Penal substitution (2)
There are no clear cases of penal substitution in the Old Testament. There are clear cases where the innocent suffer from some judgement that exists as punishment but there are no clear cases where God punishes an innocent person as a substitute for a guilty person. Nor is there a clear case where God punishes any person as a substitute for any other person.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
In Amos 4 God addresses the apostate Northern Kingdom. He tells them that he has always wanted their return to him and that in trying to bring them back he poured out judgments on them (see 4:6-13 and the recurring “yet you did not return to me”). They suffered drought and famine. The drought and famine were produced by God (4:6-8 and note the “I gave” and “I withheld” phrases). They were God’s response to Israel’s wickedness (4:1-5) and they were meant to bring them back.
The drought and famine were no accidents. These and other things were punishment and they were punishment for offenses committed. These horrific conditions would not have existed (in this section of scripture) if Israel had not been guilty of sin against God and oppression of the vulnerable. This is plain and unvarnished penal suffering. That is, suffering that exists as punishment for offenses committed!
Into such conditions a baby is born and suffers the agonies of starvation (as countless thousands do this day). The baby suffers from famine that exists and only exists as punishment on the guilty. The famine exists because God is acting in wrath. God is acting in wrath against the guilty. In the Amos setting, if the guilty had not sinned there would have been no famine and the newborn would not be suffering from the famine. God’s wrath is triggered by guilt and the writhing infants are guiltless. However we describe their suffering we cannot call it punishment or words have no meaning. Well, there is an alternative. We could say God was angry with the newborn. We could say he was angry with them because they were “born sinners” and deserved to be starved. This takes leave of the text, which says the wrath is triggered by apostasy and flagrant in justice, and it is another one of those outrageous doctrines that is an obscenity even to defend.
But the newborn are suffering. They are suffering under the judgement of God and so they are suffering from conditions that are punishment handed out by God. So it is perfectly legitimate to say the innocent are suffering what is in truth penal suffering so long as we understand that they personally are not objects of God’s wrath and that he is not punishing them.
What is true of innocent babies would be true of those who were holy and righteous. Not everyone in Israel was evil. There were those who were holy and righteous, who were under the blood of the covenant and were loyal to their covenant Lord. These were not the people that triggered God’s wrath and they were not the people God responded to in anger to bring them back to him. They had never left! On the contrary, they stayed, in holy righteousness when the rest went worshiping idols and gouging the poor.
When the famine came—a famine that existed as punishment for treachery and cruelty—the righteous suffered the agonies of it. They shared the pain with the guilty. They bore the pain of punishment but it was not their punishment because it was not their offense. Nevertheless, God would not spare his own sons and daughters so they too went down under the weight of the judgement of God against sin.
Of course God knew exactly what he was doing when he brought the judgement. He knew the innocent babies and the holy and righteous would suffer under the judgement. God could easily have sustained the babies and the holy people without food or water. He who could create a man out of the dust of the earth could save babies and righteous people during floods like Noah’s or famines like Amos’. He chose not to! He who would not spare his own unique Son would not spare these other sons and daughters of his (note Acts 17:26-29).
The Amos text says nothing of atonement and I’m not wishing to discuss that matter. It’s crystal clear that Jesus alone atoned for the sins of the human race so there is that about him that is incomparable and unique. He chose to enter our world in order to redeem and the babies of Amos’ day did not. All that is clear. Just the same, Jesus entered a world under the judgement of God and bore the judgement of God against sin to redeem us. But what Jesus bore was not God’s wrath against him (imputed or otherwise)—Calvin himself thought the idea monstrous. It was God’s wrath against a sinful world that Jesus bore and he bore it by entering into it. Christ and innocent infants and holy, righteous servants of God had something in common. God wasn’t punishing them and through them he was working to redeem the world. But that’s another matter to be developed.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.