Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Atonement and Penal Substitution

“That Christ stood in our place, was our substitute when he died, is clear in
many places in Scripture. This is strongly denied by some students, and it
cannot be said to be a wildly popular view in modern times.”[1]


Few casual observers could have failed to miss the ongoing debate between various Christian apologists, most notably Alistair McGrath and evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Among Dawkins’ many objections to religion in general and Christianity more specifically, he attacks the central tenet of our faith, the atonement.

He had this to say;

“I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious,
sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad,
for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God
to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having
himself tortured
and executed in payment - thereby, incidentally, condemning
remote future
generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as
‘Christ-Killers’: did that
hereditary sin pass down in the semen too?”[2]

This essay will not be going to any great lengths to refute Richard Dawkins, which has been far more effectively, eloquently and succinctly done by others. I do give him credit for saying that the atonement is the central doctrine of Christianity, and that it can be described as vicious. It is however far from being sado-masochistic, it is the most loving act to give up one’s life for ones friends.

Richard Dawkins portrayal of God is as far removed from the picture painted of God in the Bible, as a hawk is from a handsaw.[3] Dawkin’s delusion begins by taking only two extreme views of theology, those of the ultra conservatives and those of the ultra-liberal camp, and morphing them into a manmade monster. He ignores the vast majority of theologians, and concentrates on the fringe. Dawkins therefore makes fundamental errors in how he approaches theology. He is clearly no theologian. Had he made better use of the broad scope of theological data available to him he may have come to very different conclusions.

This essay seeks to demonstrate how theological sources of data are used to develop an integrated and consistent understanding of an issue within Soteriology, or the study of salvation. More specifically, under the spotlight will be the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. It is the vicious nature of this doctrine which raises the hackles of many of its critics.

We will begin by looking at the nature and use of theological sources and then examine the doctrine of penal substitution in more detail.

Theological sources

Any approach using theological sources inherently faces certain ontological difficulties. While all sources of theological data do not carry the same weight, there is some agreement over how sources should be weighted. So much has been written about salvation over the centuries, and the debates concerning the atonement have been so varied, that for the purposes of this essay some selections have had to be made. Inevitably something has to be left out.

Given the object of theological study (God), our point of departure cannot be the object Himself. God is not in a test tube in a laboratory where he can easily be examined. Humble theologians will acknowledge that all true theology is the study of God’s revelation of Himself. This has several implications;

· Our study of theology will always be incomplete.
· Revelation is continual and ongoing, and therefore not static.
· Revelation is consistent with and influenced by the nature of the revealer.
· We can only study what He has revealed, primarily in the Bible.

1. The Book of Books

John Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Westminster, in Philadelphia, in the state of Pennsylvania points to the centrality of scripture when examining the atonement when he writes;

There is only one source from which we can derive a proper conception of
Christ’s atoning work. That source is the Bible there is only one norm by which
our interpretations and formulations are to be tested. That norm is the Bible.
The temptation ever lurks near us to prove unfaithful to this one and only
criteria. No temptation is more subtle and plausible than the tendency to
construe the atonement in terms of our human experience and thus to make our
experience the norm.”[4]

How theological truth is drawn from the scriptures is a study within itself, called hermeneutics. The study of hermeneutics is however not the focus of this essay. It’s sufficient to say it is important for any student of theology to read God’s word for themselves, and draw conclusions about it. Within evangelical circles, the word of God is the primary source of all theological data. An understanding of its scope and skill in its use need to be a priority for those engaging theological issues. The basic tenet of Biblical interpretation is allowing the scripture to explain and interpret itself. An honest, humble and searching reading of scripture will lead the reader to greater understanding. (Psalm 119:97-112)

While evangelicals esteem the Bible as the highest authority, the Roman Catholic Church gives equal authority to the Bible, the Church and tradition.

Other sources of data include books. Ideas are important. People live and die by and for ideas. God has also commanded us to love Him with our whole mind, including our ideas. He has created us with a seemingly insatiable curiosity to explore and understand the world He created and placed us in. It’s almost like He wants to be found. He is in many ways the puzzle making God. We read in proverbs:

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the
glory of kings.” Pr 25:2

There are a broad range of resources relevant to the study of theology which would fit under the banner of publications. Given the branching here we need to look at types of publications involved these include;

· Theologies,
· Church histories and historical documents,
· Bible dictionaries
· Commentaries.
· Christian Biography

2. Theologians on Theology

In assessing the theological implications of the atonement we need to be wary of taking opinions from theologians verbatim, without cause to reference the source of the authority they lay claim to. It is all too easy to fall into the trap that some eminent scientists have of referring to any statement that a scientist (themselves in particular) may make as being the opinion of science as a whole.[6] What makes a Christian doctrine fundamental depends not on the authority it is given by theologians, as if they were a steady rock in a sea of ideas, but on the authority of God’s word, the Bible.

The written statements of theologians often correspond to debates which may cover a range of theological ground. They are usually a defense of a particular position from what they view to be heretical or deviant. For this reason much of the writing of theologians tends to be reactive. One type of theological writing which bucks that trend is when systematic theologies are written. These are generally carefully structured pieces dealing with a comprehensive range of issues. They are by no means inerrant, but seek to paint a broad picture of the landscape of theology. This is also not to say that they show no theological bias, but usually where such a bias is present, it is clearly and emphatically stated. At times it is unclear when they are asserting theological truth or when they are addressing theological deviancy in much the same way that we may struggle to differentiate when Christ was involved in evangelism or edification.

With academic works, the question is the quality of output. It not only concerns which universities have a higher output, or a larger fragment of intellectual throughput, but how many are read and referenced. The real impact is the quality of the output. Frequently there is a relationship between the quality of the output, the name of the institution and the volume of work produced. Unlike lightning strikes, a greater number of influential works tend to congregate together, in Bible colleges of distinction and at least in part due to the hothouse effect. Colleges such as Fuller theological seminary in the United States, or SMBC in Australia are good examples.

Frequently the more influential the work, the greater the chance that such a work may also end up in the public arena. Living with the underworld by Peter Bolt is just such a work, which started out as a master’s thesis through Moore College, and ended up being published through Matthias Media. Similarly much of the writing of John Piper, one of the most influential pastors of the last ten years, began life as a lecture or sermon. Data is not always written. One of the most outspoken defenders of substitutionary atonement has been Piper, a pastor whose life’s work is available to all on his website[7] in many and various forms, from Mp3 to PDF documents.

3. Church histories and historical documents,

Documents from Church history provide us with a map of theological thought, whereby we can trace the development of ideas, and get some idea of what impact they have had on the life and practices of the church. They are equally important for the sake of continuity in the church, and the protection of the church from heresy. When John Calvin and Marin Luther were accused of schism, and of bringing new and strange doctrines into the church, the two appealed to the testimony of scripture, but also of the church fathers. Luther was emphatic, his Christianity could be traced back to Augustine, and before to the apostles. This two prong attack was a stout defence against the Counter Reformation.

The doctrine of the substitutionary atonement has a long and tortured history beginning with the apostles and continuing through the writings of the Anti-Nicene fathers such as Justin Martyr (100-165).

“Then Trypho remarked, “Be assured that all our nation waits for Christ; and we
admit that all the Scriptures which you have quoted refer to Him. Moreover, I do
also admit that the name of Jesus, by which the son of Nave (Nun) was called,
has inclined me very strongly to adopt this view. But whether Christ should be
so shamefully crucified, this we are in doubt about. For whosoever is crucified
is said in the law to be accursed, so that I am exceedingly incredulous on this
point. It is quite clear, indeed, that the Scriptures announce that Christ had
to suffer; but we wish to learn if you can prove it to us whether it was by the
suffering cursed in the law.”

I replied to him, “If Christ was not
to suffer, and the prophets had not foretold that He would be led to death on
account of the sins of the people, and be dishonoured and scourged, and reckoned
among the transgressors, and as a sheep be led to the slaughter, whose
generation, the prophet says, no man can declare, then you would have good cause
to wonder. But if these are to be characteristic of Him and mark Him out to all,
how is it possible for us to do anything else than believe in Him most
confidently? And will not as many as have understood the writings of the
prophets, whenever they hear merely that He was crucified, say that this is He
and no other?”[8]

Augustine had much to say about the atonement, and defended the faith against the teachings of the Socineans, who advocated the atonement as example. Calvin’s advocacy of Substitutionary atonement is laid out in very clear terms in his institutes of the Christian religion. John Stott, longtime minister of All Souls Langham place, was a strong advocate for the substitutionary perspective, and expounded this succinctly in his book “The Cross of Christ.” D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, who wrote a sermon series on Romans which went on to become the defining commentary on the book for our time was a firm believer in substitutionary atonement.

Noted scholar J.I. Packer writes;

“as Pauls writes in Galatians 3:13, (NIV) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of
the law by becoming a curse for us.” The reason why we do not have to bear our
sins is that Christ bore them in our place. This points to the thought of

It was, then, by substitutionary, propitiatory
sacrifice on the part of the sinless Son of God that our reconciliation was
achieved. So much did Salvation cost; and it was for God’s enemies that the
price was paid.”[9]

For a more comprehensive pedigree of substitutionary atonement see Appendix one.

4. Bible dictionaries

In much the same way as Theologies are ordered and structured to represent theological truth, Biblical dictionaries are publications which expand on Biblical themes with articles arranged alphabetically. Particular emphasis may be given to a part of the Bible, such as Old Testament or New Testament, or the writings of Paul. Others focus on Biblical interpretation or biblical imagery, making useful parallel reading on the subject of the atonement. Frequently, as mentioned in Rev. Dr. Ken Chant’s notes for this subject, the use of analogy to illustrate spiritual truth makes such collections invaluable when examining complex doctrines such as the atonement.

5. Commentaries.

As the name suggests, commentaries are someone’s comments on the scriptures. The work of others in expounding the Bible differs substantially from those already discussed, in that direct interaction and wrestling with the text results in the form of the text changing the form of the commentators output. The Psalms with their definitive lyrical quality differ substantially from Paul’s letters, whereas there are parts of Genesis, and even the prophets where this quality is reflected again.

Commentaries, while not dealing with theology directly, serve to mould and expand a biblical understanding of the passage in view. With regard to the substitutionary atonement of Christ it is useful to know where passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 feature in the New Testament.

6. Christian Biography

Those who doubt the value of church history and the experience of individual Christians who have gone before do so at their own peril. We see the power of testifying about what God has done referred to in Johns account in Revelation.

“They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their
testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”. Rev

The same can be said of Christian biography. Theology can remain stale and lifeless on a dead page until it is enlivened in the heart, soul and life of a believer. This encouragement continues to spread, either from mouth to mouth, in the oral tradition, or if it is truly exceptional may be written down for the encouragement and edification of others. Lee Strobel shares his experience when he writes;

“It was my agnostic wife's conversion to Christianity and the ensuing positive
changes in her character that prompted me to use my legal training and
journalism experience to systematically search for the real Jesus. After nearly
two years of studying ancient history and archaeology, I found the evidence
leading me to the unexpected verdict that Jesus is the unique Son of God who
authenticated his divinity by returning from the dead. It wasn't the outcome I
was necessarily seeking, but it was the conclusion that I believe the evidence
persuasively warranted.”[10]

The Atonement

But what is the atonement? At the heart of the atonement is this question; “Why did Jesus have to die? What did His death achieve for us?”[11] It is the convergence of several major doctrines. It takes place at the nexus of the trigeminous God. It reveals our true identity as Christians. Our view of the atonement shapes our understanding of ourselves. His atoning work on the cross changes our relationship to the Father, makes possible the work of the Spirit in us. It sets us free from the power of sin and the devil.

Erickson points to the centrality of the atonement when he writes;

“The most reconisable symbol of Christianity is the cross. Its significance is
found in the atoning work of Christ. It is the doctrine of the atonement that
becomes the transition point from the objective doctrines of God, Humanity, Sin,
and the person of Christ, to the subjective doctrines. This transition point is
the key element in balancing Christian theology to make it relevant to the

J.I. Packer speaks of the atonement as reconciliation to Christ. He writes;

“Reconciliation means peace-making, and Christ made peace we are told by the
blood of the cross (Col 9:20) We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.
(Rom 5:1-10)”

There are three major candidates in the debate surrounding the Atonement. These contenders all rightfully claim that the atoning work caused the results they postulate. Each has more than a soupçon of claim to the atoning work of Christ. Most theologians agree that this is the case. Where they disagree is on which one has precedence. While all doctrines are true, (doctrine is a synonym for truth) not all doctrines carry the same weight, and there are few weightier doctrines than the atoning work of Christ. The stakes in this debate are high. The atonement represents the ultimate deodate. It is Gods supreme gift to man.

The three main views are;

1. The penal substitutionary view (or Christ died in our place),

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous,
to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the
Spirit,” 1Pe 3:18

“Now if we died with Christ, we believe
that we will also live with him.
For we know that since Christ
was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over
The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives,
he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God
in Christ Jesus. Ro 6:8-11”

2. The Christus Victor view (or the atonement as victory over sin and evil)

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the
kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of
sins. Col 1:13-14

This view of the atonement argues that a ransom was paid not to God, but to the Devil, in order to set us free from the captivity we were under to him.

The Christus victor theory has been emphasized by two very different groups, those who practice sacramentarianism and some Pentecostal groups who express the summation of all theology as a battle between good and evil. This pervasive view has been accepted in the general populace as what constitutes the Christian message. Biblically, however it is not as central to the atonement as penal substitution.

3. The moral government view (or Gods wrath against sin)[13].

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for
I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than
master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that
you know
these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Jn

This view sees man’s sin as an act of rebellion not against God as an individual, but as God as ruler, and developed in opposition to Socinianism.

Substitutionary atonement has come under fire from a number of different quarters, but no more so than at the present time. To illustrate and expand upon the arguments for and against substitutionary atonement would require a more significant space allocation than this essay allows. Suffice to say I will draw upon some of the conclusions of others to point us toward the conclusion of the matter.

It is interesting to see that the substitutionary atonement was on the list of fundamental doctrines the editors of “the fundamentals” chose to include. Clearly this would only be the case if the doctrine had experienced some criticism.

“To begin with, the departure from conservative theology became increasingly
pronounced during the early years of the century. One effort to combat this
tendency was the publication of a twelve-volume paperback set produced under the
successive editorship of A. C. Dixon, Louis Meyer, and R. A. Torrey (1910–1912).
Called The Fundamentals, these books especially upheld the virgin birth of
Christ, His physical resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture, the
substitutionary atonement, and the imminent, physical second coming of Christ.
Millions of copies were distributed free, and those who subscribed to the
doctrines set forth in them came to be known as “fundamentalists.””[14]

This attack on the theology of penal substitution was recognized by a group of scholars writing for Intervarsity press. They stated;

“Since the 1980s a number of influential books critical of the traditional view
[penal substitution] have appeared, and now the trickle has grown into a river.
We believe penal substitution is thoroughly biblical, but it would not be good
enough simply to ignore our critics. We need to hear what they say, engage with
their objections and answer them in a thoughtful, coherent way.”[15]

They indicate through the book how substitutionary atonement aligns itself well with what we as theologians know about God, as He has revealed Himself.

“Penal substitution upholds the truthfulness and justice of God: it is the means
by which he saves people for relationship with himself without going back on His
word that sin has to be punished. In addition to the basic requirement that God
should not be proved a liar, there are several reasons why this is important… It
preserves our understanding of God as a perfect being…preserves what is often
called the doctrine of God’s simplicity… that all of God’s attributes are in
harmony with each other”[16]

They also conclude that penal substitution is not only one of the theories of the atonement, but its central tenet from which all others draw their referent power. Erickson, in his systematic theology comes to the same conclusion. He states;

“We observed… that each of the theories of the atonement contains a valid
insight. It is our contention that the penal substitution theory maintains those
valid insights. Beyond this we argue that those insights bear force only on the
basis of the substitutionary view.”[17]


In this essay we have examined various sources of theological data. We have recognized that all these resources are important and valuable in assessing the validity and scope of biblical doctrine. We have briefly examined the theories of the atonement, and concluded that substitutionary atonement is the central tenet of the Christian faith.

Christ’s death and resurrection have secured for us a future and glorious hope of life with him.

“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run.
kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.”[18]

Appendix 1.
The Historical pedigree of Substitutionary atonement[19]

· Justin Martyr (c100-165)
· Eusebius of Caesarea (c275-339)
· Hillary of Poitiers (c300-368)
· Athanasius (c300-373)
· Gregory of Nazianzus (c330-390)
· Ambrose of Milan (339-397)
· John Chrysostom (c350-407)
· Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
· Cyril of Alexandria (375-444)
· Gelasius of Cyzicus (fifth Century)
· Gregory the Great (c540-604)
· Thomas Aquinas (1225-74)
· John Calvin (1509-64)
· Francis Turrentin (1623-87)
· John Bunyan (1628-88)
· John Owen (1616-83)
· George Whitefield (1714-70)
· Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92)
· D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981)
· John R. W. Stott (born 1921)
· J.I.Packer (Born 1926)

There are no sources in the current document.

[1] Morris, L. The Cross of Jesus. Biblical Classics Library. Paternoster Press. 1988.Kent
[2] Dawkins, R; The God Delusion. 2008. Mariner Books.
[3] With apologies to Shakespeare.

[4] Murray, J. Redemption Accomplished and applied. 1961. Banner of Truth Trust. London
[5] All scriptures included are taken from the New International Version. Pradis CD-ROM: Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, © 1973, 1978, 1984. Unless otherwise stated.
[6] Here I think of men of the ilk of Richard Dawkins
[8] Martyr. J. Dialogue with Trypho. Anti-Nicene fathers Chap. LXXXIX. — The Cross Alone Is Offensive to Trypho on Account of the Curse, Yet it Proves That Jesus Is Christ

[9] Packer. J.I. 18 words: The most important words you will ever know. 2007. Focus Pubications. Ross-shire
[10] Strobel, Lee. The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ.
[11] Boyd, G.A. Eddy P.A. Across the Spectrum.2002. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids
[12] Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology, 2nd edition. 1998. Baker Books. Grand Rapids.
[13] Boyd, G.A. Eddy P.A. et al
[14]Vos, Howard Frederic ; Thomas Nelson Publishers: Exploring Church History. Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996 (Nelson's Christian Cornerstone Series)
[15] Jeffrey, S. Ovey, M. Sach, A. Pierced for our transgressions: rediscovering the glory of penal substitution. Intervarsity Press. 2007. Nottingham
[16] Jeffrey, S et al pg 138
[17] Erickson et al pg 836
[18] Hymn Quoted in D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones’ Faith tried and triumphant. Intervastity Press. 1987. London.
[19] Jeffrey. S et al


Lana said...

Hi Tim! I saw your lovely wife and baby girl at Colour today! Was so great to meet Caitlin and see Ammi again! Caitlin is absolutely GORGEOUS!! Lana x

SmootherPrince said...

I am so glad to hear that you saw each other there. I hope my daughter didnt try to bite yours, she has a nasty habit of doing that.