A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Atonement: Why Penal Substitution Is Unavoidable

Substitutionary atonement has fallen on hard times in some Christian circles, which is in one sense understandable and in another sense unfortunate. It's understandable because too many Reformed evangelicals have emphasized penal substitution at the expense of the broader meaning of atonement as well as at times given shoddy accounts of exactly what penal substitution entails. In another respect, it is unfortunate that too many have rejected penal substitution because it is found in the New Testament, and if one is to begin to understand the depth and richness of Christ's work on the cross, penal substitution is necessary.

Scot McKnight writes,

There are plenty of attempts to find atonement theories that avoid the barbarisms of some penal substitution (PSA) proponents, but avoiding PSA altogether is unavoidable. Here’s what it claims:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

There is only one way to avoid the necessity of penal substitution, and it involves these claims:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins?

Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

The problem I see many addressing is not penal substitution but propitiation, namely, the belief that on the cross Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin. In other words, penal substitution includes propitiation (for many) but it cannot be limited to propitiation. To reduce penal substitution to propitiation is a mistake.
Well said, Scot.


Peter Slade said...

I couldn't disagree with Scot McKnight more. He sets up a ridiculous straw man. He assumes that God cannot in fact FORGIVE sins -- that the Father cannot answer his son's prayer without having him put to death. To insist that a loving God finds himself in a Catch-22 (he wants to love us but he has to kill us) is to be in the camp of Lewis's White Witch and to fail to realize that there is "a deeper magic."
I can proclaim the good news of the cosmic salvific effects of Christ's lynching at our hands and his resurrection without having to contain, constrain and trivialize it with medieval moral algebra filtered through 20C. fundamentalism.
We need to have a coffee to talk about this . . . ..

Allan Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

Yes, let's have coffee. The only thing I will say in response is that it has been "medieval moral algebra filtered through 20C. fundamentalism" that has been a big part of the problem in reference to psa. That's not an account of psa that is helpful nor necessary when speaking of atonement.