[Taken from “Calvary: The Story Behind God’s Gift of Himself“]
Penal Substitution Theory
I want to quote, Henry Wace, the Dean of Canterbury from 1903 to 1924, in his work, The Sacrifice of Christ: Its Vital Reality and Efficacy, page 16. He argued, “A law which can be broken without an adequate penalty, is no law at all; and it is inconceivable that God’s moral law can be violated without entailing consequences of the most terrible kind. … And can it reasonably be supposed that the most flagrant and willful violation of the highest of all laws—those of truth and righteousness—should entail no such results?”Jesus being punished because of us is an idea we, therefore, should not avoid, if we are serious about the truth about Calvary.
There are two words in the Greek for punishment in the Bible. One, means to defend the honor of the punisher who receives satisfaction in afflicting pain on an offender. Although akin to the idea of vengeance, punishment need not be vindictive, especially if it is required by law. The other word is corrective. The first is retribution for evil inflicted. The second, discipline.
Aristotle [sorry for not offering you an aspirin for your headache] tried to explain this difference: The question is hidden away in the mind of the punisher. Is he doing this to satisfy his rage and defend his honor? Aristotle called this retribution. Or is he punishing someone to deter recidivism [enough pain that makes them think twice about doing it again], as a correction?
From pagan inscriptions, we learn that only retributive justice is spoken of. Violation of cultic law brings retribution and only confession of the offender’s guilt can bring back the deity’s gracious favor. Sacrifices are intended to appease the deity’s wrath, to fulfill (Aristotle’s word for “to satisfy”) their outrage over being dishonored or disobeyed.
The word the theologian likes to use is “propitiation.” The use of this term says that Jesus pleased God by dying for our sins. The suggestion is a retributive justice. [I don’t like the word, propitiation, even though it has been in use at least since the 4th century. Nor am I interested in using it.]
Let’s speak of punishment as retribution, and “chastisement” as correction or a restoration of order, friendship, right from wrong. Now, let’s ask the Bible. The Bible does speak of a severe punishment, torment, but the words used never refer to the Cross. Scriptural silence, however, does not mean that this isn’t true; for, Isaiah’s 53rd chapter is the message of a vicarious [for us] affliction Jesus took on our behalf. This might be viewed as a punishment.
But Isaiah preferred to use the word “chastisement.” He prophesied that “the chastisement of our peace was upon Jesus” ( Isaiah 53:5). This term is primarily associated with the proverbs of Solomon where he addresses parental instruction and the need of children to be taught which sometimes means discipline—but never, hopefully, death.
Punishment in the Bible is eternal and has nothing to do with those who love Jesus (Matthew 25:46). The word punishment went from chastisement to retribution because it lost its use as a corrective force and became more a final solution; so, the New Testament only uses it in the context of final judgment. It might be said that Jesus’ crucifixion was a final judgment (“it is finished”) on our sins and the “old us” (Romans 6:6) but it would have been somewhat clearer had the word been used in that context—it was not.
Our faith was never dependent on our knowing exactly what this all means, anyway, only that it was Jesus who was that sacrifice for our sins. Nevertheless, let’s be cautious about comparing God’s reason for doing what He does with what sounds natural and reasonable to us. Getting back to what Henry Wace said, we need to proceed with an open mind and heart when talking about the “law of God.” Some form of punishment or correction was required because of who we were without Jesus, and Jesus took that punishment and correction for us. We are merely recipients of such a mercy. Later we will talk about this as the “Wondrous Exchange.” It’s awesome!