The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently created controversy with its decision to drop the hymn 'In Christ Alone' by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend from its new hymnal. The reason for this decision centred around some of the lyrics found in verse two which stated 'on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied'. The presbytery committee in charge of the new hymnal had wanted to substitute 'the wrath of God was satisfied' with 'the love of God was magnified'. When the authors refused their permission for this change, the committee then took the decision to drop the hymn rather than include it with the original words. The reason for their taking issue with the words of that line centred around the word 'satisfied' and its link with the doctrine of penal substitution; that Christ as our substitute bore the wrath of God on the cross which we deserved and so satisfied the divine law. So are the PCUSA right in their view that the cross is not an instrument of God's wrath or did God really punish Christ on the cross?
What is penal substitution?
Penal substitution is the teaching, grounded in scripture, that Christ on the cross took our place (substitution) and was punished (penalised) for sin so that the demands of God's justice could be met and we declared righteous in his sight. Charles Hodge said that 'His sufferings and death were adequate to accomplish all the ends designed by the punishment of the sins of men. He satisfied justice. He rendered it consistent with the justice of God. that the sinner should be justified'. Instead of God punishing us sinners as we deserve, his wrath was satisfied in the death of Christ on the cross. God is not able to forgive sin without having first received satisfaction for it, for he is a holy God 'that will by no means clear the guilty'. The doctrine of penal substitution teaches that satisfaction has been received for Christ has been punished for sin in our place. On the cross God treated Christ as if he had lived our lives with all of our sin, so then he can now treat us as if we had lived our life with all of Christ's holiness.
Modern denial of penal substitution
There are many preachers today who deny that God punished Christ on the cross for the sins of his people. In 2004 Steve Chalke described it in blasphemous terms stating that 'the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed'. Rev Jeffrey John, the prominent homosexual Anglican clergyman said that 'That explanation of the cross just doesn’t work, though sadly it’s one that’s still all too often preached . . . The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us'. William Paul Young, author of best selling Christian novel The Shack, also specifically rejected penal substitutionary atonement during a radio interview in 2009. Many more names could be cited of prominent teachers who have rejected this teaching and sadly deluded others into following their false gospel, one with no hope. These men have denied the very essence of the gospel message and have so turned it into a message without hope.
The necessity for penal substitution
For Christ to be punished in our place is an absolute necessity in order for us to be reconciled to God. Whilst God is a God of love, 'Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin' he is also a God who is holy and just 'that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation'. God's holiness demands that payment must be made for sin, that someone must be punished. If Christ has not taken the punishment for our sin then that punishment is still be visited upon the sinner. If Christ did not bear the suffering of our eternal hell on the cross then it still awaits us. All through the Old Testament the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is clearly taught with the Israelites offering a lamb as atonement for their sin, Abraham offering Isaac until God revealed to him the ram tangled in the thicket yet nowhere is the teaching more clear than in Isaiah 53 where we read that 'he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed'. So clear it is that Christ was punished (wounded in the verse) in our place, because of our sins. If Christ has not bore our punishment, if he has not been 'bruised for our iniquities' then the wrath of God has not been satisfied but abides on us still.
The good news which penal substitution brings
What does it then mean for us that Christ has been punished for your sin, that he has taken your place and been your substitute? Colossions 1:20 says that he has 'made peace through the blood of his cross'. Through Christ's suffering on the cross God's justice has been satisfied and if you would only but trust in the cross of Christ then you will be declared righteous before a holy God. The price which you could never pay has been paid, and paid in full. We need never fear the wrath of God for Christ has quenched that wrath through his atoning death. Believe on him and receive the assurance that your sins are forgive. What better news is there than that; than the truth that 'God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life'. The good news is that we will not perish because of our sin, Christ borne the penalty for us.