Atonement as Payment or Forgiveness?

Over at the Missio Alliance, Pastor William Walker has an article on Payment or Forgiveness: Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement. In the article, Walker claims that folks like Wright and McKnight have brought a great corrective to evangelical theology by trying to integrate the big-picture story of the kingdom with the theology of Jesus’ death (and here I’d add the excellent work of Jeremy Treat too). However, Walker thinks that they have not gone far enough and they have not addressed the major problem which is the penal nature of substitutionary atonement.

Walker offers accolades for Tony Jones’ new book on this topic entitled, Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. I’m currently reading Jones’ book, he writes well, he asks some good questions,he  makes some salient observations, but on the whole his book does for atonement theology what Rush Limbaugh does for the cause of reggae music. A fuller review will follow in the future. In any case, Walker suggests there are two models for understanding the atonement:

(a) Penal Substitution. “The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us – namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins.  And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.

(b) Forgiveness without Payment. “The other way to understand substitution, as “non-penal,” might go something like this: God is indeed grieved over our estrangement from right-relationship with him. God is angry when we hurt each other and when we idolize impermanent things. God’s love has been wounded, and for this God is rightfully “wrathful” toward our sin. But in God’s love through Christ, that sin is “paid for” by God simply eating the cost of it, so to speak — not by having someone else pay for it. This is not cheap grace. It still comes at a huge price to God. It is “paid” by God stepping in to take the blow that we are leveling against ourselves and against God. God does not kill Jesus. We do. Our sin and violence does. And the performative demonstration of this is the cross, which is the ultimate expression of injustice, alienation and betrayal of God and others. It is both the symbolic and the real history of what God has always already been willing to do, which is not to demand payment, but to incur the debt of sin into his own being. In this way the “debt” is vanquished.”

Walker’s view might be called “debt forgiveness.” Crucial to his view is a quote from Brian Zahnd: “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” On the cross, God is like a pacifist who won’t fight back when he’s being abused, he takes the hits, and then in turn forgives those who do not deserve it. While our sin incurs a debt, it is paid by God’s loving refusal to seek retaliation.

It might sound nice, but the problems here are obvious and palpable.

First of all, the whole language of justify/condemn used in Scripture presupposes the law-court imagery which Walker eschews.That is because sin is more than spurning God’s love, it is an offence against God, and God has a contention against our sin. Something that God, as the judge of all the earth, can rightfully prosecute. No surprises then that in the NT and in 2TJ that forensic imagery predominates at a final judgment.

Second, worst of all, Walker’s model divorces God’s mercy from the cross. How does the cross cause/express God’s willingness to eat the cost of our sin? If the cross is not part of a satisfaction or substitution, then why can’t God forgive us without subjecting his Son to crucifixion? Actually for Walker this is precisely the point. God can and does forgive without any payment for sin made on the cross! So what happens on the cross then? Well, in Walker’s telling, Jesus dies as a victim of human sin and as an exemplar of human rejection of God. God didn’t kill Jesus, rather, we did! The problem here is that the cross is never depicted in that way in the NT. In fact, we find the reverse, throughout the NT are references to God handing over Jesus or Jesus’death happening according to God’s divinely ordained purposes (e.g., Luke 23:22; Rom 3:25; 8:32; Acts 2:23). Walker denies what Scripture explicitly says about the cross and his own affirmation about the purpose of Jesus’ death cannot be mapped onto the New Testament.

Third, there remains I think very good scriptural grounds for a view that at least approximate to penal substitution.

The cross is a satisfaction, don’t believe me, note this: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25-26 NIV).

The cross is penal, don’t believe me, consider this: “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3-4 NIV).

The cross is substitutionary, don’t believe me: read this: “”He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:24 NIV).

Walker denies that the cross is a payment, and yet that is precisely what we find said about Jesus’death when it is described as a ransom, redemption or an act that purchases people (see Mark 10:45;  Gal 3:13-14; Rev 5:9 etc.). Paul said to the Ephesian elders: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acst 20:28 NIV).

Walker’s Jesus does not die “for us” or to save us, he merely becomes the punching bag to show how much we hate God and hate others. The cross proves how wicked we are, but it does not save us, God saves us entirely apart from the cross! This is an impoverished view of the cross. Walker’s model divests Jesus of his joy  whereby he died to save his people from the consequences of their sin by becoming a sacrifice for their sins (see Heb 9:12-14; 12:1). Walker’s model ignores the victorious irony of the cross, whereby Jesus was mocked by onlookers to save himself and to come down from the cross, and yet it was precisely by refusing to save himself that he saved us (Matt 27:40-42). Walker’s model liquidates the reason I have to love Jesus, not as one who allowed me to beat the daylights out of him to show me how bad I am, but the Jesus who gave himself up for me by taking the curse of my sin upon himself (Gal 2:20; 3:13-14).

Look, I know that penal substitution can be presented woefully and inadequately, whereby God gets revenge on Jesus for your sins, so you better buy some fire insurance, otherwise you will roast forever in the deity’s dumpster of destruction. I would even be prepared to say that penal substitionary is not the primary descriptor for the atonement, it is at best a major part of the mosaic that is the atonement (see my Evangelical Theology for more). However, there is no possible way I can stupefy my mind to deny what these few texts are saying. Now, if you want to say, well, the NT authors are just wrong, and I think Peter Abelard, Hastings Rashdall, and Tony Jones know better, then fine, go for it. But don’t draw a circle on the board and tell me to call it a square!

Finally, I have high hopes for the Missio Alliance. As much as I love TGC, I do remain somewhat concerned that Calvinism and Complementarianism are  (ironically) more central in TGC than the gospel. But if the Missio Alliance is to be a more inclusive evangelical alternative to TGC, then it cannot start promoting views of the cross that are sub-evangelical. That’s a harsh criticism, but there is too much at stake, and little thought bubbles like this do not promote unity, theological coherence, or the mission of the church.

When it comes to the cross, rather than read Tony Jones’ book, for the love of God, please, please go and read instead the book that Tony Jones edited, and which Scot McKnight wrote, A Community Called Atonement, for a nuanced account of what the cross achieved!

Otherwise, let us all ponder the words of the hymn “Man of Sorrows,” esp. these words:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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