But vicarious punishment is incompatible with a show of justice, because punishment is an act which no one but the guilty can deserve.
To perceive justice in the infliction of a capital punishment, we must perceive the sufferer deserves the punishment. When no such deserving of punishment is perceived, how is it possible to perceive a display of justice in penal sufferings?
In considering the equity of God, Elihu said to Job, "Surely God will not do wickedly; neither will the Almighty pervert judgment." (Job 34:12) In what way can a king or a judge more flagrantly "pervert judgment," than by intentionally punishing the innocent that the guilty may escape, or be acquitted?
Yet it is to human beings that it has been supposed God made a show of His justice in the sufferings of His Son, Jesus. But this is not possible, when the very faculties with which our Maker has given us lead us to regard such conduct as a perversion of justice, if done by a human judge.
How can punishing the innocent express hatred of sin; or even suggest the idea that God hates it? We might more naturally infer from this punishment that God hates innocence or righteousness.
It is like a parent proving to the guilty members of his family, that wicked children deserve to be punished by inflicting what they deserve on one who is known to them all as the unoffending child.
Any earthly parent, or ruler, adopting such a method to display such a “moral truth" would be suspected of insanity, or accused of abominable injustice. Yet this method is ascribed to God!
When we examine the words in scripture, they are found to be a declaration that one shall not die for the sin of another, but everyone for their own sin, unless they repent.
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” Ezekiel 18:20-21
What can be more obvious than that this one passage clearly contradicts the doctrine of vicarious punishment, or that of one's dying as a substitute for another! It is not possible for words to more clearly express the doctrine of pardon on condition of repentance alone.
The Gospel does not portray God as such an austere Sovereign that He cannot forgive a penitent person without inflicting the deserved evils on an innocent victim; but, as a being who has a Father's heart, and is disposed, by tender compassion for His guilty offspring, to do all that wisdom and love shall dictate to reconcile and save them.
Perhaps there is no portion of the Gospels which has had a more extensive, or a more favorable influence on the minds of men, than the parable of the Prodigal Son. Our Master describes the feelings of a true penitent, and the forgiving love of God – and the readiness with which He pardons and restores us when, with contrite hearts, we turn from the ways of sin.
It is remarkable how perfectly this parable precludes every idea of the necessity of vicarious suffering in order for God to the pardon of the penitent sinner.
Had it been the special purpose of our Master to provide an antidote for such a doctrine, it is difficult to conceive what could have been devised better adapted to it.
Have we not in this parable a striking miniature painting of the great truths of the Gospel of reconciliation?
These views of the subject excludes the awful, the painful, and unnatural idea of God's displaying avenging justice on an innocent and holy victim, as necessary to the exercise of forgiving love toward his penitent children.
It is presumed that this supposed example of the mode of Divine forgiveness, has never been, and never can be, imitated by any enlightened and benevolent being in the universe. Yet every Christian is required to forgive, as God forgives!
The idea of substituted suffering is essential to the prevalent theory respecting the atonement; and also essential to the hypothesis that the anger or avenging justice of God was displayed in the sufferings of Jesus. But there is not one Biblical instance in which can be discovered the least appearance of substituted suffering; and this is strong proof that the nature of Jesus’ sufferings has been greatly misunderstood; and that the prevalent hypothesis respecting them is incorrect and unwarranted by the Bible.
(Adapted from “The Atoning Sacrifice – a Display of Love, Not Wrath,” by Noah Worcester (1829)