As two blogs I follow debate penal substitutionary atonement.... some thoughts....

To what extent then, can we make a coherent defence of penal substitution, I wonder.
Substitution captures "a putting in place of another" (Dictionary of Etymology). Paul testifies to the substitutionary nature of the atonement in Galatians (2:20, 3:13) and Romans (5:8). Stott explains that 'substitution is not a further 'theory' or 'image' to be set alongside the others, but rather the foundation of them all.1 Chalke, antagonistic to the theory of PSA, maintains that any theory of the atonement includes 'a clear substitutionary element...'2 The substitutionary nature of the atonement causes less debate than the idea that it is 'penal'.
What is Penal Substitutionary atonement ? 

A 'penal' substitution is about the propitiation of God's wrath though the blood of Christ, who is punished instead of us so that we might be justified and acquitted. Our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness to us, in the 'glorious exchange'. Stott explains how 'If God in Christ did not die in our place, there could be neither no propitiation, nor redemption, nor justification, nor reconciliation.'3 Various images of the atonement present redemption and reconciliation. PSA emphasises propitiation and justification.

Is PSA just a recent notion?

The Doctrine Commission explain how, 'In Anselm, Christ as substitute pays our debt; in Calvin, Christ as substitute bears our punishment.' 4 There is a distinction as the honour debt becomes the legal exchange. Some critics argue that PSA is a relatively modern notion, bound up with our own cultural expressions of criminality and justice, but it would seem that the early Church fathers articulated theories of PSA. Augustine wrote: 'Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that He might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment.'5

Is it, or is it not biblical to present a God whose wrath is propitiated?

Many evangelicals believe that there is biblical evidence that Christ was punished to save us from God's wrath. Exponents of PSA translate Hilasterion (Romans 3:25) as propitiation rather than expiation. The NIV and the NRSV use 'atonement' where the KJV and the ESV use 'propitiation'. The amplified Bible does not commit either way and translates Romans 3:25 as 'Whom God put forward [before the eyes of all] as a mercy seat and propitiation by His blood'.

The use of the mercy seat imagery captures the idea of our sins being expiated by Christ and is included alongside the idea that his death propitiated wrath. Christ becomes a once and forever sufficient sacrifice where the priests of the Old Testament had ritually sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed animal on the mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies inside the tabernacle where God dwelt, as they made atonement for Israel's sin (Heb 9:5).

The New Testament scholar, C.H. Dodd, suggested in 1935, that the word expiation would be more appropriate because it conveys sin being absorbed by Christ, making it the object rather than God. Tom Wright's latest book 'Simply Jesus' is interesting on this front. He says that PSA is certainly central but he uses the language of absorption frequently. Dodd believed propitiation conveys too much the pagan sense of sacrifices performed to appease the gods. Like Dodd, contemporary critics of PSA speak of the cross absorbing sin rather than Christ's death propitiating God. Travis, Chalk and Mann, who promote the idea of expiation (absorption) rather than propitiation, are presented by the authors of 'Pierced for our Transgressions', as expounding 'the atonement in terms that have absolutely no scriptural basis at all!'6 So Mike Ovey et al would obviously see things differently.

Perhaps ultimately, it is a mistake to posit one term against the other and indeed one theologian against another and indeed one blogger against another!

Does this wash?
1) with Christ as the mercy-seat, God in Christ offers himself as a means of expiation for sins justly incurring his wrath which is as a consequence propitiated.

2) Regarding criticism over the presentation of a wrathful God, surely love is the basis of the divine reconciliation (2 Cor. 5.19-21).

3) The reconciliation stems from God’s initiative and is costly to him because God in Christ offers himself as the means of atonement. It is more appropriate to argue that there is both expiation and propitiation. In Exodus 24, which Jesus may have had in mind when he shares the cup with his disciples in Matthew, Moses takes the blood of the sacrificed animals and sprinkles it on the people to cover; to expiate their sins, and he sprinkles the blood on the tabernacle to propitiate the wrath of God.

Defending PSA against the criticism that it portrays an unloving God.

Expiation and propitiation are not mutually exclusive, they co-exist. Wrath and love coexist in a Holy God and theologians should not present these characteristics as antagonistic. Cyril of Jerusalem expresses their coexistence neatly: 'behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness.'7

God is love. . . . Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)

This is the context in which we set the propitiation. God is not the object appeased, he is the subject acting out of love. Do critics of PSA struggle to reconcile a wrathful God with a loving God too much? Do they envisage such emotions to be in antagonism? Do they confuse God's hatred of sin with the human emotion of anger? Despite Green and Baker disliking PSA because it seems to present 'God's ability to love and relate to humans as circumscribed by something outside of God—that is, an abstract concept of justice instructs God as to how God must behave,'8 it would seem, that instead, the psalmists and the prophets and Jesus understood that hostility to sin was a characteristic of the holiness of God. God cannot deny His own nature (2 Tim 2:13). If Jesus understands himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 (Luke 22:37 implies that he does), he understands himself as the subject of God's wrath, to be 'stricken', 'smitten', 'afflicted', 'wounded', and 'crushed,' 'upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace' and all of this was for our sake: 'he bore the sin of many...'

The epistles teach that the holiness of God is where love and justice meet and that indeed love is justice and justice is love. 'He disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share His holiness' (Heb 12:10). God's anger is preventative: 'When we are judged, we are disciplined that we might not be damned along with the world' (1Cor 11:32). It is part of the holiness of God to hate sin: he is 'too pure to approve evil' (Hab 1:13). The bible seems to witness is to our inability to keep the Lord's commands and to live in relationship with him. We only succeed for a while and receive blessing until we fail once more and experience the punishing consequences of sin, which provokes God's wrath because this was not the way he ever intended for us to live. Romans 1:18-32 describes 'God's Wrath Against Mankind' but Christ came to take it upon himself: 'Just as man is destined to die once, and after that face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people' (Heb 9:27).

If we think that God's holy justice does not demand our punishment, are we ignoring Jeremiah's warnings and hearkening instead to the false prophets' assurances that all is well. Sin's penalty is death (Rom 6:23), which deprives us of the presence of God, but in his mercy, God in Christ took this sin upon himself like that scapegoat sent over the cliff to plunge to its death. This is the 'work' of Christ, which to use Anselm's words, 'none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.9 Lest we forget the triune nature of our God, 'He made the law, He suffered the injury, He imposed the penalty and He accepted the liability.' 10

Defending PSA against the charge that it is akin to divine child abuse

In holding steadfast to an orthodox understanding of the triune God, the charge of divine child abuse has to fail. The bible does not present us with an unjust God whom Jesus came to save us from; a God who angrily punishes his son. Dodd worried about the PSA doctrine echoing pagan ritual child sacrifice but Christ's death expiates sin and thereby propitiates God's wrath in a way that differs from pagan appeasement of the gods. In pagan religion, it is man who seeks to appease the angry god, by means of sacrifice, ritual or magic. But Yahweh cannot be placated thus. There is nothing we can offer. God, in effect, offered himself, in the form of his own Son.

God offered himself in the form of his own Son!

In the gospel of John 17:21, Jesus says to the Father: “you are in me and I am in you”. There is a perichoretic life to the Trinity. If this is ignored, one of the members of the trinity is presented to have its will set in opposition to the other. If we subscribe to a trinitarian understanding of God and the hypostatic union of the human and the divine in Jesus Christ, then we see a God who punishes himself rather than someone separate from himself. Through death on the Cross, God inflicts violence upon himself in his Son. God’s judgment is that humanity is wicked, but his response is to suffer the evil himself in order that we might be reconciled and our sin no longer be a barrier. This is beautiful.

We see a beauty in the reconciling action, if we set it within a trinitarian context. As a result the charge of divine child abuse makes little sense.

The bible also testfies to the voluntary nature of the Son's death. In John, Jesus explains about his life that “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again." (10:18) When someone is abused, they have no autonomy, it is stolen by the abuser. Christ willingly undergoes the punishment which we deserve. We have an active God and an active Christ, there is not the object appeased or the object violated, as critics present. As John Stott describes: 'We must never make Christ the object of God's punishment or God the object of Christ's persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners.' 11

To grasp fully the 'glory' of PSA, we need an orthodox and accurate understanding of the relations within the trinity, relations which moreover include humanity. The legal exchange between humanity and Christ is grasped inadequately, if it is understood simply as an exchange of guilt for innocence between parties. This, in any court of law would be very unjust. The caricature is avoided if we understand our incorporation into the Godhead. We are 'in Christ' and he is in us. There is a union rather than a simple representation and in understanding this union, we understand that we die and rise with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4)). A loving God is homoousious with the Son so that the child abuse accusation makes little sense and a doctrine of deification, as espoused by the patristics (Justin Martyr and Irenaeus), leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the heritage which is ours through the cross, and 'the Son [who]...entered into communion with us'12 . It prevents a caricature developing wherein the 'court-room' is deemed corrupt.

Defending PSA against the criticism that it promotes violence

N T Wright describes how 'Precisely out of his fathomless love, the creator God sent his own Son ...to take upon himself the task of being the place where God would pass judicial sentence upon sin...'13 If the cross brings meaning to suffering, it is not a reason to endure abuse or behave violently. It is not to be used to justify self-flaggelation or any form of self-harm. God punished our sin in Christ once for all and perfectly so we need never offer sacrifices as creatures under the law again. There is now 'no condemnation' because we are 'one in Christ Jesus' and we make instead a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1, see also Heb 12:28-13:19).

Hebrews describes how 'Day after day every priest ... offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins' (Hebrews 10:11). Our sacrifices and sufferings can never atone creatures as precious as those made in God's image to God, this can only be efficacious through the very sacrifice of God himself in his Son through his 'blood of the covenant that sanctified' us. (Heb 10:29). If the language of sacrificial offerings offends, it must be set within an appropriate context. God does not enjoy suffering, he wants to prevent suffering, God remains constant to his side of the covenant and provides some way by which sinful man can be obedient in return. It is God who is providing the means for reconciliation, 'I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves (Lev 17:11), this is not man-made but God-given.

We need to root PSA in the covenant ratification imagery of Genesis 15. A Covenant was ratified by walking through the severed halves of animals. On breaking the covenant the punishment was to become like the animals: broken and slain. Significant in Genesis 15, is that it is God who 'walked between' (Jer . 34:18) the severed animal halves. Under the New covenant, God through his Son becomes broken and slain instead of us. He suffers where we should have done. He is a God who 'so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son’ (John 3:16); a God motivated by a desire for 'mercy, not sacrifice' (Hosea 6:6) and who 'shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8). It comes about because Jesus knows that ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends . . .’ (John 15:13).

If the idea of a blood-payment is alien, it could be because like the Manicheans, we ignore the Old Testament, but this is the context in which propitiation can be understood and gratitude epxresssed, that paradoxically, in dying that death, Christ put an end for all time to the necessity of shedding blood as a sacrifice. As Seccombe explains, 'He bequeathed to us a world where such sacrifices are known only where his story is not known.'14

 Women in abusive relationships, racial minorities oppressed and children as victims of their 'carers', suffer an evil and are the victims of broken covenants. Where Christ was victorious over death and ended our death because he rose again, the abused should seek to triumph over the evil which afflicts them, seeking after the covenant of mutual care which God ordains to exist between human-beings as a reflection of his own triune relations. They should imitate Christ in his rising and be wary when PSA is presented without an equal focus on the resurrection, lest its message of hope becomes severed. At the cross the cycle of violence is reversed as Jesus declares forgiveness for those who do not know what they do and triumphs over sin and death and violence in rising again and breathing his peace into his disciples through his Holy Spirit.


Ultimately, N.T. Wright is correct in exhorting us to 'embrace, and preach, the genuine biblical doctrine, while avoiding both the caricature and the rejection of the caricature as if it were the reality.'15 We present PSA coherently, defending it against contemporary criticism, by setting it within the trinity and articulating it as an act of love. We must uphold the biblical view of a just and loving God – this constitutes his holiness. We must present PSA as just one of the ways in which the Bible bears testimony to the work of Christ, for that work is a multi-faceted gem of divine complexity.

Indeed, with any articulation of the work of Christ on the cross, we should say with Paul only that 'now I know in part’ (1 Cor. 13:12). I believe that Christ did take upon himself the punishment which I deserve. At the cross, Christ took our place (Isa. 53:4-6), became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21), and bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). He stands in my place in the divine law court, suffering punishment and canceling out my debt: 'having canceled the written code, with its regulations...he took it away, nailing it to the cross' (Col 2:14). I also believe that Christ accomplished much more besides.

Christ is a moral exemplar; he came to show us what the Father is like. He is the sacrificed paschal lamb of the Passover and the priest offering himself as a sacrifice in the temple: the eternal Malchizedek. He is the ransom paid in the slave market, redeeming humanity from its bondage. He is also the 'Christus victor' in a cosmic battle (Col. 2:15).

More importantly, we should never separate the death from the resurrection lest an articulation of the cross becomes a stumbling block. We must instead be able to say with Cyril of Jerusalem:

I confess the Cross, because I know of the Resurrection; for if, after being crucified, He had remained as He was, I had not perchance confessed it, for I might have concealed both it and my Master; but now that the Resurrection has followed the Cross, I am not ashamed to declare it.16


Anselm, Cuer Des Homo, Book Second, Chp 6. Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm/basic_works.vi.iii.vi.html accessed April 2009
Augustin: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, Book 14, Section 4. Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf104.iv.ix.xvi.html accessed April 2009
Barrow, S., & Bartley J eds., Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, London, DLT, 2005Doctrine Commission, Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England, London: Church House Publishing, 2005
J. Eddison, Who Died Why, Bucks, Sripture Union, 1970
Green, J., B., & Baker M., D., Recovering the Scandal of the Cross:Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, USA, IVP, 2000Irenaeus Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 18), para 7 Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xix.htmlS.Jeffery, M. Ovey and A. Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions , Notts, IVP, 2007Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 13, On the words, Crucified and Buried. Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.ii.xvii.html accessed April 2009Seccombe, David, Dust to Destiny, Reading Romans Today, Sydney, Aquila Press, 1996Stott, J., The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity, 1986Wright,N.,T.,'The Cross and the Caricatures' a response to Robert Jenson, Jeffrey John, and a new volume entitled Pierced for Our Transgressions, Eastertide, 2007 Online athttp://www.fulcrumanglican.org.uk/news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?doc=205

1Stott, J., The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity, 1986, p.196.
2Barrow, S., & Bartley J eds., Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, p.20
3Stott, J., The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity, 1986, p.196.
4Doctrine Commission, Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England, p.444
5 Augustin: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, Book 14, Section 4,
6 S.Jeffery, M. Ovey and A. Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions , p.215
7Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 13, Section 33
8Green, J., B., & Baker M., D., Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p.147
9Anselm, 'Cuer Des Homo', chp 6
10'J. Eddison, 'Who Died Why', p.48
11Stott, J., The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity, 1986, p.151.
12Irenaeus Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 18, para 7
13 NT Wright, The Word of the Cross, a sermon, Durham Cathedral,
14Seccombe, David, 'Dust to Destiny, Reading Romans Today', p67
15 Wright,N.,T.,'The Cross and the Caricatures' Durham Cathedral
16Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 13, Section 4


Evelyn said...

Hey Rach - Have you read this review (or the original)?
Thought you might find it interesting :-)
Thanks for the thoughtful piece!
~Evelyn xx
PS Did you ever get my mail?

Rach Marszalek said...

Thanks Evelyn I will take a look. Hope you got my email back. x


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions