Cosmic child abuse—that phrase caused a stir a few years ago when one theologian used it to describe the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Yet though it might qualify as the most blasphemous attack on the teaching of penal substitution, it is by no means the first. The doctrine has always had its detractors. However, the criticism is misplaced.

Our doctrine of Trinity, drawn from centuries of reflection on Scripture, tells us that God is one in essence and three in person. Because there is only one divine essence, each person of the Trinity shares in all that God is. There is one omnipotence that belongs fully to each divine person. There is one omniscience that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess. And there is one glory.

Consequently, each person of the Trinity seeks the glory of the other persons. God’s glory is the end and purpose of all things—even for God Himself (Hab. 2:14). The Lord necessarily seeks His own glory above all else. God does not do this selfishly, as John Piper has said. The Lord commands us to imitate Him in loving what is supremely valuable (Eph. 5:1), and so we must love and seek His glory in imitation of Him. Nothing is higher than God Himself, and since we benefit from divine glory, His seeking it is actually selfless.

John’s gospel is particularly clear that the Father seeks the glory of the Son (John 8:50). Jesus explains that He is glorified when He is lifted up on the cross. Though Jesus foresaw the revelation of His glory in this, He was greatly troubled (12:27–36). Why? The answer can only be that Jesus knew that He would, as a man, bear God’s curse against His sinful people. If His death was merely the means to destroy death and Satan, He would not have felt such anguish. True, the cross does destroy death and Satan. But Jesus is the incarnate Creator; such things are, relatively speaking, “easy” for the One who ordains all things. What is not “easy” is to bear God’s wrath. But the only way for a Holy God to save sinners was to have His Son suffer the penalty we deserve. And to make that happen, since the Son cannot suffer in His divine nature, He had to take on a human nature that is capable of suffering.

Penal substitution is the supreme revelation of the glory of the Son of God.  It is the clearest picture of the kind of God we serve—One who holds nothing back in order to redeem His children. In sending His Son to bear His wrath, the Father seeks the glory of the Son. If the cross is not the Son’s bearing of God’s judgment in His humanity, we have a Creator who refuses to glorify His Son to the highest degree. We have a God who will not give all of Himself to His children. Moreover, we have a Father who sends His Son to suffer—as a man— at the hands of men when our salvation could have come about another way. Now that is cosmic child abuse.

For Further Study