Penal Substitution – if I didn’t know where I stand, I do now

Justin Brierley, thank you.

Your show may be too short to air all the things that need to be said, but I think on this occasion, I’ve heard enough to be able to process it all.

Your show on Penal Substitution was very helpful. I wasn’t sure where I stood on the issue, if I’m honest. I knew Christ died in my place, but I hadn’t fully thought through the implications of what happens in that place. I’ve now been given language to do so.

It  may be my bias against Calvinists, but for me Steve Jeffrey said a few too many things which he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with. [Disclaimer: I didn’t necessarily agree with everything Alan said either, but I think as a less-experienced interviewee he was outweighed a little and could have had more of an opportunity to explain his position.]

Firstly, having heard Greg Boyd’s delightfully clearly, well-thought-through comments on penal substitution vs Christus Victor, it was a surprise to hear that Jeffrey thought that the first half of his comments were a shamble. ‘A confused mess’, he called them, or something like that.

[Greg Boyd positioned himself very clearly on the side of Christus Victor for some well-grounded reasons; everyone interested in this debate must consider the fact that penal substitutionary atonement – PSA hereafter – places the myth of redemptive violence at the centre of the gospel. That’s a corker. God is a rageaholic who needs to vent his wrath on someone? Really?]

Instead Steve went to the one thing that was not unique about what Greg said, but which was the general theme of the whole discussion: punishment. He went to the word ‘propitiation’, quoting 1 John 4:10, and defined it as ‘turning away wrath’. When I looked up the word, no dictionaries say that. They simply say that it has to do with atonement – ‘at-one-ment’. The process by which God and man are reconciled. No wrath necessarily there. I’d like to hear him respond more fully to Greg’s excellent observations; I realise the short amount of time in the studio precluded this a bit, but the time he did have and the response he did give was, I felt, a deflection.

Another thing. The adage was brought up “God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” Steve said: “That’s not what the Bible says.” Without recoursing to whose-soundbite-is-correct, I must at least point out that Romans 5:8 says it in almost so many words.

This misrepresentation of Scripture got worse. When Alan said that the cross provides atonement for the whole world, or words enough to that effect, Steve the Calvinist did not rebut with “that’s not my view”, he had the audacity to state “that’s not true”! Hang on a minute! What about 1 John 2:2? Even if we’re only talking about potential, let’s not trample over Biblical statements and say they’re not true!

I have other gripes, but I don’t want to appear belligerent for the sake of it. I simply want to point out that Steve’s confidence of truth on his side was, I think, a little over-stretched. Having had the issues brought out in this way, providing good food for thought, I’ve definitely gained a better understanding of the Christus Victor position. As Greg Boyd pointed out, it makes sense in the context of the whole life of Jesus. It doesn’t negate the seriousness of sin, but it does preserve the character of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as revealed through Jesus. It’s a more Christocentric view rather than a homocentric view which is always a plus, in my books.

I’m not saying I’m completely sold. The Biblical statements about ‘wrath’ (Gr. orgē) need attention. But what I find usually is that while literalistic readings of Scripture produce one picture of God, a deeper work of theology that seeks to understand the character and nature of God throughout Scripture produces a much clearer picture. Not one that is self-contradictory all over the place, but one which guides our interpretation. This must always take place through Jesus, who said that “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”. Far from Steve’s one attempt to show the Father as an angry, vengeful character whose wrath the Son is trying to block, the swathe of the New Testament shows that the loving Father God is revealed through Jesus, that we need look no further than him to see what our God is like. It’s true that love often entails wrath, but if we can start the conversation there, that’s more helpful to me.

As I’ve opened up to the issues here, I have found Tom Wright’s article here very helpful. It reflects a helpful distinction that Alan Molineaux mentioned in the show, between systematic and narrative theology.

There is much more to be discussed here! Rant, for now, over.

14 thoughts on “Penal Substitution – if I didn’t know where I stand, I do now

  1. Hi Benn

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that I was outweighed at times. I struggled to find the correct answers at the correct moments.

    In my defence I was a somewhat shocked at the number of sweeping statements made and due to the pressure of being a relative radio newbie wasn’t sure which to tackle first.

    As a response I entitled my Sunday sermon ‘What I wish I would have said’ : )

    I am convinced that God is motivated by love and not wrath. I am also convinced that the penal metaphor does not represent Christ and his teachings.

    Thanks for your interesting blog.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Alan. I definitely appreciated some of the things you said – the distinction you made between systematic and narrative theology was most helpful, I’ve been mulling on that ever since. You might find Tom Wright’s article interesting. I’ve updated the article to include a link to it at the end. Regards.

      1. Funny really, I find myself on the other side of this debate, seeking to do biblical theology, narrative theology, appreciating NT Wright’s approaches… and yet drawing a different conclusion.
        In fairness to Steve, he might be a Calvinist of some description but he didn’t lead with that… and his main sources ‘argument’ were Mark’s gospel and Exodus… Alan charged Steve with doing systematic arguments but he was doing it through the Bible’s storyline, through Biblical narrative.
        There’s complexity here I’m sure… and there’s mess in church history over it… and caricature of Jesus as the independent third party who gets lashed out at — when really he’s one of us and one of God… totally involved, sent in love and full of love…
        I love Alan’s wrestling with the questions – I find that fruitful for myself.

  2. In regard to 1 John 2:2 –
    The “whole world” refers to the children of God scattered throughout the whole world.
    If “the whole world” referred to every individual in the world, we would be forced to say that John is teaching that all people will be saved, which he does not believe (Revelation 14:9-11). The reason we would be forced to say this is that the term propitiation refers to a real removal of wrath from sinners. When God’s wrath against a sinner is propitiated, it is removed from that sinner. And the result is that all God’s power now flows in the service of his mercy, with the result that nothing can stop him from saving that sinner.
    Propitiated sins cannot be punished. Otherwise propitiation loses its meaning. Therefore if Christ is the propitiation for all the sins of every individual in the world, they cannot be punished, and must be saved. But John does not believe in such universalism (John 5:29). Therefore it is very unlikely that 1 John 2:2 teaches that Jesus is the propitiation of every person in the world.

    Courtesy of John Piper

    1. With all due respect, if it’s from John Piper, then I’m afraid I can’t take it entirely seriously; again with respect, I’m afraid I’ve been misunderstood – I don’t believe John is a universalist either; would you do me the respect of recognising that I am aware of those other verses in John as well.
      Where does 1 John 2:2 say that it refers to the children of God scattered throughout the earth?
      What does John have to say about the ‘world’ in other places? What about his creation narrative where ‘kosmos’ probably refers to creation as well as humankind?
      Where is the requirement in the verse that the propitiation is actually applied to every human being?
      There are these questions and many more to be asked before leaping to conclusions which make a mystery of the nature of a God whom Jesus came so clearly to reveal.

      1. You are correct here Ben.

        I am afraid that Calvinist have a finely balanced tautology that includes several things found in Tulip and a few other areas. They end up needing to defend things like ‘world’ not meaning world for the whole thing to stand.

        Once they have done these elaborate theological gymnastics they then tend to start to say that the rest of us are not being biblical (or worse that we are universalists or heretics).

  3. From Colin Kruze’s Pillar Commentary: “The author is not content to say that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice ‘for our sins’ (meaning the sins committed by believers; cf. 2:1), but adds, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (kosmou). The word kosmos occurs 23 times in 1 John, and its meaning varies according to the context. In one place it means the natural world (3:17), in several places it bears a locative sense – the place into which various ones go or in which they live (4:1, 4, 9, 14, 17; cf. 2 John 7), in other places it denotes ‘worldly’ values or attitudes that are opposed to God (2:15- 17 [6x]; 5:4 [2x], 5), and in yet other places it denotes the unbelieving world – people who are opposed to God and believers, and who are under the power of the evil one (3:1, 13; 4:5 [3x]; 5:19). 36 When the author says that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for ‘the sins of the whole world’, that includes not only our sins (i. e., the sins of believers) but the sins of the unbelieving world as well.
    “It is not easy to explain what the author means by saying that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice ‘for the sins of the whole world’. It is not unique within the Johannine writings, for in John 1:29 the Baptist hails Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’, and in 1 John 4:14 we read that ‘the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world’. That Jesus offered the atoning sacrifice ‘for the sins of the whole world’ cannot mean that all people’s sins are automatically forgiven so that all are the inheritors of eternal life, even if they do not believe in the name of the Son of God. The author himself rules out such an idea elsewhere in his letter. For example, in 5:11- 13 he says that those who have the Son have eternal life, but those who do not have the Son do not have life. Having the Son involves believing in the Son, so that those who do not believe in him cannot be said to have him, and therefore they cannot be said to have eternal life. While we can say what Jesus Christ being the atoning sacrifice ‘for the sins of the whole world’ does not mean, it is more difficult to say what it does mean, for the author gives us no clues. We might suggest that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world because his death was sufficient to deal with the sins of the whole world, but that his sacrifice does not become effective until people believe in him.”

    I’m not convinced we’re left quite as hopeless as he suggests yet, but it’s helpful to at least note that ‘world’ isn’t a terminus technicas. It has a range of nuanced meanings. I must say, after my optimistic objection, I’m not made up on the passage myself yet. My first thought is simply to say “yes. He is the propitiation for the whole world. There is no other. Now, who in that world is covered by that propitiation”. And that does lead me to say that it obviously cannot be everyone if the word propitiation has any meaning.

    I’ve seen some arguments that would say that the text here means only that his death is sufficient for all (but efficient only for the elect). Every non-universalist (I think) would be happy with the truth of that statement, although using the word ‘faithful’ rather than ‘elect’ avoids the more loaded term. But I don’t think the text is saying something that small (that his death is theoretically enough if you try it out). I think he really is saying that he is the propitiation, in fact rather than merely hypothetically, hence my view being that it is as it sounds. But in the broader context of the book, I think it would be odd to say it sounds universalistic. The verse was never meant to float freely from the book, and other parts of the book make it clear that not all are saved.

    Still, I don’t think this works for Arminianism (save for it’s more robust early generation understanding of the elect as a number of specifically identified people). Universalism in a hollow kinda way, Calvinism in a broader way, but for it to mean a non-specific smaller group it seems you’d have to make propitiation so weak that the passage loses any of its force, as Paul seems to be using it.

    1. I would suggest that problems you describe above only occur when you have to uphold penal sub atonement. In this regard the punishment needs dealing with.

      In a christus victor view the sins of the whole world at dealt with and then the offer of salvation (the application) is made to all.

      1. But that’s what I’m saying – propitiation is not propitiation if it’s not applied, surely?

  4. Hello Ben, Alan and others,

    Thanks for highlighting this debate, Ben. I enjoyed the discussion a lot and thought that both Alan and Steve made some good points. I think the concept of the multi-faceted diamond is the most important and helpful: the Bible says so much about the Cross and it’s vital we keep our view of the atonement as broad as possible.

    Personally, I hold to penal substitutionary atonement as part of the ‘diamond,’ because I think it is there in the scriptures. I like story about Henry Chadwick (quoted in the NT Wright article):

    ‘After carefully discussing all the various theories of atonement, Dr Chadwick allowed that there were of course some problems with the idea of penal substitution. But he said, “until something like this has been said, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the full story has not yet been told.” ‘

    Although I recognise that some proponents of PSA over-emphasise the ‘punishment’ motif, I feel that to throw it out altogether is unwise, because there are heavy hints throughout Scripture that Christ was indeed punished in our place. Isaiah wrote that ‘the punishment upon (Christ) brought us peace’ (Is 53); the Apostle Paul testified that ‘God condemned sin in (Christ’s) flesh’ (Romans 8:3) and that ‘Christ became a curse for us’ (Galatians 3:13); and Zechariah spoke of God ‘striking the shepherd,’ as Steve outlined in the debate. I appreciate that these are just hints; the Bible never defines PSA in a systematic way. But these hints are still there and we need to build them into our view of the cross.

    PSA is often accused of being irrelevant to ‘living the life,’ but it makes a big difference to me in the following ways. First, I know I can always approach God without fear of his wrath, even when I know I deserve it. This was a big lesson for me to learn as an over-zealous, fearful Christian student. I think that a great number of Christians still agonise over their sins and feel guilty, miserable and fearful in God’s presence. I think a big step on the road to knowing God’s father love is to realise that all his (righteous) wrath against us has been taken away forever. Second, I cannot hold anger against anyone else because I believe God’s righteous anger against all the world’s sin has been taken by Christ. How can I hold anything against someone when their sins were on the same cross that paid for mine?

    One more thing, concerning Greg Boyd’s fears that PSA promotes ‘the myth of redemptive violence.’ Taught correctly, I don’t think PSA encourages Christians to go round dishing out violence. On the contrary, I think it teaches that it is God’s role to be wrathful, not ours. In Romans 12, Paul commands us not to take revenge, not because there is no place for wrath at all, but because it is God’s place to be wrathful and to ‘repay.’

    As you say, Ben, there’s lots to consider. The best thing that can come out of this is an enlarged view of the cross for us all.

  5. “We do not admit that God was ever hostile to his son, or angry with him. For how could he be angry with his beloved son in whom his soul delighted. Or how could Christ by his intercession appease the Father for others if the Father were incensed against him? But we affirm that he sustained the weight of divine severity; since being “smitten and afflicted of God” he experienced from God all the tokens of wrath and vengeance.

    That’s Calvin’s take on penal substitution.

    Debatable whether Calvin was a Calvinist, and TULIP would be anachronistic to him wouldn’t it… Calvin I like, a little less so the Calvinists who came after him.

  6. Well this is all mostly highly respectful as a discussion! I much approve and so would the Lord who commands us to love each other, be at peace with all men as far as possible, and not to wrangle too much about words either!!

  7. Yes, definitely an interesting discussion!

    Ben I think Rom 1:18 (“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness _of_ men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”) might be an example of God opposing the sin?

    Dave fascinating that Calvin rejected a common way PSA is articulated.

    Alan have you written/spoken about PSA elsewhere?

    (For what it’s worth, I’m an Evangelical Universalist so “whole world” = “creation & everyone in it” fits nicely 😀 )

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