This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series: ‘Pierced For Our Transgressions’ (Ovey et al)
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 1 – Exodus 12
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 2 – Leviticus 16
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 3 – Isaiah 53
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 4 – Mark
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 5 – John’s Gospel
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 6 – Romans
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 7 – Galatians
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 8 – 1 Peter
- Objections to Penal Substitution 1 – Bible
- Objections to Penal Substitution 2 – Culture
- Objections to penal substitution 3 – violence
- Objections to penal substitution 4 – justice
- Objections to penal substitution 5 – God
- Objections to penal substitution 6 – the Christian life
- Substutionary atonement: a note to preachers
The image of the crucifixion at ‘hanging on a tree’ in Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29 evokes the words of Deuteronomy 21:25 – ‘anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse’.
This raises the question, ‘Why would the sinless Christ be curses by God?’ Gal 3:10-13 supplies the answer.
The argument is simple: Jesus bore the curse that was due to others, thereby redeeming them from that curse. He bore the penalty in our place.
Certain false teachers were insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised. Paul warns that these people are ‘under a curse’. But why?
The traditional view
The traditional view is that these Judaizers sought to maintain favour with good by observing the requirements of the Old Testament law: they were legalists. But the law required perfect obedience, but because no-one is capable of this, they are condemned by it and under its curse. In this context, Gal 3:10 becomes a statement of penal substitution: Christ was cursed in our place, redeeming us from that curse.
The New Perspective
According to the New Perspective, Paul was not opposing legalism. E.P. Sanders claimed that the idea of earning one’s salvation through obedience to God’s law is not to be found in the Jewish literature of the day. This issue was not legalism but (according to James Dunn) one of ethnic ‘boundary-markers’. The Judaizers were insisting that Gentile converts must observe the distinctly Jewish practices of circumcision and observance of food laws. The problem is, accordingly, not one of legalism but of nationalism. After all (Dunn and others argue) it was quite possible to keep God’s law, since the law itself included the provision for transgression by means of its sacrificial system.
But Paul seems to teach that complete obedience to the law was not, in fact, possible (Gal 3:10; 5:3). And this might be because the sacrificial system was limited. Not only were there some sins that could not be atoned for (Deut 31:16-21; 1 King 8:46), but also the sacrificial system itself became corrupt, as the later prophets abundantly testify (Isa 1:11-17; Jer 7:21-24; Amos 5:21-26). Cf. Paul’s statement in Acts 13:39. Given that the curse of Deut 27:26 was beyond the scope of atonement provided by the law, Jesus’ substitutionary death was absolutely necessary.
Furthermore, the means of atonement provided for in the law must be seen as anticipations of the work of Chris, and derive their effectiveness from it, Heb 9:15. Indeed, there are many aspects of the sacrificial system that teach the necessity of penal substitution, as has already been seen. And now that the substance has arrived, it is futile to rely on the shadow, as the Judaizers were doing.
The curse as exile
According to N.T. Wright, the curse of Deut 27:26/Gal 3:10 was realised in the exile. And the New Testament writers would have regarded the Jews as still in exile at the time of Jesus, not least because of the Roman occupation. It is noted that many of the Old Testament prophets speak of salvation from exile (e.g. Isa 53), and claimed that the exile lies behind the vocabulary of Gal 3:10. Thus, when Paul refers to those who ‘rely on observing the law’, he is speaking of those who want to identify with the old Israel, the nation in exile, rather than with the new people of God as redeemed by Christ. In this view, Christ’s redemption from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:10) is seen as Christ’s suffering God’s punishment of exile/alienation, redeeming us from it by exhausting it in his own body. Clearly this entails penal substitution.
And this redemption from exile does not apply only to the Jews, for Gentiles are incorporated into the people of God, Gal 3:28f; cf. Rom 4:12; Jn 8:39-41. Moreover, Israel’s exile is paralleled by Adam’s expulsion from the garden, indicating that the problem of curse and exclusion is a universal one. And the promise to Abraham was that he would be a blessing to all nations, Gen 12:3; cf. Isa 51:4. Paul explains that this is fulfilled in Christ, Gal 3:14. Indeed, Paul seems to treat the two slaveries – of Israel and of the Gentiles – as one in Gal 4:3-9.
Based on Jeffery et al, Pierced for our transgressions, 88-95.