Penal Substitutionary Atonement – Precious Gospel or Divine Child Abuse?

Penal Substitutionary Atonement – Precious Gospel or Divine Child Abuse? July 2, 2007

In January 2008, the following post was identified as the 25th all-time most popular post with readers of this blog. The 26th most-read post was “25% Off Logos Bible Software by Libronix.

This post summarizes some of my series on the atonement, and links to a number of other posts on the subject. There are many other posts within this series—the most popular of which was one entitled “J. I. Packer on the Atonement.


As we finally draw near to the conclusion of this long-running series on the atonement, it has struck me just how the lines are being drawn. On the one hand there are those of us who feel PSA is essential to the gospel. It’s not that we think it’s the only thing—or indeed that every gospel presentation must major on it. It’s just that we think it’s essential, and that gospel presentations can’t deny it.

Just yesterday I heard what, to me, was the best gospel message I’ve ever heard. In fact, it didn’t major on an explanation of the exact mechanism of the atonement, but there was a line about the coming wrath of God and how that had to be taken away. I was reminded as I was listening that the gospel shouldn’t become merely a battleground for us to fight over. It should, instead, be something we hold precious. I can’t encourage you enough to download and listen to Tope’s sermon on the prodigal son. Many Christians heard the impact of this message of God’s love and forgiveness with a fresh insight. Several visitors made a response to the gospel. I loved what he said at the close of the sermon—“It may be free, but it wasn’t cheap. It cost the life of his son.”

It seems impossible for those of us who love the gospel of the Savior suffering the punishment of our sins to simply agree to disagree with those on the other hand who claim it is “divine child abuse.” I suspect the divisions in the visible church over this issue will grow more prominent rather than less so. This is just one of several reasons that, as Andrew Cottingham spoke of today, makes ecumenicalism so difficult for some of us who really care.

Today the American magazine, Christianity Today, published an article about the recent UK controversies over the atonement online. They were kind enough to quote me in the article, acknowledging my role in breaking the Word Alive / Spring Harvest story.

9Marks has this month published a whole issue about defining the gospel. They were eager to point out that PSA is essential to it, and the controversy over PSA is mentioned in one of their editorials. Others (including myself) were asked to write 100-word contributions explaining the gospel. I would love to read such a brief outline by someone from the other side of this debate.

There has also recently been an article by D. A. Carson on Penal Substitutionary Atonement which, not surprisingly, comes down firmly on the side of the authors of PFOT and makes plain that PSA is at the heart of the gospel.

Over the weekend Tim Challies posted his review of the book Pierced For Our Transgressions. He rightly says that PSA has “come under attack by influential and popular evangelical leaders. Needless to say, controversy has followed, and for good reason.” Challies values the book and concludes:

“Endorsed by a veritable who’s who of conservative evangelicals, this book is sure to clearly delineate the divide between those who hold to the historic Protestant position on this doctrine and those who do not. It has already done this in the U.K., and we expect it to do the same on the other side of the Atlantic when it is released later this year. I pray that it is widely read, widely studied, and widely influential. Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach have done the church a service with this volume. I’m grateful for it and commend it to you.”

Things are starting to look quite clear-cut. There are, however, some gray lines on the issue since, as we have seen during the debates, there are many who hold some form of PSA but seek to define it in a different way. It is not for me to propose today exactly how such lines should be drawn.

It was very interesting, considering the context of all the debate about the atonement and resultant concerns about how to ensure doctrinal unity, to hear Terry Virgo in his interview with me outline an approach to this that is radically different to the way most evangelical organizations work. He explained that the family of churches of which he is a part does not have a statement of faith. He said:

“We don’t, in fact, have a statement of faith, because I wouldn’t want to be defining in a kind of way that can put people in a kind of prison . . .

It’s about building churches that are flooded with the Holy Spirit’s presence and genuine integrity of relationship. Into those churches the truth is taught and from them the truth is proclaimed to the world . . .

Though we are diligent for truth, we relate in and through churches rather than by doctrinal statements.”

Terry Virgo

To anyone who thinks that pieces of paper guarantee doctrinal unity and integrity, I would simply ask them to go and read the 39 Articles of the Church of England. As great a document as that is, has it guaranteed that every member of the Anglican Movement worldwide has doctrinal unity? Of course not!

Terry is right, in my opinion, that true relational integrity is the most important thing here in maintaining the true unity of the faith. It is only as we speak with each other at great length about our hopes and dreams, our values and beliefs, and where they have come from that we can have growing confidence that we are truly on the same page as each other theologically. Such a process can be seen as the development of a kind of “theological friendship”.

As I was explaining to my daughter tonight, for each of us friendships are a bit like a ring of concentric circles. People don’t become best friends overnight or by comparing some kind of written checklist of what they are looking for in a friend. When it comes to doctrinal unity, I very much see that functioning—at least in my life an

d in some of the churches I’m aware of.

I think some of the problems we have on the blogosphere is that we forget that we are not all in a church together. I certainly welcome and want to treat with full respect any who claim the name of Christian (and for that matter most who do not!) to this blog and to the discussion forum. Far from wanting to curse people and reject them, I want to debate and explain.

But within that circle of inclusiveness there are inevitably other circles with increasing levels of exclusiveness theologically. Thus the closer we are to each other relationally and in terms of working together in God’s kingdom, the more I am going to want us to share the same values and beliefs. This is inevitable and bits of paper do not do a great job of defining something that is almost imponderable.

I am not at all surprised, for example, that as explained by Mark Dever, despite a willingness to be very open to Arminians, the Together For The Gospel friends have found themselves, as their strong relational ties formed, to all be Reformed. Mark Dever is also right to stress that the gospel itself is more central and more core, however, than some of the things that hold them together as buddies.

I guess what I am trying to say is essentially that birds of a feather flock together. I am convinced that we need not try and fight that inevitable thing. Nor is its corollary such a bad thing—which is that the journey through the concentric rings of friendship and commitment that make up the average church are often accompanied by a person changing a number of their views to match those of the group. That process of change is one reason why we should choose a church wisely, but I am convinced that it is not just a case of us being molded by the company we keep. Rather, those who do not feel they fit theologically and are not persuaded by the teaching they are hearing will tend to either keep themselves at a comfortable level of distance or possibly even leave and find a church where they do fit.

This delicate process is almost like a dance. We must learn to treat each other with respect, to allow people to be where they are currently, and as appropriate, help them to take the next step in their own journey to follow Jesus. For me, believe it or not, blogging has been a journey increasingly away from being overly controversial and argumentative towards trying to reach out and understand the opinions of others. It has not been an easy journey, nor has it been one that has been without its setbacks. No doubt some will feel that I have, at times, been too provocative. Others, probably on the contrary, feel I am too soft on those who disagree! It is certainly a fine line to draw.

Wherever you stand on all the debates that fly around the blogosphere, I hope we can journey together for awhile and learn from each other—if nothing else, we should at least be able to gain an accurate view of what we both believe. I do believe that if we each focus on moving from where we stand one step closer to the God of the Bible, we will find ourselves gradually drawing closer together in what we believe.

I will end this post with a verse that should perhaps be every bloggers’ motto. I know I don’t always live up to it, but by God’s grace this is certainly my aim. Remembering that not everything is worth arguing over, but that some doctrinal errors are nothing short of a snare of the devil, is vital. May God help us to be always gentle with each other—even when we feel the difference of opinion is so critically important that it cannot merely be overlooked.

“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

(2 Timothy 2:22-26)

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