history will go to hell and be in hell forever and ever, and all of them in hell forever will never pay the price for their sins, but Christ can pay the price in full for all the sins of all who would ever believe in three hours? And the only answer I can give you is because he is an infinite person, he has an infinite capacity to absorb that judgment.
So a couple of things are striking to me about that. First, the vision of Jesus basically is just a receptacle for divine wrath is really offensive to the person of Jesus Christ. And I mean, of course, really offensive to God the Father. But it totally really stands apart from the way we see Jesus’ sacrifice, which is intensely personal, out of love for the Father described in scripture. Now, at this point, bear in mind I’m not laying out a positive vision of the cross yet. That’s the second half of what I’m going to do here. Right now, I’m just saying this is a popular vision of the cross that gets things really dangerously, profoundly wrong in a way that cannot make sense of the Trinity of Christology, of the goodness of God. And that it doesn’t even follow its own logical conclusions because you’ve got, this is my second of three points that I was going to make, MacArthur’s saying, “Well, how could this work in three hours?” And he says, “Well, he’s a divine person, he’s eternal.”
But that doesn’t really make sense. The notion of eternity in hell isn’t we spend eternity in hell and then we’ve paid it all off. It’s God is eternal, hell is not eternal, it’s unending. There’s something different, those two words don’t mean the same thing. I know we use them the same way. And so what does it mean to say Christ does this in three hours and then no longer? In any case good that he recognizes another apparent shortcoming in his system because how would this work in three hours? That doesn’t look like it’s bearing the consequences for our sins. The consequences of our sins are not just bodily death, they’re not just alienation from God in this life, they’re also eternal separation from God after we die. Well, John Calvin recognizes this, and Calvin goes where MacArthur fears to tread. He is commenting on the creed and he says, “Apart from the creed we must seek for sure exposition of Christ’s descent to hell.” Because the Apostles’ Creed said that Christ descends him to hell.
Now, the Apostles’ Creed as an aside does not mean the hell of damnation, but Calvin does not seem to understand this. He says, “Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death.” So you just heard John MacArthur saying, “Good enough, three hours on the cross, that bears the full weight.” And in a penal substitutionary model, Calvin who basically invents penal substitution says, “Nah, that doesn’t work. That’s not going to be good enough. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Wince also, it was necessary that he should engage as it were at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.” Then he goes on to say, “Therefore there’s nothing strange in being said that he descended to hell seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.”
And what is the death inflicted on the wicked by an angry God? According to Calvin, that God sends him to hell. So penal substitution seems like it requires Christ’s damnation to hell. Do you see why that’s a problem? I mean, do you see why this is a very serious christological, theological and moral problem to say first that God is in hell? Because to say that you’d have to say God is in hell, God sends God to hell. What does it even mean to be hell at that point? This is the response that people like von Balthasar. Well, if you say God goes to the hell of suffering, then maybe eternal salvation is a result because how could there still be hell? How could there still be eternal separation from God if God just went there? So actually the bad theology of hell, it would seem like it would lead to universalism.
Also, it’s just monstrous and it just doesn’t make any logical sense. And so you’ve got people who say, “Yes, Jesus did it in three hours on the cross. Or he did it in those three hours plus Holy Saturday, but then on Holy Saturday he was in hell.” But it seems again logically, if you really want to accept penal substitution and say, “Christ bore our penalties,” then you have to say, “Jesus, no, he’s not thrown in heaven, he’s in hell for all eternity.” Because otherwise he’s not bearing our consequences because the consequences of us sinning without any kind of resolution of that problem is eternal separation from God and eternal torment in hell. And that’s not actually where anyone who believes in penal substitution thinks Jesus is. So they don’t actually resolve their problem.
I’m not arguing that any of them think Jesus is still in hell. Thanks be to God. I’m arguing that because of that none of them actually think Jesus bears the full consequence of sin. That’s only a problem if this is your model of the cross. There’s a better model that this wouldn’t be a problem in, but we’ll get to that. But next I want to go to the fifth problem, which is comparatively small. Look, I mean, given the stuff we’ve just talked about, the last two might seem smaller in comparison, but they’re still important. The fifth problem is that Christ’s priesthood is destroyed. So remember the language we’ve just heard that God is executing his son, God is pouring out his wrath on his son. All of this stuff that literally and when I say God is executing his son, that is MacArthur’s language, he says that, “Christ cries out on the cross when God was executing Jesus for all of our sins.”
Now that both seems to make Jesus not God, but also makes the priest of the sacrifice the Father and not the Son. Why is that a problem? Well, it’s a problem because scripture says the opposite. It says, Jesus is our great high priest. And so as we’re going to see there is a better model of the cross in which Jesus is one offering the sacrifice to the Father. But in penal substitution, that’s not the case. Jesus is simply the victim, he’s the vessel of divine wrath, that God the Father is the priest of the sacrifice killing his son. And this is often in really profound ways presented quite explicitly by the people defending it. So John MacArthur actually has a book where he lays this out called fittingly enough, The Murder of Jesus. And he seems to argue that God the Father is the murderer.
Now, he doesn’t think it’s murder, but he thinks that God the Father is the priest of the sacrifice. Now, just a couple words on sacrifice here, because we often don’t use the language of priesthood or sacrifice just to make sure you’re understanding. The person who offers a sacrifice is called a priest. What a priest is, is one who offers sacrifice. And so you can’t understand sacrifice and priesthood apart from each other, they’re corelative terms. A priest is a sacrificer. If you listen to this podcast regularly, I say this all the time, but it’s because it is a really important point that I think people don’t get that when we talk about Christ as our priest, we mean he’s the one who offers the sacrifice and he offers the perfect sacrifice of himself. But in this model, the Father is the one offering the sacrifice.
So here’s John Piper. Now, I don’t have a video for this, this is just an audio clip in which he talks about this in pretty explicit terms, describing the Father basically murdering Jesus. The Father, being the priest of the sacrifice. Now again, this works really nicely in an Aztec model where the priest takes an innocent victim and tortures and kills him and then offers that up, that is a sacrifice. That is not the Christian sacrifice in which Jesus offers himself. But here’s Piper’s description. I don’t know if this is him speaking by the way, but I know he wrote these words, I don’t know if he’s the one saying them or not.
Just as Abraham lifted the knife over the chest of his son, Isaac, but then spared his son because there was a ram in the thicket. So God, the Father lifted his knife over the chest of his own son Jesus, but did not spare him because he was the ram, he was the substitute.
All right. And so the final of the six problems that I want to raise is that the Last Supper is rendered superfluous. And again, these last two certainly look smaller than the first four objections that I raised. Fair enough, I didn’t want to start with the tiny stuff, I wanted to start with the big stuff. But they’re really important if you understand the theology behind the sacrifice. And one of the important aspects here is that the Last Supper is something Jesus is clearly preparing for. He’s eagerly desired to share this meal with the apostles, he tells him all that. But it’s not clear why it’s important that the Last Supper happens, it’s not clear why it’s important that it happens the night before he’s executed. You could just say it’s a nice sendoff, you can say it’s a nice memorial, it’s a nice remembrance of the cross.
But you’ll notice there’s nothing in the theology any of these guys are laying out that explains how there’s any organic unity between the Last Supper and the cross. And that’s a problem because the early Christians solved there was a unity, this period from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday is called Triduum, the three days. And with the numbering, the measure of the three days and three nights, Jesus seems to have in mind that everything begins with the Last Supper and that the Last Supper is really important. That Thursday night, Friday day, Friday night, Saturday day, Saturday night, and then the morning of Easter Sunday, those are your three days and your three nights. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the three days, you don’t have the Triduum. And strangely, some Protestants have noticed this and come up with some weird workarounds.
So Dr. James Dobson, I remember as a kid listening, I believe it was him, it was someone on the Protestant radio station. If this wasn’t Dobson, I apologize. I think it was Dr. Dobson. He suggested maybe the Last Supper was earlier, Tuesday or maybe Christ was executed on a Wednesday or something. He was trying to figure out, how do you get three days out of this? And the answer is because the Last Supper is intimately connected to Good Friday. If you understand the sacrifice, this makes sense if Jesus is the priest of the sacrifice. But if that’s not the case, if this is just about Jesus being the victim and that’s it, you’ve now severed the connection between the Last Supper and Good Friday. Okay, so enough about that. That is why I don’t like all of that system and I did describe it in these pagan terms and you might say, “That seems really strong.”
Well, to that, I would just say, Jesus seems to depict it in even stronger terms. In the Gospel of John, in John Chapter Eight, Jesus says, “You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him. When he speaks, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell you the truth, why do you not believe me?” That Jesus presents this cosmic battle between him and those who would attempt to convict him of sin, those who would attempt to make him bear those kinds of consequences. And he presents that as demonic, of the work of the devil who’s a murderer and a liar.
Because look, to present Jesus as guilty of all the sins throughout all of human history is to present an intentional fiction, it’s a falsehood, it’s to make God a liar and a murderer. It’s to make God into something more like Satan. That’s Jesus’ testimony in John Eight that, no, you don’t convict him of sin. He is without sin, he is the lamb without blemish. And that’s actually what makes the sacrifice of Christ so beautiful and so worthwhile. So with that, what’s a positive vision? So in laying out a positive vision of the cross, maybe the first thing to say is that there are going to be some elements that are the same. So for instance, there is a sense in which we can say God hates sin, there’s a wrath of God for sin. Not for sinners, he clearly loves sinners, he comes to save sinners, but he has a hatred of sin.
And the reason for the hatred of sin is because sin separates us from him, makes us unworthy to be in his presence in a real and profound way. And because he loves us, he hates those things that distort and mangle us. So we want to preserve the element that there is a divine wrath for sin, not in making God a moral monster, but really reflecting the goodness of God. Not goodness like, “Oh, I’m just too pure. I’m too good for this.” But goodness, he loves us and he cares for us and so anything that’s contrary to our good, anything that hurts our relationship with him or with ourselves or with one another, he’s going to hate that. In the same way, a parent hates watching their kids make really damaging, destructive life decisions. But more than that. So preserve divine wrath for sin.
We want to preserve also that there is ascension in which Christ takes our sins upon himself or he takes our sins away or there’s some sense of that. And this is clearly spoken to in the scriptures. And the third thing we want to keep in both systems is this real sense that this is a sacrifice. But the critical difference is this, this is a voluntary self-sacrifice, this is not like the sacrifices that the Aztecs had. The Aztecs didn’t need your consent to do open heart surgery, they were just going to rip your heart out. The victim in those cases, as we’ve just seen, there’s no need for their cooperation or their consent at all, they don’t have to believe in the Aztec religion, they don’t have to be participants at all. And so we don’t want a model of the cross that looks like that because that is not faithful either to the goodness of God or to the scriptural testimony.
Instead, a proper understanding of the cross is one in which Christ gives himself, he is the priest and the victim. But in being the victim, he’s not the victim of the Father’s wrath, rather, he submits himself to all the forces of evil, both in this world and the forces of darkness and he lets them do their worst. And the worst they can do is calvary, the worst they can do is crucify him. And he triumphs. And this act of self-sacrifice is worth more than everything else in the world combined. So think of it, there’s this-
… The world combined. So think of it, there’s this common movie trope of the person throwing themselves in front of the bullet, and this is a trope for a reason because something in that appeals to us at a very visceral kind of human level, but the most profound demonstration of this, the biggest instance of this we’ve seen in a theater wasn’t even on screen. In 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, there was the infamous movie theater shooting. A gunman came in and started shooting up the theater and there were four different men there, Alex, Travis, Matt McQuinn, John Blunk, and John Larimer who threw themselves in front of bullets for their girlfriends or for their dates. That is an incredible act of love that you can look at that and say, no greater love has man than this, than to lay down his life for his friend. That is self-sacrifice.
And, that is very explicitly the kind of sacrifice that we’re dealing with in the New Testament, that Jesus is giving himself totally. He’s laying his life down for us and it’s that act of self-sacrifice that makes it all worthwhile, that those four women and all of us by extension could look at that and say, what profound love, and it’s not we need these four men to die to avenge our wrath or we need… It’s nothing like that, that’s monstrous. It’s rather the person willing to do this for someone else is demonstrating a profundity of love in action, not just in words. That’s the key to the cross. St. Thomas Aquinas puts it like this in the Summa, “He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally or even more than he detested the offense.” Now we can think of this really simply.
If my three-year-old takes a toy from her one-year-old brother, she has the wisdom even now to quickly try to give him another toy. And, if he likes the other toy just as much or better, no problem, everything is okay, he’s not upset with her. There’s atonement, they are at one, which is what atonement means. So there’s no disunity, there’s no conflict. She’s able to avoid the conflict or resolve it by giving him something that he wants even more. And so Aquinas says, “By suffering out of a love and obedience, God gave more…” Excuse me, “Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race.” So, think about the weight of all of our sins put together. Aquinas says, “What Jesus gives the father, this act of self-sacrificial love means more than all of your sins combined.”
That’s how the cross works. Now, notice there’s an interesting feature here. This is not equal to, this is more than. In the penal substitution model where Christ bears are penalty for sin, there’s a certain equality that you’re striving for. This is how much we owed, and so the father is going to take that pound of flesh out of his son, he’s going to torture Jesus for this much time to make up for the amount of time he would’ve tortured us. And, despite the fact that it doesn’t make a ton of sense why three hours on the cross is the right quantity for that, Aquinas would say that’s not even what we’re looking for. The New Testament model isn’t Jesus gives the bare minimum due. No, the New Testament model is Jesus gives more, infinitely more. Where sin abounded grace abounds all the more that there’s an excessiveness to Christ’s self-sacrifice, that this is not just equal to all of our sins, this is greater than all of our sins.
And, he’s going to say this is true in a couple ways. First, because of his exceeding charity from which he suffered. Secondly, on account of the dignity of his entire life and that his whole life is a life of self-sacrifice and of obedience to the father, and third on kind of the extent of the sufferings, so you’ve got the extreme charity, you’ve got the lifelong obedience and love, and you’ve got the extreme kind of suffering. And so, he says Christ’s passion was not only a sufficient, but a super abundant atonement for the sins of the human race. And then he quotes 1 John 2:2, “That he’s a propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” And, this is actually a really important thing for a lot of reasons we’re not going to get into.
The same guys I’ve been quoting from think that Jesus’ cross only extends to the elect, and this is a view of limited atonement. So, it’s a very small cross and Aquinas is saying, “Nope, it’s bigger. It’s much, much bigger,” and scripture even speaks being much bigger for the whole world. And more than that, that graces are one for us on the cross, that there’s a whole theology here that this is not just paying the bare minimum mode. So, hopefully you can see how there are some surface level similarities, but this is a major difference, it’s self-sacrifice here, the father is not the villain. He’s not a moral monster. The father instead is pleased with his son because his son is doing something tremendously and profoundly beautiful and charitable and selfless. He is living the perfect life, and so Aquinas is actually going to argue this explains another problem. Remember earlier I said, well, why doesn’t God just forgive our sins?
The king can pardon sins without any further problem. He could just say, “Eh, don’t worry about it.” He could shrug off the sin, but he doesn’t do that. And, why not? Aquinas gives five reasons. He says, “First, so that we can know how much God loves us and thereby be stirred to love him in return,” and this is the perfection of human salvation. Not just, “Oh, I’m going to avoid hell, but I actually love God and I’m conformed to Christ.” And so, he quotes Romans five verse eight, “That God commended his charity toward us for yet we were sinners, Christ died for us.” That is God is showing us his love through this. Now notice in the penal substitution model, it is not clear how God the father is showing us love. It looks like he’s showing us his wrath, a wrath so misguided that he’ll place it on the innocent.
But Aquinas is saying, “No, in this view that God sins Jesus to demonstrate love for us of a kind that really takes our breath away,” that actually shows us something of divine love, that God doesn’t just abide in us in our sins. Second, that this gives us a model of obedience, humility, constancy, justice and the like. And here, Aquinas quotes 1 Peter 2:21, “Christ also suffered for us leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Now, we’re going to cover this in him in a little bit, but this is an important detail because in the penal substitution model, it seems that Christ suffered, so I don’t have to, but if you read anything in the New Testament, you realize that it’s constantly take up your cross. Christ suffered and now it’s your turn, and that doesn’t make sense in the penal substitution model, but it does if Christ is performing the perfect act of self-sacrifice and then inviting us to cooperate with our own imperfect acts of self-sacrifice, which he empowers by his grace.
Third, Christ by his passion delivers us from sin, sure, but he also merits justifying grace for us in the glory of bliss, that it’s more than just the avoidance of hell. He is meriting for us glory in heaven because you can imagine, okay, well, the debt of sin is paid, but there’s no reason we thereby automatically earn eternal glory in heaven, and if we do earn eternal glory in heaven, what level do we enjoy or what tier are we at? None of that makes a ton of sense from the penal substitution model, but if Christ is paying over and above, you can see how that excessive payment means that not only do we avoid hell, but we’re actually meriting through his merits heaven. Fourth, as a way of discouraging us from sin. And here he quotes Saint Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:20, “That you were bought with a great price, glorify and bear God in your body.”
And fifth, and this is what I want to actually focus on because it resounds to man’s greater dignity, and the idea is really simple, that sin comes into the world because of man. Adam and Eve freely choose to sin. They were overcoming deceived by the devil, and God decides that he’s going to not abandon us, but save us. Good, we’ve already covered that, but he’s not just going to save us in spite of us. He’s going to save us through us. Meaning that God the son becomes one of us, he becomes a true man. This is a really important detail because you can imagine him saying, “Okay, humans screw up everything, so here’s this plan of salvation and we’re going to work around humans.” There’s some way we can accomplish this and we’re going to do it for them, but we’re not going to let them have any part in it at all because everything they touch, they screw up.
But, instead he allows us to be part of the victory. And so here, Aquinas quotes St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15, “Thanks be to God who has given us a victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” that he’s given us the victory. He’s let us be part of the winning team. And so, the team imagery I think is a good one. You can imagine a team acquiring an amazing player. I’m a Chief fan, we’ve got Mahomes, so we know what it’s like for other members of the team they’re maybe good, maybe not good to be carried along by true greatness. There’s something like that here, that Christ joins the human team and then is an all-star and in fact is the perfect player. He performs this perfectly. So, because we’ve been united, then we’re part of his team, his victory is our victory. That’s the idea.
So, notice this actually solves another problem that we didn’t even talk about with penal substitution. It’s not clear how Christ’s merits get applied to us. How is this substitutionary atonement being made? How and why? In what way does this old switcharoo happen? Because remember, the penal substitution model is built on a lie. It’s built on a lie called imputation that God declares Jesus who is innocent, guilty and declares us who are guilty, innocent. Now, that may sound like a mean mischaracterization. So, I’m going to quote John MacArthur or let him actually speak on it for himself.
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He lived a complete sinless life that is credited to your account. On the cross, God looked at Christ and saw you. Now, he looks at you and sees Christ, your sin imputed to him, his righteousness imputed to you.
Now, it’s important to know that imputation in this sense is a novel idea in the 16th century. So Alister McGrath, the Calvinist historian, acknowledges it. He says it’s in discontinuity with everything that’s come before it, and he calls it a theological nova, a novelty of the 16th century. This legal idea that God declares the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent, that’s what’s new to the Reformation. The idea that God takes the ungodly and saves him and makes him godly, that’s the old view, but when God declares us righteous, he actually makes us righteous. Trent Horn, my colleague at Catholic Answers, had a really good example of this. He said, “When God says, let there be light, it doesn’t just continue to be dark, and then they just put the label light on it.” Well, likewise, the imputational model is just God putting the label guilty and innocent on the wrong people and that’s a lie.
It’d be no different than calling a man a woman or a woman a man, but we would never do that, obviously, but that’s the idea. You can’t just mislabel somebody and have that be your theology, but that is how imputation works. So, notice that’s not how Aquinas’ model of the cross works. This is not how the historic Christian model of the cross works. This is not how Catholics understand the cross, an involuntary self-sacrifice. It’s not let’s mislabel Jesus and sinners. No, Jesus actually joins the human team, truly, not just having the label man slapped on him, he actually becomes man. The word became flesh. And so, we can actually say a man offered the perfect sacrifice to Christ. That yes, man sinned, yes, we have a pretty bumpy history along the way, but also look at this one really great man who lived and all of that’s true.
It’s not a lie because of the incarnation and that redeems the human race, that for all of the lousy stuff we do, we’ve got this one bright shining man, this son of Adam, this son of Mary who does the greatest thing in human history, the greatest thing in all of history, not just human history. That’s worth more than anything any angel has ever done. It’s worth more than anything any other man has ever done. That is our redemption, that’s the idea, and it’s this voluntary act of self-sacrifice. So, hopefully that makes sense and hopefully you can see how it preserves all of the things that the penal substitution model’s trying for and I think reasonably trying for, making sure we realize God doesn’t like sin, all that, but it does so without making God a moral monster and it does so in a way with more faithful to scripture and that I think he’s correct.
And when you hear it, it’s hard to see why one would prefer the penal substitution model over the model that came before because it seems like there’s some obvious advantages. Let’s explore a few of those advantages. So first of all, it makes sense of the debt language in scripture. Now, this is a subtle detail, but maybe an important one. Remember the example of, “Oh, you can’t just punish an innocent person,” but maybe you could if it was for the glory of the law and all this weird stuff that you heard from Sproul and MacArthur earlier. Well, all of that is presupposing that the judicial dimension of sin is something like a jail term or capital punishment or something like that, but that’s not actually the language scripture uses to describe it. Instead, scripture uses the language of a debt.
And, why does that matter? Because you can pay somebody else’s debt and you’re not being punished when you do that. You’re voluntarily choosing to alleviate someone else’s punishment. So, if your neighbor gets into some trouble with the law and they owe a parking ticket or something, you can say, “Yeah, I’ll pay that.” You can’t serve a prison sentence for them, but you can pay a fine for them, you can pay a debt. And so notice, this is pretty obvious, but it’s pretty significant that scripture speaks of this in debt language. And so you have in Matthew 18, Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, how often shall my brothers sin against me and I forgive him as many as seven times?” Jesus says, “Not seven, but 70 times seven,” or other variations, 70 times 77 and he says, “Therefore…”
This is the next verse, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” And so, one of the servants owes the king 10,000 talents and he can’t pay, so he falls on his knees and he says, “Lord, have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” And Jesus says, “Out of pity for him, the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Now notice there, the king can do that. He doesn’t say, “And then the king, because he didn’t serve the law which was somehow higher than the king, was bounced out of the… He could no longer be a judge or a king.” No, none of that happened. Sproul and MacArthur, and these guys are totally wrong about that. No, the king can freely forgive, but what he’s freely forgiving is a debt. Now in this case, the man who’s forgiven the large amount doesn’t forgive his neighbor a small amount.
And so, he’s brought back to the king, and the king unforgives him and says, “You wicked servant. I forgave you all that debt because he besot me. And, should you not have had mercy in your fellow servant as I had mercy on you? And in anger, his lord delivered him to the jailers till he should pay all his debt. So, also my heavenly father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” This is a pretty critical passage to explain how salvation works and how forgiveness of sins works because this is exactly what Jesus is speaking about. It’s like a debt, and it’s a debt we cannot pay off. Jesus can pay it off. He can also freely forgive it. He also expects us to forgive others if this is going to happen. So note, I’m going to unpack it more than that because I think it’s pretty clear.
Think about whether the model sola fide, where you’re unconditionally justified, you don’t actually have to forgive others their debts to you, how does that fit with forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors? How does that fit with Matthew 18? How does that fit with this entire model? But, because the focus here is on the efficacy of the cross, my point is really simple, that sin is being compared here to a debt and Christ can overpay that debt. If you run up a $100 bar tab or something and your friend goes in and says, “Here’s $500,” they can do that, they can overpay. They’re allowed to do that. It’s not, “I need to punish your friend.” No, it’s not that at all, but they could say, “Hey, I want to make things right. Here’s something for your troubles,” that’s a super abundance to it.
Second, the model that Aquinas describes makes better sense of Old Testament sacrifices. Now, what do I mean by that? That the reformers don’t understand Old Testament sacrifices. They’re imagining that they work something like the Aztec sacrifices do, and they just don’t, that Old Testament sacrifices have a particular kind of theology to them that most Christians are unaware of. And, I’m going to give you just one example. In Exodus 24, there’s the inauguration of the first law of the covenant. So, when Hebrews talks about this, when it talks about how without the shedding of blood, there’s no forgiveness of sins, it points to this passage and it connects it pretty explicitly between this passage and then the last supper in the cross. And so in Exodus 24, Moses gets up early, builds an altar, and he brings Israel together. They sacrifice peace offerings of oxen to the Lord.
And, then Moses took half of the blood and he throws it on the altar, and then he takes the book of the covenant, reads it to the people, they say, “All the Lord has spoken we’ll do and we’ll be obedient.” And, then he takes the other half of the blood and he throws it on the people. And he says, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance of all these words.” Now, that language should recall the last supper, the behold the blood of the covenant language because this is very similar to what Jesus says the last supper. And so we should be asking, “What on earth is going on here? Why is Moses flinging blood on people and on the altar?” And for a long time, many Protestant theologians had a vision that it was a threat, that he’s putting the blood saying, “If you don’t do this, you will die.”
And the problem with that is, well, then why would he put blood on the altar? And so, G. Henton Davies, who’s an Old Testament scholar, explains that this misunderstands it, that actually this is a sharing in life, not in death, that both partners, divine and human, are joined and united so far as the matter in hand is concerned, the giving and accepting of the words of the Lord and the blood of the animals which have been slaughtered. So, in giving and accepting of the law of the Lord, the people stand over and against each other’s contracted partners. You do this, I do that. In the blood ritual, they now become organically related and become united. He says, “This is the sacramental atonement of the covenant relationship,” that there’s a sharing in the blood. So, if you want a really clear image of what this looks like, if you ever were like blood brothers, this is always a weird example, but you’re a kid and you’re friends with somebody and you’re like, “I’ll cut my hand, you cut your hand, we’ll put the blood together.”
If you’ve never heard of this and you think I’m a crazy person, trust me, other people have done this. I might be a crazy person, not for this. That’s not a threat. You’re not saying be friends with me or I’ll murder you. No, there’s this recognition that blood is sacred, that blood is life. And so in sharing in this, you’re sharing in the deepest part of yourself, that you are expressing through blood something that you really couldn’t express any other way. You can spit on your hands and shake, it just isn’t the same. That blood really speaks to something visceral, so to speak, pun intended there, and scripture speaks to this. In Leviticus 17, it says, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” This is why the Jews couldn’t eat animal blood because it was like a communion with the animal.
And so he says, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I’ve given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life.” The sacrificial system in Israel is not about a bloodthirsty God who just wants death, death, death. No, the blood is an image of life. It’s his sacred expression, and since God and man are forming a covenant, God can’t just cut his wrist and then put it to man’s hand and shake on it. And so, you take an animal blood and you take an animal and you put half the blood on the altar representing God’s half the blood on the people representing their half. It’s a sharing in the blood. I said God can’t just cut his hands, but in the incarnation, he can.
When Jesus becomes man, now he has hands that can bleed and they do on the cross. And so, you have the fulfillment of all of these bloody sacrifices in Christ, but again, it’s not about a bloodthirsty God. This is like being blood brothers with Jesus Christ. We already shared in the blood with him in one sense, through common humanity. We now share in a much more profound sense, that he can put the blood both on the altar and on the people. That’s the idea, that there’s something really profound about this, that if you understand the Old Testament sacrificial system, then you can see that this model, Jesus voluntarily giving himself to God, laying down his life freely, this is not about Jesus being the object of wrath. This is about Jesus being the perfect man and God because that leads to the third advantage, which is that the father is clearly pleased with the son’s sacrifice. This feels like it should be an obvious detail.
…really pleased with the one’s sacrifice. This feels like it should be an obvious detail. But when all of these accounts of penal substitution envision the Father turning away from the son and turning his back on the son, this ignores and screws up the biblical account pretty profoundly. Give you one example of a passage that gets misused pretty regularly. In 2 Corinthians 5, we’re told to be ambassadors for Christ and to be reconciled to God. Paul says, for our sake, he made him to be sin, amartia, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As you might imagine, reformed theologians have a field day with this passage, but there’s a problem.
To say that Jesus becomes sin, that’s not actually what they believe, right? They believe Jesus is treated as the most sinful man who ever lived, but they don’t think he’s actually sin. Even in the reformed vision, the penal substitution vision, it’s not clear how you make sense of this passage because they’re not saying Christ became a sinner or Christ, although not a sinner, was treated as a sinner. No, it says became sin. What is going on here? Well, good news, there’s an explanation. But as with the last point, you have to know something about the Old Testament. You have to know something about the Jewish system, the Jewish background.
In other words, you have to read this like a first century Jew and not like a 16th century Protestant. A first century Jew would know that the word for sin in Hebrew has a double meaning. It means both sin and sin offering. I’m a nerd. This is called an auto-antonym or a contronym. I love these things. Like cleave can mean either to separate or to join together. You meat cleaver, separates. You cleave to your wife, you join together. You dust a cake, you’re adding dust. You dust the room, you remove dust. These words, depending on the context, could mean one thing or the polar opposite. Oversight could mean you’re watching something or you’re not watching something.
Oh, it was an oversight. There wasn’t an oversight because I had good oversight. Those things just contextually you have to make sense of them. Why does that matter? Because amartia is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word for both sin and sin offering in the Old Testament. In Hebrews, for instance, in the New Testament, when it refers to sin offerings, it just says peri amartias, just four sins. There’s no actual word for offerings, but we know it’s not actually talking about sins being offered to God. It’s talking about offerings for sins being offered to God. We add the word offerings in English to make it make sense. Why does it matter?
Because in saying that Christ becomes amartia, it could mean that Christ becomes sin. That doesn’t make sense, but it could mean that. It could also mean, and contextually clearly does mean, that Christ becomes our sin offering, that he’s a sacrifice for sin. Why does that matter? Well, because the offering from sin was treated as most holy. Leviticus 6 says that. The offering from sin isn’t something the Lord is disgusted by. He doesn’t look at the offering for sin and say, “Oh, that reminds me of sin. Ugh, I’m horrified by that. I have to turn away from it.” No, it’s completely the opposite of that. It’s described as a fragrant odor.
The Father is pleased of the son’s sacrifice, and we see this in John 10 very explicitly. Jesus says, “For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I make take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Notice that. The Father is not just murdering me. This is a voluntary self-sacrifice and it makes the Father happy. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This charge I’ve received from my Father. For this reason, he says, my Father loves me, not hates me, not pours out his wrath on me, loves me. That he loves him on the cross.
Theologians who are of the penal substitution variety like to point to Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And they miss the very next line where Jesus says, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” That even as he’s experiencing all the emotions of abandonment, he knows he’s not actually abandoned, and he’s quoting a psalm in which the psalmist is vindicated. He’s quoting a psalm in which the psalmist foresees someone being crucified and vindicated by God. He’s not actually despairing of God, he’s not actually abandoned by God, but he feels the profundity of abandonment.
That at a human level, he feels the full weight of this. That is a mystery. I would recommend, actually Father Thomas Joseph White has a fantastic article on this explaining theologically, well, how do we make sense of all of that in a way that’s respectful of the incarnation of the Trinity and of Jesus having the beatific vision? That Jesus always enjoys the vision. Even in his humanity, he enjoys the vision of God. You can’t say he didn’t without doing some real disservice to the incarnation. Even on the cross, he’s still enjoying the full vision of the Father while experiencing this profound sufferance, profound pain.
He can cry out in these words that sound like he’s just been totally abandoned to God, and yet he can still abandon himself to God. Notice another auto-antonym there. He can give himself entirely to the Father and say, “Father into your hands, I commit my spirit.” He can say that in doing this, the Father loves him, doesn’t hate him, doesn’t pour his wrath upon him, loves him. I mentioned this was pleasing to God, sacrificially, right? Remember the sin offering. Ephesians 5 describes Jesus as having loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Now, obviously that fragrant offering language is a little metaphorical.
St. Paul’s not just saying Jesus smelled nice. No. He’s referring to the fact that pleasing sacrifices were described this way. For instance, in Genesis 8, Noah offers burnt offerings and says when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, he said in his heart, “I’ll never again curse to ground.” That idea, right? This is a pleasing and acceptable sacrifice. That’s what it means for him to be a fragrant offering. That is very, very different from the penal substitution model. That the Father is not turning away from the son. The Father is enjoying not the son’s suffering, but the son’s radical self-sacrifice.
The way that we don’t enjoy the fact that four men got murdered in a movie theater, but we are profoundly moved by the fact that they were willing to do it. We can look at that and say, “That is good.” Again, not that they got murdered, but that they were willing to be murdered. So too, Good Friday is good. Not that Jesus was murdered, but that he was willing to be murdered, that he was willing to go all the way to the cross for us. That is what makes Good Friday good. Not the Romans, not the people who nailed him to the cross, but Jesus and his self-sacrifice. St. Peter in 1 Peter 1:18-19 describes how we were ransomed.
Now, perishable things such as silver or gold, the precious blood of Christ like that of a lamb without blemish or spot, and that spotless lamb imagery is actually used pretty repeatedly. This is pretty significant because the motif that a lot of penal substitution model looks to is the notion of the scapegoat. Without getting into the whole thing with the scapegoat, it’s probably just worth pointing out that’s not the motif, the sacrificial motif that the New Testament uses. It uses the lamb of God, this lamb that’s pleasing and is perfect. It is without blemish. It is without spot that Christ sacrifices one of the perfect gift to the Father that the Father accepts with love.
Hopefully that’s clear. Hopefully it’s clear why that’s really radically opposed to the penal substitution kind of model. But the fourth advantage, this makes the New Testament story properly about love and obedience, not divine violence. In the penal substitution model, you have the Father so outraged with sin, he needs to beat up somebody and he beats up his own son. That is a story strangely absent from the pages of the New Testament. Instead, Aquinas shows this is a story of love and obedience. That yeah, we didn’t love God like we should. Yeah, we disobeyed God. But then a man came and he loved God perfectly and he obeyed God perfectly, because he was fully God, fully man.
This comports with what everything the Old and New Testament says about the connection between love and obedience and sacrifice. 1 Samuel 15, for instance, Samuel the prophet says, “Well, has the Lord as great delight and burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice and to harken than the fat of rams.” That’s a critical line that we need to understand. The highest sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. You can give God all of your stuff. You can sacrifice animals to him. You can give up all your possessions. But if you’re not willing to actually obey him, if you’re not willing to actually listen to him, all of that counts for nothing.
Well, so here with the penal substitution model, we just need somebody to where you can offer the blood for. Oh, okay, good. We’ve found an infinite person. We can put him on the cross and then his blood will be good enough. And that’s not actually the biblical model at all. No, there’s something higher than self-sacrifice, or excuse me, than animal sacrifice. There’s the sacrifice of obedience, this self-sacrifice where you say, “I’m going to do what God wants me to do.” Christ offers that higher sacrifice on the cross, and it’s a sacrifice of obedience. Obedience is weirdly lacking in the penal substitution model.
There’s no requirement for obedience. You can have an entire two-hour talk on penal substitution without any reference to Christ being a voluntary participant or obeying the Father or anything like that. And that is profoundly unbiblical. Next, in Romans 5, St. Paul points out this same thing. That as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, Adam, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal in life for all men, right? The human race got us into this mess, and the human race got us out of this. One man, Adam, got us into this. One man, Jesus, got us out of it. For as by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience, many will be made righteous.
That this is about a human obeying God perfectly, infinitely, because he’s both divine and human. It matters, in Romans 5, this is a man. That’s literally the point. But that point was, I think, lost in other models of the cross. Earlier in Romans 5, I already alluded to this passage, Paul says, “While we were yet helpless at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” The one who’ll hardly die for a righteous man. No, perhaps for a good man, one will dare even to die, but God shows his love for us. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. This is about self-sacrifice. This is about obedience. This is about love.
And that fully explains how the cross works without any recourse to God needed somebody to kill, God needed somebody to hurt. There’s none of that. None of that is required, because none of that is true. All right, fifth, it leaves room for our crosses. Now, this is a quick point, but it’s worth contemplating. Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Well, how does that make sense? I thought the whole point was Jesus died on the cross so I don’t have to die. He bore my penalty, right? Well, it turns out that isn’t true. Jesus dies on the cross and I now have to take up my cross and follow him.
He was a pleasing sacrifice to the Father, and now I need to be a sacrifice to the Father as well. 2 Corinthians 2, that we are the aroma of Christ to God, right? We are now to be that burnt offering that’s pleasing to God. By having these acts of self-sacrifice in our life, we are now united to Christ’s perfect sacrifice, that our imperfect sacrifices are united to his perfect one. He isn’t doing this to take away our need to do this. He’s doing this to make possible our offering something to the Father that’s worth something. This is really profoundly expressed in Colossians 1:24. “I rejoice,” St. Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.
And in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body,” that is the church. You read that and you to think, what in the world? The penal substitutionary model told me Christ bore all this so I didn’t have to do anything. Now, you’re telling me something’s lacking and it’s my suffering? Surprise? Well, that’s because the penal substitutionary model is wrong. That Christ offers this perfect offering of love and obedience, and that makes it possible for us to be united with him and offering our own acts of sacrifice, of suffering, of love and obedience. Notice this suffering is connected with the suffering of Christ on the cross.
No, our afflictions and Christ’s afflictions are combined. Why do I point this out? This is an obvious point. But when we suffer, we don’t say God is pouring out his wrath on us. No, we say the ones he loves he disciplines or that Christ permits us to suffer for our own glorification or anything like this. We don’t just say Christ is pouring out his, or excuse me, that God is pouring out his wrath upon us. If that’s not true of our afflictions, our afflictions are this echo and connection to Christ’s affliction, then maybe that’s a bad model for Christ’s affliction as well, right?
If your understanding if Christ affliction makes our afflictions incomprehensible and it doesn’t make sense why we should suffer, well, that’s a bad model of the cross. But if instead, Jesus pays for everything so we can then be united with him and making these payments to the Father, because we’re not just trying to pay off a debt, we’re actually doing over and above, ll, it makes sense then, and that our sufferings are worth something. They actually win graces for others. Remember, Aquinas was talking earlier about how this isn’t just enough to save us from the grave, but this is winning glory for us.
Well, likewise, we can be part of this winning glory process. We can make up in our own flesh what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, the church. We can win glory for our brothers just as Christ won glory for his brothers. That’s a profound theology, and it really deserves more time and attention than I just gave it. I would just say now, if that all sounds totally alien to you, and if Colossians 1:24 sounds bizarre to you, that should be a red flag, right? Catholics and Orthodox can look at these things and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this makes sense with our theology. We can offer these things up.”
For others, Catholics, it’s like a really overused phrase. When you’re suffering, you just say, offer it up. You make this little priestly sacrifice in your own life, connecting your sacrifice with Christ’s sacrifice. All that makes sense. It makes sense why we’re offering to God this sacrifice of praise and the sacrifices in our own bodies, our spiritual worship, all of that works, that Christ, the high priest, has a whole slew of priests with him, all of us. And that leads to the sixth and final advantage of this system, which is this squarely leaves Christ as the high priest. And by the way, it shows us why the Last Supper matters.
Hebrews 2 makes the obvious point that Jesus had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make expiration for the sins of the people. Now, this is an important detail, that Christ is the priest of the sacrifice. I’ve mentioned this several times now, too many times now. Why does this matter? Because if the Father turns his face away from Jesus on the cross, he’s turning his face away from the one offering the sacrifice, as well as from the sacrifice. That’s a rejected sacrifice. And then the cross is rejected, we all die in our sins.
We have no hope. But in fact, the New Testament model is the opposite of that, that Christ is our high priest, and he makes this pleasing sacrifice of himself to the Father. I quoted John 10 earlier, but notice he uses high priestly language. He says, “I lay down my life for this sheep. For this reason, the Father loves me because I lay down my life.” Let me take it up again. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down in my own accord.” That is all priestly language. But this leads to an important question, where does he do this? Where does the high priest offer himself? Where does he present it himself as an offering to the Father?
Well, we have clear biblical evidence. It’s at the Last Supper. He says, “Eat. This is my body,” and then he takes the chalice and he says, “Drink of it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He’s explicitly saying, “I’m giving you my body. I’m giving you my blood, and I want my blood to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” That he is uniting himself to us, not just in our common humanity, but even more profoundly in this communion in the Last Supper. And that is the action in which he is sacrificing himself to the Father. Now, you can see why Triduum is three days.
The sacrifice begins here. Now, here I’m going to just explain very briefly if I can the way the Old Testament sacrifices worked with the Passover. With the Passover, you have two events. You’ve got what’s called preparation day, you kill the lamb. And then you’ve got the Passover meal. It’s the following day on the Jewish calendar. We would say it’s at night. And then you eat the lamb. Now, this is really critical. You shed the lamb’s blood on preparation day and you eat the lamb on Passover. And on eating the lamb, that sacrifice becomes applied to you. Because I could go to the temple and kill a lamb.
Well, who is that for? Well, how do I know, right? This is a penal substitutionary problem I tried to highlight before. Okay, Christ die on the cross. Who is that for and how do we know? How does one become a participant in that sacrificial offering? Well, there are actual ways you become a participant in this sacrificial offering. One of the most common ones is to eat the sacrifice. In the Passover, when you have two modes, you smear the blood on the doorposts and you eat the sacrifice. What is all of that prefiguring? Preparation day is a prefigurement for Good Friday. John, in his gospel, describes Good Friday as preparation day, and the blood of Christ smeared on the wood of the cross.
But we still need to eat the sacrifice to be united with this sacrifice, and that’s what we do at the Last Supper and at every mass since. I know this was a super long episode and I apologize for that, but I didn’t want to do a disservice to the cross. I didn’t want to do a disservice to the theology of the cross, because I think it’s important that we understand there’s some really big differences between thinking the cross as like an Aztec sacrifice or thinking of the cross as like a Jewish sacrifice, because those are a world apart. As a Jewish sacrifice, Christ is both the high priest and the victim. This is a voluntary sacrifice.
This is a sacrifice not of divine wrath, but of divine love. The Father is showing us his love, not his hatred. And that Christ is showing us his love for us, that he laid down his life for his friends. This is good news. This is the greatest news. This is the best news that ever existed. I hope you take solace from this. I hope this helps you to make sense of Holy Thursday. That’s what you’re going to celebrate tonight of Good Friday and of just a Christian life more broadly. Thank you guys so much and God bless you.
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:09:04]
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PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:29:33]