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Jonathan Leeman

The Devil's Favorite Domino

By Jonathan Leeman
the Penal in Penal Substitution


I don’t know if you noticed, but there is a long-standing practice of critiquing penal substitution and justification by faith as overly "legal" or "forensic." From the Council of Trent to the New Perspective and the Emergent church, writers have dismissed both the doctrine that God would forensically declare sinners as "righteous" as a legal fiction, and the proposition that Jesus had to pay our penalty on the cross as beholden to Western legal categories.

Why do we want to preserve a "legal" or "forensic" understanding of the atonement, justification, and our salvation? Most importantly, we maintain them because we think these explanations provide the best exegetical treatment of Scripture. But secondarily, it’s worth meditating theologically for a moment on what the purpose of law is. If we were thinking about God’s moral law, we might consult theologians like Luther and Calvin, who described the purpose of law as restraining sin, condemning sin, and revealing God’s character. If we were thinking about the laws of the state, we might consult philosophers like Plato, Hobbes, Bentham, Holmes, or Hart, who point to the law’s role in maintaining order, protecting the defenseless, or guaranteeing the freedoms of a citizenry. All this to say, one can describe the purpose of "law" or "laws" in various ways.

Yet a common theme that runs through all of these explanations is the idea of protecting something precious or worthy. I don’t mean to say that "protecting something precious" is the very essence of what the law is or does. Philosophers can argue about that. But I do think it’s fairly easy to see that one of the primary reasons we institute laws is to protect something precious. It’s against the law to murder because life is precious. It’s against the law to steal because property is precious. It’s against God’s moral law to lie because truth is precious. Every five year old who values his toys and every king who values his gold understands this much about law. That’s why both will declare, "Don’t touch these things, or else!" In that sense, one might say that laws function like fences or security systems. People erect fences and install alarm systems when they want to guard something precious.

This is why breaking a law results in a penalty. The enacting of a penalty speaks to—or better, declares—the value or worthiness of the thing being protected. If no penalty follows the transgression of a law, we learn that whatever the so-called law is guarding must not be worth much. If the penalty for transgression is severe, we learn that it is precious. Penalties teach. I discovered at a young age, for instance, that lying to my parents yielded a stronger penalty than squabbling with my brother over a toy. The lesson I learned from these different penalties? The truth is more precious than toys. The very idea of a penalty may be repugnant to human beings, but a penalty is what gives meaningfulness to the law as a guardian of worth (or schoolmaster or tutor; cf. Gal. 3:24). If the law is the sentry guarding that which is precious, the penalty is the sentry’s pointy bayonet. It gives the law its prick, substance, meaning.

It’s worth observing that at least part of our repugnance to the whole concept of a penalty must result from the fact that, in this fallen world, penalties rarely "match the crime." A law will be ill-conceived, and so the sentry stabs too hard, or not hard enough. Not only that, multiple layers of crimes and penalties may conflict with one another. So seventeen years of hard labor seems overwrought for the starving Jean Val Jean’s act of stealing a loaf of bread. He’s wrong to steal, certainly, but we also assume that various crimes of the state have been committed against him and resulted in his impoverished condition. Still, we can assume that, in principle, a penalty is just or right when it’s appropriately measured to the value of the thing the law is guarding.

So God says to Noah, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6a). Why so severe? Human life is precious. Taking life must therefore result in the severest of earthy punishments. Letting a murderer go free is to say, "Ah, the life which he took wasn’t worth much anyway."

What’s interesting to notice in this particular passage of Scripture is why human life is described as precious. Here’s the entire verse: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" (Gen. 9:6). The preciousness of human life, it seems, is found entirely in the fact that humans image God. Our worth is derivative. It’s derived from the one we image.

Which is why King David knew that his murder and adultery were ultimately sins against God (Ps. 51). A law of protection had been placed around life and marital fidelity, two things made precious because of their relatedness to God. To kill is to destroy one made in the image of God. To cheat, at the very least, is to speak lies about God’s fidelity to his people. And to do either one of these things as an image-bearer is to present a blasphemous portrait of what God himself is like. David’s sin, though enacted against Uriah and Bathsheba and his own body, was finally against God and God alone. He broke God’s law. He fell short of God’s glory. He exalted the idols of his lusts over and above God. He treated the glory and worth of God with utter contempt.

If I might use the language of God’s "glory" and "worthiness" synonymously for a moment, we find here the connection between God’s glory or worthiness and God’s law. God’s law is the infinitely high fence that protects his infinite worthiness and glory. It’s the guardian (and declarer!) of his glory. To contravene his law is to disregard his infinite worthiness. To put this in less abstract terms, saying "no" to God is saying "what you think doesn’t mean much to me, because you don’t mean much to me."

(Note for theologians: Though Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement didn’t say everything that should be said about what happened at the cross, what he said, I think, captures an element of Christ’s work that formulations of penal substitution sometimes forget to mention: God’s honor is impugned by sin. And that honor must be vindicated, or satisfied. And that satisfaction must be infinite. The doctrine of penal substitution fills out the details of Anselm’s theory by observing that the offense against his honor is made manifest, as it were, through the transgression of God’s law. The law requires a penalty. The penalty is God’s wrath. God’s wrath, after all, is the jealous guardian of God’s glory. God’s glory was then demonstrated at the cross—among other ways—by showing that God’s law really did require a penalty for transgressions against it (Rom. 3:25-26).)

Why do we want to preserve a "legal" or "forensic" understanding of the atonement, justification, and our salvation? Because unless we want to be idolaters, we must concede that the most precious thing in and beyond the universe is God and his glory. Any worthiness and glory found in creation, even among human beings, is entirely derived from the creator. God’s infinite worthiness and preciousness will, intrinsically to itself, yield itself in a counterpart—God’s moral law. God’s moral law is the fitting and perfectly matched protector of God’s infinite worthiness. To deprecate God’s law and its penalties is to depreciate God’s worthiness, plain and simple.

The penal in penal substitution, then, guards (and teaches us about) the infinite preciousness and value and worthiness of God. To say that Adam’s sin should not have resulted in death, to say that our sins do not result in God’s wrath, to shy away from mentioning God’s wrath in private or public, to say that penal substitution is overly obsessed with legal categories or overemphasizes the role of God’s law, to say that the significance of Christ’s death is diminished by bringing it into the realm of the law court, to say that the demands of God’s law do not have to be satisfied, to declare a forensic declaration of "righteous" merely a "legal fiction," to caricature the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath as "divine child abuse"—all this is to miss the role of God’s law in protecting and declaring the worthiness of God; and therefore it is to belittle this ineffable worthiness and indescribable glory of God.

Let me ratchet it up one more notch: if the world, the flesh, and the devil desire, above all else, to diminish the godness of God, and to deceive us into thinking we can be "like God," there can be no more dangerous lie in the universe than to redefine the gospel in a way that subtly massages the penal out of penal substitution—kind of like when someone said to Eve, "You will not surely die." In a world of self-justifiers, it’ll always be the first domino the devil tries to topple.

Jonathan Leeman is the director of communications for 9Marks.

July/August 2007
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Topic(s): Theology