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The Mercy of Penal Substitution: Recovering a Trinitarian Model of Atonement

The doctrine of Atonement has been a hot topic in recent years and a particular model of the atonement, Penal Substitution, has come under direct fire even to the point of being called unbiblical (J. Green and M. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, IVP, 2000, p. 148). The doctrine that says the Father allowed his wrath to fall upon the Son has sometimes even been construed as divine child abuse. This claim demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the Trinitarian shape of the Penal Substitution model. If we are to be Trinitarian, then we must affirm that the Father and the Son, while being distinct persons, share the same divine essence. We must be careful to hold the oneness of God and the threeness of God in balance. The divine child abuse argument emphasizes the distinction among the persons of the Trinity to the neglect of their oneness. It is venturing into a practical tritheism where the Father pours his wrath on his son in a detached way. A faithfully Trinitarian understanding Penal Substitution would point out that, inasmuch as Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and shares the divine essence with the Father and the Spirit, in Christ God takes his just wrath upon himself. Now at this point, we must be careful not to slide into modalism and emphasize the unity of the Godhead to the neglect of the threeness. The Father did not die on the cross. However, one person of the Godhead manifested his character of self giving love to take God’s wrath upon himself. In a sense, God felt the pain of his own wrath against us. This is a deeply merciful model and it is only available in a deeply Trinitarian framework. If we can hold the fine balance of Trinitarian theology, then we will see that the doctrine of Penal Substitution is hardly abusive; it is deeply merciful.

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