The cross, it has been said, is the place where wrath and mercy meet. At the cross Jesus both demonstrates God’s holiness and justice, and God’s love and mercy. All the previous interrelationships between judgment and mercy find their culmination in the cross of Christ.
The Bible uses a number of different words to demonstrate the penal nature of the atonement. One important word is “propitiation.” Propitiation refers to the removal of wrath. The concept is found throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament it lies underneath the prescribed rituals for sin offerings, and guilt offerings, and particularly the Day of Atonement. We see it very vividly in Numbers 16:41-50. In the New Testament the term is found only four times (Rom. 3:21-26; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:1-2; and 1 John 4:8-10), but again it is part of the larger structure of much of the New Testament’s language of the cross and of atonement. 1 John 2:2 says it this way:
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Other translations may say “atoning sacrifice.” The larger idea behind the cross is that Christ is the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. He satisfies the wrath of God for us.
Theologians speak of this type of atonement as a penal substitutionary sacrifice. The term “penal” refers the law, and “substitutionary,” obviously means taking our place. Jesus pays our legal debt for violating God’s law, by taking upon himself the consequences of our sin. Ultimately the point of Penal Substitution is that God himself rescues us from His own wrath. Jesus takes the wrath of God in our place. That’s what Paul means when he writes about such things in Romans 3:21-26:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Paul is clearly communicating that Jesus pacifies the wrath of God in our place. When we read this passage within its context that point is more clearly seen. So in Romans chapter 1 Paul argues that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). He goes on to describe the present out working of that wrath in our world, talking about God “hardening hearts” and “giving them up” to their sinful desires (vv. 24-26, 28). In chapter two he warns his readers of the certainty of a day of judgment that is coming (v. 1-16). He applies this to all men, Jews and Greeks, in the fist part of chapter 3. But now, peace and pardon are ours because of the “propitiation” of Christ. Those who were “wicked” (4:5) and “God’s enemies” (5:9) have been “justified by his blood,” and will be “saved from the wrath of God through him” (5:9).
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is important because it assures us of two important things: (1) God is just, and (2) sinners can be right with Him. We see the justice of God clearly on display here in that he does not allow sin to go unpunished. But we also see here that because Christ takes our punishment for us we are offered a clean slate, we are made right with God through Christ’s death on the cross. These are truths we cannot do without, and in fact they lie underneath all the other models of the atonement. Judgment and mercy kiss at the point of the cross and we reap the benefits. The gospel is the epitome of the interrelationship between these two truths.