Reflections on a Trinitarian View of the Cross

The following is a very interesting article by Bill Nieporte, which refutes the penal substitution view of the cross in a positive way. I can relate to this article because like the author, I used to subscribe to the penal substitution view of the cross, and later realised that this view faces several problems. I think he summarised the main problems of that view well, such as the triune God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is not separated from Himself or one another, and the fact that Jesus came as a revelation of God as our loving Father.

After all, in the past few years, I have listened to preachings like this: “Yes, God is love, but God is also just. God hates sin and has to punish sinners, so God punished His Son on our behalf at the cross.” Or “Yes, God is our Father, but God is also a Judge. As a Father, He wept for His Son, but as a Judge, He had to turn His back and forsake His Son at the cross – He was forsaken by the Father so that you and I will be accepted by the Father.” I have accepted this view without much questioning in the past, because the preachers sounded convincing in the way they presented this view of the cross. It was also a popular view, as it seemed to be widely accepted by people among the evangelical christian circles.

I guess the penal substitution view might even sound logical to most people because we tend to equate our human sense of justice with God’s idea of justice. In most (if not all) societies, the law court would impose on an offender some form of punishment, such as fine, jail or death penalty, depending on the severity of the crime. But this punishment is mainly retributive and serves as a deterrent for others – it is neither remedial nor restorative. The judge also gains nothing out of it. God, on the other hand, has a different view of justice – He judges on behalf of the poor, the downcast, the oppressed, and the sinners. God is love, and His justice must be viewed from the perspective that His nature is love — love wants the best for us.

So who did God judge at the cross? Not us. Not His Son. I believe God judged the devil, who is the accuser of the brethren, and he is none other than our guilty conscience, so that today, our conscience can no longer condemn us or make us think God is angry with us or out to punish us. God saves us from wrong thinking (which began in the garden of Eden), by sending His Son to open our eyes to the truth of the gospel – through His finished work at the cross, He has cleansed our conscience so that we can have the boldness and freedom to fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is all the while with us and for us. 🙂 We can boldly and freely enjoy the warm fellowship and love with the triune God in our daily life.

“The reason I am ‘hung up’ on this (as you put it) is that I am passionate about biblical theology. What is advocated by those who hold ‘penal substitution’ view of redemption is a hermeneutic that is imposed on the scripture from the outside. It does not rise up from the text. I once believed otherwise – but as I have more carefully studied the Bible – I am no longer able to accept the schizophrenic view of God that teaches that Father was dumping anger or wrath out on Jesus when he was on the cross. My foundation has been a renewed understanding and appreciation for the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

The ‘penal substitution’ view is in error in that it divides God into parts differing personalities, rather than a Triune who share the same nature (LOVE). The early church fathers referred to this as perichoresis – a Greek term that means ‘cleaving together.’ It describes the fellowship (Baxter Kruger calls it ‘the Divine dance’) that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as they embrace and infuse each other. This is more than just intimacy and self-sufficiency. It is also the understanding that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one in being. Karl Barth considers the  doctrine of the Trinity so important that it became the lynchpin of this entire theology. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity (Barth referred to the ‘one in threeness’ and ‘three in oneness’ or God) was the prolegomena of his systematic theology.

Here is where the problem lies. The idea that one part of God could be angry at us and the other loving toward us is contrary to this core biblical doctrine of the Christian faith. The idea that Father could in any way pour out anger or wrath on Jesus in anathema to a good Trinitarian, as it cuts up the Godhead into separate entities, rather than affirming the unity of the Godhead. This is unbiblical.

Compounding this biblical error is that it serves as a basic denial of the doctrine of the Incarnation which teaches us that Jesus was the perfect expression of the Father in human form (see Hebrews 1:3). In Jesus, God is seen not as some wrathful God of vengeance who must be appeased. Rather God is full of compassion and mercy, as witnessed in Jesus.

What Trinitarians advocate is that the place from which to understand scripture and all doctrines of the Christian faith is by looking at the love and kindness of Jesus, who came to reveal what God was really like (as John 14:9 says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”) Those who work from a ‘penal substitution’ view say that the discussion about the nature and identity of God begins with ‘the law’ and not with Jesus. In fact, ‘penal substitution’ draws the attention so much to ‘the law’ that even God must submit to its dictates. In this view, God is so uptight about sin (disobedience against the law) that God MUST punish lawbreakers. So, then, the two hermeneutical principles that inform my interpretation of scripture are the doctrine of the Trinity and the conviction that the nature (DNA, if you will) of God is LOVE. Both these principles rise up from the scripture, where as the ‘penal’ view does not. So, while you may disagree with me, please don’t see my objection as merely a visceral discomfort with the notion of God’s ‘anger’ or ‘wrath.’ Rather these ideas (as they are understood from a ‘penal substitution’ viewpoint) are simply inconsistent with biblical theology.

So, then, the logical question is this: “If God was NOT pouring out wrath on Jesus as a penal substitution for us, then what exactly was happening at the cross?” The answer is that the cross is a unified expression of LOVE from our Triune God. Texts that affirm this include 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Hebrews 9:14 which together place Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together, on the cross, bringing all humanity the gift of salvation. Beyond all else, salvation is an invitation to participate in ‘the Divine dance’ (perichoresis).

As I said earlier, God is not schizophrenic. He does not suffer from a multiple-personality disorder. There is not a good guy God in a white hat named Jesus, and a mean God in a black hat called the Father. There is one Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who loves without condition and has not only forgiven us, but has removed sin from us, and has made a way for full participation in the love relationship the Godhead shares. The word Paul uses is ‘adoption.’ God becomes one of us in Jesus. God takes up our cause. God draws us into relationship. (Ephesians 1:4-5)

Now with this picture in mind, how do we see this concept of God’s wrath? God’s wrath is God’s anger at sin because it hinders our ability to have intimacy with God. As a parent, I have often been angry at my children’s behavior. But I have never stopped loving them. I have never disowned them. Jesus makes this exact point in Matthew 7:9-11, when he says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” The message of the cross under the ‘penal substitution’ view is that God is angry with you and poured out His wrath on Jesus. The message of the cross from a proper Trinitarian understanding of the scripture is that God loves you. That’s why we call it GOSPEL.”

– Bill Nieporte

Related Links

Another Look at the Cross – How the Message Portrays God

Hebrews 9-10 Our Conscience Has Been Cleansed Once For All

What do you think of the “Penal Substitution” view  of the atonement”?

“Did the Father forsake Jesus on the cross? No!” by Steve McVey

“Was What I Taught In Australia Biblical?” by Steve McVey

[Post edited and updated on 26 November 2010]

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