Last week, I introduced the topic for this spring’s Gospel Project for Adults and Students. I’ve been hearing from pastors who are leading their congregations through the “Atonement Thread” (in the months of March-May), which helps people put the Bible together to see how the theme of atonement runs from Genesis to Revelation.
For the next several Thursdays, I’ve invited some friends to contribute to a blog series that looks at the beauty of the atonement from different perspectives. Kicking off the series this week is Brandon Smith, who is writing about the mysterious beauty of penal substitution.
Brandon Smith (@BrandonSmith85) is Director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and serves as an editor for the Criswell Theological Review and The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He is proud to be Christa’s husband and Harper Grace’s daddy.
As he hung on the cross, Jesus cried out the epic, mysterious words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). What did He mean by this? How could the eternal Son be in any way separated from the eternal Father? Why does it matter?
These questions have perplexed Christians for centuries, but the answer is crucial: the sinless Jesus had God’s wrath toward our sins thrust upon His dying shoulders, temporarily separating Him from the eternal affection and protection of His own Father. He was abandoned in order to experience and absorb God’s anger.
This is called penal substitution: Jesus was punished (penalized) in our place (substitution) so that we could be forgiven.
Sin is so offensive to God that only the blood of a spotless sacrifice will wipe it clean (Isa. 53:5-6; Rom. 3:25; Heb. 10:11-12). So in the greatest mission trip of all time, God the Son entered human history to die a gruesome death to “become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13), even though he was anything but a curse, because we deserve wrath for the sins we commit (Rom. 1:18, 6:23; Eph. 2:3). Jesus Himself said that He came to give His life as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Paul echoed this, saying that Jesus came “to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus paid it all on the cross, once and for all (Heb. 10:12). Because of this, when God looks at us, he no longer sees a sinner destined for wrath; he sees His Son nailed to the cross, shedding His own blood in our place. He died so that we may truly live, free from the shackles of sin and death.
The great hymn “In Christ Alone” describes it this way:
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
Left to ourselves, God’s wrath would absolutely crush us. Suffering His anger is infinitely more devastating than anything we will ever experience. We simply could not bear the weight. We would be sentenced to death, both physically and spiritually, forever. But God is merciful, and because of the great love He has for us, He sent His Son into the world so that we might live (John 3:16-17; Eph. 2:4-5).
You see, life is more than simply breathing oxygen in and out for a few decades; true life is found in the joy of being known and loved by God. This is a life that is other-worldly yet entirely here, experienced now yet lasting for eternity. And this life is only available through faith in Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
This good news is not only for you or me individually. All of humanity is subject to God’s wrath apart from faith in Christ. As ministers of reconciliation, we are God’s ambassadors to a dead world (2 Cor. 5:18-20). When we look at those who do not know the freeing love of Christ, we should feel absolute sorrow that compels us to share the good news of God’s forgiveness with them. Like prisoners released from years of captivity, we know the immense delight of freedom. May we be propelled into our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools with this life-giving message.