Penal substitution and the second death

In his death on the cross and his three days in the grave, Jesus was neither endlessly tormented nor was he annihilated. This is why I have proposed that neither traditionalism nor annihilationism has an advantage in regard to its explanation of the way in which Christ’s death was a penal substitution for human sin. Jesus died in the manner of the “first death,” in his role as second Adam (1 Cor 15:45-47; cf. Rom 5:12-21).

He was  perfectly sinless.

  • He was not guilty in Adam because he was the representative head of a new covenant people and, in his active obedience, he was tempted as Adam had been but he did not yield, so that he did not become personally liable to death. Having passed the probation, he had gained the immortality which Adam and Eve would have had if they had not disobeyed, and which God now gives to all who are in Christ, the new covenant head. Hence our access, finally, to “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit,” one produced each month (Rev 22:2), which are on both sides of the “river of the water of life” flowing “from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1).
  • Not being guilty, Jesus was born without corruption, that is, the tendency to sin, which derives from our being naturally cut off from God’s sustaining grace by our alienation from him on account of our sinfulness. Nevertheless, he was tempted in all the ways we are but, strengthened by the Holy Spirit who filled him (Lk 4:1, 14), Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). He continually did the Father’s will throughout his life of perfect obedience (Jn 8:29).

So there was no reason in the person and actions of Jesus why he should die physically, but he submitted to death in his identification with sinners. Even those in Christ normally die physically (allowing for exceptions like Enoch and Elijah), despite Christ’s having “borne our sin in his body on the tree.” But his penal substitution, his being “made sin for us” and suffering the righteous judgment of God against sinners, delivers those in him (by grace through faith) from the second death. In raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated or justified him, declaring him to be “the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4), and those who are in Christ are declared righteous by God on account of their union with Christ. Though “sin reigned in death,” Jesus underwent death in order that “grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:21).

But, if the penalty for sin, the second death or hell, is either endless torment in permanent alienation from God or annihilation, how was it that Christ bore the penalty of human sin? The answer is clearly not by some literal equivalence to what the wicked will suffer when they are condemned in God’s final judgment. On the cross, Christ satisfied the just demands of God against sinners, in a way that was sufficient for the forgiveness of every human being. God was pleased with Christ’s life of obedience, and with his willingness to die an accursed death, under the wrath of God, as representative of the new people whom God declares righteous in Christ, to whom he gives eternal life, and whom he raises bodily from the dead, never to die the terrible “second death” which is the destiny of all who persistently reject God’s gracious self-revelation in whatever form he gives it to them throughout human history in this age/world (Rev 22:6). Over all those who are raised with Christ, participating in the “first resurrection” (Rev 20:6; cf 1 Cor 15:22-23), the second death has no power (Rev 20:6). But those who are not raised with Christ are raised “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2); theirs is not the “resurrection of life” but the “resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5:29).

It is worth noting here that penal substitution was the means by which Christ overcame the devil, so that we should not pose penal substitution and Christus victor as alternatives (See my thoughts in “Stricken by God?: A Review Article,” in Theodidaktos 4/1 (April 2009): 3-16). Rather, we should note that Christus victor is the overarching biblical model of Christ’s atoning work, so that my comments here about penal substitution need to be read within that framework.

I propose that all this can be affirmed equally well by everyone, regardless of their understanding of the nature of the second death.

These thoughts were triggered by my pondering questions 22, 23 and 24 in The New City Catechism, which I think has described the redemptive work of Christ, the incarnate Word, very well.

Q22: “Why must the Redeemer be truly human?

That in human nature he might on our behalf perfectly obey the whole law and suffer the punishment for human sin; and also that he might sympathize with our weaknesses.”

Q23: “Why must the Redeemer be truly God?

That because of his divine nature his obedience and suffering would be perfect and effective; and also that he would be able to bear the righteous anger of God against sin and yet overcome death.”

Q24: “Why was it necessary for Christ, the Redeemer, to die?

Since death is the punishment for sin, Christ died willingly in our place to deliver us from the power and penalty of sin and bring us back to God. By his substitutionary atoning death, he alone redeems us from hell and gains for us forgiveness of sin, righteousness, and everlasting life.”

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