Nigel Allcoat: The Divine Substitute?

Have you ever used the following illustration to explain the gospel? God in the gospel, we sometimes say, is like a judge who has a guilty party before him at the bar, and he pronounces the sentence—whether it is five years in jail, a $10,000 fine, or whatever. Then the judge steps down from the bench, takes off his robes, and takes the person’s place in prison or writes out a check for the fine. And we say, ‘This is what the Christian gospel is all about. It is substitution.’” (D.A. Carson, Scandalous, p65)

Have you used that kind of illustration? I think I probably have – not when preaching, I don’t think, but in casual conversation, most certainly. It’s quite a nice, simple picture of a God who upholds justice and also makes a provision for us to experience freedom, and I’ve certainly heard it feature in a fair share of sermons, gospel presentations and Alpha talks.

I was reminded of it this week when I read the story of Nigel Allcoat, the Magistrate who,

tried to pay part of a £180 criminal courts charge levied on a refugee who appeared before him at Leicester Magistrates’ Court three weeks ago.

He said the man in his 20s was ordered to pay the fee in June by another court and had appeared before him as a fine defaulter […]

“When he first appeared in court in June before another bench, a friend who runs a Leicester food stall, who occasionally fed him, paid a £60 victim surcharge on behalf of the asylum seeker. This was a generous and human act and should be applauded.”

He explained that the man’s inability to pay the fine would mean he would be further criminalised. As an asylum seeker, he cannot legally earn money and to do so could jeopardise his status as an asylum seeker.

“I was appalled that he should be in such a Catch-22 situation, as whichever way he went he would break the law”, Mr Allcoat said.

He explained that his primary job was to prevent reoffending so he decided to pay part of the fine himself.’

In one sense, it’s a nice real-life example of the substitutionary illustration… But before you race to squeeze it into the final five minutes of Sunday’s sermon, here are two thoughts:

Firstly, the story didn’t end well for Allcoat; he was suspended for his actions, and has subsequently resigned in disgust. Not quite the conclusion you want for your gospel presentation!

Now there’s obviously a bigger context to this story, including the controversy around the criminal court charge, over which nearly 50 magistrates have resigned in protest. And I don’t know enough about the system to comment on whether Allcoat’s actions contravened the oath he swore when he was appointed. But at an intuitive level, I can’t help but feel that a justice system that makes impossible demands on people and penalises generosity and grace might be a little off kilter!

And that’s an important thing to note, because to ‘the man on the street’, law-court metaphors related to the gospel can feel similarly bewildering. The hypothetical courtroom in which we are tried before a holy God can seem unnecessary, bureaucratic, confusing, and perhaps even unfair or unjust. Hence what started as a simple metaphor will lead to questions over why God needs to judge like this, when he could just forgive; how it’s fair for us to be given a charge we have no hope or means of repaying; whether it is possible – or just! – for the judge to take our punishment, when it’s not merely a financial fine, but a jail sentence… and so on.

Of course, there are answers to all of those questions, but the very fact that the legal scenario raises these questions demonstrates that it’s not as simple an illustration as we might like to think, and that law court metaphors can tend to conjure up ideas of bureaucracy in people’s minds, rather than causing them to marvel at the loving, personal nature of the gospel, which is perhaps more prominent in other atonement metaphors.

To be clear, I do think the judge / guilt / punishment / justice / courtroom themes are important and biblically based, but when they are our primary (or only!) way of explaining the gospel, we may be missing out on some other rich metaphors which may connect with people more deeply.

But there’s also a second reason why we should think carefully about the illustration. Carson continues:

I have used this similar illustration myself. But I do not do so anymore, for I have come to see that in itself the illustration is misleading. It is not entirely wrong, of course. It does explain something of penal substitution: another takes my place and bears my penalty. But the illustration is misleading because there is one part of it that is fundamentally skewed. In our world it cannot easily be made to align with justice. In Western judicial systems, the judge is supposed to be a neutral arbitrator or administrator of a system of law that is bigger than he or she is. The offense is not against the judge. If the judge is the one who got mugged, then when the mugger stands before him, the judge must recuse himself from the case because he is not supposed to be the offended party. That is why we speak of criminals committing an offense against the state or the law or the republic or the crow. We do not speak of an offense against the judge because if the offense is against the judge, the judge must recuse herself in order to preserve certain kind of neutrality. If in our system a judge pronounced sentence and then went down and took the criminal’s place, it would be a miscarriage of justice. The guilty person must pay. The judge does not have the right to set aside the law like that. Judges are supposed to be independent arbitrators of the system. The offense is not against them.

Let me put it another way. Suppose, God forbid, that you were attacked, beaten up horribly by a gang of thugs, raped, and left in the hospital half dead, defiled, violated, and with bones broken. Then I come and visit you in the hospital a few days later and say, ‘Be of good cheer. I have found your attackers, and I have forgiven them.’ What would you say to me? You would probably have a relapse right on the spot! ‘What right do you have to forgive them? You’re not the one who was violated! You’re not the one lying in a hospital bed!’ Isn’t that what you would say? And you would have every right to say it. Only the offended party can grant forgiveness to the perpetrator. So what right does the judge have to show these wretchedly guilty people mercy? It would be a perversion of justice.

But with God it is different. He is the judge, yet he is always the most offended party. And he never ever recuses himself. That is all right because he is never corrupted, either. His justice remains absolutely perfect. He never makes a mistake. God is not simply administering a system of morality that is bigger than he is. When we sin against God, we are not simply sinning against the law with God as a neutral observer. That is what C. H. Dodd got it so wrong. God is the most offended party and he is our judge! He stands over us in wrath righteously because he is holy, and he stands over against us in love because his is that kind of God. And he sends forth his Son to be the propitiation—the one who sets aside God’s wrath—for our sins.” (D.A. Carson, Scandalous, p65-66)

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