I don’t know about you, but I have been reading with great interest the series of interviews Paul Carter has had with Bruxy Cavey on The Gospel Coalition. If you are not familiar with the name, Bruxy Cavey is a Canadian Anabaptist pastor who has produced much controversy in the Reformed community over the past several years. Paul has had a couple of interviews with Bruxy seeking to find clarity and explore “three areas of confusion and potential conflict between reformed evangelicals and their Anabaptist neighbours” (the interviews can be read here, here, and here). I have been encouraged by the humility and civility both men have displayed in this discourse, setting an example I think for respectful conversation with those with whom we disagree. However, I want to revisit a topic brought up in the second interview that I think deserves a better treatment than Paul was able to offer in the context of his interview.
Discussing the doctrine of the Atonement, Bruxy asked “Can you think of any passage in the Bible, including and beyond Isaiah 53, that clearly says God poured his wrath out on Jesus?” Bruxy is ultimately trying to push back against the Reformed understanding of “Penal” in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary atonement (PSA). Instead of viewing God’s wrath poured out against our sin on Christ, he would prefer to see that “it is our sin that is crushing Christ,” without over rationalizing this and drawing the conclusion that God’s wrath is poured out. I want to make two brief points in response to Bruxy’s attempt to reform the doctrine of PSA. First, I want to observe the distinct reformed emphasis on the explicit and implicit teachings of Scripture and, second, the Biblical testimony to the nature of the penalty Jesus bore in our place.
The Implications of Scripture
Many evangelicals today seem to separate what Scripture says from what we can deduce from this; I see this sort of thinking behind Bruxy’s request for an explicit statement that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus. However, this has never been the Reformed position. The Westminster Confession, Chapter 1.6, captures well how the Reformed tradition uses Scripture in theology,
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture….
Theology is based on the explicit statements of Scripture and those things rightfully deduced from it.
Now, the Westminster divines were not trying to reduce Scripture to a logically tight system giving us axioms from which we could reason to any and all sorts of conclusions. Instead, they were making the common-sense point that in many cases, we are able to learn more from several passages taken together than from any one of them alone. This is, for example, how Christians have arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity. Scripture nowhere says, “God is triune, one God in three persons,” but this is a good and necessary consequence from the Scriptural teaching that God is both one (e.g. Deut 6:4-5) and three (e.g. Matt 28:19). So instead of asking for an explicit passage that teaches the Reformed understanding of PSA, we must ask more generally, “Does the Bible teach that Jesus bore the wrath of God towards our sins in our place on the Cross?” To this we can respond with an emphatic “YES!” Let’s briefly consider the Biblical teaching on this matter.
The Wrath of God on the Cross of Christ
We can arrive at the reformed doctrine of PSA by looking at four biblical arguments—though many more could be put forth. Namely, there are several clear statements in Scripture that Jesus bore the wrath of God in our place. By “wrath,” Reformed Christians intend God’s righteous anger expressed towards sin, expressing itself in judgment. Let’s begin with Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 and the Guilt Offering
Many of us are familiar with the first part of this passage, verses 4-9; in these verses, we are told that the suffering servant—our Lord Jesus Christ—would suffer horribly bearing our iniquities, though He himself would be sinless. But the key verses for our consideration are 10-11,
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities. (ESV)
Observe how it was God’s will, indeed His “good pleasure” (הפץ), to crush Jesus. Why? “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” The language here is sacrificial; Jesus is “crushed” according to God’s good pleasure to make a guilt offering and justify “many.”
The point is this, God crushes Jesus as a guilt offering, dealing once for all with the consequences of our sin. Though the word “wrath” is not used, the nature of sacrifice is that a life is taken as punishment in the place of the one sacrificing. The animal sacrifices could not, of course, actually take our punishment, but they pointed forward to One who could.
Galatians 3 and the Curse of the Law
Even more explicit is Galatians 3:13. Here, we are told that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” This is essentially what is meant by PSA in Reformed circles: Jesus bore the curse of God against our sins in our place.
Now this is the essential point; the “curse” Jesus bore is not a natural consequence of sin, it is God’s active judgment against sin.
Paul is drawing on Deuteronomy 21 in this passage, where it is explicitly said that “a hanged man is cursed by God” (v. 23, emphasis added). As the passage goes on, it is clear that “curse” refers to the negative judgment God gives against covenant breakers (cf. Deut 27:9-26). This curse is manifest first in God’s physical, temporal punishment against sin—His wrath—explicated in Deuteronomy 28:1-29:28. The doctrine of Hell, which emerges throughout the rest of the canon, is presented as the eternal correspondent of this temporal punishment: not only are covenant breakers punished in this life, they will receive eternal punishment for their sins. In the New Testament, the nature of God’s covenant with man is shifted—the Old Covenant is annulled—and the only curse that remains is the final judgment (cf. Rom 2:12-29). Thus, when Jesus bore the curse of the Law in our place, He bears the final judgment we deserve for us.
This final judgment is described in Thessalonians as “punishment[,] eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” (2 Thess 1:10, my translation). From here has the sense “coming forth from.” This judgment is repeatedly identified as God’s wrath in the New Testament, from which we were delivered by Jesus on the Cross (e.g. Rom 12:19; Eph 2:3, 5:6; Col 3:6). Here we see how the explicit statement “Christ… become a curse for us” is explained by tracing other teaching of Scripture and deducing the necessary consequences from their relationship. To say that Jesus became a curse in our place is to say that Jesus became an object of God’s wrath against sin in our place. This is made more explicit in a series of passages from the Gospels.
Mark 10:38 and Gospel Passages About the Cup Jesus Drinks
Consider Mark 10:38, “Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’” Have you ever wondered why Jesus speaks of “the cup that I drink?” This language is actually quite common in reference to His crucifixion (cf. Matt 26:42, Mark 10:38, Luke 22:42, John 18:11). We do not have to guess what is meant, for this image is a very frequent one in both Testaments, used to refer to the God’s wrath poured out against sin. Consider four examples,
Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them. (Jer 25:15-16)
You will have your fill of shame instead of glory.
Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision!
The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you,
And utter shame will come upon your glory! (Hab 2:16)
If anyone worships the beast and its image… he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angles and in the presence of the lamb (Rev 14:9-10)
Pay [Babylon] back as she herself has paid back others,
And repay her double for her deeds
mix a double portion for her in the cup she has mixed (Rev 18:6)
What, then, is the cup that Jesus’s disciples could not drink? This cup is the cup of God’s full wrath against the sin of God’s people, drunk to the dregs by Jesus Christ on the Cross! We can confirm this by considering one last set of texts, showing that Jesus Christ bore the full wrath of God against human sin—bore the penalty of sin.
Romans and the Wrath of God
Romans is all about the Gospel, the good news of the salvation made available for those who believe in Jesus. For our purposes, it is significant to observe how the book of Romans sets up the Gospel, especially in contrast with the book of Galatians (cf. Gal 1:4). In Romans, the Gospel is presented against the backdrop of God’s wrath. The Gospel, according to Romans 1:16-17, is the power of God for Salvation. In verse 18, the reason why the Gospel is needed, and why it is solely by faith, is given; “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” The following verse (1:18-3:20) demonstrate how all human beings—Jew and Gentile—fall under this indictment: all are guilty and face the wrath of God. It is in this context that Paul introduces the righteousness of God which Jesus has obtained for us. The question raised in Romans is, therefore, “how does Jesus deliver us from the wrath of God against our sin?”
Paul’s answer is that through Jesus redemption has been made: God’s righteous character has been demonstrated and a right standing before God has been made available for all who believe (Rom 3:21-24). In verses 25-26, Paul identifies how this happened; “God put forward [Jesus] 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. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” By translating “propitiation,” the ESV rightly connects the problem of God’s wrath with its solution; Jesus is put forth by God as a sacrifice that does away with God’s wrath—“propitiates” Him. The word used here, ιλαστηριον (ilasterion) is itself controversial—as Bruxy notes in the interview—but the ESV translation is appropriate.
In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this word does not refer to a sacrifice itself but the place where the ritual of atonement is completed, the so-called “mercy seat.” By using this word, Paul is identifying the sacrifice of Christ as the fulfillment of this ritual; he is associating Jesus with the place where the Old Testament ritual of atonement reaches its climax, where God is both appeased and sin is dealt with. In theological terms, the purpose of this ritual and Jesus’s death on the Cross is propitiation through expiation. That is, Jesus removes the wrath of God from us (propitiation) by dealing fully with the guilt of our sin (achieving expiation). It has been shown repeatedly in the 20th century that the key element of propitiation, removing wrath, is present in both the Old and New Testament presentations of atonement. The presence of both propitiation and expiation on the Cross was also strongly argued by Calvin during the Reformation.
In light of the argument of the book of romans, it is clear that Paul intends here to indicate that God put Christ forth as the sacrifice that accomplishes atonement, namely by appeasing God’s wrath against sin by bearing the full penalty of it. It is by doing this that He can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
Considering even just these texts, I think we can see why the Reformed community has continually emphasized the wrath of God in the atonement. We do this because Scripture makes this point throughout. Identifying the cross as the place where God poured out His complete wrath against sin upon His Son does not need to nullify the other emphasis of the New Testament, that God was working through Jesus to reconcile the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:19). It was in the very act of pouring out His wrath—leading Jesus to utter the famous words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27:46)—that God the Father through Jesus Christ reconciled the world to Himself. The Reformed community holds to this doctrine not on the basis of a single proof text, an apparently explicit statement that God poured out His wrath on Jesus, but by examining the whole testimony of Scripture and seeing the full tapestry it weaves.
It is because of this doctrine, that the penalty Jesus bore was the full wrath of God against sin, that I think Paul penned the difficult words in Romans 9:22-23; “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” Understood in its context, this text yields many profound insights into God’s plan for redemption and the creation of the world. There are many ways in which this plays out in history of this present age, yet there is also a sense in which this is eschatological—looking to the final judgment.
God has endured with much patience those “prepared for destruction”: the destruction in view is final judgment. If the purpose of God displaying His glory was fulfilled in this present age of patience, there would seem to be no need for this “destruction” for which they are prepared. Flipping this around, we can say that the fullness of God’s glory shown to vessels of mercy is only completed in final judgment. “Why?” is the question we should be asking—what insight does Hell give into the mercy of God? Hell, I argue, is the theatre of the glory of God BECAUSE in showing the true nature of God’s wrath against sin—what it really costs—it shows those who are saved what Jesus went through on the Cross.
Only in properly understanding final judgment do we understand the judgment Jesus went through on the cross. That connection is only maintained, and Hell only serves this function, if we maintain that in both Hell and on the Cross the penalty for human sin is the full weight of the wrath of God—“punishment[,] eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:9). We understand now dimly what the sacrifice of Christ cost—we know how brutal Roman crucifixion is—but only then will we understand the true weight of God the Son’s sacrifice on our behalf, what it meant for Him to cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).