Believe it or not there are actually a lot of people who outright deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Though anyone reading my blog is familiar with the concept not everyone is familiar with the term so here is the definition from Theopedia.
“Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.” – Theopedia
Before studying this topic I highly recommend that the reader take a look at one of my earlier posts on the Holiness, Wrath, and Love of God. This will give you the theological framework and foundation necessary for the Penal Substitutionary Atonement to make any sense. And when people attack it, I find that their primary flaw is a failure of properly understanding those three doctrines and how they fit together.
I have analyzed the various arguments that I can find by those who deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement. My discernment is that they use one of three approaches:
- Historical Approach
- Philosophical Approach
- Biblical Approach
That being the case I am going to present my findings of each and then demonstrate my view and why. The reader may be the judge, please leave a comment if you feel I have missed something important.
|Penal Substitution: Denial from History|
This is the most common argument. The author will usually assert that the Penal Substitution doctrine doesn’t exist at all in the early church. I have very consistently found that deniers will first present that Christus Victor was the dominant view for the first thousand years of Christianity and then concluded that it must be the only correct view. This is based largely on the work of Gustaf Aulén’s book, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Atonement.
The flaw with this approach is the assumption of exclusivity that goes along with it. Just because God accomplished victory over the Devil in the atonement doesn’t mean that this is the only thing he did.
“11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:; 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.; 13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it. 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” Col 2:11-17 KJV
Above is just one proof-text out of many regarding Christ crushing the head of the snake (Gen 3:15). This is true, in the incarnation his infant feet crushed the head of Satan as if the Devil didn’t even matter. This is because he doesn’t matter and Christ is the victor. My issues are when people say this is the ONLY thing that Christ accomplished on the cross, and that Penal Substitution didn’t exist in the early Church. It most certainly did, it has existed as a doctrine throughout the history of the Church, we just didn’t give it a clear name until later that’s all. Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the first century writings of the Apostles and in Patristic writings, we just didn’t have a nice fancy theological word for it until later.
The fact is that the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is as old as the hills. Both Christus Victor and Penal Substitution are ancient and true Biblical Doctrines at the same time. The teaching that pits them against each other is a false dichotomy. Review a sample of Ante Nicene Church fathers below and see for yourself.
Each quote is individually cited, but if you want my source for locating them all together you can find that HERE.
“Because of the love he felt for us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, his body for our bodies, and his soul for our souls.” Clement, First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians 49, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1994) 1:18.
“Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved.” Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:87.
“For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it is written concerning Him, partly with reference to Israel, and partly to us; and [the Scripture] saith thus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer.” Epistle of Barnabas 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:139
“Moreover, when fixed to the cross, He had given Him to drink vinegar and gall. Hearken how the priests of the people gave previous indications of this. His commandment having been written, the Lord enjoined, that whosoever did not keep the fast should be put to death, because He also Himself was to offer in sacrifice for our sins the vessel of the Spirit, in order that the type established in Isaac when he was offered upon the altar might be fully accomplished.” Epistle of Barnabas 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:141
“For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them’ [Deut 27:26]. And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined. But if those who are under this law appear to be under a curse for not having observed all the requirements, how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practise idolatry, who seduce youths, and commit other crimes? If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God.” Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 95, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:247
Many doctrines were clarified and expounded upon in the reformation, but they were not new. It was a conservative movement not a Liberal one. My only guess that that those who deny this doctrine either have a very low view of scripture or don’t expect anyone to critically double check their work.
|Penal Substitution: Denial from Philosophy|
I am not going to address every Philosophical argument as it would be too long and I don’t believe doing so is necessary. Instead, I will examine some of the more prominent arguments below and why I disagree.
Argument #1 “Penal Substitution denies the Trinity”
This argument is just silly, yet still I cannot believe how often I see it from those who deny Penal Substitution. In an effort not to misrepresent the position I am going to quote it directly from HERE.
“If Christ died for, and is our solution to, our sins against god the Father, then what about our sins against Christ? He’s just as god as the Father is. or our sins against the Holy Spirit? With penal substitution, God is pitted against God, either dividing God (and thus destroying the Trinity) or saying that Christ isn’t fully god.”
I don’t have a categorical problem with using philosophy in theology but it should not be used in a magisteral manner as the writer above does. To illustrate my point, he needs a clear verse saying “Christ did not die for our sins” rather than to try to twist the doctrine of the Trinity against it.
Second, we are free to resolve philosophical issues with whatever manner stays in compliance with clear scripture. Since the Bible is clear that Jesus did die as a substitute for sin (see passages below), and the Bible is clear on the Trinity, then we are to either use philosophy in a way that brings the two together or accept that we cannot and hold the teachings in tension. But we should never abrogate one passage of clear scripture with another.
To address the argument philosophically, I would argue that the flesh of Christ died according to his human nature but that his spirit descended to hell according to the divine (1Pet 3:18-20). In this act he has triumphed over our sins destroying them in his flesh, and rose new in body on Sunday morning. Rather than Penal Substitution being a denial of the Trinity, the author of the above accusation is simply ignorant or in denial of the Two Natures of Christ and how such a doctrine allows for God to both exist in hell and punish himself in the flesh at the same time. This Biblical teaching allows for both the Trinity and the Penal Substitution to co-exist simultaneously with no philosophical conflict.
I have not yet blogged at length on the Two natures of Christ, for a full breakdown by a reputable source please click HERE.
Argument #2 “Penal Substitution isn’t Loving”
This is one of the arguments that makes me angry. The assertion is that if Penal Substitution is true then that means God’s love is not unconditional. This argument asks the reader to bring their own definition of the Love of God to the table. The problem is that the Bible defines the Love of God in the Penal Substitutionary atonement. So in a very real sense to assert that such is unloving the one making the argument denies the Love of God altogether.
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom 5:8 KJV
To fall for that gag you have to just not read your Bible or care much for what it says. If you define Unconditional Love as the Bible does there is no conflict. If you define it as the world does then there is, I will certainly concede to that. Let the debate be on how we define our terms rather than the atonement and then move from there.
Argument #3 “Jesus didn’t die for our sins”
No joke, this is actually a big problem that some have with the Penal Substitution doctrine, they reject the notion of Christ dying for our sins. Don’t believe me? Click HERE and see for yourself. The jist of the argument is as follows:
“If god’s justice demands that He punish sin, then there is a higher force than God—necessity—which determines what God can and cannot do.” – Orthodox Problems with Penal Subustition
To that my only response is the following:
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” 1 Cor 15:3 KJV
If you are going to philosophically assert that Christ did not die for our sins then obviously our issue isn’t the doctrine of the atonement it is how seriously we are to take scripture, and we should instead be speaking about that. This one is simply too clear to question.
To address it philosophically though I would argue that God is not compelled to act by any force outside of himself. The holiness, wrath and by extension justice of God are attributes that come from him not outside of him, in like manner so is his love. He is not compelled by any outside force to act at all and quite frankly we are lucky that he chose to because we don’t deserve it.
The sophistry presented by some to refute penal substitutionary atonement isn’t even good sophistry. It relies on definitions of justice that are outside of God to govern God, in this their reasoning is circular. Biblically, justice is defined by God’s desires and actions and cannot be removed from his nature. Thus whatever he does is what actually defines justice in the first place, which in my estimation renders the argument moot.
There are other philosophical arguments but I believe I have demonstrated enough for the average reader. If you feel I have left something critical out please drop a comment down below.
|Penal Substitution: Denial from the Bible|
“Scripture says one cannot die for another”
This one doesn’t make me so angry as some of the others, if this is the only reason one denies the doctrine at least they are starting from scripture. I honestly understand how the average reader could get confused here when the passage is taken out of context. Critical analysis in context though can easily reveal the error.
“14 Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: 15 At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee. 16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. 17 Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow’s raiment to pledge: 18 But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.” Deu 24:14-18 KJV
The obvious answer is that the above passage is not teaching about the atonement at all. Instead you have a piece of prescriptive civil law as part of the now obsolete Torah (Heb 8:13). If you want to use it definitively to understand new covenant law in a Third Use sense then go for it. The atonement however applies in the second use of the law, to confuse it with the third would ultimately obfuscate the Gospel.
To respond full though let’s see what the Bible says about this doctrine. Ultimately that is what matters. History and Philosophy, though they have their place, should always take a back seat to clear scripture.
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” 1 Peter 2: 24 KJV
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.; All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53:5-6 KJV
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” 1 Cor 15:3 KJV
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” Col 2:14 KJV
“So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” Heb 9:28 KJV
“Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” Rom 4:7-8 KJV
“Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” Rom 4:25 KJV
Above in Romans 4 we see both the Penal and the Substitution. We see that the purpose of bearing out offenses in Substitution was for our “penal” Justification.
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Cor 5:21 KJV
“And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” Php 3:9-10 KJV
“In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” Eph 1:7 KJV
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.; But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.; For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.; For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Gal 3:24-27 KJV
“bare our sins”
“for our transgressions”
“hath laid on him”
“Christ died for our sins”
“bear the sins”
“made him to be sin”
“will not impute sin”
“have put on Christ”
“we have redemption”
“have been baptized”
Look carefully at the verbs and nouns above, who is doing the bearing of sins? Who is doing the receiving of redemption and righteousness? Jesus did die for our sins and whoever tells you otherwise is in open rebellion to the Word of God and needs to repent.