One of the awkward questions that we may be asked when we present the gospel is 'how can a loving God send people to hell?' The Bible doesn't struggle with that question the way we do. In fact the Bible aims to answer a different question. 'How can a holy God not send people to hell?'
You won't get far in reading the Bible before you realise that God is angry. It is true that God's anger is not like ours - it is not prompted by injured vanity, it is not petty, it is not irrational or ignoble. It is his predicable, settled hostility to sin. God's anger is aroused by evil, and evil alone. But his anger is red-hot.
Given that we all have thought, said and done wicked things we may ask how a holy God can avoid sending us to hell. How can a holy God pardon our rebellion against him? 'Only by providing a divine substitute for the sinner, so that the substitute would receive the judgement and sinner the pardon' (Stott). This is a doctrine call Penal Substitution, and we are going to examine it by looking at five pictures in the Old Testament.
1. Abraham and Isaac
The first picture is taken from the book of Genesis. God tests Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham takes the boy up Mount Moriah (where Jerusalem would later be situated). At the last moment, when it was clear that he would do what God said, Abraham is told not to slay Isaac but to kill a ram instead. That ram was sacrificed as a burnt offering in the place of Isaac. That ram died as a substitute for another. Like the man, Jesus, who died the death of a substitute, in that area, many centuries later.
2. The Passover
In the book of Exodus we see how the blood of a substitute saves people from God's judgement. On the night of the Passover God's judgement swept over the land of Egypt. But the judgement passed over every home that had its doorposts marked by the blood of a lamb. That lamb died so that God's people did not have to. Each of the four gospels associate the death of Jesus with the Passover. The first Lord's was a Passover meal. The apostle Paul explicitly declares that Jesus, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
3. The Sin offerings of the Old Testament
The sin offerings of the Old Testament showed that the blood of a substitute was demanded to pay the price of the people's guilt. Of course the blood of an animal can not make up for our sin. These offering pointed ahead to what Jesus would do on the cross. The New Testament teaches that Jesus 'offered himself' (Hebrews 9:14), and gave himself up for us as a sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2). John Stott explains that Jesus sacrificed himself (not animals), once and for all (not repeatedly), and thus secured for us purification of our consciences and restoration to God.
4. The scapegoat
The day of atonement gives us a clear example of a substitute bearing the sin of guilty people. On that day the high priest took two male goats. One goat was sacrificed and its blood was sprinkled in the usual way. On the other goat the high priest lays his hands, confesses the people's sin and wickedness, and then the drives it into the wilderness, so that it carries away their sins. One goat demonstrated the means by which our sin is dealt with (a substitute bears our penalty) and the other the results of the atonement (our sins are taken away from us).
5. Isaiah 53
The prophecy found in Isaiah 53 is a wonderful foretelling of what would happen to Jesus on the cross. It was written hundreds of years before the event. Yet when I read it at the youth fellowship in our last church one person asked, 'which gospel is that from?’ It sounds as if it was written after the events rather than before them.
'He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him ... the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all ... it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer ... the LORD makes his life a guilt offering ... he bore the sin of many and made intersession for the transgressors.' These verses seem to be clear about a substitute who bears the penalty for our sin.
Conclusion - Does Penal Substitution pit the Father against the Son?
We have looked at the Old Testament for teaching on Penal Substitution. We can also see this doctrine taught in the New Testament. Notably, Romans 4:25 (He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification), 1 Peter 2:24 (He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree . . .), 1 Peter 3:18 (For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God).
However, the doctrine of Penal Substitution has many critics. For example, there is a blog called 'The Red Letter Christian.' You know the way some Bibles highlight the words of Jesus by printing them in red. Well, the people behind this blog say that they want to highlight the words of Jesus. That is good. But actually all the teaching of the Bible needs to be taken into account. The whole of the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, not just the words of Jesus.
Anyway, one man, writing on the Red Letter Christian blog, calls penal substitution a 'schizophrenic view that pits God against Jesus.' Another writer of a similar ilk, Steve Chalke, famously referred to penal substitution as 'cosmic child-abuse '. Such criticisms are based on caricatures of this doctrine, so we must be careful how we teach it.
Take the following illustration. It comes from America of the 1930s and centres on a man called John Griffith.
John was a bridge-conductor across the Mississippi River. He was responsible for raising and lowering the bridge so that boats could get through and trains could pass. John had an eight-year old son who loved to accompany him to work.
One day the father and son decided to eat their lunch on the bank of the river when John realised that in about three minutes the Memphis Belle carrying about three hundred passengers was getting ready to cross the bridge. But the bridge had not being lowered. John didn't want to alarm his son, so he patted him on the shoulder and told him to stay where he was while he sorted out the bridge.
When he got up the stairs to the lever, John realised that his son had managed to climb to the bridge and had fallen between the gears of the bridge. He could hear the train coming, with its three hundred people on board. He tried to think of any way there might be that he could lower the bridge and not crush his son. There was none. He lowered the bridge just in him. His son dying to save those people's lives. As he watched the train go by he could see a man reading his paper, a woman drinking her tea, and another talking to his wife. He screamed at the top of his lungs, 'don't you know what I've just done for you?'
On one hand that's a good picture of something of the cost of the cross to God the Father. But in other ways this picture falls so short. The cross was not an accident but a rescue that had been planned before the foundation of the world. God the Son was not a helpless victim who happened to be on the wrong place at the wrong time, he went willingly to his death. God the father was not subject to circumstances outside of his control but was choosing to gloriously display both his holiness and mercy. If this picture is the only illustration we use to explain the cross then we will be accused of pitting the Father against the Son.
Take another illustration set in the Second World War.
Scottish soldiers were forced by their Japanese captors to labour on a jungle railroad. Moral among the prisoners was low and their behaviour had become barbarous towards each other. Then something happened. When the shovels were counted there appeared to be one missing. The officer in-charge was enraged. He demand that the shovel be returned. When no one moved he threatened to kill all of the prisoners on the spot. He meant what he said. Then, finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. When this was over, the survivors pocked up the body and carried it to the second tool check. On the second check it was discovered that no shovel was missing, there had been a miss-counting. Word spread throughout the whole camp. An innocent man had been willing to die to save others. People were inured and he behaviour of the prisoners was transformed. They began to treat each other as brothers.
On one hand that is a great picture of the loving sacrifice of the Son. Jesus came into the world to die. He set his face to Jerusalem knowing what awaited him there. The only truly innocent man dies so that those who trust in him will be spared eternal death. Such love should inspire us. But again this picture falls short of the glory of the cross and if this is all we teach about the cross we will play into the hands of those who despise the notion of penal substitution. For he cross was not an act of injustice, but of justice upheld. The father is nothing like the cruel Japanese soldier. His anger is not the irrational, and vain. He is the God of immeasurable love giving an incalculable gift to save a wretched people.
In order to teach the doctrine of the cross correctly we must not portray either Jesus choosing to pacify an angry God and wrestle from him a grudging salvation, or, God sending a helpless son to die for guilty people. Instead, we read of a God who sent his Son in love (he did not have salvation reluctantly wrestled out of his hands) and we read of the Son who willing gave his life for us (John 15).
We must not lose sight of either the love of the Father or the love of the Son. We must not lose sight of the cooperation of the Father and the Son. We must not lose sight of the intent of the Father and the Son. We must not see love a simply the result of the cross but love is the cause of the cross. We must delight in the truth that 'God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he committed to us the message of reconciliation' (2 Corinthians 5:19).