Doctrinal capitulation and gospel-denying teaching are never bald. Bad doctrine often comes from another source: idolatry. Idolatry, that mother of all sins, is the reality that dominates fallen man. We are all by nature idolaters. Man gropes around for a “god” that is manageable, a “god” who is anything but the holy God of Israel. God’s holiness is an affront to ruined sinners. Even when the glory of God is our greatest good, we would rather worship our own golden calves than give up our sins.
Some idolatry has manifest results. Sin takes the form of sins. Sin becomes homosexuality or extortion. Both cases, however different, are, at the root of it all, quite the same. So is the case with denials of key doctrines in the Christian faith. It should be noted that this post assumes that false doctrine is a sin. The third commandment means a lot of things but it certainly means one thing in particular: it is a sin to lie about the character of God (Ex. 20:7). “Taking God’s name in vain” is more than cursing. It is proposing to take up the name of God and then begin to falsely lie about who God is by our lives and theology. All theology is not created equal. If we would be biblical, we cannot tolerate “every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
Idolatry and doctrinal confusion is not limited to those whose are outside of Christ. In our sin, we resist the truths about God and ourselves even after the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Many brothers are slandering God by their denial of the doctrines of grace. To say that God saves within the realm of human cooperation is a heinous perversion of salvation. However, even in my own flesh there is a remaining enmity to what the Bible teaches. Only by putting my sin to death, over and over and over, am I enabled to walk in obedience, loving God as He has revealed Himself to us. All that being said, there are particular doctrines that are indispensible. Those doctrines so essential to the gospel must be upheld and defended to our dying breath. One such doctrine is the doctrine of the atonement. Specifically, we must affirm and cling to a penal substitutionary model of the atonement.
This theme of the atonement is the dominating one and the one that grounds all of the other ones. Christus Victor does not happen without Christ taking away the grounds of Satan’s power; namely, our sin. There is no use in a moral influence theory for those who sit under the wrath of God and hate God anyway. Penal substitution, that Christ died in our place and took the full penalty due our sin on our behalf, is the fountainhead of all Christian joy. Christians have not been able to keep themselves from singing the glories of the bloody cross. Paul could scarcely choke out these great truths without exploding into praise (1 Tim. 1:17). Penal substation was revealed from the beginning as the mode by which this holy God would save unholy people. Indeed, the sacrificial system was a shadow of the reality of a final penalty-bearing sacrifice to come (Heb. 8:5).
So why would anyone want to deny these life-giving truths? There are two idolatries that drive us to forsake that which would serve our ultimate joy and the glory of God in Christ.
A Different God
All theology has its source and reference point in the triune God of the Bible. This God is the God who just is. He is not becoming, nor can He change. He just is. And, happily, He will always be. He exists in three divine persons: the Father, the Son and the Spirit. All of these persons differ in role but never in divine essence. The Lord our God is one. Blessed Trinity! This God is completely other. His immanence is run through the filter of His utter transcendence. This God is complete, satisfied. He needs nothing and saves rebels for the glory of His name alone.
The first idolatry underlying a denial of penal substitution is that attempt to worship a different “god.” We must feel the absolute necessity for sacrifice and propitiation in order to uphold them and proclaim them. Why is this atonement necessary? Simply put, the atonement is necessary because the God of the universe chose to save. God did not have to save. His character could not be called into question if God chose not to save anyone. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and yet that love is not determined by loving acts. It is actually quite the opposite. God saves because in His own character, before the foundation of the world, He is love. Here we must introduce a caution. Part of our aversion to the atonement is that we hear the question of the necessity of that atonement and it is nonsensical. But if we are to understand the atonement, we must understand the absolute necessity for it. Of course we will not honor the truth of the cross of Christ if we see no real need for it. And we do need it precisely because God in His mercy has chosen to save. God does not have to save, as John Murray so helpfully reminds us, but since God has chosen to save He must do so through the substitution of His only begotten Son for us, Christ Jesus the God-man, who served as the Great High Priest who offered up Himself as the Passover Lamb for the sins of His bride.
Why is this so? Cannot God do whatever He wants? Well, not anything. God cannot lie (Num. 23:19) and He certainly cannot deny Himself (1 Tim. 2:13). To forgive without a price of redemption would be to deny Himself and indeed to lie. God revealed Himself to Moses like this:  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV). We must deal with God in biblical categories. God surely is love. But love is not God. God has other attributes. These attributes such as justice and holiness do not wax and wane with the love of God but operate fully at all times. How can God both love and not clear the guilty?
That this question is a stumbling block for us in the church is a sign of our biblical malnourishment. God cannot forgive without His holiness being satisfied. God’s love does not overrule His holiness. The gospel is not God choosing to love and not just. That is blasphemy. If God shuns His own character, not only does He cease to be holy, He ceases to be good. God’s holy wrath is tied to His own intrinsic value. Paul shows that the demonstration of God’s goodness is the goal of the atonement. In other words, Christ died to exalt the glory of the Father. Verses 25 and 26 of Romans 3 both saying that the atonement “was the demonstrate God’s righteousness.” “This” in these verses refers to the core of the gospel explained in verses 21-25. We are justified in Christ by faith (v.24), redeemed by His blood (v.24) and put forth as a propitiation (bearing God’s wrath on our behalf in verse 25a. This atonement, while being undoubtedly for our highest good in Christ, was Godward. God saves us by Himself from Himself and for Himself. Behold our God! The result is that God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. The atonement is necessary for these two facets of the gospel diamond to shine brightly. God does not lessen His holiness to save us. He satisfies His justice on Christ, in our place, so that we might find refuge for the aweful storm of God’s holiness in the cleft of the rock by faith. Our greatest threat becoming our highest good. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty!
Denying penal substitution shows that long ago one has begun to deny God. The reason that Moses was told in Exodus 20 not to make any graven image in the likeness of God or anything else is because God is His own revealer and interpreter. Remember well that the golden calf formed by Aaron was not in the likeness of another “god” but in the proposed likeness of Yahweh. Friends, we must repent daily of our wanting to fashion a God in our own image and likeness. God is outside of us. And that is good news for sinners like you and I.
(Part 2 will be on our idolatrous view of ourselves)