Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On the atonement

The penal substitutionary view of the atonement has fallen on hard times in some quarters. "Divine child abuse" is one phrase of disapprobation that critics have attached to the view that Jesus died on the cross to appease his Father's wrath against sin. The doctrine allegedly begets "vampire Christians" who want Jesus for his blood but little else. And I recently heard someone ridicule the idea of penal substitution by saying that it posits a God who asks more of us than he is able to do himself: God does not allow us the luxury of kicking Bill, against whom we have nothing, in order to appease our anger against Bob, against whom we do have something that we would like to forgive.

When assessing those kinds of criticisms of a doctrine, it helps to find a good defense of the doctrine under attack and see if it bears any resemblance to the representation of the doctrine by the critic. So this past weekend I reached for one of the best popular explanations of a penal substitutionary view of the atonement of which I am aware: chapter six of John Piper's book The Pleasures of God, entitled "The Pleasure of God in Bruising His Son."

The chapter title (based on Isaiah 53:10) would indeed suggest divine child abuse, and sadistic divine child abuse at that, since God took pleasure in bruising his Son. But you cannot judge a chapter by its title, which, in this case, was undoubtedly intended to be provocative, the kind of thing that begs for an explanation. And the explanation given by Piper here totally destroys the idea that penal substitution is a kind of divine child abuse.

Let me briefly summarize the chapter. Piper begins with a summary of chapters one through five of The Pleasures of God, in which he had set forth and defended the idea that God, being supremely righteous and glorious, rightly values his own glory and honor above all things. God intends to be glorified through all the earth in all the things he has made. And to that end, God has chosen certain people through whom he is to be particularly glorified. But there is a problem: the people whom God has chosen are sinners, and as sinners they have obscured God's glory, the very thing God is most committed to displaying. So what was God to do? Ignoring the sin, sweeping it "under the rug of the universe" wouldn't befit a righteous God. We do not think much of judges who acquit the guilty; how much more unrighteous would God be to acquit those guilty of the most heinous sin: Failing to acknowledge or give thanks to God, exchanging the glory of God for created things? Since God has so acquitted such heinous sinners, however, it cries out for an explanation. That is what Piper tries to give in this chapter.

And Piper's explanation of penal substitution looks nothing like divine child abuse. Note these three distinctions:
(1) Piper notes that the Father and Son agreed that the Son would be bruised for the sins of the world. He then illustrates the nature of the agreement in his closing parable, where a human father and his adult son plan a rescue operation in an evil country, where the son would necessarily die in carrying out the plan.

(2) Lest we think we're dealing with a case of a sadist Father and masochist Son, Piper notes that the pleasure the Father took in his Son's suffering was not pleasure in the Son's suffering in and of itself, but rather in what his suffering accomplished, i.e., vindication of the worth of God's glory and redemption of God's chosen people. Just as Jesus didn't exult in his suffering in and of itself, but endured it "for the sake of the joy set before him," so his Father exulted in what Jesus's suffering accomplished.

(3) Piper's explanation of God's dilemma establishes that this was not a case of God wanting to forgive sinners, but needing to vent his anger against someone else to do so. Rather, it was about demonstrating the absolute justice and righteousness of God's character, and the priceless worth of God's glory. And those are the very things that Jesus displayed supremely in his suffering and death.

The climax of Piper's chapter on God's pleasure in bruising his Son is lovely. He writes (p. 176) that Jesus's "every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: the glory of God is of infinite value!" Therefore, "in the very moment that God's curse rested most heavily on Jesus because of sin, the Father's love for his Son reached explosive proportions." And Jesus "knew that he was bearing it for the Father's glory, and that the Father loved him for it."

Here we see worked out in human history the "sweet agreement" (Richard Sibbes's phrase) between the Father and Son to redeem the people of God: to carry out an excruciatingly difficult rescue mission. Not divine child abuse. Everything about this (now accomplished) mission proclaims "the glory of God is of infinite value!" There is indeed more to Jesus's work on the cross than substitution, but let us not be ashamed to proclaim in our day what God has accomplished in Jesus, and, against those who would call the Father a child abuser, to thoughtfully praise the Father for his righteous pleasure in the bruising of his Son.

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