Does Penal Substitution Require the Resurrection?
Christ’s penal substitutionary death which demands the resurrection…because the resurrection is a demonstration of the legal verdict of righteousness pronounced on the incarnate Son, the resurrection is not an event we loosely tie to a legal atonement but is itself legal in nature as it is Christ’s justification. And because salvation comes to us via our union with Christ, we can declare that he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus paid for all our sins on the cross and we are thereby forgiven.
Jerry Bridges wrote those words in his excellent work, The Discipline of Grace. As a pastor, I’ve recommended that book to many over the years and loaned out my personal copy so much that I’ve had to replace it repeatedly. But every time I read that line I cringe just a bit. I want to write in “and was raised from the dead!” I want his summary of the gospel to include the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. After all, Paul makes clear that Christ’s resurrection is no inconsequential matter, telling the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in yours sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The resurrection is of absolute necessity to the gospel message. But I have to admit, this is an area in which I’m a bit sensitive.
An Increasing Awareness of a Truncated “Gospel”
My sensitivity stems from two things. First, I’ve pastored the same church in a college town for the last twenty-three years. With a transient town and students moving in and out, I’ve done my fair share of membership interviews over this time. In those interviews, I always ask the prospective member to share the gospel with me. To the best of our ability, it’s our church’s way of making sure that the person is a believer and is able to articulate the basic components of the gospel message. And more often than I like to admit, the resurrection is absent in these “gospel” presentations. The follow-up question that I’ve most frequently had to ask is, “Did Jesus remain dead?” Of course, without exception, the person answers by affirming that Jesus rose from the dead on that Easter Sunday morning, but for some reason the importance and necessity of the resurrection doesn’t immediately register.
The second reason for my sensitivity in this area comes from my days in graduate studies. The focus of my work in those years was on defending penal substitutionary atonement from the attacks of so-called “evangelicals” who began to argue against this understanding of Christ’s work around the turn of the century. Their attacks ranged from claims that penal substitution is a picture of child abuse to arguments that it distorts intra-Trinitarian relationships. But one attack that always seemed to surface was that proponents of penal substitution ignore the resurrection because our understanding of the cross makes it unnecessary.
For example, Tom Smail wrote in his work on the cross,
The penal model as such does not quite know what to make of the resurrection. It gives birth to a spirituality that . . . is symbolized . . . by a preaching that is dominated by a one-sided preoccupation with sin and condemnation and the suffering of Christ as the price of our deliverance from it. The resurrection is seen only as the sign of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice, his affirmation of the sufficiency of what has been done to secure our pardon, and as a rather disconnected promise of life after death.
Clark Pinnock ratcheted up the charge, claiming that the penal “idea of the atonement does not have much room for resurrection which can go almost unmentioned because it is not required.”
Upon reading those attacks, I always wanted to dismiss them as attacks on straw men. “Of course defenders of penal substitution see the necessity of the resurrection,” I wanted to respond. We would never ignore it or let it go unmentioned. But then I would remember those membership interviews.
Given a moment’s reflection, you can see why detractors of penal substitution make this claim and why proponents of this precious doctrine often do allow the resurrection to go unmentioned in their “gospel” presentations. There is a certain logic to this “gospel” message that seems sound, coherent, and complete without noting the resurrection at all. Because God is holy and we are sinful, we bear divine condemnation. But God sent his Son into the world to live in perfect obedience and then die on the cross, bearing the condemnation that we deserved in our place. Therefore, if we repent of our sins and believe in him, we are credited with his perfect righteousness, and Christ’s death counts as the complete payment for our sins and removes God’s condemnation from us.
In this description, Christ’s death seems to account for everything. The problem, of course, is that without mention of the resurrection a gospel message is no gospel at all (1 Cor. 15:4), and Scripture will not allow such an empty proclamation to be called “good news.” Again, Paul declared, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17-18). He doesn’t say, “If Christ has not been raised, your sins remain forgiven and divine condemnation is removed, you just won’t get to experience resurrection.” Rather, he says if Christ isn’t raised, we’re still in our sins and will perish. Does this mean that Pinnock, Smail, and others are right, and it’s time to move on from penal substitution?
Of course not. To abandon penal substitution in light of its biblical support (see esp. Rom. 3:21-26; 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13) is no better than ignoring the resurrection. Rather, we need to understand the saving nature of the resurrection. We need to see that, far from penal substitution leaving no room for the resurrection, it is the penalty-bearing nature of Christ’s death that demands the resurrection if we are to be saved. But in order to see this, we need to understand three elements: (1) Christ as our representative substitute, (2) the condemnation involved in penal substitution, and (3) the legal nature of Christ’s resurrection. We’ll take these in turn.
Christ as Our Representative Substitute
In order to understand why penal substitution demands the resurrection, one must consider the representative nature of Jesus’s work. Some have attempted to place the concepts of representation and substitution in separate and exclusive categories, but Scripture allows no such division. Believers are said to have “died with Christ” (Rom. 6:8) and are told that “Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Christ represents believers in his high-priestly work (Heb. 5:1), and because he is our substitute, he bears divine wrath in our place and on our behalf. Thus, Jesus is a “representative substitute” for believers, as Packer noted fifty years ago. This recognition must be our starting point in seeing how the cross and resurrection are necessary for our justification. The reason for this is because what Christ accomplishes in both his death and resurrection is appropriated to believers through our union with him. What is true of him becomes true of us, his people, because he is our representative.