This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series: ‘Pierced For Our Transgressions’ (Ovey et al)
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 1 – Exodus 12
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 2 – Leviticus 16
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 3 – Isaiah 53
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 4 – Mark
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 5 – John’s Gospel
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 6 – Romans
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 7 – Galatians
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 8 – 1 Peter
- Objections to Penal Substitution 1 – Bible
- Objections to Penal Substitution 2 – Culture
- Objections to penal substitution 3 – violence
- Objections to penal substitution 4 – justice
- Objections to penal substitution 5 – God
- Objections to penal substitution 6 – the Christian life
- Substutionary atonement: a note to preachers
Continuing this series that summarises (in order to commend) material within Jeffrey, Ovey & Sach’s book Pierced for our Transgressions, we reach those objections that assert that the doctrine of penal substitionary atonement violates the principle of justice:-
1. ‘It is unjust to punish an innocent person, even if he is willing to be punished’
According to Tom Smail, ‘the penal substitution theory…must answer the question: How can it be just to punish a righteous man for the sins of many unrighteous people?’
Colin Greene writes, ‘Is it not the case that sins are so identified with their perpetrators that they cannot simply be transferred from one person to another as if by legal fiat?’
Response: Peter asserts that God judges justly, but them immediately follows this by saying that Christ ‘bore our sins’, 1 Pet 2:23-24. Paul similarly, Rom 3:23. Penal substitution does not involve the transfer of guilt between two unrelated people; the guilt is transferred (imputed) to him from those who are united to him, just as his righteousness is imputed to them. Luther uses the analogy of a marriage, in which debt of one is legally shared with another. See 2 Cor 5:21. The imputation of our guilt to Christ does not violate justice, because he willingly consents to a real, spiritual identification with his people.
In our individualistic age, we need to remember that the theme of corporate moral responsibility is far more pervasive in Scripture than we may realise. Paul draws attention to both our solidarity with Adam and with Christ, Rom 5:12-21.
2. ‘Biblical justice is about restoring relationships, not exacting retribution’
Punishment should be restorative, not retributive. Colin Gunton advocates a ‘concept of the justice of God which…is…transformative rather than punitive or distributive.’
Response: This objection is consistent with modern thinking about the legal system, which majors of reform of the criminal, protection of society and deterrance of offenders. Talk of criminals ‘getting what they deserve’ is viewed with distaste.
Note that retribution is not the same as revenge, for the former is carried out only by a properly constituted authority, whereas the latter is carried out by anyone who has the inclination and the opportunity.
There are three fundamental penal theories: the retributive, the deterrant, and the corrective. Scriptural teaching does not exclude the latter two, but insists on a place for retribution. According to Scripture (and instinct), (a) only guilty people should be punished, (b) the punishment should be proportional to the crime, and (c) punishments should be equitable. But only a retributive element safeguards these principles.
3. ‘Penal substitution implicitly denies that God forgives sin’
According to Eleonore Stump, ‘To forgive a debtor is to fail to exact all that is in justice due. But, according to penal substitution, God does exact every bit of the debt owed him by humans; he allows none of it to go unpaid.’
Response: Stump has pretty much answered her own objection, by acknowledging that according to the doctrine of penal substitution God himself pays the debt we owe in the person of his Son, and that this is perfectly compatible with forgiveness. She also concedes that the doctrine of the Trinity adds extra weight to the case for penal substitution, for since Christ is one in being with the Father, the one paying the debt is the same as the one to whom the debt is paid. In any case, Scripture teaches that the God who forgives is also the God who redeems (pays the price) for his people, Eph 1:7.
4. ‘Penal substitution does not work, for the penalty Christ suffered was not equivalent to that due to us’
How could the death of one man satisfy the penalty owed by so many people? Moreover, for all the agony that Christ suffered on the cross, it was not equivalent to the everlasting punishment that is due to sinners, if for no other reason that that Christ’s suffering was not everlasting?
Response: The question of how one man’s act can affect many others is addressed in Rom 5:12-21. Just as Adam was the head of the old humanity, so Christ is the head of the new humanity. The extent of the punishment he bore depends in large part on the dignity of the one punished. See Col 2:9. Just as his incarnation was an act of infinite condescension, so his atoning death is of infinite worth. The eternal efficacy of Christ’s one act of suffering are key themes in the Epistle to the Hebrews, e.g. Heb 7:23-28, 9:11-15.
5. ‘Penal substution implies universal salvation, which is unbiblical’
If Christ has paid the price completely, how can it be that God demands that some people pay the penalty (in the form of everlasting punishment) again?
Response: This argument relies on the premise that Christ died for all. Now, there is no question as to the universal value of Christ’s death, but there is a question as to the design of the atonement. And it is clear that Scripture teaches particular, or definite, atonement.
See Pierced for our Transgressions, 240-278