Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach.
The sermon that changed my life was one explaining the doctrine of penal substitution.1 I was a little girl, listening to words and seeing the face of Jesus on the cross, dying in my place, suffering the wrath of God that should have been mine on account of my own sin. This is the picture that captured my heart and turned me into a Christian.
That Christ’s death on the cross was a penal substitutionary atonement might be the most precious truth I know. When this doctrine is mocked, belittled, or questioned, it breaks my heart; first, for Jesus’ honor, stolen from him; and second, for the one who scoffs or doubts. What must it be to not see glory in Christ’s penal subsitutionary death on the cross?
It was in Bible college that I first knew someone who claimed to be a believer but challenged the doctrine of penal substitution. Then, I saw it as honest questioning, a quest to find the real truth of the cross taught in the Bible. Looking back, I’m more cynical; I see the objections as disguised distaste for God’s truth. Later, in my Christian discussion board days, I saw young men join up with one purpose: to open threads titled “Jesus Did Not PAY for Your Sin!!!!” (or something similar) so they could argue/rail against a penal substitutionary atonement. Right now, I know people who have read books by doubting troublemakers and are confused, questioning, and maybe even rebelling against this doctrine.
Among the books I am reading, there is almost always one on Christ’s death, first, because it’s a subject I love, but also because I want to be able to explain and defend it as all that it is. I want to be able to make a better case now than I did back in Bible college and on the discussion boards, so when Pierced for Our Transgressions came out a few years ago, I bought it and started to read. But it’s the kind of book that takes determined focus and I had to set it aside. This spring I took it up again.
This book is divided into two parts. The first “sets out the positive case for penal substitution,” showing us the biblical evidence for it, the theological framework undergirding it, its pastoral importance, and its place in church history. Explaining the theological framework is especially significant, I think, because objections to penal substitution are often not primarily scriptural, historical, or even pastoral, but theological (like the legal fiction objection, for instance, or the universal salvation objection). Without the proper theological foundation, penal substitution won’t make much sense, and the majority of objections to it grow out of theological systems that clash with it.
The second part of Pierced for Our Transgressions contains responses to specific arguments made against the doctrine of penal substitution. The authors “outline every objection we have been able to find… and respond to each in turn.” I enjoyed this part because I love analyzing arguments and responding to them. You may or may not enjoy it as much as I do, but either way, this section will be a valuable reference when you run into one of the arguments in a book or article—or maybe even from a real person.
What surprised me about the objections to penal substitution was how often they came from misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of the doctrine. This may be because it has been explained poorly (I’ve heard incomplete explanations that could give false impressions.) or, more likely, because it’s downright difficult to see a doctrine with clear eyes when you don’t like it much in the first place.
I’m a little late to the internet review party for Pierced for Our Transgressions, and we all know that timeliness is everything in this medium. However, I might be the first to recommend it specifically for the primary readers of this blog—women with busy lives who love God’s truth. If your other obligations force you to be choosy about the books you read, put this on your reading list anyway. If you are a believing woman, Christ’s death in your place is the object of your faith, whether you understood it fully when you first believed or not. Christ’s penal substitutionary death is the grounds for the big “Yes” to all the promises of God that you enjoy. It’s the center, the heart, the hinge of your spiritual life. Pierced for Our Transgressions will help you learn it, love it and thank God for it.
1From Pierced for Our Transgressions:
The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.