Is Substitution Biblical?

Is Substitution Biblical? January 19, 2018

Sometime I ago I posted this and I’ll start this post by repeating it and then turn to the new book by Simon Gathercole:

There are plenty of attempts to find atonement theories that avoid the barbarisms of some penal substitution (PSA) proponents, but avoiding PSA altogether is unavoidable. Here’s what it claims:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

There is only one way to avoid the necessity of penal substitution, and it involves these claims:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins?

Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

The problem I see many addressing is not penal substitution but propitiation, namely, the belief that on the cross Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin. In other words, penal substitution includes propitiation (for many) but it cannot be limited to propitiation. To reduce penal substitution to propitiation is a mistake.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 4.23.35 PMSo, when Simon Gathercole came out with a book called Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), I knew I would be reading it (eventually). I’ve gotten to it and want to set this short and (mostly) accessible book up in today’s post.

First, Gathercole defines substitution:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

That’s where he begins, and the answers are Yes and No. In the first, we get to the idea of representation; in the second substitution.

The former understanding of Christ’s death—as a representative act in which believers participate—has become an uncontroversial axiom in biblical scholarship and Christian theology. The latter, on the other hand, has become highly contested. It is in the light of this controverted status of “substitution” that this book aims to argue that Christ’s death for our sins in our place, instead of us, is in fact a vital ingredient in the biblical (in the present discussion, Pauline) understanding of the atonement. It should be emphasized, however, that the argument here does nothing to undermine the importance of representation and participation. Rather, the point is that substitution can happily coexist with them.

He’s right: many want representation but not substitution. But, what is substitution (when it comes to atonement)?

I am defining substitutionary atonement for the present purposes as Christ’s death in our place, instead of us.

In a substitutionary theory of the death of Jesus, he did something, underwent something, so that we did not and would never have to do so.

He did something, underwent something, so we did not—and never will—have to.

This is where Gathercole gets courageous, and what he says next is at the heart of why so many do not like the term “substitution.” I will register here a problem I had with the opening chapter: I agree that the following statement is right, but it is precisely the intermingling of these terms that has led so many to question substitution. That is, they are not so much questioning substitution as one of these other categories. Furthermore, I don’t know that substitution can exist apart from one of these terms. They are distinguishable but is there a substitution without any of them ? Here’s his courageous statement:

A number of elements of the atonement—propitiation, punishment of sin, representation, expiation, for example—that are often taken together may indeed rightly be taken together, but it is important to recognize that each of them must be derived from Scripture and not be seen merely as mutually entailing. Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, expiation, and propitiation.

Commonly, then, if you ask “Do you believe in substitutionary atonement?” some will understand it as propitiation and reject it. It is to Gathercole’s credit that he distinguishes these terms, and all to the good.

What are those criticisms? Gathercole gives these:

1. Theological: it is a legal fiction (how can one person bear the sins of another justly?) or immoral (the Son as a hapless victim or divine child abuse). This charge of immorality rarely is described fairly or accurately.

2. Philosophical: big point is that a person’s guilt is “too inseparably my own for another to take it upon himself.”

3. Logical: If Christ died for us, why do we die?

4. Biblical-exegetical: it is not biblical. Which is why Gathercole wrote this book.

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