What’s Wrong With Penal Substitution?

For many people, the title of this post may be meaningless. “What is penal substitution?” would seem to them a better question. But if I explain that it is the idea that there is a penalty for sin, and God punished Jesus instead of us, they will immediately recognize it and say “That’s what I believe!” So forgive the technical shorthand if it is unfamiliar to you.

I abandoned the penal substitutionary view of the atonement while I was an undergraduate student at an Evangelical Bible college in the UK, in spite of it being the view of the professor who taught Christian doctrines. I remember that I wrote an unsolicited essay for him, which I entitled “Salvation through Discipleship”, about how the New Testament teaching lay elsewhere. I managed to persuade the professor, although (like Bock and Wallace in their interaction with Borg and Crossan) he asked why and whether this meant we ought to abandon this historic model of the atonement. Perhaps I interpreted some parts of Dethroning Jesus in light of this. I usually am a big supporter of finding middle ground, and so I suspect that, in addition to my concern that what was being found wasn’t in fact the middle, I also may have been concerned that saying “We accept what you say, but we can keep what we already think alongside it” could lead to things remaining as they are, with no real creative rethinking of one’s beliefs being necessary.

Much early Christian literature is focused on the cross. It is worth noting, however, that very little that Jesus says, and certainly little or nothing that can confidently be regarded as authentically going back to Jesus himself, focuses on the cross. This is easily explicable: the earliest Christians in the post-Easter were persuaded that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and were persuaded that his death could not have been unforeseen but must have been foreordained. And so, beginning with Moses, they went back and made sense of what had happened with the help of Scripture. Probably even more helpful than “Moses” was 4 Maccabees 6, which presents a martyr praying “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:28-29). Clearly there were ideas that existed in the Judaism of the time that helped make sense of the death of the righteous in terms of atonement.

Yet the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees (which was written after the early Christians had already interpreted the death of Jesus in atoning, sacrificial terms) does. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion.

It would be a very long post if I were to try to discuss all references to Jesus’ death, the meaning of sacrifice, and all relevant topics, but if there is interest I will return to them. For those interested in the Letter to the Hebrews and the understanding of sacrifice in general, I strongly recommend Gordon Wenham’s fantastic commentary on Leviticus. It doesn’t just make these seemingly obscure laws clear, it makes them interesting.

Let me conclude by noting what are perhaps the biggest problems with penal substitution. One is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive.

The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.

The heart of the matter is that there is a stream of Christianity that soothes the conscience of Christians about the misdeeds they do by claiming that (1) God is the only one whose forgiveness matters, and (2) this forgiveness is already available and can wipe away your debt through a miracle of divine bookkeeping. All sense that anyone is harmed by what one does (whether God or other human beings), and that that is what matters, disappears from view entirely (cp. Job 35). Again, I can understand the popularity of this view. But it isn’t popular because it is Biblical, neither is it popular because it is self-evidently true. It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves in spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that have to do with how we relate to others. I say this as someone who used to hold this view, and so my discussion of psychological motives for the popularity of this view, I am being first and foremost self-critical. Indeed, discovering that the Biblical view of sin and atonement is not that set forth in the penal substitutionary view was a key step in my ability to be self critical in precisely this way.

  • Stephen (aka Q)

    Thanks for posting on this topic. I used to see penal substitution as the doctrine of atonement. Now I’m of two minds about it.On the one hand, I continue to think it is a biblical teaching. 1Pe. 3:18, for example: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”I continue to understand this text as, “the righteous Christ suffered the consequence of sins — i.e., death — on behalf of the unrighteous.”If you can persuade me that that isn’t the right way to interpret the verse, I’m certainly open to your instruction.For — on the other hand — I agree that there are serious moral problems with the doctrine of penal substitution. Not least, in a society where we are alert to the problem of child abuse, the depiction of an angry Father taking out his wrath on a submissive Son is highly problematic. I realize that penal substitution can be presented less offensively than I have just stated it, but the problem is inherent in the model and thus inescapable.At the very least, I have come to recognize (a) that penal substitution is best understood as a metaphor rather than a literal transfer of our sins to Jesus; and (b) that it is only one metaphor for atonement among many others. The New Testament authors approached this issue in different ways in different contexts.And of course, I now accept that the Bible is not internally consistent. Therefore I am open to the possibility that some presentations of atonement may be inconsistent with other presentations. I like your reference to salvation by discipleship. However, I suspect it represents a privileging of Jesus’ own witness over against some of the teachings found in the epistles.Emerging From Babel

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12344192935890766744 Drew Tatusko

    “the righteous Christ suffered the consequence of sins — i.e., death — on behalf of the unrighteous”I was baptised Catholic and then became a rather hard-core TULIP Calvinist so this verse was simple to me and I think that the penal substitution makes logical sense as is classically wrought. But I think that there are a few ways to look at verses like this in terms of cause and effect. The question is whether or not God was determining every event literally, or if God conditions the events of the world in which we inhabit.I see more in Scripture in the latter and if we appeal to a conditioned set of events rather than a determinism such as that which TULIP confers (the root of TULIP is in absolute decree and Barth goes through this development perhaps better than anyone in his Doctrine of God in Church Dogmatics). Hence, Jesus did die as a consequence of sin for death is the logical conclusion of sin whether it is that in which we actively participate or that which we are recipients of. In other words, the opposite of sin is life (and this even goes back to Athanasius’ use of death and life as well as Augustine).In this regard I tend to read such verses as that Jesus bore the logical end of the consequences (wages) of sin and overcame those consequences through the resurrection. That is how Jesus reveals the true humanity to which we were created to be in union with God through the Spirit.So the death of Christ fulfills the consequence of sin, but his final act of forgiveness and the resurrection reveal God’s redemptive work in spite of the presence of sin. In this way, God does not have to satisfy God’s own justice somehow since God is not bound by some absolute decree that governs God’s activity.This is how Jesus is the elected One to bind up the consequences of sin and overcome them in his own death and resurrection.At least that’ how I have worked through the logical problems with God’s absolute freedom and the notion of absolute decree which must ground the entire TULIP idea.

  • http://rdtwot.wordpress.com/ rdtwot

    I agree that penal substitution has its problems, but I don’t think we need to abandon substitutionary models because of it. I favor the Governmental theory because it seems to make the best sense of sacrifice and substitution. Thanks for this post though… It was certainly thought provoking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    You should say more about the governmental theory. Is that the same as expiation – sin is dealt with by ‘covering it’ (up)? :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11324370506889227234 PamBG

    Thank you for this post.I’ve never really understood in my gut why people held to penal substitution with such emotional ferocity.Joel Green talked in his book about our culture being obsessed with blame but your explanation of a divine accountant who doesn’t demand any kind of actual reconciliation makes far more sense to me in light of my own experience in PSA-only circles.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08144417439505262113 Elliot

    That’s a good point about debt vs. reconciliation. I suppose that’s where Gene Wolfe got the figure of “the Conciliator” from… and in turn where I got the title of my blog! :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09547046504097554789 Åka

    About forgiveness, I always think about a phrase we often repeat: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It might mean that we are forgiven as long as we forgive others, but at least that we are supposed to try to forgive as we are forgiven.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    Penal substitution was always “explained” to me be quoting wherever it is that it says “without the sheding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins.”But that just seemed to me to push the question back. Now, I am not a Biblical scholar and am probably talking way out of my expertise here, and perhaps there is indeed a scriptural/theological explanation for it. But if there is, I am unaware of it, and whenever I hear that verse quoted, I always wonder: why the hell not?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01660311317080544911 Talon

    Richard, that reminds me of the scene in “Lion Witch and Wardrobe” where the witch meets with Aslan and announces that the law says that Peter must die for his acts. I thought, “What a stupid law.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01660311317080544911 Talon

    Richard, that reminds me of the scene in “Lion Witch and Wardrobe” where the witch meets with Aslan and announces that the law says that Peter must die for his acts. I thought, “What a stupid law.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    I was well in to my thirties before, during an email exchange with wife’s boss about The Case For Christ, I realized that the “Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world” could not be the same as the Passover Lamb equated with Jesus in the Gospels. John especially makes it obvious that Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb, placing his execution on the Day of Preparation. But the role of the lamb in the Passover story is to have its blood used as a sign that the inhabitants of a house marked by the blood belong to God. No sin. No substitution. Could later Christians have confused the Passover Lamb with Yom Kippur’s scapegoat?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for all the comments and discussion! Scott, I think the early Christians combined ideas of sacrifice for sin and Passover in connection with Jesus, much as they combined king and priest. Whether it was confused or deliberate in any given instance is another story.When the author of Hebrews says that shedding of blood is necessary, the basis is presumably the fact that there was in Leviticus a sacrifice for everything, as it were. That only pushes the question back a stage, rather than answering it. Once again, I’d recommend Wenham’s commentary on Leviticus, which suggests that the ‘sin offering’ was in fact a ‘de-sinning offering’, which purified the Temple so that a holy God could dwell in the midst of a sinful people. Hebrews takes up the idea and applies it to the ‘real’ Temple in the heavenly realm (insert lengthy discussion of Platonism here, or visit Ken Schenck’s blog, where I’m sure he has plenty to say about Hebrews). This is why Hebrews has no real room for the resurrection of Jesus: Jesus dies and goes to heaven to present his sacrifice, to purify the heavenly tabernacle so that sinful human beings can draw near to God without their defilement driving him away or drawing his wrath. There’s no obvious point at which to insert his going back for his body! :)Hebrews is quite unique and just barely made it into the New Testament (under somewhat false pretenses, since its author consistently finishes his sentences, unlike Paul, and loves the genitive absolute construction, much to the chagrin of Greek students). Is it appropriate when many Christians use it as the guiding framework for interpreting the rest of what the New Testament has to say about Jesus’ death?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11324370506889227234 PamBG

    I never actually thought that a sacrificial model of atonement and penal substitution were the same thing.As a pacifist with strong anabaptist tendencies, my main objection to PSA is the underlying idea that ‘there can be no justice without retribution’. Especially within the groups of Christians who see PSA as the all-encompassing model of atonement, there seems to be no concept whatsoever of restorative justice that ever gets articulated. I probably have less of a problem with a purely Hebraic sacrifical model of atonement than I do with PSA. Possibly because it seems clear to me that subsequent Jewish and Christian theology has moved beyond literal blood-sacrifice.Hope I’m not babbling.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    One of the biggest disconnects between Judaism and Christian doctrine (which is to say the OT and the New) is that the thing for which Christ is supposed to have died doesn’t really exist for Jews. There is no eternal sin, and there is no barrier to God’s forgiveness. Blood sacrifices were the most minor and trivial in Jewish law, and human sacrifice was derided as evil and pagan. Forgiveness is available by prayer and atonement, not requiring some elaborate passion play.I think it’s clear that Paul believed that Christ’s death in some way purified or paved the way for something. I’m not sure the Gospels really strongly support this view though. The Gospels are always a problem largely because they don’t explain themselves or their message very clearly compared to someone writing and explaining things in their own voice.And the moral problem of substitution is probably far graver than described here. It’s killing yourself to avenge your own unquenchable rage and inability to forgive the fact that your own creations do not measure up to your own purported perfection. That neither makes sense, nor looks particularly praiseworthy. No version of “moral wrong requires some measure of vengeance” makes much more moral sense, let alone the idea that it turns out not to matter as much who the violence is done to. It just seems like people have smashed up concepts of sacrifice and retribution because they liked them as ideas, without really caring that the smoosh-up didn’t really work out.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    Bad made a good point. Again, talking entirely out of my nether regions, from what I know about pre-monarchy Israel, “sin” was closely bound up with the idea of the clean/unclean distinction. Being unclean meant, as James suggested, being unfit for use in the temple, or inappropriate to be in the temple. It had, originally, little in the way of moral connotations. I have seen this explained as something like a modern surgeon being fit or unfit for the OR. (And as an aside, this same writer suggested that Jesus and the Pharisees, in Matthew, were talking past each other when they accused him of violating the Sabbath and he accused them of hypocracy, by keeping the letter of the law while not being moral. The point is, those were different ideas. One can be behave immorally and yet be clean, for temple purposes, because that was a *ritual* matter of dietary laws and the like. Just as a surgeon can be having an affair and yet still be scrubbed and able to operate.)Anyway, it was with the Prophets that sin came to be connected to ideas of moral/ethical righteousness, and of course this was doubly useful once the Temple was destroyed and sacrifice became impossible.And I also agree the penal model makes little sense. As one humorous web page I saw somewhere said (God is speaking, incredulously, to a penal proponent: “Youre saying you think I sacrificed myself to myself in order to change a law I made… myself?!”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01904922191977808104 Andrew

    I’ve got a post on my blog at the moment critiquing a common evangelical argument for penal substitution, which James suggested I link to here. I’ll deal with a few other points raised here:In my eyes, the most serious problem with Penal Substitution is a historical one. We possess a massive amount of surviving writings from throughout the centuries of church history, and from these it can be seen how Christian doctrine changed over the centuries and how penal substitution was eventually invented. A couple of months ago I wrote this post outlining the theological changes in atonement doctrine that have taken place over the centuries. The doctrines necessary as precursors to penal substitution don’t start appearing until the fourth century AD, and Penal Substitution itself doesn’t appear until after the eleventh century.The focus of my studies has been on the pre-Nicene Christian doctrine (ie Christianity prior to 325AD). The main view of the atonement during the period 100-325AD was that Jesus taught people how to live righteously and that by following his teachings they could live a life that pleased God and thereby pass the final judgment according to deeds. (See here, and here)My interest in theology has always been in studying the atonement. I started out my studies because I was wondering which view of the atonement (such as Penal Substitution, Ransom from Satan etc) was taught by the disciples, the New Testament, and the early Christians. After much study, the view I have concluded is the correct one was not one I’d ever even heard of before I started my studies. The Biblical and the pre-Nicene Christians hold one and the same view: That by participating in Jesus’ lifestyle we please God like he did, and thus participate in his rewards. Jesus, by his teachings and the spirit, sets us free from the power of sinfulness, transforming our lives to live as he wills. There are somewhere between a hundred and three hundred New Testament passages that support this view (depending on how I count them), compared to the measly handful that can be misinterpreted to support Penal Substitution. With regard to the need for blood to be shed for forgiveness, three notes are in order. Firstly, it’s not a metaphysical claim that “it’s utterly impossible to have forgiveness without sacrifice” (obviously such a claim would be bogus as our everyday experiences show), but rather an observation that “under the Mosaic Law, that’s how stuff happened to work”. Secondly, the Mosaic Law proscribed no sacrifices for intentional moral sins – the sacrifices cleanse ritual pollution and unintentional sins only. The Jews held that intentional sins were forgiven through repentance, and thus the phrase “repentance and forgiveness” became proverbial. Thirdly, no sacrifices in the Jewish system worked by penal substitution – there’s plenty of careful research been done into how the various different sacrifices were thought to work and the naïve claim they worked by penal substitution is untenable (see for example, Milgrom Leviticus, Finlan Problems with Atonement etc). The writer of Hebrews is engaging in an extended allegory, comparing Christ to the old sacrificial system over the course of his letter. Through the course of the allegory Christ is variously the priest, the sacrifice etc as need be for poetic similarity. It’s appropriate from an allegorical point of view that through his “blood” (ie death) Christ took away sin, like a sacrifice did by their blood (note: their blood, not their deaths – the death of a sacrificial animal was largely irrelevant in the Jewish sacrificial system). But in Hebrew’s view Christ does it better because he teaches us not to sin, and thus takes away our sinfulness, whereas sacrifices simply attempted to mop up (repeatedly) after sins.A sacrificial model of the atonement and Penal Substitution are not the same thing at all. No sacrifices ever worked by Penal Substitution. Different sacrifices worked in different ways, and one of those ways was as a “gift” to God. So it is possible to construct a sacrificial model of the atonement that works as a gift theory (however such a theory has problems.)Bad’s statement is correct. Jews had no belief in the need a sacrifice to obtain forgiveness, it came by repentance and prayer. Nor did they think all humanity stood under threat of God’s eternal punishment in the afterlife – they firmly believed that many people could and would go to heaven.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    de-sin – what a lovely and I think accurate thought. Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus has similar thoughts – and a recent translation of Psalm 51 I read – Dahood I think has ‘un-sin me’ rather than “purge me with hyssop”. This fits so well with the concentric structure of the psalm in Hebrew I think we should allow the coinage to stand. The sin offering that David has been for us for 3000 years testifies to the reality of God’s work in the world for us on account of sin.Substitution and participation – we are invited here.

  • Anonymous

    HOW could a sinless God become sin,II cor 5:21 poor translation from Calvinists: Christ acted to finalize sin on our behalf! Christ could not sin as God, as God cannot deny himself. Christ took our flesh natures to to grave thru his death. It is necessary we daily deny ourselves.Thats the gospel.

  • Mark Sherring

    Thanks James.  I do appreciate what you say on PST, especially in the last paragraph about “It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves in
    spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that
    have to do with how we relate to others.”  As in your case, I also found PST to be inadequate after nearly 20 years of struggling with that (“debts are impersonal”).  The ‘accounting’ method just cannot balance out as supporters claim.  For me, the atonement is (as you say) really about re-establishing relationship, not the paying of a ‘debt’.  After all, primary relationship was initiated in the Garden, and broken there as well; so it follows that atonement must be about restoring relationship(s), yes ?
    Thanks again, and may God bless your endeavours. Mark S, Warrimoo, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia.

  • Sean

    Yes, …forgiveness by definition cannot be a payment. PSA is not biblically sound, there are many issues with it. If you owed me a large sum, and someone else paid it for you–and then I turned and said “I forgive you your debt.” …uh, I hope you would be confused, since there was no debt forgiven, I was given my money. Of course you can be grateful to the one who paid, but forgiveness is not there… that was just a transaction.

  • Mike

    This is a very poor handling of atonement theology. You make a distinction between Christian literature and Jewish literature that is nothing more than a false dichotomy. The entire Old Testament was understood by Jews to look forward to the coming Messiah, all the way from the protoevangelium in Gen 3:15, through Leviticus’ statement that one day all will be priests (referencing the church), the foreshadowing of Melchizidek and the fourth person in the furnace. And especially in the book of Isaiah. It tells us that it pleased God to crush him (the Messiah) and that His life was made a guilt offering (Is 53:10). Read all of that chapter and you’ll see that the Messiah was killed for the iniquity of us all. I don’t know how you can read through Romans, Hebrews, 1 John, or most of the New Testament without seeing the necessity of Christ’s propitiation for our sins.

    You speak of God’s forgiveness, which is correct. God does forgive. But that’s an extension of His grace, which is one of His attributes. Grace is just one of the attributes of God though. You must understand grace through the lens of all of His attributes (Love, Mercy, Wrath, Holiness, etc) and understand that He never operates out of one of these exclusively. He never exercises Mercy without Holiness being involved. He never exercises Wrath without Love. All of his attributes are intrinsically linked. And so when we come to his grace, we must consider also His holiness (set apart), and his wrath (intolerance for sin and disobedience). God does forgive, but His wrath must be satisfied. In the story of Ninevah, they mournfully repented, and He relented on destroying them. Not so much for Sodom and Gomorrah. But there was no way for us to turn from the consequences of our sins. Ephesians 2 says that we were DEAD in our trespasses. Dead people cannot choose good. Dead is dead. It would take an act of God himself to bring life, as seen in Ezekiel, to these dry bones.

    And so He sends Jesus, not only the perfect sacrificial Lamb, spotless and blameless. But also the perfect High Priest; one who makes intercession and atonement for the people. Without understanding the need for propitiation, a Christian cannot understand the behavior of God in the OT when He requires blood sacrifices and destroys entire cities, and you lose sight of the holiness of God. But as Philippians 2 says, Jesus humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. So because “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf [...] we may become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor 5:21). So here’s the substitution that you denounce. Christ’s righteousness becoming our righteousness, so that we can stand before God as blameless and pure.

    I, too, have gone to a Bible school, and majored in Psychology while minoring in Bible. I must disagree with your statement about the popularity of penal substitution. It is NOT a popular idea in Christianity today. Especially here in America, it is terribly unpopular. I am surprised that your professor held to this view. The reason people do not like it is because it removes the striving for holiness that people actually want. People want to feel like they’ve earned what they have. Nobody wants to say they’re incapable of something, especially their own salvation. Your last paragraph is a perfect example of this. You are praising yourself for your ability to step away from this doctrine; to be self-critical and work things out on your own. It’s a pride thing, and that’s the same reason why you’re having trouble accepting the free work of Christ. Unfortunately, your theory of penal substitution is not based on Scripture or sound theology. It’s based on your own guilt (or as you call it, the moral argument). I really hope you’ll go through Scripture and re-examine your view.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Mike, I think you’ve been misinformed about a number of points related to both what the Bible says and what the penal substitution theory of the atonement claims.

      You said that this theory of the atonement is unpopular. It is among those who study theology or the Bible, and perhaps more broadly among those with moral sensibilities who spot the problems with it. But it is incredibly popular among conservative Christians. Some don’t even know that it is unbiblical and a relatively late reworking of Anselm’s theory.

      Your approach to the Bible reads into texts that which you wish to find there, and that makes it hard to discuss a topic like this one. But let me point out that the problem with propitiation as an understanding of the work of Christ is that God, in the New Testament, is not the one who is propitiated by Christ acting on humanity’s behalf. God is the one who sends Christ on God’s own behalf to reconcile us to himself.

    • Johannine Logos

      MIke, thank you for your excellent refutation of James’ awful theology. Your final paragraph hits the nail on the head. If one doesn’t believe in a vast, unavoidable gulf between man’s righteousness and God’s righteousness, then the idea that penal substitutionary atonement could only be the work of a malevolent, bitter, abusive god is not far behind.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        I feel honored to have the Johannine Logos commenting on my blog! Nevertheless, I feel that I must disagree both with your claim that my theology is awful, or that it has been refuted. The difference between penal substitution and other atonement theories is not whether they posit a vast gulf between human righteousness and divine. It is whether they, like penal substitution, think that the solution to the problem is simply to let someone else pay the price and deal with it as a matter of bookkeeping rather than relationship and righteousness.

        • Johannine Logos

          Hi James,

          For the record, my name is a reference to Gordon Clark’s book, not *the* Johannine Logos. :) I’d encourage you to read Clark, by the way—especially his works on science. Very relevant to the creationism debate.

          I can hardly think of a more vibrant relational truth than being united with my savior. In faith I am spiritually united with him, which is why my penalty can be considered his and his righteousness mine. You attack a penal substitution atonement sans union with Christ—a straw man.

          I confess it hard to refute you simply because you’ve provided so few details about your view. As far as I can tell this is the argument you’ve offered:

          1. If penal substitution then the atonement was about bookkeeping instead of participation
          2. The atonement is about participation
          3. PS is wrong

          Yet the first premise is wrong. As I said earlier, in the penal substitution model we are united with Christ. That is participation.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            The penal substitution model is about substitution, which is the opposite of participation. The latter is the emphasis in Paul’s understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

            • patricklmitchell

              But you’re missing propitiation from what I can tell. The fact that God propitiates on his own behalf thru Jesus is what allows us to pursue discipleship in the first place. That’s where I think folks, myself included, are taking issue with your position.

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                I’m not missing it. I don’t think it makes sense to say that someone propitiates their own anger.

                • patricklmitchell

                  You may not think it makes sense. as most of what God does does not make sense to humanity. But Hebrews 2:17 and 1 John 4:10 certainly seem to suggest that God propitiated his anger through Jesus, thus propitiating his own anger. Soooooo…

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    Well, if you stick to translations that use “propitiation” in those verses, and ignore the discussions about whether that is the best rendering, then you can have a nice little circular argument. But even if those ancient authors said something, why would you think that settles a matter?

                    • patricklmitchell

                      I am familiar with the arguments around hilasterion, but to answer your question, I guess it depends on your position on the Bible’s authority. You say ancient authors; I say divinely inspired authors. Thus, many matters are settled for me by the biblical writers.

                      As for your claim that this view just makes people feel good about themselves, what of those who see it as the only means whereby they CAN love people around them in grace and truth, showing the same kind of forgiveness shown them by God? Clearly I won’t change your mind and don’t intend to.

                      How, may I ask, is sin against God atoned? (if atoned bothers you, feel free to use whatever word works)

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      If it were in fact true that the matter is settled by the Biblical authors, then you would not adhere to a relative latecomer among atonement theories. And if you genuinely considered this important, you would presumably want to change my mind. I certainly want to change people’s minds about penal substitution, since it makes God the problem and depicts God as solving the problem through injustice by way of a loophole.

                      There are numerous ways that atonement is approached within the Bible. One that few focus on today is participation. Paul in 2 Corinthians doesn’t say that one died for all, because all should have died, but one took their place so that they might not die; but rather he says that one died for all and therefore all died.

                      The New Testament, with its varied views and metaphors, seems to me to consistently depict God as the one who is the initiator of the effort to reconcile human beings to himself. One can view God’s activity in and through Christ as the ultimate expression of God’s nature to forgive, and it can make a lot of sense. If you treat Christ as the solution to a problem that kept God from forgiving prior to that point, you make the death of Christ seem more essential, but at the cost of making nonsense of most of the depictions of God throughout the Bible prior to that point.

  • Dagen

    Thanks for this blog post, James. A number of years ago, during a personal crisis that made re-think my beliefs, I realized that Christ’s death is something we partake in. Through him, we die to sin and our old selves. The theology of the western church, in which Christ dies instead of us, appeals to those who see God as an angry, abusive parent who must be appeased. Substitutionary atonement is considered a non-negotiable in evangelicalism due to the pure force of inertia and tradition. (Some of its more erudite defenders also realize that questioning this doctrine means questioning the Reformers, and Calvin is held in such grand esteem among the “Reformed” that his main themes are treated like holy writ.) It’s a pity we can’t consider the perspectives of the eastern church on this matter – we evangelicals continue to be closet Catholics, minus Mary and the Pope. There is much we could learn from our Orthodox brethren if only we could learn to speak to each other.

    • Tom Coursen

      Isn’t there language in the Bible that describes Christ’s victory as being over sin? This is far different than making a payment to a God who has to punish Someone, Something, Anything. Did the ‘ancient’ new testament writers forget about jubilee?
      But here’s the thing I’ve reasoned out for myself. First, although I believe the biblical writers were inspired by God in their writing, and somehow God’s spirit was able to guide the editeing and collection of writings, I don’t think the biblical writings, even in the original were inerrant or infallable. Even conservative scholars talk about the times, the context, the culture in which each author wrote. God gave us minds to use in which we figured out such things as the documentary hypothesis, the two source theory, etc.
      Which brings me to my more pertinent second point. Substitutionary atonement is discussed, mostly by the Pauline writers, in terms of the ritual sacrifice practiced by Israel. That is, Christ directly takes the place of the animal that would have taken our place as atonement for our sins. The animal dies, so Christ dies.
      But like other things the Israelites did, I think this was one depicting the culture they developed and God allowed or put up with. Bear with me here, those of you who will directly point to the Old Testament prescriptions. Have we ever had a deeper reading of the context of the times? Were most of the other people in the middle east, or ancient world for that matter involved in ritual sacrifice to gods? Is it possible that The Israelites practiced ritual sacrifice simply because it’s what people did? Now interject Gods commandments as a means to set the Israelite peoples minds not on other Gods, but on God. Were the sacrifices really about sacrifice (for God) or about turning peoples MINDS, and ATTENTINON towards God. Did God really eat anything, drink any blood, or smell any sweet smells (no, but the priests surely ate didn’t they?) In fact God later asks the question, ‘do I drink the blood of bulls?’
      As a parallel to consider, look at the Israelites demand that they be given a king. Bad idea, God said through the priest. But the people demanded it because they wanted a king like THE OTHER PEOPLE AROUND THEM. And God said, okay, you know what, here you go. but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
      Paul, having been a faultless Hebrew leader himself, perhaps had to explain Christ in the light of many centuries of ritual so that the people, jews and gentiles alike, could understand Christ in words they recongnized. But Paul was not as good a teacher in this area as he was perhaps in others. He didn’t go far enough. Perhaps he should have explained what Christ meant when he said that he didn’t come to abolish the law. The law Christ was talking about was NOT the law of ritual sacrifice, but the law he summed up in two commandments. This is the law Christ fulfilled. Paul never explained that Christ didn’t die as a substitution within the ritual law, but as an end to the ritual law.
      Which brings us to what Mr. McGrath has been saying, that if you read the Old Testament with at least one eye open, you can’t miss in the mass of blood that people are demanding (and yes some of the blood shed attributed to God, I attribute to the Israelites’ way of explaining and fleshing out their history for themselsves and to the writer’s particulars in addressing their audience) that God is asking for something else – repentance. a restored relationship. Not death. People are the ones who ask for death. Just ask Cain. Or Jesus. Or Stephen. Or David. Or Paul. Or the Inquisitors. Or the Crusaders. Or ourselves.

      • Tom Coursen

        Sorry for the all caps, they were unneccesary. Another thought regarding penal substitution. Here in the US, I’m not sure about other places, there is something of a righteousness acknowledged to say another person died for others, perhaps in the minds of some viewers this hero emulates Christ. A police officer, a firefighter, someone in the military ‘lays down their life’ for their friends, their family, their country. Certainly some lives have been saved while another gave theirs up.
        But to more directly emulate Christ, if we are saying that He intervened to take the punishment that is rightfully ours for our sins, shouldn’t we, as Christians, be going to the courts and prisons and volunteer to take the sentences of the accused there? I understand that, you know, the Bible is really only talking about spritual things. There are still consequences for sins here in this world. Christ doesn’t take on these punishments, only the punishments in the life (or not) to come. Except the Israelites and Paul seemed to think that all those dead animals took away the ‘earthly’ sins.
        So perhaps, if Christ is only Lord of the world on the other side, perhaps we Christians as his ambassadors here, striving to emulate Him and be as forgiving as Him, should go to the courts and the prisons and volunteer to set the prisoners free by taking whatever punishment has been handed down the them, imprisonment, fines, limitations, revocation of rights, death; take their place; set them free.
        Arent we saying, with penal substitution, that is what Christ has done for us? And so as he has done with God for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, let us emulate Him and do for those like us what they can not do for themselves with the Earthly authorities, who after all are established by God – right?

        • Patrick

          How about the passages in Romans 3 that state God temporarily “passed over sins” until Jesus died on the cross, inferring His forgiveness could not be unleashed eschatologically until Christ satisfied God’s righteousness and justice?

          How about “there is no forgiveness of sin w/o the shedding of blood”, that’s a pretty strong motif from Leviticus to Hebrews? Though we’re taught that the blood of Christ satisfied God and the blood of animals never could.

          What were the unblemished animal sacrifices teaching the Jews in Leviticus if not an innocent paying for the guilty?

          Why do the NT authors call Jesus “The Lamb of God” if His sacrifice is not a fulfillment of the theme of innocent substitution for the guilty?

          Don’t these themes teach that OT forgiveness was God holding in abeyance eschatological judgement had until Christ?

          Why did Jesus bother in other words if the Father can unilaterally forgive like Islam says He can w/o the shedding of blood from One greater than animals and angels?


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