Theological Reflections: the Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Does God allow doctrinal problems in the church so that Christians will study God’s Word carefully and defend it more accurately against unbiblical ideas? Maybe so. There does seem to be some evidence of this in church history. But whether this is true or not, it does seem that several serious doctrinal deviations have arisen in our generation—one after another—even within what has been considered generally conservative Christianity. From the fifties on, evangelicals debated among themselves the doctrine of the inerrancy of the original writings of Scripture. In response to those evangelicals who were arguing that Scripture was not inerrant in the scientific and historical sections of Scripture, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was formed in 1977. These biblical scholars planned a ten-year strategy of education, study, and publication. Over the course of ten years, they and others published several important and helpful books, along with the notable Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The battle is not over, but much has been accomplished through careful biblical responses to those compromising the doctrine of Scripture.

Then around the turn of the century, a new approach to the doctrine of God was submitted by those known as Open Theists. Open Theists argue that God does not have detailed control of the universe and that He does not know for sure the future acts of free moral agents. In the words of Al Mohler writing in the end of the twentieth century: “My argument is that the integrity of evangelicalism as a theological movement, indeed the very coherence of evangelical theology is threatened by the rise of the various new ‘theisms’ of the evangelical revisionists.”1 The ideas of Open Theism have been answered by those in support of the classic doctrine of God,2 and the debate has seemingly quieted just in time for another major doctrinal deviation to be proposed.

Now we are hearing that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement should be replaced by some other theory. Seemingly the left side of the Emerging Church has been in the forefront of this grave development, though there is no unified agreement in what the correct theory is. In fact, some, in typically postmodern style, seem to be arguing that there really is no one model of the atonement that gets to the essence of Christ’s death on the cross. The value of the atonement might depend on each individual’s understanding.3

Other Emergents are proposing the old Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement that argues that what changed at the cross was not God’s attitude toward us, but our attitude toward God. “…Jesus enacted and represented the forgiveness that has always been in the heart of God…. [T]he Atonement is about how our attitude toward God changes as we see forgiveness acted out before us.”4 So, Jesus on the cross shows us how much God loves us, and we are supposed to be thus influenced to feel better about God and love God.

Still others are arguing for the Christus Victor model of the atonement. This view, which was one of the theories in the church of the Middle Ages, was redeveloped in the 1960’s, and is now being promoted by Greg Boyd among others.5 Boyd, previously of Open Theism fame, does not deny penal substitutionary aspects to the atonement, but argues that Christ’s death and resurrection was essentially and primarily about Christ’s victory over Satan. According to Robert Webber, the Christus Victor theory “is becoming more pronounced among younger evangelicals.”6

We at Shepherds Theological Seminary believe that the Penal Substitution view of the atonement describes the reason why Christ died on the cross. This breathtaking biblical doctrine, revived in the Reformation by Luther and Calvin, is called “penal” because there is a penalty that was inflicted at the cross of Christ. Everyone of us has broken God’s law and we are required to face a judicially angry God. But God loves us in that He sent His Son to die on the cross, and wonderfully, Christ’s death propitiated the wrath of God and paid the penalty.

And it is called “substitution” because Christ paid the penalty in our place. We could never have paid the penalty even for ourselves, let alone for anyone else. Our punishment would have been an eternal separation from God in hell. But the God-man could suffer the punishment and pay the penalty for the sins of the world. Scripture says explicitly, “and He [Christ] Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf. Mark 10:45; Acts 20:28; Rom. 5:6, 8; 1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Cor. 5:14, 18-19, 21; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; 3:13; Eph. 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:10; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 2:17; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 4:10, et. al.). The New Testament Epistles make it crystal clear that penal substitution is the essence of Christ’s death on the cross. This is what we believe, teach, and preach at Shepherds Theological Seminary.

Notes

1 Albert Mohler, “The Eclipse of God at Century’s End,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology I (Spring 1997):38.

2 For a defense of the classic doctrine of God, see, for example, Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (Crossway, 2000).

3 See D. A. Carson’s analysis of Brian McLaren’s The Story We Find Ourselves In, in Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005), 166-67.

4 Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical (Zondervan, 2003), 101.

5 See Greg A. Boyd, God at War (InterVarsity, 1997), 238-68. See also Boyd’s arguments in The Nature of the Atonement, edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (InterVarsity, 2006), especially 23-65. This is a four views book.

6 Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Baker, 2002), 251, n.15.


Dr. Larry Pettegrew taught at Pillsbury Baptist Bible College for over 10 years, serving as chairman of both the Christian Education and Bible departments. Following his time at Pillsbury, he served on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary then taught at Central Baptist Theological Seminary for 14 years. After 12 years on the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, Dr. Pettegrew accepted the executive vice presidency of Shepherds Theological Seminary—a position he presently holds in addition to his role as Academic Dean.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

This article is near and dear to my heart.

I have written much on the Penal theory; I would argue that it is the very heart and core of the Gospel.

We had an incident here in 1996 in which a guest speaker taught that the penal theory was incorrect. I had to interrupt him, one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life. It was very traumatic for me, and caused a conflict that took years from which to recover (both personally and church-wise). But I knew I had to do what I had to do.

My point is that the penal theory has been under attack for some time.

Previous versions of liberalism emerged because of disbelief of Scripture.

The new liberalism (as in the case of many emergents) gives lip-service to the idea of an infallible Bible, but argues that it cannot be interpreted, so one is wrong to draw conclusions from it. That is why you are seeing a denial of the penal theory without another theory replacing it as "correct."

This, along with open theism, eliminates truth and replaces it with uncertainty. It demolishes but does not construct. And, sadly, what is under attack are the very most important beliefs of our faith.

The issue behind it is Romans 3:11b

Quote:
no one who seeks God.

Understood is the idea that none seeks the TRUE God. Why? Romans 8:7

Quote:
the sinful mind is hostile to God

So, since people do not like the true God (except those whom God draws and regenerates), we find the "tares" re-inventing a more desirable God, one who is not bursting with wrath, one who is a victim to the unknown and thus excused from not intervening.

In essence, they may call their God "Yahweh," but He is not the real Yahweh of the Bible.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I thought the article was great medicine... though not the sort of piece that naturally draws alot of readers. I hope many will take the time to read it and gain some measure of resistance to the erosion of belief that is going on in this area.
Thanks to Dr. Pettegrew and the folks at Shepherds Seminary for sharing it with us.

JohnBrian's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
So, since people do not like the true God (except those whom God draws and regenerates), we find the "tares" re-inventing a more desirable God, one who is not bursting with wrath, one who is a victim to the unknown and thus excused from not intervening.

In essence, they may call their God "Yahweh," but He is not the real Yahweh of the Bible.

A very succinct and accurate description.

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Joel Tetreau's picture

Thanks Larry!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Todd Wood's picture

PSA is hammered in the intermountain West by some LDS apologists as completely incoherent. The Eastern Orthodox don't like PSA either.

But many of God's people cherish the fundamental truth. Rejoicing in Idaho.

Joseph's picture

The substitutionary atonement certainly needs defending; but it is a mistake to overreact and deny what is in fact obvious in Scripture: that there are numerous metaphors with which the atonement is described, and that we therefore impoverish ourselves (as Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have, in my view) by focusing on only one of the models. Tim Keller is right, I think (I believe he cites Murray on this, but I can't remember) to note that substitution underlies all of the biblical descriptions of atonement, but that they also deal with different aspects and emphases.

The Christus Victor view, for example, did not arise in the Middle Ages but is the earliest well known formulation of the atonement in early Christianity (as Aulen's classic work shows). Moreover, people are mistaken to not see that just as our cultural and historical location predisposes us towards certain views over others (in the pre-modern world, towards communitarian and cosmic views, in the modern West, individualism and naturalistic views), so too our culture predisposes us to overemphasize truths, the result of which overemphasis is distortion.

Critics of a view tend to see quite clearly -much more clearly than proponents- what is, or can go, or has gone, wrong in a view, and wise proponents of that view will take the criticism seriously. It's is an extremely widespread and common criticism that the penal-substitionary view is too subjective and individualistic; as a criticism of a particular doctrine, I think this is nonsense. As a criticism of the way it has often been presented and used, I think it is manifestly true, as anyone, who has a decent sense of how alien modern individualism would be in ancient cultures, can see quite easily. The classical view (which has been the one emphasized in Eastern Orthodoxy, for example; see the review I did for SI on Light from the Christian East), in sharp contrast, takes a cosmic view of sin. Now both are accurate and deeply important; sin has individual, social, and cosmic consequences; and redemption has individual, social, and cosmic effects and purposes (hence all creation's groaning in anticipation). Penal substitution deals only, or primarily, with the individual effects of sin and Christ's atoning work. But God saves individuals as part of the cosmos he created and is redeeming and will finally and fully redeem; and he saves individuals from the alienation, which locks them into themselves, caused by the fall, placing them into a community, eternal and blessed, which is His body, the Church. And it is through that redeemed people, working in and for the cosmos that, like them, is afflicted by a sure-to-be defeated evil, that he has primarily chosen to communicate his grace to his people and to share the good news of the restoration and renewal of all things to which he calls sinners to particpate in through repentance and faith.

It will have been a great, although historically common error, if proponents of penal-substitution react to their critics by failing to acknowledge 1) what is valid in and motivating the criticisms of their view; 2) what is true in and motivating their critics' preferred view. It's too easy, and generally not very helpful, to simply state why someone is wrong (viz. because we're right). It's harder, and generally far more profitable and edifying, to understand why they wrong and what we can learn from them.

All people who love the cross of Christ therefore have the more difficult task of defending an important set of teaching, found through the OT and NT, while also acknowledging the way that teaching has been misused to present a distorted and one-sided view of Christ's atoning work - as if saving individuals from sin was all God was doing in Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Sinners are saved in a social and cosmic context, viz. creation, and this context in its entirety is the object of God's creating and redemptive power. Failure to acknolwedge this is inevitably to distort both the doctrines of creation and redemption. Anyone can tell someone else they are wrong and state why, from their own position, this is so. Few people will seek to understand and learn from those they think have erred. Christians, especially those humbled by the cross of Christ, should be in the latter, not former, group.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joseph, I can appreciate the "let's not overreact" kernel of what your saying, but I think evangelicals in general (including many fundamentalists) are more in danger of overreacting to the perceived excessive certainty of the past. The current mood is to favor uncertainty over certainty on just about every point as more intellectually honest, more academically respectable, etc.
To put it another way, the trend these days is to overreact to the possibility of overreaction and thereby just overreact, too--only in a different way.

The times call for crystal clarity on the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement, and an emphasis on that essence of it--though, yes, without denying that the atonement is rich in other "aspects" that Scripture also reveals.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Joseph wrote:

Quote:
It will have been a great, although historically common error, if proponents of penal-substitution react to their critics by failing to acknowledge 1) what is valid in and motivating the criticisms of their view; 2) what is true in and motivating their critics' preferred view. It's too easy, and generally not very helpful, to simply state why someone is wrong (viz. because we're right). It's harder, and generally far more profitable and edifying, to understand why they wrong and what we can learn from them.

Joseph, I see your point, but I don't agree with those who advocate other theories for this reason. This claim that they make, namely, that "evangelicals are leaving stuff out" is nothing but a ploy on the part of those who reject PSA. Whatever PSA is, it is foundational. Its critics first seek to ADD to it, then remove it, saving only what they added.

It reminds me of the gay agenda; first, it is, "don't persecute us." Then it is, "treat us equally." Finally, it is "give us special rights and advocate our choice as a good choice."

I understand the idea of the mimetic aspects of the atonement, etc., and we need to preach them and address them; but the NT is written with the assumptions of the OT. No passage teaches the PSA more than Isaiah 53, and the Torah is filled with the concept.

What critics of the PSA really have trouble with is the WRATH of God. They don't like a God who is raging against sin and Who is so just that He only forgives when a penalty has been paid. They really do not like that God; and it is that God Who is being replaced with a softer, kinder, weaker version.

To me, that is a clear-cut wheat and tares issue. My reasoning is this; according to Romans 3:10-12, there are none who seek the [true ] God. That "true" I am inserting is my interpretation; I believe lost people are religious and do seek a false god or false gods. Only by a supernatural work of grace does someone find the true God appealing. IMO, those are the elect. Those who try to rewrite God are evidencing their lack of true regeneration.

All this to say that adding to our understanding of the foundational is great; displacing it is evil, IMO.

Joseph, I do not disagree with your view, per se, but I am concerned that you are giving them too much weight (and assuming too much sincerity on their part). The PSA is the emphasis of Scripture. Besides addressing other aspects of the atonement, however, I do think we need to further teach the ramifications of the PSA beyond personal salvation and heavenly destinies. We need to address the removal of the curse in the eternal state, our resurrection bodies that result from it, and its focus to highlight God's character where justice and mercy/love meet.

"The Midrash Detective"

Greg Long's picture

Joseph wrote:
The substitutionary atonement certainly needs defending; but it is a mistake to overreact and deny what is in fact obvious in Scripture: that there are numerous metaphors with which the atonement is described, and that we therefore impoverish ourselves (as Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have, in my view) by focusing on only one of the models. Tim Keller is right, I think (I believe he cites Murray on this, but I can't remember) to note that substitution underlies all of the biblical descriptions of atonement, but that they also deal with different aspects and emphases.

The Christus Victor view, for example, did not arise in the Middle Ages but is the earliest well known formulation of the atonement in early Christianity (as Aulen's classic work shows). Moreover, people are mistaken to not see that just as our cultural and historical location predisposes us towards certain views over others (in the pre-modern world, towards communitarian and cosmic views, in the modern West, individualism and naturalistic views), so too our culture predisposes us to overemphasize truths, the result of which overemphasis is distortion.

Critics of a view tend to see quite clearly -much more clearly than proponents- what is, or can go, or has gone, wrong in a view, and wise proponents of that view will take the criticism seriously. It's is an extremely widespread and common criticism that the penal-substitionary view is too subjective and individualistic; as a criticism of a particular doctrine, I think this is nonsense. As a criticism of the way it has often been presented and used, I think it is manifestly true, as anyone, who has a decent sense of how alien modern individualism would be in ancient cultures, can see quite easily. The classical view (which has been the one emphasized in Eastern Orthodoxy, for example; see the review I did for SI on Light from the Christian East), in sharp contrast, takes a cosmic view of sin. Now both are accurate and deeply important; sin has individual, social, and cosmic consequences; and redemption has individual, social, and cosmic effects and purposes (hence all creation's groaning in anticipation). Penal substitution deals only, or primarily, with the individual effects of sin and Christ's atoning work. But God saves individuals as part of the cosmos he created and is redeeming and will finally and fully redeem; and he saves individuals from the alienation, which locks them into themselves, caused by the fall, placing them into a community, eternal and blessed, which is His body, the Church. And it is through that redeemed people, working in and for the cosmos that, like them, is afflicted by a sure-to-be defeated evil, that he has primarily chosen to communicate his grace to his people and to share the good news of the restoration and renewal of all things to which he calls sinners to particpate in through repentance and faith.

It will have been a great, although historically common error, if proponents of penal-substitution react to their critics by failing to acknowledge 1) what is valid in and motivating the criticisms of their view; 2) what is true in and motivating their critics' preferred view. It's too easy, and generally not very helpful, to simply state why someone is wrong (viz. because we're right). It's harder, and generally far more profitable and edifying, to understand why they wrong and what we can learn from them.

All people who love the cross of Christ therefore have the more difficult task of defending an important set of teaching, found through the OT and NT, while also acknowledging the way that teaching has been misused to present a distorted and one-sided view of Christ's atoning work - as if saving individuals from sin was all God was doing in Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Sinners are saved in a social and cosmic context, viz. creation, and this context in its entirety is the object of God's creating and redemptive power. Failure to acknolwedge this is inevitably to distort both the doctrines of creation and redemption. Anyone can tell someone else they are wrong and state why, from their own position, this is so. Few people will seek to understand and learn from those they think have erred. Christians, especially those humbled by the cross of Christ, should be in the latter, not former, group.

PSA is not the only aspect of Christ's death we should proclaim, but it is the central aspect of His death. As Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach put it in their extremely helpful book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007):

Quote:
Penal substitution emerges as a central aspect of God's redeeming work in Christ, integrating fully with God's justice and truthfulness, and safeguarding God's simplicity by preserving the harmony of his attributes of justice and mercy, holiness and love. In so doing, it establishes that justice has a fundamental basis within the character of God.

Penal substitution coheres perfectly with other biblical understandings of the atonement. It sheds light on Christ's victory over evil powers, explaining in particular how the devil is stripped of his power to accuse. It is the basis of our reconciliation with God, for there was a moral enmity between us and God, and our guilt had to be overcome. In its emphasis that God gave his Son for his enemies (Rom. 5:10), penal substitution deepens our appreciation of God's love. Finally, it places the theme of ransom in the correct biblical perspective, underlining the fact that we are indebted not to the devil but to God, and it is to him that a ransom must be paid.

Penal substitution integrates perfectly with the doctrine of union with Christ. For as we are united to Christ by his Spirit through faith, our sin and guilt are imputed to Christ, and we are credited with his righteousness and receive all the other benefits of his atoning work.

Penal substitution has a foundational place in Christian theology. It fits right at the centre of the jigsaw to complete a magnificent picture. Here is the story of a God whose word is good and true, who refuses to be unfaithful to himself. Here is the story of a gracious Father, who gave his Son to redeem a sinful and undeserving people. Here is the story of a just and righteous God, who will not pretend that evil is of no account. Here is the story of an all-wise God, who works in all things for the good of his people and to the glory of his name, and penal substitution lies right at its heart. (p. 147-148)

BTW, the authors point to an article by Henri Blocher, "Agnus Victor: The Atonement as Victory and Vicarious Punishment", in John G. Stackhouse (ed.), What Does It Mean to Be Saved? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 67-91, as exposing "a number of historical, biblical, and theological shortcomings in Aulen's work."

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

rogercarlson's picture

Greg,
I found that book very helpful too!

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joseph wrote:
It's too easy, and generally not very helpful, to simply state why someone is wrong (viz. because we're right). It's harder, and generally far more profitable and edifying, to understand why they wrong and what we can learn from them.

I'm not sure who you're talking about here, but I'm quite confident that Dr. Pettegrew understands all the views of the atonement better than anyone here. ... and even in this short piece gives us pretty good taste of "understand why they are wrong"
Granted... not much on "what we can learn from them," but where selectivity is required (in order to be both brief and clear) I'm all for selecting the short case for what Scripture most clearly identifies as the essence of the atonement.

That sort of clarity is what needs to come from our pulpits as well.

Ben Howard's picture

Thank you for this great article. It is a strong defense of substitutionary atonement. However, I have to agree with Joseph in that we seem to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater many times in discussing alternative theories of the atonement. I would mostly agree with this statement:

Larry Pettegrew wrote:


Seemingly the left side of the Emerging Church has been in the forefront of this grave development, though there is no unified agreement in what the correct theory is. In fact, some, in typically postmodern style, seem to be arguing that there really is no one model of the atonement that gets to the essence of Christ's death on the cross. The value of the atonement might depend on each individual's understanding.

But if you look, for example, at Mark Driscoll's book, Death by Love, it is a great example of looking at the truth found in all the various atonement theories, while still upholding a strong view of propitiation and penal substitution. I found Driscoll's approach to be balanced and thoroughly Biblical while holding to truth found in multiple atonement theories. Larry also points out a clear example of a misuse of the various theories as seen in McLaren's Book, The Story We Find Ourselves In. Anyway, to me the bottom line is that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement explains our salvation, and appreciating the other theories helps us explore more in depth the benefits and glory of God's grace seen in Christ's death for us on the cross.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
I found Driscoll's approach to be balanced and thoroughly Biblical while holding to truth found in multiple atonement theories. Larry also points out a clear example of a misuse of the various theories as seen in McLaren's Book, The Story We Find Ourselves In. Anyway, to me the bottom line is that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement explains our salvation, and appreciating the other theories helps us explore...
Maybe what I'm uncomfortable with is mainly how we're using the term "other theories." What I mean is that the "other theories" posit a different essence for what the atonement accomplished and why. There is (or at least used to be) a certain exclusivity to them.
So I'm not sure what you've described as "Driscoll's approach" and others is really "appreciating the other theories" so much as fully appreciating all the aspects of the atonement Scripture reveals. Maybe I'm only imagining the difference, but I like crisp lines in this area and "appreciating other theories" gives me the willies.
Anyway, I think we all recognize that none of the other theories is 100% wrong... though we are perhaps also agreed that they are wrong to the degree they put something other than penal substitution at the center/core.
So if that's "appreciating" them, I guess I'm in, too.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Quote:
Penal substitution deals only, or primarily, with the individual effects of sin and Christ's atoning work.
And there is a reason for this. All of these cosmic and/or corporate issues referred to are subsequent or consequential, not initiative which justifies penal substitution dealing primarily with the individual effects of sin. The disorder of this world, social or natural and the corporate sin, is not the result of its own sin but individual sin. Its subsequent re-order and reconciliation is also consequential with regard to individual reconciliation. That is to say, if there is no reconciliation of man to God there is no reconciliation of any thing in this world of humanity to God but when man is reconciled to God, and he has been, there is a subsequent and consequential re-ordering and reconciliation of all relevant things.

And even the issue of Satan in the Christus Victor model. Christ's victory over Satan is a consequence of his intended objective in the penal substitution, namely man's salvation and his individual sin. To place the conflict between Satan and God as the initiating cause is to ignore the ultimate objective and broadly expressed pleasure of God in Scripture regarding Christ's death which is man's reconciliation. Now it is true that Satan is a larger element than other elements and may indeed but the largest subsequent to man but his defeat remains subsequent to man's salvation and the purpose of Christ's death in proper order. Man is the central objective in the substitution of Christ on the cross, all other issues are subsequent or consequential and without man's reconciliation there is no reconciliation of the other, hence they are peripheral which is why it is rightly primary.

I believe there is an intensification of the use of rationalism and philosophy in certain schools of theology today that have opened the door for imprecision, obfuscation and acceptance of multiple definitions that ultimately lead to confusion and an elevation of intellectual tolerance to the injury of orthodox discovery and reaffirmation. I believe the misdirection of this doctrine can be traced to that in large part.

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