“It seems unjust that God would have Christ pay the punishment for another”

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Travis recently sent in an email to Mark Driscoll Ministries with this question, “How is God just in having his son die for our sins?  It seems unjust that God would have Christ pay the punishment for another, a perfect person punished for an imperfect.  Like Hitler standing before a judge and the judge saying your free to go ill be punished for you.  How is it fair that the sinner goes away unpunished?” The rest of this blog is an answer for Travis and those who share his question.

Inevitably, substitution does mean that God is punishing human beings according to their sins. This concept is increasingly unpopular, as it has been overshadowed by accepting people as they are, forgiving what they do, and forgetting the evil they have done and the pain they have caused.

God is our Victim

Interesting, however, is the proclivity of people to reverse their position when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. What I mean is this: when I sin against someone, I want them to accept me, forgive me, and let me off the hook, because that is what sinners want. As long as we view the cross only from the perspective of sinners, this is all we will see. However, when we or someone we love is sinned against, we cry out for justice because that is what victims want. For example, a father who learned that his young daughter had been sexually abused by his brother told me he “wanted blood.” This, precisely, is the perspective of God, who has never sinned against anyone but is continually sinned against by everyone and is truly the greatest victim in all of history. While he is not to be pitied, such injustice must be acknowledged.

Some will protest that such a desire for blood and justice is primitive. But what is the appropriate response to someone who deliberately sins, shows no remorse or repentance, and maintains ongoing devotion to doing evil? The hard truth is that our sin hurts God and hurts the people that God made and loves. Like anyone who truly loves, God takes it personally when harm is done, precisely because he is loving, not because he is unloving.

Retribution or Rehabilitation?

Sadly, what to do with sinners has led to a political tug-of-war between the right and left. The right generally prefers retribution, which punishes sinners with such things as prison time and capital punishment but usually bypasses rehabilitation and diminishes community responsibility for correction. The left generally prefers rehabilitation, which seeks to improve sinners with such things as therapy and medication but usually bypasses punishment and diminishes personal responsibility for sin.

At the cross we see that God deals with sinners through both retribution and rehabilitation. God made us for glory, not sin. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God honors the dignity of our personhood—we are more than animals incapable of good. By dying for us in our place and suffering our rightful punishment, Jesus also satisfies the retributive justice necessary for God the victim. Through Jesus’ death, God has secured for us who believe in Jesus the benefit of a new nature empowered by the Holy Spirit that is not only capable of being reformed but eternally guaranteed to be sinless, thereby satisfying the rehabilitative needs of us sinners.

Penal Substitution

Theologically, the concept of Jesus’ dying in our place to pay our penalty for our sins has been expressed in theological shorthand as penal substitution. While the church has always affirmed this aspect of atonement, it was highlighted in the Reformation and in the theologies of John Calvin and Martin Luther.

This aspect of the atonement is under the most vehement attack today by people who do not believe that people are as sinful as they truly are, that God is as holy as he truly is, or that God has chosen an appropriate penalty for sin (death). Curiously, such critics are also commonly known to be the most vocal of hypocrites, simultaneously demanding justice on the earth for the poor, oppressed, and abused, while denying God the same kind of justice that is due him by those people that he created to glorify him with sinless obedience. Nonetheless, Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins, as the following examples illustrate:

Isaiah 53:12 “…he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

Romans 4:25 “…delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

Romans 5:8 “…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

1 Corinthians 15:3 “…Christ died for our sins…”

Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”

Indeed, the human problem is sin, the divine motivation is holy love, and the death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus is the solution. Consequently, the death of Jesus is the most important event in the history of the world and the crux of how a relationship with God is made possible. Because of this, Christianity is not based upon ideas or philosophies, but rather upon the one man Jesus Christ and his death by crucifixion followed by resurrection. In conclusion, sin affects both God and the sinner, and only through the cross are God and sinners simultaneously served.