Atonement Wars, Part 2

Republished with permission. Originally appeared in Think on These Things, (Dec.-Jan 2010-2011)

In Part one of “The Atonement Wars” a number of atonement theories having found favor at various points in church history were explained. These included the moral influence theory, Christus Victor and the Ransom to Satan theory. While I reject the last of these theories, the other two have biblical backing and thus fill out our understanding of why Christ went to the cross. However, I believe the central teaching of Scripture in regard to Christ’s cross-work is best defined as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). It is PSA that is facing resistance from many who would be happy to embrace the cross as a moral example of love or a victory over the forces of evil. Yet the Bible teaches that while Christ’s death was a great example and resulted in the defeat of evil forces, more importantly His death was necessary in order that our sins might be forgiven and we be reconciled to God.

Definitions and Challenges:

Wayne Grudem provides this helpful definition,

Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a “substitution” in that he was a substitute for us when he died. This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment for the penalty for sin.1

Millard Erickson says it plainly, “The idea that Christ’s death is a sacrifice offered in payment of the penalty for our sins sic. It is accepted by the Father as satisfaction in place of the penalty due to us.”2 Erickson further refines the doctrine, “By offering himself as a sacrifice, by substituting himself for us, actually bearing the punishment that should have been ours, Jesus appeased the Father and effected a reconciliation between God and Man.”3

A helpful article written by Mark Dever explains that PSA has come under attack in modern times for a number of supposed reasons such as: it is a medieval doctrine not found in Scripture; it is irrelevant and does not make sense to modern cultures because it glorifies abusive behavior; it is too individualistic, focusing on individual guilt and forgiveness while ignoring the bigger issues of social justice; and it is too violent, requiring of God a violence for redemption that He would condemn in humans.4 This final criticism of PSA has received much attention of late because of some blunt and shocking statements from a few claiming credentials in evangelicalism. For example, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Barker recently wrote Recovering the Scandal of the Cross in which they reject any notion of divine wrath besides that of allowing people to go their own way. “The Scriptures as a whole provide no ground for a portrait of an angry God needing to be appeased in atoning sacrifice,” they say. PSA, therefore, is rejected as ridiculous, and as apparent proof Green and Barker cite a boy in Sunday school who said, “Jesus I like, but the Father seems pretty mean…. Why is God so angry?”5 In similar fashion Brian McLaren places the following words in the mouth of the main character in his fictional works, “If God wants to forgive us, why doesn’t he just do it? How does punishing an innocent person make things better? That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?”6

Old Testament Support for Penal Substitutionary Atonement

While PSA of Christ comes into focus in the New Testament scriptures the Old Testament clearly points to this truth through at least four means.

  • The Passover at the time of the Exodus provided a glorious picture of what would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ (Ex 12:3-13). Just as a lamb would be killed and its blood applied to the entry way of Jewish homes in order that the inhabitants of those homes would be spared physically, so the Lamb of God would shed His blood so that we would be spared spiritually and given eternal life.
  • On the Jewish Day of Atonement the lives of two goats would be substituted for the sins of the people. One goat was sacrificed and slain on the altar; the other, the scapegoat, would symbolically take away the sins of the people as it was released into the wilderness (Lev 16). So Christ would not only die for our sins but take them away as well.
  • The direct prophecy of Isaiah foretelling the fact of Christ dying for us, in our place, and is stated nine times (Isa 53: 4-6, 8, 11-12).
  • Finally, PSA is clearly depicted in the whole sacrificial system in which animals were sacrificed as substitutes for men and women who deserved death because of sin.

New Testament Support for Penal Substitutionary Atonement

While the Old Testament sacrificial system provided marvelous shadows and symbols of the work of Christ, they were incapable of covering man’s sin, for it was “impossible for the blood of bull and goats to take away sin” (Heb 10:1-4). True atonement would necessitate a greater sacrifice, a more acceptable substitute than anything known previously. It would take the substitutionary death of the Son of God to fully expiate sin. While the sins of Old Testament saints were truly taken away and forgiven prior to the Cross, such was made possible only on the basis of what would ultimately happen at the Cross. All the Old Testament ceremonies pointed to the One who could provide salvation by meeting the righteous demands of a holy God. Animals could not meet those demands, nor could man do anything to satisfy God’s justice—only the Son could do so. We need to take a look at what the New Testament actually teaches at this point.


1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 579.

2 As cited by Richard Mayhue, “The Scriptural Necessity of Christ’s Penal Substitution,” The Master’s Theological Journal Vol 20 #2 p. 140).

3 As cited by Michael A. Vlach, “Penal Substitution in Church History,” The Master’s Theological Journal, Vol 20 #2 pp. 200-201.

5 As cited by David Wells, Above all Earthly Pow’rs ( Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2005), p. 219.

6 Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In ( San Francisco; Jossey-Bass, 2003) p. 102.

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