Today, I received by email an earnest plea for theological help from someone with whom I have had previous correspondence regarding the doctrine of the atonement. My questioner wrote as follows:
I love God with all of my being but I cannot wrap my mind around this concept [penal substitutionary atonement] as it does not make sense to me other than hearing that it satisfies Gods justice. I know this sounds weird but I cringe when I think of God brutally taking His wrath out on Jesus instead of me or that the God I serve is like that. Maybe I do not yet comprehend the God I serve even though I make it my goal each day to know Him more. I am on fire for God but because of this topic, I cannot even speak to others as to why they should follow the God that I know because for me, the atonement is the beginning and end of Christianity. Without a clear answer to the atonement I am just spinning my wheels. The last few years have been very hard for me as I have spent so much of my energy trying to figure this out and getting nowhere. It has reached a point where it seems hopeless and my fire is all but gone for the spreading of the gospel. How can I share the good news with others if I don’t even understand it myself? I was hoping you could shed some light on PSA to this struggling Christian that I may not have understood as I have read most of the Christ Victor material out there as well as many PSA proponents.
This is an agonizing call, and I am posting my response here in hope that the help I offered may also help someone else, or that my answer may elicit greater light from someone else. Here is what I wrote:
I doubt that I’m up to giving you the key that will break open for you the mystery of PSA and the necessity that God’s justice be satisfied for sin to be forgivable, but here’s something that I have found very helpful personally.
Decades ago, I came upon James Oliver Buswell’s discussion of forgiveness, in particular, his proposal that all forgiveness requires vicarious suffering. I believe that he is correct in that basic notion, and here is how I think it informs this issue as I unpack the idea.
Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we make our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us the measuring stick for God’s forgiveness of our sins. It is not that we earn God’s forgiveness by extending it to others ourselves, but genuine repentance and acceptance of God’s fogiveness of us is evidenced by our own willingness to forgive others. It indicates that we have the quality of repentance and faith which enables God’s extension of forgiveness to us to be effective.
When we forgive some one else, however, we offer to bear the penalty of that person’s sin personally. In other words, we suffer vicariously, foregoing the restitution to which we are entitled, in order to free the wrong doer from that cost. This is what God did in the death of the Son. The Father did not inflict that upon the Son, but within the economy of the Trinity, where the Father is the just judge, the Son was the one God himself satisfying the demands of God’s justice, and taking upon himself the demands of justice – suffering so that the sinner need not suffer, without the intrinsic harmony of justice being destroyed. This is what forgiveness of repentant sinners always entails. As Paul put it, this is how God is just while being “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). Justice is done, as it must be if moral integrity is to be preserved. But the demands of justice are satisfied, the suffering is born, by the one sinned against, rather than the sinner. Thus the cycle of sin and punishment of the sinner, wrongdoing and vengeance, is broken.
The quest for justice is what drives revenge. Being created in the image of God, the sense of justice is deeply imbedded in our human beings. The desire that wrong doers pay the penalty for their wrong doing is not evil, it is good, but God has forbidden us to exact that penalty ourselves because our sinfulness makes us unable to do so in a manner that is genuinely just. So God tells us that vengeance is his and we must leave him to restore justice rather than taking into our own hands the righting of the disrupted harmony (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19). Only a perfectly righteous judge can be trusted to mete out justice with complete correctness. God is that judge, he knew what was necessary to restore the harmony of relationship between himself and sinners, and he bore that penalty himself, on behalf of sinners, to make it possible for him to declare sinners “not guilty,” on condition of their acknowledging that they deserved to pay the penalty and of their accepting God’s pardon.
When I look at things in this way, I do not see a blood thirsty God who demands blood sacrifice to satisfy his thirst. I see a God who is righteous, from whom all righteousness derives, but who cannot arbitrarily exempt himself from acting according to the standard of his own righteousness. It is not that God himself is bound by a system of justice that exists independently of him. It is that system of justice, which we all intuit in some way, though unreliably, which drives us to a desire for restitution or vengeance, when we are wronged. This derives from the character of God himself. We feel it because we bear his image. And God must be faithful to himself, so that he cannot forgive sinners in a manner that sets aside the justice that is an expression of his own very being. He can not and must not declare “not guilty” those who are guilty, without satisfying the demands of moral justice vicariously.
I do not find such a God difficult to commend to sinners in gospel proclamation. This is the only true God, who exhibits perfect love in making atonement for sinners, so that he can preserve perfect justice, even though he can only do this by taking upon himself the penalty which had to be borne for justice to be preserved. Our coming to peace with God comes about only because he propitiates his own righteous wrath, thereby removing the ground of his enmity toward us and reconciling us to himself.
What a great God we have. He is not hard to love. Not to love him shows that we do not understand him at all. To commend such a loving and just God to sinners who are helplessly bound for destruction is surely to offer incomparably great good news.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
I hope this may be of some help to you.