It’s taken me two weeks, but I’ve finally managed to finish “Pierced for Our Transgressions“, the book on Penal Substitution that was written by three members of the Oak Hill teaching and student body. It’s not a “big” book in the style of Grudem’s Systematic Theology or the like, but neither is it a light read. It’s the kind of book that you need to have an interest in theology to get into, but you don’t need a doctorate to complete.
And you know what? It’s very, very good…
From the moment you read the recommendations for the volume which range over a number of pages and include important leaders from many different parts of the Evangelical Community on both sides of the Atlantic, you realise that this is not the work of a bunch of uneducated fundamentalists. Rather, there is a depth of engagement not just with the writings of the Reformers and their Protestant followers, but also an interaction with Patristic Fathers right back to Justin Martyr. For me this one of the book’s strengths, demonstrating clearly that Penal Substitution was not a 16th or 19th century creation but rather a key doctrine taught by leading Christian teachers down the centuries. When Alister McGrath updates his wonderful “Introduction to Christian Theology”, no doubt he will want to draw on some of the historical insights in this text.
The two other sections of the book that also bear mention are the 15 pages spent exegeting Isaiah 52-53 and then the second half of the book that concentrates on answering objections to Penal Substitution. These answers are not facile and uneducated – they deal with the best arguments of those who object to Penal Substitution and provide Scriptural and historical responses.
There’s also a very helpful guide at the back on how to preach on Penal Substitution and how to avoid making mistakes in using analogies (especially useful as a large number of the criticisms of Penal Substitution tend to be based on the analogies invoked and NOT on the Biblical basis of the doctrine)
Even if you disagree with Penal Substitution, you need to read this book to understand the best arguments in favour of this doctrine. If you are sold on Penal Substitution then get this text to help you better explain and defend it. The argument over whether Penal Substitution is going to roll on and on (I’ve just done a piece for our church magazine which you can read below – a few thousand words less then “Pierced”) and we have an obligation to our churches to be able to rightly handle the word of God on this issue.
So to finish with, this is what I wrote for our church magazine (out next Sunday):
Penal Substitution is the name give to the explanation of what Jesus did on the cross that is favoured by Evangelicals and mainstream Anglo-Catholics. The doctrine, drawing chiefly but not exclusively on passages in Isaiah, John, Romans and Hebrews states that Jesus’ death on the cross pays the penalty that would otherwise go to us for our sin. When you accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour it’s as though your “bad slate in front of God” is transferred onto Jesus. You are left perfect in the eyes of God while Jesus takes the full penalty for your sins – hence “Penal Substitution”.
In the past few years the doctrine has been attacked publicly twice, with attendant media attention, first in the church press and then in the national papers. The first recent criticism was by Steve Chalke in his book, “The Lost Message of Jesus”. In the book Chalke criticised the doctrine as “a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.” More recently, Jeffery John (of St Albans Cathedral) used a BBC Lent talk to say that the doctrine made “God sound like a psychopath” and the doctrine “worse than illogical .. insane”.
Yes, some people have a problem with penal substitution, but often their problem comes from not getting the proper picture of penal substitution. For example, Chalke criticises the idea of a father punishing a son for things he hasn’t done. But such a criticism fails to remember that the labels “Father” and “Son” in the god-head are not biological descriptions but rather limited human language God has used to help us understand who he is. In penal substition God takes upon himself the punishment for our sin – the fact that the Father places it upon the Son is not the point here – human understanding of those words should not limit us in accepting what the Bible says is true.
As for Jeffrey John, his criticisms are (as I and others wrote about at the time) even more flimsy. Dr John quotes Julian of Norwich who wrote “For I saw that there is no manner of wrath in God, neither for short time nor for long” but then makes no attempt to handle verses like Romans 1:18 or 2:5. (In fact, go to www.biblegateway.com or get a good concordance and look up the word ‘wrath’ in the Bible – you’ll see that it’s almost always used in terms of God exercising justice against humans who have sinned against him). Dr John also quotes Luke 13:4 (the tower in Siloam falling down) to show that Jesus taught that people don’t get punished by God for sin, but ignores the very words of Jesus a few lines later that indicate that very thing!! Go and look it up yourself if you don’t believe me.
While the opponents of penal substitution are correct that there are other things going on on the cross (and this whole magazine isn’t long enough to even begin to scratch the surface of the power of the cross), the fact remains that penal substitution stands at the centre of Jesus’ atoning work. When Dr John made his BBC talk, the excellent UK blogger Adrian Warnock began a series of posts outlining the biblical evidence for penal substitution. As he rightly pointed out, it’s hard to read verses like Isaiah 53:4-5 in context and not come up with penal substitution. I suggest a wander over to his website. For those who prefer a heavier read, a new book, “Pierced for our Transgressions”, has just been published which explores these themes in much more detail from an orthodox perspective.
Dr Jeffrey John’s Lent Talk – http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/lent_talks/
Adrian Warnock – http://www.adrian.warnock.info/
“Pierced for our Transgressions”; Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach; IVP (2007)