What Happened At The Cross?

I am passionate about biblical theology.  That means I often get in trouble with some people who have heard all their lives that some doctrine they believe is biblical (from their pastor, parents, Sunday School teacher, best buddy, etc.) when, in fact, it is not really biblical at all.

Take, example, those who advocate the ‘penal substitution’ view of atonement.  They accept the notion that this doctrine comes from the Bible because they have always heard it preached that way.  Then I come along and suggest that this hermeneutic is imposed on the scripture from the outside, it does not rise up from the text.  Well, you can imagine the trouble that can get me in with some people.

Now, I use to believe that this doctrine was biblical.  I’d heard it preached that way for decades.  But one of those preachers use to always say, “Don’t believe me when I say this.  Look it up in the Bible.”  So I did.  I carefully studied the Bible – and my understanding of the atonement has been revolutionized by my study of the Bible.

As I have engaged in this study I have discovered (rediscovered, I should say) a biblical framework for understanding the Christian faith that comes from a renewed understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

The ‘penal substitution’ view is in error in that it divides God into parts differing personalities, rather than a Triune who share the same nature (LOVE).  Put another way, it makes God out to be a schizophrenic suffering from a multiple-personality disorder.  It declares that God the Father dumped out anger and wrath of God the Son at the cross as a result of human sin.  Such a view divides up God into differing personalities.  This is not a biblical understanding of God.  The Father does not have one nature, while the Son and the Spirit have another. 

The Godhead shares one nature (one DNA, if you will)– and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shares in that one nature.  The early church fathers referred to this as perichoresis – a Greek term that means ‘cleaving together.’ It describes the fellowship that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as they embrace and infuse each other. This is more than just intimacy and self-sufficiency. It is also the understanding that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one in being.  Karl Barth considered this doctrine to be so important that he made it the lynchpin of this entire theology. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity (Barth referred to the ‘one in threeness’ and ‘three in oneness’ or God) was the prolegomena of his systematic theology.

Now here’s the problem.  The “penal substitution” view that one part of the Trinity could be angry at us (the Father) while the other part of the Trinity could be loving and gracious toward us is simply contrary to this core biblical doctrine of the Christian faith.  Further, the notion that the Father could in any way pour out anger or wrath on Jesus for any reason is simply an anathema to a good biblical understand of the triune nature of God.  It cuts up the Godhead into separate entities, rather than affirming the unity of the Godhead. This is unbiblical.

Compounding this biblical error is that it serves as a basic denial of the doctrine of the Incarnation.  The Incarnation teaches us that Jesus was the perfect expression of the Father in human form (see Hebrews 1:3). In Jesus, God is not seen as some wrathful God of vengeance who must be appeased. Rather God is full of compassion and mercy, as witnessed in Jesus.

Trinitarians advocate is that the foundation for understanding scripture and all the doctrines of the Christian faith is by looking at the love and kindness of Jesus, who came to reveal what God was really like (as John 14:9 says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”)

Contrary to this view, those who work from a ‘penal substitution’ view say that the discussion about the nature and identity of God begins with ‘the law’ and not with Jesus. In fact, ‘penal substitution’ draws so much attention to ‘the law’ that even God must submit to its dictates. In this view, God is so uptight about sin (disobedience against the law) that God MUST punish lawbreakers. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to tell God what God MUST do.

So, then, the two hermeneutical principles that inform my interpretation of scripture are the doctrine of the Trinity and the conviction that the nature (DNA, if you will) of God is LOVE. Both these principles rise up from the scripture, where as the ‘penal’ view does not.   Certainly many will disagree with me on this – but as they (perhaps you) do disagree, please don’t see my objection to simply be some sort of visceral discomfort with the notion of God’s ‘anger’ or ‘wrath.’ Rather these ideas (as they are understood from a ‘penal substitution’ viewpoint) are simply inconsistent with what I see as clear biblical theology.

So, then, the logical question is this: “If God was NOT pouring out wrath on Jesus as a penal substitution for us, then what exactly was happening at the cross?”

The answer is that question must begin with a view of the cross as a unified expression of LOVE from our triune God. Texts that affirm this include 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Hebrews 9:14.  These texts place the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together, on the cross, bringing humanity the gift of salvation. There is not a good guy God in a white hat named Jesus, and a mean God in a black hat called the Father. There is one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who loves without condition and has not only forgiven us, but has removed sin from us, and has made a way for full participation in the love relationship the Godhead shares.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul presents salvation as adoption.  God becomes one of us in Jesus. God takes up our cause. God draws us into relationship. (Ephesians 1:4-5)Through “faith by grace” (both of which are gifts of God) we are invited to share in the life and fellowship of Almighty God (Ephesians 2:8-10).  We are invited to participate in ‘the Divine dance’ (perichoresis).

Now with this picture in mind, how do we see this concept of God’s wrath? God’s wrath is God’s anger at sin because it hinders our ability to have intimacy with God.   As a parent, I have often been angry at my children’s behavior. But I have never stopped loving them. I have never disowned them. Jesus makes this exact point in Matthew 7:9-11, when he says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

The message of the cross under the ‘penal substitution’ view is that God is angry with you and poured out His wrath on Jesus.

The message of the cross from a proper Trinitarian understanding of the scripture is that God loves you.

That’s why we call it GOSPEL.

One Response to “What Happened At The Cross?”

  1. Rock Higgins says:

    But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

    Yep, hard to find penal substitution in that. A mind shift in God between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures is about as hard to stomach as an adoptionistic view of Christ’s baptism and hence incarnation. God cannot help but be true to God’s character always, ALWAYS, as well as Christ and the Spirit ALWAYS. Grace abounds throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. (Thanks be to God!) Christ is the incarnation of the everliving, everloving Father. This begotten, not made Messiah is of the same substance, [ousia], of the Father and still present in the Spirit.

    Thanks for giving something to chew on Bill. Merry Christmas!

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