Penal Substitution Theology and God’s Need

In my last post I began to identify the problems from a Catholic perspective with the Protestant concept of Christ’s passion as being one of “penal substitution” – the concept that on the cross Christ is being punished by God for our sins.  I will continue with that over the next several posts.

Consider some of these quotes from Protestant sources:

Why did Jesus have to die?  Remember, the holy God cannot let sin go unpunished.  To bear our own sins would be to suffer God’s judgment in the flames of hell.  Praise God, He kept His promise to send and sacrifice the perfect Lamb to bear the sins of those who trust in Him.  Jesus had to die because He is the only one who can pay the penalty for our sins.

The love of God as a cause of the atonement is seen in the most familiar passage in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  But the justice of God also required that God find a way that the penalty due to us for our sins would be paid (for he could not accept us into fellowship with himself unless the penalty was paid)

The necessity of appeasing God is something many religions have in common.  In ancient pagan religions, as well as in many religions today, the idea is taught that man appeases God by offering various gifts or sacrifices.  However, the Bible teaches that God Himself has provided the only means through which His wrath can be appeased and sinful man can be reconciled to Him.  In the New Testament, the act of propitiation always refers to the work of God and not the sacrifices or gifts offered by man.  The reason for this is that man is totally incapable of satisfying God’s justice except by spending eternity in hell.  There is no service, sacrifice, or gift that man can offer that will appease the holy wrath of God or satisfy His perfect justice.  The only satisfaction, or propitiation, that could be acceptable to God and that could reconcile man to Him had to be made by God.  For this reason God the Son, Jesus Christ, came into the world in human flesh to be the perfect sacrifice for sin and make atonement or “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).

All of these examples highlight a key aspect of penal substitution theology and that is the idea that Christ’s suffering is somehow meeting some need that God has.  God “cannot let sin go unpunished.”  His justice “required” that the penalty due to our sins was paid for and He could not accept us into fellowship unless it was.  There is nothing “man can offer that will appease God’s wrath or satisfy his justice.”  One of the most striking things I notice in all of these quotes is the comparison of this view to ancient pagan religions that taught that “man appeases God by offering various gifts or sacrifices.”  Because indeed, this thinking that God has some “need” that has to be appeased before he will reconcile with us is rooted in a pagan understanding of who God is, not a Christian one.  All of these examples are speaking to some “need” within God that has to be satisfied.  But the God of the Bible has no need.  If you did not earlier view my post on “the God who does not need us” please do.  In the clip posted there, Bishop Barron explains how the Christian understanding of God differs from that of the pagan one during the time of the early Christians and why that is “remarkably good news.”

God has no need.  God does not require a price to be paid before we can enter into fellowship with him.  But are we capable of being in fellowship with God in our current state of sin?

I am reminded of how different insects react to light.  Some are instinctively drawn to the light.  Others flee the moment the light comes on.  Only when our souls have been restored to an original state of holiness – God’s “right order” can we stop fleeing from the light and be drawn fully into relationship with Him.  Consider how Adam and Eve in the garden were in fellowship with God but after they sinned, they hid from Him (Genesis 3:8-10).  God didn’t change, but they did.  As the catechism says, “They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.” (CCC399)  When we resist God’s love through sin, His love becomes a very different experience for us – one that is uncomfortable and unpleasant and even painful.  This is a true experience of what the Bible refers to as God’s “wrath.”  But the light is not what changed.

Rather than viewing God’s justice as requiring God to enforce some sort of retribution for sin, the Catholic view would see God’s justice as being restorative – returning things to their “right order” so our souls can once again be in fellowship with Him.  Christ is not intervening before God to change God’s disposition towards us.  God has never changed.  He is immutable in his determination to save us, to restore us, to right what has been made wrong.  He acts on our behalf to restore this relationship because in our current state we are not capable to do so even if the desire is there.  In Christ, he launches a wholesale assault on the powers of sin and death, and our enemy Satan to break us free from our current bondage to their power.

“We adore you oh Christ and we praise you.  Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

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