Derek Tidball outlines six pastoral issues which are often raised as objections to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), but which, actually, count in its favour.
1. It terminates guilt; it does not perpetuate it
Proponents of PSA can seem to so emphasise the sinfulness of sin that the poor sinner despairs of ever being rid of a sense of guilt and self-loathing.
Correctly understood, however, PSA does not leave people in this abject situation. The one who comes to Christ can rest in the completeness of his forgiveness. Christ has dealt with sin and its consequences so decisively and so thoroughly that the sinner can know his burden has been completely lifted, his acceptance with God unalienable.
2. It conquers violence; it does not glorify it
The PSA view of the cross, it is said, portrays a hostile God, wo punishes his own Son for wrongs of which he was not guilty. Does not this legitimate violence against the weak, and glorify passive submission to violence? Can violence ever be redemptive? Is it not important that wrongs be righted, rather than that wrong should be punished?
- The cross of Jesus was a bloody and painful affair, whatever interpretation we put on it. We cannot blame PSA for that fact. The Christus Victor understanding of atonement (often preferred by critics of PSA) seems to be just as susceptible to this kind of criticism as the PSA understanding.
- We are not God, and there are many areas in which we are not called upon to imitate God. If there is any area of PSA that presents us with a model for our behaviour, then it is in following Christ in bearing suffering with grace (Eph 4:32).
- PSA is gravely misunderstood if it is taken to mean that a vengeful Father indulges his wrath on an unwilling victim. This is to do violence to the relationship between the Father and the Son, and to the explicit statements of Scripture concerning the love of both Father and Son in achieving redemption.
- The supposed link between PSA and abusive behaviour has not adequately been demonstrated.
3. It personalises justice; it does not depersonalise it
Critics complain that PSA is a cold, forensic, impersonal way of talking about the cross, whereas sin and salvation should be thought of principally as a breakdown and restoration of our relationship with God. In PSA, moreover, God is thought to be subject to some external moral standard which he is forced (against his will?) to obey.
We would certainly want to affirm, with the critics, that the relationship aspects of atonement (alienation and restoration) are of key importance. But is the criticism valid?
We must insist that sinners have offended, ‘not some impersonal code, but a personal God’. The moral law is not external to God, but is rather an expression of his own character. It is precisely because God is love that he is ‘opposed to that which destroys his creation and diminishes his creatures’. In Brunner’s words: ‘God is angry, because he is personal, because he is love.’ Many people today think that God’s love cancels out his wrath. But, says Brunner, ‘the Cross is the only place where the loving, forgiving, merciful God is revealed in such a way that we perceive that His holiness and His love are equally infinite.’
Ironically, some critics of PSA depersonalise divine wrath by postulating that it represents nothing more than the inevitable outworking of sin. They thus want a personal solution (reconciliation through the cross) to an impersonal problem (living in disharmony with the world). But, according to PSA, the issues are personal and relational throughout.
4. It provides satisfaction; it does not demand it
The caricature of PSA says that God must have his ‘pound of flesh’ for his broken law and his offended honour. The truth highlighted by PSA is that God himself has met his own demands. Indeed, ‘the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 6:23). PSA stresses that there is nothing we can do to make ourselves right with God: God has himself freely provided satisfaction at his own expense. He demands only what he himself has provided.
According to such a view all men and woman approach God on the same level, through the same door. No natural advantage or privilege (moral, educational, ethnic, and so on), nor indeed any such disadvantage, makes any difference.
‘To summarize Ephesians 2, all were dead in sin, all were deserving of God’s wrath, but all may be made alive by grace, through faith, in Christ. Given this, no one can boast. Here is a gospel for all.’
5. It accomplishes change; it does not fictionalise it
Critics of PSA denigrate it for being a ‘transactional’, rather than a ‘transformational’ approach. They complain that it presents atonement in either financial terms (debt paid) or legal terms (crime forgiven) without effecting any real change within the sinner, or in the relationship between God and the sinner. The cross, it is claimed, is thought about with a ‘Stock Exchange’ mentality, or its work is reduced to a legal fiction.
It is true that some illustrations used by evangelical preachers are unhelpfully crude in this regard. But this does not prove that the doctrine of PSA is fatally flawed. That doctrine preserves a vital objective truth: that something definite happened then that affects things now.
There are several implications:-
- Without the objective view, sinners are left without assurance that they have sufficiently responded to God’s love in order to make their relationship with him secure. PSA, on the other hand, stresses that God has taken the initiative and has fundamentally changed the basis of our relationship with him.
- It is wrong to think of debt and crime as if they were impersonal issues. Debtors and criminals are persons who have offended (and often hurt) other persons. Trial by jury is favoured precisely because it is trial by one’s peers.
- Only within an objective view of the atonement can we say that full redemption through the cross is available to all no matter what they have done and no matter how late their repentance.
- Although PSA may appear to provide an excuse for people to receive forgiveness and yet live untransformed lives, this is a problem with any account of the atonement, and one which Paul fully addresses in his writings.
6. It encourages discipleship; it does not marginalise it
Critics claim that PSA isolates the cross from the resurrection, and consequently from the new life that resurrection brings. The sinner is forgiven and has received a first-class ticket to heaven. End of story.
But the concept of PSA does not exist in a vacuum. It posits a holy God, a good and wise law, sin as serious and destructive in its effects, salvation wondrous and undeserved. Now all these things continue to be as true after we have found salvation as they were before. PSA encourages neither antinomianism nor legalism. In redemption, God draws us into a relationship with him in which we are freed from the condemnation and penalty of the law in order that we might, from hearts full of gratitude, keep ‘the royal law…that brings freedom’ (James 2:8, 12). We were ‘bought at a price’, and are, therefore, ‘not our own’ (1 Cor 6:20).
Based on ‘Penal Substitution: a Pastoral Apologetic’ in The Atonement Debate, ed Tidball et al.