infantile theology and penal substitution

penal substituted cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
shopping is fun

The theological concept of penal substitution, or substitutionary atonement, means that Christ by his own sacrificial choice was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), satisfying the demands of God’s wrath so that he could justly forgive our sins.

Some theologians find it in scripture, perhaps based on the Old Testament sacrificial lamb metaphor. The Reformers developed it. Lawyers, like Calvin, loved it and made it even more legalistic.

However, other creative thinkers like George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis found it lacking.

Today some compare the theology of penal substitution to “cosmic child abuse”, claiming that this breaks the analogy and is no longer useful.

Let me ask the question: what does the theology of penal substitution DO? It says:

  1. We were sinners.
  2. We were forgiven.
  3. We are now loved by God.

Most if not all religions have a story to make sense out of the human instinct that we are somehow deficient, that something has to be done about it, and that since this something has been done everything’s okay. Of course some, still obsessed with legal transactional law, demand that in order to receive it you have to sign something somewhere and perhaps even pay.

Most if not all religions have a story to make sense out of the human instinct that there is good and evil in the universe and that there is a cosmic battle between a good god and an evil one and that we’re caught up in the middle of it while hoping the good one wins. Of course, stories of how this battle goes and concludes are as numerous as the stars.

This is how I see the theology of penal substitution: it is a metaphorical attempt to describe the theological journey from rejection to acceptance.

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  • Brian Metzger

    Substitutionary atonement and penal substitution are a little like squares and rectangles. All squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. Substitutionary atonement has many expressions of which penal is one. In the penal theory, God is angry and his wrath must be satisfied. Not so with other substitutionary models where, for instance in the Christus Victor theory, Jesus’ death sets us free as ransom or heals us as cure. Penal substitution is a poor metaphor for the journey from rejection to acceptance in as much as an ex-con is not forgiven when he/she have done their time, they are released but not restored or reconciled. The penal theory comes late in the game in comparison to other understandings of the atonement.

    To me it primarily matters because it sets us up to believe in a God who is angry and ready to kill somebody rather than a God who is a loving father who steps in front of the train, shoving us off the tracks in order to set us free to live. These are two very different sorts of gods. If Jesus reveals the true nature of God, we don’t see him expressing an unquenchable wrath towards those he forgives with a word, it would seem odd then to paint God the father differently.

  • 2TrakMind

    I think the weakness of the idea of penal substitution is that it misdirects the object of God’s anger. Penal substitution says that WE are the object of God’s anger, and are deserving of death, but this is a bit misguided. The reality is that, SIN is the object of God’s anger. It’s hard to grasp this with our finite minds, but God didn’t pour out his wrath on Jesus; He poured out His wrath on SIN. The Bible says that “He BECAME sin, Who knew no sin.” In that moment, Jesus wasn’t Jesus, but WAS fully sin. I love Wayne Jacobsen’s definition of God’s wrath, which goes something like this…

    “Wrath is the full weight of God’s being brought against that which seeks to destroy the object of His affection.”

    We are the object of God’s affection, and sin sought to destroy us.

  • Brigitte Mueller

    I eat it and drink it regularly. It is the nurture and substance. Very wholesome, I find it.

    And for all those who talk about love: love is sacrifice.

  • tom sellier

    Because you do not know or preach the gospel of Jesus Christ you have become a master at making stuff up to shoot down.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    ? can you illuminate me on what you think the gospel of Jesus Christ is? I’ve heard so many different versions its hard to keep them in order. So which Christian are you? Lutheran? Baptist? Fundamentalist Evangelical? Foursquare? Mainline Protestant? Mainline Catholic? Eastern Orthodox? Calvinist? Reformed? Episcopal? Universalist? Methodist? there are more, but like I said, they are hard to keep track of.

    As for this post, are you questioning his portrayal of penal substitution theory? Are you questioning the terms he defined and his illumination of the history of the concept’s development? Did you forget that he has a masters in theology and was a pastor for 30 years?

    But you! Oh the prophet Tom Sellier has come to illuminate the dark with the TRUE gospel of Jesus! its about time.

  • Davis, After a quick internet search I was able to confirm that “Tom Sellier”, “Steve Martin”, and “JosephBrown660” are the only ones that know the Truth and will be the only ones going to heaven with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Everybody else will languish in Hell. Sorry to be the harbinger of bad news. That is just the way it is.

  • tom sellier

    David, unless you repent there will be no penal substitution for you. You will have to suffer the eternity of separation from God for your sin of rejecting the Holy Spirit.

  • jtheory

    George MacDonald’s Sermon Justiced rocked my world.

    Also, they tend to quote “He was pleased to bruise him.” you know, God took pleasure in beating the crap out of Jesus….

  • tom sellier

    1 Peter 1:24-25

    “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;” 1 Peter 13:18

    Christ died for sins equals Christ died for the unjust. The unjust equals you and me. I gladly accept Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf and agree with God that humanity is a sinner in need of the Savior and that Jesus is Lord.

  • MorganGuyton

    I’m not sure if Al Mohler’s post inspired this or just the general “in Christ Alone” brouhaha. I really like the summary you gave. Here’s an open letter I wrote to Mohler differentiating what I consider legit penal substitution from its popular caricatures:

  • tom sellier

    Your own mouth condemns you. And not us.

  • Is that the Trinity? Damn!

  • Cecilia Davidson

    you condemn yourself by daring to condemn others.

  • Cecilia Davidson

    Who peed in your Wheaties?

  • Cecilia Davidson

    You dare to tell others they are condemned to hell? Get thee behind us, Satan.

  • Gary

    Wow dude…you really are an ass. Your mama must be so proud. BTW – You really fucked up the whole being known by your love thing. How about you just run on back home.

  • tom sellier

    I should know better than wrestle with pigs.

  • No name-calling please and thank you.

  • islandbrewer

    *snorff* You said “penal”! *giggle*

  • tom sellier

    Thank you David for keeping your children reasonably controlled. I know its difficult considering their teacher thinks nothing holy.

  • mrichardson84

    Actually that would be you. Only a dumb, illiterate, fundamentalist troll would think that. Get lost and don’t come back, troll.

  • Gary

    I have done a quick review of your recent posts. It is rather comical that you call others “children” considering the level of intelligent discussion and critical thinking displayed in most of your comments is roughly equivalent to a 10 year old.

    (My apologies to 10 year olds everywhere)

  • tom sellier

    That is all you have Gary? NEXT!

  • tom sellier

    I find that most of those who insult are homosexuals and because we “fundamentalists” believe the Bible and what it says about homosexuality causes those who are homosexual or enable homosexuality hate. That hate is a condition that is fatal btw.

  • Gary

    If your only purpose here is to troll for laughs and to piss people off…seriously just fuck off already.