I don’t know if you’ve ever found it hard to explain (or illustrate) how the cross works — how God achieves what he does through the execution of Jesus.
How does the cross demonstrate God’s character and inner nature as Father, Son and Spirit?
How does it accomplish the defeat of Satan and the hostile ‘powers’?
How does it effect the condemnation of sin?
And how does God reconciles sinners to himself through all of this?
These are huge questions. And the answers aren’t always straightforward.
Of course, that there’s a problem may never have occurred to you. Much popular Christian piety works hard to reassure us it’s all very simple.
The songs we sing, the sermon illustrations we hear time and again — all of them beckon like the Sirens: God punishes Jesus in our place. That’s how it works. Easy…
And there’s something to this. The New Testament does tug us in this direction. Think of Jesus’ cry from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Likewise, the language of exchange — of substitution — is shot through the ways Paul, Peter, John and the others explain Jesus’ death.
And just as the reality of holy God’s fierce and personal response to human wickedness and hard-heartedness — his wrath — can’t be avoided, so Christ’s bearing of that wrath is (at least) implicit everywhere.
But we must resist.
We must resist the Siren call. Because divine child abuse is only the most extreme charge that can be levelled against us if we head this way.
And we’ve got to stop short at the edge of the abyss. Because the New Testament does.
Consider the language of ‘condemnation’. Who or what is condemned to secure a condemnation-free future for us?
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8.3)
God condemned sin. He didn’t condemn Jesus.
Father and Son (and Spirit) are united in the achievement of the cross. They’re working together as active, loving, and willing subjects.
So where does that leave us in trying to explain how the cross works?
With a problem!
As Graham Cole points out, ‘Perhaps trying to illustrate … penal substitution is like trying to illustrate the Trinity. The analogies and illustrations fail at crucial points because the Trinity and its involvement in the atonement is sui generis.’ (God The Peacemaker, page 255).