I guess that most people who claim to be evangelicals would affirm the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) – the belief that Christ died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins.
What is less clear is how many of these would argue that PSA is just one of a number of equally important images of the atonement, and how many think that it is the central, dominant, or controlling image.
Of course, more important than such a head-count would be investigating the reasons why people do, or do not, consider PSA to be central. But I’m not offering here any extended discussion of the reasons put forward as to why folk do or do not regard penal substitution to be of central importance in our understanding of the atonement. However, I will note some of these as we go along.
What follows is not a statistical survey, but rather a sampling of opinions, focusing especially those that are part of, or especially relevant to, recent debates about PSA.
But first, some thoughts by way of
Clearing the way ahead
I would like to begin by trying to clear a few areas of confusion out of the way.
A first problem area is that people do not always distinguish between substitution and penal substitution. They might quote John Stott (in his magisterial book The Cross of Christ) as teaching that penal substitution is at the very centre of the biblical doctrine of the atonement.
Will Schuurman, for example, quotes Stott as follows:
‘“So [penal] substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the four images could stand without it. I am not of course saying that it is necessary to understand, let alone articulate, a substitutionary atonement before one can be saved. Yet the responsibility of Christian teachers, preachers and other witnesses is to seek grace to expound it with clarity and conviction. For the better people understand the glory of the divine substitution, the easier it will be for them to trust in the Substitute.” (The Cross of Christ, p199)
But notice what Schuurman has done here. In addition to adding emphasis that is not there in the original, he inserts the word ‘penal’ at the beginning of this quote. This, I think, distorts Stott’s argument rather badly. Stott has been arguing that substitution lies at the heart of the atonement, and is the essence of four biblical images: propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation. But only one of these – propitiation, speaking of the removal of divine wrath by the offering of a sacrifice – can be understood in penal substitutionary terms. Redemption and reconciliation (and possibly justification, but I’m not sure about that one) are not explicable in penal terms. It seems to me, then, that for Stott penal substitution is not central to the atonement because it does not cover all the bases.
By the way, Schuurman is not the only person to conflate substitution and penal substitution when reading Stott. Referring to the same section of Stott’s book, Kevin DeYoung urges that anyone who minimises or marginalizes penal substitution ‘should pay careful attention to’ Stott’s concluding paragraph (quoted above, and which mentions substitution, but not penal substitution).
I was surprised to find yet another instance of misreading Stott at this point. Kam Weng has an extended quote from the same section of The Cross of Christ:
‘Penal Substitution as the Essence of Various Models/Images of Atonement
‘We have examined four of the principal New Testament images of salvation, taken from the shrine, the market, the court of law and the home….’
But the heading, which specifies ‘penal substitution’ is not Stott’s, but Weng’s. Again, Stott has been misquoted.
As for me, I am willing (with John Stott) to affirm the centrality of substitutionary atonement, but am yet to be convinced that the doctrine of penal substitution is central to the biblical presentation of the work of Christ.
A second area of confusion occurs when people present the issue as if there were a simply choice between two extremes: either you believe that penal substitution is the most important thing to say about the atonement, or you deny penal substitution altogether.
For my part, I think that a mediating position, which affirms penal substitutionary atonement (and even, with Carson, regarding its affirmation or denial as a ‘gospel issue’) is both possible and (probably) desirable.
A third problem in this whole discussion is that some teachers are apt to bring PSA into disrepute through careless and exaggerated statements such as these:
‘It wasn’t the sin that killed Him; it was God who killed Him. It wasn’t the sin. He didn’t have any sin. He was sinless, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sin. Sin did not kill Jesus. God killed Jesus to pay for sin that He never committed, but you did and I did. Jesus didn’t die as a moral influence, showing the power of love. Jesus didn’t die as an example of sacrifice for a noble cause. Jesus didn’t die as nothing more than Christus Victor….There’s only one way to understand the death of Christ and that is under the principle of penal substitution. He was our substitute to take the penalty for our sins, to satisfy the justice of God.’ (John MacArthur, quoted by Schuurman)
I reckon that all doctrines, including those relating to the glorious work of God in Christ in bringing salvation to this fallen world, should be presented with care as well as clarity and forthrightness. Let us not run to unbiblical extremes.
A fourth problem is that some people evaluate doctrines of the atonement on the grounds of their supposed utility in the modern world. This mistake is committed, I think, by Green and Baker in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. I have not forgotten that these authors do attempt a biblical critique of PSA. But they seek to clinch their argument by asserting that PSA simply does not ‘cut the mustard’ with people today. We do not live in a world where thinking is shaped by a ‘crime-and-punishment’ model, but rather by a ‘guilt-and-shame’ mentality. Accordingly (it is argued) PSA simply will not make sense today. Green and Baker go so far as to suggest that since the biblical writers presented images of the atonement that were culturally relevant in their day, we ourselves need to come up with new images that will be relevant in the 21st century. What they seem to forget is that the gospel was already pushing out into different cultures (from Palestine to Asia Minor and Rome, for example) and asking people to understand the gospel in terms that might be very alien within their prevailing cultures, but made sense in a culture steeped in the theology and practice of the Old Testament.
I say that although we should certainly study our culture(s) in order to find out how people think, we should beware of adjusting any biblical doctrine on the ground that people will find it ‘difficult’. Any imagery that we might come up with must support and complement the imagery that the Holy Spirit has given us in Scripture. To do otherwise is to run the risk of dilution, distortion, or even denial of revealed truth. This is especially so if the doctrine of penal substitution is found to be the central or controlling atonement motif in Scripture.
A fifth problem relates to the historical development of the doctrine of penal substitution. It would appear that this doctrine, although taught by a number of teachers in the early church, did not come to prominence, nor become thought through in a more systematic way, until the time of the Reformation. Although challenged at that time by some Protestant thinkers (the names of Socinus and Grotius come to mind) it became the prevalent view among evangelicals. This raises the perfectly reasonable question: ‘If penal substitution is so important, and our belief in it so secure, how come it come to prominence so late.’
‘PSA has no place in our doctrine of the atonement’
Some writers who would probably self-identify as evangelicals deny that penal substitution has any place in a Christian doctrine of the atonement.
Steve Chalke (b 1955) is a British Baptist minister, and founder of the Oasis Trust.
Chalke’s polemic against penal substitution in The Lost Message of Jesus (co-written by Alan Mann) is well known. Chalke argues for a ‘multicoloured’ theology of atonement. He admits a substitutionary element, ‘(though, I contest, not a “penal” substitutionary) element’ (In The Atonement Debate (p. 37). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.)
Joel Green (b 1956) is an American New Testament scholar who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church.
Green, along with Mark Baker, published Recovering the Scandal of the Cross in 2000, with a second edition issued in 2011. In this, and various other publications, Green argues that (a) the doctrine of penal substitution has been especially problematic in its more popular presentations; (b) even in more sophisticated accounts it misses too much of the overall biblical message about the atonement; (c) there is a further problem when it is made the primary model of atonement; (d) even if penal substitution made sense in a previous age, it does not do so today. Green concludes that a ‘kaleidoscopic’ understanding of the atonement is needed, but with penal substitution more or less excluded.
Derek Flood is an artist and writer who identifies with ‘the “radical center” of the post-conservative Neoevangelicals’.
In Healing the Gospel, Flood rejects a penal substitutionary view of atonement, and argues for a Christus Victor understanding, incorporating an emphasis on ‘restorative justice’.
Greg Boyd (b 1957) is an American pastor, theologian and writer. He is well known for his advocacy of ‘open theism’.
Boyd identifies ‘Ten problems with the Penal Substitutionary View of the Atonement’. In the multi-author The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views Boyd argues for a Christus Victor approach. However, in 2008 (two years after the publication of that book) Boyd wrote a brief article which concluded: ‘maybe I can now espouse a Christus Victor Penal Substitution view of the atonement.’ Boyd has written further about his Christus Victor view here.
‘PSA is one of a number of valid models or images’
The name of John Murray (1898-1975) is quite well known in reformed evangelical circles. Murray was a Scottish-born theologian who taught first at Princeton Seminary in the USA and then, along with J. Gresham Machen and others, helped to found Westminster Theological Seminary. He was an early trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust.
In his book Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, Murray notes that Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ in terms of sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. However, Murray thinks that all these categories may be comprehended under the more inclusive rubric of obedience (p19).
It seems clear (especially from his acceptance of propitiation) that Murray espouses a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, but without making it the primary or central tenet.
The Evangelical Alliance
Formed in 1846, the Evangelical Alliance seeks to bring British evangelicals together, equipping them to interact positively with government, media and society.
In February 2006 The Board of the Evangelical Alliance reaffirmed its Basis of Faith, as revised and adopted in the previous September.
1. Notes that the Basis defines ‘all people’ to have been ‘corrupted by sin’, that this sin ‘incurs divine wrath and judgement’, and that on the cross Jesus sacrificially atoned for sin by ‘dying in our place’ and ‘paying the price’ of such sin.
3. Understands these descriptions of Jesus’ death to affirm penal substitutionary atonement.
4. Accepts that the Bible speaks of the cross in various other ways in addition to, but not at the expense of, penal substitutionary atonement;
5. Emphasises that other models of atonement are endorsed in the Basis of Faith alongside penal substitution, including Christus Victor, Moral Influence and Recapitulation, but that these should be seen as complementing rather than negating penal substitution.
Stephen Holmes teaches at University of St Andrews School of Divinity.
In The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History, Holmes advocates a many-sided approach to the atonement. Near the beginning of his book he writes:
‘What I will be arguing in this book is that this ‘many metaphors’ picture of how to talk about the cross is the only way to understand penal substitution. If we start thinking that this is a complete and exhaustive account of exactly what was going on at the cross, then we will miss much of what Scripture has to say about the glories of Jesus’ death, and we will need to force some of the rest out of shape in order to make it fit the scheme that we are imposing. It doesn’t matter how clever we are; our minds are not capable of creating boxes big enough that we can fit God within them. I do think, however, that if we are prepared to accept that penal substitution is one very powerful metaphor, one story that will help us to illuminate aspects of the wonderful thing that Jesus has done for us, then we can and should continue to hold on to it.’
New Testament scholar Scot McKnight discusses ‘the center of atonement’ here.
McKnight says that we know that atonement works, even if, like a number of other things, we aren’t always clear about how it work. The New Testament,
‘denies us the security of a central metaphor, but instead affirms that Jesus’ death (and resurrection and exaltation) atones and that the same New Testament provides a variety of images for “how” atonement happens.’
The various atonement metaphors employed in the New Testament (recapitulation, ransom/Christus Victor, satisfaction, substitution, representation and penal substitution) are like the various clubs a golfer might use for different strokes. They are selected according to the situation or problem the writer is seeking to address.
Penal substitution is one of these metaphors, but in order to regard it as the leading metaphor we would have to show that
- the majority of atonement texts teach penal substitution, or,
- the most central atonement text highlights it as of first importance, or,
- one or more NT authors say it is the most important metaphor.
…or something similar.
But, says McKnight, this cannot be done.
Writing in the New Dictionary of Theology, Wright says:
‘[Jesus] would carry out Israel’s task: and, having pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might not drink it (Mk. 14:36; 10:45, etc.).
‘In his crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves.’ (Art. ‘Jesus’)
However, we must enter a caveat: this 1st edition of NDT was published in 1988. In the successor to this volume (New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, which was published in 2016) the equivalent article was written by Richard Bauckham.
Wright is a scholar who refuses to be put in a box. Indeed, his steadfast refusal to take his (evangelical) theological heritage for granted tempts me to say of Wright’s atonement theology, ‘This is penal substitution, Jim, but not as we know it!’ I find it odd, for example, that Wright wrote an endorsement of Chalke and Mann’s book The Lost Message of Jesus (Chalke’s repudiation of penal substitution has been documented elsewhere in this post), while being very rude about Jeffery, Ovey and Sach’s Pierced for our Transgressions. I’ve written about this saga elsewhere, but here’s a taste.
Anyway, simply put, Wright affirms a version (his own version!) of penal substitution, but favours Christus Victor as the primary model of atonement.
Talk 3 of the Alpha Course deals with the question ‘Why Did Jesus Die?’ We are told that,
‘it’s like a beautiful diamond: you could look at it from so many different facets, all the different things that the death of Jesus achieved.’
Specifically, the death of Christ deals with the partition, penalty, power, and pollution of sin. We have been reconciled to God, justified before him, set free from the power of sin, and cleansed by being forgiven.
Penal substitution is, at most, implied here. Certainly, it is given no special prominence among the other atonement images offered.
‘PSA is central to our doctrine of atonement’
Especially in short theological statements about the atonement, it is not always possible to determine if the author(s) consider penal substitution to be the central biblical model, or the only model. I shall therefore group these together, although the only writer I have come across who seems to teach the latter is Berkhof.
In 1902, this noted reformed theologian noted the ‘assault’ that had been launched against the doctrine of ‘penal satisfaction’.
‘The ultimate result has been that the revolt from the conceptions of satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice, reinforced continually by tendencies adverse to evangelical doctrine peculiar to our times, has grown steadily more and more widespread, and in some quarters more and more extreme, until it has issued in an immense confusion on this central doctrine of the gospel.’ (The Person and Work of Christ, p376. My emphasis)
Berkhof’s Systematic Theology has been influential amongst evangelicals since its publication in 1932.
In his discussion of ‘the nature of the atonement’ Berkhof states that ‘the doctrine of the atonement here presented is the penal substitutionary or satisfaction doctrine, which is the doctrine clearly taught by the Word of God.’
As far as I can see, no other doctrine of the atonement is countenanced by Berkhof. The only other theories that he considers are ‘divergent’ theories such as the ransom-to-Satan model, the Satisfaction theory of Anselm, and the Moral Influence theory of Abelard et al.
In 1973, J.I. Packer offered the view that a belief in penal substitution, ‘by and large, is a distinguishing mark of the worldwide evangelical fraternity.’ Moreover, it is a view which, he believes, ‘takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.’ (‘What did the Cross Achieve: the Logic of Penal Substitution’ in Collected Shorter Writings, Vol 1, ch. 8)
In his Systematic Theology, Grudem gives pride of place to a penal substitution understanding of the atonement. Jesus suffered not only the physical pain and death associated with crucifiction, but also the pain of sin-bearing, of abandonment (by God), and of bearing the wrath of God. The penalty was inflicted by God the Father, and consisted in complete payment for human sins. Grudem identifies his presentation of the atonement as ‘penal substitution’, or ‘vicarious atonement’.
It is clear that Grudem regards penal substitution as belonging to the very centre of the biblical revelation concerning the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, with other Scriptural images – sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption – as peripheral to, though intimately connected, to it.
In several publications (including here) New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall (1934-2015) sets forth a careful and nuanced doctrine of penal substitution. Aware of misunderstandings and misrepresentations of that doctrine, Marshall suggests that the terminology itself may be unhelpful. But the underlying doctrine he affirms. Indeed, he affirms it as the central and determinative principle, in that it is implicit in the other major presentations of the atonement that are found in the New Testament: sacrifice, curse-bearing, redemption and ransom, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
Near the beginning of the article I have linked to (actually, the text of a lecture), Marshall says:
‘I shall argue that the doctrine is well-founded in Scripture and that it is defensible against the objections brought against it. And I hope that it may be possible to do so in such a way that, whatever may be the problems with the terminology, all of us may be able to recognise the validity and, indeed, the centrality of what is known by the term ‘penal substitution’ instead of repudiating the concept.’ (My emphasis)
Marshall’s most substantial reflection on the theology of the atonement is found in his 2007 book Aspects of Atonement. In that work, Marshall sets out a defence and exposition of the penal substitutionary understanding. However, he also develops an argument for considering reconciliation to be the heart of the gospel.
Born in 1935, Demarest is an American theologian and author.
In The Cross and Salvation, Demarest identifies penal substitution as the ‘big idea’ of atonement. ‘Clustered around’ this big idea are scriptural images such as ransom, redemption, propitiation, expiation, reconciliation, cosmic victory, and moral influence/example.
Morris (2014-2006) was an Australian New Testament scholar, and a leading evangelical writer on the cross and the atonement.
In his article on ‘Theories of the Atonement’ in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd edition) Morris writes:
‘The cross plainly occupies central place in the NT; it is insistant [sic] that this is God’s way of bringing salvation. There are many ways of bringing this out. The NT writers do not repeat a stereotyped story. Each writes from his own perspective. But each shows that it is the death of Christ and not any human achievement that brings salvation.
‘No NT writer sets out a theory of atonement. There are many references to the effectiveness of Christ’s atoning work, and we are not lacking in information about its many-sidedness. Thus Paul gives a good deal of emphasis to the atonement as a process of justification, using the concepts of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Sometimes we read of the cross as a victory or as an example. It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply a sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left in no doubt about its efficacy and its complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.’
‘All the above views, in their own way, recognize that the atonement is vast and deep. There is nothing quite like it, and it must be understood in its own light. The plight of sinful humans is disastrous, for the NT sees the sinner as lost, suffering hell, perishing, cast into darkness, and more. An atonement that rectifies all this must necessarily be complex. So we need all the vivid concepts: redemption, propitiation, justification, and all the rest. And we need all the theories.’
We might think, then, that for Morris the idea of penal substitution takes its place alongside other images. However, in The Cross in the New Testament (p404), he clearly asserts the primacy of substitution:
‘One thing I am concerned to contend for is that, while the many-sidedness of the atonement must be borne in mind, substitution is at the heart of it.’
Now, it appears from the context that Morris has penal substitution in mind. Of the various alternatives that have been proposed from time to time, Morris clearly wishes to give prominence to the view ‘that Christ as our Substitute bore what we should have borne.’
Bruce Milne (b 1940) is a British Baptist minister, author, and speaker. He was for many years a pastor in Vancouver, Canada.
In his handbook on Christian theology, Know The Truth, Milne writes:
‘The Bible teaches that the heart of Christ’s work consists in his having on our behalf and in our place borne the punishment due to us on account of our sin and brought us pardon and reconciliation with God in righteousness. This is often referred to a “penal substitution” and has been the centre of evangelical teaching and preaching on the atonement since the Reformation.’ (2nd Edition, p195f)
Born in 1951, Storms is an American pastor and theologian.
Sam Storms writes: ‘Penal substitution is not the only model of atonement, but alone can account for the truth in all other theories.
‘There is a sense in which all of the many theories or models of the atonement are true. Satan was defeated and the imago Dei restored and the effects of Adam’s fall were reversed and God’s righteous rule was vindicated and an inspirational example of love and self-sacrifice was provided because Jesus, as an expression of the incomparable love of God for sinners (Romans 5:8), voluntarily suffered the penal consequences of the law of God, the just for the unjust, dying our death, bearing “our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). So long as the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus is retained as foundational and fundamental to what happened on Calvary, we should joyfully celebrate and give thanks for all else that it accomplished.’ (My emphasis)
Jeffery, Ovey and Sach
In their 2007 book Pierced For Our Transgressions, these authors (who were all associated with Oak Hill College in London) offered a book-length exposition and defence of penal substitution. Adopting the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle, they by no means reject other models of the atonement, but suggest that the doctrine of penal substitution lies at the centre of the picture. They argue that
‘many biblical doctrines would be compromised if we were to remove penal substitution from the picture. We have seen that the doctrine of penal substitution is necessary to safeguard the justice and holiness of God, for to deny it is to suggest that God is content simply overlook evil whenever He forgives someone. To discard penal substitution would also jeopardize God’s truthfulness, for He has promised that sin will lead to death. Moreover, other aspects of the atonement cease to make sense if penal substitution is denied. Penal substitution is essential to Christ’s victory over evil powers (something that Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor theory fatally missed), to His restoration of the relationships between sinners and God (reconciliation) and to the liberation He brings from captivity to sin and Satan (redemption and ransom). Far from being viable alternatives to penal substitution, they are outworkings of it. As the hub from which all of these other doctrines fan out, penal substitution is surely central.’
‘To take another example, it is impossible to understand how the atoning death of Jesus could usher in the new creation and bring new life to the corrupt and degenerating cosmos if He did not endure and exhaust the divine curse on the old creation. The renewal of the cosmos by means of Jesus’ death is explicable only by reference to penal substitution.’
Other biblical perspectives on the atonement are both true and important, these authors conclude. But penal substitution is ‘absolutely central’.
Born in 1946, Carson is a well-known theologian, author and speaker. He is president the Gospel Coalition, ‘a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.’
Carson discusses some of the reasons that the doctrine of penal substitution has come under attack in recent years. He says that it should not be considered merely as one option among several. Rather, models such as Christus Victor and the exemplary model only make sense when they are related to the central model of penal substitution:
‘I think it can be shown (though it would take a very long chapter to do it) that if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is, as we have seen, grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. The way Christ triumphs over sin and death is by becoming a curse for us, by satisfying the just demands of his heavenly Father, thereby silencing the accuser, and rising in triumph in resurrection splendor because sin has done its worst and been defeated by the One who bore its penalty. Moreover, in the light of such immeasurable love, there are inevitably exemplary moral commitments that Christ’s followers must undertake. In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.’
John Piper (b 1946) served for many years as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is founder and leader of desiringGod.org and the author of many books.
For Piper, penal substitution is ‘the heart of the gospel’:
‘Not much more could be more important than the question of whether Christ was, in fact, a just and merciful substitute for sinners, so that when he died for his elect, he actually bore their punishment so that they can experience no condemnation. That is the heart of the Christian gospel.’
Born in 1954, Schreiner is an American New Testament scholar.
In The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, New Testament scholar Schreiner takes his place among those who regard penal substitution as occupying pride of place among the various biblical images of atonement:
‘The theory of penal substitution is the heart and soul of an evangelical view of the atonement. I am not claiming that it is the only truth about the atonement taught in the scriptures. Nor am I claiming that penal substitution is emphasized in every piece of literature, or that every author articulates clearly penal substitution. I am claiming that penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole. I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy his justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested.
‘The riches of what God has accomplished in Christ for his people are not exhausted by penal substitution. The multifaceted character of the atonement must be recognized to do justice the canonical witness. God’s people are impoverished if Christ’s triumph over evil powers at the cross is slighted, or Christ’s exemplary love is shoved to the side, or the healing bestowed on believers by Christ’s cross and resurrection is downplayed. While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christ’s atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement.’ (My emphasis)
The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches is a network of around 600 fellowships across the UK.
In its Doctrinal Basis, The FIEC has the following to say about the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ:
‘On the cross he died in the place of sinners, bearing God’s punishment for their sin, redeeming them by his blood.’
Clearly, penal substitution is the primary, if not the only, way of understanding the Cross and its achievement.
The Church Society is a fellowship that is committed to the biblical reform and renewal of the Church of England.
The following account is given of the connection between the cross of Christ and the gift of salvation:
‘The bible says that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1 v1) and that he came to this earth in human flesh, he lived a sinless life and through his blood which he shed on the cross he satisfied the wrath of God against sinners (1 Peter 3 v18, Hebrews 7 v27). People who trust in Jesus can therefore be completely forgiven of their sin (1 John 1 v7), not through what they have done but because Jesus took the wrath of God which they deserved.’
This is clearly a penal substitutionary account. Since no other account is given, we must assume that penal substitution is regarded as the primary (or perhaps even the only) legitimate understanding of the atonement.
Founded in 1928, the University’s and Colleges’ Christian Fellowship seeks to advance evangelical faith in the university and college communities.
According to its basis of faith,
‘Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.’
This does not seem to affirm the primacy of penal substitution. However, Richard Cunningham (Director of UCCF since 2004) stated in an interview in 2005:
‘There is a commitment within our [Doctrinal Basis] to Penal substitutionary atonement as a fundamental truth.’
He should know, I suppose.
‘“Discovering Christianity” is a 4 week course aimed at helping “seekers” or “enquirers” to gain a basic understanding of the Christian faith.’ It ‘was published by Churches of Christ, NSW, Department of Church Development and Education in 1994, and has been used effectively in a number of churches around Australia.’
According to the Presenter Notes for Week 2:
‘As Jesus hung on the cross, God punished Him as if He, Jesus, had committed all those sins. God poured upon His own Son, all the wrath and punishment that should have been ours.’
As far as I can see, this is the only account the course offers of the efficacy of the Cross. I conclude, therefore, that the author understands penal substitution to be the main (if not the only) legitimate model of atonement.
Christianity Explored is an introductory course, aiming to introduce participants to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was devised by Rico Tice and Barry Cooper.
Its web site explains Jesus death in the following terms:
‘People rejected the King [Jesus] so violently that they killed him by nailing him to a cross. But his death wasn’t a mistake by God – it was a masterstroke. On the cross, Jesus was cut off from God’s friendship and goodness. He chose to experience hell – so that we don’t have to. The sinless King died to take the punishment sin deserves. Jesus was opening the way into his kingdom.’
The only clear image of the atonement here is a penal one. It is apparent then, that for this course the doctrine of penal substitution is of primary importance.
Two Ways To Live
Two Ways To Live (Matthia Media) is another popular tool for introducing the gospel to enquirers. The doctrine of penal substitution dominates its presentation of the cross:
‘The Bible rings with the incredible news that Jesus died as a substitute for rebels like us. The debt that we owed God, Jesus paid by dying in our place. He took the full force of God’s justice on himself, so that forgiveness and pardon might be available to us.’
Mark Dever and 9Marks Ministry
Mark Dever is President of 9Marks Ministry.
The 3rd ‘mark of a healthy church’ is a focus on the gospel. Concerning Christ’s work on the cross, it is said that:
‘In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn from their sin and trust in him (John 1:14; Heb. 7:26; Rom. 3:21-26, 5:12-21).’
A brief affirmation of the centrality of penal substitution has been produced by 9Marks.
According to this article:
‘Some scholars and church leaders argue that penal substitutionary atonement…is at best one scriptural metaphor among many. Such teachers argue that we should push penal substitution to the sidelines of the gospel message.’
Note the language used: the implication of believing that PSA is ‘one scriptural metaphor among many’ is that you will want to ‘push penal substitution to the sidelines of the gospel message.’
Still, I am grateful that the author of this article has at least had a go at explaining why PSA should be regarded as of central importance.
What, then, according to this article, are the two reasons we should regard penal substitutionary atonement as central to the gospel?
First, ‘it’s by far the most common biblical explanation of Christ’s work on the cross’. Six verses are mentioned, and there are ‘a whole lot more’ that might have been cited.
I’m sorry, but the only thing that is demonstrated here is that penal substitution is taught in Scripture. The bare assertion that there are lots of (unspecified) passages that teach it doesn’t pass muster with me, I’m afraid.
Second, ‘penal substitutionary atonement is what makes all of the other images “work.”’ Here we are on slightly more promising ground:
‘Christ triumphed over Satan on the cross by bearing God’s wrath in our place and so freeing us from Satan’s power and claims (Col. 2:14-15). Christ healed us by bearing the wounds we deserved (Isa. 53:5). Christ reconciled us to God by satisfying God’s wrath against us (Rom. 5:9-11).’
The reference to Isa 53:5 I gladly accept.
But what about the others?
In Colossians 2:14-15 there is no mention of Christ bearing God’s wrath in out place. See for yourself:
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Is Rom 5:9-11 more hopeful to the cause? Again, see for yourself:
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Well, this passage does mention God’s wrath. But it does not teach that Christ bore that wrath on our behalf. It is actually not so precise (perish the thought!) as that.
Sydney Doctrine Commission
‘The Diocesan Doctrine Commission prepares reports on important theological issues confronting the Diocese.’ (Source)
I appreciate the following attempt to explain why the authors of this report regard penal substitution as ‘the central achievement of the cross’:
‘The doctrine of the atonement known as “penal substitution” says that, on the cross, Christ paid the penalty of death in the place of sinners. As the Scripture says: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3); “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24); “… we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14); “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us …” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is not everything that can or should be said about the cross of Christ. The work of the cross is also described in the Scriptures as a ransom paid to redeem those in slavery (Mark 10:45; compare Psalm 49), as a victory over the spiritual powers of evil (Col. 2:15), and as a washing or cleansing from the guilt and pollution of sin such that we may now enter the holy presence of God (Heb. 10:19-22). However, just as death is the over-arching sentence of God’s judgement against us because of our sin, so Christ’s bearing of sin’s penalty of death as our substitute is the central achievement of the cross. The death that Christ died in the place of sinners is the basic reality that undergirds and integrates the other ways in which the wondrous achievement of the cross is described.’ (My emphasis) (Source)
The above classification is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Moreover, as I said at the beginning of this piece, this is an unscientific head count; just a sampling of opinions.
I know that there are other, more important questions to ask, such as:
(a) what are the reasons offered by the various scholars and teachers for their particular points of view?
And, of course:
(b) what does Scripture say?
I have already touched on these questions, and, God willing, will do more work on them in the near future.
[To be cont’d]