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“Made a Curse for Us”

Category Articles
Date January 26, 2005

Over the last number of months, a serious controversy has blown up in Evangelical circles in Britain over the doctrine of penal substitution. At the focus of the controversy is a book, The Lost Message of Jesus, whose principal author is Steve Chalke, a London minister and founder of the Oasis Trust, which, among other things, provides facilities for homeless people.

In an introductory chapter, he quotes another writer’s comments on the general attitude to Christianity today: “Presumed familiarity of Jesus and His message has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance”. Mr. Chalke seems to consider the doctrine of penal substitution as the biggest obstacle to the average person receiving the Saviour. In his book, he interprets this doctrine as “a vengeful Father punishing His Son for an offence He has not even committed”. One might justifiably object to the irreverence of this caricature of what is indeed a scriptural doctrine – and another part of his sentence, not quoted here, is more offensive still – but the most serious matter is that such teaching seriously undermines the righteousness of God in the salvation of sinners. And the fact that Mr. Chalke’s teaching is accepted as evangelical is a sad comment on how elastic that particular term has become. This article, however, is not so much intended as a refutation of his position as an attempt to present an outline of the Scripture doctrine on the subject.

The first point which has to be made is that Christ entered willingly into all that He endured as the substitute for sinners. In a passage in Psalm 40 containing what Christ said “when He cometh into the world”, we read words which express the spirit in which He approached His work and all the suffering it involved: “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me; I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart”. There can be no question of God the Father imposing anything on an unwilling Son; what we see in Christ enduring all that He endured flows from His entering, from all eternity, into the covenant of grace with the Father – when His “delights were with the sons of men” (Prov 8:3 1). He rejoiced in the prospect of man’s salvation. This is included in what was written of Christ “in the volume of the book”, and with total willingness He entered into His work when He came into the world.

He came as a substitute for sinners. Mr. Chalke does not dispute that; what he disputes is penal substitution – that is, Christ, as the substitute for sinners, suffered the punishment due to the sins of others. Mr. Chalke quotes Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed”, and claims that he has “no desire to become involved in a technical debate about how the cross works”. But the careful interpretation of Scripture is by no means necessarily part of a technical debate.

Clearly, the verse speaks of substitution – that what Christ suffered He suffered because of the transgressions of His people. But there is more here than substitution; the idea of punishment is also present. J. A. Alexander, a very careful expositor, refers as follows, in his Commentary on Isaiah, to the word rendered chastisement: “As [it] is often applied elsewhere to correction by words, some explain it here to mean instruction as to the means of obtaining peace with God. But the stronger sense of chastisement or punishment not only suits the context better, but is really the most consistent with the usage in such cases as Job 5:17, Proverbs 22:15, 23:13, as well as with the subsequent expression on Him, which is hardly reconcilable with the supposition of mere precept or example. . . . The chastisement of peace is not only that which tends to peace, but that by which peace is procured directly. It is not . . . a chastisement morally salutary for us, nor one which merely contributes to our safety but . . . one which has accomplished our salvation.”

Thus Scripture is used to interpret Scripture and to show that Christ in His substitution endured the punishment due to the sins of His people. God is just in all that He does and, in particular, He must be just when He is “the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). No one who takes Scripture seriously would dispute that God is love. But we must not use that fact to obscure any of His other attributes, and Mr. Chalke’s insistence on God as love does obscure His justice. What is the significance of God’s justice in this discussion? It is that He cannot leave sin unpunished. So Habakkuk addressed Him: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (1:13); in other words, as John Calvin explains the words: “It is not consistent with Thy nature to pass by the vices of men, for every iniquity is hateful to Thee”. And it is important to note, as Calvin adds, that “the Prophet sets before himself the nature of God”. It is not because God wills to punish sin that He does so; in punishing sin – whether in the sinner himself, or in Christ as the substitute – God is acting according to His holy and just nature. God cannot leave sin unpunished.

The wonder is that He has provided a substitute. Not only did the Father send Him into the world to suffer the punishment due to the sins of His people, He Himself came willingly with that purpose fully in view – to endure all that was necessary for the salvation of sinners: Paul, as an inspired writer of Scripture, expresses the matter very strongly: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). If we have reason to believe that we are in a state of salvation, we can say that Christ was made a curse in our place, or, as James Macgregor expresses it in his commentary on Galatians: “He redeemed us by undergoing God’s wrath as our substitute”.

The anger of God is a concept with which Mr. Chalke seems to have real difficulty. Yet it is a totally scriptural concept; it is God’s holy disposition to punish the guilty, which, as we have already noticed, is a reaction, not of His will but of His nature. And when the guilt of sin is transferred to Christ the substitute – when, as Isaiah expresses it on behalf of the whole Church in all ages, “the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6) – the liability of the sinner to punishment is laid upon the Substitute. Then divine justice could only be satisfied when the cry went out: “Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, and against the man that is My fellow, saith the Lord of hosts: smite the shepherd” (Zec 13:7). And because of how Christ Himself quotes part of this verse (Matt 26:31), we can be certain that it applies to the Saviour in His substitutionary suffering. The sword, representing divine punishment had never gone out against God’s chosen ones. Many of them had already gone to glory on the strength of what Christ was yet to do and suffer in their place. But punishment there must be, for God is just. Accordingly, when the substitute came into the world, the punishment must come upon Him. He must suffer at the hand of the Father.

There is no conflict between God’s love and His justice. Charles Hodge emphasises: “The Scriptures, in representing the gift of Christ as the highest exhibition of the divine love, do thereby teach that the end to be accomplished was worthy of the sacrifice [of Christ]; and, secondly, that the sacrifice was necessary to the attainment of the end. If the end could have been otherwise attained, there would have been no exhibition of love in the gift of Christ for its accomplishment.” (Systematic Theology, vol 1, p 488.)

Today’s “profound ignorance” must be overcome by the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, being used as it was intended to be used – and not by denying its doctrines. Unquestionably it is impossible for us finite, sinful creatures to plumb the depths of these doctrines. But although we cannot understand them fully, it is our duty to accept them – and to worship.


Free Presbyterian Magazine, January 2005, Vol.110, No1 with permission.

Kenneth Macleod is the pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh, Isle of Harris.

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