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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 17–25 

Entrusting Ourselves to the One Who Judges Justly: Proclaiming the Cross in a World of Insecurity

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek

When he was abused, he did not return abuse;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.

~ 1 Peter 2:23 (NRSV)

1 Persistent unemployment, soaring debt, income inequity, financial instability, partisan intransigence, popular uprisings, bloody revolutions, brutal repressions, severe drought, historic flooding, pandemic threats, terrorist bombings, drone warfare. Ours is a troubled world. Ours has been a troubled world. Centuries ago, the psalmist looked upon a world in chaos: trembling mountains, roaring seas, tottering kingdoms, warring nations (Ps. 46). Like the ancient poet, most of us feel powerless to defend ourselves from forces that beset us on every side, much less alter the tides of time. In a time of economic woe, political turmoil, environmental change, and continual war, we sense a deep need to entrust ourselves to a power that is not only bigger than ourselves but is also able and willing to secure our very selves against powers that threaten to overwhelm us.

Because of the cross of Christ, we can trust that even now God is with us and for us in Christ no matter who or what might be against us. {18}

The psalmist proclaims that our only safe refuge in an insecure world is God: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1 NRSV, passim). As the faithful of God, we are not to put our trust in the worldly “powers that be”—whether purchasing power (markets and money), ruling power (governments and presidents), or killing power (armies and weapons). These are the powers “in whom there is no help,” whose designs of deliverance dissipate with death (Ps. 146:3–4). We are to put our trust in the power of God, the One “who made heaven and earth . . . who keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:6)—the same One who revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

Why, though, should we—or anyone—trust God? While living in the midst of “earth’s lamentation,” it is far from obvious that “Love is Lord of heaven and earth,” as the old hymn assures us. What answer, then, do we as Christians have to offer in response to this pressing question?

The cross of Christ is the center of Christian faith. It is the crux of the gospel, the message of salvation by reconciliation with God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18–21; Col. 1:20). Now, if the message of the cross is to be good news to an insecure world, then it must at least be credible. And if the message of the cross is to be at all credible, then it must carry the indubitable implication that God himself is trustworthy. After all, how can our salvation be secure if God is untrustworthy? Why be reconciled to God if God can’t be trusted?

To put it simply, unless the message of the cross secures confidence in God it will not be credible to an insecure world. So the church’s preaching of the cross to a world needing salvation should also offer a persuasive answer to human insecurity: trust the God revealed in Christ crucified.

Atonement theories—whether Irenaeus’s recapitulation theory, Gregory’s ransom theory, Anselm’s satisfaction theory, Abelard’s moral influence theory, or Calvin’s penal substitution theory—outline the message of the cross within a theological framework. 2 My purpose here is neither to defend one historic theory of the atonement against all others nor to define a new theory of the atonement. My intent is limited to addressing this question—Why trust God?—from the perspective of the message of the cross.

What I propose is that we apply an apologetic criterion to atonement theology: that we do our theology of the cross (i.e., an explication of the saving significance of Jesus’ death) in connection with an apology of the cross (i.e., a defense of the credibility of that explication). Now, by “credibility” I do not intend “rationality” or any such criterion of truth that would stand independently of the gospel or be grasped apart from faith. As Paul affirmed, the message of the cross is “a stumbling block” to those seeking salvation in proofs of power and “foolishness” to those seeking salvation in words of wisdom. The cross of Christ, weak and foolish by human standards, {19} is itself the manifestation of “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” in which alone we can find security of salvation by faith (1 Cor. 1:18–25). Borrowing from theologian Alister McGrath, 3 we ask: Does a theory of atonement clearly and credibly proclaim “that God is a secure base, a place of safety on which to build the life of faith” in a fearful and insecure world?


Let’s apply this apologetic criterion to that atonement theory having the widest adherence among ordinary Christians—penal substitution. The penal substitution theory of the cross runs roughly as follows: God, who is holy and just, cannot tolerate sin and so must judge sin by punishing sinners with death. How, then, can sinners be saved? God, who is also merciful, provides sinners an escape from divine wrath and retribution by ordaining Christ’s death as punishment for sin: Jesus “pays the penalty” of death for sin by dying on the cross “in our place.” Through this three-way transaction, by which sin and its penalty are transferred from sinners to Christ at the cross, God judges sin and saves sinners.

Key to understanding the penal substitution theory is to observe how it characterizes the consequence of sin and, hence, the solution for the problem of sin. Sin, it says, both alienates us from God and alienates God from us. Not only does our sin separate us from God, but God’s holy wrath against us on account of our sin separates God from us. Because of our sin, we are estranged from God, and because of God’s anger at our sin God is estranged from us. On account of sin, therefore, a double reconciliation is required: we need to be reconciled to God and God needs to be reconciled to us. Indeed, the latter is prerequisite for the former. Unless God first be reconciled to us, we cannot be reconciled to God. Now, God cannot be reconciled to us unless his holy wrath against sin is propitiated; and God’s wrath cannot be propitiated unless God’s penalty for sin has been satisfied. The solution to this situation is Christ’s death in our place on the cross, which satisfies God’s penalty for sin and propitiates God’s wrath against us, thus reconciling God to us and making it possible for us to be reconciled to God in Christ. 4

This atonement theory carries a concrete corollary for Christ on the cross. Christ-on-the-cross figures the alienation of sinners from God, the fact that God judges our sin by “hiding his face” and “giving us up” to sinning—that is, by leaving us free to choose sin and suffer the consequences (cf. Isa. 64:5b–7; Ps. 81:11–12; Rom. 1:24–32). According to the penal substitution theory, however, Christ-on-the-cross also reveals the alienation of God from sinners. Because God being holy can have no part with our sin, and Christ bears our sin in our place, God had to separate himself from Christ on the cross. {20} As many a Good Friday sermon has put it, the Father had to “turn his back” on his Son at the cross because he could not look upon the sin that Jesus bore. Thus it was that a midday darkness—an ominous sign of God’s judgment—covered the whole land until the time of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:33). Thus also it was that Jesus cried of being forsaken by God (Mark 15:34) because God really did forsake him at the cross—literally left him to die alone—in order that he might be punished for our sin in our place. This is the stuff not only of popular preaching and piety but also of mainstream theology. As the late John Stott put it in his classic apologetic for penal substitution, The Cross of Christ, Jesus’ cry from the cross was of “real dereliction,” because at the cross “an actual and dreadful separation took place between the Father and the Son.” “In the darkness,” Stott continued, “[Jesus] was absolutely alone, being now also God-forsaken.” 5

The penal substitution theory prompts several questions, each of which requires careful attention. 6 We will briefly consider here two questions that relate directly to our apologetic criterion for atonement theology.

First, as the Nicene Creed affirms, the Son of God became human, suffered, and died—all “for our sake and for our salvation.” What good could the Son’s solidarity with us through the incarnation accomplish for our salvation, however, if at the extreme point of the Son’s solidarity with sinners, when he dies for us at the cross, God breaks solidarity with him? If God alone can save us and God has sent us a Savior, yet God actually separates himself from the Savior at the crucial moment when the Savior is to accomplish salvation, are we actually saved? Can such a salvation be trusted?

Second, how assuring is it to know that while Christ bore our sins in our place God forsook his own Son? For if God can forsake his own Son at the cross, what assurance do we have that God won’t desert us in our time of trial? If the cross shows that God left his own Son derelict as he faced powers of darkness and death, what assurance do we have that God won’t leave us derelict to face peril and sword? Can we trust our salvation to a God who abandons the Savior?

To put the point precisely: the penal substitution theory, insofar as it understands the cross as that which separates God from Christ, undercuts confidence in the cross as that which reconciles us to God in Christ. 7 At very least, the penal substitution theory needs to be substantially reworked. 8


The problem here concerns not only the credibility of the message of the cross to the world. As theologian Peter Schmiechen observes in his masterful survey of atonement theories, Saving Power, when the church is uncertain about the cross it lacks the confidence both to claim its identity {21} as a saved people and to proclaim the cross as saving power. The vocation of the church thus rests upon confidence in the cross. 9 Given that popular atonement theology creates a crisis of confidence in the cross of Christ as the salvation of God, Christians need to rethink the cross.

On the penal substitution theory, God’s judgment against sin and grace for sinners at the cross effectively pulls in the opposite direction from God’s faithfulness to Christ: God’s grace for sinners requires that Jesus die in place of sinners on the cross, but God’s judgment against sin requires that God remove himself from Jesus on the cross. Paul, by contrast, affirms that the cross of Christ is at once the disclosure of God’s justice, the demonstration of God’s faithfulness, and the dispensation of God’s grace (Rom. 3:21–26). 10 God’s justice, faithfulness, and grace work together in the same direction—toward the redemption of sinners in Christ through the cross. Following Paul, our thinking about and proclamation of the cross of Christ must avoid pitting God’s justice, grace, and faithfulness against each other.

The penal substitution theory goes awry on this point, I think, because it frames the cross in an abstract scheme of retributive justice that functions independently of, and almost indifferently to, the biblical narrative of redemption history. As a result, its logic of atonement is uprooted from the purposes of God fulfilled through the faithfulness of God to the promises of covenant. 11 Paul, by contrast, affirms that the justice and faithfulness of God revealed through the cross of Christ has already been “attested by the law and the prophets” (Rom 3:21). Indeed, Paul’s language of “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24) recalls the history of redemption—release from captivity and return from exile—as the canonical-theological backdrop of the cross. 12 To properly proclaim the cross as saving power, therefore, we should frame the cross in the biblical story of God’s salvation.

The central story of the Torah, God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt and covenant with Israel at Sinai, reveals that God does justice for his people out of his own faithfulness, by means of grace. In the midst of the people’s groaning in captivity, God hears their cries for help and, remembering his covenant with the patriarchs, comes to deliver his people from slavery by calling his servant, Moses (Exod. 2–3). The deliverance of Israel from Egypt was thus God’s act of faithfulness. It was not because of their righteousness, Moses reminds the people, but on account of God’s own love and loyalty that God redeemed them; and it is not to their own strength but to God’s “mighty hand” and “outstretched arm” that they owe their liberation (Deut. 6–11). The passage of Israel to Canaan was thus God’s gift of freedom. {22}

The prophets bear manifold witness that, though God’s people repeatedly prove themselves unfaithful to God, God continually proves himself faithful to his people in all things. God, steadfast in loyalty and love, never forsakes his own, no matter what. It is always the people who break covenant with God, never God who breaks covenant with the people. Even when the people have broken faith with God, God graciously offers to forgive sins and renew covenant (Jer. 30–31). Even when the people have strayed far from God, God graciously persists in calling them to return home and restore relationship (Hos. 1–3, 14). Even while the people are suffering in exile as judgment against their sins, God graciously speaks the word of consolation to them and prepares the way of redemption for them (Isa. 40–55). 13

So, too, God’s gracious initiative for our salvation in Jesus Christ demonstrates that God is ever faithful to forgive sins and justify sinners (Rom. 3:21–26). The cross of Christ, in accord with the witness of “the law and the prophets,” proves that God needs nothing—no prior propitiation, no prerequisite reconciliation—in order to reconcile humanity. 14 The cross does not render a hostile God ready to reconcile with humanity; on the contrary, Christ’s death “for us” demonstrates that a loving God was all-ready to reconcile a humanity that was still hostile toward God. Paul thus writes: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us . . . while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:8, 10).

To be sure, the point here is not to question the apostolic teaching and evangelical conviction that Christ’s death was vicarious (“for us”) and atoning (“for our sins”). The point is that we need to understand how it is that God is “for us” in Christ through the cross “for our salvation” without diminishing the truth that God is “with us” in Christ throughout the incarnation—not only at the nativity (Matt. 1:23) and beyond the resurrection (Matt 28:20), but even and especially at the cross. 15 After all, as Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).


Again, Paul says, that God is faithful and just is disclosed through the faith and cross of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21–24). To see how the cross of Christ can secure our confidence in God, then, let’s look at the cross from the perspective of the faith of Christ himself, who is both “the pioneer of [our] salvation” and “the perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 2:10, 12:2). Our aim here is not to explore the full significance of the saving power of the cross but to consider how Christ’s own experience of his death helps us address our original question: How does the cross ground our trust in God {23} for our salvation? How is Christ’s faith demonstrated through the cross an example for our own faith?

“Christ suffered for [us],” Peter writes, “leaving [us] an example, so that [we] should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). What was Christ’s example? In the face of hostile powers, Christ did not return evil for evil, but instead turned his trust toward God: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). Peter’s account parallels Luke’s narrative: Jesus, having suffered torture and endured taunting, petitioned God’s mercy upon his executioners and persecutors and then committed his life to God’s power (Luke 23:34, 46).

How could Christ on the cross, innocently suffering and facing death, renounce retaliation against his enemies and instead entrust his life to God’s justice? Because he remembered the testimony of the psalms and prophets. God does not forsake the afflicted but hears their cry and rescues them (Ps. 22:1–5, 19–24). God who is steadfast in love does not abandon his own but is faithful to redeem (Ps. 31:1–5, 14–16). God does not break solidarity with his Servant but vindicates him against his adversaries (Isa. 50:7–9). 16 And this faith of Christ in the God who saves, the God witnessed by Scripture, is fulfilled by the God who hears the cries of his faithful ones and faithfully fulfills his promise of salvation: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7).

Here, then, is good news: The faith of Christ at the cross, vindicated by God through the resurrection, demonstrates to the world that God is faithful and just—and thus that we, too, can entrust ourselves to God. Indeed, Peter writes, “Through [Christ] you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God” (1 Pet. 1:21). Moreover, as Paul says so powerfully, the cross and resurrection show, not that God forsook Christ to save sinners, but rather how far God was willing to go for our salvation. That God “did not withhold his own Son,” not even from death, on our account demonstrates that God will absorb whatever cost, bear whatever burden, to complete our salvation according to his purpose in Christ. Precisely because of the cross of Christ we can trust that even now God is with us and for us in Christ, no matter who or what might be against us—and that nothing in this world, not the greatest evil, can ever “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:31–38).

The message of the cross fulfills the song of the psalmist: in the face of trouble, “we will not fear” because in Jesus Christ “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Ps. 46:1, 7). With unshakable {24} assurance of the salvation of God through the cross of Christ, we can hymn God’s faithfulness and affirm our faith in the face of every trouble:

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

And with our faith in God founded firmly on the faithfulness of God through the death and resurrection of Christ, we can follow Christ in a fearful world by putting our ultimate trust in God’s justice. And so, like Christ at the cross, we can love our enemies and leave vengeance to God (Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94; Matt. 5:38–48; Rom. 12:14–21). Thanks be to God!


  1. This article fleshes out a practical implication of my extensive examination of atonement theology and Christian ethics in Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012). It is a revised and expanded version of a post that appeared in November 2011 on the Eerdword blog ( An abridged version was presented in chapel at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in April 2012. My thanks to Prof. Mark Baker of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary for helpful comments on earlier drafts.
  2. For an excellent discussion, analysis, and assessment of various historical theories of atonement, see Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).
  3. Alister McGrath, “The Cross, Suffering and Theological Bewilderment: Reflections on Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis,” in his The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 57–69.
  4. This need for a double reconciliation, and thus the logical priority of divine propitiation in making atonement, is standard thinking among the chief defenders of penal substitution: cf. J. I. Packer, I Want to Be a Christian (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 59–61; Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 137–38; and Roger Nicole, “Postscript on Penal Substitution,” in Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, eds., The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 452. For a critical assessment of penal substitution on this point, see Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 135–40.
  5. John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 81–82. {25}
  6. For a thorough examination and critical assessment of penal substitution from a biblical perspective, see Snyder Belousek, 83–327.
  7. There are also implications for Trinitarian theology lurking in these questions. See Snyder Belousek, 292–309.
  8. For constructive efforts in that direction, see Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), and I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity (London: Paternoster, 2007).
  9. Schmiechen, 345.
  10. Romans 3:21–26 is, of course, a contested text in atonement theology. For a careful exegesis and interpretation of this text in the context of the biblical canon, see Snyder Belousek, 244–64.
  11. Concerning the purposes of God in the theology of atonement, see Schmiechen, 322–24, and Snyder Belousek, 335–38 and 607–11.
  12. See Snyder Belousek, 129–35.
  13. On the relationship between judgment and mercy in God’s covenant relationship with Israel as witnessed in the prophets, see Snyder Belousek, 410–19.
  14. This may raise the question in the reader’s mind concerning “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22) and “the wrath of God” against sinners (Rom. 1:18). For careful treatments of these texts in the context of the biblical canon, see Snyder Belousek, 192–208 and 209–19, resp.
  15. For an alternative to the penal substitution understanding of God “for us and for our salvation,” see Snyder Belousek, 309–12 and 331–61, where he presents an account of the same on a broader biblical basis.
  16. This may lead the reader to wonder about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, who is identified with Jesus by New Testament writers and commonly depicted as a sacrificial victim or penal substitute in popular theology. For a careful exegesis and nuanced interpretation of Isaiah 53 in non-sacrificial, non-penal terms, see Snyder Belousek, 224–43.
  17. “How Firm a Foundation,” verse 5.
Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is lecturer in philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, and adjunct instructor of religion at Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio. He is the author of Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans, 2012).

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