Fighting Words about the Atonement

Here’s a section of Doug Pagitt Radio, which I guest-hosted on Sunday, in which I hotly debate sidekick John Musick and caller “Steve” on the subject of the atonement:

Go to the DPR YouTube channel for other segments of the show, including interviews with Randall Balmer and Miroslav Volf.

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  • Jay

    Great job, but I think if missed the “fighting words.” Sounded pretty peaceful to me.

    • Yeah, that was overhyped rhetoric in my headline. 🙂

  • Buck Eschaton

    I was just wondering specifically regarding Isaiah 53:6 and the whole “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” specifically in light of what Desiring God Ministries says here:
    How does Yahweh lay the sin on the Incarnate Yahweh (Jesus)? So Yahweh is the Son of God and then where is God Most High (the Father God) in this text. How does PSA handle the lack of any kind of transaction between members of the trinity in this text?

  • Nicely done.

    Radio is a fantastic allegory for theology. Radio was once a mysterious voice through a speaker. Now, it’s on the Internet with video. Still the same concept, only now more interesting.

  • ben w.

    Buck, I think your misreading of the linked article by Jon Bloom is causing you to misread Isaiah 53. Bloom’s point in the article, is that Jesus is God. Jesus is the very same God that is revealed all throughout the Old Testament – the One True God of Israel – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus is this very God, in the flesh. But obviously, Philippians 2 still indicates the complexities of the Trinity: “God has highly exalted him…” So you have God the Father exalting another “person” (Jesus) so that He might be praised like only YHWH should be praised. (i.e. – with every knee bowed and tongue confessing). Moreover, when this Jesus is praised, God the Father gets glorified (2:11). God the Father is God, and Jesus is God; and yet they interact and relate as persons, and are described as serving different roles at times (Jesus humbles Himself, God exalts Him; Jesus dies on the Cross, God raises Him. etc). Bloom is certainly not advocating that there is no distinction between the Father and Son or that every reference to YHWH in the Old Testament should be understood to be a specific reference to the 2nd person of the Trinity.

    Isaiah 53:6 is not Philippians 2. To be understood rightly, it must be read according to its particular author, genre, and point in salvation history. It speaks of the glorious ways that God the Father (“YHWH”) and the God-Man Jesus (“the servant”) interacted to save God’s people. So, to your questions – In Isaiah 53, God the Father is the person referenced as YHWH, and Jesus is the servant. Dr. Gentry’s article (that I’ve already referenced in the comments before – makes it clear that this is the standard PSA interpretation; and Bloom’s points about Paul’s intentions in Phil 2 don’t detract from Gentry’s points in the least.

    • Evelyn

      Ok. So the upshot is that after 2000 years Jesus Christ comes along symbolizing that YHWH has had a “change of heart”. Jesus says “treat your neighbor as yourselves” but YHWH said “I’m going to kill all the Egyptian first-born but you can avoid your babies being killed by marking your doorstep with the blood of the Paschal lamb – psst: Don’t tell your Egyptian neighbors about the sign.” Jesus says “Love your enemy” but YHWH said ” I will be the enemy of your enemies”. Jesus says “Go out and proclaim the gospel to all the nations” but YHWH says “You are my chosen people (not them)”.

      It would make more sense for YHWH to kill Jesus to get him to stop tormenting and changing the minds of his chosen people than for Jesus to actually be the incarnate YHWH. Jesus seems to be something else – and whatever that is has the ability to triumph over YHWH.

      • ben w.

        Evelyn, call me old fashioned, but I’ve always been extremely wary of any position that has been universally condemned by major church counsels, the Church’s greatest theologians, and the testimony of the Christian Scriptures. I think you paint a simplistic picture of the OT’s descriptions of the character and actions of YHWH (who is Jesus), missing His love for other peoples, His abounding mercy and forgiveness toward a wayward people, and His gracious means of salvation available to anyone who would, by faith, walk according to His covenant promises. Likewise, I think you present a simplistic view of Jesus (who is YHWH) omitting His promises of condemnation on those who reject His message, His wholesale confirmation of all that is written in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (the whole OT, that is), and Jesus’ self-association with the very YHWH of the Old Testament (see John 8:58, among others). I actually just think there are more careful readings of the OT and NT that allow for a synthesis, rather than a rejection.

        Your proposal was labeled heresy before the internal combustion engine, electricity, the United States, Newtonian physics, the printing press, Isalm, and the fall of the Roman empire, to name a few. Some “old things” in theology can to be developed and improved upon, other things are “old” because they have proven themselves true to generation after generation of the disciples of Jesus. I don’t find any sufficient reason to reject the OT, the testimony of Jesus about YHWH, the testimony of the Apostles about the God of the OT, and the universal testimony of the Christian Church in your statements above.

  • ben w.


    As you conceded, conservative evangelicals affirm the ideas of Christus Victor, while also affirming PSA. In the festschrift to John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson writes an article titled, “Christus Victor et Propitiator”. One quotation from his conclusions: “Any adequate understanding of the atonement must include within it this aspect of Christ’s disarming of the powers of darkness.” (185) The ideas of Christus Victor are important and biblical, yet there are other non-negotiables about the atonement:
    1) God has wrath toward sin.
    2) Personal sin earns each person a penalty (death).
    3) Christ’s death had consequences not only in man (forgiveness, moral example, regeneration), but also in God (propitiation / wrath-appeased).

    Of course, God is free. He could have satisfied His wrath through some other means (human flagellation, purgatory, laser-light shows…whatever). But in His wisdom, He chose that His own Son would drink the cup of His wrath so that humans wouldn’t have to – and we must not miss that point of the Cross.

  • Phil Miller

    There are a few things questions that I have not seen any of the staunch defenders of PSA answer.

    1. If the sacrificial system for sin in the OT was completely God ordained, why did it need to be changed? If forgiveness of sins was available by sacrificing animals actually led to people being forgiven, why not just continue this practice into perpetuity?

    2. Concerning the wrath of God – if the cross is where Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God for mankind’s sin completely, than it seems to me that it has to be an all or nothing event. It either dealt with everything or it didn’t. Yet, many of the staunchest defender of PSA say that God is still wrathful towards sin, enough so that people who still sin will face this wrath in the way of an eternally conscience hell. It seems to me of an instance of people wanting it both ways.

    3. On a more basic level, it seems that the term “forgiveness of sins” is used rather loosely. Am I really forgiving someone if I still demand payment for the wrong they did to me? If someone owes me $50, and their friends pays me back on their behalf; the debt is no longer there, but it’s not really correct to say I forgave the debt. Forgiveness in this case cost me nothing. Now I suppose the response to this is that the payment and the receiving of the payment both take place with the Trinitarian relationship somehow, but it still seems odd to speak of this transaction as forgiveness.

    All this isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some merits in keeping PSA language in the discussion (especially as it relates to Israels specific covenant history). I just think that people are trying to draw too many sweeping conclusions from the standard PSA model.

  • ben w.

    Phil, I’ll try to give some brief responses to your questions:

    1) The OT sacrificial system was completely ordained, and yet, it was never “final”. The same is true for many things in the OT: God’s choosing of ethnic Israel –> the NT Church; The Garden of Eden –> Fall & then finally New Creation; Failing Kings (Saul, David, etc) –> Victorious King (Jesus); Levitical priesthood to our Great High Priest. Hebrews teaches that Jesus brings a “better covenant” because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4). Hebrews calls the OT system a “shadow” and calls these things “copies”, not as rejected, but as serving to point forward to the better priest and better sacrifice: Jesus.

    2) Jesus didn’t take the wrath of God completely, but bore the wrath for those who would repent and believe in Him (John 3:16-18). John says there win v18 that “whoever does not believe in him is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Those who do not have faith in Christ stand condemned by their sin. So God still has wrath for those who are still “in Adam”, “in the flesh”, and “in darkness”. God still has wrath for those who have not repented and believed in Jesus, and thus still walk in their sin. (likewise, God’s wrath remains over those who give lip-service to Jesus yet still show by their life that they “walk in sin.” (1 Jn 3:9)).

    3) Phil, I think you’re right on in point 3! Salvation is a miraculous gem that the Bible looks at and describes from various perspectives. We should note all of them! So it’s valuable to understand both senses of this transactional-forgiveness that you speak about (and there are still many others not being discussed here!). So in one sense, saints have been forgiven by God because their sins have been removed without any deserving action on their own part. As you say, it “cost me nothing”. No good works, no striving effort, no flagellation, no prayer wheels, no penance paid. On the other hand, the debt really has been “paid” – as you point out, within the members of the Trinity. Christ became the “curse” that we were destined to receive by our sin (Gal 3). And 2 Cor 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Looking from me to God, I see free forgiveness. Looking between the Son and Father, I see my penalty paid. There are many other vibrant ways that the Bible describes the salvation of mankind, and too much dependence upon transactional / financial / penal language will diminish the Bible’s multiplicity of metaphors and language. Still, one need not fear using “penalty” and the language of substitution.

    • Phil Miller

      1. Well, I agree with most of what you wrote here. I guess where I would differ is that I would say that the sacrificial system itself wasn’t really a mechanism that took away sins. It seems clear to me from the OT that the Jews believed that it wasn’t the sacrifice itself that forgave their sins, but rather it was God in His mercy. The sacrifices were done out of obedience, and I think a case can be made that God put into place a sacrificial system more to limit violence than to condone it. In other words, it was men who needed bloodshed, not God.

      2. I flat out disagree with this. There are any number of passages I could point to refute limited atonement, but one of the most explicit is 1 John 2:2 – “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. ”

      If one really believes in limited atonement, it seems the best we can say to people is, “Jesus may or may not have died for your sins.” I don’t see any hesitancy in the apostles or early church proclaiming the fact that they believed Jesus’ death was universal in its scope.

      3. Again, I have no problem saying Christ was a substitute for us. But my problem has to do with who was punishing Him. PSA says the Father was. I believe it’s more accurate to say that Christ was taking upon Himself all the evil, all the violence, and all the hatred this world could dish out, and once and for all dealing with it. Through death He trampled death.

      • Phil,

        1) Old Testament believers were saved by grace through faith in a coming Messiah. The scriptures are clear that persons have always and only been saved by grace through faith, but the faith that saves is never alone. Even though OT believers lived before Jesus, saving faith for them was explicit trust in the promises of God. The promises of God began in Gen. 3:15, with the promise of a seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Many of the Old Testament’s promises concern an anointed Redeemer, who came to be referred to as the messiah, whom God would raise up to accomplish the salvation of his people. So even though OT saints did not know that the messiah would be named Jesus, grow up in Nazareth, and so forth, in the words of Gen. 3:15 they heard God promise to raise up a man who would save them. Faith came by hearing, and they trusted God to keep his word.

        The Levitical system operates only by faith: Israel must believe that Yahweh really is in the tabernacle, that he really is holy, that sin and uncleanness really do make it dangerous to be near Yahweh, and that the prescribed sacrifice really will atone for sin. All of this must be taken on faith. Furthermore, the Levitical system only works if the worshiper believes that Yahweh is in the midst of the people, believes that he is holy, believes that sacrifice must be offered for cleansing, and lives in a way that corresponds with these beliefs (e.g., Lev. 15:31; 22:9).

        We have to remember that the regulations set forth in Leviticus are a judgment, and they make it possible for people to substitute animals of sacrifice that will be judged in their place, that they might be saved.

        I see no more contradiction between the Levitical sacrifices highlighted above and what James says about faith without works being dead. The ground of their faith is their belief in Gen. 3:15 and the promises that get added onto that, for instance, in Gen 12:1–3. The evidence that they believe will be seen in the way they act on what Moses tells them they must do, lest they die.

        Phil, you are right that there were done out of obedience but you miss the point that it was a faith-fueled obedience. Not something quite as sociological as Girard would have you to believe (though I do believe God could have intended that as second-order benefit in this society).

        Ben, I’m with you on this one. Correct me if I’ve misinterpreted you here.

        2) Set in the context of the entire letter of 1 John, I find it difficult to interpret John as opening up a “universal” atonement here. There are four primary references in the NT where the word “propitiation” is used (cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Three of the four references clearly teach that propitiation is strictly limited to a definite people, namely, the elect of God. We won’t plum the depths of the argument over the extent of the atonement here, but we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss either.

        That I John 2:2 contains universal language is evident from the term “whole world.” John 3:16 also uses the universal term “world” in the same manner. It is clear, therefore, that there is a biblical or divine universalism taught in Scripture. However, the issue does not center on the fact that universal terminology is used. It centers on the meaning or interpretation of that terminology. Is John talking in a generic sense? a geographical sense? an eschatological sense? perhaps an ethological sense? I think the latter best interprets the meaning of the immediate context of 1 John, and the general context of the NT. I read that the believing Jews alone are intended, of whom John was one; and the addition [last part of the verse] is not an extending of the propitiation of Christ to others than believers, but only to other believers [i.e., Gentile believers]. It seems that John wants to make it clear to his readers in this verse (as well as Jn. 3:16) that the OT particularism in relation to the nation of Israel is now past, so he uses the universal term “whole world,” Christ has now brought in the New Covenant and has prepared the way for NT universalism—a divine universalism which teaches that Messiah is the saviour of the spiritual seed of Abraham, who testify in’ due season that they are none other than Christ’s ransomed ones, God’s elect.

        Again, unless one is a blatant universalist then the atonement is “limited” in some respect (and “limited” is not a bad thing).

        Thoughts? Ben? Tony?

        3) Your problem is simple. PSAn, rightly understood, does not teach that ‘God brought about the violent death of his Son’. It teaches that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit together purposed that the Son should become a man and as a man bear on the cross God’s just punishment for sin in the place of sinners. What you describe as PSA is not PSA. The Son lays down his life of his own accord. The best proponents of PSA have always taught that the Father and the Son in eternity covenanted with one another that the Son would lay down his life. I cannot say it better than John Stott: ‘We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners’ (The Cross of Christ, 151). The difference between the caricature presented here on this blog and Stott’s careful statement is Trinitarian: Father and Son act together, not as two separate agents with their own plans. This problem of a mistaken explanation of PSA is grave–if one cannot rightly explain a doctrine there is little chance that he will critique it accurately.

        Please forgive me for the length of this post. Hopefully it is helpful in advancing the conversation. 🙂

        • Phil Miller

          Your problem is simple. PSAn, rightly understood, does not teach that ‘God brought about the violent death of his Son’. It teaches that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit together purposed that the Son should become a man and as a man bear on the cross God’s just punishment for sin in the place of sinners. What you describe as PSA is not PSA.

          Well you should tell that to John Piper. I was at a Passion Conference (’06, I believe) where he said, from the stage, in front of 18,000 or so college students that Jesus was holding back the Father from killing them. He said the Father wants to kill you, and the in your place He decided to crush Jesus. I have heard Mark Driscoll say the same damn thing!

          So either all these so-called proponents of PSA are doing it wrong, or you’re clinging too tightly to this particular doctrine to see it for what it is.

          • Phil,

            Send me some links to transcripts or videos of the misrepresentations you have heard and I would gladly take a look into them.

            Any other thoughts on the rest of my comment above?

          • Phil Miller

            Your point about the OT sacrifices sounds dangerously close to New Perspective. I like it for the most part. Judaism at its heart isn’t a religion that believes people are saved by works. Jews believe that they are made God’s children through His grace. So it seems to me that you’re trying to have it both ways – you’re saying that the sacrifices themselves weren’t really a mechanism by which sin was removed, but they were actually given by God as a mechanism. Perhaps I’m missing something?

            Regarding universal atonement, I’m not going to get into it. I could name a bunch of books that refute Calvinism, but it probably wouldn’t help. I do think Roger Olson’s latest, Against Calvinism is a good primer, though. I’ve seen all the wrangling over whether “world” actually means “world” or “all” means “all”, and I’m willing to accept that the clear meaning of these passages is that God really does desire to save all, and that Jesus’ death was for everyone.

            As far as Driscoll, you have this oldie but goodie:

            I at one point did have the Piper recordings, but I’m not going to take time to find them. Piper is pretty open and consistent about his beliefs. Here’s a direct quote from him:

          • Phil Miller

            I typed up a reply with a few links in it, and I think that caused it to get held up in the moderation queue.

          • Phil,

            I’m not quite sure how you see me representing the NPP. You should read what I wrote in conjunction with what ben W. wrote concerning The Epistle to the Hebrews and types/shadows. I am saying that the OT sacrificial system was instituted by God to be practiced by faithful Israelites (in the NT we rightly recognize this as a “sign” of what would be fulfilled in Christ on Calvary). I am not saying that it was salvific apart from faith in God and his promises.

            I’m not interested in debating Calvinism. I wrote what I did because you claimed 1 John 2.2 as an “explicit” reference for your own position. I wanted to demonstrate that it can just as easily/clearly be demonstrated in ben W.’s favor as well (and I believe with fewer exegetical gymnastics). We can agree to disagree here and it shouldn’t have any bearing on PSA.

            Thanks for the links. I agree with both Driscoll and Piper. IMHO, neither misrepresents PSA.

          • Phil Miller

            I’m not really trying to belabor the point, but I just don’t see how you can square this from the Stott quote

            ‘We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion

            with this from the Piper quote:

            God smote him. God crushed him.

            In that sentence, God is the subject, and Jesus it the object. How much clearer could it be?

          • The context of Stott’s quote is to highlight that in the atonement what we witness is a Triune activity, so don’t ignore that last clause in the quote or else you will become confused: “for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners”.

  • Smarty Pants

    ben w said,

    Of course, God is free. He could have satisfied His wrath through some other means (human flagellation, purgatory, laser-light shows…whatever). But in His wisdom, He chose that His own Son would drink the cup of His wrath so that humans wouldn’t have to – and we must not miss that point of the Cross.

    Casey said,

    The difference between the caricature presented here on this blog and Stott’s careful statement is Trinitarian: Father and Son act together, not as two separate agents with their own plans.

    So if I undersand the PSA theory correctly, God the Father is the cosmic sadist, God the Son is the cosmic masochist, and the God the Spirit is the cosmic voyeur. Sounds like atonement to me.

    • Smarty Pants,

      You don’t.