We are wired to think of ourselves to highly. Our culture tells us to cultivate a high self-esteem, never getting down on ourselves. The gospel gives an entirely different picture, however. The fact is that we are never in any danger of esteeming ourselves too little. By nature, just like Paul, we are insolent, haughty, blasphemers. The essence of sin itself is the exalting of the creature over the creator; that which is lesser over He who is the standard of greatness. The Bible calls us to the sober realization that we are far worse than we could ever imagine.
But even that fact alone does not give us the real bad news. Like we saw in the last post, our great problem is not even our own sin. That is worth a lifetime of sorry. We are slaves to it, doomed to labor under its yoke forever. Moreover we are in love with our master. But there is a far greater, objective consequence to our sin problem. Our rebellion and attempt to de-god God results in the just wrath of God towards us. So then, our worst problem is God.
Those who would ask us to give up the penal subsitutionary model of the atonement cannot do so laboring under this assumption: that man is exceedingly wicked and subject to God’s holy indignation. The truth of the matter is that we will not cherish doctrines we do not need. Oren Martin said in a recent blog post that, “there are many today who minimize or detest the notion of God’s wrath, but not those who have been delivered from it.” Truth is no determined by our love for it or consent to it but it is true that the objective truths of the gospel will not be defended if they are no cherished. Those who see no need for redemption will have no problem rejecting it altogether.
What is man’s greatest need? That question has been answered in many ways, even in the history of the church. The various models of the atonement are characterized by what their proponents see as the thing most pressing for those for whom the atonement is made. Is man simply ignorant? Then Jesus’ atonement can serve as example. Is man oppressed by Satanic forces, mainly? Then the main thrust of the atonement can be Christ’s defeating the prince of the power of the air. Is man only sinful and in need of moral reform? Then Christ can die in such a way that makes that possible. All of these things are true, but fall short of the biblical main idea with regards to the atonement. Man is ignorant, dead in sin and in need of heart change. But before any of that can happen God must be satisfied. A debt must be paid. God’s righteousness is on the line if He passes over sins without punishing them (Rom. 3:25-26). God’s wrath is due everyone that persists in their sins. There is a verdict that drapes over them and it is unchangeable unless their ransom is paid and an alien righteousness is given. That is what makes the atonement so beautiful. All that God requires, He gives.
One might ask what this has to do with today’s world. We in the church should be about “felt needs” they say. No one is walking around worried about the wrath of God. Dr. Piper has recently pointed out that our neighbors do, in fact, know about the wrath of God that hangs over them. This is a part of the knowledge that we as humans have all suppressed. The power of the gospel is not contingent on the sinner’s recognition of their need. Instead, it shows them their great need and drives them to the open arms of Christ who has been counted accursed for them. “Felt needs” are good. But brothers we must “feel” those needs which are actual needs. There may be a thousands needs that we all share. However, this one need is ultimate. We need to be saved from God’s wrath by the blood of Jesus. We need this rock of ages to cleft for us that the tide of judgment might pass over us.
Behind a denial of penal substitution is a failure to recognize our real condition. We are all wired to lie to ourselves about who we are. That is true of us all and, if we are honest, is a temptation that we must fight until we die. Knowledge of God leads to a true knowledge of self. Our greatest good does not come in feeling good about ourselves. Our joy comes from knowing God and being known by Him, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. This is eternal life that we know the Son. We can only know the Son if He has atoned for our sins. Run to this gospel and live! Come often to this never ending fountain filled with blood from Immanuel’s veins. There, as vile as we are, we can wash all of our guilty stains.