In this article, Stephen J. Wellum writes, “It would be an understatement to say that penal substitution has come under attack today. From voices outside of evangelical theology to those within, the historic Reformation view of the cross is claimed to be a ‘modern’ invention from the cultural West, to be too ‘legal’ in orientation, to sanction violence, to privilege divine retributive justice over God’s love, to be a form of divine child abuse, to reduce Scripture’s polychrome presentation of the cross to a lifeless monochrome, and so on. None of these charges are new, and have been argued since the end of the sixteenth century with the rise of the Socinians and liberal theology.”
It is common knowledge that the word “gospel” means “good news,” but the nature of that news and what, exactly, makes it good are not always a matter of agreement. Is the good news the hope that we might go to Heaven when we die? Is it that we will be raised from the dead with Christ? Is it that God is creating a new world? Is it that, through Jesus Christ, God has triumphed over the devil? Is it that God has formed a new society of reconciled humanity through the cross work of his Son? Is it the forgiveness of sins? Is it liberty to the oppressed? Is it victory over evil?
In fact, the gospel is about all of the above and more. God’s redemptive work is both individual and global, microcosmic and macrocosmic, eternally salvific and socially transformational. However, the recognition of Scripture’s rich diversity of perspectives on God’s salvation through Christ does not eliminate the need for careful understanding of the order and logic of the gospel. It is entirely possible to proclaim gospel truths in a manner that distorts the biblical shape of the good news and, consequently, tends to lead people astray from the true gospel of Christ. And so, if we are going to proclaim the gospel rightly, we must ask the question: what is the primary orientation of the good news of Christ’s redeeming work?