Tag Archives: penal substitution

Some Objections, part 2

Objection #5: The penal substitution theory is supposed to be about satisfying justice, but how is it just to punish an innocent man and let the guilty walk free?

Scripture uses two analogies that I think are helpful to understand how justice is served in Christ’s death for us. One is that of the Church being the bride of Christ and the other is that of the Church being the body of Christ. If I were to take a wife who had thousands of dollars in debt, those debts would then also become my responsibility. It is because of our union in marriage that I am taking on the debts that she owned. This idea of union is also expressed in the analogy of the Church as Christ’s body. Many times Scripture speaks of us being united with Christ in His death, and because of this union, we have access to His righteousness and life. (Rom. 6:5-11) It is because of our union with Christ that He can be said to “become sin” or to “take on sin” because He has no sin of His own.

Objection #6: Jesus taught us to forgive and to love our enemies but under this theory God doesn’t forgive without first demanding punishment. Why am I asked to do something that God doesn’t do?

The issue here is one of just authority. God has authority to exact punishment. We don’t. What are we to make of Rom. 12:19 “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” This verse shows that in exacting vengeance the standard is not the same for us and for God, why would we expect issues of punishment and forgiveness to be different?

Objection #7: Penal Substitution is boring and to some people even offensive. Christus Victor is a much more engaging and interesting story. Why don’t we just focus on the better story?

I like the Christus Victor model. There are many good points that it emphasizes. And you know what, everything that it teaches is also taught in the penal substitutionary model. The Substitutionary model teaches that the whole creation was affected by the curse and subjected to futility. It teaches that we are in bondage to sin and death and the ruling powers of darkness in this present age. It teaches that Christ, in His death, gloriously defeated and triumphed over every power that held us captive. But it teaches more.

The Christus Victor model doesn’t tell us how Jesus’ death was able to defeat death. It doesn’t tell us why it was necessary for His blood to be shed in order for the prisoners to be set free. If all you have to work from is the Christus Victor model it is unclear why Jesus even needed to become a man, why didn’t God defeat Satan and release the captive while never leaving His thrown in Heaven?

If the Bible were silent on these questions then we would have to be content with our best guess and admit that we cannot know with certainty the answers. But the Bible is not silent. We do know the answers to these questions because the word of God tells us.

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor. 15:54-57

“God made [us] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Col. 2:13-15

See how closely the language of triumph and victory is tied to the fulfilling of the law and the canceling of our debt. The reason we suffer death is because of sin and sin is transgression of the Law, so if the Law is fulfilled, satisfied, paid, and completed then sin can no longer exact it’s punishment of death. Death, lacking the power given it by sin, no longer has any hold on one who is united with Christ in His death. The penalty is paid and the prisoners go free. Hallelujah! Death is swallowed up in victory! If that is not a good story, I don’t know what is.

There are other objections that I could have addressed but these are the most common. One thing that struck me as I was doing research on this topic was that among those who rejected penal substitution, there was almost no one who said that this doctrine can not be supported by Scripture. Rather, their objection and rejection of the doctrine boiled down to some form of “I don’t like it”. It saddens me to see so many people overtly allowing their likes and dislikes to determine their beliefs rather than being a faithful student of the Scriptures and embracing all that it teaches. It is in plumbing the depths of Scripture and seeking to grasp all its truths, even those we might consider hard truths, that we find we will be transformed by what we learn. If we stay in the shallows of our own natural preferences, we will never discover the pearls that await us in the unfathomable depths of His richness. Those that allow their lives to be shaped by the hard edges of truth will find that they are being sculpted by the hands of the Master Potter into the very likeness of Christ.

Penal Substitution Continued: Some Objections

At the end of my last post I said that I thought it was good that a majority of Christians held to a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Not everyone agrees with me. There are some, and it seems as if their numbers are growing in recent years, that have criticisms of this doctrine. Some of the criticism are understandable while others are overly harsh and based largely on a caricature of the theory rather than what it actually teaches. I would like to take a little time to answer some of these objections.

Objection #1: There are other theories of the atonement, you know.

Yes, of course there are. No one is saying that Penal Substitution is the only theory. However, many would argue (myself included) that a Substitutionary understanding is the most complete and actually strengthens the other theories (or facets) of the atonement.

Objection #2: Penal Substitution first developed at the time of the Reformation. If the Church didn’t use/know about this theory for 1500 years then it must not be very important.

It is true that the Reformers wrote a good deal about this theory but it is not true to say that this is the first time these themes were discovered. From some of the earliest writings of the Church Fathers examples can be found of the major points of this theory. Specifically, the idea that Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserved (which is the point that most often comes under attack) is present in these writings. I will cite just one example because the full list would need a post all of its own (If you want more, email me and I will gladly send you the others). Eusebius of Caesarea wrote this in the early 4th century:

And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.

It is true that this is not the only theory or facet of the atonement that the Church Fathers understood but it is incorrect to say that the Church did not known about or teach penal substitution until the time of the Reformation.

But more important than this, is whether or not this doctrine is taught in Scripture. Isaiah 53:5 says “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Rom. 4:25 says “[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Rom. 3:25 says “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood”. 2 Cor. 5:21 says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Gal. 5:13 says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. Heb. 9:28 says “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many”. 1 Pet. 2:24 says “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

I could go on but surely the point has been made. The bible clearly teaches that Jesus bore the punishment that we deserve.

Objection #3: The idea that God would punish His innocent Son is abhorrent. It is nothing more than “cosmic child abuse”.

This objection misses the fact that it is also Jesus’ wrath that is being suffered not just the Father’s. The Son willingly bore the wrath of the entire Godhead. More over it is all done out of love. In love the Father sent the Son (John 3:16, John 10:17-18). In love the Son came and put on flesh (John 10:10). In love Jesus placed Himself in the hands of those who He knew would crucify Him (John 15:13).

Objection #4: God doesn’t need a blood sacrifice to love us. Surely an omnipotent Being could find some other way to forgive us.

First, the assumption that God didn’t love us before the crucifixion is false. It was precisely because of His great love for us that the Father sent Jesus and that Jesus willingly took on flesh and died in our place.

Now, as to the idea that God could have done something else to redeem us. I suppose that might be true as far as it goes but what difference does it make as to what God could have done? God could have done many things differently. What we are concerned with, is what He did do. To that point, the Bible is quite clear, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Heb. 9:22.

To be continued…

Penal Substitution Theory

The last atonement theory that I’ll be looking at is the Penal Substitution Theory. This theory is the most commonly held of all of the atonement theories, both in the contemporary Church today and throughout the history of the Church. Some attribute it to the writings of Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, but the major elements of the penal substitutionary model can be traced back to the Church Father’s and, of course, to the writings of the Apostles themselves in Scripture.

This theory teaches that when Adam and Eve sinned they brought a curse on themselves and creation. Sin entered the world through Adam and death through sin, therefore in Adam all die because all sin (Rom. 5:12). God has made clear that the wages of sin is death. This is the penalty of the curse that our first parents ushered into the world by their disobedience.

So, all mankind stands condemned before God. Our just punishment is death. God is just. Totality just. There is no hint of injustice in Him. He is holy. He is good. It is these attributes that require Him to make sure all sin is punished. God is also loving and merciful and kind, not willing that any should perish. So what is God to do? His goodness demands sin be punished. His mercy longs for reconciliation.

Enter Jesus. The second person of the Trinity took on flesh and became a man. He lived among men and was tempted in every way that we are and yet was without sin. When the time was right, He set His face toward Jerusalem and allowed Himself to fall into the hands of the Jewish authorities. After a short show trial, they pronounced Him guilty and, through the Romans, had Him crucified. While on the cross, the punishment that we all deserve was poured out on Him. Jesus suffered our punishment. He was our substitute (2 Cor. 5:21).

Jesus lived a perfect life and in His death He fulfilled the law with all it’s legal demands (Col. 2:14). With death disarmed, stripped of it’s power through the satisfaction of the law, Jesus rose triumphant from the grave, demonstrating that death had been defeated. So, in fulfilling the law, God is able to punish all sin and, because the law is fulfilled, able to show mercy on all who believe. In this way God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

This theory upholds the absolute righteousness of our God and the absolute wickedness of sin. It acknowledges our helplessness and need of a Savior. It doesn’t brush over sin as easily ignored by God but rather faces the full weight of the consequences of breaking God’s law. The dark and gloomy picture that is painted by understanding how little we deserved mercy and how much we deserved wrath, creates a beautiful contrast that allows God’s love and mercy and grace to leap forward in bold colors.

God’s love is so great that He would cleanse us of our filth by taking it onto Himself. God’s love is so great that He fought for and even died for those who were in rebellion against Him. God’s love is so great that He would allow Himself to be nailed to a rough roman cross and suffer the cruelties and excruciating pain of crucifixion for the sake of the very men who condemned and abandoned Him. God loves you more than you could ever deserve or imagine. It should come as great comfort to know that He loved you so much when you deserved it so little. The natural response to such a love is a humble heart, a life of gratitude and an unending song of praise.

One other thing I find remarkable about penal substitutionary atonement is that all of the other theories are either implicitly or explicitly contained within this one theory. God demonstrates His great love for us and is an example for us to follow in loving our enemies and persevering under suffering, just as in the Moral Influence Theory. God is a holy and just Sovereign whom we have offended by our sins and whose very nature demands that the debt be paid, just as in the Satisfaction Theory. God pays a ransom (to Himself, not to Satan) in Christ’s blood to set us free, just as in the Ransom Theory. God is a triumphant Hero winning victory over sin, death and the Devil, just as in the Christus Victor Theory. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is rightly held by the majority of Christians today as their primary model of the atonement because all of the other theories are explained within and strengthened by a proper understanding of this one theory.