It's true that these are massive and glorious implications of Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection. Yet I fear that one of the reasons that some feel uneasy about a penal and substitutionary understanding of Jesus' death on the cross (that Jesus took our punishment in our place and in our shoes) is that they perceive that it has nothing to say more widely than the salvation of the individual. One university chaplain I know claimed to hold exactly this position in relation to penal substitution. Yet over the past year or so, as I've been reading Scripture, I've noticed that a whole load of wider implications flow from holding this position, which I plan to survey in a series of posts. Here's the first one.
The cross and social justice
God presented [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:25-26, my emphasis]
Often evangelism and campaigning for issues in social justice seem to be set against each other as activities that Christians should engage in and pursue. Non-evangelical Christians often seem to have a much better record at being a voice for and campaigning for those who most often suffer injustice in the world today. I've also noticed that when evangelicals do speak about issues of social justice, it's almost inevitably spoken out with no reference to the cross whatsoever. It's as if we know we should care about the downtrodden and abused, but resort to a kind of proof-texting outside of a Biblical theology that points to Jesus' death and resurrection.
Yet one of the things that that a penal model of the cross says above all is this: God is bothered about ensuring that justice is done (see the quote from Romans, above). A penal understanding of the cross is based upon the (Scriptural) premise that a holy God demands that justice must be done. A holy God cannot just acquit guilty people of their sin (contra Allah of the Qur'an). This need for justice to be done flows from the very character of the God of the Bible - he would cease to be fair to his character if justice were not done. And so one of the things characterising the heartbeat of God is a heartbeat for justice to be done. By implication, through the cross we see that one of the things that God hates (we might state it even more strongly: something that he will ultimately not tolerate) is when injustice is done in his world and when evil appears to have the last say.
God's hatred of injustice that climaxes at the cross can be seen throughout Scripture. I've always found the description of God in Deuteronomy 10:17-18 moving: God cares about justice for those who, in Old Testament society, were the least likely to receive it. Perhaps today God would describe himself as the one 'who defends the cause of the abused child and the mentally disabled, and loves the asylum seeker and the dispossessed, giving them food and clothing'. Those who are unable to easily tend to themselves and those who are most likely to be abused are those who God speaks for. God passionately cares for justice. (See also a post I wrote on Jesus' parable of the unjust judge and the persistant widow, which I believe is all about God working justice for those of his people who are experiencing injustice today).
It's true that ultimately God's justice will be delivered, when Jesus returns and finally rights all wrongs in judgement of all. It's also true that being realistic about human sin means that we will never be able to eradicate all poverty or social ills. Yet God's passionate ache for justice that demanded a penal sacrifice of Christ endures today. God's heart still breaks as injustice goes on in the world.
I grant that the ultimate need of each individual in the world is to be reconciled to God through Christ. Evangelism is of vital importance - and I'm not wanting to dull anyone's commitment to proclamation of the gospel. My fear is rather that, as evangelicals, often we imply that we need not care about justice for the abused today because justice will one day be done, and we abdicate our responsibility to social justice in the name of evangelism. To do this is to see our own desires and passions diverge from those of the Lord. The cross reminds us that to be unbothered about injustice is to tolerate something that God himself hates.
The cross speaks of the God who will not let injustice have the last say in his universe. To share God's heart is to be stirred into action by the injustice we see. So why not, for starters, take a few minutes to...