The Cross: God’s Love Magnified or His Wrath Satisfied?
This post is in defense of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It is written as a response to specific misconceptions about what Jesus accomplished on the cross. This post is exceedingly long and it is intended to be for the sake of a thorough defense of an important doctrine. Be advised.
The cross and resurrection are the culmination of Christ’s ministry. It was here that Jesus would die for the sins of the world. (1 John 2:2; John 1:29) It was here that sin and death would be defeated. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57; 1 Corinthians 15:26) It was here that the Lord would have his victory over Satan and hell. (1 John 3:8; Hebrews 2:14-15; Revelations 12:11; Revelation 20:13-14; Revelation 20:6) It was here that sins would be forgiven and those who believe would be made right with God. (Hebrews 8-10)
Because of our sins, for our Benefit
On this topic Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” To die for our sins means to die because of our sins. Elsewhere Paul says, “for our sake [God] made [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Here Paul indicates that Jesus not only died because of our sins, he also died for our benefit. Peter echoes this in 1 Peter 3:18 when he says “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
This exchange is known as penal substitutionary atonement; penal meaning penalty, substitutionary meaning in our place because of our sins and atonement meaning to make those who believe right with God. In other words Jesus died on the cross in our place to take the penalty we deserve for our sins so that those who believe in him can be made right with God.
The Wrath of God
The Bible clearly states in both the Old and New Testaments that God’s wrath is against those who do evil. God’s wrath is his just anger against sinners. We see this in the passages below as well as many others:
1) Psalm 78:21-22: “Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and trust in his saving power.”
2) Ezekiel 25:17: The Lord said, “I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.”
3) Nahum 1:2: “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.”
4) Romans 12:18: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
5) Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body[a] and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
6) Revelation 19:21: “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”
Basically, God is loving, gracious and kind. He is slow to anger, wanting all to turn from sin and be saved, but he will not withhold his wrath from those who continually refuse his loving kindness. (2 Peter 3:9; Exodus 34:6-7)
All Have Sinned
Scripture is also clear when it states that all people have sinned against God and face his wrath.
1) Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
2) 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9: “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from[a] the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”
3) Romans 3:10-12, 23: “None is righteous, no, not one; no on understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless. no one does good, not even one… For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
4) 2 Peter 2:9: “Then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment”
Jesus, therefore, substituted himself for sinners at the cross. He would die so that we could live. He would be condemned so that we could be forgiven. He would absorb the wrath of God so that those who believe could instead receive the mercy of God.
A Necessary Substitute
This is called propitiation, which means to appease or deal with a persons anger by diverting it to someone or something other than the person who deserves it. In other words, the offense is actually dealt with by someone or something other than the person who committed the offense, it’s not just overlooked. The following passages illustrate this clearly:
1) 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven,whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
2) Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
3) Romans 3:23-25: “23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift,through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
4) 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Scripture is clear: all people are sinners who deserve the wrath of God. God, in his kindness and love, sent Jesus to the cross as our substitute to absorb the wrath of God so that those who believe could instead receive his love. God is holy. It would be unjust for him to simply overlook our offenses. The cross is where God can execute justice against sin, while simultaneously showing mercy to sinners.
Naysayers and False Teachers
At this point, many progressive Bible teachers speak out against the truth of God’s Word. These are the men who would rather tell the gospel as they’d like for it to be than as it actually is. (2 Peter 3:14-18) Their arguments are as follows:
1) Modern Bible translations have misinterpreted the word propitiation used in places like 1 John 2:2, Romans 3:25 and 1 John 4:10. They argue that the word translated as propitiation doesn’t actually mean to “pacify wrath,” but that it should be translated as expiation which means to “remove sin.” The truth is that Jesus both pacifies wrath and removing sin.
Let’s assume however that you’re smarter than I because you know Greek and Hebrew (or can quote the first website that agrees with your opinion) and that the word for propitiation is incorrectly translated. There are other Scriptures that do not use the word propitiation and still communicate that Jesus saves us from the wrath of God.
1 Thessalonians 1:10, for example, states that “Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come.” Likewise, Romans 5:9 clearly states that we are “saved from the wrath of God by [Jesus].” Finally, John 3:36 explicitly says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Scripture clearly and emphatically teaches that Jesus saves from God’s wrath.
2) The second argument against Jesus’ substitutionary work is that Jesus never stated that he died to save sinners from God’s wrath. This is simply not true. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself says that “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is referring to a person perishing because they are condemned, but condemned to where? The answer is hell, the place of God’s wrath as we’ve already seen in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9. At the cross Jesus was condemned so that those who believe wouldn’t have to be.
Furthermore, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7), Jesus states that it is better to enter life maimed than it is to be thrown into hell for one’s sin. (Matthew 5:27-30) If a person is thrown into hell because of his sins, then for Jesus to save a person from his sins means that Jesus has saved him from God’s wrath in hell.
Lastly, John the Baptist stated that Jesus died to take away the wrath of God (John 3:36). Jesus had personal interaction with John and many of John’s disciples became Jesus’ disciples. (John 1:35-37) Surely the Lord would have heard of John’s teaching, yet no where in Scripture does Jesus refute the teaching that he is to die for our sins to take the wrath of God. If it were not true, Jesus would have most certainly corrected the man he regarded so highly. (Matthew 11:11)
3) Those who disagree with the doctrine of propitiation also argue that this stance does not fit with the rest of the New Testament. Hogwash. Jesus said at least three times that he came to fulfill the Scriptures (Matthew 26:54, 56; Luke 24:27) and Paul echoes Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3. The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. If Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures, that means that he fulfilled the Old Covenant with it’s laws, rights, rituals, practices, traditions, customs and requirements.
Leviticus 16 illustrates penal substitution when it describes the responsibility of the high priest to slaughter animals as a substitute, or sacrifice, for the sins of the people. The animal would die, so that the people could live. The animal would be condemned, so that the people could be forgiven. If Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures, then he fulfilled this requirement by becoming the substitute for us, which is also confirmed in Hebrews 5-10.
This would also mean that Jesus fulfilled the Passover in which the death angel, executing God’s judgment and wrath against Pharaoh’s rebellion, passed over the homes of those who had the blood of a Lamb painted over their doorposts. (Exodus 12:12-13) In Matthew 26:26-29 Jesus indicates that his blood is the blood of the covenant, indicating that he is the Passover Lamb, through whom the wrath of God passes over those who believe.
4) One final argument that is commonly made is that penal substitutionary atonement (propitiation) is too judicial. It pits God the Father against Jesus the Son. Those who make this argument must have removed passages like Romans 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Acts 17:31 and Revelation 20:12 from their Bibles. These passages clearly teach that we will all stand before the judgment seat of God to be judged for our sins. You can’t get much more judicial than that.
If we are to be judged for our sins, then Jesus had to have died to take that judgment. If he didn’t, then we have no hope but to face the judgment ourselves. God the Father positioned himself against Jesus the Son on the cross so that he would no longer have to position himself against ill-deserving sinners, which is why 1 John 1:9 calls Jesus our advocate.
An advocate is someone who defends another person in a court of law. Again, very judicial. How does Jesus defend us in God’s court? By taking the judgment of God upon himself so that he can rightfully defend us at our own judgment. Christ’s judgment is our restoration and without Christ’s judgment there can be no restoration. God is not Judge or Father he is both Judge and Father.
A Glorious Conclusion
Indeed, at the cross God’s wrath is most certainly satisfied. Jesus absorbed it so we wouldn’t have to. What then of God’s love? Is he a cold, begrudging deity? By no means. 1 John 4:10 tells us that “in this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Other translations say “atoning sacrifice” which is another way of saying “to make right with one through the substitutionary death of another.” In fact the dictionary definition for sacrifice is “the offering of an animal, plant or human life or of some material possession to a deity, as in propitiation or homage.”
The breath-taking reality is this: God would rather pour his wrath out on his own Son than to see ill-deserving sinners get the penalty they deserve. You cannot find a better personification of love than that. Jesus willingly took the punishment you deserve for your wrongs against God so that you could be forgiven. That’s love. God the Father chose to punish his Son for your sins so that he could adopt you as his child. That’s love.
If the question is whether or not the cross is God’s love magnified or his wrath satisfied, then the answer is that the cross is God’s love magnified through his wrath satisfied. It is at the cross that love and justice meet. A holy God is vindicated and ill-deserving sinners are loved far beyond what their sins deserve.
This post was adapted from a sermon I preached at the Living Hope Church-Maryville Campus called “Christ Our Substitute.” This sermon was one of four sermons in a series called “The Cross of Christ,” one of our most popular series at Living Hope. You can view the series here and the sermon here.