Glancing around the Internet, I have recently noticed higher levels of interest than usual in the doctrine of penal substitution, and thought it might be worthwhile to set down a few basic principles concerning the doctrine. So here they are:
1. Penal substitution defined is the doctrine that the salvation of God’s people is secured through a propitiatory blood sacrifice that He provided for us, doing this through the death of Jesus on the cross. The holy wrath of an infinitely perfect God was propitiated in the death of Jesus Christ on that cross. We are saved from the wrath of God by the love of God as these two attributes of God collided in the agony of Jesus Christ. In that collision, the wrath was satisfied, and the love entered into resurrection joy. The wrath was punctiliar and the love is everlasting.
2. Penal substitution is human sacrifice, and is a scandal. Nothing whatever can be done about this, and it is sinful to try to undo or fix the scandalous aspects of it. God made it scandalous on purpose, in order to keep our number of refined theologians to a minimum.
3. Penal substitution can be badly represented by its friends. As with the Trinity, Sunday School illustrations of the doctrine can be dangerous. With the Trinity, the illustrations, if followed out, land us in the midst of various trinitarian heresies (e.g. ice, liquid, steam is modalism, etc.) But with illustrations of the atonement, the logic of them, if followed out, frequently will land us in heretical atrocities. The cross is a scandal, but not every scandal is the cross. If the illustration is using someone as a Christ figure who is not readily identifiable as an Adam, then it is an inadequate illustration.
4. Penal substitution requires a covenantal anthropology, which brings with it issues of identification, headship. representation, solidarity, and imputation. If someone has an individualistic anthropology, the atonement of Christ will seem to him absurd or grotesque, or both. Dismissal of the atonement as absurd or grotesque is usually a fair tell that someone is in the grip of individualism.
5. Penal substitution can be instinctively understood in distorted and appalling ways by unbelievers, who then try to provide their own propitiatory sacrifices. The substitutionary sacrifice of Christ is the answer to and refutation of all such sacrifices, not a crowning example of one. The cruelty of the Aztecs, for example, is a simultaneous testimony to the depravity of man, as well as to the deep instinctive knowledge we have that something must be done, and that this something must be bloody. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis shrewdly contrasts the grim priest of Ungit, crusted with blood and holiness, with the Fox, who was the advocate of cool rationalism — the kind of cool rationalism that never saw a sin forgiven or a soul saved.
6. Preaching Christ crucified is a mortal offense to the natural man. The Greeks think it is stupid and the Jews think it is offensive, and so we think it is a good way to identify natural men.
7. The doctrine is as clear and simple as the truth (1 Cor. 1:18-23; Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:22; Lev. 8:19; Rom. 5:12,15; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 10:19; 1 Jn. 1:7; Rev. 1:5; Rev. 5:9). In Jesus Christ we received the fullness of the wrath of God, and in Jesus Christ we receive the fullness of God’s pleasure in His well-beloved Son. This exchange, this glorious transaction, occurred on the Mercy Seat in the Great Heaven, between the cherubim, and it is a mercy covered in blood. Trying to clean the blood off does us no favors at all.