The penal in penal substitution, then, guards (and teaches us about) the infinite preciousness and value and worthiness of God. To say that Adam’s sin should not have resulted in death, to say that our sins do not result in God’s wrath, to shy away from mentioning God’s wrath in private or public, to say that penal substitution is overly obsessed with legal categories or overemphasizes the role of God’s law, to say that the significance of Christ’s death is diminished by bringing it into the realm of the law court, to say that the demands of God’s law do not have to be satisfied, to declare a forensic declaration of “righteous” merely a “legal fiction,” to caricature the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath as “divine child abuse”—all this is to miss the role of God’s law in protecting and declaring the worthiness of God; and therefore it is to belittle this ineffable worthiness and indescribable glory of God.

Let me ratchet it up one more notch: if the world, the flesh, and the devil desire, above all else, to diminish the godness of God, and to deceive us into thinking we can be “like God,” there can be no more dangerous lie in the universe than to redefine the gospel in a way that subtly massages the penal out of penal substitution—kind of like when someone said to Eve, “You will not surely die.” In a world of self-justifiers, it’ll always be the first domino the devil tries to topple. (The Devil’s Favorite Domino: The Penal in Penal Substitution)

Jonathan Leeman