“Substitutionary Penal Atonement” – This was one aspect of one issue that my Facebook friend and old acquaintance claimed as why she couldn’t ascribe to Christianity. She is highly educated and very well-respected. She used lots of big, long words to prove her points and to elevate our give and take. She ended the discussion by saying she didn’t want to engage in a textbook or elementary apologetics discussion. Her mind is made up. Her spirit is fine with the conclusions she has accepted.
I appreciate her candor and found her perspective truly fascinating. I am glad for the engagement and happy that we are still Facebook friends. God has used this brief exchange to challenge my thoughts and motivate my prayers. However, the idea of “substitutionary penal atonement” has been what has compelled my meditations throughout this year’s Holy Week.
Traditionally, God has been faithful during the Christmas season to bless my thoughts with one main theme to focus my worship around – Names of Christ, Mary’s role, Immanuel . . This year, as I prayed in church on Palm Sunday, I told the Lord that I wanted to intentionally focus my heart and mind on Him in a similar way. I didn’t want the week to pass without me stopping to reflect on the real meaning of Good Friday and, of course, Easter. This is just the type of prayer I have found God the most likely to answer with a resounding “YES!” To seek Him, to meet with Him and to know Him better – I can just image God waiting for us to pray those prayers so we can find Him, be with Him and learn more about Him.
Of course, He has not let me down and I have found this idea of “substitutionary penal atonement” has fueled my prayers and worship this Holy Week. Let me explain:
~ “Substitutionary” ~ Like a substitute teacher filled the role and completed the job for your regular classroom teacher back when we were in grade school, the idea is similar here. The idea is that someone “stands in” or “takes the place” of someone else. The substitute completes the job.
~ “Penal” ~ Like where we get the word “penitentiary” the idea is one of “punishment.” Put “substitutionary” in front of it, we can see that there is a substitute punishment somehow in the mix.
~”Atonement” ~ Like many other “religious” words, we use this one without really stopping to think about what it means. To “atone” means that we counter our negative actions with positive ones, to make them “right.” The rub is that we can’t reach a state of “atonement” on our own. We can’t do enough good to out weigh our bad. Why? because it is what comes naturally to us. We can’t be atoned on our own. God is too good and too holy. He can’t overlook it. Our sinful nature demands punishment. We need a substitute to stand in our place. . .
Putting all three words together, my Holy Week mediations have come alive. In order for me to be atoned and to be right with God, my sin requires punishment. The Bible is clear. My sin condemns me. I deserve the punishment. The punishment requires blood. It calls for my death. Ah, but God has provided a substitute, a sacrificial Lamb, to take my place and fulfill my role.
Working with preschoolers and their limited capacity to understand spiritual truths, talking about Jesus is easy, but explaining His death to them is hard. Their little faces were so confused this week as I shared with them that there were people who wanted to kill Jesus. They have only heard good things about this great man. They couldn’t understand how anyone would want Him dead. But if I am honest with myself and how I try to exert my own way, I know my voice could have also been heard crying out among His scoffers had I been in Jerusalem that day.
Yet, Jesus did it. He suffered in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine. He really lived and He really bled and He really died. As I told the preschoolers, the story of the crucifixion is real. The fact He was my substitute and died in my place, taking my punishment, is also real.
He is my “Substitutionary Penal Atonement.” The fact He rose from the dead proves that He was the only One who could fulfill that role. No one else is guiltless. No one else loves me enough to literally die for me. No one else has the power to rise from the grave.
It is important that we celebrate the historical basis of our faith. The Old Testament is full of ritual celebrations of God’s faithfulness and goodness. He knows His people need annual markers to remember, reflect and refuel.
This Holy Week I am focusing on these truths by letting them drive my prayers and my praise. I am also praying for my Facebook friend who can’t accept these truths. My heart breaks for her, as these truths are the foundations of my faith, my identity, my purpose and my future.
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