Reflecting on the Glory of the Cross, by Stephen J. Wellum

Published on May 27, 2024 by Eugene Ho

SBJT, 2003 | 5 pages

Editor’s Note: The doctrine of penal substitution has in our day begun to lose its central place as the informing factor in understanding the various facets of Christ’s cross work, and so we were pleased to see the subject taken up in the recent issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Below is Stephen Wellum’s editorial, republished here with his permission. You can access this entire issue of the journal here.


Wellum’s Editorial

In this issue of SBJT, our focus is on the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. Trying to capture all that our Lord Jesus achieved in his glorious work without being reductionist is not easy. We cannot reduce Christ’s work simply to one aspect of his life and ministry. Included in our Lord’s redemptive work as our mediator is his incarnation, entire obedient life as our new covenant head, his cross, resurrection, ascension, and his pouring out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, along with his present rule over the world and his advent to come. John Calvin sought to grasp the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work by the famous munus triplex—Christ’s threefold office as our mediator—prophet, priest, and king. What Calvin sought to avoid, along with many faithful theologians before him, was reductionism in our theological formulations.

However, although there is a danger in prioritizing one aspect of our Lord’s work above others, we can also lose what is central in Christ’s work. As we read Scripture, it does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt 1:21; 1 Cor 15:3–4). It was never enough for Christ to be merely with us in his incarnation, to teach us in his prophetic role, and even to rule over us as our king. To redeem us, and to undo the damage of the first man, Christ had to act for us in his life, death, and resurrection. Apart from his cross-work, namely, his death for us as substitute, we have no redemption, no justification before God, and ultimately no hope in the world. In this sense, the incarnation and other aspects of his work are a prelude to the atonement, without ever denying that everything that Christ did for us as our great prophet, priest, and king was necessary for our salvation. Or to say it in another way: if the incarnation was sufficient, then our salvation would only require Bethlehem and not Gethsemane or Calvary. But Bethlehem was never enough, and this is why Scripture accents and emphasizes the centrality of the cross as necessary for our eternal redemption. Given this truth, it is imperative that we think carefully about the cross, which is the aim of this issue of SBJT.


The Cross as Multifaceted

When we think of the Scriptural presentation of the cross, it is no doubt the case that the Bible presents the cross as a rich, multifaceted, and glorious work. In fact, Scripture presents the cross in at least eight complementary ways in its words, themes, and concepts: obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice/justification, victory/conquest, and moral example. Thus, to explain the cross according to Scripture, we must account for all the ways the Bible presents it without leaving anything out. As we do so, we discover that although the cross is presented like a beautiful gem, which can be looked at from many angles, if we are to explain the cross theologically, i.e., capturing what the cross is centrally about, we would have to say something like the following: Christ Jesus, God the Son incarnate, has come as our mediator and new covenant head to offer himself before God on behalf of sin to justify us before God, and thus bring about our eternal redemption with all of its glorious benefits.

In the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, this theological truth and summary of the biblical data was best captured by the view of penal substitution. As a theological explanation of the cross, penal substitution was not seeking to be reductionistic in its explanation; rather, it was seeking to account for all of the biblical data within the Bible’s storyline and worldview. What reason was given for penal substitution best capturing what is central to the cross? It was that penal substitution best accounts for why the divine Son had to die and why he alone can save.

Given the confusion surrounding this theological view today, let us be precise about what exactly is meant by penal substitution. We can think about this view by breaking down its two words: penal and substitution.


Penal Substitution

Penal refers to the sorry state of all of humanity as we stand under God’s judgment and the penalty of death. This one word captures a central feature of the Bible’s storyline: as the covenant head and representative of all humans, Adam disobeyed God, and his sin then became ours by nature, imputation, and choice. Because all humanity is “in Adam” and therefore under the power and penalty of sin—i.e., spiritual and physical death (Rom 3:23; 6:23; see Eph 2:1–4)—we are now alienated from the triune God, who created us to know and love him. We are also under his verdict of condemnation; and because he is personal, holy, and righteous, we now stand under his divine judgment.

Substitution refers to the work of Christ Jesus as he died in our place on the cross. This term also picks up the Bible’s storyline when it speaks of God choosing to redeem his people instead of leaving them in their sin and under divine judgment. As our new covenant head, Christ represented us as the greater Adam, who willingly and gladly obeyed the Father perfectly by the power of the Holy Spirit. On the cross, Christ stood in our place and paid our debt by receiving the penalty we deserved. The result of his work for us is that by faith-union in Christ, God the Father declares us just, forgiven of every sin in full, and free from the power of sin and tyranny of Satan, who once held the verdict of death and condemnation over our heads (2 Cor 5:21; see 1 Pet 3:18; Gal 3:13; Heb 9:28; Rom 8:32).


A View Worth Defending

In our day, sadly, the theological view of penal substitution has come under attack today, both from outside of evangelical theology and also, sadly, from within. Repeatedly, the historic Reformation view of the cross, which has roots in the entire history of the church, is claimed to be a “modern” invention from the cultural West. The claim is that penal substitution is too “legal” in its orientation and thus not relational; that it sanctions violence; privileges divine retributive justice over God’s love; functions as a view that teaches divine child abuse; and that it reduces Scripture’s polychrome presentation of the cross to a lifeless monochrome. Interestingly, none of these charges are new. Socinians and classic liberal theology have made similar charges since the end of the sixteenth century. Furthermore, all of these charges have been answered over the years, and in fact, such charges largely reflect the corrosive effects of false ideas on theology and a failure to account for how the Bible, on its own terms, interprets the cross.

But probably what is most serious and disturbing about these attacks is that they come close to misunderstanding the truth of the Gospel, and even denying what is central in God’s glorious plan of redemption. In Scripture and theology, penal substitution is not merely one view among many; instead, it is how we understand the good news of God’s sovereign grace in redeeming us as his people and accomplishing for us what we could not do ourselves. In fact, penal substitution is shorthand for speaking of the triune God in all of his holiness, righteousness, and justice. It communicates the truth that humans are in a helpless state before God, and that it is only Jesus who can rescue, justify, and redeem us. In truth, penal substitution places God at the center of our salvation. It reminds us that the triune God of grace planned our great redemption from eternity and achieved it on the stage of human history. From beginning to end, God alone acted in power and grace to provide, achieve, and accomplish our salvation by the Father’s initiative, in and through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit.

Let us never forget that the eternal, divine Son of God came to this earth not merely to share his life with us, but to do something for us. Penal substitution is not a view to be replaced by something “better” or dismissed as a relic of the past. There is no greater news than this: Christ Jesus, as the divine Son incarnate, perfectly meets our need before God. In Christ, the triune love of God is gloriously revealed because it is in him that we receive the gift of righteousness by faith. In union with his people, Christ, as our new covenant head, obeys in our place, dies our death, and satisfies divine justice which is evidenced in his glorious resurrection. As a result, his righteousness is ours, now and forever (Rom 8:1; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13). By faith-union in Christ, we stand complete: justified before God and clothed in his righteousness (Rom 4:1–8; 5:1–2). This is glorious news indeed!

In this issue of SBJT, our goal is to reflect on the atonement, specifically from historical and systematic theology. Each article in its own way will address current debates over penal substitution and thus help us reflect more faithfully on the glory of the cross. My prayer is that this issue of SBJT will help us say with the apostle Paul, we “resolve to know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), for our good and the life and health of the church.

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SBJT, 2003 | 5 pages

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