Why do people set up false alternatives, and try to get us to choose between them? Sometimes they have not thought deeply about the subjects on which they are speaking. Perhaps they simply like to set up a caricature, so it’s rather easy to knock down the straw man. Perhaps there is some deeper experience driving their thinking.
It has become somewhat popular to deny “penal substitutionary” atonement by preferring the doctrine of Christ as Victor. Christ, by his death, won a great victory over the powers of evil. Some people have a strong aversion to the very idea of punishment. What they reject is the idea of repayment of evil. It seems vengeful, and if we are forbidden to take vengeance, surely God would not take vengeance. Others seem to have the idea that an innocent Son receiving the wrath of an angry Father simply affirms violence. Others have the idea that penal substitution teaches that God is angry by nature, like a bad father, looking for someone to “take it out” on.
By contrast, the Bible’s message of freeing people from Satan’s power and control, of liberating them from his tyranny to the gracious Lordship of Christ’s kingdom, is a positive message. By using the idea of the Kingdom, it goes beyond individual salvation to a community model.
We should not doubt that the atonement won a great victory. From the very first promise God made to Adam, the Bible speaks of the defeat of Satan: the woman’s seed would crush the serpent’s head by enduring the bruising of his heel. Think of the biblical story: the devilish cruelty of Pharaoh was no match for the Redeemer of Exodus. Jesus’ own ministry gave full evidence of his power over Satan. He proclaimed freedom to the captives, and restored sight to the blind. He cast out demons and freed a woman Satan oppressed for thirty-eight years. The apostle, reflecting on this, wrote that the Father had rescued his people from the power of darkness, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). God overcame Satan completely.
How did God do this? He did it through the cross. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:13-15). The (Gentile) Colossians had been dead in sin. God raised them in Christ. The Colossians had been under condemnation. But God forgave all their trespasses. How did he do this? By “canceling the record of debt that stood against them…nailing it to the cross.”
This is how Jesus’ death overcame Satan. God cancelled the record of our debt. Just what power did Satan have? He did not have any power of his own. He had a usurped power. He is a creature, powerful, but not equal to God. Jesus called him a “murderer” and a “liar from the beginning.” He has the power to deceive. He has the power to accuse. But the right to judge (and to punish) belongs to God alone. What did God do? He sent his Beloved Son to die in our place, so our debt could be cancelled. This put Satan and his demons to open shame. “The cross secures its victory precisely because it expiates sin, propitiates God, and ransoms the sinner. Stripped of these priestly effects it can have no kingly effects,” writes Donald Macleod.
If we are inclined to favor Jesus as Victor over Jesus as Redeemer, we must remember one fact supremely. In Scripture, death is always and everywhere the penalty of sin. It is not the natural outcome of human life. Had Adam obeyed his Creator, there would be no human death. It entered the world as God’s righteous response to sin. And Jesus died. But Jesus had no sin. Scripture is emphatic about this. Thus, if the innocent One dies, there must be an explanation. Otherwise Jesus’ death is no victory, but the triumph of the evil one.
How could God give up the innocent One? What is the explanation? It is love, divine love for the world of sinful people. The Trinity planned to count our record as His. It was the Father who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Not violence, but love, moved the Father to give him up.
Christ was innocent, and Christ was willing to give his life as a ransom for many. We cannot know what moved the Father to this love, to pay this greatest possible price, to give up his own Son. God is our judge. He has the right to require punishment for our sins. And, amazing as it is, he has the right to give us a Redeemer to receive that punishment. He won the great victory by laying down his life as a sacrifice. He is the Victor just because he is the Redeemer. In Christ we are freed from the guilt of our trespasses, as well as freed from the domain of darkness, to serve him together.
Howard Griffith, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.