Do I Deny Penal Substitution?

No. I simply deny it pride of place.  Here’s what I wrote in October, 2006 about my lunch with John Piper:

One thing that won’t surprise anyone who knows about these things:
John Piper basically equates a penal substitutionary understanding of
the atonement with the gospel. I am unwilling to do that. I don’t
disparage that theory of the atonement (see my recent endorsement on

the back of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Stott’s The Cross of Christ),
but I believe the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the
pivot point of cosmic history. Thus, I do not think that one
theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the
atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. The penal
substitution — while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings — is
tied to the development of the Western legal mind. Nor am I willing to
condemn the billions of
faithful Christians who have lived and died in the past two millennia
with alternate understandings of the atonement (here see Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor).

In other words, PSA is one theory of the atonement. Beneficial, but not exclusive. Not even first among equals.

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  • Dan

    Most of us would agree that penal substitution is not the only way of understanding Christ’s death. But what you wrote just a matter of hours before is this:
    “Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God’s wrath burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.”
    What your critics responded with was biblical passages like this:
    “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
    and this:
    “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering he will see his offspring and prolong his days, ”
    Tony, it is not my desire to crush you into the dust as a heretic. It is I think, the desire of most of your critics to correct and hold your teachings and speculations up to the text of scripture. I just hope you’ll give conservatives who believe the text has some level of objective and discernible truth a little bit more of a fair representation. And I do fear that your musings are leading a lot of folks down a dangerous path.

  • This sure sounds like you deny it (from your post a few days ago):
    “Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God’s wrath burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.”
    If it is not in keeping with the biblical narrative then doesn’t that mean that it’s untrue?
    Maybe I am slow, but it sure sounds like you deny penal substitution. Perhaps you want to rephrase your blog post?

  • Dan Hauge

    I appreciate what you’ve been writing the last couple days, and find that I resonate with it pretty strongly. I also think it’s quite different than what you wrote (about atonement) in your initial post, and I understand why people could get confused.
    For me, it’s not so much about holding strictly to the Anselmic or Reformed formula of penal substitutionary atonement, but recognizing that there are threads in Scripture that talk about Christ as a sacrifice for sin, and that speak about the cross of Christ bringing about reconciliation between us and God. I don’t believe there are any absolutely infallible explanations of exactly how that works, but I believe it is important to have those understandings in the mix (along with Christ as Victor over the powers of darkness, Christ identifying with our weakness, and other biblical themes).

  • Greg Gorham

    Couldn’t one say that it is possible to believe in penal substitution based on the Bible, but that’s not the only way to understand the Bible, or even the best? That’s what I got from Tony’s post anway. I don’t find penal substitution to be particularly compelling Biblically or otherwise, but I wouldn’t accuse its proponents of being unbiblical. Just like I don’t think Calvinists read the Bible rightly, but wouldn’t say that Calvinists are ignorant of Scripture.

  • For all the young and restless reformed arm chair theologian types that have been lambasting Tony, I am requiring that they read “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” by Joel B. Green and Mark Baker. Read this then have a conversation.

  • Good suggestion, Sam.
    Tony…I would have thought that you’d have no problem rejecting the PENAL substitutionary view of the atonement in favor of the good-old-fashioned regular substitutionary view of the atonement. The difference is important. I believe Jesus took upon himself all sorts of things in place of humanity, but I don’t believe that he took upon himself God’s punishment.
    I’ve always found it inconsistent for conservative Reformed types to hold both the impassibility of Jesus and the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. After all, to hold that view of the atonement means that God changes in his disposition towards us, because of the sacrifice of the Son.

  • “For all the young and restless reformed arm chair theologian types that have been lambasting Tony, I am requiring that they read “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” by Joel B. Green and Mark Baker. Read this then have a conversation.”
    Why on earth would they, after you have avoided participating in the discussion in order to resort to petty name-calling? If the book you recommend causes you to argue as you do, I’ll avoid it. And I would hardly call myself reformed.

  • Scott M

    I pretty much agree with Mark van Steenwyk. I affirm all sorts of substitution, just not penal substitution.

  • Matt Jennings

    I’m not sure how to put this, but I often wonder if any of the ‘correcting’ or pointing out alleged ‘name calling’ is done with any direct intention of edifying…well, anyone for that matter. I think there are reasons that Jesus (according to our records) did not frequently seek to busy himself with discussions that were essentially balanced upon correct and succinct understanding of a particular tenet of scripture. In many cases, when he spoke, it was in direct opposition to the popular/mainstream religious interpretation of scripture in his day. Maybe nothing that I’m saying is new, significant, or even appropriate, but I just scratch my head when I see bickering like this and wonder if Jesus even cares about our proud, bloated opinions. At what point is it enough to simply follow in the way of the Lord and not be chained to a ‘correct’ soteriological theory? Just a couple of cents…

  • I would add S. Mark Heim and J. Denny Weaver (not to mention Scot McKnight!) to the broadening reading list. It seems to me that asserting a very limited and parochial understanding of the atonement is to broker an equally myopic view of salvation (and to ignore scripture and the whole of church history). It’s like taking the violinist out of the orchestra and placing him on a pedestal as the only valid expression of a musical piece. Music, not to mention God, is much more robust and rich than that. I’d much rather glean the goodness from all the various metaphors of atonement than limit myself and my God to one.

  • Tony, can you help me understand why you don’t deny it? I can understand why you don’t pick fights about it, but you say it’s beneficial. How?

  • Atonement theories as a whole…IMHO are limited. Substitution, Penal, etc., etc. all have merit as far as I am concerned but I have found that if I lean on one to much it falls down.
    God is big, so big, in fact that I believe, as Calvin, that all our attempts to describe or explain God and God’s motives or actions, are woefully lacking. It takes an amalgamation of these atonement theories to try and a) make sense of the Jesus event in history b) make sense of how much the Gospel as meant to so many in so many different eras, cultures, and situations c) come to some understanding, albeit limited, of how God works in relationship to the creation.
    Personally, I lean on Barth, who believed that Jesus on the cross took on the role of the reprobate for all of humanity. (which I know is more of a election/predestination debate, but I like to focus on what happened not necessarily why particularly in the case of atonement theories which generally get my head to spinning.)

  • Matt Jennings

    Well said, Greg.

  • Sara

    Tony’s probably so “postmodern” that he embraces ALL the theories of atonement.

  • Mike Lamson

    I don’t know if you are familiar with Mike Wittmer’s book, “Don’t Stop Believing,” but in it he wrestles with atonement theories, and has a pretty solid proposal. I won’t go into detail, but try to give a summary:
    Christus Victor provides the big picture of Atonement, and Penal Substitution is the heart, or how the atonement occurs, with Moral Influence and Example theories being applications of the the first two.
    I agree trying to take PSA (or any) atonement theories on their own doesn’t work, but I think Wittmer’s attempt here puts it together well. I think it’s chapter 6.
    For what it’s worth,

  • True dat!
    I think you’re right on with this post. Always around Easter we start talking about the atonement and each Easter I see more and more issues with substitutionary atonement (when it stands alone).

  • Sara

    One of the most problematic aspects of traditional atonement theologies, from the standpoint of those concerned about the relationship between theological violence and “real” violence, is the notion that Jesus endured his suffering and death willingly. Many battered woman will stay in dangerous relationships because of the ideas of “redemptive suffering,” “self-sacrificial love,” “redemptive suffering,” “silent suffering,” “turning the other cheek,” etc. These theologies are dangerous to women.
    Tony has gone part of the way. The next step is to outwardly reject theologies, like PSA, that are dangerous to women.

  • Sara

    One of the most problematic aspects of traditional atonement theologies, from the standpoint of those concerned about the relationship between theological violence and “real” violence, is the notion that Jesus endured his suffering and death willingly. Many battered woman will stay in dangerous relationships because of the ideas of “redemptive suffering,” “redemptive violence,” “self-sacrificial love,” “redemptive suffering,” “silent suffering,” “turning the other cheek,” etc. These theologies are dangerous to women. In these theologies, being Christlike can be very dangerous to women.
    Penal Substitutionary (Calvin): An abusive husband is angry that one of his kids broke curfew. His wife knows that he intends to beat the kid for breaking one of the rules of the house. So when the kid gets home, the wife stands in the way of the abusive husband. This enables the wife to be the substitute and take the husband’s wrathful beating in place of the kid.
    Ransom (Origen): An abusive husband gets angry that something of his gets broken. The wife knows her kid broke it, but fears the husband will beat the kid if her husband finds out. So the wife lies and tells the husband that she broke the item in order to trick the husband into beating her instead of the kid.
    Moral influence (Abelard): A wife is obedient to her abusive husband’s will to the point of accepting his abuse as part of her obedience to him. She thinks that by accepting this abuse, she will help him realize the problem of his abusive ways.
    Governmental (Grotius): An abusive husband is angry that one of his kids broke one of the rules of the house. He approaches the kid and threatens him. His wife them pleads with the husband to leave him alone. The husband then gets angry at his wife and beats her instead. The husband considers the beating restitution for the rule that the kid broke.
    Liberation (Boff): An abusive husband starts hitting his wife. The wife decides to be like Jesus and take the abuse. Her rationale is that taking the abuse will show her husband just how awful the abuse really is. She decides the best way to stop his abuse is to take it an then show him her bloodied face when he is done. The hope is that he will feel a sense of empathy. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that anything will actually change.
    Turn the other cheek: A wife takes the next punch from her abusive husband instead of leaving the situation. She thinks she is following the teachings of Jesus. After all, he didn’t flee from abuse either.
    Silent suffering: A wife stays silent about the the beatings she receives from her abusive husband. She figures Jesus was beaten, yet he did not open his mouth. So, she she do likewise.
    Cross bearing: A wife accepts the beatings that she receives from her husband because she thinks the abuse is her cross to bear, just like Jesus bore his cross.
    Redemptive suffering: A wife justifies the beatings she gets from her husband as her way to save the marriage. She thinks she’d never make it on her own, so the beatings are a “small” price to pay for financial security.
    The list could go on and on. We need to seriously consider the ethical implications of our theologies.
    Tony has gone part of the way. The next step is to outwardly reject theologies, like PSA, that are dangerous to women and men.

  • Sara,
    I’m trying to see how you make the jump from domestic abuse to rejecting PSA entirely. I’m not criticizing, I’m trying to understand what you mean by that.
    For everyone else:
    I’m curious for those of you who might reject PSA entirely how you interpret verses such as Rom. 3:25-26; Gal. 3:13; and 2 Cor. 5:21?
    I think there’s also a problem with how we look at God’s wrath. Usually wrath=negative, but how would you view that which is against God in terms of his love? He hates anything that harms his creation. Maybe wrath gets more of a bad rap than it needs to.
    While this doesn’t explain fully, here is the quote from Wittmer that I mentioned earlier, in “Don’t Stop Believing,” chapter 6, p. 94:
    “Christus Victor presents the big picture–Jesus came to wrest the world from the death grip of Satan, while penal substitution is the heart of Christus Victor, for it explains how Jesus accomplishes his mission.”

  • Mike Lamson

    I didn’t read the complete comment you made from before. I didn’t show up before. I will read and hope to make sense of your comment…

  • Your Name

    Sara’s post gives me pause. And the pause is imagining God as the angry, abusive husband.
    I’m guessing that Sara (and most of us?) reject such an image of God. I believe, teach, and confess that the Angry, Vindictive, Punishing, Vengeful God is a fraud god.
    I do not deny the anger of God. It’s biblical. Yet as I read the Bible’s overall narrative I see that the purpose of God’s anger is for healing and salvation.
    As for atonement… the life, death and resurrection of Jesus means rescue…
    FROM death
    TO life
    FROM sin
    TO righteousness
    FROM alienation
    TO reconciliation
    FROM bondage
    TO freedom
    FROM being without faith
    TO trusting God
    FROM the demonic
    TO the Holy Spirit
    FROM fear
    TO love
    FROM hatred
    TO embrace
    FROM oppression
    TO justice
    FROM “serve us”
    TO “service”
    For me, reducing salvation to “penal substitution” misses the richness of the Good News.

  • So which is it?
    Do you stand by what you have written elsewhere about PSA? Does the fact that you are now endorsing PSA mean you repudiate what you have already written about it? Is it no longer inconsistent with the biblical narrative? Is it now spiritually and intellectually compelling? Does it depend on the day of the week?

  • Darius T.

    Check out Micah 5:15 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9. Those will help you understand God better.

  • Mark,
    I don’t know of one Reformed theologian who teaches that Jesus is impassible. Every theologian I have read affirms that what Scripture makes plain – Jesus possessed emotions. Can you name the Reformed theologian (with references) who teaches that Jesus had no emotions?

  • Your Name

    Number one… I reject the Abusive Angry Violent Husband image of God.
    Number two… I am aware of wrath, punishing, vengeful passages in the Bible and understand them within the context of the entire biblical story.
    Number three… scripture interprets scripture… we always privilege certain passages more than others. My biblical center is Luke 15 the entire 31 verses. Luke 15 is the passage I read in order to “understand God better.” The One I meet there is asking the right- answer-teachers-of-the-law a question. If you take the question seriously, then your understanding of God and life changes dramatically.
    Number four… if the Abusive Violent Angry Husband is the one lurking behind “penal substitution” then count me out. I’m glad to be a heretic!!!
    Number five… let’s take a poll. Who reads the Bible as revealing a Sheep Searching Shepherd, a Coin Seeking Housekeeper, and a Heart Broken Patient Father who is waiting for his sons to reconcile? And, who votes for the Abusive Husband?
    Stay in One Peace, Tim

  • Darius T

    Tim, you can leave the straw men at home. No one is promoting God the Abusive Husband. It’s interesting that you mention Scripture interpreting Scripture, yet you won’t practice this in the least. You ignore all Biblical evidence which clearly contradicts the “God is only Love” view which you hold. The God who demanded that Joshua wipe out whole nations (women and children included) is the same God we see in Jesus, who is both patient and violently wrathful (we mostly see the violently wrathful Jesus at His Second Coming), loving and fierce, a tender shepherd and a conquering King. As much as you obviously would love to separate them, you cannot (unless you’re willing to stop calling yourself a Christian, in which case, you can do whatever you want with God). The Son and the Father are One.

  • Tim

    Sheesh, just lost my brilliant post that vanished into cyber space. So for a simpler version…
    1. The Abusive Violent Husband god is not a straw man. There is a true believer hiding in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistan border somewhere. It is because of his passionate belief in his fraud god that I react strongly against this image. I believe, deep in my heart, that no one commenting here holds this image in their souls. And make no mistake, there are believers in this fraud god across the religions.
    2. Deuteronomy 7:1-2 is the clearest example of the history going forward from Joshua. Jesus/Joshua in Matthew 15:21-39 reveals the ultimate character and identity of God. Please note what happens to “Canaanites” in both stories.
    3. 2 Samuel 5:6-10 is a brutal example of what David did immediately after entering Jerusalem. In Matthew 21:14 we see what the “son of David” (the true King) did immediately upon entering Jerusalem. 2 different fates for the “blind and the lame”
    4. The book of Revelation. Judgment against the Roman Empire. Warning and judgment against those compromising with the empire’s values. The 144,000 (symbolic number for the totality God’s people) burst forth into people from every tribe, nation, and language. Indeeds the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom. A very relevant text for today. “Fallen is Babylon” (= the system of greed, powered by an evil financial system).
    5. When someone says, “unless you’re willing to stop calling yourself a Christian” I translate that to mean “Tim, stop calling yourself a Christian”. And I am reminded that a “Christian is always a non-Christian to some other Christian.
    6. I believe in one God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)
    7. I believe that Christ is the Living Word. To rightly interpret scripture, one must read it through the lens of Christ.
    8. Anger, wrath, and judgment are means to an end, not the ends in themselves. The purpose of judgment is to drive us to grace, mercy, right relationships, reconciliation, and peace.
    9. I see only in a mirror dimly. My understanding is partial. The love revealed in Christ and the cross and the resurrection is far greater than I can imagine. I pray that I will grow more fully into a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). As I compose these words, I realize how far I fall short.
    Humbly, hopefully,

  • Darius T

    1. Okay, I didn’t realize that we were no longer discussing the Christian God but a false Islamic god instead. I must have missed that segue.
    2. You are pitting the OT God against the NT God and stating (quite clearly in fact: “reveals the ultimate character and identity”) that God changes (or changed at least once in history). Or perhaps you believe God was misunderstood in the OT? In which case, then you’re denying the inerrancy/infallibility of Scripture.
    3. It seems that you massacre (no pun intended) the context and meaning of II Samuel. “even the blind and the lame can ward you off” is a mocking phrase, kinda like when someone says that “my grandmother could beat you up.”
    4. I’m not sure exactly how the Revelation reference fits this discussion, unless you’re meaning it to apply to my comment about a violent Christ at the Second Coming. I don’t want to get into an eschatological discussion, but suffice it to say that throughout the Bible, Jesus is portrayed as a violent King on His return. The time for mercy will be past.
    5. My comment regarding calling yourself a Christian is not that I am making any judgment about your salvation, but just that if you want to call yourself part of the Christian body, you kinda need to follow the rules laid down by God (just like if you want to be a part of some community “club,” following their rules is necessary). And in this case, that means that Jesus and God are One and the same, He never changes, and He is all the attributes listed in the Bible at all times and in all places. No matter how much you might wish differently, you can’t ignore the characteristics that you find loathsome.
    6. Amen, good.
    7. Amen again.
    8. The purpose of judgment… What about the majority of people who aren’t driven to “grace, mercy, right relationships, reconciliation, and peace”? What is the purpose of judgment for them?
    9. Amen again. I would just add that penal substitution doesn’t diminish God’s love, it shows it even more glorious than without it. If God didn’t love us (or His glory) so much, He wouldn’t have sacrificed Himself to spend eternity in relationship with us. And it proves God is faithful and true. If He did not require a payment for our sin, then He would not be just, which would contradict Scripture. So, by being just, He is faithful and true to His Word.
    Thanks for the discussion.

  • Derek

    Imagine if you knew a man who was very forgiving and loving in public. Now imagine that you knew this man took out all his wrath and anger out on his child when he went home. Kind of changes your perception of this man, doesn’t it?
    Why is something despicable when applied to humans and yet not equally despicable if applied to God?
    Thank God for other atonement theories. It’s time to give up the theories that are no longer useful.

  • What you call “seeds” alluding to penal substitution, I call explicit biblical language. Christ is the “propitiation” for our sins (Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10). That means Christ satisfied the wrath of God. He bore the punishment that was meant for us. The fact (not “theory”) of penal substitution couldn’t be any clearer in scripture. It is the heart of the gospel. John Piper is right.

  • Darius T.

    Derek, God didn’t take His wrath out on some other being, He took it out on Himself. Can’t you see that? Jesus and God are ONE!

  • Martin Downes

    If penal substitution was as crass as you make out anyone with half a brain would reject it. Surely you’ve got to ask if you have really understood it, and its relationship to the doctrine of God, if you think that it can be successfully dismissed like that.
    Besides which whether it is taught in the Bible or not (which Tony admits it is) is irrelevant to your position. It could be on every page, but you’d still reject it given your analogy.

  • I’m glad to have come across this blog. I too have explored what the Bible has to say on Penal Substitution, and I believe it comes well short of teachings such a doctrine. I’m finishing up a debate on this very issue with a Reformed apologist:

  • Lukas

    Derek, your comment is only valid if you reject the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • Lee is right, and so is John Piper. This battle has been going on since the Reformation. The latest strategy (which actually dates back to the 19th century) is to make penal substitution simply one “theory” among several.

  • The Parent-God and Jesus are different Persons, even though they are of one Being with one another, so no, God’s not taking it out on Godself, exactly, not in any nonproblematically straight-forward way: the Parent-God is taking it out on another Person with whom S/He shares a Being.

    That’s pretty basic, as far as theology goes.

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