Where Wrath and Mercy Meet

Responding to Recent Evangelical Criticisms of Penal Substitution, and believing that the penal view of the cross is a valid and necessary aspect of the biblical gospel, the faculty at Oak Hill College in London decided to focus on this issue at the Annual School of Theology in May 2000. I was the editor of the volume of essays that resulted from this public consultation with graduates and other interested visitors (Where Wrath and Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001]).

We happily agreed that there is more to the cross than penal substitution and want the biblical teaching to be presented in all its fullness. But we are convinced that the true significance of the cross has not been grasped until this particular dimension has been acknowledged.

The title of this book echoes the chorus of a song by Graham Kendrick, entitled ‘Come and see’ (© 1988, Make Way Music). With the words, ‘we worship at your feet, where wrath and mercy meet’, Kendrick expresses the biblical truth that wrath and mercy are simultaneously expressed by God at the cross. But these words also indicate that the Son whom we worship actually experienced that wrath in our place.

Atonement in Scripture

My own contribution is a chapter on ‘Atonement in the Old Testament’ and a chapter on ‘Atonement in the New Testament’. The  focus is on key areas of debate in the interpretation of Scripture. Chapter one treats the provisions in the Pentateuch for atonement and then considers the surprising lack of teaching in the Psalms and prophetic literature on the theme, as a prelude to examining Isaiah 53. Chapter two offers a study of some of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and an analysis of critical passages on atonement in the rest of the New Testament.

The subject is vast and the treatment of some texts is too brief. But after this re-examination of the evidence, I find myself wondering whether those who downplay or deny the theme of penal substitution are driven by personal or cultural agendas, rather than by biblical theology.

The significance of a topic or theme is not revealed by the number of times it is mentioned but by the place and prominence it is given in the unfolding of the divine plan. Teaching about atonement in the Pentateuch must therefore be understood as part of the wider question of what it meant for Israel to be the holy people of God, called to live within the framework of the Mosaic covenant, with its blessings and curses.

Prophetic denunciation of Israel’s failure is also to be viewed within this context. The ultimate judgement of exile is not, in fact the last word. The prophets indicate that there will be a restoration of the covenant people and of God’s plan to bless the whole world through them. The pattern once established is not abandoned by God. At the heart of this restoration, there must be atonement, redemption from the consequences of sin and the renewal of the covenant, re-establishing a God-honouring worship. The singular importance of Isaiah 53 can be seen within this theological context.

Jesus’ focus on the fulfilment of certain Old Testament texts in his life and death seems to have been the stimulus for much theological reflection on the part of his disciples, particularly those who wrote the New Testament. Isaiah 53 is critical in this connection, because it leads back to the wider issues outlined above: how is God’s covenant purpose fulfilled and the problems created by human sin dealt with once and for all? Although there are various ways of explaining the achievement of Christ’s cross, the idea that he suffered the divine penalty for sin in our place appears to be foundational to various strands of New Testament teaching.

Divine Law and Punishment

Garry Williams picks up the wider issues of divine law and punishment, which are intimately connected with the penal view of the cross. Under the supervision of Professor Oliver O’Donovan at Oxford University, Garry wrote a doctoral dissertation on Hugo Grotius’s view of the atonement. He joined the faculty at Oak Hill in 1999 as a lecturer in Church History and Doctrine. Garry’s chapter first examines a particular strand of biblical evidence, to show that the expression ‘he bore our sins’ means that Jesus bore the divine punishment for sin in our place. Moreover, Jesus’ punishment was atoning since it brings wholeness, healing and righteousness to those who believe.

Garry then turns to the widespread theological criticism that the penal view of the cross represents atonement in too mechanical a fashion. It appears to some scholars to exclude God’s intimate involvement in the process. But law in Scripture is a means by which God expresses his most intimate nature and concerns. It is not an alien code to which he is somehow subject. Furthermore, God is so personally involved in the punishment of sin in biblical teaching that we cannot speak of that punishment as a mechanical process. Ironically, it is often the critics of penal substitution themselves who introduce a mechanistic view of punishment.

Theological Issues relating to Penal Substitution

Michael Ovey, who is now the Principal of Oak Hill, researched for a doctorate at Kings College London under the supervision of Professor Colin Gunton on the eternal relations between the persons of the Trinity. Michael also teaches Doctrine at Oak Hill. His contribution to this book addresses two further objections to penal substitution. The first is that it is immoral to argue that someone can be either condemned for another person’s sins or acquitted for another person’s righteousness. The second is that the penal view is redundant in God’s plan to renew or restore his fallen creation: what it demands is met, and more, by the logic of re-creation in Christ. Some who adopt this view even argue that the re-creative position takes sin more seriously and does more justice to the wrath of God than penal substitution.

Michael expresses his approval of any attempt to encompass the whole sweep of salvation history by associating redemption with re-creation. But he establishes from Scripture that sin is that which profoundly ‘de-creates’ or is ‘anti-creational’. It inverts creational relationships and frustrates God’s purposes for the whole created order. There must be a profound solution to the problem of sin if creation’s purpose is to be fulfilled. The captivating nature of sin is particularly apparent in the delusion of false faith and idolatry. It thus impinges on our theology and the way we do it! Sin enslaves us and holds us in death. Most importantly, it has eternal consequences in terms of our alienation from God.

God’s glory requires that his creation purposes be fulfilled by an act of redemption that involves re-creation. Only the creator God can achieve this end, and he does it through Christ as the new or second Adam. The cosmos, and humans in particular, must become righteous, in a right relationship with God. Our condition as sinners, unable to save ourselves, means that we need the alien righteousness that is found in Christ alone. This righteousness becomes ours through faith-union with him. Such a personal union means that it is not immoral for us to be acquitted on the basis of an alien righteousness: what is his is ours.

The creation order to be restored is a creation stipulating punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17). A restoration soteriology must therefore face the question of what happens to the penalty for sin, whether that penalty is ignored or applied. If it is ignored, then God’s word is broken and the original creation order not restored. Happily, faith-union provides the answer for this too. Christ’s righteousness becomes ours because he assumes our guilt and punishment. Faith-union enables a double transfer (2 Cor. 5:21). Thus, a restoration exclusive of penal substitution is not a full restoration, ‘for it involves a God whose word has been and remains broken’. Michael concludes that ‘restoration may well involve more than penal substitution, but it cannot be less and still be restoration.’

Proclaiming the Cross Today

Paul Weston’s chapter is entitled ‘Proclaiming Christ Crucified Today: some reflections on John’s Gospel’. At the time of writing, Paul was Vice Principal and Lecturer in Homiletics and Mission Studies. Paul’s passion for evangelism and for expository preaching motivates his concern to proclaim the cross from John 19. He observes that what is really happening in John’s narrative cannot be ascertained simply by means of a surface reading. John’s crucifixion narrative keeps on informing the reader that an Old Testament text or prediction is being fulfilled in what happened. Connections between the crucifixion of Jesus and the Passover are particularly compelling.

Paul observes three paradoxes in John’s narrative. First there is the implication that, despite appearances, the death of Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s plan. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The biblical gospel of the cross will always transcend our frames of understanding and so we must be cautious about calls to revise our models of the atonement to make them more comprehensible today. Scripture must be allowed to speak for itself and proclaim the divine logic of the atonement.

John’s second paradox is that, despite appearances, the death of Jesus is entirely voluntary. This is the mirror image of the first. The Father’s sending of the Son must not be presented in a way that excludes the Son’s own active and willing co-operation in all that the cross involves. Jesus is not simply an unwitting pawn in a divinely executed plan. John’s third paradox is that, despite appearances, the death of Jesus is a revelation of divine glory. The cross itself is the revelation of his majesty and kingly victory over all the forces of evil.

Paul Weston’s conclusion is that there is evidence in John’s Gospel for the so-called ‘objective’ view of the cross (that God the Father is reconciled by Jesus’ action on the cross), for the ‘subjective’ view (that sinners are transformed and inspired by his sacrificial love shown there), and for the ‘classic’ view (that Satan is defeated and the powers of evil are overcome on the cross). Each perspective should have its proper place in our preaching and teaching.

The appendix to this volume is a brief essay by Alan Stibbs, formerly Vice Principal of Oak Hill College. Originally delivered as ‘The Latimer Day Lecture of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churchmen’ in 1958, this was subsequently published in the Evangelical Quarterly and in the Evangelical Churchman.

Against a background of neglect and challenge, Stibbs urged reinstatement of the doctrine of justification by faith to its proper place in the preaching and theological argumentation of Christians. Recent decades have brought forth new challenges, requiring extensive and detailed responses. There is, however, a continuing vitality, relevance and power in this contribution to the debate. In particular, Stibbs shows how the doctrine of justification by faith and a penal substitutionary doctrine of the atoning work of Christ are interdependent and complementary. Together, these doctrines offer the ‘solid and unshakeable ground of full and abiding assurance’ that many professing Christians seem to lack.

Since the penal, substitutionary dimension of the cross continues to be rejected or neglected by many today, this volume aims to reaffirm that it is theologically foundational to New Testament teaching about the atoning work of Jesus. What is theologically foundational must also be evangelistically important, as a key element of the message which God wants people to hear, to experience salvation by his grace. What is theologically foundational must also be pastorally important, for the strengthening of God’s people in their devotion to him.

It is appropriate to conclude this Introduction to Where Wrath and Mercy Meet with some words written by R. T. France (Jesus and the Old Testament [London: Tyndale, 1971],  x), in connection with the related topic of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament (and Isaiah 53 in particular):

Perhaps the most revolutionary suggestion that can be made in contemporary theological debate is that the traditional viewpoint is not axiomatically wrong, that even among the heady outpourings of today’s avant-garde exegetes, it may still sometimes be true that the old is better, not because it is old, but because it is rooted in the sheer exegetical common sense which is one of the first casualties of the scholar’s quest for originality.


4 thoughts on “Where Wrath and Mercy Meet

  1. Ibraam Mansour

    Dear Dr David
    I was in contact with Dr Garry Williams from a couple of months ago and was asking for a book defending the penal substitution doctrine from the gospels and he recommened your book “where Wrath and Mercy meets” but i dont know from where to buy it sir
    Can you plz help me


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