One of the frustrations of reading Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, by Joel Green and Mark Baker, is that although they claim to be criticising the doctrine of penal substitution in some of its more popular (and cruder) expressions, they actually tend to train their artillery on other targets.
So I appreciated the opportunity to read this post by Morgan Guyton, who discusses ‘four cringeworthy claims of popular penal substitutionary theology’. (Guyton says that he was motivate by listening to a sermon by Steven Furtick, but I have been unable to track down that particular sermon).
Morgan Guyton complains that popular penal substitution theology teaches that:-
1. ‘God is allergic to sin’. According to popular penal substitutionary theology, God cannot tolerate the presence of sin. This cannot be so, says Guyton, because in the incarnation God does indeed come and ‘eat and drink with sinners’. It is truer, therefore, to say that sin cannot tolerate God. It is not that light cannot tolerate darkness, but rather that darkness cannot tolerate light (Jn 3:19).
My comment: although it is true to say that ‘sin cannot tolerate God’, it is also true to say that ‘God cannot tolerate sin’. Habakkuk 3:1 – ‘Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil.’
2. ‘God sees Jesus instead of us when He looks at us’. The reason that God gives us his ‘approval’, it is said, is that when he looks at us he sees Jesus. But, complains Guyton, ‘that’s not approval; that’s deception…God doesn’t need to see a Jesus mask over our faces to approve us; His unconditional prior approval of us is the reason He sent His Word made flesh to empower us for holy living through our incorporation into His body.’
My comment: I think that both the assertion and its criticism are slightly juvenile. Both are trying to make the point that we are accepted in union with Christ, and that’s a profoundly biblical point.
3. ‘Since God is infinite, He is infinitely offended by the slightest of our sins’. But, says Guyton, ‘popular penal substitution theology conflates satisfying God’s honor with appeasing God’s anger. They are absolutely not the same thing. We need for God’s honor to be satisfied through Jesus’ blood because otherwise we would not be able to bear the shame of looking into His face.’
My comment: Guyton’s elaboration of his criticism doesn’t make complete sense to me. The assertion he is unhappy with seems to be a reasonable inference from texts such as James 2:10, ‘whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.’
4. ‘God poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross’. But (says Guyton) God’s wrath ‘has nothing to do with God being angry.’ In Ephesians 2:3, ‘To be a child of wrath according to Paul is to be owned by “the desires of our flesh and senses”. It has nothing to do with God being angry.’ In Romans 1:18, God’s ‘wrath’ seems to be ‘the proliferation of sin itself.’ Such texts suggest that we should understand wrath ‘as describing the poison that fills the air and curses the ground when God is dishonored rather than an emotion experienced by a God whom we probably shouldn’t presume to have the same kinds of emotions that we do.’
‘In any case,’ Guyton continues, ‘what happened on the cross is that God the Father did not prevent God the Son from being killed by the Jewish religious authorities. He let Him drink the cup of (His/our?) wrath which He came to Earth to drink. But this in no way means that the Father was the executioner of the Son for the sake of His own anger management.’
According to Guyton, Scripture does make God out to be the primary agent behind Christ’s death (Isa 53:10 notwithstanding). Still less does it teach that God punished his Son because of our sin.
No (concludes Guyton), the cross is not the exhibition of God’s wrath, but of his love (Ephesians 2:4f). ‘I just don’t see the cross having anything to do with God’s anger though it absolutely does rescue us from the οργη that describes the innate consequences of rebelling against God’s plan for us as creatures.’
My comment: Whatever problems there may be with the original assertion, Guyton’s criticism of it falls short of the mark. He seems to favour an impersonal interpretation of God’s wrath. This is problematic enough in itself. But the idea that God the Father’s part in the crucifixion was simply that he ‘did not prevent’ it from happening is even more concerning. Aside from any implications for a biblical doctrine of the Trinity (which penal substitution is thought to undermine) it flies in the face of texts such as Acts 2:23, where Peter speaks of Jesus death as occurring not only at the hands of men, but also by ‘God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’.