There are some who look at the doctrine of penal substitution as a doctrine of “cosmic child abuse”. They claim that God’s taking his Son against his will and brutally punishing him for acts that he did not commit are both inhumane and barbaric. This leads some to reject the doctrine altogether, and it leads others to replace it with something more palatable.
As I have been doing my devotions in John, I have spent the last few weeks in John 5 (I am admittedly a slow reader in my devotions). I noticed something that was amazing. After being persecuted by the Jews for “working” on the Sabbath, he equated his works and his own being with the Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (v.17). This made the Jews even more angry, even to the point of seeking Jesus’ death (v.18).
Jesus then gives an amazing teaching on his relationship to the Father and his role in the Father’s plan (vv.19-30). I stumbled over verse 20, which is a reason why Jesus can do all that the Father does: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” In other words, the Father in love reveals to the Son more of his works, and the Son in love reveals those works perfectly on earth. As a result, “greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.”
What are those greater works? First, there is the work of life: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (v.21). Second, there is the work of judgment: “For the Father judes no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” (vv.22-23). The Father loves his Son so much that he gives him the authority to give life and judgment to whomever he wills, because the Father knows that the Son perfectly seeks to do the Father’s will (v.30).
The question then becomes this: How did the Father give the Son such authority? Revelation 5:9-10 gives the answer. John, whom I believe also wrote the Gospel account, has a vision of heaven. In the vision, no one is found worthy to break the seals on the scroll of judgment (5:2-4). In John’s dismay, one of the elders said to him, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (v.5).
When the Lamb who was slain appeared, the heavenly creatures sang,
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth” (9-10).
Notice, he is both the one who is worthy to pronounce judgment on the earth (“to take the scroll and to open its seals”) and to ransom people from every nation to eternal life (“you ransomed people for God from every tribe…”). Why? “For you were slain, and by your blood…” In other words, it was through his death that he was able to be elevated to the high position of Judge and Life-giver. And because of that he receives “blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (v.13).
Jesus, then, knowing exactly how he was to be glorified, defined the Father’s plan as love. It was loving for the Father to send the Son down such a horrible road, because it was down that road that he would receive the highest of honors. He would be the One who would once and for all conquer evil, and he would be the One to redeem sinners back to the Father and restore creation to a place of blessing, justice and peace. Penal substitution, then, does not reveal God to be a child abuser; rather, it reveals God to be the infinite, all-wise, all-glorious Father who truly does know best.