Part 8 of Response to The Gospel as Center; Chapter 8: “Christ’s Redemption” by Sandy Wilson
Sandy Wilson is pastor of an Evangelical Presbyterian church. That’s a distinct denomination: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church. I’ve been told it is somewhat less conservative than the PCA but more conservative than the PCUSA.
Again, I approached this chapter assuming it would emphasize penal substitution as part and parcel of the gospel and probably also promote belief in limited atonement. I was right in the first place but wrong in the second place. Nothing in the chapter refers to limited or definite atonement although the author does repeatedly refer to Christ’s love and death “for us.” Whether the “us” includes all people or only the elect is never explicitly stated.
For the most part, the chapter is simply a presentation and defense of traditional evangelical belief about God’s love and Christ’s life, death and resurrection for people’s salvation. Page 144 contains the clearest statements about the atoning death of Christ. It saves us from God’s wrath; God imputed our sins to Jesus, Jesus expiated our sin to taking them to himself, Jesus Christ satisfied the righteous wrath of God and propitiated God. He turned God’s wrath away from us and satisfied the righteous demands of God’s justice.
One statement by the author with which many evangelical, even many who believe in the penal substitution theory, will disagree is on page 143. There the author endorses the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to “us.” (Again, left unclear is whether “us” refers to those unconditionally elected or to all who freely respond to the gospel call by faith.) According to Wilson, he, Jesus “lived perfectly for us so that when we put our trust in him, we receive all the benefits of his perfect performance, his perfect obedience to the Father. Everything he did goes on our record. … God has imputed to us the merits of his Son’s perfect life.”
Some evangelicals will disagree with that and argue that only Christ’s passive obedience, that is, his suffering the penalty of our sins in our place, is imputed to us in justification. This has traditionally been a difference between Reformed and Wesleyan evangelicals. Reformed have traditionally believed in imputation of Christ’s active obedience as well as his passive obedience. Wesleyans have traditionally believed in only imputation of Christ’s passive obedience.
Then there are those, like N. T. Wright (and at times John Wesley), who believe that imputation is only of righteousness, not “Christ’s righteousness.”
So strong an emphasis is placed on imputation of Christ’s righteousness in this chapter that I assume the author is attempting to correct, perhaps even rule out as inconsistent with the gospel, belief that imputation is only of Christ’s passive obedience or mere righteousness (not Christ’s righteousness).
It seems to me it is enough to believe that Christ died in our place, becoming sin and a curse “for us,” in order to cover over our sins (hilasterion, the mercy seat sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice). It seems to me that the penal substitution theory can be pushed too far so that it becomes an item of a systematic theology rather than something based on biblical imagery—that is, an analogy and not a literal description.
I grew up with penal substitution being preached just about every other Sunday. It was part and parcel of the gospel as we understood it. And by “we” I mean evangelicals generally in the 1950s through the 1970s. During seminary I began to discover other images and theories of the atonement—Christus Victor, recapitulation (Ireneaus), perfect penitent (C. S. Lewis), governmental theory (not that different from penal substitution as you find it in classical Arminian theology), etc. But among evangelicals these were always emphasized not as alternatives to penal substation (except perhaps governmental theory) but other facets of Christ’s atonement.
Only in recent years, so far as I know, have American evangelicals begun to question substitutionary atonement and want to replace it entirely with something else. And here, by “substitutionary atonement” I do NOT mean the full blown Reformed doctrine of double imputation tied to federal theology, but simply the idea that Christ died in our place, taking on himself our sin and guilt, and making it possible for God righteously to forgive us.
I agree with Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement that “the Bible does teach penal substitution.” (p. 113) But I also agree with him that the penal substitution theory can easily be “overly judicialized or reified.” And I agree that it is only one, even though a crucial, image of atonement. Many Reformed folks will think McKnight’s and my description of penal substitution does not go far enough. McKnight puts it in a nutshell: “He [Jesus] died instead of us (substitution); he died a death that was the consequence of sin (penal).” (p. 113)
I get the impression for Wilson’s chapter that he and The Gospel Coalition (and he implies very strongly that he is speaking for it) believe double imputation, the full Reformed doctrine of atonement, that our sin and guilt was imputed by God to Jesus and that his active and passive obedience are imputed to us in justification, is necessary for the gospel. I disagree.
Toward the end of the chapter Wilson writes about “Christ, Our Only Hope.” This section seems to be aimed at correcting or even ruling out as heresy inclusivism. He says The Gospel Coalition makes it a “nonnegotiable doctrine” that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.” (p. 146) Okay, but what evangelical(s) deny this? I don’t know of any. Even Pinnock affirmed that.
But here is one sentence of The Gospel Coalition’s statement of faith (quoted on page 148) that I and many evangelicals have trouble with: “The hearts of sinful humans are given a longing for heaven only by hearing and believing the gospel, which, of course, means that the church’s obedience to the Great Commission is of the utmost importance.” I and even many conservative evangelicals believe God has placed “eternity in their hearts” so that all people everywhere have a longing for heaven, for God and his salvation. Of course, they don’t know the details, but the desire for salvation is there. It is always combined with sin, of course, but even total depravity does not utterly destroy the desire for a savior. What it destroys is ability to save oneself or find salvation apart from Jesus Christ. (That leaves open the question whether a person can be saved by Jesus Christ without hearing his name in this life.)
I identify with Lesslie Newbigin’s oft-quoted statement in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (182-183):
“It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist … [My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.”