This is part six of a series on WHEAT—an acronym to describe the Beautiful Gospel in a way that parallels the TULIP of Calvinism, the DAISY of Arminianism, and the ROSES of Molinism. See the previous articles if you haven’t already.
Having separated humanity into the saved elect and the damned non-elect, TULIP, DAISY, and ROSES take to debating the atonement. Specifically, they question whether Jesus atoned for the sins of all humanity or merely for the elect. Calvinism argues a limited atonement, made only for the elect. Arminianism claims that Jesus died for everyone, but that his death is only effectual for believers. And Molinism asserts that Jesus’ death was sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect.
Despite the nuances, the end result is once again the same for all three systems. Whether or not atonement was made for everyone, it is only actually applied to believers. By contrast, as we previously discussed, the Beautiful Gospel teaches that we all share in a single human nature and that the salvation Jesus accomplished was thus for all humans. So debating the extent of the atonement becomes redundant.
Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism additionally share an understanding of the atonement that is rooted in penal substitution. I must acknowledge that there are a few adherents (Arminians in particular) who reject penal substitutionary atonement, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The default understanding for all three systems is that God must punish sin, and so Jesus became our substitute and experienced our punishment from God instead of us.
Within these systems, this is what is typically meant by atonement—Jesus being punished for our sins in our place. But this wasn’t always the case. The word originated as a combination of the phrase “at one ment,” and it referred simply to being in right relationship with another (in this case, with God). It did not originally refer to any legal transactions that may be deemed necessary to establish this relationship. But given the baggage that atonement has unfortunately acquired, reconciliation may more accurately connote what’s going on.
The problems with penal substitutionary atonement are myriad, and many whole books have been written on the subject. For this post, I’m going to focus on just two objections. As with everything in the Beautiful Gospel, these objections are based on the image of God revealed in Jesus. First, penal substitutionary atonement invalidates God’s forgiveness. And second, penal substitutionary atonement incorrectly places the need for reconciliation on God, as if God needed to be reconciled to us, rather than the other way around.
“Father, forgive them”
Throughout the New Testament, one of the most important themes is that of God’s forgiveness of our sins:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. (Ephesians 1:7–8, NRSV)
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14, NRSV)
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. (1 John 2:12, NRSV)
And even in the Old Testament we see this theme come through:
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered. (Psalm 130:3–4, NRSV)
But according to penal substitutionary atonement, God is unable to simply forgive sins. In this paradigm, God’s “justice” is such that he cannot allow sins to go unpunished. So the only way he can “forgive” our sins is to punish Jesus instead of us. But this is not forgiveness at all, nor is it truly justice.
To forgive someone means to release them from their debt. If they are released from their debt, then there is no longer any need for payment to be made. Alternatively, if payment is made, then there is no longer any need for forgiveness. You can either have payment or you can have forgiveness, but you cannot have both.
God would be well within his rights to demand payment for sins. But if God demanded payment for sins, then he could not also forgive them. If God punished Jesus in our place, then we would no longer need to be forgiven, and the whole concept of God’s forgiveness would be a sham.
But Jesus reveals a God who truly does forgive sins. On several occasions during his ministry, Jesus drew the ire of the scribes and Pharisees by forgiving sins on God’s authority, and not once did he also demand punishment for them (Luke 5:20, 7:48, 23:34, etc.).
Furthermore, Jesus taught his disciples to always forgive those who sin against them, up to seventy-times-seven times (Matthew 18:21–22). Did he mean for his disciples to offer forgiveness only if they also received payment? Of course not! Such a notion is quite obviously absurd when applied on a human level. But is it any less absurd to think that our forgiveness ought to be more extensive than God’s forgiveness?
No. Jesus shows us that God truly forgives sins, which means that he does not demand payment for them. Jesus’ death on the cross was a crime that we committed. It was not God’s punishment.
“Reconciling the world to himself”
In addition to invalidating God’s forgiveness, penal substitutionary atonement also reverses the direction of reconciliation. It teaches that God could not fully accept us until Jesus bore the punishment for our sins. In other words, God had to be reconciled to us. But the New Testament teaches exactly the opposite—that we needed to be reconciled to God.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5:18–19, NRSV)
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19–20, NRSV)
We see such reconciliation played out in Jesus’ teaching of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11–32). At no point does the father distance himself from his son. Nor does the father even think of demanding repayment for how his son had wronged him. The father desires nothing more than for his son to return home. And when his son does return, the father runs to meet him, offering immediate and unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and restoration.
This father’s position toward his prodigal son is the same position our heavenly Father holds toward each and every one of his children—toward all of humanity. He will do everything possible to reconcile all of us to himself.
For more on this, check out the “Gospel in Chairs” presentation. A number of variations are available to watch online, such as this shorter version from Brian Zahnd or this extended version from Brad Jersak.
Will every single human indeed accept God’s reconciliation? That is certainly our hope, known as apocatastasis—a Greek word which comes from Acts 3:21:
… who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration [apokatastaseōs] that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:21, NRSV)
And it is God’s desire as well:
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9, NRSV)
… who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4, NRSV)
But can we be certain that this will happen? We’ll address that question in the next point of WHEAT—“absolute grace.”
All posts in the Beautiful Gospel of WHEAT series: