THEOLOGY: What of the Cup? – On Penal Substitutionary Atonement

“Since Jesus Christ became a substitute for us all, and took upon Himself our sins, that he might bear Gods terrible wrath against sin and expiate our guilt, he necessarily felt the sin of the whole world, together with the entire wrath of God, and afterwards the agony of death on account of this sin.”
-Martin Luther

What of the Cup? We mentioned the sacrificial offerings. We mentioned also God’s Holiness and His wrath. Yet what of the Cup?

I find it odd that you would find Christ taking upon himself the penal punishment of Man and thus God’s wrath troubling. You consistently try to explain it away as simply being symbolic, or some anthropomorphism. Although surely there is some truth in this, symbols are not symbolic of nothing. Symbols are signs which point to realities beyond simple explanation (in line of the image they convey). When God’s wrath is spoken of as wrath, it would very much be a mistake to read into this a wrath conforming to the kind found in man. However, God’s wrath speaks to something much further beyond childish emotional expressions of outrage. Rather, it is an objective and continual opposition and disgust towards wickedness. 

It was already demonstrated how God’s wrath is a continual and important theme throughout Scripture. It has also been demonstrated that God’s wrath is directed at wickedness and the wicked. To assume God’s wrath was symbolic of something completely outside our understanding of wrath would be a bit silly. ‘Wrath’ wouldn’t be symbolic of puppies and daisies. Rather, it carries forth some element of our understanding in connection with a position beyond our comprehension. Why does God express a Divine Wrath? As the testimony of the Scriptures presents, it flows out of His Holiness. What would we call a judge who, after declaring the verdict ‘Guilt’, decided it is inhuman to cast a punishment? We would call him unjust. So too with God.

It was also demonstrated, through surveying sacrificial accounts in the Old Testament, that a sacrifice was essential to solve our enmity with God. Life was found in the blood, and the sacrificial offerings in Leviticus represent a substitutionary transferring of man’s guilt unto the the sacrificed animal. For man’s corrupt nature, he has received the penal punishment of death (Gn 3:15). It was not given as a natural causal end of man. Rather, death entered as a penal punishment to the crime of idolatry committed against God. This death contained both a physical (natural death) and spiritual (enmity with God) element (as well as a final element, which would extent into eternity: Hell). The various types of Levitical sacrificial offerings (burnt, fellowship, grain, sin, etc offerings) explain for us that through the self offering of the unblemished lamb, Christ, takes upon himself the penal punishment of death, so that we may be forgiven of sin and removed from enmity. ‘He died our death so that we may live’. It echoes the Levitical sacrificial offerings.

This is solidified further in the passover meal event. Christ offers himself as the passover lamb, whose body would be broken and blood would be shed for the forgiveness of man. The centrality of the cross is noted by Jesus himself, who would provide the Lord’s Supper memorial as the only commemorative act authorized by him (‘do this in remembrance of me’). Its central significance: His death. It was also his continual concern. Jesus consistently taught that he came to die, and that he would. The events of the passover meal and the actual historical passover event would make these elements quite clear. He would come ‘for the forgiveness of sins’.

However, your objections arise when it is mentioned that Christ not only died as a penal substitution, but that he also exhausted God’s wrath (to the point of calling it heresy, or proclaiming God is Moloch and Baal). The problem here is that an understanding without this portion is a Cross absent of some of its meaning. As the incident of the passover explains that Christ needed to die to forgive us of sin, and that this involved his body and blood, the following events support the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Christ explains for us that, as found in his experience in Gethsemane, he came to receive God’s stored wrath.

What occurred in the garden of Gethsemane? Christ goes forward in prayer, and three times petitions and prays to God. What is his request? “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” Note, that God’s wrath is not imposed upon the Christ. Note, Christ is not forced to the cross, but rather he willfully dies for us who come to drink of the living water. As he responds, “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (Jn 18:11).

Which brings me to the final point. What is this cup Jesus speaks of? He had also commented on the substitutionary atonement necessary through the memorial service offered in remembrance of his body and blood which would be broken and bled for sinners (which you have no objections to). Yet now he speaks of drinking a cup. This second event hints us further towards why Christ would die.

Also note Jesus would experience serious grief. The Gospel writer tells us that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground,” (Mt 26:36-46). Was Christ simply a coward? After all, note all the great martyrs of the faith who would go forward and accept their tortures and deaths with joy. Note Socrates, who himself barely flinched when drinking the hemlock potion. Jesus has already expressed great reserve in the temptation of the Devil and various other events. Was the GodMan now trembling over the future pain of the cross, or the guilt, or the embarrassment, or the treatment he would face? Hardly.

Again we return to the cup. What did the cup signify? We can cast aside the notion that it simply signified the sufferings he would experience by being nailed to a cross. Rather, as the Old Testament comments on the Lord’s Suffering through its testimony on the Day of Atonement and the Levitical Sacrifices, so does the Old Testament comment on what this cup entailed.

What is the continual symbolism of the cup in the Old Testament you say? God’s wrath. This is hardly a shocking claim. The Old Testament witnesses consistently to the identity of the cup with God’s stored wrath. Note the connection between the wrath and its execution in judgment. Isaiah would proclaim the warning to Jerusalem, saying “you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger.” Psalm 75 would say “In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming and wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it to its very dregs.” Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah would all warn about God’s cup of wrath against the wicked of the world (Is 51:17-22; Je 25:15-29). Revelation tells us that the wicked “will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.” (Rv 14:10; 16:1; 18:6). God’s wrath is connected in the Old Testament with His objective opposition to wickedness, as well as the judgment He will cast against the wicked. A judgment the wicked will pay for when the cup of stored wrath is poured out.

God was objectively and divinely opposed to wickedness as in accordance to His Holy character. The results of sin incurred a wrath of God that would result in man’s judgment. Out of Divine Grace God decides to delay the day of wrath (judgment), however we don’t find Jesus simply coming to forgive us. No, he would come to drink full of this cup.

God doesn’t exhaust His wrath upon Jesus as if God were some pubescent teenager whose been robbed of some fancy. Nor is the wrath unwillingly forced upon Jesus. Rather, out out inexhaustible mercy and grace, Jesus takes upon himself the penal substitution that not only delivers us from enmity and provides forgiveness of sin, but exhausts God’s wrath and thus proves God surely merciful AND holy.

What else would this imagery of Jesus drinking of the cup represent? His worry for being crucified? Hardly. He would drink fully of God’s righteous judgment against wickedness. Through Christ we would be forgiven of sins, we would have right communion with God, and we would be declared righteous. If God were to forgo His judgment completely, how could we call Him just and holy? Instead, Christ calls us to drink and eat of Him, to believe in Him. He would shed the penal punishment of death for us. He would take up the cost of our wickedness and its corresponding judgment upon himself. “It was for this very reason I came to this hour.” (Jn 12:27).

Praise God that Jesus did this willingly. Praise God that Jesus died for my sins. Praise God that Jesus brings me into true communion. And praise God that Jesus paid the price of my wickedness by drinking in my place the cup of God’s righteous divine wrath stored against my own depravity. No need for good works. No need of purgatory. Simply Christ and Him crucified.

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (Jn 19:30).


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