You can define an organisation three ways – by its centre, which is what it holds most dear, its circumference, which is where the limits lie for what it may or may not accept, and by its cause, which is what gives it life, energy, and what it would die for.
The centre for us, is the cross. Why?
Because it is the place where everything coheres.
It’s not that we never talk about anything else, because there’s lots for us to understand about God and his ways. But everything is to be understood in the light of the cross.
If we ever preach a sermon which could have been preached if Christ had not been crucified, then that was not a Christian sermon.
That’s even true of the resurrection: if we don’t tie the resurrection to the cross, then we risk treating his death as a blip, an unfortunate break in the narrative.
There are numerous biblical model to describe the effect and work of the cross of course: the victory of God is one such way, and so is the defeat of Satan. Every so often someone will rediscover them as a forgotten treasure and remind us of them. And the cross is supposed to remind us to lay our lives down daily and carry our cross too.
But Penal Substitution, the doctrine that Christ bore the just punishment of the Father’s wrath for us, stands in a different place. You have perhaps had the experience that when you talk about Penal Substitution, someone will gently remind us of the range of biblical models. Implication: we can pick and choose between them, and because Penal Substitution is a little strong for some tastes, we should rediscover the other biblical material. Or, as happened in my presence, a rather aloof theologian will gently distance himself from the language of some song or other, and suggest to a congregation (whom he treated like keen but naive undergraduates) that there’s more to this business than meets our eyes. Our eyes, notice. He’d seen through it.
So here’s my response. I am grateful for the reminder of the range of biblical models. I hope I have not forgotten them along the way, and I hope I teach them. I should. I’ve already posted HERE about how we can preach on the cross in a different way for about a year.
But Penal Substitution is not a model. It is not a picture of what was going on, like redemption, or a battle. It was what was going on. ‘He himself bore sins in his body on the tree.’ The word ‘tree’ is a picture but the rest of the sentence isn’t. And ‘tree’ is itself a summary picture of punishment being borne by a criminal – so the reality behind the picture is penal.
Preach the cross. Preach its wonderful, biblical richness. It is our centre. But never forget that even our centre has a centre.
Here are two books which are so good that those who disagree with them have never managed to refute. They have never, to my knowledge, even tried. They have simply ignored them. Buy these two, and treasure them. Even John Stott stood on this man’s shoulders.
Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament This takes the various biblical themes and traces them across the New Testament, pulling the data together.
Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. This works through the New Testament book by book and explores their understanding of the cross in sequence.