Vocabulary Meets Theology; Cornering an Escaped Convict in My Backyard
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” – Galatians 3:13
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee during the 1980’s was an interesting experience to say the least. One particular attribute of my hometown is that it has never been known for being the safest place in the world. In those days, located on the east side of Memphis was the Shelby County Corrections Center, which was simply known by Memphians as “The Penal Farm.” Throughout my childhood, I really never understood this bizarre name. It seemed as if about every two or three months, it was reported on Action News 5 that an inmate escaped from “The Penal Farm.” Our family only lived about 5 miles northeast of the correctional facility, so we would immediately be on the lookout for an escaped convict. For an eleven year old boy, it was always an adrenaline rush.
Now if you have never been an eleven year old boy, you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about. But there is just something about imagining catching an escaped prisoner in your back yard. I envisioned him wearing black and white striped clothes and carrying around a ball and chain. I would corner the bad guy with a baseball bat while my mom called the police. I would instantly be considered a local hero, making the front page of The Commercial Appeal. If my confrontation with the criminal involved rescuing a puppy or a small child, the city council would then have to name a street or a park after me. Oh the mind of a child!
But through all of my childlike imaginations, I never stopped to wonder why the correctional facility was called “The Penal Farm.” In retrospect, “penal” seemed like a very strange word. What did it mean? Did it really mean anything? Did a man with the last name of “Penal” donate land to the county to build a jail? I never really pondered these questions growing up. I simply accepted the name without further thought. It was not until my early adult years when I began saturating my heart and mind upon the doctrines of the Christian faith that I understood the word “penal.” In my studies, I came across the theological term “penal substitutionary atonement.” As one writer put it, “penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and He, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.” That is a pretty beefy definition. But to trim off some of the fat, the word “penal” means to receive punishment for breaking the law. It is where we get the word “penalty.” The word “substitute” means to take someone’s place. The word “atonement” means to be made right before God. Penal substitutionary atonement; Jesus was our substitute by taking upon Himself the punishment we so rightly deserved because we broke the laws of God. When He did, He made us right with God the Father.
It all made sense! At the Shelby County Tennessee Penal Farm, the inmates were being punished for breaking the law. As a child, I knew breaking the law was the reason for their incarceration. I simply did not know the meaning of the word “penal.” You might have known the meaning of “penal” since you were a child. But for some reason I didn’t. I must have missed that particular vocabulary lesson in school. But when I finally grammatically connected the dots as an adult, it made me appreciate all the more what Jesus Christ did for me, something that I could have never done for myself. Oh how we are all imprisoned because of our sin! And yet genuine freedom can only be found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a wonderful thing to know that He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).
– Pastor Eric