Hopefully, the title question in an easy one for Christians to answer. But listen to how Mark Driscoll (the Evangelical pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch in Seattle from 1990-2014) described the Cross:
Now, the way this works is the doctrine of propitiation is that Jesus substituted himself and died in our place for our sins. That unlike the angry, capricious gods of animism and Greek mythology and paganism who demand a blood sacrifice, that human beings do something to appease those gods, the God of the Bible is exactly the opposite. Rather than asking anything from us, he does something for us. Rather than giving us a mandate to shed our blood, he comes and sheds his own. It’s the ultimate love and mercy and grace. So that Jesus died in my place for my sins, that the wrath of God is poured out on the Son of God, so that the wrath of God is propitiated, diverted, taken away from me. [….]
Jesus has propitiated the wrath of God. And here’s what this means as well. When I suffer I do not assume that God is punishing me because that would be unjust. He already punished Jesus in my place. [….] Religion is such a shackle. It’s such a guilt-ridden system. The propitiation of Jesus reminds us that on the cross, when he said, “It is finished,” our salvation was accomplished. We don’t need to pay God back. We don’t need to suffer. We don’t need to make it up to him. We need to trust in his Son. And the wrath of God is propitiated, diverted, taken away from us and placed on Jesus.
The idea is simple: we are owed eternal punishment (death and hell) because of our sins, but God the Father punishes Christ in our place. This is called penal substitution, and it’s an idea originated by John Calvin and some of the other Reformers. J. I. Packer, an outspoken adherent of a penal substitution view of the Cross, acknowledges that this peculiar theology of the Cross is only as old as the Reformation (“Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it”). Packer helpfully explains just how the Reformers broke with tradition:
What the Reformers did was to redefine satisfactio (satisfaction), the main mediaeval category for thought about the cross. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, which largely determined the mediaeval development, saw Christ’s satisfactio for our sins as the offering of compensation or damages for dishonour done, but the Reformers saw it as the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice).
All Driscoll has done is spell out the implications of this Protestant theology. If Christ’s Sacrifice is (as the Christians before the Reformation understood it) something like an offering of compensation for the damages our sin does to God, we can still refuse that compensation. But the Reformers viewed that as putting sinful man too much in charge of salvation, even if his role was only to accept or reject the free gift of salvation. And so they articulated this view in which the Father actually punishes Christ for our sins: that is, our past, present, and future sins. In this view, as Driscoll notes, punishing us for our sins would be an actual injustice: a sort of eternal “double jeopardy” precludes God from punishing both Christ and us for the same thing.
But if it’s true that it would be unjust for God to damn me for me sins (since Christ died for me), then God owes me salvation. And He has owed me salvation from Good Friday forward. This is nothing less than a repudiation of the Gospel of justification by faith. Look, I realize how weird it is that I, a Catholic, have to remind Protestants that we’re justified by faith (since we Catholics are allegedly the ones who deny this), but let’s go for it.
It’s important to note that this view of God’s predestination, whereby He owes me salvation, is not because I believe in Jesus. It can’t be, because He’s owed me since Good Friday. Calvinists actually – explicitly – deny that God predestined the elect based upon foreseen faith. Canon 9 of the “Synod of Dort” (1619 A.D.) says as much:
This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition of which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “For he chose us (not because we were, but) in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph 1:4).
So you aren’t saved because you have faith. You have faith because you’re saved. But compare that theology with what Scripture says. Romans 3:21-26 is a good place to start:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
So what does Paul say? First, that grace is a gift. Any theology that says God owes me salvation or that it would be unjust for me to pay the consequences of my own damnable sins is preaching a different Gospel than the one Paul preached. Second, that this gift – including the expiation of our sins by the Blood of Christ – is to be received by faith. Third, that this is what justifies us.
In other words, Christ freely offers us the payment for the debt of our sins, a payment we could never pay on our own. And we accept it in faith (or don’t, to our own detriment). It’s this accepting of Christ’s Sacrifice in faith that justifies us: that is, it’s this that makes us just before God. In Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul says much the same thing:
And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Now, St. Paul is responding to those who believed we are saved by works of the Mosaic Law, rather than those who believed that we are saved by penal substitution… but that’s because the latter group wouldn’t exist for another millennium-and-a-half. Nevertheless, Paul lays out a history of salvation that contradicts the bad theologies of both groups. Namely, he says that:
- Prior to receiving Christ’s free gift of salvation, we were unsaved. Why? Because we were living “in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind.” We were dead in our sins.
- Out of God’s love for us, He sent Christ into the world, Who died for us to reunite us with God.
- We are then saved (a) by grace, (b) through faith. Faithfully accepting Christ’s free gift transforms us from being unjust and unsaved, to being justified and saved. That is, our faith in Christ brings about our salvation, not the other way around.
- This salvation is a gift from God.
- This is only the beginning – in being united with the suffering and death of Christ, we’re also united with His Resurrection and His glorification
For those of us living after the Incarnation of Christ, the first two of those steps are in reverse order. Chronologically, Christ’s death preceded our births by nearly 2000 years. But that doesn’t change the fact that prior to being saved, we were enemies of God (Romans 5:10).
Consider the implications of the fifth point of these five points. Christ doesn’t suffer in our place so that “we don’t need to suffer,” as Driscoll says. Jesus suffers for us so that our sufferings can be united with His, and so our sufferings can have meaning. Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m suffering on the Cross so that you don’t need to take up your own cross.” Rather, He says the opposite: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). And it’s this participation in the life, death, Resurrection, and glorification of Christ that St. Paul can say, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking[e] in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Driscoll and the Protestant Reformers who taught penal substitution can’t really hold this. If God has owed us salvation since Good Friday, this salvation had nothing to do with whether we believe in or hate Jesus Christ. We aren’t saved because of faith, and we don’t need faith to be saved (in fact, we were saved prior to having faith!). This is the bizarre result of the Reformation: much of its original energy arose from a desire to preserve the doctrine of justification-by-faith from anything resembling Pelagianism, but the end result has frequently been a Reformed theology that renders faith and justification utterly irrelevant, and reduces Christ’s free gift of salvation to our birthright.