Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What did the cross achieve?

Each Tuesday morning a small group of us from Twynholm meets in my study at 6am to read to one another. Over the last few weeks we have been reading Jim Packer's essay, "What did the cross achieve? The logic of Penal Substitution."

This is one of my favourite articles on the cross, first given as a lecture in 1973, and most recently republished in "In my place condemned he stood"

There are several things I love about this essay.

Though rigorously theological it is not dry or abstract but deliberately devotional and doxological.

[I]n trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game, Reformed theologians were conceding the Socinian assumption that every aspect of God’s work of reconciliation will be exhaustively explicable in terms of a natural theology of divine government, drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought. Thus, in their zeal to show themselves rational, they became rationalistic.4 Here as elsewhere, methodological rationalism became in the seventeenth century a worm in the Reformed bud, leading in the next two centuries to a large-scale withering of its theological flower.

Now I do not query the substantial rightness of the Reformed view of the atonement; on the contrary, I hope to confirm it, as will appear; but I think it is vital that we should unambiguously renounce any such intellectual method as that which I have described, and look for a better one.
And what is this better method: realising that theology is not an exercise in rationalising every aspect of our knowledge of God, but of exploring it biblically and humbly.
Knowing through divine enlightenment what which passes knowledge is precisely what it means to be acquainted with the mystery of God.
Having talked about method of approach Packer then moves to view a doctrine of the atonement in 2 stages, before observing exegetical considerations.
My plan is this: first, to clear up some questions of method, so that there will be no doubt as to what I am doing; to explore what it means to call Christ’s death substitutionary; third, to see what further meaning is added when Christ’s substitutionary suffering is called penal; fourth, to note in closing that the analysis offered is not out of harmony with learned exegetical opinion.
In the section on Substituion Packer masterfully shows that every view of the atonement must have substitution at the centre, whether or not it is admitted.
Nobody who wishes to say with Paul that there is a true sense in which ‘Christ died for us’ (huper, on our behalf, for our benefit), and ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’ (huper again) (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 3:13), and who accepts Christ’s assurance that he came ‘to give his life a ransom for many’ (anti, which means precisely ‘in place of’, ‘in exchange for’16), should hesitate to say that Christ’s death was substitutionary. Indeed, if he describes Christ’s death as vicarious he is actually saying it. It is, of course, no secret why people shy off this word. It is because they equate, and know that others equate, substitution in Christology with penal substitution.
In the section on the penal in penal substitution there are some great quotes.

This analysis, if correct, shows what job the word ‘penal’ does in our model. It is there, not to prompt theoretical puzzlement about the transferring of guilt, but to articulate the insight of believers who, as they look at Calvary in the light of the New Testament, are constrained to say, ‘Jesus was bearing the judgment I deserved (and deserve), the penalty for my sins, the punishment due to me’ — ‘he loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). How it was possible for him to bear their penalty they do not claim to know, any more than they know how it was possible for him to be made man; but that he bore it is the certainty on which all their hopes rest.

When man justifies the wicked, it is a miscarriage of justice which God hates, but when God justifies the ungodly it is a miracle of grace for us to adore [Prov, 17:15; Rom. 4:5]

Twice in Romans Paul makes explicit his conviction that Christ’s having died ‘for’ (huper) us — that is, us who now believe — guarantees final blessedness. In 5:8f. he says: ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from the wrath through him.’ In 8:32 he asks: ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?’ Moreover, Paul and John explicitly depict God’s saving work as a unity in which Christ’s death fulfils a purpose of election and leads on to what the Puritans called ‘application of redemption’ — God ‘calling’ and ‘drawing’ unbelievers to himself, justifying them from their sins and giving them life as they believe, and finally glorifying them with Christ in his own presence.

Furthermore, if the true measure of love is how low it stoops to help, and how much in its humility it is ready to do and bear, then it may fairly be claimed that the penal substitutionary model embodies a richer witness to divine love than any other model of atonement, for it sees the Son at his Father’s will going lower than any other view ventures to suggest. That death on the cross was a criminal’s death, physically as painful as, if not more painful than, any mode of judicial execution that the world has seen; and that Jesus endured it in full consciousness of being innocent before God and man, and yet of being despised and rejected, whether in malicious conceit or in sheer fecklessness, by persons he had loved and tried to save — this is ground common to all views, and tells us already that the love of Jesus, which took him to the cross, brought him appallingly low. But the penal substitution model adds to all this a further dimension of truly unimaginable distress, compared with which everything mentioned so far pales into insignificance. This is the dimension indicated by Denney — ‘that in that dark hour He had to realise to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race.’ Owen stated this formally, abstractly and non-psychologically: Christ, he said, satisfied God’s justice ‘for all the sins of all those for whom he made satisfaction, by undergoing that same punishment which, by reason of the obligation that was upon them, they were bound to undergo. When I say the same I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all accidents of duration and the like . . .’

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