In chapter 15 of The Atonement Debate (2008), Stephen Holmes gives an account of British evangelical accounts of the atonement, with special reference to the doctrine of penal substitution.
Holmes argues three points:-
- Evangelical preachers and writers have generally insisted upon substitutionary understandings of the atonement, but with much less emphasis on penal substitution.
- Evangelicals have usually taught penal substitution as one of a number of metaphors relating to the atonement.
- Evangelicals usually accepted penal substitution without controversy until about 1800. Thereafter, complaints were more often raised, and defences proposed.
It seems to me that there are one or two rather odd things about Holmes’ essay. Why, for example, does he dwell somewhat on the thought of Jonathan Edwards, who was American, not British? And if Edwards is to be included, why not Charles Hodge (who is mentioned, but never actually quoted), who I think was more influential amongst British evangelicals in the 19th century?
Another oddity is Holmes’ decision to begin in the 1730s. This leaves out (among others) the Puritans, who have profoundly influenced British evangelical thought: look no further than Spurgeon in the 19th century and Packer in the 20th century.
To go some way towards filling the gap, here are some representative Puritan statements about the atonement, and especially the doctrine of penal substitution.
John Owen (1616-83)
“Christ so took and bare our sins, and had them so laid upon him, as that he underwent the punishment due unto them, and that in our stead: therefore, he made satisfaction to the justice of God for them. First, that Christ took and bare our sins, God laying them on him. Secondly, That he so took them as to undergo the punishment due unto them. Thirdly, that he did this in our stead.”
The Death of Christ
John Bunyan (1628-88)
“From all which I gathered, that I must look for righteousness in his person, and for satisfaction for my sins by his blood; that what he did in obedience to his Father’s Law, and in submitting to the penalty thereof, was not for himself, but for him that will accept it for his Salvation, and be thankful. And no was my heart full of joy, mine eyes full of tears, and mine affections running over with love, to the Name, People, and Ways of Jesus Christ.”
The Pilgrim’s Progress
Stephen Charnock (1628–27 July 1680)
“He received our evils to bestow his good, and submitted to our curse to impart to us his blessings; sustained the extremity of that wrath we had deserved, to confer upon us the grace he had purchased. The sin in us, which he was free from, was by divine estimation transferred upon him, as if he were guilty, that the righteousness he has, which we were destitute of, might be transferred upon us, as if we were innocent. He was made sin, as if he had sinned all the sins of men, and we are made righteousness, as if we had not sinned at all.”
“Cleansing Virtue of Christ’s Blood,” in Works, 3:519
Thomas Watson (c. 1620 – 1686)
“He was pressed in the wine-press of his Father’s wrath. this causes that vociferation and outcry on the cross, ‘My God, my God, [why hast thou deserted me?’]..Christ felt the pains of hell in his soul, though not locally, yet equivalently.’..He suffered, that he might satisfy God’s justice for us. We by our sins, had infinitely wronged God; and, could we have shed rivers of tears, offered up millions of holocausts and burnt-offerings, we could never have pacified an angry deity; therefore Christ must die, that God’s justice may be satisfied…Thou it were his own Son,. the Son of his love, and our sins were but imputed to him, yet God did not spare him, but his wrath did flame against him, Rom 8:32…No sooner did Christ die, but God’s anger was pacified.”
A Body of Divinity, 173-175 (1890 edition – abridged and published under Spurgeon’s auspices – Banner of Truth 1965 reprint)
I do not introduce these extracts in order to dispute Stephen Holmes, but rather to add to his evidence. In the case of Thomas Watson, it is clear that he accepted a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, but this is not his only, or even his main, emphasis. For Watson, Christ’s death has healing power: ‘Christ’s blood is a healing and cleansing blood.’ His is a victorious death: ‘Christ died both as a purchaser and as a conqueror: as a purchaser in regard of God, having by his blood obtained our salvation, and as a conqueror in regard of Satan, the cross being his triumphant chariot, wherein he has led hell and death captive.’ Christ died, too, as an example to us, though ‘he not only died for our example, but to merit salvation.’
But the main image, for Watson, would appear to be that of redemption, for he has a whole section (pp 209-214) dealing with the question, ‘How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ’. In this section, he asks (and answers) questions such as, ‘How does Christ redeem us?’ ‘From what does Christ redeem us?’ ‘How are we redeemed from sin?’ ‘To what has Christ redeemed us?’ and so on. The question which Watson doesn’t bother with is the one that intrigued some of the Church Fathers: ‘To whom what the ransom paid?’ This, together with the fact that Watson entertains a wide range of biblical metaphors for the atonement, indicates that he would readily acknowledge the limitations of each of the metaphors, and would utterly repudiate any inference that penal substitution makes the Father into some kind of vindictive ogre who inflicts pointless punishment on an innocent Son.
Matthew Poole 1624–1679
This distinguished Bible commentator preached a sermon entitled ‘The Satisfaction of Christ Discussed’, in which he expounds (from Colossians 1:20) the doctrine ‘That the death of Jesus Christ is the procuring cause of man’s justification and salvation.’
Poole is mindful of the heresy of Socinianism, whose adherents ‘deny the Godhead and the satisfaction of Christ; and so indeed subvert the whole fabric of the gospel.’
Poole argues that God ‘by his nature is inclined’ and ‘by his interest is obliged’ to punish human sin. ‘The only way whereby this punishment might be suffered, and yet man saved, was by the incarnation and passion of God-man…And none but Christ, who was infinite in regard of the subject, and dignity of his person, as he was God, could have so speedily and effectually delivered us from this punishment by suffering it himself, whereby God’s justice was satisfied, his hatred against the sinner removed, and his mercy at liberty to act in the pardon of the sinner…The guilt of our sins laid on him brought death upon him, as the just punishment of them.’
Interestingly, Poole refers to the teaching of the early Church Fathers, noting: ‘It is observed of the ancient writers of the church, that those of them who lived before the Pelagian heresy was raised, spoke more darkly and doubtfully and carelessly in those things, not being obliged to stand much upon their guard when they had no enemy in view; and having to do with enemies of a contrary make, while they avoided one extreme, διʼ αμετρον της ανθολκης, [“by excess of counterbalancing,”] as it often happened, they ran too near the other.’
Puritan Sermons, Vol 5, Sermon XVI