A Question about Penal Substitution

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So, in the wake of all the Love Wins kerfuffle, I received an email from someone who listened to the radio interview I did with Michael Horton.  And the question he asked was this: Are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive?

Here’s how we got there.  On the interview, I asked Mike if understanding the atonement via the penal substitutionary theory was essential for a person to be considered a Christian.  He answered that yes, it is.  Other metaphors that explain the atonement are important, and even biblical, he said, but the penal substitutionary understanding is the most widely attested in scripture.  It is necessary and primary.  All other metaphors explaining the atonement take a back seat.

OK, let’s say, hypotehtically, that Mike is right about this.  Let’s say that Jesus did die as a sacrifice, to mitigate God’s wrath against every human being, wrath that was kindled because our sins of disobedience against God.

Couldn’t a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement also be championed by univeralists?  Couldn’t a universalist affirm that Jesus did, indeed, die to take the stain of Original Sin from us, to appease God’s divine sense of judgment, and to open the gates of heaven to all people?

The obvious counter to this is that Paul said that one must believe in her heart and affirm with her lips, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9-10).  But universalists have to answer for this verse regardless of how they understand the atonement.

So, I put it to you, are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive?

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  • One of my favorite personal statements concerning penal substitutionary atonement is that it is “too universalist for me.” It in essence makes the atonement too much a singular event in the past where everything that is in salvation has already been accomplished once and for all SO THATso this salvation can be more easily universalized. The rightfully cosmic nature of this substitutionary event detached from present lives makes it all too easy to universalize it in terms much like Barth did. (I know folk like Horton would view this as a profound error). In other words, I would say, the classic Western penal view demands nothing of us in terms of our present existence which makes it much easier to universalize.
    Now I affirm the substitutionary view, but once you move beyond it, to Christus Victor, towards recapitulation, here it is impossible to participate in the victory accomplished in Christ, His inbreaking Reign to make all things right, without change in both the shape of one’s life and the relationships we are involved in personally, communally and in the world. His victory, his reign as Lord must be entered into. This is hard (almost impossible) to universalize.

  • Ted

    I don’t think universalists have such a problem with Romans 10:9-10. Philippians 2 says every tongue will confess, so the Romans passage ends up making the universalist case.

    Gregory MacDonald, author of Evangelical Universalist, seems to affirm penal substitution as well as being a universalist. I suppose it comes down to whether death is the cut off point by which you need to confess. Philippians 2 suggests not.

  • Michael Dise

    I think that the God of penal substitution, as it is commonly articulated at least, is seen as primarily angry, vindictive, and in need of having his wrath satisfied before he can be enabled to love. Such a view seems to espouse a God who is not in fact “slow to anger, abounding in love,” or whose love” endures forever.” In view of this, it could be difficult to trust such a God, especially with something as big as universalism. I think you can synthesize the two together, but God’s character in penal substitution doesn’t do much to support how expansive His love would seem to be in universalism.

  • Kenton

    I don’t think so. While I’m probably not hard-core PSA, it is a legacy for me theologically that I have not completely thrown out, and I am a functional univeralist.

    Essentially, couldn’t I say that we had a debt on a balance sheet that had a payment line on the other side and that payment of Christ’s sacrifice balanced everyone’s sin everywhere for all time? (I know, it pains me still to write it that way. I think I have been drawn to other atonement theories, but have found PSA hard to shake off.)

  • Tyler

    If I remember my church histories correctly, some of the first modern universalists were Calvinists who merely broadened the scope of limited atonement to include all humans. Does anyone have any facts to back me up or else correct me?

  • not only are they compatible, but, as a Christian universalist myself, I can say: When I assume a P.S. theory (as fundamental, as primary, even if I assume for the sake of arg that is is the only theory that has any legitimacy at all [which wd be going further than Horton wants to go]), that doesn’t in any way diminish the extent to which I’m inclined to be a universalist (given the grounds I have for that–but I suspect similar points would apply to other Christian universalists, too).

    There doesn’t seem to be anything inherent in the P.S. theory to work against the possibility of all being saved. — Well, one might think the P.S. theory would somehow bring in its wake the implication that one has to explicitly accept the offer of substitution to be saved. But I & other Christian universalists like me (& this would certainly be true of Bell, too, if he were a universalist) already hold that one must explicitly accept the offer, anyway. So, for *us*, P.S. presents no problem at all. (I suppose if you had some other very different kind of Christian universalist whose universalism depended on the thought that explicit acceptance was *not* needed, then if P.S. somehow implies explicit acceptance, this could undermine *their* universalism. But none of the CUs I hang around with seem to be like that.)

  • I’m familiar with the passage in Romans that says “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

    I’m not familiar with any passage in Romans that starts, “Unless you confess with your lips …” or “Those who fail to confess with their lips …”

    The latter passage, if it existed, would teach that one MUST believe and affirm. The former says what happens if one does, but does not in itself suggest that one must — it speaks of sufficiency, but does not, in itself, address necessity.

    As for the main question: What aspect of penal substitution would be incompatible with universalism? It would only seem to exclude universalism if you supposed that Jesus’ death and resurrection were somehow inadequate or insufficient to cover everyone.

  • Tony,

    Great question. I think you’re absolutely right about PSA and universalism not being mutually exclusive. As Richard Beck pointed out on his blog, the only difference between the universalist and the calvinist is the arithmetic.

    I happen to not have a problem at all with PSA as long as we throw the notion of “limited atonement” in the trash bin. If understood this way, PSA takes on a real power and weight to it rather than just being grounded in the assumption that God needs to even the score. This is a view that actually sees God doing what he teaches us to do; loving the enemy. There are some beautiful components of reformed theology that I really dig but as good as the good parts are, the bad parts are really bad.

    Great job on the radio show with Rob. Would have been nice for you to get into the the “freedom” issue since I’m pretty sure you and Rob would agree.

    Zach Lind

  • Ruairidh

    As someone who has had a long theological journey – specifically due to the question of my own sexuality – but one where I would still be most comfortable in the ‘Reformed’ camp its an interesting question. I believe the Penal Substitution model of the atonement is primary, and do not believe it is mutually exclusive with other models – more is going on, on different levels than just the substitutionary position. I think many opponents of penal substitution have used crude arguments against it but thats for another day. OK, so for me a more fundamental question is not are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive but who the atonement was for in the first place.
    I believe the Bible teaches that the Atonement achieved all that was necessary for the elect. I disagree with the ‘Arminian’ position that Jesus died for the world, but that – in effect – only really died for the ones who would accept him. The Arminian position is mutually exclusive with universalism. It simply doesn’t hold water. I hold to the Limited Atonement line that Jesus died – and the Atonemenet is 100% effective – for those he died for. For me, the question for the universalist/specific debate is therefore on a Limited Atonement understanding – If Jesus died for someone then there is no reason for them to be punished as Jesus has stood in their place. Thus if Jesus died for all people then all people are saved. If Jesus only died for a select number then only that select number are saved. But that for me is the basis. The Atonement is 100% effective for those for whom He died for. Penal Substitution is therefore not mutually exclusive with universalism, it is very much a possible partner. But I think most of the rangling around universalism has been from an Arminian perspective where it falls down; whereas from a Calvinist understanding the question is opened up in a whole different way. As a Calvinist, I find universalism a much easier leap than I would as an Arminian.

    Now, faith is the vehicle that delivers the benefits of Christ to the individual and that is the issue that universalism has to answer. But I think it is a much more honest (and Biblical) understanding to look at the question from the position that all those for whom Jesus died are guaranteed access to heaven. Therefore the real question is – for whom did Christ die?

    I’m sure I’ve not put this across well but hope it makes sense.

  • I totally agree what pretty much everyone has been saying – I affirm PSA (but I see it as an aspect of a broader Christus Victor view of the atonement), and precisely because I think that Jesus paid our debt, I believe the doors are wide open to everyone.

    I believe that the kind of love for humanity that is expressed in God becoming incarnate to (among other things) die for us is the same kind of love that would never close the door on anyone.

    And Ted, good connection w/ Romans 10 and Philippians 2!

    This is what I think so many of Rob Bell’s critics are missing – they think he dismisses the substitutionary death of Christ, while I see Rob’s ideas as only tenable when you presuppose that Jesus did in fact pay our debt, meaning there is no more punishment that *must* be handed out in order for God to be just.

  • Hey Tony
    interesting question that begets yet others. I don’t think that psa and universalism are mutually exclusive, especially if you buy into the theory of original sin.
    Personally i don’t buy into original sin, yes Adam sinned but was it transferred to all humanity in perpetuity? I doubt it. The Jews have no concept of original sin as christians understand it, so if original sin falls, what then do we make of the cross?

  • Phil

    I affirm some version of Substitutionary Atonement, but it’s hard for me to affirm the “Penal” version of it. I don’t believe that the Father was punishing Jesus on the cross – as is Jesus was the object and the Father was the subject. I actually think this type of thinking is what makes it so hard to believe that the Father actually loves them. And I would strongly disagree with Horton’s assertion that PSA is a primary doctrine. Anyway, I know that’s tangential to the post, but I just wanted to get it out.

    Anyway, I will agree with what others have said. I don’t see the two ideas – PSA and Universalism as mutually exclusive. Actually, I think a strict Calvinist view is what leads (or perhaps pushes) many people to Universalism. The inherent unfairness in election simply goes against people’s sense of right and wrong, and they feel have no other choice but to adopt some sort of universal atonement.

  • Allen Hilton

    Thanks for the question, Tony. And thanks to the commenters. But can I go back behind the “hypothetically Mike’s right about this” to the assumption that “most widely attested” = “necessary and primary”? Slow the car down for a second. Really? I don’t even need to start naming the things Mike and you and I don’t hold as “necessary and primary” that get more column inches and more attestations in scripture and/or the New Testament than Penal Substitution Atonement. Does anyone want hermeneutics to be about word counts?

  • DRT

    Is it required by PSA that it is god who is assuaged in substitution? Couldn’t it be that Jesus died from our anger in substitute for us, instead of god’s anger? That is how I see it, Jesus paid the price of our hate, fear and anger and then overcame. Isn’t that a penal substitution?

  • maybetodo
  • Jason

    I agree with what has been said thus far – and while he is not teaching universalism (He’s not not teaching it either:), Karl Barth in his Doctrine of Reconciliation (IV.1) primarily uses PSA (without some of its Anselmian baggage) to describe the universal implications of Jesus Death and Resurrection. Specifically he calls Jesus the “Judge Judged in our place.” I think, as others have noted, if you are in the reformed camp you have two options. First there is the traditional formulation of double predestination which puts forth a limited atonement (see Horton). The other is to go with Barth and say no to a double predestination and instead affirm that we are all elect “in Christ” in that Jesus shows that God is universally pro nobis and that his death is for all because all are elect in Christ. This second option opens up the definite possibility of universal salvation but also maintains God’s freedom to graft and ungraft branches as Romans 11 puts it.

  • Buck Eschaton

    I get the whole substitution part. Jesus is our substitute, but he is not paying any debt to the Father. Jesus has given himself, the Lord Yahweh, the Creator God, has given himself to us so that we might live. He dies in our place. Instead of us dying and destroying ourselves he dies in our place to save us all and draw all toward in him. He allows us to put all our violence, hatred, sin onto him so that he can take it away and that we can love one another. So it becomes love Jesus and love one another or die. If you do not love one another and give your hatred and violence to Jesus, you will destroy one another. That is the only Way. To stand in communion around the one we have pierced with our sins, and repent of those sins.

  • Nathanael

    I agree that penal substitution is not strictly incompatible with universalism–if Jesus fully satisfied the Father’s wrath on our behalf, God is now “free” to have mercy on everyone. However, I believe that PSA is inherently problematic and ultimately unsatisfying; George MacDonald found it worthy of rejection in his brilliant chapter “Justice” from the book Unspoken Sermons. The only way I can accept it is if I see God’s wrath as only and always against sin itself, never against sinners. In this view, Jesus took all of our sins upon himself and then took them to the grave, to set us free from our captivity to sin. God pronounced the death sentence against sin on the cross, guaranteeing redemption for all humanity.

  • Keith Rowley

    I was taught in college a non-unaversalist view that absolutely rejected limited atonement in it’s psa theory. In this view all sins of all people were paid for on the cross and people only went to hell because they rejected God and God’s love themselves. In this view not getting into heaven cant be about punishment for our sins because Jesus already dealt with all the sins of all people for all time. The idea here was much like Bells view in a way only goes even farther. God allows people to choose hell and choose to reject God out of God’s love for them. In this view God sending people to hell is actually an act of love because forcing them to remain in heaven against thier will would be an unloving act of violence against them. I think this view necessitates that we postulate much of the biblical language of hell to be poetic in nature refering to an unpleasant destiny and we further postulate that being forever removed from God’s presence is the worst destiny there could be.

  • How substitionary was the substitution? Kind of susbsitionary? Or once for all substitutionary?

    This is a big problem non-calvinists have with the calvinist position, right? No one who holds to a limited atonement view votes themselves outside the limit.

    My issue is always with how much it sounds like the narrative of the Gospels. “We have the corner on who is in and who is out.” Jesus seems to expand the boundaries. And, most, if not all Calvinists are “in”, precisely because the boundary was graciously expanded (that is, they are not Jews).

  • Keith Rowley

    I always found limited atonement to be the second most problematic of reformed doctrines. I think it cheapens the value of what Jesus did on the cross by saying his death was not enough to atone for everyone’s sins. Instead it was only powerful enough or in a psa view only worth enough to pay cover the debt of some people’s sins.

    On a side note the reformed doctrine I find hardest to buy is the concept that God forewills people to commit certain sins then still considers them legally or morally guilty of committing them. You cant have it both ways. Either people have free will or they are not responsible for their actions. Pick one!

  • Keith Rowley

    To the degree that I accept a psa type doctrine I tend to have a view that the sin debt is more cosmic than personal in nature. That is the idea that sin by it’s nature leads to some form of spiritual / physical death “the wages of sin is death” but that this debt is one that is owed to an impersonal rule of the universe not to God. Sin leads to death because that is just the way it works. Not because God wants or needs it to be that way or wants or needs to actually punish siners for their sins.

  • Mike

    I’d have no problems with Penal Substitution if I worshipped Molech and thought that the God I followed was a child abuser who needed child sacrifice (ala Molech) to satisfy his blood thirst for judgement. As God himself declares that he is more interested in mercy than sacrifice and when viewing the cross in the light of Christ’s parables I must say that substituionary theology makes no scriptural sense when understanding the scriptures in the original languages and cultures (though it works really well in systematic theology when your systems are linear and man made).

    Considering that neither the Apostles Creed nor the Nicene Creed view PS as a requirement for orthodoxy I personally think think Mr Horton should be a bit more careful before he anoints himself g-d in judging who’s in and who’s out.

    In regards to whether PS and Universalism are mutually exclusive they do seem to be different sides to the same coin. The scriptures don’t give a hard and fast date as to when judgement takes place, thus allowing for people to accept Christ long after death, and if g-d did in fact kill his own child to appease his sense of justice then its an awful waste of blood if it doesn’t cover the whole world (ala John 3:16).

  • Dan

    Penal Substitution yes:
    Hebrews 9:26-28 But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

    Universalism no:
    Hebrews 2:2-3 For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?

  • Phil

    I don’t see anything in those first verses you posted that would necessarily point one to a PSA understanding of the atonement. Saying Christ was sacrificed to take away the sins of many isn’t speaking as to the reason to why he had to be sacrificed, i.e., to appease the wrath of the Father.

    Also, I’d note that a universalist would say for the second passage that there’s nothing saying that the punishment it’s speaking of is unending.

  • There are only two ways, as far as I can tell, that penal substitution and universalism would be at all incompatible.

    The first, and less plausible, would be to say that the redemptive power of Jesus’ sacrifice was insufficient to save everyone — which would seem to me to be a more mind-blowing heresy than any of those I cheerfully indulge in.

    The second, which causes a little friction but doesn’t make P.S. and universalism mutually exclusive, would be to say that people are free to accept or reject the substitution. The question then would be: what constitutes rejection? Is it an explicit rejection, occurring after death or in the moment of death? Is it implicit in the life that you lead on Earth? Do you need to have accepted Jesus in the sense of dogmatic Christian beliefs, or through Christlike ethics and actions in life, or simply through a serene and accepting heart?

    These would be the very questions that lead me to be more universalist in my outlook. God’s love and God’s grace seem to me to be powerful, far-reaching, all-encompassing; the sort of things that would give anyone every chance they could possibly have at it. I might stop short of saying everyone goes to heaven (though I don’t believe in eternal damnation, so I am unsure of the alternatives); but I definitely believe that everyone’s got a shot at it.

  • ben w.

    I am memorizing the book of Romans with a bunch of friends, and came across this verse last night: Romans 5:9 “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” This verse seems to present, very clearly, the idea that God has wrath against people because of sin that is not covered by the blood of Jesus. All that may not be apparent from those 23 words, but seems patently clear from those verses in context. To Phil’s comment, I think the Dan’s quotations are very pertinent to PSA, and prove this substitutionart nature when read in full context (God’s wrath appers in both chapters 3 & 4 in Hebrews, toward those neglecting his covenant salvation).

    Mike, I love PSA theology. I find it to be central to the Gospel presented in the Bible (in the original languages, in historical context…). and I don’t worship Molech. God might be in danger of being a “child-abuser”, except 1) He orchestrated the sacrifice of his Son, who is also Himself. A robust trinitarian doctrine protects God from being the violent being who is attacking “another”, but rather is giving and receiving this wrath within Himself. 2) God is also not a child-abuser because Christ chose to follow God’s plan and give Himself up to His accusers willingly, so that He might be eternally exalted – as He is right now while i’m writing this.

    One last point: I find it striking that so many comments have been “my sensibilities just won’t allow for __________ (insert PSA, exclusivism, etc.). It’s repulsive and/or unacceptable.” It’s unfair to then think that evangelicals come to believe PSA and exclusivism because it appeals to thier sensibilities (“that guy must love the idea that millions are going to Hell…” or “they only believe in PSA because it gives them an excuse for violence and wrath…”) Evangelicals, like myself, come to hold these positions despite our natural sensibilities against them, because the Bible presents them rather clearly to us. These doctrines may come to be glorious to one over time, but that’s because we find ourselves bound to the testimony about Christ presented by the Apostles.

  • Buck Eschaton

    I might be wrong but I understand the “of God” part is not in the Greek of Romans 5:9. It should, I believe, read “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath.” The wrath does not originate in God, or is of God.

  • ben w.

    Buck, I just checked, you are correct! I still feel safe adding it in, because context demands it. I can’t find who else this wrath would be referring to. Neither 1) Personal wrath of a human, nor 2) wrath of Jesus, nor 3) the wrath of the world against a Christian is even a subject in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

    Conversely, God is explicitly presented as the “possessor” of wrath in 1:18 (“wrath of God”), 3:5 (God is righteous in “his wrath”), 9:22 (God displays “wrath”), 12:9 (“leave it to wrath” – which God claims for Himself in 12:9b), 13:4-5 (a civil authority carries out wrath, as God’s viceroy). The word wrath appears over 10 times in Romans, and it seems clear that it always refers to the wrath of God, except in 9:22, which speaks of “vessels of wrath” – that is, the hard teaching that it would be perfectly just of God (as the Universe’s Creator) to create some human beings so that He might pour wrath upon them.

    But that’s another blog post…

  • Buck Eschaton

    Not having time to write something myself I will pass these discussions along.

    (starting at the 4th paragraph)


  • I must have a different Bible.

  • Mike


    “I still feel safe adding it in, because context demands it.” You’re kind of missing the point. Context DOESN’T demand it. The wrath is the the wages of sin, not because God has a blood lust, but because it is the consequences of ones actions.

    Throughout the bible (once we moved past the Deuteronomic writers sense of justice which would fit perfectly with PS and which gets a fabulous post-exilic beat down in the semi-straw man arguments of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) God talks again and again about how he doesn’t care for sacrifice, how it is not needed. Why is Paul framing the cross in sacrificial terms? Because it is the only way his audience could understand grace. Remember he was writing during the second temple period, sacrifices were still occurring, not just in Jerusalem but everywhere in the Roman world, and the only way his audience could possibly understand grace was through the sacrificial metaphor. This is also why it this metaphor is used so much in Hebrews.

    If you are as trinitarian as you say you are then why are you even looking to Romans when you have Christ words. If PS was so important you would think that Christ himself would have made it a cornerstone in his parables or teachings. Rather he framed his crucifixion in terms of being a leader willing to do what ever it takes to bring his children back to him, NOT because his heavenly father demanded a blood payment.

    The fact that Jesus willingly was crucified is immaterial if his Heavenly Father (Christs own words) orchestrated the sacrifice of his only son. Jeremiah tells us that God never even thought it those terms (ch 32).

    I’m not arguing for my “sensibilities” here I’m flat out arguing for a biblical/scriptural (NOT a fundamentalist theological) understanding of Christ’s actions. This is important because it determines whether we view God as a bloodthirsty tyrant who is willing to demand child sacrifice or a God of love. In turn it also effects our view of grace and whether or not God wants all of his children into His Kingdom.

    Finally, while there are some evangelicals who ascribe to penal substitution, you don’t have to follow PS in order to be an evangelical, or even theologically conservative.

  • ben w.

    Annie – was that to me? or Buck? Sorry, but I don’t catch your point.

    Buck – I’ve perused your links and, personally, find them quite unconvincing. It seems like Alison and Nuechterlein are bending over backwards to avoid the plain meaning of the text. Nuechterlein suggests that Paul’s language of “wrath of God” in Romans 1 is him deftly speaking as one of his theological opponents for 14 verses. I find that textually and interpretively implausible. Did Paul write Romans such that only the sharpest tools in the shed (.0001% sharpest…) could catch his drift?? If God had anything to do with Paul’s writing of Romans, would He have really made the thesis so confounding to 99.999% of his readers throughout time?

    Furthermore, I can’t find what these men make of the wrath of God presented in the Old Testament. If God’s wrath is debatable in Paul (which I’m only just realizing that it is), I can’t imagine folks debating God’s wrath as presenting in the Old Testament. More importantly, I wonder what you make of it. All of Israel’s history presented by the Prophets, claiming that God is threatening wrath for their covenantal disobedience – were they just misguided? Was that a different god? What that a different time in YHWH’s growth when he hadn’t really become “enlightened” to civilized living? I’m sorry if I sound abrasive, but I really can’t fathom how a person could hold together 1) taking the whole Bible seriously (not even inerrantly, just anything much other than offensive or even laughable) while also 2) having no place in God’s character for wrath against sin and those who commit it. (caveat: I don’t think God’s wrath is the sum of, or even the center of, His character, but it seems vital to acknowledge this aspect of God’s being).

    To me, this is what makes the Gospel beautiful, as I find it presented in the Scriptures: (Romans 5) Mankind rarely sees a man dying for an honorable man, but God’s love and grace is astoundingly more glorious because He loved His enemies, who personally spurned His will and thus incited His wrath, by taking in Himself their punishment, adopting them as His children, and granting them the righteousness of His perfect Son. This exchange so changes a person that they are enabled to live the life of love that God commands and Christ exemplifies. I truly hope you find such a message as glorious too.

  • Mike

    “I find that textually and interpretively implausible.”

    -It’s only implausible if you don’t understand the nuances of ancient rhetoric of which Romans follows the template more than any other of Paul’s writings. See Cicero (amongst many others) for similar examples.

    “Did Paul write Romans such that only the sharpest tools in the shed (.0001% sharpest…) could catch his drift??”

    -No, because his audience, especially a Roman audience, would have understood the genre all too well. Ancient rhetoric, like Hebrew Apocalyptic literature, are genre’s that modern audiences just simply don’t understand because of how long it has been since they’ve been in use. In some ways it’s kind of like Akkadian contracts, they are written so radically differently than modern contracts (besides the use of cuneiform and Sumerian logograms) that if you didn’t know the structure it would be really easy to misinterpret who was the seller and who was the buyer (using just one example).

  • ben w.

    I really need to get off this feed, so anyone else can have the last words after this.

    Our differences obviously run deep, but here are some responses – honestly with prayer and love:

    1) You speak of wrath as the (natural?) consequence of sin. It seems to me that you understand this to happen by some sort of Law, mechanistically, outside of God – or even prior to God. Understanding God to be the only ‘a-se’ being, I can’t make sense of that. If sin begets wrath, in whatever form, I understand it’s because God designed the world that way and is still actively-immediately involved in it. I think the translators (of many translations) are right that the “wrath” in Romans 5:9 is “of God.”

    2) I take the Bible as a unified, coherent, trustworthy testimony (as I think Jesus did – as He’s presented in the Gospels). I find intellectually-satisfying explanations for the variance among authors and biblical books. I take the sacrifices of Deuteronomy to be God-orchestrated foreshadowing of Christ’s final victory, not mis-guided religious attempts (is that fair to say?) The OT sacrificial system is based on principles of faith, repentance, and look-forward to the real enchilada – the Cross of Jesus. I agree that prophets and NT writers see the the ritual sacrifices themselves (especially divorced from faith and repentance) as utterly missing the point.

    3) You say that Paul uses sacrificial imagery because that’s what his hearers would understand. Maybe he used such language simply because that’s how he too understood the Cross – as centrally explained in sacrificial terms?

    4) You’re right that PSA is more clearly seen in the NT letters than in the Gospels. Yet, I still think it’s there. 2 examples come to mind. 1) John’s testimony that Jesus is the “lamb of God.” I think this intentionally calls forth OT imagery of the PS-sacrifice for sin. Also, Jesus words about “drinking the cup” and the “cup of the New Covenant” intentionally echo back to OT language where God threatens that Israel would drink the cup of His wrath because of their sin. Christ is saying His New Covenant is one where He has drunk God’s wrath for us, so far as we believe and rely on His sacrifice in our place.

    5) I’m not sure what you mean by Jer 32. What was the Heavenly Father’s role in the Cross? Did He oppose it? Did He avoid the situation? I take it that God never intended human, child-sacrifice (and the Church has NEVER taken PSA to validate child-sacrifice), that God is not a bully to His divine Son, and that their eternity-past decision making was harmonious, unified, yet still beyond a mystery to humans.

    6) I honestly ask you to please stop framing the question in the way of your 2nd to last paragraph. No PSA-proponent finds God to be the monster you describe. The options are not simply: non-PSA God of love -or- PSA “bloodthirsty tyrant” and child abuser. I would suggest that if you can’t reconcile PSA (or maybe God being wrathful toward sin generally) and God being essentially love, then you haven’t understood PSA. Millions of Christians have reconciled those 2 ideas quite comfortably in their own minds.

    And yet, I am realizing more that PSA-lovers and PSA-haters do conceive of God’s character in significantly (radically?) different ways. You may well hate and be disgusted by the “God” I worship every day, that I pray to, and that I praise when I gather with our Church; but this is the faith I have come to stand on as I have come to understand God through the Christian Scriptures.

  • Mike


    I appreciate your reply. As I was reading it I realized that the biggest issue is that while we are both using English, we are speaking radically different languages. For example, when I was talking about the Deuteronomic author sense of justice (which Job’s friends do an excellent job of encapsulating) I’m not talking about the sacrificial system.

    In regards to the sacrificial system, this isn’t something that God established in a vacuum. Much, if not most, of it can be found in pre-existing Akkadian (think Hammurapi), Sumerian, and Egyptian law codes and other literature. For example, circumcision had been practiced by Egyptian priests for a thousand years before the Exodus. God was using a worship system that the children of Israel would have been familiar with, that’s not what made it unique. What made it unique and Holy was the level of grace and love which was incorporated into the system, in the small details, which wasn’t in other systems. On the outside, however, it looked a lot like other “codes” occurring in the Levant at the time. I say all this to say that it took almost 2,000 years to prepare the nation of Israel (and the world) for the coming of Jesus. At the time of Moses, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, humanity wasn’t ready for it.

    When the world was ready, Christ came. And he was the sacrifice, not because God demanded it, but because WE did. A sinful humanity couldn’t accept that level of grace and love without some form of payment being made. God doesn’t have the bloodlust, we do.

    If you use “wrath” to refer to the natural consequences of a persons actions within the system that God set up then I can kind of see where your coming from. However, I don’t like that langage for a few reasons. First, there are a lot of times that holy followers of Christ end up experiencing that kind of “wrath”, not because of anything that they have done but rather due to the actions of others. God’s “wrath”, when understood this way is capricious and arbitrary. My main reason for not liking the use of “wrath” is because it scars and scares people from experiencing the joy that is to be found in Christ.

    I think we both probably view the Bible as a unified, coherent, trustworthy testimony. I know I do. I think we’re speaking different languages about profound experiences with God as shown through the light of the scriptures. While I can’t stand PS, for what it makes God out to be, I CERTAINLY don’t think that you worship a monster NOR do I “hate” or am I “disgusted” by the God we both worship.

    It seems as though we are back to where this whole debate started and that is this: If penal substitution is a litmus test to orthodoxy then we have problems. If it isn’t then I firmly believe we can be brothers and sisters who, while we may disagree on certain theological points, ultimately we can love God and love each other while pouring out our lives as a drink offering to “our” Father.

    If my polemic has been strong or I haven’t shown love through this discussion, then I ask for forgiveness.

  • As an Evangelical Univseralist I know quite a number of other Christian Universalists who endorse PSA. Def. it’s not incompatible.

  • Not by necessity. Adherents to PSA have argued about how “limited” the atonement is for centuries. Now, we’re just broadening the conversation a little further than we’ve done in the past.

  • Theodore A Jones

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 Figure out why this statement is true, and then you will make some progress.