Monday, January 07, 2008

Mark Dever on Penal Substitution

What if you're a ruler, known as a good guy, but you don't take action against those people who aren't good guys? What does it mean to say, "I oppose murder," but then refuse to punish murderers? What does it mean to bear responsibility to punish? ...

Christians believe that all such authority is rooted in God himself. ... He alone is able, ultimately and fully, to fulfill this responsibility. But in limited ways it is shared with parents and pastors, with judges and public officials, with bosses, with anyone entrusted with authority.

So what happens when you or I do something bad? Well, if we're children, our parents may punish us for it. If we're adults, well then maybe someone else, maybe the punishment could come from our workplace, or from the sheriff's office.

Of course, this is where our atheist friends may sink into their grim confidence that there is no one to right wrongs or reward rights. Whereas Christians hear echoes of the truth and the expectations that all naturally have of life, the atheist says that they are nothing more than reflections of our own groundless hopes and desires. ... Right and wrong are constructed by a social construct, they would say. They're simply relationships of power, that's how they're talked about today. Moral and immoral are customs that may or may not be enforced. The cash value of atheism on this point is that we can sin and get away with it.

But according to the Bible what is our situation? What is God's responsibility in the face of wrongdoing? Well, it must be great, given who God is. He is more powerful, more knowledgeable, more right than any one authority. He is more able, He is more certain of who and what merits punishment and more certain of what punishment it merits. ...

At the center of the discussion of right and wrong, of punishment and rewards for us stands the cross of Christ, and all that flows from that, our understanding of reconciliation, of atonement, of forgiveness, of restoration.

Christ's accomplishment on the cross is celebrated in a great profusion of images in the New Testament. There, He redeemed those in bondage, He reconciled those alienated, He propitiated God's wrath, He satisfied His justice, there Christ defeated Satan and broke the power of death.

And yet one image among this joyous proliferation is under attack today. ... It's the idea of penal substitution — that is, the idea that the penalty that we deserve God gave to someone else, another who did not deserve it, but who took it voluntarily, for us.

Now this very idea which is at the heart of the Christian message, is one that has been long denounced by non-Christians. For centuries, Christians have defended their message against those that have attacked it at this very point. About a century or two ago, however, these same objections started being raised by liberal Christians. ...

These objections of the idea of Christ making atonement for us as a substitute must be answered. ...

Today there are questions about the whole idea of the retributive justice. In the first place, all punishment should be restorative, people say. It's distasteful for some to have God involved in anything that would be some kind of gross spiritual economics of substitution, one person taking another person's penalty, freeing the first person from their own just deserves. ...

Faustus Socinus, one of the founders of modern-day Unitarianism, in 1578 put forward the objection that the doctrine of Christ being substituted for us, to receive our penalty, would put God in violation of the teaching that we are to forgive those who have wronged us. A kind of divine hypocrisy would ensue.

The Bible, however, disagrees with that. In fact, Paul in the epistle to the Romans stated specifically that God has a right to, and in fact should, and in fact does, act differently than we do in this matter. ... Romans Chapter 12, Verse 19 specifically, where he tells us not to take revenge. ... He tells us not to take revenge, specifically, because he says God will take revenge. So, because God will ensure that justice will be done, we as individuals do not need to take revenge. And then he goes on in Chapter 13 to say that the function of retribution is shared, in small part, with the government, though it's denied to the individual. The individual Christian is called to forgive. ...

Is such substitution alien to the Bible? No. Covenantal substitution was already deep in the story of the Bible. ... This idea of penal substitution is not alien, artificial, foisted-upon-the-Bible concept, but is woven deeply into the narrative of Israel and the whole Bible.


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