Just like the first approach, this approach that emphasizes the Father’s initiating love is found in popular evangelism. That can be seen from the fact that John 3:16 is regarded as such a basic gospel text.
Again, just like the first approach, this approach is represented in hymns and worship songs. A good example is another hymn by Stuart Townend—“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” especially the first verse:
How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
This song has not proved controversial in the same way that “In Christ Alone,” has, but that does not mean this second approach isn’t in danger of imbalance. The danger with this approach is that if we are not careful, we can end up portraying Christ as a Son who merely submits passively to the will of the Father. Two feminist theologians provocatively referred to this as “divine child abuse.” Their language has been taken up by others, and it has been used by some people who are critical of penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that on the cross Jesus bore the punishment that was due to us.
The accusation makes a good sound bite, but is wilfully misleading. It gains its force from the implication that Jesus was an underage child. Also, although it is used specifically against the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, it would apply equally against any doctrine that gives atoning significance to the cross. So, for example, the doctrine that Jesus came to reveal God and show us His love by dying for us is just as vulnerable to the charge of divine child abuse as is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
Again, the problem is not the biblical doctrine of the atonement or the hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” The song does not deny that Jesus actively and willingly took the punishment His people deserved, nor does the biblical understanding of the cross. When there is a “problem,” it is because we have not stressed Christ’s active willingness to suffer in our place.
We have two ways of talking about the Father and Son in relation to the cross that run the risk of imbalance. The first talks about Christ as coming to reconcile us to God, to open up the way back to God. The initiative lies with Christ, the Mediator and reconciler. But, without a concomitant emphasis on the initiating love of the Father, this first approach might suggest that Christ’s role is to persuade a reluctant God to forgive us. This can easily convey the impression of a harsh, vengeful Father whose anger and hatred of us are only mollified by the intervention of His Son. The second way talks about God’s great love for us and how He sent His only Son to die for us. The initiative here clearly lies with the Father. But without the concomitant emphasis on Christ’s willingness to come as the Mediator, this second approach might portray Christ as an obedient but reluctant victim. This can easily obscure Christ’s active desire to seek and save the lost.
How are we to regard these two different approaches? Both are clearly biblical. Indeed, both are combined in one verse: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Both approaches are well established in popular evangelism and in worship. We need them both. Yet at the same time, viewing either to the exclusion of the other has led to criticism and misunderstanding. So how should we regard them?
Let us take the criticisms first. The criticisms only work against one view in isolation from the other. Christ’s propitiatory work makes God out to be “some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down” only if we ignore the fact that the Father loved us so much that He sent His only Son. The latter view, in isolation, could wrongly lead someone to accuse the Father of the charge of divine child abuse only if we ignore the fact that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Either view on its own, in isolation from the other, is vulnerable to accusation; held together, they are not.
What about the accusation that the two approaches contradict each other? On the one hand, Jesus loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). On the other hand, He was obedient even to death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). But these understandings are complementary, not contradictory. There is nothing illogical about Christ willingly dying in our place even though He obeyed God in doing so. He willingly obeyed the divine purpose. It was His delight to obey His Father as much as it was to die for His people (Heb. 7:5–7).
As we consider the two emphases or approaches often made regarding the work of Christ, it is right and proper to seek to explain how they are compatible. In fact, we must do this in order to capture the full biblical picture of the Savior and what He has done for His people.