Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Together For The Gospel 2008: Session #6

Al Mohler

Why Do They Hate It So? The Doctrine of Substitution

Reflecting on Acts 16:26, Charles Wesley wrote a hymn. The first verse says this:

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior's blood! Died he for me? who caused his pain! For me? who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

This hymn is like a short, poetic, lyrical exercise in systematic theology. And though it’s hard for us to imagine, there are those who hate the words, images, and truth claims contained in this hymn. There is resistance all around us to the blood of Christ, the wrath of God, penal atonement and this resistance is not new. There are those who hate it so.

But our focus tonight isn’t why the unregenerate hate it so. Rather why would those who claim to be Christian hate it so?

There are three main understandings of Christ’s death and its meaning:

1) The cross has its effect entirely on humanity
2) The cross has its effect primarily on hostile, spiritual forces
3) The cross has its effect first on God by propitiating His wrath towards sinners

There are three main views of humanity’s greatest need:

1) Humanity’s great problem is the need to be delivered from spiritual forces.
2) Humanity’s great problem is the need to know God’s love for us.
3) The main problem is God’s righteous wrath against us.

The third in both cases is what Scripture teaches and this is why a penal, substitutionary atonement is required. It must be both penal and substitutionary. When we deny the penal, substitutionary nature of the atonement there are always ripple-effect like ramifications on our theology.

Four major categories of objections to the penal, substitutionary nature of the atonement:

1) Biblical
We (those who believe in penal substitution) have misunderstood the Scripture in whole or in part. We are wrong because we have the whole Bible storyline wrong. Here’s how:

  • We misunderstand sin. Sin is not a transgression against God’s holiness but rather entering into the powers of darkness.
  • We misunderstand wrath. Wrath is a natural consequence of sin. Sin brings about its own punishment. God allows the natural world to work out its own consequences.
  • We misunderstand sacrifice. The animal is not really being punished. We are misled when we believe God required sacrifice.
  • We misunderstand expectation. Prophets weren’t looking ahead for one who would deliver from sin.
  • We misunderstand the relationship of the Old Testament to the New.
  • We misunderstand the words of Jesus. Jesus never wrote anything.
  • We misunderstand the New Testament language of wrath.
  • We miss the fact that the main message of Jesus is non-violence.

Yet some say that we understand properly. They just flat out reject it.

2) Theological
Some theological objections:

  • The idea of penal, substitutionary atonement makes it sound like God wanted Jesus to die and predestined Pilate and Caiphas to make it happen. Surely not. Jesus is God’s beloved Son.
  • The cross demonstrates the compassion of God. The real issue is a broken relationship, not a broken contract. It is we that need to be changed and not God. We need to be delivered from the power of evil and become people who love God again.
  • Jesus doesn’t change God’s disposition towards us but rather our disposition towards God.
  • In experiencing suffering through the incarnation, God the Son only did so to learn how to identify with humans.
  • God is not foremost an angry God who desires to punish humans. He is a God of love.
  • Many live in fear of a God who is unwilling to forgive sins.

3) Moral

  • A penal, substitutionary atonement is divine child abuse.
  • Supposedly, women have been counseled to accept beatings from their husbands as Christ accepted the punishment of cross.

4) Cultural

  • Penal, substitutionary atonement is irrelevant. Postmoderns don’t believe that they are sinners in the first place.
  • Penal, substituionary atonement is just too individualistic.

So once again, why do they hate it so?

They reject the Scriptures. They reject wrath. They reject the character of God. They reject imputation of sin from Adam. They reject the biblical idea of salvation.

When you reject the penal, substitutionary nature of the atonement, to name just a few things that must necessarily follow:

  • You undermine the exclusivity of the gospel. If the problem is primarily that something in us needs to change, then there is no exclusive need for Christ.
  • You undermine the church.
  • You undermine the idea of hell. No wrath. No punishment.

When they ask us what the gospel is, let us be clear and simple, telling them: for our sake God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In the panel session that followed, the first question that C.J. asked was about how guys like those who reject penal substitution get to where they are and how we are to relate to them. The name he named is Clark Pinnock. Pinnock is a unique example in that he used to have, for the most part, a solidly orthodox theology. But now he's wandered not only into open theism, but rejecting penal substitution. As I pondered this question , I think this is one of the biggest takeaways from Al's talk. It just doesn't make sense to me that people who are smarter than me can't see what's clearly in the text. It's not rocket science. And at the bottom of this is that God has simply withheld grace from them. Period. The only reason we aren't in error that isn't grotesquely worse is purely because of sovereign grace that has opened our eyes to see the truth and keeps them open. Why does he hate it so and I don't? In light of my similar total depravity, the answer is that God has given me grace and withheld it from him. So I ought not be naive to think that this could never happen to me but instead I ought to pray with trembling that God would keep me from intellectualizing my theology so much that I become hardened, ceasing to worship the One who desires my affections and end up rejecting the only basis of my hope. And how do I relate to such men? My only answer is to lift them up to the judge of all the earth who will most certainly do what is just: Lord, have mercy on them and grant them repentance that leads to a knowledge of the truth.

Download the audio here.

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