This entry is part 13 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
The next set of objections to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement cluster around our understanding of God:-
1. ‘Penal substitution implies a division between the persons of the Trinity’
Critics sometimes argue that the doctrine of penal substition violates the unity of the godhead by depicting the Father and the Son as acting independently. Whereas Rom 5:8 affirms that God demonstrates his love by means of what Christ did, penal substitution implies that in the atonement God did something to Jesus.
Response: There is nothing unbiblical in asserting that God does something to Jesus. For example, the Father is said to send the Son; but the Son is never said to send the Father. For the rest, a sufficiently nuanced doctrine of the Trinity will safeguard both the essential unity within the Godhead and also the distinctions betwen the persons. While every person of the Trinity is involved in every action undertaken by one of the other persons, they are not involved in the same way. The Father willingly sent the Son, and the Father willingly came: their actions are harmonious, but not identical. Similarly, it is not meaningless, but meaningful, so say that in the cross-work of Christ the Son propitiated and the Father was propitiated.
2. ‘Penal substitution relies on an unbiblical view of an angry God that is incompatible with his love’
Accordingly to Smail and others, God cannot be angry and loving at the same time. Chalke and Mann go so far as to deny that God’s wrath and love can be spoken about in the same breath: ‘The Bible never defines God as anger, power or judgement – in fact it never defines him as anything other than love. But more that that, it never makes assertions about his anger, power or judgement independently of his love…Everything is to be tempered, interpreted, understood and seen through the one, primary lens of God’s love…Christian talk about God must always start with love and introduce the language of power only in that context.’
Response: we must affirm the glorious truth that God loves sinners. Indeed, the cross is the supreme manifestation of this, Jn 3:16,Rom 5:8,1Jo 4:10. It is correct to say with Smail that God’s love for the world is the source and not the consequence of Christ’s atoning death. But prior love does not preclude prior wrath, Jn 3:36,Eph 2:4.
God’s love is rarely denied; it is his wrath that many want to remove from the picture. The NT has many clear warnings about final judgement. The message is clear: human sin provokes God’s wrath. Of the various theologies of the cross, it is penal substitution that makes sense of this biblical theme and offers a solution equal to the problem. ‘To construct a doctrine of the atonement without taking account of the fact that God is angry would be like building an aeroplane without reference to the fact of gravity.’ See 1 Thess 1:10.
God’s attributes must not be pitted against one another, as Chalke and Mann do when they insist that his wrath must be subordinated to his love. On the contrary, we must view his love and holy, his holiness as loving, and so on.
3. ‘Penal substitution misunderstands the relationship between God’s wrath and human sin’
Some argue that sin, rather than arousing God’s wrath and provoking his judgement, brings its own negative consequences, and it is these that are his judgement on sinful humanity, a manifestation of his wrath. Arguing from Rom 1:18-32 Green and Baker assert that ‘our sinful acts do not invite God’s wrath but prove that God’s wrath is already active.’ Travis says, ‘God does not impose punishment retributively from outside, but allows men to experience the consequences of their refusal to live in relation to him.’ In other words, God does not actively punish sin at all, he simply allows us to suffer the natural consequences of our sin. Such teachers would say that Christ dies under the wrath of God not in the sense that any punishment was transferred to hom, but only in the sense that he entered into and shared the human experience of suffering the naturual consequences of sin.
Response: These critics are right to affirm that God uses the natural processes of human life to judge human sin, Rom 1:18-32. But Scripture also teaches a wrath that is yet to come, Col 3:5-6,Eph 5:5-6, a future ‘day’ when his righteous judgement will be revealed, Rom 2:5,1 Thess 5:2-3,2 Thess 2:2,2 Pet 3:4-10.
Moreover, the Bible does not endorse a dichotomy between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ consequences of sin, between natural and supernatural divine actions. Ahab’s death from a stray arrow, 1 Kings 22:23,34-37, was as much a divine judgement as that of Herod, who was struck down by an angel, Acts 12:23.
The objection is a re-working of that of C.H. Dodd, and his exegesis has been comprehensively refuted by scholars such as Leon Morris and Roger Nicole.
4. ‘Penal substitution generates an unbiblical view of a God constrained by a law external to himself’
According to this objection, penal substitution places God in a quandary: he longs to have fellowship with sinful people, and wants to forgive us, but is forced to punish our sins by some external law of justice. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, Lk 15, is sometimes used to bolster this objection: the father accepts the returning son and does not accept that there is any debt outstanding against him. By contrast, advocates of penal substitution are likened to the elder brother in the parable, who ‘wants to set a principle of retribution an dconpensation over the mercy of Father’ (Fiddes). If God is free, say the objectors, he is free to forgive without reference to any outside law and without demanding any satisfaction of the requirements of that law.
Response: we should certainly not regard God as being constrained by any authority outside of himself. But the standard of justice implied in penal substituion is intrinsic to him; it is a reflection of his own righteous character. The demands of justice flow out of God’s character as a just judge, Le 11:44-45. Obedience to God’s law is obedience to God himself; disobedience to God’s law is disobedience to God himself. Sin is not a transgression of an abstract moral code: it is an affront to God’s holy character. Rom 3:25-26 makes it clear that God’s own justice is at stake.
5. ‘Penal substitution is an impersonal, mechanistic account of the atonement’
It is claimed that penal substitution sidelines the relationship between God and humanity and focusses attention on impersonal categories of justice, law, sin, guilt, wrath and satisfaction.
Response: This is a similar objection to the previous one, and the answer to it is also similar. Just as sin is not violation of some impersonal law but an affront against God’s righteous character, so the death of Christ is not ‘a factor in an equation…needed to balance the cosmic sum’ (Fiddes) but the loving and costly action of God, to suffer in himself the personal outpouring of his own wrath.
In fact, it is often the opponents of penal substiution who depersonalise the wrath of God. So Green and Maker, who assert that ‘sinful activity is the result of God’s letting us go our own way and this “letting us go our own way” constitutes God’s wrath.’
It is true that the Bible sometimes describes punishment as privative – as exclusion from God’s presence. But we cannot ignore those texts that also speak of it as positive and personal, Rev 6:16-17,Lk 23:28-30.
Pierced for our transgressions, 279-306