Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution (Part 2 of 2)

Today is Good Friday.

And to be honest, it seems almost profane to dissect the organs of atonement on this day. “We murder to dissect.”[1] And Good Friday is about a different murder.

As Steve Holmes puts it:

“Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the cross than to understand it. And rightly so.”[2]


Yet perhaps it is possible to think critically about atonement doctrine in a way that is worshipful, and even honoring to those of different views.

That’s my goal.

In the last post, I asked whether the parable of the prodigal son discredits penal substitution given that the father does not require retributive justice in order to forgive. In support of this notion were scholars like Paul Fiddes, as well as others.

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

What I Appreciate about this Claim

I’ll begin with what I appreciate about this argument. I love the idea that the Gospels—and (gasp!) even the words of Jesus himself—might inform the way we understand atonement. That may sound rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how little the Gospels sometimes play into our interpretations of the cross.

Sometimes, it seems to be assumed that Paul, or maybe the Torah, gives us our understanding of atonement, while Jesus is the engine that makes it all work. Yet to presume this is demeaning to both the Gospel writers as theologians, and (worse yet!) to the person of Christ.

To lay my cards on the table, I do affirm a nuanced version of penal substitution (even if the label itself is somewhat clunky). Yet I do so, in part, because of statements from the Gospels. One is the accidental prophecy of Caiaphas, that “it would be better for one man to die on behalf of the people than for the whole nation to perish” (Jn. 11.50). A second is Jesus’ own understanding of the “cup” that he must drink (Lk. 22), which in the Scriptures is the cup of divine wrath or judgment.

When combined, these passages as well as others begin (in my view) to form a picture of penal substitution. But it would be easy to skip over them in a rush toward Paul or the sacrificial system.

I want to commend Fiddes and the rest for considering that Jesus himself might have some crucial insights on the nature of atonement.

Why I Disagree 

The problem, in my view, resides in an attempt to make this particular parable address something that it was never intended to—namely, how (specifically) atonement does or does not work.

In my judgment, it’s just not about that.

In Luke’s account, the story comes as the third in a series of parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son), which all illustrate that God delights in restoring lost people. This, after all, is why Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15.2). In this way, his love is a perfect reflection of the heavenly Father, who “so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son” (Jn. 3.16).

No account of penal substitution would deny such basic truths. Thus, to make a charge against the necessity of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice on the grounds that the parable doesn’t specifically mention it is both an argument from silence and a rather obvious example of decontexualization.

The tendency to over-read the parables has always been there, as evidenced by the early Christian slant toward hyper-allegory. Still, just as the purpose of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16) is not to provide a map of hell—complete with a broad chasm and the ability to send out unfilled drink orders (vs. 24)—so too, the purpose of the Prodigal Son is likely not to give a detailed map of atonement doctrine.

The story is about a more basic reality: God delights in welcoming repentant sinners, and he calls the “elder brothers” of the world to join the celebration.

A Possible Objection  

Yet perhaps we must say more. As one might object, in the parable, forgiveness comes apart from any obvious penalty imposed. Thus, if one were to press the story to account for this—a move that I have already acknowledged as highly suspect—the question still remains: How does a penal substitutionary model account for this?

Option #1: There is a Penalty of Sorts Within the Story

One option might be to acknowledge that there is a penalty (of sorts) within the story. As I have been reminded, the father himself absorbs a massive loss of property and honor, and especially in his choice to welcome the son with no public shaming or retribution. In an honor and shame culture, this is literally unfathomable. It costs the father greatly.

Indeed, such forgiveness is always costly. Just ask the parents who (somehow) choose to forgive their child’s murderer, and then to advocate against the death penalty. There is a sense in which such acts always take the evil within themselves and absorb a kind of penalty.

So too in Christ’s story. Here, it is the God character who chooses to absorb the blow. And penal substitution says something similar.

Option #2: The Cross Looks Backwards

A second possible answer to the objection would be to acknowledge that the cross is retroactive in its scope. In this way, its redemptive shadow spreads backwards over human history, as well as forwards. If this is true, then any reconciliation with the heavenly Father is made possible by the atoning work of Jesus. This is why the elder brother need not be (ridiculously) punished in order to forgive the other.

We see something like this in the way Paul deals with the forgiven sins of past times. How, for instance, was David pardoned for his horrific crimes? In the Old Testament, there is no mention of God needing to take a pound of flesh in order to forgive the murderous king. So how does this forgiveness (e.g., Ps. 51) come?

The best answer is the blood of Jesus.

As Paul hints in Romans, “in his forbearance [God] had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Yet now, his “righteousness,” which includes the promised covenantal curse, has been demonstrated in the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood (Rom. 3.25). If this is true, then one reason that the Father freely and justly welcomes repentant sinners in any age is that the covenantal curse for sin has already been borne in Jesus. Indeed, in one sense, it happened from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13.8).

The cross looks backwards as well as forward. And if this is true, then the (fictitious) younger brother is forgiven freely, as we all are—by the blood of Christ.

A Cause for Worship

Even here, however, it is not that God must vent sadistic wrath in order to forgive.

This is not what penal substitution means. The actual model centers on a covenant.

In this covenant, God binds himself to humans. There are blessings in this union and curses for disunion. Yet at the moment when our fate seemed hopeless–while we were in a “far off country,” smelling of pigs, and squandering our wealth on empty trinkets–God took the penalty upon himself, absorbing far more than a loss of property and honor.

This is an act of truly “prodigal” grace.

And so we stand under the cross today, knowing we will never understand it.

But grateful to be home.





[1] William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007), 1.

3 thoughts on “Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Thanks for laying your cards on the table. I always feel a bit insecure when posting my thoughts to people who are much smarter than myself. Your words, “And so we stand under the cross today, knowing we will never understand it” are the story of my life. God gives me the grace and understanding that I need today with the realization that I’m going to need more tomorrow. It’s pretty amazing that we can have a dynamic growing relationship with the God of this universe, and we get to call Him “Friend” too! That’s some amazing grace.


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