How the Atonement Substitutes Punishment

[This blog continues my thoughts on the Atonement. For a fuller understanding, visit these previous posts that I have written: Jesus Didn’t Pay for Your Sins, The Governmental Theory of the Atonement, Error From Penal Substitution]

The beauty of the Cross of Christ is that it serves as a substitute for the penalty of the law, which is death, for, “the wages of sin is death.” Eternal death was the sentence which was upon us, the cross was a substitute for that death sentence.

I want to point out a careful distinction between our deserved punishment and Christ’s sufferings that served as a substitute for that punishment. Christ’s suffering and death was not our punishment upon Him, but a sacrifice designed to carry out the same governmental purposes that punishment serves. The punishment of lawbreakers serves the purpose of upholding the strength of the law. Christ’s sacrifice serves that same purpose while allowing pardon for repentant sinners. 

The best way to understand this fully is to first understand the purpose of punishment inside a governmental system. When a benevolent ruler establishes a law for his subjects, he does so with the well-being of his subjects in mind. Laws such as ‘do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, etc.’ are easy to understand as laws that protect the well being of all citizens. These laws, when obeyed, secure happiness and goodness among the people. When the laws are broken, death and destruction come into the community.

It should be understood that God is a benevolent ruler. God is love, and since such is true, all of His laws, by nature, are benevolent, that is, they are given in perfect wisdom for the well-being of mankind. God’s law brings life when obeyed and death when disobeyed, and this not because of judgment, but because of the nature of this law, that is, because it is a good law.

It should also be understood that God’s rule is in heaven and on earth, both now and in the world to come. His ultimate design is to bring about an everlasting kingdom of peace and happiness filled with free moral agents who will enjoy that peace for all time. This is important to understand as we progress with this subject. 

When a person sins against the governmental authority, he introduces death into the society. And by death I do not mean only the physical act of dying, but death as in destruction, chaos, misery, pain, etc. This is why our first parents were told not to eat the fruit lest they die. God didn’t say, “The day you eat the fruit, I will kill you.” No, but “the day you eat the fruit you will surely die.” In other words, the sin itself will produce the death, both for the sinner and for those affected.

Because sin produces death, a benevolent ruler must counter it for the sake of the well-being of his subjects. A prohibition of sin is necessary because of the nature of sin, and with prohibition comes a necessary penalty for those who violate that law. Prohibition is meaningless unless there be a penalty for its infraction. And threat of penalty is meaningless unless there be a full intention of its execution. 

When sin is committed, all eyes look to the law-giver. What will be his response?

Anyone who has more than one child understands this. When one child commits some infraction, all eyes look to the parent. What will he do? The children understand that the law of the household had been broken. They know that punishment has been prescribed for such infractions. They now look to the parent to see his response.

This illustration helps us to understand the governmental purpose to the execution of the penalty of the law. The execution of the penalty of the law is not so much for the sinner who deserves it, but for the people who observe it. For severe crime, rehabilitation of the sinner is not the goal. Death is prescribed as the punishment. There is nothing good for the sinner that is accomplished in penalty. The purpose of penalty is not for him, but for the community. The message that is sent to the community in his punishment is essential to the strength of the law and the ultimate well-being of the community. 

With that being said, there is also a place for the rehabilitation of the sinner when possible, for this is also beneficial to the community. But we will come to this later.

But in regard to the penalty of the law, the Bible gives us reasons why it is necessary:

First I would like to note that the execution of the penalty of Old Testament law was often instructed to be done without pity. 

Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. – Deut 19:21

The execution of the law was to be carried out without pity. Why? It is because of the great temptation to pity. When one looks into the eyes of a person facing judgment and sees the fear, the sorrow, the regret, and the anguish of soul, there is a great temptation to lay aside the law for the sinners sake. But God knows, and all who understand law and government know, that to set aside the law would ultimately be detrimental to the community. It is important to execute the penalty of the law. As much as a ruler might want to release someone from judgment, he cannot. If he did, law and order would be jeopardized. He must resist the temptation to pity and bear not the sword in vain.

Why? What is the purpose of carrying out the execution of the penalty of the law? That question is answered in scripture:

And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously. – Deut 17:13

Here, God gives the express reason for the punishment of the law. The punishment is not because of hatred for the sinner nor simply for the sake of vengeance, but so the people can hear and fear, with the intention of preventing others from following in their folly. 

Some people are persuaded that fear is not a good deterrent for sin. It is sometimes said that the Old Covenant was a failure because it was fear-based, whereas the New Covenant is grace-based. This is not entirely accurate. The New Covenant is definitely a greater expression of God’s grace, but it’s not any less fear-based. In fact, the New Covenant is amplified on both ends. The grace extended in the New Testament is greater, but also the severity of God’s punishments. The Old Testament is full of threats of earthly judgments, whereas the New is full of threats of eternal judgments. And, indeed, Jesus emphatically stated that we should fear, for He said, “Do not fear them that can kill the body, but after that have no more that they can do. Instead, fear Him, whom after He has killed, has power to cast into hell. Yes, I say unto you, fear Him!” And Paul cautions us: “Do not be high-minded, but fear! If God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you.” And the writer of Hebrews warns us of how much greater a punishment we deserve if we neglect this great salvation: “Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot…It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God

Fear has its proper place as a deterrent for sin. It is not the most noble of reasons to abstain from sin, but it has its proper place. We ought not sin because of love for God, because of the wisdom of holiness, because of our care for others. But fear is a good safety net when all these noble reasons fail. And it is often the only method that will shake those who are careless about their lives. This is exactly why Jude says, ‘others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire…’

We should also consider that fear is not only so in the sense of terror, but in the sense of deep respect. Even the righteous can hear and fear when he sees the just execution of a righteous law. It is not as though he planned to sin and the hearing of another’s punishment restrained him, but upon hearing he is filled with a holy fear and respect for God. This can be seen in the incident of Ananias and Sapphira. When the people heard of their judgment, ‘great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.’ And we see that this fear did not hinder the church, but the opposite. The church thrived. And when God’s judgment is executed in the final times, it is recorded that there will be silence in heaven for the space of half an hour. Those righteous beings were struck with reverential fear over the awesome judgments of God. 

But this isn’t the only thing that punishment accomplishes. It also serves as instruction:

When the scoffer is punished, the simple is made wise; – Proverbs 21:11

When a simple man observes the punishment of a sinner, great opportunity is awarded him to meditate on the great precepts of the law and the wisdom of the law-giver. Why does the law prohibit such things? Why does the Law-giver care such for His law? Why is this kind of punishment necessary? When one observes the solemn event of the execution of the law upon a criminal, great instruction can be had. 

Now consider all this in the great government of God. God intends to build a perfect kingdom of everlasting righteousness filled with humans and angels, both of which are free moral agents with the ability to choose good and evil. To secure such a kingdom He must justly execute the penalty of the law or else uphold the integrity of His law in some other manner. This He does through the atonement. 

How the Atonement upholds the law

Remember that the atonement is a substitute for the penalty of the law in the sense that it accomplishes the same purpose that penalty accomplishes in a governing system. If the atonement can do what the penalty would normally do then it can serve as a suitable and just alternative to penalty. 

Also, remember that we earlier said that the rehabilitation of a criminal back into society can be beneficial to the society. Ultimately, if a criminal is truly repentant, truly reformed, and truly can contribute good to society, it would be beneficial to allow him re-entry into society. However, under normal and human circumstances, this is dangerous. Humans don’t know the true state of the heart. And with no atonement, human governments risk undermining the law. However, since God knows the hearts of all men, and since an atonement has been provided for all men, God can justly exercise His great desire for mercy upon whosoever will. 

The Atonement of Christ is a substitute for the penalty of the law in the following ways:

  • It demonstrates God’s great regard for the principals of His law
  • It demonstrates His abhorrence for sin
  • It demonstrates His determination to uphold His law
  • It provides such a affect that all may hear and fear and not act presumptuously

When one looks at the sacrifice of Christ, considering His perfection, His Divinity, His beloved status as the Son of God, His infinite value, His position as Lord of men and angels, His selflessness toward the human race, together with His compassion and wisdom, we see God’s supreme regard for His law. No sin will be forgiven without the sinner first looking upon Son of God raised up on the cross, just as no Israelite was healed unless he looked upon the bronze serpent on the pole. God requires that we gaze upon the bloodied Son of God that we might know that this forgiveness is not given at the expense of the law. This forgiveness is not free. It was purchased at a great price. 

The atonement was designed to have such an effect upon the observer that he might fully understand God’s hatred for sin and regard for His law. The requirement to ‘believe on the Lord Jesus’ places all eyes upon the sacrifice of the Son of God, much in the same way that the Hebrew had to place his hand on the head of the animal he was about to slay. As he watch the blood spill out of the innocent and perfect animal he could be certain that God was not dispensing with His law in His offer of forgiveness, nor was He belittling the seriousness of sin. So we, when we look upon the sufferings of Christ, when we see His humiliation, when we meditate upon His chastisements, when we see Him willingly carry His cross to die thereupon, and when we consider that God has declared that except by His blood, no man can be saved, we can be assured that God does not look lightly upon sin. 

Charles Finney, the great and famed revivalist, in writing on the atonement, says this:

Whatever will as fully evince the lawgiver’s regard for his law, his determination to support it, his abhorrence of all violations of its precepts, and withal guard as effectually against the inference, that violators of the precept might expect to escape with impunity, as the execution of the penalty would do, is a full satisfaction of public justice. – Lectures on Systematic Theology, Chapter 34

And for sake of illustration, John Miley, a prominent nineteenth century Methodist theologian, in his book, “The Atonement in Christ,” relayed a story that serves as a fine picture of how the atonement works. He relates the supposed true story of a Greek king named Zaleucus. In his kingdom, this king enacted a law that punished adulterers with the gouging out of both eyes. However, it came to be that his son was one day found to be guilty of committing adultery. Here, the king was faced with a difficult choice. Would he uphold the law and carry out the punishment upon his son? Or would he risk undermining his law for the sake of his son’s eyes?

It is often stated in our day that it seems that there is one law for those in power and another for the common people. Of course, this is not something exclusive to our day. It has always been that those with power, money, and/or influence use it for the sake of impunity. This, of course, is terribly unjust and can lead to unrest and many other evils. King Zaleucus, knowing this, sought a different way to spare his son’s sight. In an unprecedented act, the king declared that for the sake of his son, he would gouge out one of his own eyes. That is, one of the son’s eyes would be gouged out and one of the king’s.

Think now of the affect that this action would have had upon the community. Would they think that the king was abusing his power? Would they think that the king was disregarding his law? No, the opposite would be true. They would marvel that the king (the king!) would be willing to suffer in such a way to uphold his own law. They could be assured that the king is not willing to dispose of his law, not even for his own son.

They would also marvel at the king’s love for his son.

Of course, this is not a one for one illustration of the Atonement, but the general idea is the same. The king’s act of willing suffering served the purpose of upholding the law. It wouldn’t have worked if the king ordered someone else’s eye gouged out for his son. The opposite effect would have been had. But the suffering of the king himself, considering his power and position, brought about great affect. In fact, this act of suffering for his son would likely have bolstered the respect of this king further than it had ever been. “What a king!,” the people likely exclaimed, “not only does he regard his law, but look how he loves his son!”

Even so, when we look at the work of Christ, we also can say, “What a King! He not only regards His law, but look how great His love is for us!”

The Atonement of Christ is a masterful work of remarkable wisdom. God, being just and perfect, made a way to exercise His great desire for mercy, yet uphold the strength of His law. Thinking about it causes me to declare with Paul, Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!

One thought on “How the Atonement Substitutes Punishment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s