The Devil’s Favorite Domino

I found this article, written by Jonathan Leeman of 9 Marks, a ministry outworking of Capital Hill Baptist (Washington, D.C.), extremely helpful in simplifying, while also highlighting the importance of Christ’s atonement, as it relates to His penal (penalty) substitution.  Lord willing, we will continue to work through some of the objections and more obvious Scripture passages that detail Jesus’ sacrifice in the coming posts.

I don’t know if you noticed, but there is a long-standing practice of critiquing penal substitution and justification by faith as overly “legal” or “forensic.” From the Council of Trent to the New Perspective and the Emergent church, writers have dismissed both the doctrine that God would forensically declare sinners as “righteous” as a legal fiction, and the proposition that Jesus had to pay our penalty on the cross as beholden to Western legal categories.

Why do we want to preserve a “legal” or “forensic” understanding of the atonement, justification, and our salvation? Most importantly, we maintain them because we think these explanations provide the best exegetical treatment of Scripture. But secondarily, it’s worth meditating theologically for a moment on what the purpose of law is. If we were thinking about God’s moral law, we might consult theologians like Luther and Calvin, who described the purpose of law as restraining sin, condemning sin, and revealing God’s character. If we were thinking about the laws of the state, we might consult philosophers like Plato, Hobbes, Bentham, Holmes, or Hart, who point to the law’s role in maintaining order, protecting the defenseless, or guaranteeing the freedoms of a citizenry. All this to say, one can describe the purpose of “law” or “laws” in various ways.

Yet a common theme that runs through all of these explanations is the idea of protecting something precious or worthy. I don’t mean to say that “protecting something precious” is the very essence of what the law is or does. Philosophers can argue about that. But I do think it’s fairly easy to see that one of the primary reasons we institute laws is to protect something precious. It’s against the law to murder because life is precious. It’s against the law to steal because property is precious. It’s against God’s moral law to lie because truth is precious. Every five year old who values his toys and every king who values his gold understands this much about law. That’s why both will declare, “Don’t touch these things, or else!” In that sense, one might say that laws function like fences or security systems. People erect fences and install alarm systems when they want to guard something precious.

This is why breaking a law results in a penalty. The enacting of a penalty speaks to—or better, declares—the value or worthiness of the thing being protected. If no penalty follows the transgression of a law, we learn that whatever the so-called law is guarding must not be worth much. If the penalty for transgression is severe, we learn that it is precious. Penalties teach. I discovered at a young age, for instance, that lying to my parents yielded a stronger penalty than squabbling with my brother over a toy. The lesson I learned from these different penalties? The truth is more precious than toys. The very idea of a penalty may be repugnant to human beings, but a penalty is what gives meaningfulness to the law as a guardian of worth (or schoolmaster or tutor; cf. Gal. 3:24). If the law is the sentry guarding that which is precious, the penalty is the sentry’s pointy bayonet. It gives the law its prick, substance, meaning.

It’s worth observing that at least part of our repugnance to the whole concept of a penalty must result from the fact that, in this fallen world, penalties rarely “match the crime.” A law will be ill-conceived, and so the sentry stabs too hard, or not hard enough. Not only that, multiple layers of crimes and penalties may conflict with one another. So seventeen years of hard labor seems overwrought for the starving Jean Val Jean’s act of stealing a loaf of bread. He’s wrong to steal, certainly, but we also assume that various crimes of the state have been committed against him and resulted in his impoverished condition. Still, we can assume that, in principle, a penalty is just or right when it’s appropriately measured to the value of the thing the law is guarding.

To read the rest of this article, follow this link: The Devil’s Favorite Domino


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