Glancing around the Internet, I have recently noticed higher levels of interest than usual in the doctrine of penal substitution, and thought it might be worthwhile to set down a few basic principles concerning the doctrine. So here they are:
1. Penal substitution defined is the doctrine that the salvation of God’s people is secured through a propitiatory blood sacrifice that He provided for us, doing this through the death of Jesus on the cross. The holy wrath of an infinitely perfect God was propitiated in the death of Jesus Christ on that cross. We are saved from the wrath of God by the love of God as these two attributes of God collided in the agony of Jesus Christ. In that collision, the wrath was satisfied, and the love entered into resurrection joy. The wrath was punctiliar and the love is everlasting.
2. Penal substitution is human sacrifice, and is a scandal. Nothing whatever can be done about this, and it is sinful to try to undo or fix the scandalous aspects of it. God made it scandalous on purpose, in order to keep our number of refined theologians to a minimum.
3. Penal substitution can be badly represented by its friends. As with the Trinity, Sunday School illustrations of the doctrine can be dangerous. With the Trinity, the illustrations, if followed out, land us in the midst of various trinitarian heresies (e.g. ice, liquid, steam is modalism, etc.) But with illustrations of the atonement, the logic of them, if followed out, frequently will land us in heretical atrocities. The cross is a scandal, but not every scandal is the cross. If the illustration is using someone as a Christ figure who is not readily identifiable as an Adam, then it is an inadequate illustration.
4. Penal substitution requires a covenantal anthropology, which brings with it issues of identification, headship. representation, solidarity, and imputation. If someone has an individualistic anthropology, the atonement of Christ will seem to him absurd or grotesque, or both. Dismissal of the atonement as absurd or grotesque is usually a fair tell that someone is in the grip of individualism.
5. Penal substitution can be instinctively understood in distorted and appalling ways by unbelievers, who then try to provide their own propitiatory sacrifices. The substitutionary sacrifice of Christ is the answer to and refutation of all such sacrifices, not a crowning example of one. The cruelty of the Aztecs, for example, is a simultaneous testimony to the depravity of man, as well as to the deep instinctive knowledge we have that something must be done, and that this something must be bloody. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis shrewdly contrasts the grim priest of Ungit, crusted with blood and holiness, with the Fox, who was the advocate of cool rationalism — the kind of cool rationalism that never saw a sin forgiven or a soul saved.
6. Preaching Christ crucified is a mortal offense to the natural man. The Greeks think it is stupid and the Jews think it is offensive, and so we think it is a good way to identify natural men.
7. The doctrine is as clear and simple as the truth (1 Cor. 1:18-23; Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:22; Lev. 8:19; Rom. 5:12,15; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 10:19; 1 Jn. 1:7; Rev. 1:5; Rev. 5:9). In Jesus Christ we received the fullness of the wrath of God, and in Jesus Christ we receive the fullness of God’s pleasure in His well-beloved Son. This exchange, this glorious transaction, occurred on the Mercy Seat in the Great Heaven, between the cherubim, and it is a mercy covered in blood. Trying to clean the blood off does us no favors at all.
Very well said, brother. This central doctrine has been challenged many times, but it continues to endure, because it is the very heart of the Atonement. John Stott, The Cross of Christ: “. . . in giving his Son he was giving himself. This being so, it is the Judge himself who in holy love assumed the role of the innocent victim, for in and through the person of his Son he himself bore the penalty which he himself inflicted. . . . For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy himself, God through Christ… Read more »
In Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, he puts forth a “dilema”.
It goes something like this:
Is a thing good simply because God says it is, or does God say it is good because He recognizes a moral code superior even to Him?
Considering both the wrath of the father, and the son submitting to the will of the father to take on the full brunt of that wrath, the answer is simply…yes.
The wrath was punctiliar, yes — but think for how long He must wear the scars.
To my mind, The Cross has many many aspects, and the above, Legal, aspect is a very important one and rightly emphasised by the, predominantly, Jewish authors of the New Testament. However, it is the Invisibe (Father) made Visible (by the Son) aspect of The Cross that most arrests me; we come into Relationship (know Him) with The Father by seeing what our false worship is to Him, (a crown of thorns) by seeing the replacing of our self-righteousness for His, (nakedness) we see The Father crying out “I thirst!” (For righteousness from us) and we see Him bearing the… Read more »
Doug, when you say that the cross is scandalous, do you categorize it as such because it came through criminal sin (murder or the shedding of innocent blood)? Also, how does its scandalous nature keep refined theologians to a minimum? Sorry, but not sure what you mean by so-called refined. Please advise.
I think the penal substitution debate rages on mostly because we believe that our sin is just not significant enough to need such a remedy.
Melody, that’s part of it. Another part is that we keep wanting to have one Grand Unified Doctrine Of The Atonement, where we can say “Here is the whole truth about the atonement: _________.”
No one has yet succeeded, and I greatly doubt anyone ever will. There are a bunch of theories of the atonement because most of them are mostly right in what they affirm, and weak in what they deny or de-emphasize…which makes room for the next theory in line.
“No one has yet succeeded…”. Anyone making such an assertion must be able to give an informed response to Rene Girard.
@leigh copeland: Girard does see the cross of Christ as the historical turning point of literature, because it undermined the previous effectiveness of the shroud of myth, i.e., Christ’s execution unveiled the scapegoating mechanism hidden previously, but I don’t recall Girard writing about the Atonement in terms of a theologically unified doctrine. In fact, a few years ago he said he was flattered that people have extended his literary theory into the area of anthropology, but he was merely describing what he saw in literature. Are you sure you aren’t thinking of Bailey, or someone else who has extended Girard’s… Read more »
Not sure if my last post went through: The article states: “The doctrine is as clear and simple as the truth … In Jesus Christ we received the fullness of the wrath of God” For such a bold statement, I simply ask where in the 16 verse cited does it say God’s wrath was dumped on Jesus in our place? Looking over those texts, the 16 verses quoted say nothing of God’s wrath. They say Jesus shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins, and that much is true. But that’s not the same as saying wrath was poured… Read more »
Thanks for thought provoking article. I found this YouTube channel that is doing a really helpful series on atonement theories. I think his presentation of penal substitution is really balanced and appropriately nuanced. It is a really similar stance to yours. Thank you again! I have a lot to think about.