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How NOT to Understand the Cross

Joe Heschmeyer

When we talk about “celebrating” Good Friday, or call it “good,” what are we celebrating, exactly? Many Protestants believe the Cross works via a process called “penal substitution.” There are different forms of that theory, but one popular version goes something like this: God is wrathful about our sin, and He needs to vent that wrath on someone. According to the theory’s defenders, if God doesn’t pour out His wrath on someone, then He’d be unjust. Since somebody must get punished, Jesus steps in to be punished in our place. But there are a lot of problems with this theory.

For starters, it begins from a false premise: that God was incapable of freely forgiving our sins. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that “God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe,” and so, “if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly.”

But even if you granted that premise, the “penal substitution” solution doesn’t work. After all, this “preserves” the justice of God by saying (in essence), “No, He doesn’t let the guilty go free! He lets the guilty go free and punishes the innocent!” That’s . . . not a solution. If that sounds like a caricature of the position, here’s how the popular Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) explained it in his own words:

The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen in the Cross. If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the Cross. Here is where our astonishment should be focused. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be directed at Golgotha.

So according to Sproul and others, God is good and just because He violently and wrathfully punished His innocent Son. John MacArthur describes the wrath inflicted on the innocent Christ this way:

And the level of divine wrath is staggering because our Lord will embrace eternities of wrath. Eternities of divine punishment. […] I mean that for every sinner for whom He died, He took that sinner’s eternal wrath. For the millions of sinners for whom He died, He took a million eternities full of wrath. And He was wholly harmless and undefiled and separate from sinners, and how could this be?

This isn’t just an affront to the Christian concept of “goodness” or justice,” it’s also theologically incoherent. In talking about pouring “divine wrath” upon the Son, or God being unable to even look at Jesus as he stood as “sin-bearer,” you inevitably end up pitting the First Person of the Trinity against the Second Person of the Trinity, and/or pitting Jesus’ divinity against his humanity. This is bad Trinitarian theology and bad Christology. It ends with folks like MacArthur presenting the Cross as some kind of “breach” in the eternal (and unbreakable) Trinitarian communion:

There is no breach in that relationship.  There is no separation.  From eternity to eternity, through time in the middle, when Jesus was incarnate, there never was a break in communication with the Father except for 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.

For these and many other reasons, the Reformed notion of penal substitution is a heterodox misreading of the Bible, and a bastardization of the Cross.

But if that’s how we shouldn’t understand the Cross, how should we? That’s the subject of my most recent episode of Shameless Popery.

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