Substitution and Divine Love

Substitution and Divine Love

Written by J.I. Packer |
Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory. Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me. Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love, and to serve.

The penal substitution model has been criticized for depicting a kind Son placating a fierce Father in order to make him love man, which he did not do before. The criticism is, however, inept, for penal substitution is a Trinitarian model, for which the motivational unity of Father and Son is axiomatic. The New Testament presents God’s gift of his Son to die as the supreme expression of his love to men. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16 KJV). “God is love…Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:8–10 KJV). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Similarly, the New Testament presents the Son’s voluntary acceptance of death as the supreme expression of his love to men. “[He] loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends” (John 15:13–14 KJV). And the two loves, the love of Father and Son, are one: a point that the penal substitution model, as used, firmly grasps.

Furthermore, if the true measure of love is how low it stoops to help, and how much in its humility it is ready to do and bear, then it may fairly be claimed that the penal substitutionary model embodies a richer witness to divine love than any other model of atonement, for it sees the Son at his Father’s will going lower than any other view ventures to suggest. That death on the cross was a criminal’s death, physically as painful as (if not more painful than) any mode of judicial execution that the world has seen; and that Jesus endured it in full consciousness of being innocent before God and man, and yet of being despised and rejected, whether in malicious conceit or in sheer fecklessness, by persons he had loved and tried to save—this is ground common to all views, and tells us already that the love of Jesus, which took him to the cross, brought him appallingly low. But the penal substitution model adds to all this a further dimension of truly unimaginable distress, compared with which everything mentioned so far pales into insignificance. This is the dimension indicated by Denney—“that in that dark hour He had to realize to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race.”[1] Owen stated this formally, abstractly, and nonpsychologically: Christ, he said, satisfied God’s justice

…for all the sins of all those for whom he made satisfaction, by undergoing that same punishment which, by reason of the obligation that was upon them, they were bound to undergo. When I say the same I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all accidents of duration and the like.[2]

Jonathan Edwards expressed the thought with tender and noble empathy:

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