If Jesus Died for Our Sins, Why Do We Still Die? A Response to Farris and Hamilton

crossJoshua Farris and S. Mark Hamilton have raised an interesting objection to penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement in their recent article, “The Logic of Reparative Substitution: Contemporary Restitution Models of Atonement, Divine Justice, and Somatic Death” (Irish Theological Quarterly, 2018, Vol. 83 (1): 62-77). As part of a much broader, sophisticated case to establish their own “reparative substitution model” (a development of an Anselmic satisfaction model), they argue that penal substitution theorists have a bit problem with their theory: despite Christ’s atonement, people still die.

If “somatic” or bodily death is truly part of the legal penalty for sin, and in his death on the cross Jesus does actually pay the debt of punishment we owe to God’s Law, then “why is it that human persons still die a somatic death?” (73) This is not a bad question. Farris and Hamilton are relying on the intuition central to the “double-payment” objection made famous by John Owen in his defense of a particular or limited atonement: namely that it is wrong for sin to be punished twice. Again, if Christ suffered a penal death in humanity’s place, then why do we still die? Wouldn’t that be unjust?

How might one go about answering this objection? I’ll leave to the side Farris and Hamilton’s own proposal, for now, though it is worthy of careful engagement in its own right. In what follows, I’d like to give three possible avenues of response for advocates of penal substitution, which may be taken individually, or as a cumulative set of considerations for why believers still die despite the efficacy of Christ’s penal death.

Rejecting the Double-Payment Principle

Farris and Hamilton consider several possible answers, but I’d like to start by outlining one possibility that they never really consider: relying on the insights underlying hypothetical universalism of the sort espoused by divines such as James Ussher, John Davenant, and more lately, Oliver Crisp (Deviant Calvinism) in order to reject the double-payment premise.

Recently, Michael Lynch has written helpfully on this option and I’d like to draw on his excellent historical work here in his article “Quid Pro Quo Satisfaction? An Analysis and Response to Garry Williams on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Definite Atonement”, (EQ 89.1, 51-70). Without getting into the weeds of the whole thing (which is definitely worth reading), he makes a few points relevant to our question.

First, not every modern Reformed theologian held Owen’s “idem” (exact same) punishment model of PSA, whereby Christ suffers the exact same punishment the elect deserve or would suffer. Several held something like a “tantundem” (a just equivalent) view, which held that Christ suffered an equivalent punishment satisfying the debt. In which case, the atonement is not clued in, so to speak, on each sinner’s particular sins meriting death, even though they are covered by it. Second, several (though not all) of those who held this view also held that this equivalent punishment was universal in sufficiency, if not in efficiency. And this would require them to deny the double-payment thesis.

How do they answer this objection?

In answering the question for those who do not believe in Christ, Aquinas points out they are simply not united to Christ and therefore have not availed themselves of the remedy of his satisfactory suffering on their behalf (Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.55). Lest we think this is only a Roman Catholic response, Zachary Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, also agreed.

Second, in answering the question with respect to believers in Christ, Lynch calls attention to R.L. Dabney’s response to the argument. I’ll quote Lynch at length here:

The structure of the double payment argument looks like this:

Major Premise: If Christ was punished for any person’s sins, then that person cannot be punished for their sin.

Minor Premise: Christ was punished for the elect’s sins.

Therefore: The elect cannot be punished for their sins.

Dabney challenges the major premise, but affirms the minor. Dabney questions the major premise, asking, if justice forbids the same sin to be punished once in Christ and then in a sinner, how can God ‘justly hold elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe’ (cf. Eph. 2:l-3)? In other words, according to Dabney, both experience and Scripture teach that the elect are punished for the sins for which Christ made satisfaction. The wrath that rests upon all unbelievers, whether elect or non-elect, is on account of sin. If it is granted…that the elect are under God’s wrath until they believe, how is such wrath not a punishment for the same sin twice over? In other words, would not the double-payment argument also forbid God to punish the unbelieving elect for their sins on the grounds that their sins have been punished in Christ? (66)

Now, I’m not actually here affirming hypothetical universalism, but it seems that a Penal Substitution defender might appropriate this logic in order to duck Farris and Hamilton’s objection.

If God is just in punishing the elect before they avail themselves of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf, then perhaps this double-payment intuition is not as rock-solid as all that. Indeed, Scripture seems to still speak of God’s hand of punishment or chastisement still falling on believers in this life, despite having trusted in Christ (Heb. 12:5-10; 1 Cor. 10-11; 1 Thess. 4:6). Most Penal Substitution advocates would readily affirm that and so it seems that some might try to walk down that avenue to answer Farris and Hamilton.

Transforming the Penalty of Death

But say some respond that the punishments believers face are not the execution of judicial wrath, but a different kind of punishment, say, a “fatherly chastisement”, which is the character of all of God’s punishments upon his children. Well, this starts to point us in the direction of another possible avenue of response. It is possible that our changed relationship to the Judge, our status as sinners, and our relationship to sin may yield a change in the nature of his judgments upon sin–or those things that once were considered to be such.

A couple of analogies might prepare our minds for the argument. First, consider the way relationships change the meaning of actions. A man and a woman having sex on Tuesday may be engaged in an act of fornication, but after their wedding ceremony on Saturday, that same activity is an act of lawful sexual union. Their new relation, the new status of the participants, changes the meaning and character of the exact same activity.

Take another common example in these matters: a man taking a knife and stabbing it into the chest of another man. In a bar, in the middle of a fight between two men who hate each other, it is a vicious attack and at least attempted murder. In a hospital, when the knife is in the hands of a trained doctor whose intent is to operate on another, it is called surgery. Again, the status, the relation, or intention of the actors matters for determining the character of the act.

Here we turn to what Farris and Hamilton call a recent, “awkward tactic” to answer the question. Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach have appealed to Philippians 1:21 where Paul declares that “to live is Christ, to die is gain” to argue that for Christians, bodily death is no longer penal in nature (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 262). They argue that death for believers is transformed by the death of Christ, which has atoned for their sin, given them a new status, and brought them into a new relation to God. Farris and Hamilton are not convinced, arguing that this is an exegetical stretch beyond Paul’s main point, which was to encourage the Philippians in life and death. The text is not designed to answer the question of whether death remains a penalty.

In response, I’ll briefly note that in theology, the relation between exegesis and dogmatics is not a clean one. Often texts answer theological questions directly. Other times, however, texts can offer us theological answers by way of implication or corollary, especially when set in relation to other texts, or a broader theological framework (“good and necessary consequence” WCF 1.6). The text may not “mean” that, or teach it directly, but it follows from it. Half of our doctrine of the Trinity works that way. It’s plausible to see something like that working here.

Second, it’s important to realize this not only a recent tactic, but can be found in the work of Herman Witsius where, in answering a similar question, he says, “By the death of Christ, death hath ceased to be what it was before, the punishment inflicted by an offended judge, and the entrance into the second death, and is become the extermination of sin and the way to eternal life; and at the last day it shall be altogether abolished” (Economy of the Covenants, Bk. II. VI. XLV, pg. 230-231).

In fact, Witsius isn’t being very original here. As he points out, this is just the answer the Heidelberg Catechism gives:

Q. Since Christ has died for us,
why do we still have to die?

A. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. (Ps. 49.7)
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life. (John 5:24; Phil. 1:21-23; 1 Thess. 5:9-10)

Heidelberg sees our death transformed by the death of Christ into our pathway to eternal life and the final resurrection. For as Witsius says in this, “there is no wrath and curse of God, and the formal nature of punishment” is absent.

Lest we think this is just a Continental answer, the Westminster Divines answered similarly in the Larger Catechism:

Q. 85. Death being the wages of sin, why are not the righteous delivered from death, seeing all their sins are forgiven in Christ?

A. The righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even in death are delivered from the sting and curse of it; so that, although they die, yet it is out of God’s love, to free them perfectly from sin and misery, and to make them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, which they then enter upon.

The death of believers is no longer a penal death to be feared now that the sting of death, sin and the law, has been removed (1 Cor. 15:56). Instead, it is a gentle falling asleep from which we will awake in glory (1 Thess. 4:16). In the death of believers, God is demonstrating his mercy and his love by drawing them to himself, setting them free from the last vestiges of sin, which dwells in their mortal members (Romans 7). In that sense, we can see how now that we do not face God as an avenging judge, we meet death, not as his punishing sword, but as his gracious scalpel performing an operation that ends in our eventual, immortal glory.

Again, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this theological judgment about the nature of the death of believers is not an innovation, hastily thrown up as a rearguard defense in recent times. Instead, this is broadly seen to be consistent with the obviously penal satisfaction accounts in the Reformed Confessions that happens to be binding on several Reformed communions.

Weird Eschatology, God’s Patience, and God’s Purposes

A third line of reflection we ought to pursue relates to God’s discretion over life and death in relation to his providential purposes. What do I mean?

Well, think for a minute about weird it would be if all of a sudden, right in the middle of history, everybody who believed in Jesus just stopped dying. The Apostle John exiled to Patmos? He just kept living while all of his island neighbors kept dying. Christians all over the Mediterranean and Middle East, converting and then continuing to live 200, 300, 400 years past their Pagan and Jewish neighbors. Yes, I know the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit means we have an already/not yet eschatology, but this would seem to tilt the balance a bit much, wouldn’t it?  And would this also require not just longevity and the cessation of death by natural causes? Invulnerability to disease? Sort of like the Elves of Middle-earth, I suppose. But death by war, persecution, or murder also would seem to fall afoul of death as penalty, if all death just is penalty. Wouldn’t we need to be invincible as well? Would we need some sort of glorification before the eschaton? Semi-glorification?

Without necessarily jumping into the deep end of our theology of belief, it would be safe to say that would mess with the epistemic conditions involved in calling people to faith and hope in Christ, wouldn’t it? You sort of wonder what missions would look like when all you have to do is send an immortal or two to a new country to get the whole nation to convert.

Beyond that, you do wonder how terrible that sort of longevity might be. Imagine immortality before the general resurrection and the closing of this evil age? It’s the stuff of tragic fantasy fiction novels: immortals cursed to unending life in this vail of tears.  Imagine seeing non-Christian friends and family continue to die, not just for the 80-90 years most of us have on this earth, but for 200? 300? That kind of pain and heartache would accumulate in a way that I don’t think an un-resurrected, un-glorified body and soul could take. Yes, we would have the hope, even the possession of a semi-glory of sorts, but at least for a while we would be subject to so many other increasing miseries. In a situation like this, death may easily be understood as a mercy.

Another example may illustrate the way the same condition might be mercy or judgment depending on the context and intention of its application. Say you have a prisoner who has been convicted of a vicious murder and is serving time in prison. New evidence comes out to exonerate him and the judge pronounces him innocent. All the same, it is widely believed in the community that he is guilty, and it will take some time for the fact of his innocence to become widely established. If he were simply released, it is likely that he would be gravely harmed or even killed by the general populace. And so, in his care and wisdom, the judge orders that the now exonerated prisoner remains in a sort of protective custody until it is safe for him to be released. The prisoner’s condition remains roughly the same—he is incarcerated, possibly against his will. But now it is no longer restraint being imposed as an act of punishment, but restraint as an act of mercy and protection.

Returning again to our eschatological considerations, it does seem that if you press this logic to its ultimate conclusion, it would require an immediate glorification of each individual Christian, or the immediate closing of the Age, which would cut off the gathering in of the saints across time and space.

It is worth recalling here, then, what Turretin says about God’s justice and forbearance in punishing sin. He argues that while the necessity of the punishment of sin is an absolute principle, it does not follow by natural or physical necessity like lightning follows thunder, but of moral necessity which is consistent with the “positive and free” right of God the Judge to determine its time and mode of infliction. And so, consistent with his own perfect will and counsel, God showed forbearance and exercise a relaxation so as to not execute his judgment on sin immediately, but delayed and executed it in Christ, the Surety, so that his providential purposes could be furthered (Institutes, Vol. 2, 14.10.10, 16).

In a similar way, we might see the death of believers as God’s invitation of believers into a participation in the exercise of his forbearance (2 Peter 3:3-9). His patience with sinners might require the temporary death of his saints until they can be raised again to new life. Or from another angle, in his positive and free right as the Lordly dispenser of the gracious goods of life, both spiritual and physical, he may choose when and where to dispense his gifts as well.

It seems, then, that we have another set of considerations for why God might in his sovereignty, wisdom, and grace, take believers home to himself in death even though they no longer owe their death as a penalty. At this point, it becomes a wise, discretionary measure for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, its spread to every tribe, tongue, and nation through the sort of historical progress we have seen throughout Church history.

In conclusion, then, it seems there are three possible avenues for a defender of penal substitution to pursue in dealing with the problem of somatic death. Even more, we have reason to reflect upon the Lord’s mercy and wisdom, the unfathomable love and grace made manifest in the death of Christ, the benefits of which we enjoy even in our own deaths in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Chrysostom on Colossians 2:14-15: “He Tore It Asunder”

ChrysostomI was doing a little digging in Colossians 2 and I came across a magnificent little passage on the work of Christ by John Chrysostom. The crucial passage is 2:13-15, which reads:

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities[b] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.[c]

Chrysostom is amazed at the condensed glory of Paul’s description of Christ’s work here. “Nowhere has he spoken in so lofty a strain” about the forgiveness worked through the cross to blot out our sins and set us free from bondage to the Devil.

Chrysostom then sets himself to explaining Paul’s meaning:

Seest thou how great His earnestness that the bond should be done away? To wit, we all were under sin and punishment. He Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross. To the Cross then He affixed it; as having power, He tore it asunder. What bond? He means either that which they said to Moses, namely, “All that God hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:3), or, if not that, this, that we owe to God obedience; or if not this, he means that the devil held possession of it, the bond which God made for Adam, saying, “In the day thou eatest of the tree, thou shalt die.” (Gen. 2:17.) This bond then the devil held in his possession. And Christ did not give it to us, but Himself tore it in two, the action of one who remits joyfully.

“Having put off from himself the principalities and the powers.” He means the diabolical powers; because human nature had arrayed itself in these, or because they had, as it were, a hold, when He became Man He put away from Himself that hold. What is the meaning of “He made a show of them”? And well said he so; never yet was the devil in so shameful a plight. For whilst expecting to have Him, he lost even those he had; and when That Body was nailed to the Cross, the dead arose. There death received his wound, having met his death-stroke from a dead body. And as an athlete, when he thinks he has hit his adversary, himself is caught in a fatal grasp; so truly doth Christ also show, that to die with confidence is the devil’s shame.

-Homily VI on Colossians

There’s a lot going on here, but I simply want to take a moment to point out a few things I never tire in pointing out on this blog.

The first is that here we find another example of a Church Father explaining Christ’s atoning death in a way that fits within the family of satisfaction or penal atonement “theories.” He very clearly states that Christ was punished on the cross. But he was not punished for his own sins, but rather to do away with our sins and punishment. Somehow Christ’s death for sin and punishment, which itself is a punishment, eliminates our sin and punishment. His death was a matter of remitting the sin, indeed, doing more–“He tore it asunder.”

It’s important not to get confused here. It’s true, he does speak about the bond which bound us to punishment, which showed our guilt, as possibly being held by the devil. Here you can see shades of “ransom” theory that folks talk about. All the same, Chrysostom is clear that the bond or IOU was one that came from God himself either in the Mosaic covenant, or the general obedience humanity owes God, or the one written in the original covenant which Adam broke in the Garden and thereby became liable to death. Satan is only ever the holder, or accuser of the saints, on the basis of a deserved debt of sin that originates in God’s good commands.

Second, note the way that this all dovetails with Christ’s victory over the devil and the principalities and powers. There is no thought in his mind about pitting Christ’s death as a punishment for sin with his conquest and shaming of the devil. Christ dies for us, rises to new life, and sets us free. And there are several dimensions to this victory. By his death, the debt to sin is release. By this, he broke their hold on humanity. And he arose again from the dead and made a show of the devil, showing the world that not only had he not capture or defeated Christ, but he had lost what he had previously held–namely, us.

The reason he can do this is because he is reading the verses. He doesn’t come to the text with preconceived notions about pure atonement theory types (Penal Substitution or Christus Victor or Moral), and so forth, in order to figure out which one the text teaches. Instead, he sees Paul putting together several things at once and assumes they can work together without much of a fuss.

Third, I’ll just note that Chrysostom died in 407 AD. This is close to 630 years before Anselm was born, and over 1100 years before Calvin was born. We should not be anachronistic and impute to Chrysostom every jot and tittle of later Medieval and Reformation articulations of penalty accounts. This is not something cooked up by Anselm and Calvin and foisted on the West. Instead, it is very clear that this basic way of thinking about what Christ did on the cross has its roots planted firmly in the soil of the Fathers, both West, and in this case, East.

Finally, it’s appropriate to meditate on all of this during Holy Week. But not only in a technical, academic fashion. Let your heart sit with the glory of Christ’s passion, his suffering, his death for your forgiveness. Let it wait, wonder, and hope at his coming resurrection. And let it exult and rejoice in that mighty victory over the Devil, by our conquering King and Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does God *Need* Our Obedience? A brief thought on the “necessity” of sacrifice

In recent atonement discussions, one annoying bit of equivocation turns on the notion of who “needs” the cross. Actually, it comes up most of the time in discussions of sacrifice where the question is often framed as,”Who needs the sacrificial system? God or us?” Now, given God’s own declarations in Scripture that he stands in need of no one and nothing, not our rams or bulls, nor the blood of goats or rams, etc., well, it seems that the obvious answer is “us.” In which case, it is strictly speaking unnecessary.

In which case, so the argument goes, we should not talk about God being appeased, or needing sacrifice, reparation, etc. to forgive us. He doesn’t need them. No, God instituted these things in Israel (or allowed them to be instituted) for us. It is then further asserted that things are “for our benefit” in a way analogous to a mother and father marking gifts as “from Santa” and leaving out cookies for him on Christmas Eve is for the benefit of their children until they are old enough to understand what’s going on. We needed a visual system of assurance that God is gracious and so God accommodated himself to us, but the sacrificial system isn’t actually doing anything in procuring forgiveness, mediating our relationship to God and so forth.

And from there, we get a trail of steps leading forward into the NT, such that if such things were unnecessary and efficacious in the OT,  we can go on to understand they are absolutely unnecessary, and so reject anything like a divine necessity to the cross, or rather as a particular interpretation of it as an efficacious sacrifice effecting atonement, and so forth.

It’s all more complicated than that, but I just wanted to briefly point out the way these discussions fudge the nature of necessity and tend to run several together. Some take the fact that an act does not benefit God, or adds nothing to the fullness of his Triune life, and is therefore “unnecessary” to him metaphysically, to rule out the idea that it plays any necessary role in governing our relationship to him at all. That as unnecessary to him, they are not truly ordered to him, or an effective component in our moral relation to him.

I think if we tried that same sort of argumentation with other acts directed to God, the problem with that sort of move would become clearer.

Let me ask it differently, “who needs our obedience? God or us?” Again, not God. There is a very clear sense in which God doesn’t need our obedience to maintain any ontological or moral equilibrium in himself. In fact, as Ireneaus points out, it is we who need our obedience for the fulfillment of our telos, the glorification of God and the enjoyment of his presence. Strictly speaking, again, our obedience is not anything God needs. Obedience benefits us.

Okay, but that said, that doesn’t settle the matter of the necessity of obedience in our relation to God. Our obedience is unnecessary to God in one sense, but it is still ordered to God, owed to God, and properly demanded by God. God doesn’t lose anything he needs when we disobey him, but there is a sense in which it is still a necessary ingredient to our relationship with him that concerns him. It is morally required and in that sense necessary.

The same sort of reasoning can be deployed with respect to worship. God doesn’t need our worship: it doesn’t benefit him, nor does he depend on it, but rather it is something that benefits us. That said, it is rightly ordered towards him, demanded by him, is owed him as a recognition of the truth of his glory, and is therefore an ingredient to our relationship with him that does concern him. Insofar as we are going to be rightly related to him as he is, worship is necessary and required by God.

We can say something similar with respect to a sacrifice of atonement. God doesn’t need it, it doesn’t “benefit” him, but it is still not a morally self-enclosed act. Though not *needed* by God it is still ordered to God, owed to God, and properly demanded by God as an ingredient of our continued relationship to him. It may be entirely for our benefit but that doesn’t rule out that it is rightly required by God and morally necessary in some sense given who God is.

Soli Deo Gloria


“Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.” A Translation of Caesarius of Arles by Ben Wheaton

This holy week I am pleased to present this sermon translation of Bishop Caesarius of Arles’ sermon, “Why Christ Redeemed Man Not through Power, But Through Suffering,” by Dr. Ben Wheaton. Dr. Wheaton has recently completed a Ph.D. in Medieval studies at University of Toronto, and I’m very grateful he has allowed me to share the fruit of some of his work. Besides being a perfect meditation for the time, it’s also an excellent example of finding atonement as penal substitution wonderfully synthesized with Christ’s victory in the Fathers.

caesariusBio: One of the more remarkable figures in Late Antique Christianity, Caesarius of Arles was born in 470 in the city of Chalons in southern Gaul (modern France). He was appointed as bishop of Arles in 502. Arles was at this time the administrative and ecclesiastical capital of southern Gaul, making Caesarius immediately the leading figure in the southern Gallic church. He remained there as bishop until his death in 542, leading his congregants and ecclesiastical subordinates through the politically tumultuous times that followed the dissolution of Roman power in Gaul.


Sermon XI 

Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.

This question, dearly beloved brothers, occurs to many; the thought of this matter sends many men of little understanding into anxiety.  For they say: “Why did the Lord Jesus Christ, the Power and Wisdom of the Father, work the salvation of man not by his divine power and sole authority but rather by his bodily humility and human struggle?  For without a doubt he would have been able by the heavenly power and majesty to overthrow the Devil and to free man from his tyranny.”  Certain others ponder: “Why did he who is proclaimed to have given life in the beginning by his word not destroy death by his word?  What reason was there that lost men should not be brought back by the same majesty which was able to create things not yet existing?  Why was it necessary for our Lord Christ to receive so harsh a period of suffering when he was able to free the human race through his power?  Why his incarnation?  Why his infancy?  Why the course of his life?  Why the insults?  Why the cross?  Why his death?  Why his burial?  Why?  Why did he take up all these things for the sake of man’s restoration?”

This is what men of little understanding say.  Without a doubt our Lord would have been able to triumph over the Devil by his divine authority and to free man from his rule.  He would have been able, yes; but reason resisted, justice did not give its permission: and these are more important to God than all power and might.  These two attributes are praised even among men; how much more are they praiseworthy to God, who is the Creator and Judge of reason and justice!  Now it was in the mind of God to restore man, who had been deceived by the Devil, to eternal life.  This then had to be kept in mind: compassion must not destroy justice, love must not destroy equity.  For if He had finished off the Devil and rescued man from his jaws by His majesty and power, there would indeed have been power, but there would not have been justice.  For the Enemy of the human race would have been able to say: “O Lord, you are just and true; you made man in your goodness, you who created me as well as a good not an evil angel.  You gave to me as much as to man the free power of the will; you gave the law with this threat of judgment: if we touched something forbidden, we would die the death.  I ruined myself at the very beginning by a voluntary envy; then I persuaded man to do a wicked deed.  I persuaded, I did not force; for I was not able to force one having the freedom of his own will.  I was listened to more than your word was preserved.  We received by your judgment sentences befitting our merits: I the eternal word sent into evil, man was sent with me to death and terrible punishment.  Man joined himself to me by his own will; he separated from you not unwillingly but by the same will: he is mine.  Together we are destined for punishment; if he is torn away from me, it is not justice but violence, it is not grace but an injury, it is not compassion but plunder.  Why should man, who did not wish to live when he had the ability, be made alive unwillingly?  I presume to say this, O Just Judge: it is not fitting for there to be unequal sentences in the same case.  Ultimately, if it pleases you that man be saved against all justice and reason, we ought both to be saved—both he who perished and I who was ruined.”

Should that speech of the Devil not have seemed to God to be just and reasonable, since He did work and still works all things justly and reasonably?  And so in order that this criminal voice should not have any place and that all the deeds of God should be consistent with justice and reason that very Strength came from heaven; it came not to tear man away from the Devil through power, but rather only after it had preserved equity in all things.  This is just as the Lord Himself reminded John the Baptist at the time of his baptism—when John wished to decline—saying: “Without delay; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice.”  Therefore for this reason our Lord and Saviour came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” as the apostle teaches and endured all things without sin; so that thus with justice having been fulfilled he might condemn sin in his flesh, since his flesh was taken up without sin from a sinful substance.  That encounter in the desert orchestrated by the Spirit proves this, when the Devil was conquered not by divine majesty but by the memory of a command, by fasting and by a lawful response.  The many different tests of the Pharisees also prove this, by whom the Lord was often challenged.  When He benefits the ungrateful, when he does not resist an injury, when by his patience he overcomes an insult, by his goodness conquers ill-will, all justice is necessarily fulfilled and every sin is condemned.  Because of this the same Lord preached: “The Prince of this world comes, and he possesses nothing in me.”  This is the first victory: that the flesh, assumed from a sinful race, stands forth as having no part in a misdeed; and so in that same flesh sin was condemned, in which it had believed itself able to reign; the same flesh, which at one time sin had conquered, conquered sin.  For if divinity alone had conquered, the Devil would not have been in great confusion, and it would not have inspired confidence in bodily men that it would conquer.

Let us see what the cross might want from itself, how the sin of the world is remitted upon it, how death is destroyed and the Devil triumphed over.  The cross is certainly not deserved, insofar as it pertains to the form of justice, unless by sinners; for both the law of God and of the world is recognized to have decreed the cross for guilty men and criminals alone.  Therefore with the Devil hurrying about working through Judas, through the kings of the earth and through the princes of the Jews, who “came together as one” to Pilate “against the Lord and against his Christ,” Christ was condemned to death; an innocent man was condemned just as the prophet says in the Psalm: “But the righteous man, what has he done?”  And again, “They will seek against the spirit of the righteous and will condemn innocent blood;” the man guilty of not even a trivial sin is condemned, since the serpent was able to leave no trace in this rock.  He patiently endured both insults and blows, the thorny crown and scarlet robe, and the other mockeries which are contained in the Gospel.  He endured this without any guilt, so that filled with patience, as “a sheep to the sacrifice,” he might come to the cross.  He received this in a dignified manner who would have been able to inflict injury upon his enemies.  He endured very powerful forces, as David sings, “as a man without help,” who would have been able to avenge himself by his divine majesty.  For he who withered the fig tree to its roots by his word would much more easily have immediately withered all flesh, which was reckoned as grass, if he had wished to resist.  For if even those who had come to capture him retreated backwards when they were questioned with a gentle speech, that is, “Whom do you seek?” and they were made like dead men, what would he have done if he had wished to resist?  But he fulfills the mystery of the cross, for which purpose he also came into this world; so that by means of the cross, by means of a salvific justice and reason, the note of our indebtedness to sin might be cancelled, the enemy power be captured after being enticed by the bait of the cross and the Devil lose the prey he used to hold.

Now, it is necessary for this to be believed to have been done in this way.  Christ the Lord without any guilt, without any blame, underwent a penal sentence; the innocent man is crucified without sin.  The Devil is made guilty by the death of an innocent man; the Devil is made guilty by bringing the cross upon a righteous man who owed nothing.  The death of Christ benefitted man: what Adam owed to God Christ paid by undergoing death, having been made without any doubt a sacrifice for the sin of men and for their race, just as the blessed Paul taught: “Christ,” he says, “loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrificial victim to God in a pleasing aroma.”  For that original sin was not easily able to be dismissed unless a sacrificial victim had been offered for the fault, unless that holy blood of propitiation had been poured out.  For the saying of the Lord at the time of the Exodus remains in force now: “I will see the blood, and I will protect you.”  For that figure of the lamb points to this Passion of the Lord Christ.  When blood is paid out for blood, death for death and a sacrificial victim for a fault, even so did the Devil lose what he was holding.  It is now rightly said to him: “O enemy, you do not have that on account of which you had a legal case.  The first Adam sinned but I the last Adam did not receive the stain of sin; let my righteousness benefit the sinner, let my death, imposed upon me unowed, benefit the debtor.  You are no longer able to hold man in endless death, for he conquered, overcame and crushed you through me.  You were not truly conquered through power, but by justice; not by domination, by rather by equity.”  Thus the Enemy vomited up what he had gulped down and justly there was taken away from him what he used to hold, since unjustly he dared to infringe upon that which under no arrangement was his concern.

Behold, dearly beloved brothers, how much I deem that a reason has been given for why our Lord and Saviour freed the human race from the power of the Devil not through power but through humility, not through violence but through justice.  For this reason let us, to whom the divine compassion gave so many benefits with no preceding merits of our own, labour as much as we are able with the help of that same divine compassion so that the grace of so great a love should not produce a judgment for us but a reward.

Soli Deo Gloria

Finding Penalty Where None Should Be Found

Hilary poitier

For one reason or another, I’ve been digging around in the Church Fathers in my studies on holiness. Along the way, I’ve run across a couple of useful passages on the atonement in Cyril of Jerusalem and Hilary of Poitiers. The gist of it is this: even though we still commonly hear folks claim that nothing like a satisfaction, or a penal theory of Christ’s work on the cross was present in the Church Fathers, you can still find passages that prove otherwise.

Mind you, these are not exact reproductions of Anselm or Calvin. Doctrinal formulations develop with language and history. Still, it seems easy to see that they’re in the same, conceptual ballpark, insofar as they see part of Christ’s work answering the problem of God’s legal curse upon sin, with Christ voluntarily assuming responsibility for that curse, in order that God might not be made a liar in saving and forgiving us.

So, first, observe these two paragraphs in Cyril’s Catechetical lecture on the clause, “crucified and buried” in the Creed:

And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf. Moreover one man’s sin, even Adam’s, had power to bring death to the world; but if by the trespass of the one death reigned over the world, how shall not life much rather reign by the righteousness of the One? And if because of the tree of food they were then cast out of paradise, shall not believers now more easily enter into paradise because of the Tree of Jesus? If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in eternal life, being Himself the Life? If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind?

We see here that at least part of what Jesus came to do was, in a manner similar to Phinehas the zealous priest did in Israel, put away the wrath of God which was against mankind. This he did, not by slaying the offending Israelite, but by offering himself up as a ransoming sacrifice.

Further, he says this:

These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth. For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. Of no small account was He who died for us; He was not a literal sheep; He was not a mere man; He was more than an Angel; He was God made man. The transgression of sinners was not so great as the righteousness of Him who died for them; the sin which we committed was not so great as the righteousness which He wrought who laid down His life for us,—who laid it down when He pleased, and took it again when He pleased. And wouldest thou know that He laid not down His life by violence, nor yielded up the ghost against His will? He cried to the Father, saying, Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit; I commend it, that I may take it again. And having said these things, He gave up the ghost; but not for any long time, for He quickly rose again from the dead.

Here Cyril sets up a clear dilemma leading to the reconciling blood of the cross (Col. 1): either God could have destroyed us as the sinners we are, justly deserving of his threatened, legal punishment, OR he can cancel the sentence of death. Mind you, this is a clearly legal logic.

But how is the problem solved? God preserved both principles at work behind both options in the death of his Son, which prevents sinners from being destroyed and God’s sentence from being cancelled. The logic is very clearly one where God does not merely forgive and let the sentence go, nor does he simply destroy. He does both at one and the same time in the cross. And of course, the key is that he does this through the Son’s willing sacrifice in laying “down his life for us,” and then taking it up again.

Turning to the great Hilary of Poitiers, we see something similar in his Homily on Psalm 54. Here he offers a Christological reading that makes the Psalm a testimony to the coming work of Christ for our salvation. See what he says in these two paragraphs towards the end of the exposition:

Now in view of our repeated, nay our unbroken assertion both that it was the Only-begotten Son of God Who was uplifted on the cross, and that He was condemned to death Who is eternal by virtue of the origin which is His by the nature which He derives from the eternal Father, it must be clearly understood that He was subjected to suffering of no natural necessity, but to accomplish the mystery of man’s salvation; that He submitted to suffering of His own Will, and not under compulsion. And although this suffering did not belong to His nature as eternal Son, the immutability of God being proof against the assault of any derogatory disturbance, yet it was freely undertaken, and was intended to fulfil a penal function without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer: not that the suffering in question was not of a kind to cause pain, but because the divine Nature feels no pain. God suffered, then, by voluntarily submitting to suffering; but although He underwent the sufferings in all the fulness of their force, which necessarily causes pain to the sufferers, yet He never so abandoned the powers of His Nature as to feel pain.

Now, again, this isn’t Calvin straight up. Still, you see that Christ, the Eternal Son, was condemned to death on the cross. Yet, Hilary is at pains to confess that this was voluntarily accepted, not imposed upon him from without with respect to the agency of God the Father (presumably the action of the whole Godhead being appropriated to him). Still, what he submitted to was “intended to fuflil (sic) a penal function.”

The business about “without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer” can be tricky, though. At first it seems to deny the cross was penalty. But that makes no sense of the prior clause. The point Hilary seems to be getting at is that the divine Son did not have pain inflicted upon him unwillingly, nor did he suffer it in a servile way such that he “abandoned the powers of his Nature as to feel pain.” In other words, God submitted to suffering in Christ, but not in such a way that violated his impassible nature.

Continuing on, he says:

For next there follows: I will sacrifice unto Thee freely. The sacrifices of the Law, which consisted of whole burnt-offerings and oblations of goats and of bulls, did not involve an expression of free will, because the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law. Whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse. And it was always necessary to go through the whole sacrificial action because the addition of a curse to the commandment forbad any trifling with the obligation of offering. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed. Now of this sacrifice mention is made in another passage of the Psalms: Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared for Me; that is, by offering to God the Father, Who refused the legal sacrifices, the acceptable offering of the body which He received. Of which offering the holy Apostle thus speaks: For this He did once for all when He offered Himself up1401, securing complete salvation for the human race by the offering of this holy, perfect victim.

We see here how he is at pains to express the value of Christ’s voluntary offering in contrast to the offering of unwilling beasts. He also clearly notes the connection between the curse of death and the Law. The curse is legal in nature. And that is the curse from which Christ redeemed us, by offering himself as a holy, perfect victim to die the death of the accursed and break it’s hold upon us.

While we don’t have the exact language of Christ suffering the wrath of God as a substitute, or something like that, we do have Christ offering himself to God the Father to suffer the cursed death due sinners according to the Law. This puts us, as I said, in largely the same conceptual ballpark as both satisfaction and penal substitution accounts. And, arguably, it’s closer to penal substitution since there is no mention of satisfying God’s honor, but rather God’s requirement and curse in the Law.

There are more passages, of course. And obviously, none of this is an argument that there isn’t a wide breadth of thought on atonement in the Fathers, nor that this is the only way to think about atonement. All the same, it’s worth highlighting these today, if only to remind ourselves that the history of theology is a stranger, more complicated place than our typical, canned presentations can lead us to suspect.

Soli Deo Gloria

Divine Magistracy, Retributivism, and Inference

just vengeanceA few weeks ago, I touched on the matter of consequentialist logic in theology. One of my arguments was that we need to be wary about rejecting some theological premise just because we are used to seeing it attached to some inference, some conclusion we don’t like. That’s because folks can rightly or wrongly draw all sorts of conclusions from the very same premise, depending on what other premises they attach to it. Or how smart they are.

I ran across another good example of this in Timothy Gorringe’s volume God’s Just VengeanceIn a chapter on the atonement theology of the 18th century, he notes that it was the century of the “magistracy”, and if there was one universal across a variety of theological camps, it was the invocation of the image of God as the universal magistrate, the perfect, moral governor of the universe. But the theological conclusions of that shared premise when it came to atonement or the practice of justice were not always alike, depending on which other principles were invoked (is punishment rehabilitative, punitive, deterrent), or how analogous you took God’s magistracy to be with regular, human magistrates (very much, or not at all), or how highly you evaluated the ability of human justice to approximate divine justice.

The moral philosopher William Paley is a good example of the rather odd configurations you could get. Gorringe cites a long bit from his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (God’s Just Vengeance, 164):

A Being whose knowledge penetrates every concealment, from the
operation of whose will no art or flight can escape, and in whose hands
punishment is sure; such a Being may conduct the moral government of
his creation in the best and wisest manner, by pronouncing a law that
every crime shall finally receive a punishment proportioned to the guilt
which it contains … But when the care of the public safety is entrusted
to men, whose authority over their fellow creatures is limited by defects
of power and knowledge … a new rule of proceeding results from the
very imperfection of their faculties. In their hands, the uncertainty of
punishment must be compensated by severity. The ease with which
crimes are committed or concealed must be counteracted by additional
penalties and increased terrors.

Here we see that Paley believes God is a perfect judge and magistrate who is able (and willing) to administer perfect retributive judgment, giving every sinner his just judgment. So far, he’s got a basic retributivist outlook. Beyond that, God has entrusted the moral government of the world to those put in authority. Okay, makes sense.

The problem for Paley is that they are not perfect justices. They are finite, unable to discern the heart, the truth of a given case. And so, human justice must be carried out, not attempting perfect distributive or retributive justice, but rather with an eye towards either deterrence or rehabilitation. But since he thinks rehabilitation rarely works, precisely for that reason, punishment should err on the side of severity! Only by punishing crimes with great severity will you get folks to knock it off and promote peace. (This was during the years the Black Act under which something like 350 types of cases were liable to death penalty.)

While the logic is intuitive enough at one level, there are a couple of ironies to the position.

First, the common assumption is that his theological retributivism is what would make Paley more prone to harsh punishment. But the reality is the opposite. It seems that precisely because he did not take the retribution of God seriously enough, he did not take seriously the danger of facing the judgement of a God who equally hates convicting the innocent as well as acquitting the guilty (Prov. 17:15), or the punishment of a crime in a way that violates proportion.

(This is actually at the heart of C.S. Lewis’s famous defense of retributivism: all sorts of atrocities and infringement of liberty could be justified under the banner of deterrence or rehabilitation if nobody stops to ask the question of whether or not someone deserves such treatment.)

Second, the moral he draws from his epistemological judgment is suspect. One might just as well take the position that precisely because human judgment is fallible, weak, and imprecise, we must lean towards leniency in punishment.  If you don’t know if someone’s a murderer, don’t shoot ’em. But again, that only follows if you take retributivism seriously as a principle of judgment.

Again, though, a very different use of the image was made by others at the time. Socinians like Joseph Priestly agreed that God was a divine magistrate. What’s more, they agreed that his justice was perfect and different than that of finite human judges. But that precisely for that reason, he did not have to punish as they did. He could see human hearts and understand who was truly penitent and forgive them, unlike human judges who could not. So this theological leniency doesn’t necessarily cash out in practical, juridical leniency.

My point isn’t to settle the issue of which use of the image of the divine magistracy is the correct one (fwiw, neither of these two are good), but simply to illustrate again the fact that the very same images, principles, etc. can be used to come to very different conclusions. So we ought to be hasty in our evaluation that one necessarily causes damage or ought to be discarded.

Instead, what this variety reinforces for me once more is the need to let Scripture norm our concepts. To let God define for us, what it means to be King, Judge, and Father.

Soli Deo Gloria

You Want a God of Judgment (TGC)

gavelWill not a righteous God visit for these things?

Frederick Douglass asks this question in his autobiography after recounting the tragedy of his grandmother’s death. After a lifetime of bondage and servitude to her masters, when she was too old to be of use to them, they callously sent her off to die alone, apart from her family.

Douglass could’ve asked the question, though, at nearly any point in his harrowing story of hope and fortitude amid inhumanity and cruelty. The beatings. The murders. The calculated theft of time, family, and dignity. Since I read his story, that question has been reverberating in my mind.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

It continues to echo, though, for more than just the past injustices of American slavery. The crimes and atrocities reported by the 24-hour news cycle—the cycle that threatens to churn up our souls most days—lead me to turn this question over and over again in my mind.

Every headline I read about yet another sexual abuse victim coming forward, testifying to abuse by a major Hollywood mogul. Or worse, by the victim’s famous youth pastor and the church who covered it up.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every victim of political injustice who makes the nightly news, both abroad and at home.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every report of a child who has been abused and traumatized in an immigration detention center for the last few years (despite the fact most of us are only hearing about it now).

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Every day abortion mills are open in America, legally ending the lives of thousands of unborn children—children never held, never loved, never even given the dignity of a name. Children we never think about because their lives are snuffed out behind closed doors in sterilized rooms with white-gloved hands. Children known only to the all-seeing God.

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

You know I could go on because you know the crimes, the depredations you can’t think on too long without shutting down for the day. One person captured this feeling well when he tweeted, “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.”

But while the strain of our anger-inducing media culture affects us all, there is at least one small benefit. We’re finally in a place where we can see the goodness of David’s praise: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).

You can read the rest of my post at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

An Obedience More Pleasing Than Punishment

the cross owenIt is Holy Week and therefore right meditate on the sufferings and passion of Christ in the flesh on our behalf. One thing we ought to do, though, is consider them in their fullness.

John Owen helps us do that in his work Pneumatologia, wherein he considers the person and work of the Holy Spirit. At one point he specifically considers the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s mediating work. He comments on the verse, “he offered himself up through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14), arguing that “in all that ensued, all that followed hereon, unto his giving up the ghost, he offered himself to God in and by those actings of the grace of the Holy Spirit in him, which accompanied him to the last.”

Owen lists four graces of the Spirit which enable and render Jesus’ obedient self-sacrifice excellent, worthy, and efficacious on our behalf: first, the great love and compassion he had for the Church and for sinners; second, his “unspeakable” zeal for the glory of God—to manifest both his righteousness as well as his grace and love towards sinners; third, “his holy submission and obedience to the will of God.” Though fully divine, Jesus still works in the power of the Holy Spirit to work the will of the Father in his atonement.

This brings us to an important section of the work I want to quote at length. Here he notes three important points about the way these gracious actings of the Spirit in Christ’s soul actually rendered his work an atoning sacrifice:

(1.) These and the like gracious actings of the soul of Christ were the ways and means whereby, in his death and blood-shedding, — which was violent and by force inflicted on him as to the outward instruments, and was penal as to the sentence of the law, — he voluntarily and freely offered up himself a sacrifice unto God for to make atonement; and these were the things which, from the dignity of his person, became efficacious and victorious. Without these his death and blood-shedding had been no oblation.

First, though the death was “violent and by force inflicted on him” at the human level, Owen is clear that Jesus voluntarily submits to the passion. That is why it is a sacrifice of oblation, freely-given by the glorious Godman. If the Son had not freely given himself it would have been a simple act of meaningless violence, instead of an epoch-shattering act of salvation.

(2.) These were the things which rendered his offering of himself a “sacrifice to God of a sweet-smelling savour,” Eph. v. 2. God was so absolutely delighted and pleased with these high and glorious acts of grace and obedience in Jesus Christ that he smelled, as it were, a “savour of rest” towards mankind, or those for whom he offered himself, so that he would be angry with them no more, curse them no more, as it is said of the type of it in the sacrifice of Noah, Gen. viii. 20, 21. God was more pleased with the obedience of Christ than he was displeased with the sin and disobedience of Adam, Rom. v. 17–21. It was not, then, [by] the outward suffering of a violent and bloody death, which was inflicted on him by the most horrible wickedness that ever human nature brake forth into, that God was atoned, Acts ii.23; nor yet was it merely his enduring the penalty of the law that was the means of our deliverance; but the voluntary giving up of himself to be a sacrifice in these holy acts of obedience was that upon which, in an especial manner, God was reconciled unto us.

Here is the key part that many of us often lose in our rush to defend penal substitution: “God was more pleased with the obedience of Christ than he was displeased with the sin and disobedience of Adam.”

Owen does think that Christ suffering the penalty matters for removing our guilt and sin. But he places a special accent on the beautiful obedience of Christ, the self-surrender, the self-giving love of Christ for the Church, and his glorious submission to God as a sweet-smelling savor. God is greatly pleased with the Son precisely in the moment when he offers himself up on behalf of his people. And without that positive obedience underlying the negative suffering of death, there is no effective atonement.

Reflect, then, and let the Son’s obedient sacrifice become a sweet-smelling savor to you this Good Friday.

Soli Deo Gloria


Wrath-talk is Justice-Talk in Ezekiel (And in the Cross)

I have been reading Ezekiel in my devotions of late and I must say, the prophet has some of the most furious and instructive passages on the wrath and judgment of God in all of Scripture. While many texts extol the Lord’s coming salvation and eschatological restoration of Israel, few proclamations of judgment against Israel and her enemies are fiercer than Ezekiel’s (or the descriptions of her violent idolatry more grotesque, for that matter).

Consider a few snippets:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to the land of Israel:

“‘The end! The end has come
upon the four corners of the land!
The end is now upon you,
and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you. (7:1-4)

I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. 35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. 36 As I judged your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Sovereign Lord. (20:34-36)

30 “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (22:30-31)

14 “‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (24:14)

17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’” (25:17)

The first text from chapter 7 can stand for the whole. It’s worth examining a few elements of the judgment of God upon Israel.

First, God’s judgment is “according to your conduct” and is a repayment “for all your detestable practices.” These phrases are repeated in the passage to be underlined. This characteristic is also present in most of the other passages. In that sense, it is retributive, and in kind. This fits with the principle of retribution articulated throughout Torah. There is no hint of arbitrariness, sinful vindictiveness, or overkill. God will, at worst, only bring “down on their own heads all they have done.

Second, especially in the first passage, you can note that despite God declaring “I will have no pity” and “I will not spare you”, these are acts of judgment long in the works. Now, finally, after much waiting, much excuse-making, much leniency, “the time has come to act.” God has been patient. At one point, he was looking for someone to stand in the gap, to build a wall, but when no one was found, he said “enough is enough.” The rhetoric of fury should not deceive us here or mislead us into picturing God has prone to anger, or liable to fly off the hook.

Third, there is a very clear conceptual and linguistic collocation of the judgment and punishment of God with the wrath and anger of God. For God to punish and judge sin is for him to execute, expend, and pour out his wrath and anger. They are two sides of the same coin, speaking of the same reality in a different idiom. Or rather, they are dimensions of the same reality. God’s wrath is a way of speaking of the retributive dimension of God’s justice in an affective register, as a matter of his will, inclination, and action connected to his moral character.

This is why the old Dogmaticians would say things like:

God’s anger is an excellence of his own essence, by which it is so displeased with sin, as it is inclined to punish the sinner; or a settled and unchangeable resolution to punish sinners according to their sin. (Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity, II.ix)

Or again:

What must we understand by anger in God?

Not any passion, perturbation, or trouble of the mind as it is in us, but this word Anger when it is attributed to God in the Scriptures signifieth three things.

[ 1] First, a most certain and just decree in God to punish and avenge such injuries as are offered to himself, and to his Church; and so it is understood, John 3. 36. Rom. 1. 18.

[ 2] Secondly, the threatening these punishments and revenges, as in Psal. 6. 1. Hos. 11. 9. Jonah 2. 9.

[ 3] Thirdly, the punishments themselves, which God doth execute upon ungodly men, and these are the effects of his anger, or of his decree to punish them; so it is taken in Rom. 2. 5. Mat. 3. 7. Eph. 5. 6. (James Ussher, A Body of Divinitie)

That last quote, in particular, shows a care in paying attention to the manifold nature of Scripture’s attribution of wrath to God. Sometimes it speaks to his inner disposition of justice, other times to his public threat of it, and at times to his public administration of it. And this is all consistent with what we see in these texts in Ezekiel. And indeed, one could go ahead and reproduce the same logic elsewhere in the prophets and the rest of Scripture.

Now, where am I going with all of this?

Well, one objection I see in disputes on penal substitution is that no verse explicitly states that Christ suffers the wrath of God poured out upon him. And this even from some who admit that there is a penal and legal dimension to the cross.

While I would argue that there are some texts which could be read as implying this (“let this cup pass”, Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2, etc.), I simply want to note that in Scriptural thought, to speak of the judgment, or punishment, or condemnation of God, is to speak of the wrath of God. If in Christ, “he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), so that there is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), it’s roughly theologically equivalent to saying, “he poured out his wrath in the flesh,” so now there is “no wrath for those in Christ Jesus.” These concepts are irrefragably bound up together.

As always, there’s more to say. I’ll conclude by noting again that to speak of a doctrine as “Biblical” does not always mean “there’s a verse that directly spells out this exact idea.” Often it involves gathering together various Scriptural judgments into synthetic wholes which flow as “good and necessary consequence” from the text. Much of our Trinitarian and Christological doctrine works this way. Why imagine the atonement would be any different?

Soli Deo Gloria

T & T Clark Companion to Atonement (Review)

companion to atonement

It is something of a cliché to say that “no area is more contested in contemporary theology than” and then insert whatever subject you’re about to touch on. But when it comes to the doctrine of atonement, that may actually be the case. Indeed, the conversation has become wild and woolly for all sorts of reasons: recent winds in Old and New Testament scholarship, revisions in the traditional telling of dogmatic history, and shifting cultural challenges. For any student trying to get a handle on the situation, it’s hard to know where to turn for a reliable, up to date introduction to the wide variety of issues or figures worth addressing to understand them all.

And this is exactly what makes T&T Clark Companion to Atonement edited by Adam Johnson such a valuable resource. It is now the most comprehensive, up-to-date, multi-author volume on the matter. Johnson has really pulled out the stops, pulling together dozens of top-notch contributors to deliver 103 chapters (18 full papers, 85 short essays) covering a wide variety of subjects and important figures in relation to the atonement of Christ. This really is a must for any theological school library.*

I couldn’t possibly give you a comprehensive review of the whole, so I’ll limit myself to a few important features, flag a few favorites, and register a critical comment or two.

First, though there are some excellent essays addressing biblical material and subject matter, Johnson clearly and explicitly places an accent on doing theological retrieval. Close to half of the major papers and dozens of the smaller essays cover figures covering the full range of Church history, be it patristic (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory, the Apostolic Fathers, Augustine), Medieval (Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Hugh of St. Victor, Catherine of Sienna), Reformation and Post-Ref (Calvin, Luther, Cranmer, Grotius, Edwards, Owen) and modern (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Ritschl, Forsyth), and much more.

Besides offering sympathetic expositions and corrections of popular misconceptions, both the papers and the essays serve as excellent places to build your own bibliography for study of these key figures. The essays especially are not always meant to be comprehensive in themselves, but orientations and pointers to further research with suggested readings and volumes.

Relatedly, it should be clear after this volume that one can ever only use the Aulen three-fold typology of atonement models (Christus Victor, Moral, and Latin) as a very, quick and dirty heuristic tool (if at all). Essay after essay complicates that story for the historical figures usually pointed to as representatives (McGuckin on Gregory, Sonderegger on Anselm, and Johnson on Abelard), while other methodological chapters (esp. Oliver Crisp’s typically lucid discussion), draw out the conceptual problems with thinking in these terms. Stephen Holmes’s point that penal substitution fits best as one element among many works for the nugget of Scriptural insight found in most of the other “theories”, as well.

Another feature to note is that Johnson has tried to grab scholars from a wide variety of perspectives for their competence on the subject matter, not necessarily because they present a single, unified view. And so you’ll frequently have essays covering related subject matter contrasting one another in a helpful, corrective manner, displaying the nature of current debates within the volume itself.

For example, while you may find Adam Kotsko’s discussion of the Ransom theory of atonement stimulating theologically, McGuckin and Sonderegger would probably challenge his accounts of Gregory and Anselm historically. Or again, while Stephen Chapman’s essay on atonement in the Old Testament seems more focused on letting you know about all the ways it’s not simply penal substitution (or maybe not at all), T.D. Alexander’s essay on atonement in The Pentateuch seems more amenable to seeing a related theology of “ransom” at work as part of the larger whole, and cites a few different relevant works.

Now, a few favorites. First, Fred Sanders on Trinity and anything is always going to be a good time. Adam Johnson’s introductory essay should not be confused with a simple bit of scene-setting before real contributions start—it is a programmatic vision worth pondering. Sonderegger on Anselm was a stand-out, which I’ve already highlighted. I also deeply enjoyed Paul Dafydd Jones’ essay on “The Fury of Love” who draws out the multi-faceted character of Calvin’s biblically-driven atonement doctrine (though, I demur from his comments on Christology). Thomas Weinandy on Athanasius was fun as well, even if I don’t buy his fallen humanity reading. And Ivor Davidson on Incarnation and atonement reminded me I needed to add more of his work to my Amazon list. I enjoyed many others, but these stood out.

As for criticisms, they more have to do with material disagreements with particular authors than with the quality of work in any given essay. For instance, Joel Green’s essay on the New Testament continues his well-established anti-penal-substitutionary read of the material and I continue to find some of it wrong. But Green is a good scholar. Or again, as I already hinted at it, I find Kotkso’s portraits of both Gregory and Anselm to be misleading, but even more so, the general thrust of his argument—that if you downplay the role of the devil as Anselm does, eventually God must play his role in the new salvation schema—as confused and misleading as it was in The Politics of Redemption and for the same reasons: it depends on a sort of optical illusion by way of formal analysis which misconstrues the motivations and particularities of satisfaction and (later penal) accounts (let alone addressing their biblical logic). All the same, it’s an engaging essay. Much the same could be said of several other essays.

At the end of the day, though, Johnson has done everyone involved in the conversation around atonement a magnificent service. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this volume time and time again.

Soli Deo Gloria

*And I do mean library, since the price tag is quite prohibitive for the average student—at least until a paperback is released or something. (And yes, I got a review copy, though, without any expectation of positive review, etc.)