Some think that denying the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement maximizes the love of God.
Now, what is the doctrine of penal substitution and why should you care?
It is the doctrine that Jesus Christ bore the punishment (hence the word penal) that sinners deserved at the cross. To put it another way, it is the doctrine that states that at the cross Jesus absorbed the righteous wrath of God (penal) in the place of (substitution) sinful men and women. Often the doctrine of imputation follows, that is, at the cross Jesus took the wrath that sinners deserved even though he did nothing to deserve it and simultaneously that sinners are credited (or imputed) with the righteousness of Jesus even though they did nothing to deserve it. Therefore, as a result of the cross, Jesus was treated by God at the cross as a sinner even though he lived a perfect life, and sinners who trust Jesus are treated just as righteous before God as Jesus even though they are sinful.
Let’s be more succinct and personal: at the cross Jesus takes my sin and the punishment my sin deserves upon himself, and I get Jesus’ righteousness.
Critics of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (called PSA from here on out) think that God would never punish his Son. God is love. He would not do such a thing. How could he? Not even a good earthly father would such a thing let alone a loving deity, right? Some even chalk it up to “divine child abuse” saying that if God did such a thing he would be an abusive Father. In this case, so the logic goes, punishment = abuse, and, therefore, punishment is unloving and God would never act in such a way because he is love. Love never abuses.
Obviously, this is a serious charge. Because it assumes that those who do affirm PSA make God out to be an abuser. It places all who affirm PSA in the angry-and-mean God camp and those who deny PSA in the good-and-loving God camp.
Let’s be clear, there is no doubt that if there was something in any doctrine of the atoning work of Jesus that was against love it would severely contradict the character of God and his gospel shown in verses like John 3:16 and 1 John 4:8, which demonstrate the breathtaking love of God. The love of God is essential to the character of God and the gospel of God.
Are the assumptions of those who disregard and even mock PSA true? If God punishes Jesus in my place is that abusive? Is it unloving? Does it detract from Bible verses that emphasize the stunning love of God for the world? Does it entail a false view of how God saves sinners?
In fact, PSA is an essential Gospel truth. Notice I said essential. It is not a peripheral doctrine like whether every believer should speak in tongues or whether you can sit down and have a cold one with your friends? It’s about the atoning work of Jesus. It’s about how sinners get right with God. It’s about God’s love and what he has accomplished in his love for a sinful world. Few things could be closer to the heart of how God saves sinners.
No doubt, the atonement should not be reduced to PSA alone, but it cannot be denied. To deny PSA actually ends up minimizing God’s love for a sinful world instead of maximizing it, and compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ—how God saves sinners like you and me—itself.
Let’s let preacher Martyn Lloyd Jones unpack my previous statement,
“It is therefore, quite fitting to say that no-one really begins to understand the love of God and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who does not believe the substitutionary and penal doctrine of the Atonement. Think it out. Where do you see the love of God, if God’s Son is simply suffering the cruelty and all that men are doing to Him, in a useless manner? What is the point of it? If it achieves nothing, if it is not substitutionary, if it is not penal, if He is not really dealing with sins, it is useless suffering. It is pointless, it is sheer cruelty, there is no love there. Oh, the tragedy, that men should think that they are exalting the love of God in that way, whereas in reality they are evacuating it of its real essence and of its endless and eternal profundities! Here is where you see the love of God, that ‘God spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all’! He did not spare Him anything; He poured upon Him the vials of His wrath against sin. He did not spare Him anything. And it was for us, and because of His love for us! Not what men did to Him, but what God did to Him as the Judge of the world, the righteous Judge eternal, the Holy Father—that is the supreme issue in the ‘death of the cross’! And the Son gave Himself willingly, there was no compulsion. He set His face steadfastly. His one desire was to do His Father’s will and thus to bring about our salvation. And it is only as you see Him as the innocent Victim, the Substitute, who has voluntarily put Himself in our place to receive our punishment, that you even begin to understand and to measure the eternal love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And the Apostle Paul confirms all that we read elsewhere in Scripture—‘as Christ also hath loved us and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.’” “The Atoning Work of Christ”, Darkness and Light, An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17, 310-311.