Abstract. Many passages in the Bible are unequivocal that Christ died as our substitute to take the penalty of our sins. This is the bedrock of the Good News from which Evangelicals take their name. The dispute considered in this paper is over the nature of the penalty that Jesus bore as a substitute, as distinct from his other roles in the Atonement. Was the penalty separation from the holy God or did it involve all Christ’s suffering here on earth as well? Disagreements, ambiguities and downright mistakes about this matter slow the spreading of that Gospel, weaken individual daily discipleship and dull the salt and light of Christian witness in social action — quite directly in penal reform.
The whole of the Good News
The motivation of this paper
It must grieve our heavenly Father to see the current sharp division among evangelical Christians over the role of penal substitution in the atoning death of his Son, Jesus Christ. This article is a brief attempt to identify a primary underlying cause of this breach, to show this causus belli to be unnecessary and to appeal therefore for reconciliation – starting with greater care on both sides in use of the whole Bible and in addressing others’ full array of concerns on this particular issue.
This article seeks to draw attention to what the Christian scriptures actually say, including where in current historical understanding that may differ from what evangelical theologians have built on biblical exposition in the past. The primary intention is to support evangelistic, pastoral and educational ministries that seek to present the whole Gospel of the kingdom of God and his Christ through the Spirit. Therefore I have sought independent review by theologically qualified senior pastors. Comments also from academic colleagues have been invaluable. I am most grateful too for challenging and thereby supportive comments from anonymous reviewers solicited by the Editor. None of that gives this piece any academic or pastoral authority. I claim only to be asking readers to search the Scriptures for themselves.
This paper is about what Christ’s death achieved for us in one particular respect – taking on himself in our stead the penalty to which God as eternal judge justly sentences each of us as sinners. The issue is whether, in this one of the variety of biblical accounts of the Atonement, Christ was our substitute for all or many of the multifarious consequences of sin or the penalty that he took in place of us was specifically our separation by our sin from the God of utter holiness.
Jesus Christ, the humanly incarnate and divine Son of God, was separated from God the eternal Father on the Cross so that each of us sinful other human beings might become reconciled to God, the eternally loving Three in One. This is a ‘legal’ account of Christ’s atoning for our sin in the sense that the heavenly Judge lays the sentence on Christ and waives it on us. Reconciliation between God and humanity is achieved by such Justification. Those polysyllabic technical terms can be avoided by explaining that I have been re-made ‘at one’ with my Maker by the triune God’s intervention so that it is ‘just as if I’d never sinned.’
From the Bible, as far as I can see (and as I have been taught since childhood by faithful believers), our salvation by Christ is not exhaustively accounted for by penal substitution. There are other aspects of the atonement that cannot be conflated with substitutive sentencing. Christ defeated the entire power of our sin in us sinners in many ways in addition to the essential atonement by dying instead of us.
That is, I believe that penal substitution is the sine qua non of our salvation but is not the only biblical account even of our justification. Furthermore, the full Gospel is that we are not only justified but also sanctified and even glorified with Christ in his life, death and resurrection on earth. Without essaying a theological doctrine, I am claiming that the scriptural emphases are that Jesus Christ died for our justification and that he suffered for our sanctification. The whole Gospel is that Jesus has saved us from separation from God beyond this life and within every part of our life each day here on earth.
Exclusive emphasis on divine judgement
It seems to me that unfortunate errors have been made on both sides of the controversy over penal substitution. There have been unbiblical elements within preaching about God’s judgement on sin by self-professed ‘conservative’ evangelicals and in implicit or even explicit denial of the reality of the hell of separation from God by those who sometimes prefer to call themselves ‘liberal’ evangelicals.
My experience is that the lack of clarity that has made this disagreement fester into division has in the first instance been on the conservative side. Historic difficulties in the understanding of God’s wrath at sin have not been addressed by continuous faithful reconsideration (“always reforming”) of biblical exegesis in the face of issues arising from new historical events, new social possibilities, new conceptual analyses and new empirical evidence.
The writing of this article was in fact triggered by an over-emphasis in recent preaching in some quarters of conservative evangelicalism on God’s judgement on sin, coupled with relegation of that judging to the return of Christ and to the suffering of condemned sinners in the after-life. Curiously, the word ‘hell’ is seldom used by these preachers. Yet the logic is the same as that of the hell-fire preaching that used to feature in some forms of mass evangelism.
It has even been written that “God’s way of saving people from his coming wrath” is “the heart of the Gospel,” without mention of any of the other riches in Christ of which the New Testament is full and to which the Old Testament narrative looks forward. Such preaching has typically had a focus on passages from the Epistles rather than the Gospels and Acts – and indeed on Pauline letters to the neglect of the Johannine and Petrine, as well as James and even Hebrews. Strange though the thought appears to be to some, there is much more to the Gospel even just in Paul’s writings than the first four chapters of the Letter to the Romans1 and cognate passages in other Epistles!
Salvation from God’s judgment, to the contrary, is only the start of the Gospel. “God with us” is the true heart of the Gospel. Furthermore, the Cross turns God’s wrath from me not just on Judgment Day but also right now. In addition, the Cross gives me God’s love and power over sin right now – the resurrected and glorified Jesus ruling over my actions, reasons and feelings through the power of the Holy Spirit. The good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God is not just sweet pie in the sky when we die but, much more practically, the strong meat of muscular and nurturing Christianity for our lives on earth.2 Christian people drank the milk of justification when they first repented and so they should be fed by their pastors from the diverse biblical menu of sanctification (Hebrews 6:1). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) – not just the life after death, but new life now, following in the Way and obedient to the Truth as he speaks to our situations today.
Evangelists of the unsaved should be preaching the power of Christ’s cleansing blood to revolutionise how we act and think: “if Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for him” (C.T. Studd). The risen Jesus gave the Great Commission to his followers to be his witnesses in the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:8) by making disciples who obey what he had taught (Matthew 28: 19-20), with no mention there of preaching rescue from God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment and everlasting punishment by fires of Hell. Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples for offering to call down fire from heaven on those who refused to receive him (Luke 9:53-55) – in that case because of a theological dispute, it might be noted.
Reducing the Gospel to being saved from God’s judgment is to trivialise the power of sin and the work of the Holy Spirit in all believers’ full-time Christian ministries here on earth – in short, to downgrade sanctification relative to justification. The sin from which Christ saved us on the Cross, as illustrated so powerfully by John Bunyan’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, spoils everything in human life — even the lives of the redeemed — and is not just failure to repent and be entered into the kingdom of God. Christ taking our judgment on himself is the start of the Christian life: all the riches in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are then made available.
Overextension of the doctrine of penal substitution
Serious neglect of sanctification and the work of the Spirit in the believer is part and parcel of forms of teaching about penal substitution that displace other biblical accounts of the Atonement and of the entire saving powers of Christ’s death. This has the effect of turning expositions of an essential part of the Gospel into paradoxical denials of the full Gospel.
What is missing from the current conservative writing that I have read is a clear position on what penalty for sin other than spiritual death Christ took in our stead, thus justifying us. Were Christ’s sufferings as a man a result of our sin (not his) but also as our substitute for those consequences of sin that come in the form of suffering by the saved and unsaved alike? Or did he undergo such suffering as the saviour of believers from the power of sin in their redeemed lives here on earth? These empowering rather than substitutive sufferings included (for example) temptation, deprivation, and verbal and physical abuse.
My understanding from the Bible and of what we have learnt from the Creator’s ‘other book’ is that spiritual death is the separation from God who is in eternity of the whole of a person’s mortal life (or soul) – her or his sociality, embodiment and mentation here and now.3 Physical death is the extinction of that entire person. Resurrection is the new creation of the same unitary person, as a social entity, a bodily entity and a mental entity. God could decide to raise a human being from the dead integral to this space and time or in some other context that has whatever space-like and time-like characteristics are necessary to the social relationships and the discrete embodiment on which a human individual’s thoughts and feelings in fact depend. Far more importantly for practical purposes, spiritual life is available here and now: it consists of being a new creation in Christ, full of the Spirit and lovingly obedient to the heavenly Father.
As planned from eternity in love between God the Father and God the Son, the man Jesus of Nazareth, that same Son incarnate, was forsaken by his Father on the Cross while he was made sin for us. The extinction of Christ’s mortal life was also Christ’s spiritual death in our place, as prefigured in the animal sacrifices decreed by Yahweh for the Israelites. This separation within created time between the eternally one Father and Son was an essential part of God’s self-sacrifice in relinquishing the divine glory to be a man on earth. Jesus recognised that he was among us in order to carry out this awful task and he shouted in triumph from the Cross when he had finished it. God confirmed the defeat of spiritual death by raising Jesus from the dead and in eternity Jesus sits on the throne as the Son at the right hand of the Father.
On the other hand, I suggest, the suffering with which sinful human beings are cursed as a result of our sin against God was also redeemed in the life, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, but not by him being our substitutionary representative for these earthly effects of sin. Much at least of Christ’s suffering throughout his ministry did not take away our sufferings as Christ’s separation from God took away our separation from God. Rather, Christ suffered as a means to the end of substituting for us but also as our leader in carrying out the sin-crippled mandate to rule the earth in God’s image.
John Stott made this distinction very clear in The Cross of Christ (1986).4 “We sinners still of course suffer from the personal, psychological and social consequences of our sins but the penal consequence, the deserved penalty of alienation from God, has been borne by Another in our place, so that we may be spared it.”
I do not claim that it must be exactly right to say that Christ died as our substitute but did not suffer as our substitute, nor that there is an absolute distinction or even a fully clear boundary between these two aspects of Christ’s work on earth. I am claiming only that the strong biblical case for this at least partial differentiation has been neglected and that its neglect seems likely to be an underlying exacerbation of the controversy over penal substitution.
In no way am I supporting any criticism of the doctrine of penal substitution: on the contrary, I glory in Christ’s death for the sins of the world, most personally because it included me. It is precisely because Christ’s death in the sinner’s stead is central to the Gospel that I am so puzzled and distressed that this truth has been presented in such a way as to obscure the power that Christ Jesus made available by his incarnate life, his atoning death, his awesome resurrection and his pouring out of the Spirit on the church, and even perhaps to deprive Christian people of their spiritual birthright of full experience of life in Christ. A house has to have a foundation but the foundation is pointless without the whole house built upon it, right up to the roof. Our justification is for our sanctification. Our entry into the kingdom of God is in order to serve the King.
So the case made below from the teaching of Scripture (and also with ethical self-consistency) is that Christ died for our sins but his sufferings came from his obedience, not as part of the propitiatory aspect of the Atonement. God shows his love by coming to save us by dying for us, suffering en route in his identification with humanity corrupted by sin. Sin earns spiritual death but produces earthly suffering. God does not stoke the fires of hell; we do. God’s holiness means separation and spiritual death for those who are unholy but does not impose pains extraneous to sinners’ eternal damnation by their own actions.
The witness of the Bible
Christ died for our sins
Throughout my 63 years as a believer in the Good News of the Christ of the Bible, I have trusted in the death of Jesus on the Cross to save me from sin and hell. From my earliest understanding, this was all because of Jesus Christ’s love for me and his call to let him into my life. None of this commitment was from fear of God’s wrath and of terrors worse than the deathly loneliness of being cut off from the source of Life and Love and the mental distress of having saddened my Saviour.
As a child, I read the teaching of Jesus about outer darkness and of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I understood that the death of Jesus had rescued me from Gehenna, a smoking rubbish heap into which I’d already cast my young life, not a fiery furnace which an angry God had created ready to burn me alive after the end of my mortal existence. The Lord is like a refiner’s fire, yes, but to his faithful people, through the furnace of affliction (Isaiah 48:10-11; Zechariah 13:9), purging them of all that sullies their treatment of the needy and the oppressed or their intimacy with each other and with him (Malachi 3:1-6). Both Moses and the writer to the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29) were warning those who already trust in God that he is a consuming fire, jealous for his own honour among the people he has chosen. Hebrews 12 starts by exhorting the Jewish Christians to strip off the entangling clothes of sin, which is failure to obey the First Commandment to have no other gods before the God who redeemed them. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus … who … endured the cross” (Heb 12:2). “The Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb 12:6). This is not Apollos still needing instruction from Paul: Romans 12:1-2 says equally, “… offer your bodies as living sacrifices … your spiritual act of worship … transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
The basic problem, as I understand the situation, is that some proponents of penal substitution speak of the penalty for sin as though it were retributive imposition of pain and conservative biblical scholars have not refuted such teaching as a misinterpretation of Scripture. Silence on this issue should not have been regarded as an option. Even if this paper is totally misguided, my hope is that it might play some part in provoking biblical scholars and systematic theologians to re-investigate and re-state a scriptural stance (or range of stances faithful to the whole Bible) on just judgments on punishments for offences against God and humanity. Only then can the full gospel be preached, including the penalty that has been paid by Christ on the cross, but going far beyond as well.
Responses to critics of teaching on penal substitution
UCCF (www.uccf.org.uk – one of the sponsors of C-A-N-), in the July 2007 issue of its news magazine, nb, published a superb exposition of the classic doctrine of Penal Substitution by Professor J.I. (Jim) Packer (starting “Throughout my 63 years as an evangelical believer, the penal substitutionary understanding of the cross of Christ has been a flashpoint of controversy and division …”). Unfortunately this 3-page article makes only one allusion to the specific nature of the penalty borne by Christ, in a one-word dismissal of a polemic phrase encapsulating for the critics a key issue about that penalty.
Earlier, Dr. Garry J. Williams of Oak Hill College replied to the prominent recent critics on penal substitution – an updated version of the article being available at www.theologian.org/doctrine/punished.html This response from historical theology also fails to make the doctrinally and ethically crucial distinction between punishments by spiritual death and by physical suffering. Worse, it cites without comment Gregory the Great’s (inflammatory!) statement that “sin could not be cleared away but by the fire of torment.”
Bishop Tom (Dr. N.T.) Wright has also intervened in the recent controversy at some length (e.g., The Cross and the Caricatures, Easter 2007, discussed on www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk). He criticises both sides for being unbiblical but also omits to comment on the irrelevance to penal substitution of the morality of punishment by torture (even just by reference to his many relevant writings). The nearest I can find in the Bishop’s full paper is a reference to “the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son.” This is far from a clear repudiation of the idea that a part of the penalty Christ bore in our stead was physical suffering.5 Two or three contributors to the blog on Fulcrum asked for the issue about God’s wrath to be addressed but their pleas were drowned in factional point-scoring.
Among the key texts for the doctrine of penal substitution in the Atonement have been parts of two verses in Isaiah 53, namely “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (53:5) and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all” (53:6). The New Testament is perfectly clear in applying the whole of Isaiah 53 to the individual person of Jesus. We have peace with God, and indeed also with ourselves and others as a consequence, because Christ took our sins upon himself and bore the punishment in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The issue however is what that punishment was. If the wrath of God against sin was fully spent in Jesus on the Cross being forsaken by his God, then expositors of these passages in Isaiah should make that crystal clear. In that case, the physical, social and mental sufferings of Jesus in his human nature were not part of the penalty that he took from us. Instead, they were among the necessities of the Incarnation without which Atonement for humanity by physical and spiritual death in substitutionary separation of the Son from the Father would have been impossible.
The two other direct references to penal substitution in Isaiah 53 have no immediate context of suffering. One verse refers explicitly to death (the part quoted above of the final verse, 12) and goes on, “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for transgressors.” The other verse (6) refers to separation from God (spiritual death): “… each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
It seems therefore that even Isaiah 53 allows us to draw a distinction between Christ’s justifying death and his sanctifying suffering that can be drawn clearly from other parts of Scripture. It would at the very least be careless to allow a tradition of uses of this passage to create unnecessary problems about the doctrine of penal substitution arising from Christ’s human suffering before and on the Cross.
In summary, Isaiah 53 prophesies in vivid detail the physical sufferings of Jesus Christ at his trial and crucifixion. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the explicitly penal statements in Isaiah do not themselves refer to physical suffering. If this is one viable interpretation, then Isaiah 53 should not be used in ways that are inconsistent with the central thrust of the Good News about God in Christ coming to earth to save the world, as declared throughout the New Testament.
That is, proponents of the doctrine of penal substitution should take great care to lay it on the line to ordinary people that Christ’s Passion was not part of the righteous judgment of God himself borne by Christ in our stead. This is consistent with the repeated explicit teaching of Jesus himself that physical suffering is not a selective judgment on the wicked. It coheres too with New Testament teaching that suffering is God’s discipline of his children, not his judgment on them.
The suffering borne for us by our Redeemer
In Isaiah 53:10, the King James Version says that “it pleased the Lord to bruise him.” Scholars of OT Hebrew will have to tell me what the verb in the text means but the verb ‘to please’ in English has been much misunderstood (as I know only too well in my psychological research). At the very least, ‘being pleased’ is ambiguous between doing what one wants and getting pleasure out of some activity or entity. Arguably ‘pleasing’ only ever means ‘wanted’ and rather seldom in fact also refers to a yield of something ‘pleasurable’. If the latter meaning were correct, a clearer translation would be ‘the Lord took pleasure in bruising him’ — which would indeed be physical abuse of the Servant. In fact the New International Version has “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer.” It is part of the Father’s all-loving plan for the Son to be part of mortal humanity and to share what we suffer every day as a result of our sin, and yet to be innocent: in verse 4: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows … stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” This was the cup that Jesus chose to drink to its dregs for us. It was part of his disciplining as a faithful son (Hebrews 12:2-11). No-one who has suffered and found God in the experience could confuse such loving obedience to that ‘discipline’ with sado-masochism. Furthermore, as Packer, Jeffery and co-authors and others have emphasised, this was also the plan agreed among the Father, Son and Spirit before the foundation of the world in God’s utter love spilling over to us creatures made in the image of God.
In short, Jesus’s obedience unto death was extremely costly in suffering. It was his identification with humanity but it was not in itself his substitution for us. Were it not for his obedience in order to reconcile us with God, he would not have been separated from God for our sakes in the spiritual death to which we are all condemned. As the writer to the Hebrews stated it, Christ had to be like us in every way so that he could make atonement for our sins (Hebrews 2:17). However it was not the obedience or the suffering that made us right with God: it was the Son’s separation from his Father instead of us that was the penalty that he took instead of us and opened up the way for sinners to be reconciled to a holy God. The bodily, interpersonal, mental and spiritual suffering of our Lord inspires us to devotion and strengthens us in all kinds of adversity. The broad pattern is that Christ died for our justification and suffered for our sanctification.
Rescue from spiritual death and grace for human suffering
When the first human couple disobeyed God and learnt the difference between good and evil by personal acquaintance with evil, they stayed alive on earth: the penalty for rebelling against God was spiritual death – partly manifest in banishment from the presence of the Lord in daily conversation and from life in what they had found to be a piece of heaven on earth. They and their biological and cultural descendants had to wait until the Tree of Life was set up again at the first possible moment in human history (approaching CE 30, at Jerusalem), the fruit of which all who trust in God can eat and have eternal life.
The Gospel of John (3:16) states that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him has eternal life, not eternal death. The Father “gave” (away) the Son. John does not say that the Father tortured the Son. We face eternity without God unless we accept this offer of reconciliation and life with God. John does not say that we face eternal torture if we reject God’s gift of Jesus.
1 John 4:10 is more explicit: “God … sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The loving Son was self-sacrificially obedient to his loving Father, all the way to an horrifically painful and shaming death, but the obedience itself was not the atonement for our sins. The atoning was not merely (or perhaps at all) the destruction of earthly human life itself — body, relationships and mind3 — but the facing of eternity while separated from God in this life.
The Epistles say a great deal about the death of Jesus but remarkably little in proportion about his sufferings on the cross and in the hours and days leading up to his crucifixion. That fact in itself casts grave doubts on any notion that Christ’s bodily sufferings made substitutionary penal atonement for our sins. Their primary role in our salvation comes after we have been reconciled to God and are living in the power of God. This is even clearer from the wilderness experience at the start of Christ’s public ministry, in Christ’s teaching to his followers about persecution and from his attitude to the privations, disappointments and criticism that he faced himself.
Indeed, it is a plainly obvious fact that Christ’s sufferings have not taken physical suffering away in this world from those who believe that Jesus died for their sins. Neither can suffering from the consequences of sin in the specific curses on Adam and Eve be part of the penalty paid for us by Christ on the Cross. As far as we know, Jesus did not suffer the specific curse on Adam — getting food by painful toil in the fields. Not being a woman, he could not suffer the physical curses specific to Eve — submitting to a husband’s sexual demands and increased pain at the birth of a new human being.
Rather, the pains that Christ bore on our behalf were those that were an inevitable part of the way through a sinful society to his earthly death and his separation from God in our universe. To think otherwise is to presuppose that God would do worse to his enemies than Jesus taught his followers to do to theirs.
There is far more to it than that of course, and even more glorious for us. As pointed out earlier, Christ’s obedient sufferings on earth redeem the Christian’s life and ministry here through the power of the Spirit. Because Jesus suffered, he is able help us battle against the sin in and around us (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15; Romans 7:25).
Spreading the whole Gospel
It seems then that neither conservative nor liberal evangelicals are clearly asserting the fullness of the Gospel. Penal substitution is necessary to the Gospel but it is far from sufficient. The divine wrath that we deserve has been taken by Jesus Christ in our place fully and completely by separation of the human and divine Son from the divine Father. However, the Bible does not use only this legal language in explication of the mystery of the Atonement. Jesus was accursed by being hung on a cross. He was the sacrificial lamb of God. His death bought our freedom from the slavery of sin and from being held hostage by the enemy of God and redeemed us from captivity (as a prisoner of war or a kidnappee, not necessarily as a convicted criminal). Jesus rescues the lost from going their own way. The Cross was God’s own self-sacrifice for the sake of his self-absorbed human creatures. The ruler of the universe threw off all due status to become one of its weakest human denizens. The incomparably lovely identified with the appallingly unlovely. None of these ideas of Christ’s saving work is anything like substitutionary punishment by spiritual death.
Furthermore, Christ’s death was not only defeat of the power of sin to bring spiritual death. That would be a hollow victory. The Cross is the glorious triumph of the King of love over all the enemies of his beloved Nation of the redeemed. Believers in Jesus are a new creation in Christ with God now — not sitting at a bus stop a few metres outside the gates of hell, waiting for transport to heaven when we die.
It could be that the conflation of the wrath of God with the judgment of God taken from us by the death of Jesus is rooted in underappreciation of the Kingship of God and his Christ. The good news is that Jesus is King of heaven and earth, as he taught his disciples to pray, and God in Christ has restored his image in humanity and re-established us as his representatives in his rule over evil and good here and now. Throughout biblical times to this day, kings have two primary roles – commander of the army and judge among disputants. Even if it were acceptable for a king to invade another’s territory, the king of the universe has no need to invade Satan’s realm: it is already his territory, created for the enemy to operate over and to be defeated by resistance from God’s friends with God’s weapons.
The wrath of a king at a rebel or traitor is justly wreaked by banishment from the realm. That could amount to a death sentence, depending on where the exile goes, but a sentence of death would prevent any return or recruitment of other rebels abroad. The justice of a king’s wrath and the people’s indulgence might be questioned if the sentence is torture or death in agony. Drawing and quartering, and public hangings, were stopped long before the death penalty itself. Can the king of all the earth be less than just in his wrath?
Implications for just punishment by human societies
An association of legal judgment with sanction for vengeance is deep in our culture and therefore our personal make-up. Jesus clearly taught a higher law and so an unbiblically exclusive emphasis on judgment is an even greater failure to communicate God’s love and the real nature of the penalty for rejecting it — which is losing God’s love, not being hated by God. Judgment still is a primary function of government in a republican state or a constitutional monarchy, cp. the Crown Prosecution Service and Queen’s Counsel. However the CPS is a gateway to the dispensing of judgment, not of national vengeance. There are terrible consequences of confusing the kingly warrior with the kingly judge. King Saul and King David (like Moses and Joshua) fought the enemies of the Israelites and wreaked judgment on whole peoples. However King Solomon famously dispensed justice among his people.
As well as expiating our sins, Christ on the cross has propitiated God by his death. This is retributive justice – God’s vengeance on sinners in his wrath at their sin. This is not merely a retribution that fits the crime: it is a retribution that the offender brings on himself or herself by the choice of whom to offend against. Rebels against the king bring exile from the kingdom on themselves. Unholiness cannot co-exist with utter holiness. The wish to hurt someone in return for hurt done is part of human sin. It has no part in God’s holiness, let alone his merciful justice and loving redemption.
Indeed, lack of love for God can only be dealt with by divine depths of love for the unloving. Christians are urged not to take vengeance (Heb 10:30), not because God will do it for them but because the vengeance that must be left in God’s hands is God’s choice not to execute. On the contrary, God revealed in Christ told his followers to love their enemies and to meet injury with generosity, not to mete out slap for slap or to seek restitution for theft (Luke 6:29-30). Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and Dives does not teach eternal judgement on people with money: it is about the rich unrepentantly failing to attend to the needs of the poor in this life (Luke 16:30-31).
“When I was in prison, you did not visit me”
The penalty for sin is spiritual death — separation from the divine source of life. The parallel legal theory of human retributive justice would be social death — separation from free access to human society, including family, personal friends and colleagues in employment. The retribution is physical restraint proportionate to the offender’s lack of self-restraint and to any failure to restore pro-sociality during the sentence.
Christians’ views on penal justice are therefore less than the Gospel if they include a retributive element that goes beyond a period of separation from society that is proportionate to the offender’s self-separation from society. Instead, Jesus expects us to meet him during our efforts to help the prisoner, without reference to the justice or otherwise of the incarceration. Rehabilitative opportunities will include restitution to the community affected by the crime but they will also recognise the offender’s need for forgiveness from the victim.
Where then is the body of protest from contemporary believers in Christ’s victory over sin against the overcrowding of British prisons with dangerous but mentally ill people and badly brought up short-term inmates who are no threat to the physical safety of the public or themselves? This mass incarceration not only makes rehabilitative help impossible for many; it also corrupts offenders further and reduces prison staff to despair or worse.
Imprisonment is at the very least a temporary protection of others against repetition of the offence. Where there are ways of reducing the likelihood of re-offending, such as a change in the offender’s dispositions (‘rehabilitation’) or the threat of a heavier sentence if the offence recurs (‘deterrence’), then justice coordinates these objectives. Where recompense is possible, this also enters the balance between proportionate retribution and prevention by effective rehabilitation and educated deterrence.
This is not the equitable retribution of an eye for an eye or capital punishment for murder, let alone the limited vengeance of loss of a hand rather than beheading for theft or of drawing and quartering for treason, rather than killing the traitor’s whole family. The retributive element in loss of freedom should, I suggest, be on a moral scale with the risks to others. Even that is not merely vengeance: arguably it is not vengeance at all — merely official prevention of the personal contact that the antisocial behaviour had already prevented informally but all too effectively.
The overcrowding of prisons and failure to invest sufficiently in systematic restitution and evidence-based rehabilitation not only prevent the Gospel from being heard by prisoners and officers. The failure of many believers in Christ’s atoning death to stand up against such a vicious penal system also prevents the Gospel from being seen throughout society.
1 There should be no danger that chapters 5 to 8 of Romans are read as merely further exposition of justification by faith, for which Romans 1-4 is the locus classicus. Romans 5:1-2a summarises the previous four chapters while explicitly moving on to “the grace in which we now stand” as a consequence (as do verses 6-9). Christ suffered to bring us peace with God “but we also rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom 5:4). “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). Therefore the reference to God’s wrath in Romans 5:9 should not be wrenched out of context: having been justified and reconciled to God by Christ’s death, we shall be saved as well from God’s wrath against sin by Christ’s life (Rom 5:10) – his Spirit-filled life of obedient suffering, I suggest. Thus Romans 6 and 7 are about freedom from sin within the Christian’s life on earth (e.g. 6: 6b-7, 12-14, 22; 7:4b, 6b, 17-25), not at all about the judgment of God on unrepentant sinners. Romans 8 is unequivocally about living in the Spirit now, leading straight to the practical exhortations of chapters 12 to 16.
3 Spiritual life is not a particular part of a human being: it is the whole of a human life in relation to God. The tripartite model of human nature – body, mind and spirit – is a respectable theological position but arguably brings hellenistic (and pietist) accretions to the teaching about human nature that is clear in the Bible. It is increasingly widely recognised that the most consistently biblical position is that the individual soul or life is all physical body, all membership of a culture and all mind in the richest sense of that term, including intellect, emotion and will and unconscious processes as well as conscious performance and experience – studied by the relevant empirical disciplines (biological, social and psychological). For example, see David Booth (1998, 2000, 2001) and Joel B. Green (1999) in Science & Christian Belief 10: 145-162, 12: 65-66, 13: 143-155 and 11: 51-63, respectively.
5 As Dr Wright (op. cit.) points out in his first “final note”, the Old Testament language of animal sacrifice for human sin is not ‘legal’ (i.e. penal) in the sense understood for legal systems in recent centuries and indeed in ancient Israel. King Solomon’s divinely inspired judgment between the two women each claiming the baby as her own was a different sort of judgment from that which Elijah executed on the priests of Baal or, more relevantly, King David recognised through the prophet Nathan. A traditional King, as a contemporary nation’s “Chief Justice”, is a judge between his people, not a judge of his people. It might be noted regarding the sacrificial context of Isaiah 53, the Hebrew word in verse 10 that the KJV translates as “an offering for sin” and the NIV as “a guilt offering” is very rare in the OT. Its only occurrence in the Pentateuch is in Leviticus 4:3 where it means just guilt. An offering for sin is necessary (and it is of a bull, note, not a lamb) but the context is unusual – that of unwitting sins. This particular case is where all the children of Israel are unwittingly guilty (fitting the interpretation of the Suffering Servant as the people of God) because of sin by the priest. So the thought in this verse of Isaiah 53 fits an interpretation that the mediator between man and God is ‘made’ sinful and is at the same time the sacrifice for that sin.
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