Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Preaching penal substitution to abused people

Having read an entry on the Scripture coherence of the theories of the atonement, where I cited a recent article by Don Carson, I received an email from a friend of mine.

The email had lots of threads of thought, but one section of it has been particularly thought provoking. Here, my correspondent wrote the following: 'The ex-addicts and alcoholics who ask me about the Christian faith will not get a talk on penal substitution. Many of these guys have grown up in abusive households, beaten and punished by their own fathers, or are struggling with addiction. How would you describe the gospel to them? I'll leave you to think on that one.'

It's quite a challenge, isn't it? The clear line of thought in the email is that penal substitution is an idea abhorrent to anyone that has experienced any kind of abuse.

I've given some thought to this over the past couple of days, and here is what I think. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

(1) There are many ways of explaining the same gospel. This is obvious when we read the New Testament. Whilst the central nucleus - the 'kergyma' - of the gospel is the same, the way in which this message is articulated varies tremendously. One of the things that I have been learning over the past few years is that the gospel is far from one-dimension. I love the description of the gospel being like a tapestry, with many threads that stretch all of the way from Genesis to Revelation, all through the central point of Jesus' death and resurrection. So there are plenty of things that could be said to one who had been abused - Jesus came to make you whole (yes!), Jesus came to set you free from sin (yes!) - all these things are true, but they are only true because Jesus died as a wrath-bearing sacrifice in our place. We cannot, for instance, be freed from sin, until the righteous demands of the law due to our sin have been met.

(2) The Bible writers obviously did not think that this was a reason to avoid teaching penal substitution. One example will suffice. In his first letter, Peter addresses slaves and tells them to submit to their masters, 'not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh' (2:18). Suffering and harsh abuse were evidently part of what these slaves were experiencing (see 2:20). Yet in the same section (2:21-25), Peter goes on to show how Jesus' suffering is an example for their own suffering. Jesus 'bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness' (2:24). In fact, one of the themes of the whole letter is that Jesus' sufferings help us make sense of the unjust sufferings that we often face.

(3) Fundamentally, I think that this is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of penal substitution which shows a shortcomings in trinitarian theology
. My correspondent implies that penal substitution shows God the Father to be abusive in his punishment - something utterly abhorrent.

This is often a way in which penal substitution is caricatured: the Father abuses the Son. I addressed this objection in my recent talk on Isaiah 53. I think this misunderstanding boils down to a wrong view of the nature of the Trinity in the Godhead. For in Isaiah 53, like elsewhere, we see that the suffering endured by the Son or (in Isaiah 53 langauge) the Servant is voluntary. Additionally, both Father and Servant can look back and be satisfied (Isaiah 53:11) at what the cross achieves. It's not that the Son hates the Father for his actions in punishing him at the cross: 'for the joy set before him, he endured the cross' (Hebrews 12:2).

Perhaps most tellingly the Bible rules out any understanding of the atonement that minimises the suffering of the Father (and, by implication, the Spirit) at the cross. Romans 5:8, for instance, says, 'But God [the Father] demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us.' Or 'this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins' (1 John 4:10). The point that both Paul and John are making is that the giving of the Son was costly to the Father - that's how we know what love is. The Father did not enjoy seeing the Son made sin. So let us dismiss any idea that the Son alone suffered at the cross. Both the Father and the Son suffered at the cross.

I think to an abused person I would want to say this: Did you know that you were loved this much? Did you know that you had a Father like this, that would endure this agony for you?

(4) We need to be careful in the language and the analogies that we use in explaining the gospel. I'm currently reading Pierced for our Trangressions, a great book (thus far) looking to 'rediscover the glory of penal substitution'. One of the appendices is entitled 'A personal note to preachers' and warns of the danger of caricaturing the Bible's teaching on atonement. Several talk illustrations make Jesus out to be 'the fall guy'. May we never use such illustrations.

I'd be interested to hear what others think on this. How would you address my friend's questions?

1 comment:

Dave K said...

Jesus was the best at this.

To the poor in spirit he preached of the suprising inclusiveness of the Kingdom, not because they didn't need to know about judgment, but because they already did.

To the rich and the scribes he preached of their unexpected exclusion, not because they weren't loved, but because they thought they had the right to God's love.

Same with the cross I think. Some need to hear mainly of God's judgment of their sin, other's need to hear mainly of God's mercy in sending his son. They both need to hear about both but they also need to be treated as individuals.