(continuing the series on the Cross by guest blogger Mick Taylor)
The second balancing point in a discussion of this topic is that while penal substitution is not the whole truth about the atonement it should be central to our understanding of Christ’s achievement for us on the cross. It is part of the truth and not the whole but it is central not peripheral, and not optional! Or to put it another way, penal substitution is an essential foundation but not the whole structure. Penal substitution is an answer to a specific question about the work of Christ not the answer to every question. It does not endeavour to explain every benefit or consequence of Christ’s sacrifice but it does reveal how a holy God can justly forgive sin and so becomes the source of all the other benefits. The scholar Roger Nicole has put it like this:
A linchpin in a mechanical contrivance makes possible the unified function of several other parts. If the linchpin is removed, the other parts no longer perform their own functions but float away in futility. This, I believe is precisely what occurs in the doctrine of the atonement. (p447) …penal substitution is the vital centre of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation and flies off the handle so to speak. (p451) (The Glory of the Atonement by Charles E Hill and Frank A James III edit.)
So penal substitution is the basis of other blessings. We are set free from sin, death and the devil because his hold over us, our guilt before God, is removed by Christ’s death in our place. Similarly we are reconciled to God because the barrier between God and us has been removed by that same sacrificial death.