The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (500th Post)

christ-on-the-cross-1587The cross of Christ has always been a scandal and an offense. As a symbol of social shame in the Greco-Roman world, the idea of a Crucified God elicited scorn from the cultured elites. For 1st Century Jews, a crucified Messiah was a nonsensical contradiction in terms. Even today, speaking of Jesus’ death as the saving center of history provokes a quizzical response both in the pews and the marketplace. Beyond that, there has been a wide variety of debate around just how Jesus’ death saves us within the church itself. Historically, there has been no binding ecumenical statement on the issue comparable to those on of the Trinity and the person of Christ. The result is that many different approaches to explaining the way the death Christ exercises a saving function in the economy of the Triune God.

Though widely-held by Evangelicals and Protestants of all stripes (and even some Catholics like H.U Von Balthasar), among the most controversial views is that of “penal substitution” or “penal representation”, PSA for short (penal substitutionary atonement). At its heart, the idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was the divine means of dealing and dispensing with the guilt incurred by sinners who have rebelled against the true God. Humanity through its sin violated the divine law, wrecking God’s intended shalom, bringing down condemnation upon them, and alienating them from proper relationship with God. God being just as well as loving and merciful sends the Son, Jesus, as an innocent, representative person, the Godman, to take responsibility for human sin and suffer punishment on behalf of sinners. Or rather, he suffers the legal consequences of sinners, the judgment and just wrath of God against sin, thereby relieving them of guilt, bringing about reconciliation. Roughly.

As with just about any idea in theology, there has been no little confusion around this issue, provoking a number of criticisms and responses over the years. Now, I happen to be convinced on the basis of Scripture that some form of penal substitution is at the heart of Jesus’ saving work on the cross. I thought it might be helpful, then, to have some sort of post dedicated to listing and answering most of the standard objections against the doctrine, as well as engaging some of the modern objections against it. Mind you, this post is not intended to be extensive in every sense. I will not and cannot go into detailed exegetical arguments establishing the doctrine according to a number of key texts, nor establishing the long-range biblical theology that undergirds it. I think the case is there, but I will point you to resources for that along the way and at the bottom of the post.

That said, I do want to engage some of the broadly theological objections against it, as well as correct popular caricatures of the doctrine along the way. I have to say that a number of the issues that people have with penal substitution are quite understandable when you consider some of the silliness that passes for biblical preaching on the subject in popular contexts. Those who affirm the doctrine as true and beautiful do our hearers no benefit when we defend misshapen, caricatured versions of the doctrine. I’ll try to do my best to avoid that in what follows.

First Principles

A few principles will serve to ground the rest of the discussion.

First, many problems arise when advocates treat penal substitution as a totalizing theory of atonement set against Christus Victor or moral influence, or some other kind of atoning action. Proponents all-too-often hold it up as “The One Atonement Theory To Rule Them All”, as one friend put it. Instead, I’ve already argued before that all of these “theories” are more properly seen as containing insights into various aspects and angles of one great work of atonement. I do think there is a place for ordering these elements logically, and penal substitution is something of a lynchpin here, but there is no excuse for downplaying or ignoring the other themes. For more on this, see here and here.

Second, one important principle to observe is that when it comes to theology “abuse does not forbid proper use.” In other words, because the doctrine has been misused in the past, that doesn’t mean it cannot be properly taught or deployed again. Virtually any can be and has been abused at some point. Growing up Evangelical, I’ve certainly seen distortions and caricatures of the doctrine. We should be prepared to find, though,  despite the distortions, there is a properly biblical truth to be held on to here.

Well, with those caveats out of the way, let’s get to it, shall we?

1. Critics often allege that penal substitution is anti-trinitarian in that it pits an angry Father punishing a loving Son, introducing a false split in the Godhead. While this can happen in popular preaching, when it comes to the tradition, this charge is manifestly false. Penal substitution is inherently trinitarian in that it follows the best Patristic pattern of thought in seeing atonement as the work of the whole Trinity. All trinitarian action begins with the Father, is accomplished through the Son, and perfected by the Spirit. In a properly-trinitarian PSA the Father hands over the Son, while the Son willingly offers himself up in obedience to the Father, and he does so through the empowering work of the Spirit.  It is a costly work of love and sacrifice that posits no split purposes within the Godhead, but only one redemptive plan born of mutual love and mercy towards sinners.

Also, contrary to popular mischaracterizations, the Father never hates the Son, but always looks on the Son in love, even while the Son suffers the penal consequences of sin in place of sinners. Calvin says as much:

Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. –Institutes, II.xvi.11

In fact, it is precisely because of the Son’s willingness to suffer on their behalf that the Father loves the Son (John 10:18). What’s more, classically, advocates of PSA have also held to divine simplicity, thereby ruling out tout court any thought of a split in the Godhead. All of the best exponents hold this up from Calvin all the way to J.I. Packer and John Stott. For more, see Thomas McCall’s excellent little book Forsaken on this.

2. Others charge that PSA has God directly “killing”Jesus. Alternatively, in another version, the charge is that if PSA is true, then the mobs who crucified Jesus were doing God’s will. There are a number of issues with these charges. The first, and most obvious, is that it rejects the appropriateness of distinguishing divine intention from human one. If God “wills” the death of Jesus in any sense, he is a killer, or murderer, or we have no room to say that the Romans were guilty of a crime because they were only doing God’s will at that point. However, biblical thought is not that cramped.

Instead, we are trained by Scripture to see God and humanity working at different levels with different aims at their own level of being. In other words, God’s being and activity is not “univocal” but “analogical” with ours. God is Creator and so he does not operate on the same level of being as we do. His purposes for history are different than ours, even in the same events of history. As Joseph tells his brothers of their sinful actions in selling him into slavery, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” God might will an action or an event for a good reason, concurring and allowing human actions, even while the humans perpetrating it are doing so for evil reasons that God does not share. This is sort of thing is common throughout the Old Testament. Various events of judgment such as the Exile at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians are both the wicked work of evil empires, all the while being God’s own judgment through them. It is clear from the biblical witness at numerous points that God intends Jesus’ (indeed his own!) death on the cross (John 12:27; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Most of the exegetical gymnastics at this point are simply astounding. To reject the cross as divinely-intended in some sense is to simply reject the witness of the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, and Jesus himself who says that these things “must” (dei) happen to fulfill Scripture.

3. Related to the last claim, PSA has been infamously referred to as “Divine Child Abuse” and charged with encouraging victims of abuse, especially women, to identify with models of passive, redemptive suffering in imitation of the Son. Let me say at the outset, if there are people who have suffered under preaching that encourages women, children, or anyone else to passively suffer under the abuse of the violent, I am deeply sorry to hear this. This is a gross distortion of Christian doctrine that I strongly repudiate. Penal substitution properly preached does not encourage that kind of passive submission to abuse.

First, I would point out that the abuse the Son suffers is at human hands. The Father does not abuse the Son, though it is by God’s will that he suffers in this fashion. Remember that divine and human intentionality need to be distinguished here. Second, it also teaches that the Son’s work is uniquely redemptive. Moreover, this point is important. Not everything that God does in Christ is strictly imitable. You cannot create reality out of nothing. You cannot pour the Spirit out into creation. You are not the Eternal Son who is going save anyone by suffering that abuse. Your abuse is not atoning in the least bit. It is a sin against you and God is very angry with it. In fact, God’s judgment on the cross is a testimony to his judgment against abuse and injustice.

Still, there is a place for self-denial and cross-bearing in the Christian life. This is simply a matter of the biblical record and at the heart of Jesus’ own path of discipleship.  However, with every piece of biblical insight, there needs to be careful, wise application. Paul tells us that we can serve Christ in whatever station we find ourselves in, but there’s nothing wrong with getting your freedom if you can (1 Cor. 7). There is nothing in PSA that requires us to passively endure abuse in imitation of Christ. What’s more, if anything, PSA properly though through ought to be deployed as a testimony of the non-selfish, sacrificial life of all, including men, or anyone else in authority ought to lead in their dealings with others.

Finally, and this is crucial, in PSA the Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about.  Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

5. Some say that any idea of justice must not be retributive, but only restorative. It is repugnant to think that justice must include some tit for tat “balancing of the moral scales.” I would first point out that pittingretribution against restoration is a false dichotomy. Retribution has claims of its own alongside distributive and restorative concerns when it comes to a broader, holistic biblical account of justice. Theologians such as Miroslav Volf, Oliver O’Donovan, and Garry Williams have pointed out that in the biblical record, retribution is not merely about getting payment for a debt, but about naming evil. Judgment is about calling evil what it is, as well as giving it what it deserves. According to the Scriptures, a God who does not name evil, and does not treat it as it deserves is not good. Quite frankly, it is impossible to screen out any notion of retribution from the biblical account without simply chopping out verses and narrative wholesale.

Herman Bavinck establishes quite clearly the retributive principle in Scripture and worth quoting at length:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

For those interested in following up, it’s instructive to peruse Bavinck’s Scripture references, to see they are not merely proof-texts. Upon examination, one is struck by the massive amount of biblical material that has to be reinterpreted or shunted to the side in order to screen out the retributive principle. (Also, for those who have access, the entire section examining justice, retribution, and punishment is worthwhile.)

Also, it should be said here that the judgment of the cross is not simply about God matching up ounces of suffering according to some pecuniary punishment scale. It is about Jesus suffering the final, ultimate judgment of alienation on our behalf. Instead of thinking about it in terms of units of suffering matching up for sins, think of it in terms of total exile and alienation. Sin ultimately alienates and cuts us off from God in a total sense. We reject God and so in his judgment God names and answers our sin by handing us over to the fate we have chosen: exile from the source of all good, life, and joy, which is simply death and hell. This is what Jesus suffers on the cross on our behalf. He takes that situation of total alienation and damnation upon himself.

What’s more, retribution can be part of a broadly restorative aim.  Christ’s penal death was not simply a strict act of retributive justice whose sole aim was to satisfy God’s wrath or a strict, economic tit for tat exchange of punishment for sin. God could have had that by simply leaving people in their sins so that they might pay out their just wages, death (Rom. 6:23a). Instead, God’s atoning act through the cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23b). God did not simply want to deal with sin; he wanted to save sinners. God did not only want to be vindicated as just, but instead wanted to be both “just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Wrath is dealt with to be sure, but it is dealt with in Christ in order to clear the path for the gift of the Spirit that enables believers to live new, reconciled lives now which will issue in the final total restoration through the gift of resurrection. “God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love.”  The gift of God far outweighs the trespass of man (Rom. 5:16). The penal, retributive justice of God has a more-than-retributive goal; it aims at the “restoration of community and eternal peace” with God and others. Peace happens through the gift of life in the Spirit, which is peace (Romans. 8:6). Thus, the retributive justice of God has a restorative goal which transcends strict, economic justice through his gift-giving grace which comes out only when developed in light of its Triune goal: the gift of the Spirit.

Finally, for those still struggling with the necessity of thinking in terms of retribution, I would direct your attention to C.S. Lewis’ classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” Vintage Lewis, the discussion is still relevant to the issues addressed in this section.

6. From another angle, some charge that PSA encourages moral passivity. It is said that is no active ethic that can be derived from Jesus’ sin-bearing work on the cross. Indeed, it seems to mute it. There are a number of points to be mentioned here. First, we should question the idea that PSA even has to be justified on this account. We must not fall prey to the populist, pragmatic idea that for a doctrine to be true, it has to be immediately practical and imitable. As theologian Karen Kilby has pointed outwith respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, we do not need to be justifying our model of what God is like based on what kind of political programme it generates. We measure our account on the basis of what God has revealed of himself, not of what use he can be to us. The same thing is true for atonement. We affirm our understanding of atonement on the basis of Scripture, not simply because it is useful. What’s more, we have to remember that each doctrine has its place within the wider structure of Christian truth. Atonement is not the only doctrine in our toolkit for constructing our ethics. We get to work with a lot of truth. So the formal charge does not hold water.

All the same, the charge is materially false as well.  For Christ to be able to offer up the sacrifice that he did on our behalf, he had actively to resist the satanic powers and principalities arrayed against the kingdom of God. In other words, precisely through his obedience that qualified him to be our representative and substitute, he embodied the kingdom of God among us. His holy life was a perfect testimony to the perfect will for human flourishing according to God’s covenant standards. Advocates of penal substitution get to read all of the same gospel stories, teachings, commands, and so forth.

It must be remembered that PSA does not need to be separated off from other aspects or angles of the atonement such as his victory against the powers. As we said earlier, just because PSA is seen as the lynchpin securing the victory of Christ over the powers, that doesn’t mean that we have to sidelines the Gospels’ testimony about Christ’s cross-bearing life as an active resistance against the powers of oppression. That is a false dichotomy that needs to be forcefully rejected. Jeremy Treat’s newest book The Crucified King decisively answers it. Indeed, in this he is only following the tradition. Witness Calvin who seamlessly integrates both understandings:

Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf.1 Peter 3:22, Vg.]. –Institutes, II.16.11

Quotes like this could be piled up from Luther, Calvin, and countless other Protestant stalwarts.

Finally, the cross as judgment does not undermine the moral life for a number of reasons. First, we are provoked to a life of obedience in gratitude for God’s great forgiveness. Second, we only participate in the benefits of Christ’s cross-work only when we are united with Christ in the power of the sanctifying Spirit. The aim of PSA is the restored, regenerate disciple who is being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

7. Is the God of PSA a God who says “Do as I Say Not as I do?” Does he tell us to forgo vengeance and then go and exact it? Isn’t that inconsistent? Actually, no.God is God, and we are not. The Creator/creature distinction is the grounding of a lot of ethics in the Bible. God often says to us, “Do as I say, not as I do precisely because that is only mine to do.” In general, there are a number of things that are appropriate for God to do given his role as God, King, Judge, Creator of all the earth, that it is not permitted for us to do as humans, created things, sinners, and so forth. For instance, it is entirely appropriate for God to seek and receive worship. In virtue of his infinite perfections, his beauty, his glory, his majesty, his love, and goodness, God is absolutely worthy of worship and for him to demand or receive it is simply a right concern for truth. On the other hand, it is wicked for us to receive worship or to seek it. I am a created thing as well as a sinner, and therefore I am not worthy of worship.

Turning to the subject of judgment, punishment, and retribution we find Paul writing, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ “(Romans 12:17-19). In this particular passage Paul says not to inflict judgment on your enemies, not because God never does that sort of thing, but because he is said that’s the sort of thing only He should do. The explicit logic of the text is, “Don’t do that. It is my job. I do not want you taking vengeance. Vengeance is mine.” Paul was not squeamish about this sort of logic the way a number of anti-PSA advocates are because it’s all over the Old Testament. The Law (Exod. 20:5), the Psalms (Ps. 75:7), and the Prophets (Ezek. 5:8) tell us that God is the judge of the world and so it is his particular job to take care of things, vindicate whoever needs vindicating, rewarding those who should be rewarded, and punishing those who ought to be punished. He is the sovereign Lord of the world with the authority and might to execute judgments (Ps. 94). There is no thought that judgment or punishment is inherently wicked in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the hands of the righteous Lord of all the earth.

8. God tells us to just forgive, so why can’t he just forgive? Why does he need to punish us? Isn’t that the negation of forgiveness? Forgiveness at its most basic level is the generous release of an acknowledged debt. In commercial terms, which is where we derive the image in the NT, it is saying, “You owe me this, but I’m not going to make you repay.” Transferring it to the moral realm, “That was wrong, but I’m not going to make you suffer for it.” Instead of payment, though, condemnation of sin is at issue. For us to forgive someone is for us not to condemn them for an acknowledged wrong-doing. Taking into consideration God’s role in the universe, it is entirely reasonable to think that God’s forgiveness will look slightly different from ours. As we’ve already noted, God is King and Judge of the world. Part of his faithfulness to creation is to execute justice within it, to maintain the moral order he has established–which is not some impersonal justice, but one that is reflective of his own holy nature–in essence, to make sure that that wrongdoing is condemned and punished. Justice involves more than that, but certainly not less.

Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen. And it bears repeating that we don’t want him to. We honestly don’t want a God who looks at sin, idolatry, murder, oppression, racism, sexism, rape, genocide, theft, infidelity, child abuse, and the thousand dirty “little” sins we’d like to sweep under the rug, and just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go. That is a God who is lawless and untrustworthy. As a number of the Fathers said, a God who doesn’t enforce his law is a God whose word cannot be trusted.

All the same, the cross is the way that God makes that sin is punished and yet still forgives sinners by not making them suffer for sins themselves. PSA is not a denial that God forgives, but an explanation of how God forgives justly. It is how He, as King of the universe, goes about lovingly forgiving His enemies who deserve judgment. He suffers the judgment in himself. Once again, this whole explanation is articulated within a Trinitarian framework in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are all cooperating to achieve atonement. The Father is not pitted against the Son because the Father sends the Son in love and the Son, out of love, voluntarily comes in the Spirit to offer up his life in our place. The Son suffering judgment on the cross is God forgiving us.

The second thing to recognize is that our forgiveness is dependent upon his forgiveness, on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. We can let things go, forgive as we’ve been forgiven, forgo vengeance, and avoid retribution because we know that these things are safely in God’s loving hands. We do not have to exact judgment. Justice for the sins I suffer are handled the way my own sins are handled–either on the cross or at the final assize.

9. Some charge that PSA points us to a God who has to be convinced to love us. He can only love us after he gets rid of his wrath against us. Again, I am sorry if you’ve heard presentations like this, but against the classic accounts, the charge just misses the point. In PSA, the Father sends the Son precisely because he does love us. He sends the Son out of love to deal with the just judgment that hangs over us because of sin, to defeat the powers the stand against us, and to bring us back into relationship with himself, though justly. Calvin himself says quite clearly that God’s love is the deep motivation for Christ’s atonement:

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him.

I could go on to find text after text and multiple analogies here. Say my friend wrongs me. I am angry with him because he stole from me and he has made himself my enemy. I might go pursue him out of love and friendship and yet still insist that there be an apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing even while I look to forgive the debt.

I suppose it is appropriate here to clarify what is meant by wrath. God’s wrath is not some irrational flare-up of anger and foaming hatred. Wrath is God’s settled, just attitude of opposition towards all the defaces creation. It is his stance and judgment of displeasure towards sin, as well as his will to remove it. It also must be noted that God’s wrath needs to be qualified by the doctrine of impassibility and analogy. God moves to remove wrath, or his stance of opposition to our guilt and rebellion, precisely because he already loves us. It is quite possible for God to have complex attitudes towards his creatures.

For those still thinking of denying wrath, or aiming to pit wrath as antithetical to love, I’d suggest you consult Tony Lane’s excellent article on “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God.” Indeed, for those who affirm it a little too violently, I’d suggest you read it as well as it corrects a number of unbiblical exaggerations and distortions preachers can fall into in their zeal to be “biblical.”

10. Related to this, it is claimed that PSA pits divine attributes against each other. Holiness v. mercy, love v. justice, and so forth, threatening the unity of God.While some popular presentations trend this way, as I mentioned before, classically the truth of God’s action on the cross has always been held consistently with the truth of God’s simplicity. It functions as a qualifier on every statement about God’s attributes and actions. So God’s holiness is not at variance with his mercy or his love with his justice. God is fully loving, just, righteous, and fully himself in all of his acts in history. And yet in the narrative of his historic dealings with Israel, it is not always easy to see the consistency and unity of his character. At times he judges immediately, and yet in others he shows mercy and delays wrath. He is named variously as Father, Judge, King, Lover, Friend, and the roles seem to come up in apparent conflict within the narrative of Scripture itself.

Properly conceived, though, PSA is about demonstrating the fundamental unity and consistency of God’s good character by resolving the narrative tension given in the Bible’s portrait of God. In that sense, God’s action on the cross is the revelation and enactment of his mercy, justice, love, holiness, wisdom, sovereignty, power, and grace, all simultaneously displayed. It is not about pitting his attributes against one another, but displaying their glorious, harmony as the culmination of his historical redemption. It is holiness as mercy, love through justice, and so forth.

11. It is often said that PSA as an account does not need Resurrection. It just stands alone, concerned only with Christ’s death for sin.Let me say that, yes, many popular accounts have been presented in this fashion. However, once again, this is not necessarily the case. If you look at the best exponents and defenders of penal representation as a strand of atonement, there is absolutely a place for Resurrection as part of God’s act in Christ. First, the resurrection is the public announcement that Jesus’ death for sin counts. Second, resurrection is itself the public vindication and justification of the Messiah and his people. As Paul says in Romans 4:25: “he was handed over for our sins, and raised for our justification.” According to N.T. Wright, Michael Bird, and a number of Reformed theologians, resurrection itself is the justifying act. The cross clears away our guilt, but it cannot stand alone.

Also, again, PSA is an angle on, but not the only truth of atonement. It deals with guilt, wrath, and the grip of death, but not death itself. Resurrection is still very much needed to accomplish Christ’s victory over all that stands against us. You can find this in Calvin, Bavinck, and many other stalwart defenders and exponents of penal substitution. There simply is no conflict and definitely a place for the resurrection in a system with penal atonement in it. On all of this, I would further suggest Michael Bird, Michael Horton, and Robert Letham as well.

12. Penal substitution is presented as an abstract legal transaction that sort of floats above history, concerned with a sort of celestial mathematics to be solved. It is a legalistic abstraction. While this might be true of Evangelical youth camps, it is definitely not of classic Reformed presentations. The “law” whose judgments must be satisfied is not some abstract idea floating around with other Platonic ideas in the realm of the forms. No, the idea of the law is grounded in the history of the covenants, which are inherently legal documents.

Adam broke the covenant in the Garden by explicitly violating God’s express command. That law is God’s revealed will in history. Law refers to God’s covenant charter with Israel expressed in the Sinai covenant, the book of the Law, and the Deuteronomic covenant. You can think of these laws as Suzerain-Vassal covenants where Israel’s love and loyalty are pledged, and blessings are given out with obedience, while curse/punishment is threatened for disobedience. Or again, it is like a marriage covenant, a set of promises with binding stipulations enforced by law. There is the promise of love, blessing, and joy with fidelity, but for infidelity/disobedience there lies the curse of divorce from the covenant God. The concept of law, blessing, and curse is present throughout the whole of Torah, the historical narratives, the Psalms, and the Prophets who act as God’s covenant enforcers. This is the background for Paul speaking of Christ suffering the curse of the law for us. It is within this framework in which Christ acts as the covenant representative. On all of this, I suggest consulting Michael Horton’s Lord and Servant.

We have, then, not some abstract legal theory foisted upon the text because Anselm could not think past his medieval, feudal context. Indeed, if anything, this was something that Anselm’s feudal context allowed him to pick up on better than our modern one can. No, in PSA we have careful reflection on the shape of the biblical narrative and an atonement derived from its own categories.

13. Another more political charge is that somehow PSA is tacitly supportive of the status quo and prevailing power structures of oppression. Honestly, I have a hard time taking this one as seriously as the others because the connections are so tenuous. It is usually caught up in the dubious narrative of the Constantinian fall of the Church, Anselm accommodation to the cozy church/state relationship, and other theological conspiracies. Still, say for the sake of the argument that PSA has been associated or used as a way of supporting power structures, I would argue that it is not inherently so. If it has, this is an abuse of the doctrine and the quirk of historical happenstance, not the necessary inner-logic of the position.

First, we must again note that PSA is not necessarily separate from Christus Victor themes. To the extent that it has, that has been a serious a doctrinal mistake. Through the cross Christ is reestablishing his rule against the powers, exposing their false claims, and releasing people from the fear of death. Beyond that, it’s been often pointed out by advocates of other theories that on the cross, God stands with the victims by identifying with them. I think there is a real truth there. Still, I would move on to say that the unique contribution of thinking of the cross as judgment is that it stands as a warning against oppressors. Yes, there is repentance available because Jesus has dealt with sin on the cross, but also note that God’s judgment is coming. Those are your options: repentance and forgiveness, or God’s just wrath against your consistent oppression of the weak, the poor, and the powerless.  This seems to be is a powerful witness against oppressive power structures that deface and destroy all that God loves.

14. It could also be argued that  PSA could be used as a supporter of inequality among the sexes or races. If guilt is simply atoned for, we can passively accept unjust social situations. If people have used PSA as an excuse to sit comfortably with abuse, this is a gross abuse and caricature. The cross as judgment for sin is the great leveller of human pride that declares all have fallen short of the glory of God, Greek and Jew, male and female, and all stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and the mercy offered. All have offended against God by violating his law and in violating each other, his Image-bearers in some way or another. And so all go to Christ together for mercy. Indeed, the cross is where these inequalities go to die. As the old phrase has it, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

By placing the vertical claims of justice at the center of the cross, PSA does what Christus Victor and many of the other atonement angles can’t do: reconcile us to each other by dealing with the history of wrongs, sins, oppression, guilt, shame, and violence. In Christ, the dividing line is torn down through the blood of his cross and one new humanity is wrought in him, the Church (Col 1:15-20; Eph. 2:10-20). For a beautiful exposition of the way Jesus’ cross-work brings about reconciliation and repentance, see Trillia Newbell’s little book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.

15. Many charge that PSA is legalistic due to its narrow focus on law, punishment, and so forth. While we’ve already dealt with this to some degree, the Bible does say that while it is more than this, sin is at least law-breaking (1 John 3:4). The legal dimension of sin is real and needs to be dealt with definitively. In that sense, PSA is as legalistic as the Bible is. Now, it is true that insofar as PSA has been divorced from other angles on the cross it becomes narrowly legalistic, sure. But as we’ve seen over and again, that need not be the case.

16. Many claim that PSA encourages violence. Divine violence against sin is imitated by humans on earth, unleashing violence against one another.First of all, this objection usually assumes a theological pacifism based on quite contestable interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount (and even then, usually only a few verses within it). Then, this pacifistic hermeneutic is extrapolated and superimposed upon the entire Scriptures. Often it is connected with some Girardianism that sees “violence” as the aboriginal heart of sin to be avoided in all instances. Despite the copious amounts of biblical evidence that God uses force or “violence” in his judgments, an idiosyncratic, non-violent Jesus is held up as counterpoint that rules all of that out. Indeed, in many cases this hermeneutic is used to simply eliminate texts from the canon, or create an overriding canon within the canon that simply rules out key verses on atonement.

But for those intending to be faithful to Scripture, it is simply a matter of the biblical record that God is not personally a pacifist. Hans Boersma has argued that God’s hospitality requires him to employ coercive force and violence. God hates human violence, but in a violent world, at times God deals in the violent exigencies of history. God judges the unrepentantly violent by handing them over to their own chosen means of living and dying. God is not violent in his being, but in order to hold back the tide of chaos and rage that threatens to destroy creation, he says, “this far you may come and go no farther”; and he backs it up.

Beyond that, this objection, again, assumes that all divine action in Scripture must be imitated. But this is simply not the case. In fact, there is plenty of space for those wanting to maintain a generally pacifist stance to see God’s judgment in Christ as his exclusive prerogative. In fact, Miroslav Volf has argued that the soundest basis for rejecting violence as a path for dealing with conflict at the human level is if we reserve it for the just, perfect judgment of God:

One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? Recalling my arguments about the self-immunization of the evildoers, one could further argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. Here, however, I am less interested in arguing that God’s violence is not unworthy of God than in showing that it is beneficial to us. Atlan has rightly drawn our attention to the fact that in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence. Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

–Exclusion and Embrace, pgs. 303-304

So then, even for those who accept a pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not clear at all that one must embrace contemporary non-violent atonement theories.

17. A fairly important charge that is often made is that PSA is simply not found in the Fathers. It is a theological novelty that ought to be at least suspect.There are two responses to be made here. First, I am a Protestant and so while I hold a significant place for the witness of the tradition and the theological interpretation of the Fathers, what matters most is whether the doctrine is found in Scripture. As I indicated earlier, I think a very strong exegetical case can be made that it is indeed in the Bible and that has been amply demonstrated.

All the same, a number of scholars have been doing more research in the Fathers and indicating that while penal motifs are not the dominant picture of salvation in the Fathers, it’s definitely an exaggeration to say it is entirely missing. Indeed, there is good evidence that Fathers like Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Hilary of Poitier, Augustine, and a number of other Fathers included considerations of Jesus’ death as penalty and curse born on behalf of sinners. Consult the link for extensive quotations.

18. Some have charged that PSA is an inherently individualistic theology of sin and salvation linked to Western, modern categories of jurisprudence. It should be clear from what was said above about Jesus as our Messianic representative that this is simply not the case when it comes to a more classic Reformed account of things. The whole logic runs against individualistic notions of sin and punishment. Now, it is true that it has often been presented individualistically in our modern context. But that is nowhere inherentto the theology. Instead, penal substitution is the work of our covenant head Jesus, who takes responsibility for the sins of his people, the Church. My sin and guilt are dealt with as I am united to Christ and brought into the broader family of his forgiven, set-apart people. For more on this and the similar charge made against Anselm, see here.

19. PSA as a theory is fairly divorced from the narrative of the gospels, floating above them, like oil on water.While many have constructed the doctrine on the basis of Pauline proof-texts, I cannot see this charge holding water. I myself wrote four papers in seminary demonstrating penal dimensions to each of the Gospel-writers thought about the cross. Consulting N.T. Wright or Jeremy Treat’s work, or any number of other scholars doing biblical theology will reveal the way penal representation fits squarely within the mission and message of Jesus. I can’t to the exegetical work here, but roughly, Jesus came to restore the kingdom of God, fight the great battle against God’s enemies, and bring about the end of Exile of judgment for Israel. Jesus does this in accordance with Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant, David’s Seed and true heir, who brings about a New Exodus by suffering a representative Exile for Israel on the Cross. This is how the great forgiveness of sins is brought about and the basis on which people are invited into the new Israel of God that’s been reconstituted in the person of Jesus. Again, roughly. For those who know the biblical themes, it all starts fitting together quite nicely.

I don’t have the time or the space, but we could talk about the Temple theology here, or Jesus the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, or Jesus the innocent sufferer, or the ransom-sayings, or A.T. Lincoln’s work on the trial motif in John, and a half-dozen other sub-themes that connect Jesus’ mission in the Gospels to the penal dimension of his work. Indeed, N.T. Wright has said that his own work in Jesus and the Victory of God as the most extensive modern defense of penal substitution grounded in Jesus’ own self-understanding. Penal substitution isn’t an extraneous, foreign element needing to be grafted onto the Gospels, but an idea that sits quite comfortably at their heart.

Conclusions and Resources

While this has been absurdly long for a blog post, I’m well aware that this is ultimately inadequate. I am sure there are a number of questions I’ve left unaddressed, or addressed too quickly to be satisfactory for some. Still, I think it is been demonstrated that a number of the largest objections rest on misunderstandings, or mischaracterizations of the doctrine. What’s more, though I did not address every variation and objection out there, I think the seeds and forms of basic answers to those challenges are present in the various responses given. Many of the new objections are simply variations on older themes.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those looking for more concrete resources, I would point you to these excellent works.



These are generally holistic accounts that do an excellent job with the biblical material:

  • The Cross of Christ by John Stott. The classic Evangelical standard.
  • God the Peacemaker by Graham Cole. A newer, all-around balanced account.
  • The Crucified King by Jeremy Treat. New favorite on reconciling PSA and CV, and setting them both in biblical-theology categories
  • The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris. Older, but still solid exegetical and linguistic work.
  • Mysterium Paschale by H.U. Von Balthasar. Though this only has 30 pages on Good Friday, they’re absolute gold. I cannot overstate how good that chunk is.
  • The Glory of the Atonement An excellent collection of biblical, historical, and theological articles on atonement. Vanhoozer’s essay on atonement in postmodernity alone is worth the price.

For those interested in postmodern critiques from violence, Girardianism, feminism, postcolonialism, and so forth, I highly commend these works:

(Finally, I must say thanks to Alastair Roberts and Andrew Fulford for looking at earlier drafts. Their advice made this much better than it was. Any failures that remain are mine.)

64 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (500th Post)

  1. One Atonement Theory to find them.
    One Atonement Theory to bring them all,
    and in the Académie bind them.

    // I’ll come back to read points 3-19 in the evening lol

  2. One Atonement Theory to find them.
    One Atonement Theory to bring them all,
    and in the Académie bind them.

    // I’ll come back to read points 3-19 in the evening lol

  3. “Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable.

    We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

    First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.”

    What is the debt of moral guilt? I don’t see anything particular problematic with saying that someone who has wronged someone else is at the debt of the person they have wronged. But what can cancel out the debt? Is it suffering/punishment? Of course not. What is achieved by mere suffering? That a person who has wronged someone else is made to suffer does not cancel any moral debt. Has anything been made right? Has the evil or injustice in the wrongdoer been destroyed? Is the victim any less wronged? No – the person who committed the unjust act has merely been made to suffer. That’s not to say that punishment or suffering cannot play a part, even a crucial part, of any cancelling of a moral debt. I don’t in any way dismiss the idea of God’s judgement, wrath or punishment. There is a lot of very clear biblical evidence for it and there shouldn’t be any issue with that – God has to be angry at sin and injustice in the world and his judgement and punishment is a very good way of destroying those things. Anybody who rejects the idea of God having wrath against sin and, yes, even sinners, is on very unstable ground, in my opinion. But punishment and suffering handed out to the guilty party cannot, on its own, make up for what was done. Sin and injustice is not conquered or destroyed merely by the suffering of a person. Nothing has been made right, nothing has been made just, no debt has been paid simply by making a person suffer.

    To say that a moral debt IS resolved by suffering and not only that, but that another person can fill in instead is pathetic logic. I utterly agree that Jesus is our representative and our King etc. But in no way does making him suffer, regardless of whether he volunteers, make up IN ITSELF for a wrong that was done. That God loves sinners and makes a plan of forgiveness but still has to punish someone else for justice to be fulfilled is, regardless of any covenantal relationship between the sinner and the King, nonsensical. Nobody should take seriously any idea that says that justice is fulfilled when someone completely innocent is punished and that that act of punishment takes away the moral debt, the original injustice carried out by the guilty party.

    Jesus being King is a vacuous attempt at covering this up. He may represent and be the mediator for his people but in no way can the Father pretend a) that suffering/punishment solves a debt caused by injustice (only the destroying of injustice in the wrongdoer does that) or b) that this suffering/punishment can be passed on to an innocent man either.

    I’ll bring in your first paragraph on retribution (point 5) because it helps me make my point.

    “Some say that any idea of justice must not be retributive, but only restorative. It is repugnant to think that justice must include some tit for tat “balancing of the moral scales.” I would first point out that pitting retribution against restoration is a false dichotomy. Retribution has claims of its own alongside distributive and restorative concerns when it comes to a broader, holistic biblical account of justice. Theologians such as Miroslav Volf, Oliver O’Donovan, and Garry Williams have pointed out that in the biblical record, retribution is not merely about getting payment for a debt, but about naming evil. Judgment is about calling evil what it is, as well as giving it what it deserves. According to the Scriptures, a God who does not name evil, and does not treat it as it deserves is not good.”

    I would partly agree with you on your starting point – I don’t see why retribution has to be pitted against restoration. I agree that God does not clear the guilty and that the righteous are not condemned. I agree that he hands out the correct measure of punishment for sin. I agree that he repays everyone according to his deeds. I agree that he exposes evil for what it is.

    But then I think the ultimate goal of this is restorative, by which I mean, in the most basic form, that injustice is destroyed and justice comes in its place. If this isn’t the case, then justice is very much weakened – if a person is punished for sin but they still have that same injustice within them, the very injustice that made them commit the sin in the first place, then that retributive punishment has not worked in solving the moral debt because the injustice is still there. The moral debt hasn’t been paid, there has been no making up for it, no replacing wrong with right, no lessening of the original wrong done to the victim of the injustice, no injustice taken away.

    “Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about. Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

    This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.”

    There is no moral logic there at all. Injustice is not dismissed and justice is not fulfilled merely through the suffering/punishment of the wrongdoer, and certainly not through the suffering/punishment of the innocent, and Christ being our representative does nothing to solve this problem, for he is righteous and the righteous may not be condemned, unless of course he is condemned (wrongly) by the unrighteous (which he indeed was).

    • Jonny,

      Hey, thanks for the lengthy, passionate response. I don’t think I really have space to fully give you what you’re looking for here. A couple of things, though:

      1. I think you might be interested in the Lewis, Packer, and Williams’ articles I link throughout. They deal with a number of your underlying questions about justice.

      2. I don’t say that retribution is the only element of justice in the atonement. I think I made it clear that it’s only part of the equation and that it’s aimed at a larger, restorative goal like union with Christ and the gift of the sanctifying and restoring Spirit that changes us into just people. Honestly, again, the articles are probably helpful on a number of these issues.

      3. There are certain places where we need to let the logic of Scripture reshape our own presuppositions about justice. Things like representation, corporate personhood, kingship, and so forth, is one of them.



      • Thank you very much for the response, Derek, I appreciate it. I should probably have added this in my original comment, but I did like and agree with your answers to a number of the common objections to penal substitution in this post – if we’re going to be critical of something we disagree with, we should at least try and accurately represent the best arguments the other side are making and I thought a lot of your answers to some of the common objections were very well explained. I personally find a lot of the popular objections to PSA to be a little frustrating – if for example you use arguments that are based around trying to play down the idea that God has wrath or that he punishes (which I see too many people use), then I’m not quite sure how you manage to read the Bible at all. Thank you for trying to answer some of these objections, I think it’s hugely helpful to the debate.

        I’ll make sure to read those articles as well and I hope they correct me if there is anything wrong in my thoughts on this.

        “2. I don’t say that retribution is the only element of justice in the atonement. I think I made it clear that it’s only part of the equation and that it’s aimed at a larger, restorative goal like union with Christ and the gift of the sanctifying and restoring Spirit that changes us into just people. Honestly, again, the articles are probably helpful on a number of these issues.”

        I don’t believe that I either said or implied that you made out that retribution was the only element of justice within the atonement, though I apologise if I did. I think you’re absolutely right that it’s only part of the equation and that the overall aim is a restorative goal. What I object to is different – it’s the idea that retribution is a legal requirement of God’s justice. Frankly, I find that a nonsense. That God has mercy on a person and chooses to forgive and not punish them is not enough for justice to be fulfilled under this idea – He still has to find someone to punish for punishment’s sake, otherwise He is unjust. But as I’ve tried to point out, this in itself solves nothing; it wipes out no moral debt, does nothing to deal with injustice, does not right the original wrong AT ALL. It just makes someone suffer for the sake of suffering – it is meaningless.

        And far from being aimed at a larger restorative goal, it is actually a block to it – that punishment has to be given for justice to be fulfilled means that God has to punish someone in order to forgive and bring about restoration. It means He cannot show mercy by letting a person off, for if every sin requires punishment for justice to be fulfilled, then to show mercy and not punish would be unjust (which would go against quite a lot of biblical evidence of God doing just that). That is a hindrance, not a help, to restoration.

        “3. There are certain places where we need to let the logic of Scripture reshape our own presuppositions about justice. Things like representation, corporate personhood, kingship, and so forth, is one of them.”

        I agree. If I find scripture leading me that way, I’ll aim to adjust my view as humbly as I can. But not only do I see no biblical evidence that God attributes our sin to Christ, even as our representative and king, I find this to be a meaningless cover-up of the hideous notion that the suffering of an innocent man offsets the sin of a guilty person. Saying that he’s our representative does nothing to absolve this concept of its inherent injustice.

    • I agree that, substitutionary atonement, penal substitutionary atonement and every other soteriological paradigm which asserts that the murder of Jesus Christ is a direct benefit is a soteriological error. Jesus warned prior to being murdered by crucifixion of there being a particular existing type of soteriological error, that if just a little pinch of it were to be mixed with the true soteriological paradigm he was going to perfect by being crucified that the result would destroy the whole soteriological paradigm that is true. The error he referenced is stated in Jn. 11:49-50. “it is better for you that one man die for the people” falsely alleging that a direct benefit from the sin of murder can be obtained. There is not any soteriological paradigm articulated by any of the contemporary churches which does not allege that the sin of murdering Jesus Christ is a direct benefit.
      “Christ being our representative does not solve this problem” you are correct; but what is it according to the Scriptures that actually does solve this problem?

      P.S. I am amused that the blog’s author has classified the subject of discussion as theology rather than soteriology and alleging that the cross is beautiful is absolutely absurd.

      • I am amused that the commenter refers the author in such a way as to suggest the author cannot read the comments.

        I am also amused that the commenter doesn’t seem to see the connection between soteriology and theology proper since issues of the Holy Trinity, simplicity, the attributes, divine causality, and divine justice are all at stake in the question.

  4. I like your definitions of judgment and wrath. They make sense to me. As you know, I agree with you that the problem is not penal substitution itself, but the *ubiquitous* popular caricatures of penal substitution, which you acknowledge in passing but don’t really address. You haven’t gotten yourself off the hook by just throwing out an “abuse does not forbid proper use.” There’s a reason why John Piper tweets what he does. I think it’s incumbent on the defender of the theory not only to distinguish the classical version from the popular caricatures but to offer an account of how the popular caricatures have emerged. I don’t think there’s anything more damaging or alienating in evangelical theology today than the popular caricatures of PSA. Everywhere I’ve seen penal substitution deployed in popular evangelical theology, it causes ethics to be understood in dangerously solipsistic terms. What I’d really be interested in seeing you write about is *why* penal substitution is caricatured and abused the way that it is. Because the more fully textured version you are presenting here is very *rarely* preached in the Calvinist megachurch pulpit. It seems to me that the caricatured version of penal substitution is very attractive to middle-upper class suburbanites. I have my own cynical speculations about why that is. I’m interested in hearing why you think it is.

    • Ya, Morgan, that’s a very different post. I’m not sure I’m qualified to write that yet. There’s a lot of speculation I’d have to engage in.

      I will say that a couple of charitable reasons (at least, in terms of motive):

      1. A lot of people in the popular pulpit haven’t done a ton of reading in classic Reformed categories. There’s been a general watering down of academic capabilities in Evangelicalism at large.

      2. Those who do have it are often pressured due to preaching restrictions to take shortcuts in sermons. People want you to be practical and so you don’t take a bunch of weeks to explain union with Christ, or fine-grained clarifications of wrath. That’s not necessarily right, but it’s a thing.

      3. As for the more political objections, I’m sure there have been some who have just been accommodating. Others, though, have probably honestly not thought through the implications do to their cultural presuppositions. It’s a sad reality that impacts much theology throughout the centuries (including our own.)

      4. As for being “on the hook”, I’m not really sure I’ve ever been on it. At least no more than any other exponent of doctrine. I’m just trying to clarify as well as answer some objections along the way. 🙂


      • Derek,
        This is one of the better presentations of PSA within the blogosphere that I’ve read. If more people expressed the nuances of this view like you I do think there would be less blowback against it.
        I still think with all the nuances, that the summarization of this view for mass consumption still comes across as expressing sin as the “forgiveness rock” that God couldn’t lift until someone perfect was killed. I do think if it was expressed that cross doesn’t give God the ability to forgive sins, but it absorbs the penalty and ‘natural’ consequence of sin=death that with that distinction it would make it a little more faithful to the NT narrative and the witness of the church pre-Anselm.
        I would suggest that in that way that it is first Christus Victor because the problem is the effect of sin and the power of sin/death (held by the devil and not God ie Hebrews 2:14), not God’s ability to chose to forgive which I believe the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus make clear happens thru genuine repentance . We needed change of state towards God and not God towards us.
        Because the power of sin and death is broken, we can be reconnected with the author of Life thru Christ and the indwelling of His spirit, and then on the day of Judgement those in Christ experience the penal substitution of being acquitted and pardoned, fully sanctified and glorified.

  5. Pingback: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement | Reformation500
  6. Dear Derek

    You have not heard from me before, but I am a regular reader of your email posts and Blog articles. I was looking forward to the time you’d focus in some detail on this subject, considering that it was inevitable you would. Thank you for doing so, it was a real treat.

    I probably won’t be the first to mention it, but section 4 appears to have an error in its opening section “It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent”

    I really appreciate your investment of time in this.

    Yours in Christ

    Alisdair Semple


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  8. Excellent post! Thanks for this. Some follow up questions:

    1. “Atonement” seems to be cast more in ritual/cultic terms – blood, cleansing, purification, access – rather than legal or court language. Similarly, “wrath” doesn’t seem to rely on court language, but vengeance language – it is the prerogative of a king taking punitive action, not a judge pronouncing condemnation. It seems that part of the problem is that we are trying to fit atonement into a framework in which it doesn’t fit. Is there a reason why we should understand it in judicial terms rather than cultic and royal terms?

    2. Relatedly, this judicial reading does seem to create the idea that Jesus endures a unit of wrath for every unit of sin committed. At least, this is the sense one gets when hearing some arguments for limited atonement. It seems that many have crossed atonement language (substitution), ransom language (payment) and judicial language (charges), resulting in the notion that Christ suffers the specific punishment for each specific sin, thereby paying the price of all the sins of the elect. But should we cross these images? Is that how atonement actually works?

    3. This is perhaps slightly off-topic, but since you brought it up I’ll ask. You stated that PSA is grounded in the covenants, which you characterized as legal documents, and then linked to God’s covenant with Adam. Re: that article, why is it that we are supposed to think of Gen. 1:28, in which God says, “Be fruitful…,” as an obligation or covenant of works (in light of 2:16-24), rather than a covenant of blessing? After all, it begins, “And God blessed them” (prior to any works…)

    It just seems to me that a) this looks much more like the promise to Abraham, and the gospel, than Sinai; and b) every covenant, even Abraham’s and the new covenant, includes obligation.

    • Kenton,

      These are excellent questions.

      1. I think I tried to use royal terms as much as I could, though I did give the cultic dimension the short shrift due to space and my unwillingness to dive into exegesis in the post. Leon Morris, though a bit dated, is excellent here. Also, Vanhoozer and Horton have great stuff. I think overall it has to be comprehensive including Christ’s role as Prophet, Priest, and King. All three dimension of his office are involved in his atoning work. Also, one other thing that has to be considered is that kings exercise judicial functions. Kings are judges, the law is the king’s law, and the covenant involves a kingly Suzerain, so there’s a lot of conceptual overlap.

      2. Yes, you’re totally right that this is how much of the conversation proceeds. And I do think there is a place for it. Though, I would point you to Garry Williams’ article on double-payment in “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her” for a reframing of limited atonement in terms of non-pecuniary specificity. I would just say that it’s important to balance any measure of specificity within a broader framework of idolatry and death.

      3. On that, I think the total package reflects a covenantal framework of works, especially when you consider the command to keeep and tend the Garden (ie, defeat the enemy, the serpent), obey the Lord, keep from the tree, and so forth. Horton and Beale are very helpful here beyond that little quote I had linked. There’s about 10-15 pages in Beale backing it, and much more elsewhere. I don’t deny there’s a univeral blessing in the “be fruitful”, but there seems to be an imperatival element as well.

      I hope this helps! Thanks for reading.

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  10. Great job, Derek. Whenever I read Isaiah 52-53 it’s impossible not to see some sort of penal aspect in the prophecy about the work of the Messiah.

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  12. Would it be possible for you to email me the four papers you wrote on the exegetical basis of PSA in the gospel accounts? That sounds tremendously helpful.

    Thank you for helping make the cross seem not only defensible but beautiful.

    Sola Deo Gloria.

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  21. Hi Derek,

    Thank you for the time you have put into addressing these questions on Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I hope we can dialogue on this subject in detail in the future.

    You may be interested to know the doctrine of Penal Substitution is one of the reasons I converted from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy. While not exhaustive, the following article will help explain why:

    I understand that in this article I did not address all the counter-arguments you brought up in your article above. I had not read your article before writing this. I did take note of a few of your counter-arguments though and hope to address them more thoroughly in the future. I also hope to read all of your articles on Penal Substitution in the near future.

    Best regards,
    Matt Ferdelman

  22. Derek,

    Thank you for your post. Well written and very comprehensive.

    I would like to hear more from you on point number 12. This is my biggest problem with PSA.

    I do believe that PSA begins with a concept of justice that is a philosophical construct. There is no way around it.

    God is just and therefore must do X.

    I look forward to rereading this. You definitely are doing your homework. I appreciate it. Many thanks!!


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  24. PSA is the lie. Sure you can murder a man in your place, but you only make yourself guilty of first degree murder. The next problem PSA has is JN. 16:8 “When He comes he will convict the world of GUILT in regard to sin” the sin of murdering the only begotten son of the living God. See Acts 2. Jesus Christ was not murdered in anyone’s place. PSA is the greatest soteriological poppycock assumption that has ever been conceived.

  25. To start, I have to say that this is as good a presentation of PSA as any I have read and it is going to take me some time to digest it as I had previously thought there was no way PSA made any sense. But you did lose me at #16, and I would just like to challenge you to maybe rethink this issue a bit. You seem to suggest that it is the Western liberal mind that has problems with a pacifistic reading of the Bible, but must certainly be aware that American Evangelicals are also the most ardent supporters of capital punishment, foreign military intervention, corporal punishment, harsh prison sentences, the use of torture, etc., and I’m convinced it is because they think the Bible supports the use of violence to solve all the world’s problems. I’m not saying that’s a reason not to reject Christian pacifism if indeed the Bible supports the use of violence for Christians, but I’m quite surprised you would throw out a statement like “copious amounts of biblical evidence” in support of divine violence, because I see zero. Jesus said, if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. He said, you have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you to love your enemies. Implicit in his entire ministry was that we had a distorted image of God the Father and part of his ministry was to correct this, EVEN those who had the scriptures, maybe particularly those who had the scriptures. So before you say something like “copious amounts of evidences”, I would say read what Jesus said again and see if you still think there is. And yes, it’s going to require you to radically reinterpret the OT, just like Jesus and Paul did. An maybe it’s going to require you to have a canon within a canon, but you already employ a hermeneutic that allows you to disregard a bunch of very explicit statements of Jesus against violence, so why no just use a different one that allows you to discount the texts in support? I see nothing wrong with that. What I do see is fallen man’s natural inclination toward violence and a need for us to justify it by appealing to divine commands. If anything, that knowledge should be enough for us to bend over backward to read the Bible a differently if the Bible will permit, and I happen to think it not only permits, but demands.

    If you think of one thing that was radical about the ministry of Jesus Christ what would it be? The golden rule? Buddha came up with that centuries earlier. Miracles? A dime a dozen in those times. It’s that God would become man, and allow himself to be murdered rather than respond with violence. It is a repudiation of violence as as solution for anything. It is the ultimate reminder that violence only begets more violence and that God loves everyone and offer forgiveness for all, no matter what the sin, even deicide. Finally, as someone who is reformed, well, let’s just go back to the very beginning, since that’s what the reformation is about? The early church was slaughtered for their faith and there was never any thought of retaliating or defending themselves, same for Paul and all the Apostles. So I can’t think of anything more fundamental to the Christian tradition than non-violence and I have yet to hear any reasonable defense from the scriptures (they all go back to the OT, which again, I think is just a flawed approach). I just can’t see how divine violence has any place in Christianity, it’s pagan concept, and for Calvinists (which it sounds like you might be), it makes even less sense. A sovereign, omniscient God has no need to resort to violence, it suggests that he made a mistake somewhere down the line (think angry child and his ant farm). Anyway, I’m certain you have thought about these issues, and I actually don’t think your formulation of PSA requires advocating for any form of divine violence, so it was disappointing to me that you would throw that out there like that.

    • Dean,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad this made more sense than usual. Also, I’m sorry #16 threw you. Let me see if I can clarify a bit.

      Your response reveals we have a couple of different presuppositions going on.

      First, you think having an explicit canon within a canon is an acceptable option. I do not. I look at Jesus and see him affirming the entire canon and so therefore I want to as well. In other words, I take the Old Testament to be revelatory of God’s nature and character and I see Jesus affirming that.

      Yes, I do think that Jesus clarifies things for us, but I do not think that clarification consists of a repudiation of the Old Testament, or its revelation of God. I see him doing a couple of things:

      a. Clearing up poor interpretation of OT Law.
      b. Indicating a change in covenant administration. Yes, things are different now. We are not in an OT theocracy and the church is a transnational Kingdom that does not wield the sword to bring the Kingdom of God, but the power of the Word and the Spirit.

      That said, none of that should be taken to indicate that the OT Law was false, not given by God, or less inspired. It might be time-bound and accommodated, and even abrogated now in light of Christ, but it is not thereby to be “corrected” as you put it. This begins to shade into Neo-Marcionism. In this case, there are large swathes of the Bible that testify to God, and others the testify falsely to a pretender god. I see nothing in Jesus’ attitude towards Scripture to indicate that is the case. He said, “Before Abraham was ‘I AM'”, not “‘I AM’, except for that bit right there and there.”

      Given that, I think it’s quite obvious that there are copious instances of divine violence and judgment in the OT. Just a few examples of events attributed to the judgment of God:

      -The destruction of the whole earth in the Flood of Judgment
      -The destruction of Sodom and Gommorah
      -The overthrow of Egypt with all 10 plagues, including the death of the firstborn which is explicitly described as God judging the gods of the Egyptians.
      -God striking his own people after their grumbling in the wilderness with plague multiple times.
      -The incident with Korah
      -The curse of the snakes
      And these are just a few of the instances in the Torah alone.
      I could go on down through the histories into the prophets to speak of the Exile which clearly depicts God as judging Israel through the swords of Assyria and Babylon, not to mention the forecast of coming, violent judgment by God upon the nations.

      What’s more, this isn’t even just an OT thing. I know it’s possible according to some to write off most of the violence depicted in Revelation as hyperbolic and literary, so simply consider the book of Acts, with striking down of Ananias and Saphira, or the death of Herod. Luke attributes both of their deaths to the activity of God. There is no other interpretation that does not do massive violence to the text other than to see God’s hands in. What’s more, Jesus own teaching affirms God’s judgment in text after text.

      Honestly, I don’t think you’ve considered just how much of your Bible you have to chop up in order to fit the picture and hermeneutic. But if you want to believe that there is absolutely no place for divine violence in judgment, then all of these passages have to go. I, for one, just don’t have the confidence in my own theological inspiration to make that call against the authors of the Scripture that give me the picture of Jesus I’m depending on to make those judgments.

      FWIW, I think all of the evidence I just presented can be reconciled with a sort of pacifistic position. As I noted, Miroslav Volf is a pacifist who allows for divine violence and Preston Sprinkle’s book “Fight” is the best argument for it I’ve seen.

      Well, I hope this helps clarify a bit.


      • Derek, thanks so much for the reply, I was thinking about how best to respond and I think I will just leave it at two points and I hope you will just consider them even though I know it is hard for folks to change their minds about things like this.

        “First, you think having an explicit canon within a canon is an acceptable option. I do not. I look at Jesus and see him affirming the entire canon and so therefore I want to as well. In other words, I take the Old Testament to be revelatory of God’s nature and character and I see Jesus affirming that.”

        I agree, but I think you have to admit that you are also making a presupposition, just a different one.

        “This begins to shade into Neo-Marcionism.”

        This is an easy accusation to make, but it is something that we all do, the question is to what extent do you want to ignore what is in the OT. You want to ignore, or find some reason not to have to follow all the ceremonial laws in the OT and then you make an assessment as to what those entail. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, it’s just that we all have a different understanding of what living under the New Covenant means and why the OT reads the way it reads. I don’t think you are being fair in assuming that this is as clear as you think it is, there are lots of folks that will take that a lot further than I’m sure you want to go, like Dominion Theology.

        “Honestly, I don’t think you’ve considered just how much of your Bible you have to chop up in order to fit the picture and hermeneutic. But if you want to believe that there is absolutely no place for divine violence in judgment, then all of these passages have to go. I, for one, just don’t have the confidence in my own theological inspiration to make that call against the authors of the Scripture that give me the picture of Jesus I’m depending on to make those judgments.”

        But here’s the thing, you do exactly the same thing. You just chop up the Bible in different ways. I really want you to take this seriously. I know that historical -grammatical folks think that they are somehow restricting their ability to insert their own ideas into the Bible, but the more I think about this, the more think it’s completely the opposite. The Bible has thousands of passages, and frankly, I think it actually gives conservative Christians really wide latitude to hold on to beliefs about what is acceptable as a Christian that go against the very literal words of Jesus. Again, I’m going to go to things like support for torture, capital punishment, military invasion of foreign countries, oppression of other religious followers, etc. These things seem to all be “acceptable” by jumping over a lot of things that Jesus literally said NOT to do and going back to the OT and picking versus you like about how God smote people. Well Jesus said that his teaching were greater than those of Moses, I mean to the extent that the Jews wants to kill him. Frankly, I’m going to go with what Jesus said about things if there is ever any conflict, and that absolutely does clarify things on all sorts of matters. So it’s odd to me when I hear conservative Christians looking for “clear” teachings in the Bible for them to ignore what Jesus clearly says about a whole bunch of things in the name of taking the “entire” Bible seriously. The problem with this approach is you end with exactly the opposite of what you were looking for in the first place. And that all begins with the assumption that the Bible even operates that way, as a unified whole with no contradicting testimonies or different voices. The more I read it, the less and less I believe that is a supportable position, it’s just dogma. I have never heard someone present a clear argument as to how you can “reconcile” all the versus of the Bible like a massive jigsaw puzzle, whenever I do, it sounds contrived, it is strained, it is not believable. As Bart Erhman says, you can take all the differences in the gospels and reconcile then, but you would then have a fifth gospel. I don’t agree with his conclusions about what that means, but he clearly has a point. I’m certain this is the product of Western modernity and not what anyone in the early Church every believed. So I think you are taking for granted the difficultly your own hermeneuitc presents in articulating a clear theological position for the Christian. I will definitely check out the books you have recommended. Thanks.

      • Dean
        Thanks for the reply. I’ll respond this and then I’ll probably leave it at that.
        First, yes I do begin with a different presupposition, but I think it’s one that I get from Jesus, all the apostles, the early church Fathers, medievals, Reformers, etc. It’s the sufficiency, unity, and authority of Scripture as God’s Word. This is not arbitrary.
        Second, I don’t think this is an easy charge to make. I make in light of the history of theology, my observation of current trends in progressive theology, and the shape of the argument you’re making. It is simply a misrepresentation to say that I want to ignore the laws in the OT. I’m trying to follow the NT shape of continuity and discontinuity that due to the change in covenantal administration. As for the “ease” of it, I don’t think it’s easy at all. In fact, I think my position is the harder of the two because it’s far easier in my opinion to simply collapse the apparent tensions that you’re appealing to and simply scrap large amounts of Scripture as Scripture.
        Dean, I really don’t think I’m doing the same thing. And I am “taking it seriously.” You’re making all sorts of assumptions about my position based on what “conservative Christians” believe and inserting them into my argument about the principle of retributive justice that spans BOTH testaments. As for Jesus’ words, yes, I will always favor Jesus’ words. But here’s the thing, I favor reading them in context, according to solid hermeneutical methods, and by those standards, I simply disagree with your reading. And I have a very good reason to given the fact that much of Jesus’ teachings imply the reality of judgment, the truth and authority of the Old Testament including it’s narratives of God’s judgment and so forth. Just a few examples:

        “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)

        “And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)

        “But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)

        “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:9)
        “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)

        “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48)

        “But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:48-51)

        “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot – they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” (Luke 17:26-30)

        “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” (Luke 19:27)

        In other words, it’s precisely because of what I read Jesus saying that I don’t read Jesus the way you do.

        As for your judgments about the unity of Scripture, quoting Bart Ehrman, a radical critic whose theology took him into outright atheism probably isn’t a good step for remaining a faithful disciple of Jesus. But that aside, honestly, I have been coming to the exact opposite conclusion after more and more years of reading the texts, seeing the intricate layers of intra-canonical resonances, fulfillments, and longrange biblical-theological themes—the overall unity of the canon is actually astonishing. So frankly, I’m not surprised or impressed that certain arguments and reconciliations sound “strained” to you. My experience has been largely the opposite.

        Anyways, sorry if I’m coming off aggressive here. Not my intent. The books I pointed out do a much better job of handling these issues than I can in this brief space.

      • BTW, I’m just spouting off here, I don’t by any means want to come across like I believe it is easy to read the entire Bible devoid of divine violence, I think Gregg Boyd has a lot of interesting ideas in that respect. But the point I am just trying to make is that I think it is worthwhile exercise because simply accepting divine violence whole-heartedly presents it’s own set of theological challenges.

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  27. Late to the discussion but I had to leave a few thoughts. I read the entire article and all the comments. This is a great comprehensive defense of PSA. But it is a view I held for over 40 years and had to abandon.

    First, I was struck by the fact that PSA is so widely caricatured and misunderstood and why something so “good” and “Biblical” is so complicated to explain. That to me makes it suspect.

    But more importantly I find that PSA falsely reinterprets so much of Scripture through its distorted lens. As one commenter expressed, we all have a lens…it’s which lens you choose that creates the paradigm – violence or non-violence. It seems the “Biblical” Pharisees had trouble with this tendency: choosing the wrong lens. For instance, they were incensed that Jesus didn’t quote the entirety of Isaiah 61 leaving off the part about “vengeance.” THEY wanted vengeance and not mercy. Like those on the road to Emmaus, they completely missed or misinterpreted the Scriptures that “spoke of [Him] from the law and all the prophets.”

    PSA would entirely rewrite John 3:16: ‘For God needed to satisfy his divine justice through an innocent sacrifice in order to forgive (and love? Can you love and not forgive??) the world that He gave His only son as that sacrifice that whosoever…’
    Did God love/forgive and therefore He gave or did He offer a sacrifice in order to love/forgive?

    • “Did God love/forgive and therefore He gave or did He offer a sacrifice in order to love/forgive?”

      You’re confusing God’s motivation of love which moved him to accomplish the act of love which results in the goal of reconciled/consummated love. God’s stance of love moves to correct the situation of relational alienation and emnity. I might love someone I am at war with which moves me to initiate a peace treaty with them so that we can be at peace and my love can reach its intended goal.

      As for the rewriting of Scripture, that’s a very simplistic way of putting things. If that’s the way you read the Bible back when you held PSA, then I can understand why you abandoned it. That doesn’t require me to abide by those formulations.

  28. A. Problems with substitution
    1. Since substitution is universally accepted, it is important for us to also consider to what extent someone could argue Jesus to be our substitute. Not only does the theory of substitution fall under the weight of the scriptures in regards to accountability, but it also falls under the weight of its own implications.
    2. Jesus did not take our place in physical death. Since Jesus died for all people, how did He physically die in the place of all people? All people must physically die (Hebrews 9:27). Therefore Christ did not take our place in physical death.
    3. Jesus did not take our place in spiritual death. Jesus did not die spiritually and, therefore, could not have taken our place in spiritual death. Some have tried to teach that Jesus died spiritually on the cross, explaining the three hours of darkness and Jesus’ statement “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” However, the Bible never attributes the darkness to Jesus being spiritual separated from God. Further, Jesus declared that the Father would never leave him or forsake him (John 8:28-29; 16:32). To even suggest that Jesus was spiritually separated from God should make us shudder at its implications.
    4. Jesus did not physically die to take the place of our spiritual death. There is a punishment for sins that is worse than physical death (Hebrews 10:26-39). A physical death cannot stand in the place of eternal, spiritual death. His physical death could not be a substitute for our spiritual death.
    5. Jesus did not take our place on the cross. How could Jesus have taken our place on the cross for sins when none of us have ever been scheduled to die on the cross in the first place? For Jesus to be our substitute on the cross means that I was supposed to be on the cross. But the Bible does not teach that man was to be on the cross.
    6. Jesus did not take our place in suffering for righteousness. There have been Christians who have suffered more physical anguish, pain, and torture than Jesus suffered. If Jesus took their place in suffering, why did the apostles suffer? Why do Christians suffer? Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink the cup he was about to drink (Mark 10:38-39). Jesus did not take our place in suffering.
    7. Jesus did not take our place in punishment for sins. The penalty for sins is eternal death, eternal separation from God, and consignment to eternal torment. Jesus did not experience any of these things and therefore did not take our place for punishment.
    8. Jesus did not remove the wrath of God against sin. God’s wrath is still in place against all sinners (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). If the death of Jesus on the cross appeased and took away the wrath of God against sin, then the very nature of God was changed. We would expect that God would no longer have any such wrath and would render no punishment for sins on anyone.
    B. A substitute for Isaac
    1. What about all of the Old Testament analogies we frequently use to show substitution? Let us take a moment to consider a few of them. The offering of the ram instead of Isaac is a case of substitution. In fact, the Bible clearly states the ram as such: “So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.” Is it not interesting that the Bible has no problem declaring the ram a substitute for Isaac, but never declares Jesus to be a substitute for us?
    2. Unfortunately, we are frequently told the Abraham represents God, Isaac represents us, and the ram represents Christ. Therefore, Christ became our substitute. However the Bible does not make this analogy. But Hebrews 11:17-19 depicts Abraham as God and Isaac as Christ. Isaac figuratively rose from the dead and returns to Abraham. In the same way, Christ rose from the dead and return to the Father. If anything, the offering of Isaac shows that no one would be there to stop the hand of God from slaying his own Son like Abraham was stopped by an angel from slaying his son. God would offer his son for the sins of the people. Maybe the reason there was a ram caught in the thicket and not a lamb was to prevent us from making a false analogy.
    3. Further, Isaac was scheduled to die on the altar. God had decreed that Abraham slay his only son. The ram became a substitute for Isaac. But we were not scheduled to die on the cross. If we had, we may be able to say that Jesus stepped in and took our place, dying instead of us. But we have seen this is not true. The Bible never declares that Jesus took our place nor that we were to die on the cross.
    C. The scapegoat
    1. The scapegoat was set into the wilderness after the sacrifice of atonement had been made for sins. The scapegoat symbolized to the people that their sins were being taken away from them through the activities on the Day of Atonement. Jesus is seen in the sacrifice of atonement and not solely in the scapegoat. In fact, the scriptures never liken Jesus to scapegoat. Jesus is likened to the sacrifice.
    2. Further, the sins were not literally transferred on to the scapegoat. We know that the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4). The sins remained with the people. The scapegoat simply symbolized God overlooking these transgression until the true sacrifice of Jesus could come. In the same way, Jesus did not literally carry our sins on him. Rather, Jesus’ sacrifice, resurrection, and ascension shows that our sins have been taken away from us.

    (Adapted from Problems With the Substitution Theory by Brent Kercheville.)

    I was a staunch follower of PSA for many years and even taught it. The above propositions caused me to have a rethink. However, I always have an open mind with regard to spiritual matters. What do you think?

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  34. Thank you for your spirited defense of PSA. If my sin cannot be transferred to another, I am lost. I can think of few truths more important to defend.

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  45. G-d is holy and G-d must punish sin. G-d is loving and merciful, and desires that all would be saved from the consequences of sin. Yeshua’s death and resurrection demonstrated absolutely and completely the holiness, love, and mercy of G-d.

    How do Messiah’s atoning sacrifice and resurrection logically and legally provide humans escape from the wrath of a holy G-d? I can’t say with 100% confidence. However, my confidence and my faith are in G-d’s scripture, His essence, and His promises; not my complete understanding of the mind of G-d.

    If G-d chooses to explain His plan to me, I will be glad to listen. Will I, when I am finally and intimately in His presence for eternity, continue to ponder the questions that perplex me today? Somehow I think not. I think that I will be so overwhelmed by His glory, so filled with His love, so enthralled by His presence, so desirous to worship Him, and so fulfilled in service and submission that the questions and doubts that inhabit my mind here and now will vanish and will not remembered.

  46. Derek, interesting take on the connection on Kingship and PSA, which even in Reformed contexts I haven’t quite heard and read made the way you do, even if it’s implicit in the concepts of covenant and federal headship. I find it helpful, not as a total explanation (and I don’t think you intend it to be “total” anyway), but as an enlightening perspective on PSA.

    If I”m understanding you correctly, inherent to kingship is identification with, and responsibility for, the sins of one’s people, at least those who haven’t been banished, executed, or at least experienced some sort of retribution/consequence for their crimes/sins. Thus, Jesus’ acceptance of kingship meant exactly that. That is why Jesus rejected any public recognition as king until the coming of his “hour.” Once he entered Jerusalem to public acclamation as king, this necessarily meant his bearing the sins of his people. This makes Jesus’ kingship and sin-bearing inseparable. A king must either punish wrongdoing or bear wrongdoing for those within his kingdom.

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