The penal substitution of forgiveness

Peter, disciple of Christ, asks in Matthew 18, “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (21b-22).

Jesus then continues  in the form of a parable to clarify why it is that we forgive. We forgive because God has forgiven us. But what does it mean to forgive? As with many aspects of the Christian life, forgiveness has been perverted, misconstrued, twisted, and maligned by the sinful nature of humans. 

So, we look to scripture to understand God’s intention for forgiveness.

A very helpful passage can be found in Matthew chapter 5. Christ is in the midst of providing the greatest sermon in history—the Sermon on the Mount—and says this:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” 
(Matthew 5:38-42)

As Jesus does throughout the Sermon on the Mount, we can see that He is here pointing out and correcting the false religious practices which have arisen as a result of a failure to understand underlying truths of the law of God.

In this case, Christ says that forgiveness is at the heart of the law, not personal vengeance or retribution. 

Further, there is a greater spiritual reality at play when we forsake vengeance for forgiveness. The injustice enacted upon us through the sinful actions of another is made two-fold, as we refuse to enact the justice to which we are ‘entitled’. 

Think of justice within the traditional analogy of a scale. Punishments must be equal in weight to the crime, hence the phrase ‘eye for an eye’. Thus, when we choose to forgive, we in theory would throw off the scale of justice. 

The consequences of slapping someone on the cheek is, according to the law, a slap in return. That is the penalty that must be paid in order for justice to be satisfied. So, when Jesus tells us to turn to our assailant the other cheek, He commands us to bear not only the first slap, but also the second slap which is necessitated by justice. This is what penal substitution is.

This does not mean, in my understanding, that we are to be literally physically slapped again, but rather, metaphorically, as we choose to not enact vengeance. We are slapped first physically by the hand, and second spiritually by our acceptance of injustice. 

In other words, we take both the sin against us as well as the penalty for that sin.

This is the heart of forgiveness.

But what enables us to do this? How can man, who naturally loves sin, do something as selfless as forgive? We can do this only by the power of Him who has done it for us.

See, we can, through forgiveness, satisfy our own demands for justice. We cannot, however, satisfy the demands of a perfect, just, and holy God. Only Christ can do that.

What we do in forgiving others mimics, in many ways, what Christ did in forgiving us. Where we fall short is that, in our unholiness, we cannot atone for the sins of ourselves or others. That is why Jesus’s sacrifice is often considered using the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement”. Christ’s  perfect obedience to the law enables Him to take upon Himself the penalty for our sins and satisfy the wrath of God, and He is thus magnified (Romans 5:9).

For example, in Jesus’s parable from Matthew 18, we hear of a servant forgiven of a great debt by his master. This servant then goes to another and imprisons him for a small debt. This parable describes us when we fail to forgive. 

If Jesus can substitute Himself to take on the penalty we deserve so that our sins against a holy God may be atoned, who are we to turn to another and say that they must receive their penalty for their sins against us?

Therefore, I implore you to go forward in a greater understanding of what Christ did for us at Calvary. Remember always that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19). His wrath will be fully satisfied upon either Jesus on the cross or upon the unrepentant sinner in Hell (Isaiah 53:5-6). Trust that His justice is greater than ours and submit to His call that we forgive others and we have ourselves been forgiven (Isaiah 55:8-9).

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