Posted by: stpowen | March 26, 2018

Penal Substitution and the Trinity

Isaiah 53:5. ‘The chastisement for our peace was upon Him.’

John 10:18. “No one takes my life from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.  This command I have received from My Father.”

Since writing on the subject of Penal Substitution a few months ago, I have been accused on a Chrisian discussion forum of “Destroying the Doctrine of the Trinity” (as if I could!) by suggesting that Christ was the recipient of the Father’s wrath and more especially by suggesting that the Son was ‘forsaken’ by the Father. There have been amazing textual gymnastics to make Mark 15:34 say the opposite of what it so plainly does. In the early Church, the reality that there is one God in three Persons (not ‘members’) was safeguarded by speaking of a single divine ‘substance’ shared by Father, Son and Spirit. This substance is simply what God is, the thing that makes Father, Son and Spirit divine without implying three deities.

The Lord Jesus tells us that He and His father mutually indwell each other (John 14:11; c.f. also John 10:38; 14:10, 20). The technical term for this is perichoresis. This implies both union and distinction between Father and Son. One of the many problems with polytheism is the idea that different deities may make different demands of people and compete with one another as we see in the poems of Homer and Hesiod. Within the Trinity this is avoided, not because the Persons fortuitously happen to agree on most things, but because they must agree, for they are one God. The idea therefore that on the cross the Father inflicts a punishment upon the Son that He is unwilling to bear, or that the Son draws from the Father a forgiveness that He is unwilling to bestow is a non-starter.

But there is also a distinction between the Persons. Without it, it would be ridiculous to talk of a distinct Father, Son and Spirit at all, and it would be impossible for them to relate to each other as separate Persons as the Scripture teaches they do. But if Son, Father and Spirit are all fully Divine and equal in their possession of all the Divine attributes (e.g. holiness, wisdom, truth etc.), what distinguishes them? The answer is their asymmetric in their relationship with each other. The Father is in a relationship of Fatherhood to the Son and the Son is in a relationship of Sonship to the Father. The Son is everything the Father is, save that He is not the Father, the Spirit is not the Son and so forth.

It must surely be agreed that God’s actions reflect His nature. He does what is holy because He is holy; what is good because He is good. Therefore God’s nature will be reflected in the actions of each Person of the Trinity and both unity and distinction between the Persons will be reflected in what God does.

So the actions of the Persons reflect their unity. In John 14:10-11, the Lord Jesus teaches that His works are at the same time His Father’s works and this is grounded in the Perichoretic Union. In John 5:19, He testifies that ‘Whatever He [the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner.’ The fundamental unity in their actions mirrors the fundamental union of their Persons.

On the other hand, the actions of the Persons reflect their distinctions. The Bible teaches that the Father sent the Son, and that the Son willingly obeyed the Father (John 10:15-18; Philippians 2:5-9). Father and Son send the Spirit, but the Spirit does not send the Father. The work of the Trinity in salvation is outlined in Ephesians 1:3-14. The Three work in perfect harmony to accomplish their single goal, but their roles are quite different.

In order to represent this unity and distinction between the Persons, Augustine taught that the Father’s actions are not without the Son and the Son’s actions not without the Father. That seems to work rather well. Augustine affirmed that while the Persons of the Trinity do not perform the same action in the same way, nevertheless they do not act independently of one another– their respective contributions to any given activity are inseparable.

So it is not meaningless to say that God the Son propitiated God the Father. The same Person is not the subject and object of the verb. Nor does the fact that the Father exacts a punishment borne by the Son mean that they are divided or act independently. Their relationship is asymmetric, but they are mutually and inseparably engaged upon two aspects of the same action with one purpose– the salvation of guilty sinners while satisfying the justice of the Triune God.

I now want to look at the Lord Jesus being ‘forsaken’ on the cross. First of all I want to repeat what I said above. We must never imagine that God the father imposed upon the Son any burden that He was unwilling to bear. On the contrary, He declares, “I delight to do Your will, O My God….” (Psalm 40:8; Hebrews 10:7; c.f. John 4:34; 6:38). Nor should we imagine that on the cross, the Son extracted from the Father a mercy that He was unwilling to give (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). On the contrary, on the cross, ‘Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed’ (Psalm 85:10).

We should now consider the various references to the Lord Jesus drinking a cup. In Mark 10:38, He asks James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Then in Gethsamene, ‘deeply distressed and troubled’ Mark 14:33), He cries out to the Father, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will but as You will” (Matthew 26:39, 42 etc.), and then in John 18:11, “Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” It is clear that this cup is something horrific which the Father requires Him to drink. He knows all about it, has willingly (see above) agreed to drink it, but as the cup approaches, He is filled with dread and horror at the anticipation of it. On an night when it was cold enough for a fire to be kindled in the courtyard of the high priest’s house (Luke 22:55), the Lord Jesus sweats copiously (Luke 22:44)– the psychosomatic response of a human to impending trauma.

So what is this cup which the Lord Jesus must drink? The O.T. tells us; it is a cup of judgement and wrath against the wicked. ‘For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is fully mixed, and He pours it out; surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth drain down and drink’ (Psalm 75:8). ‘For thus says the LORD GOD of Israel to me, “Take this wine cup from My hand and cause all the nations, to whom I send you to drink it. And they will drink and stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them……..”‘ (Jeremiah 25:15-32).

As one reads on, it becomes clear that this judgement is for the whole world to drink. See also Isaiah 51:17; Ezekiel 23:32-34; Habakkuk 2:16). So why should the Lord Jesus drink this cup? Mark 10:45 tells us, He came, ‘To give His life as a ransom for many;’ to drink the cup destined for sinners in their place. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed {lit. ‘handed over.’ Gk. paradidomai) to the chief priests and to the scribes; and the will condemn Him to death and deliver [Gk. paradidomai] Him to the Gentiles [lit. ‘nations.’ Gk. ethnoi], and they will mock Him and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’

Now compare with Psalm 106:40-41. ‘Therefore the wrath of the LORD was kindled against His people, so that He abhorred His own inheritance. And He gave them [LXX paradidomai] into the hand of the Gentiles [or ‘nations’] and those who hated them ruled over them.’ So for our Lord Jesus to be handed over to the nations is tantamount to being delivered over to God’s wrath. Christ gave His life as a ransom for many, being handed over to God’s wrath in the place of many. The ransom is, of course, not money, but a life being given up in death, and pain being suffered in the place of others who would otherwise suffer the pains of hell.

[For much of the article so far I have drawn on Pierced for our Transgressions by Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach (IVP, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84474-178-6)]

So now we can look at our Lord’s cry of dereliction. ‘Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the sixth hour. And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” Which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”‘ (Mark 15:33-34).

We will first look at the supernatural darkness that came over the land. There are several places in the O.T. where darkness denotes God’s wrath and judgement, especially connected to the ‘day of the Lord,’ e.g. Joel 2:31; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15 and particularly Isaiah 13:9-11 (quoted in Mark 13:24-25). so the darkness indicates the righteous anger of God, but against whom? The Lord Jesus Himself tells us that it is against Himself. ‘Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered'”‘ (Mark 14:27). The quotation is from Zechariah 13:7 which makes it perfectly clear that God Himself is the One who will strike the Shepherd. The Lord Jesus was made sin, and God’s righteous anger against sin was poured out upon Him instead of us, with His full knowledge and consent.

We now come to the dereliction of Christ. As I have said elsewhere, I cannot accept that “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” can possibly be read as “My God, My God, You haven’t forsaken Me.” Nor can I accept that David, who is described as a prophet in Acts 2:30, was actually a false prophet in that he made an error in Psalm 22:1 (c.f. Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Nor is it a case of ‘God forsaking God’ any more than God prays to God (e.g. John 17). The Son prays to the Father, although the Father does not pray to the Son, and on the cross, the Father temporarily forsakes the Son. To be sure, we need to be careful here. We must not suggest that the Father was not present at Calvary for the very good reason that He is Omni-present. ‘”Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Declares the LORD’ (Jeremiah 23:23-24; c.f. Psalm 139:7-12). Rather it means that the Son, who had enjoyed the constant and closest possible relationship with His Father, now lacked completely any sense of His presence until the sun appeared once more and He cried, “It is finished!” The Greek word tetelestai can also mean, ‘It is paid’ (c.f. Matthew 17:14) or ‘it is accomplished (c.f. Luke 9:31). In fact, our Lord’s cry meant all those things. The ransom was paid in full, reconciliation between Man and God was accomplished, and His suffering was about to be ended.

This forsaking of Christ is an integral part of the atonement. Christ ‘is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him.’ His is a complete salvation. I shall not be condemned for my sins because Christ was made sin for me. I shall not suffer the pains of hell because Christ has suffered them on my behalf on the cross. I shall not be shut out from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9) because Christ was shut out from the felt presence of His Father on my behalf.


  1. The following reply was received from George Ella.

    Dear Brother Martin,
    Thank you for these timely words. These so-called Trinitarians are denying the co-working of the Trinity. It has all to do with Christ bearing our sins. Because I teach this truth, I am told by these anti-Trinitarian Trinitarians that I teach a polluted Saviour who therefore cannot be on a level with God.

    These people play around with what they call ‘The Trinitarian Formula’ and accept nothing in the Bible that might suggest what they feel is a discord between Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Their idea of ‘discord’ being of their own invention. The fact that Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Father are One in Their Will quite escapes them. The latest information they give me is that we cannot accept references to any doctrine, especially baptism, in the Scriptures as being Biblical unless the Trinitarian Formula ‘in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is given verbatim in the text! Of course, these Anti-Trinitarian Trinitarians are all doctrinarian without doctrine and are all puffed up with airy, fairy tales without the Work of the Spirit in the Word of God. This is the old heresy of ‘criticism with a penknife’. But let’s face it brethren. To such we are called to witness in patient love and understanding!

    God bless,


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