I want to spend a few moments on why the penal substitution of Christ is the only possible ground of human happiness. My point is not to defend the doctrine here — that has been ably done by others — but rather to show one of the many glorious outworkings of the doctrine. In our life together, whether that life is being lived in family, church, or town, the substitutionary death of Jesus is the only thing that can keep us from becoming scolds who are impossible to live with.
This is what I mean, and I will use marriage for my example. Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). Now, whatever it is we believe that He did there, that is what we are going to imitate.
Unless you believe that at the heart of the atonement we find a complete identification of Christ with His people, then what you will imitate is that same failure to identify. But if you understand that the cross was the place where God went “all in,” then your love for your wife and family will likewise be all in.
If Jesus was just setting an example, or just doing some other thing external to us, then our imitation of this will tend toward the bossy and censorious. How many moral examples are crushing examples? How many things done for us, outside of us, designed to make us grateful, are actually burdens that are being tied on our backs by Pharisees? But Christ’s example and Christ’s gifts to us are not like that at all. They are true liberation. Why? Because He died in our place, and only because He died in our place.
If we take that away, then morality ceases to be liberation, and becomes what little we learn in lectures full of scolding and hectoring, and finger pointing. It becomes the kind of righteousness that the devil loves to go on about.
We are never exercising biblical authority over others unless we are identifying with them as we do so. In order to identify this way, we need an example — because we don’t think this way naturally. To use Chesterton’s image, we tend to bestow honor by pinning a cross on a hero, while God did it by pinning a hero on a cross.
And unless our sins were pinned there with him, we have no hope in our lives together. No hope at all.