This entry is part 14 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
Here’s the last in this series, summarising responses to objections to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that relate to aspects of the Christian life:-
1. ‘Penal substitution fails to address the issues of political and social sin and cosmic evil’
Penal substitution seems occupied with the salvation of the individual but fails to address the need for reconciliation between peoples divided by political, ethnic, economic and social barriers. Nor does it provide for the redemption of the entire cosmos from its fallen state. Moreover, it is content to focus on punishment of sin rather than on any recreative aspects of the work of Christ.
Response: This objection seems motivated by concern that many evangelicals fail to engage with issues in the social and political sphere. The ministry of John Stott demonstrates that belief in penal substitution is compatible with engagement with such issues. In fact, penal substitution repudiates individualism, emphasising as it does the creation of a new humanity under Christ as the ‘second Adam’.
With regard to the assertation that penal substitution fails to deal with ‘structural sin’ it must be pointed out that sin does not reside in structure or institutions but in the people of which they are comprised. It was Nazis, not ‘Nazism’ who were responsible for the murders of millions of Jews in WW2. Penal substitution recognises that sin resides in individual human beings, even though it impacts alsoon the larger structures of the society to which those individuals belong.
As for cosmic evil, those who hold to penal substitution point out that the liberation of creation, which has been ‘in bondage to decay’ because of the sin of Adam, Rom 8:21, is tied to the redemption of certain people – the children of God. ‘By setting forth the solution to sin and guilt in individual human lives, penal substitution provides the means by which the whole cosmos will one day be transformed.’
We are left not with a choice between retributive and recreative models of atonement, but with both – the one depending on the other.
2. ‘Penal substitution is an entirely objective account of the atonement, and fails to address our side of the Creator-creature relationship’
Penal substitution, it is said, says nothing about the moral effects of Christ’s death on us. After it is we who have wandered away from God, so is it not we, rather than God, who most need to change?
Response: Penal substitution is not proposed as the only biblical facet of the atonement. It is unreasonable to complain that one piece of a jigsaw puzzle does not contain the whole picture. To criticise penal substitution for saying nothing about the Christian life ‘when taken by itself’ (Smail) is like complaining that an engine is no good at steering a car.
But penal substitution links with other doctrines (neighbouring piece of the jigsaw, if you like) which have profound ethical implications. One of these is the doctrine of union with Christ. ‘We died to sin’, Rom 6:2, links back to the saving benefits of Christ’s substitutionary death; but this brings with it moral imperatives, Rom 6:11-12. The doctrines of regeneration and redemption also link penal substitution to its moral implications.
Again: penal substitution itself calls forth a subjective response from us, both in terns of horror at sin and confidence in Christ’s cross-work.
3. ‘Penal substitution causes people to live in fear of God’
The objection is, that the doctrine of penal substitution ‘plays up’ God’s wrath while ‘playing down’ his love.
Response: The Bible writers, and Jesus himself, seem less wary of the dangers than the modern objectors. See Lk 12:4-5. The fear of God is viewed positively throughout Scripture, Ps 34:7,9,Pr 1:7,1 Pet 1:17,Rev 14:7. Note that God’s dramatic punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-11 had a positive outcome, Acts 5:14.
But what about 1 Jn 4:18? – ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ We must distinguish between godly fear (which is enjoined throughout Scripture) and being afraid of God (which John tells us we need not be). The doctrine of penal substitution itself teaches us that we need not dread God’s wrath, because, as John writes, ‘God sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins’, 1 Jn 4:10. Penal substitution provides immense comfort for a troubled conscience.
4. ‘Penal substitution legitimates violence and encourages the passive acceptance of unjust suffering’
Response: The charge that penal substitution legitimates oppression and violence is a serious one. In fact, it is difficult if not impossible to find a single example in which this understanding of the Christian message has been used in an attempt to justify such behaviour. On the contrary, a host of Christian teachers have spelled out the positive implications of the gospel for Christian life.
In any case, the argument would have to proceed on the basis that we should imitate God the Father in what he did at the cross. But this is precisely what the Bible teaches we should not do, Rom 12:17-19. The Bible does not set forth God’s judgement as an example for us to follow.
It is most troubling that the objection does not make any distinction between God’s righteous punishment of sin in Christ on the cross and the vindictive and godless attrocities of men and women. We should think very carefully before making God the Father out to be a sadist and God the Son a masochist.
It is true that those who put Jesus to death were guilty of appalling brutality, Acts 3:13-15,7:51-53. But it is also true that God worked through those same actions for his good purposes, Acts 2:23,4:27-28, see also Isa 53:10.
As to the other part of the charge, that penal substitution encourages the passive acceptance of abuse amongst victims, this is relevant not the penal substitution model but to the ‘exemplary theory’: the idea that Christ’s death provides an example for us to follow. Still, there is an important pastoral issue at stake here. 1 Pet 2:18-25 sets forth Jesus’ submission to his persecutors as an example for others who suffer unjustly. But the intention is to show believers how they should respond when persecuted, not to encourage them to seek persecution as an intrinsic good. Furthermore, in the preceding paragraph the apostle teaches that those in authority are to stampt out injustices like those spoken on in 1 Pet 2:18-25. Peter’s point is about how we should respond in a situation where we cannot escape injustice.
See Pierced for our Transgressions, 307-324