“What is modern life if not an endless argument over acronyms? CRT, MAGA, BLM, LGBTQIA—and in some theological circles—PSA (penal substitutionary atonement).”
~The London Lyceum
The good folks over at The London Lyceum asked me to write a response to the 2017 Southern Baptist resolution on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).
My piece comes as the first installment (here) in what promises to be a fantastic series that the Lyceum is doing on Christ’s saving work. Future posts by other scholars will come out every couple days for the next week or two.
For newcomers, it’s safe to say that fights over PSA have often generated more heat than light in recent decades–with one camp crowing loudly that PSA simply is the gospel (full stop), and another likening the doctrine to pagan notions of “divine child abuse.”
In a nutshell, I do think Scripture teaches that Christ willingly endured a judgment for sin on our behalf–both “in our place” and “instead of us.” So I’m a “Yes!” on a properly nuanced form of penal substitution.
Unfortunately, not all expressions of the doctrine are nuanced, biblical, or charitable.
That brings us to the 2017 SBC resolution.
The goal in posting my response is not to throw stones at the SBC (there are many fine folks within that tribe), but to make some headway in how Christians ought to affirm the biblical claim that Christ bore the judgment for human sin on our behalf, so that we might be redeemed.
You can read my piece over at The London Lyceum (here).
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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46)
What is the meaning of those haunting words of Christ upon the cross?
That’s the question my student asked this week as we stood outside my office. It’s Holy Week, and he was preparing to speak in his Spanish-speaking congregation on the so-called Cry of Dereliction. But he wanted to be sure he didn’t mess it up.
After all, he knows Christians believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. And he knows that triune persons enjoy an eternal relationship of holy love. But if that trinitarian reality is true, what can it mean when Jesus screams out “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?”
CRINGING ON GOOD FRIDAY
Those who teach theology sometimes cringe when we sit through Good Friday sermons. (Though, to be fair, I sometimes cringe when listening back to my own sermons). It’s not just that the cross is horrific, but that Jesus’ words there are sometimes interpreted in ways that violate a pretty fundamental Christian teaching—the doctrine of the Trinity.
In extreme examples, we even hear that the Father made the Son the object of his perfect hatred on the cross. “God damn you!” is the vivid description offered by the late R. C. Sproul, of what the Father said to the Son upon the cross.
Is that right?
When someone asks about The Cry of Dereliction, I always answer the same way: “You should read this little book by my friend, Tom McCall.” It’s called Forsaken, and it’s written for a popular audience—not just for scholars (see here).
But there is problem with that sales pitch: Good Friday is this week (tomorrow, actually, as I type these words). And even with Amazon Prime, you probably don’t have time to read Tom’s book before then.
So what are some choices for interpreting The Cry of Dereliction?
OPTIONS FOR INTERPRETTING THE CRY OF DERELICTION
The following options are not exactly Tom’s points but more like my own quick and oversimplified articulations.
Feeling, Not Fact
Forsaken Unto Death
Let’s work through them.
The first option claims that there is a radical separation, enmity, abandonment, breach, or even hatred within the life of God upon the cross. A version of this is argued by more progressive theologians like Jürgen Moltmann. But in evangelical churches, it usually shows up in rhetoric about Jesus’ judgment-bearing death.
The Father turned his face away.
The Father rejected the Son.
God cursed Jesus with damnation.
God punished Jesus.
To be clear, I’ve written a whole book (The Mosaic of Atonement) that affirms the idea that Jesus saves (in part) by willing bearing the penalty for human sin. So I am not challenging that broader claim. But to affirm Christ’s penalty-bearing is quite different from saying that Father hated the Son or the Trinity was broken.
The problems with the “utterly forsaken” view are many: (a) Scripture never says it; (b) virtually no one in church history ever said it prior to the modern era; (c) it violates the doctrine of the Trinity.
So don’t go that way.
John Calvin quite correctly writes the following:
“We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with his beloved Son, which whom his soul was well pleased? Or how could he have appeased his Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself?” (Institutes, 2.16.11)
Another option is to say Jesus is merely quoting Psalm 22. After all, his words come directly from David’s passage, and the rest of the psalm describes events that sound an awful lot like crucifixion.
At the end of the psalm, however, the result is not forsakenness but divine presence, vindication, and God’s message going out to all nations. Since that’s true, maybe Jesus was simply quoting a text to show himself as fulfilling it by way of death and resurrection.
Unfortunately, it seems like a stretch to say that he was only quoting something (in the same way I would be if I were reading from the Old Testament passage in front of a congregation). This seems to downplay the human experience of Jesus, the plain sense reading of his words, and the feeling of cursedness that would have assailed any Jew being hung upon a pole (Deut 21:23).
If the first choice breaks the Trinity, the second one diminishes the Son’s humanity.
FEELING, NOT FACT
A third option might be to say that The Cry of Dereliction honestly describes what Jesus felt: He felt as if he had been utterly forsaken by God—but he hadn’t been. In this way, Christ would be like many a suffering Psalmist who claimed that God had abandoned them forever—when in fact God remains close by the afflicted.
I have no doubt that Jesus did feel forsaken; but to claim that he was wrong would surely cause some problems for one’s Christology.
One way to get around this worry might be to say that the Son was simply identifying fully with the feeling of forsakenness experienced by humanity at large. Perhaps that works. But I still think there is a better option.
FORSAKEN UNTO DEATH
This last option is the one McCall chooses. The claim here is that Jesus remains (as Calvin said) the beloved Son, even in his death. But his forsakenness is real in at least one crucial sense: the Son was allowed to suffer and die. The Father could have saved him from this death, but he did not. Thus, Jesus was forsaken unto death.
In this act, Jesus identifies with humanity in all our pain and shame and the effects of fallenness. McCall writes:
“It is we who have—as rebellious sinners—abandoned God. But rather than leave us in our state of abandonment, the Son has become human and has identified himself with us: ‘These are my people. I am here for them. I have come to redeem them from this abandonment and to bring them home'” (44).
No, the Trinity wasn’t broken.
And the Father didn’t hate the Son upon the cross. Nor did he torture him with the sadistic smile of a pagan storm-god. That’s not the gospel. That’s a Netflix series about Norse mythology.
Nonetheless, Jesus was really forsaken unto death on our behalf. More than that, he passed through death to resurrection life, so that the final verses of Psalm 22 are as true as the first:
27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. 31 They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
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The cross stands near the center of Christian treatments of atonement—and rightly so.
Paul famously proclaims that he resolved to know nothing when he came preaching to the Corinthians except Christ, “and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
But the cross is hardly the only aspect of God’s saving work; thus Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was
delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Romans 4:25 NIV
In this short post, I want to focus on the last part of the verse.
By definition, justification involves the declaration that one has been officially granted the status of “righteous” with regard to God’s covenant. In lay terms, it’s a bit like the pronouncement of “Not guilty!” handed down in court.
Unfortunately, while evangelicals often have some answer for how the cross connects to justification (usually involving some notion of penalty-bearing on our behalf), many accounts of how the resurrection fits in are either unsatisfying or missing altogether.
There seems to be something about the joining together of resurrection and justification which some of our Western traditions have failed to grasp.
Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 219
It’s not that evangelicals think the resurrection is unnecessary. We hear each Easter how if Christ had not been raised, we would still be stuck in our sins and to-be pitied for our misspent faith (1 Cor 15:17-18). It’s just that we rarely get around to addressing what exactly it means to say that Christ was raised “for our justification.”
GOOD ANSWERS TO DIFFERENT QUESTIONS
Instead of answering that question, accounts of the resurrection tend to run as follows:
Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own future resurrection.
True enough (1 Cor 15:20). But this doesn’t offer any explanation of how Jesus rising from the dead is connected to the declaration of us being righteous in the eyes of God.
Christ’s resurrection must be true, or our faith is based on a lie.
Also true. But if your only understanding of justification is that “Jesus paid it all,” then it isn’t clear why his resurrection is required.
After all, if someone paid my student loan debt by writing me into their will, it wouldn’t follow that their resurrection was also needed for my bill to be paid. In this scenario, a death is necessary, but resurrection isn’t.
So too in some evangelical treatments of atonement.
Christ’s resurrection is the vindication (or proof) that he is who he claimed to be, and that his work on the cross was effective.
Yep. But this point confuses the corroboration of atonement with the idea that the resurrection itself is necessary for our justification.
To use an imperfect analogy, that’s like assuming that the corroborating answers in the back of a math textbook are required for 2+2 to equal 4, or for your work in the front of the book to be accurate. (To be clear, I did need those answers—which is why I’m a theologian and not an engineer.)
If Paul had meant merely to highlight that resurrection vindicates Christ’s prior justifying work on our behalf, then he should have written Romans 4:25 differently.
In summary, each one of these answers is true. But each one also fails to explain how Christ was “raised for our justification.”
What is a better answer?
THE STATE OF OUR UNION
In a word, it has to do with “union” or “participation.”
For Paul, Christians have been raised up with Christ, and seated with him in heavenly realms (Eph 2:6) because we have been united with him in his death (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:5). Salvation therefore comes about by being “in Christ” by virtue of faith, as symbolized by baptism, and as brought about the uniting work of the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament highlights this saving union through a variety of metaphors—one of which is marriage. In this legal bond, the two become “one flesh” (Gen 2:24) so that what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. “But I am talking,” Paul says to the Ephesians, “about Christ and the church” (5:32). Insofar as we have been bound-together by faith with Christ’s broken body, his death is our own death to sin (Rom 8:3; Gal 2:20), and his resurrection is itself our justification. The logic here, however foreign to modern individualists (see here), is that of union.
Sadly, if all we understand about atonement is a sort of penalty-exchange, then we will never know what to do with Romans 4:25, and we will never understand the importance of the resurrection.
(To be clear, I spent just shy of a hundred pages in The Mosaic of Atonementarguing for a particular version of the idea that Christ justly bears the penalty for human sin on our behalf. So I can’t be accused of rejecting that biblical reality.)
But thankfully, there is more to Jesus’ saving work than penalty-bearing.
In the view of Michael Bird, Christ’s resurrection is his “justification”—not because Christ was a sinner in need of saving—but because it is the official declaration that he is, in fact, righteous.
In this time of COVID-19, we’ve all learned some new words; words like spike proteins, viral load, and hydroxychloroquine.
One of these new concepts—the R0 factor—measures contagiousness. How close must one be to an infected person to “catch” what they have? Is the contagion passed primarily by blood, saliva, or has it been aerosolized? Can it live on surfaces?
In the early days of the pandemic, while my asthmatic son was dealing with some breathing trouble—I took the extreme step of constructing a cleaning station in our garage where I would wipe down our groceries (and mail) before they entered the house.
But what does any of this have to do with Jesus?
JESUS AND THE FORCES OF DEATH
One of the best books I’ve read this year was Jesus and the Forces of Death, by Matthew Thiessen. The text focusses on the Gospels’ portrayal of ritual impurity–and it argues, in line with scholars like Jacob Milgrom, that the Jews associated these impurities with forces of death.
The Law of Moses taught that certain substances rendered one ritually unclean. These contagions included genital discharges, skin diseases (lepra), and corpses. To be ritually impure was not sinful. But it meant that one was barred from approaching God’s presence (for instance, in the temple) until one had undergone purification.
Ritual impurity comes up repeatedly in the Gospels: • Jesus touches lepers and they are cleansed. • Jesus encounters corpses and they rise. • Jesus faces impure spirits and expels them.
But there is one story for which Thiessen’s work is particularly illuminating: Jesus and the bleeding woman (Matt 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:42–48).
JESUS AND THE ZAVAH
In Hebrew, the zavah was a female “discharger”—a woman with chronic flow of menstrual blood.
As with other bodily discharges, Jewish Law maintained that no one could touch the zavah (or even her bedding) without being rendered impure (Lev 15:25–27). Even one’s clothing must be purified if it had potentially been contacted by such a woman.
Then in Mark’s Gospel, we read of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years:
27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:27-3)
THE HOLY CONTAGION
In Thiessen’s words,
“The story implies that Jesus’s body can function like an unthinking force of contagion that inevitably destroys impurity” (7).
Instead of Jesus being made unclean by the woman’s touch, the opposite happens: The source of her impurity is healed, because Jesus embodies a contagious form of holiness and purity.
Incredibly, Jesus never decides to heal the woman. He merely notices that power has gone out of him, and then inquires, “Who touched my clothes?” (v 30)
So I ask again, what is Jesus’ R0 factor?
HOLINESS BEYOND SEGREGATION
We often think of holiness as something that is maintained by separation: “social distancing” if you will. For indeed, to be holy meant to be “set apart” by God for special use.
But Jesus’ holiness challenges the exclusivity of this notion. Christ’s holiness is contagious; it is not merely a fenced off and fragile status. Jesus’ holiness goes on the offensive. It heals the sources of impurity, and yet (apparently) without itself being defiled.
Never is this truer than in Christ’s crucifixion—in which the forces of death come calling for his own body. Yet even in death, Christ’s corpse emits a purifying power.
This point is seen most notably in the strange passage from Matthew that describes how Christ’s final breath brought the corpses of many holy ones to life within their tombs (Matt 27:50-53). (See here for my post on that unusual passage.)
There is some prophetic precedent for this kind of holiness. But not much. Elijah raises a widow’s son after laying his own body atop the boy’s (ritually impure) corpse. And Elisha unwittingly raises another dead man after the man’s corpse is thrown into a grave containing Elisha’s bones. (Happy Halloween!)
Still, Thiessen’s claim is that Jesus’ contagious holiness is unequaled in the Scriptures.
CONTAGIOUS HOLINESS TODAY
As a work of biblical scholarship, Thiessen’s book does not intend to make the turn to contemporary or pastoral application. But I’d like to gesture in that direction: What does Jesus’ contagious holiness mean for us today?
Incidentally, I come from what is often called a “holiness tradition”—and specifically, from a denomination that has roots in the revivalism of John Wesley, in abolitionism, and in women’s suffrage. I’m proud of that.
But in my own holiness tradition there has sometimes been a failure to learn the lesson of Jesus’ R0 factor. We saw holiness as something “set apart” and fragile—but not as something that is powerfully contagious.
In fact, holiness is both.
Elements of the holiness tradition propounded legalistic and extra-biblical rules on everything from wedding rings, to hairstyles, to alcohol—but we did not always grasp that Christ’s holiness is something that was spread by CONTACT with an unclean world, rather than by mere segregation from it.
This point requires discernment.
SET APART FOR SERVICE
There are times in which separation is required.
Moral impurity is not healed by uncritically immersing ourselves in environments where it is glorified. When we cozy up to wicked leaders and excuse their abusive and arrogant behavior in the attempt to gain “influence”—we deceive ourselves. Holiness doesn’t spread like that.
And yet, to be Christ’s body—filled with his Spirit—seems to imply that we might also view holiness in contagious rather than defensive terms.
Christians are, as it were, “set apart” for service.
In the holiness tradition, the group that most clearly embodies this holiness-on-the-offensive posture has been the Salvation Army. But it is a shift in perspective that is important for all Christians.
Impurity isn’t cleansed by pretending it does not exist (Liberal relativism). Nor is it healed by mere separation (fundamentalist escapism). Whether it is ritual or moral impurity, the solution comes by transformative CONTACT with the Holy One of God–or at least the fringes of his garment.
Get Matthew Thiessen’s excellent book here–and stay tuned for an upcoming interview with him on my podcast, Outpost Theology.
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On Catholic Crosses, Welcoming a Son, and “Being Gangsta”
When I was five or six, I remember being allowed to visit the local Dollar General Store to spend “my very own money” on whatever I liked.
I selected a massive golden crucifix on a gaudy golden chain.
I was (and am) a Gangsta.
Upon showing the purchase to my parents, I was informed that I had made a slight mistake. This was a “Catholic” cross, as evidenced by the gold-plated Jesus hanging from it.
While we were cool with the Catholics, I was told that “Our crosses are empty.”
The point, for Protestants, is that Jesus is no longer on the cross—he’s risen—so we prefer our sacred death-devices to be unoccupied. Or for my Spanish readers: desocupado.
El Jesús del hospital
Fast-forward thirty years and I sit now inside a Catholic hospital where I will also be allowed to spend some of my “very own money”—but it’s been worth every penny.
Yesterday, we unexpectedly welcomed our fourth child (Theodore Brian) three weeks early.
And right above my head, as I now type, there is another Catholic crucifix.
And somehow it seems fitting.
Yesterday, when Teddy was born, he was having some trouble breathing. While the doctors weren’t too worried, his respiration was far more rapid (that’s: rapido) than desirable. And to make matters worse, he could not go to Brianna’s room to in such a state.
So there I sat in the nursery—stripped to the waist so he could feel my skin—singing “Hush little baby” in front of a plate-glass window through which onlookers watched a topless professor who probably looked like a pasty primate trying to “nurse” a baby (*despite some gender confusion).
Mire mamá, un chimpancé blanco
Thankfully, Teddy is fine – but as I sit now under a suspended Christ, I am thankful for the Catholic crucifix. It is not necessarily better than its more triumphant counterpart, and in some ways it may occasionally be prone to fetished misconstrual.
But in some settings—like the hospital—it also seems more helpful.
By it I was vividly reminded that mine was not the only Son to struggle for breath in a world that is harsh and cruel compared to that from whence he came. And unlike mine, this other Son could not feel his Father’s presence, much less his skin.
Eloi, Eloi…, he screamed, and was not comforted.
Rewind five hundred years and a man named Matthias Grünewald sits painting an altarpiece for a monastery that doubled as a hospital.
The location, Isenheim, in France, had been afflicted by a terrible plague that manifested in festering sores upon the skin.
Like Jesus, its survivors were forever scarred.
Famously, Grünewald infected Christ. He chose to paint the sores upon the Savior.
The message was clear. As the Book of Hebrews states: We do not have a High Priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our travails (Heb. 4.15). He knows. He’s been there.
He knows what it’s like to gasp for breath, to have a prayer go unanswered, to feel betrayed by friends, belittled by cynics, and beaten up by bullies. He was murdered naked in front of his own mother. And while the good news is that the cross is no longer ocupado, sometimes it helps to see—yes, actually see—the Catholic version.
Because while language is a gift, some images transcend translation.
And in much of the Christian tradition, that character is unquestionably the devil.
In recent days, I’ve been focusing my energy on a non-blog-related project: a book on the atonement. And the present chapter has to do with Satan. This sounds like a strange topic for the Christmas season. Yet the Scriptures connect it explicitly with Christ’s coming. As 1 John writes:
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3.8).
Yet while belief in God is quite common throughout our culture, belief in Satan does not rank nearly so highly.
As the late Walter Wink put it, the demonic is “the drunk uncle of the twentieth century.” We keep them out of sight. And we don’t talk about them at dinner parties. As he goes on:
Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind. [He is] a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity.
As evidence, a recent Barna survey indicated that around half of American Christians do not believe in the devil as a living being. Rather, they tend to see him as a mere symbol for profound evil.
REVIVING “OLD SCRATCH”
In response to this, Richard Beck, in his new book Reviving Old Scratch, describes the modern experience somewhat like the plotline from an episode of “Scooby Doo.”
STAGE ONE: At the beginning of every episode, whatever evil that had transpired was blamed on some sort of ghost or goblin. The supernatural was everywhere! And it was up to no good. Beck calls this Stage One, or the period of “enchantment.”
STAGE TWO: Yet after some investigation by Scooby and the gang, it was invariably discovered that the “ghost” was really “Old man Cringle” with a fog machine, a bed sheet, and some fancy voice modulation. Beck calls this Stage Two: the age of “disenchantment.” And as he argues, it has much to commend it. After all, science has shown that many ancient superstitions were just that.
STAGE THREE: Yet in Stage Three (not included in the Scooby Doo episodes), Beck argues that we need a kind of “re-enchantment” if we want to account fully for the pervasive nature of evil in this world. In his view, this is not a simple return to a belief in a demon behind every bush. But nor is it the peculiarly modern (white, wealthy, and western) superstition of full-fledged naturalism.
In his own way, C.S. Lewis proposed something similar. As he wrote:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
The unhealthy interest is encountered in various forms. One is the tendency we all have to demonize our opponents, detecting whiffs of sulfur in their presence. Case in point:
Or as Beck writes:
We always smell sulfur around those we want to kill.
A second form of unhealthy interest comes when Christians use Satan as an excuse to cover their own faults.
Along these lines, I recall once being in a meeting in which serious allegations (and serious evidence!) were brought forth regarding misconduct. When confronted, one leader responded that “This is just Satan getting angry because we’re doing such good work!”
Sometimes sulfur masks our own scent.
Thirdly, Satan can be wrongly used as a tool to terrify people into compliance, as seen in the Christian cottage industry that springs up around Halloween to scare the “heck” out of unsuspecting sinners as they wander through a warehouse version of the afterlife.
Such moves confuse a love of Jesus with fear of torture.
Finally, an excessive interest in “the devils” can lead to a dualism that puts God and Satan on (almost) the same level. This is not the biblical portrait. For as Luther wrote of Satan–and perhaps enacted by hurling his ink well at the devil–“one little word shell fell him.”
LOVE IS AN EXORCISM
Yet while “excessive interest” carries pitfalls, unbelief does too.
It does nothing to stop the march of minions. For as Wink notes: Disbelief in Satan did little to prevent him running roughshod across corporate boardrooms and bloodstained battlefields throughout modernity.
What is needed, Wink suggests, is a kind of exorcism, though not the kind from horror movies. In his words:
The march across the Selma bridge by black civil rights advocates was an act of exorcism. It exposed the demon of racism, stripping away the screen of legality and custom for the entire world to see.
The best “exorcism” of all is accepting love. It is finally love, love alone, that heals the demonic. “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, “who at the last minute turn into princesses that are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave?”
In the end, Wink’s work (and even the above quote) shows forth certain faults. In particular, he demythologizes far more than I would, and his views on Christ, creation, and atonement are hardly biblical in certain respects.
Nonetheless, he did do the academy a great service by restarting the conversation on evil powers, and by showing how spirituality interlocks with political, psychological, and social forces of all kinds.
If you’re interested in reading more, try the following:
For those who are interested in theology, here is another atonement post with a question to consider:
In the Bible, God is a forgiver.
As Psalm 130 states:
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness (vss. 3-4a).
Dozens of passages could be added to this, but as Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”
So here is what may seem like a strange question:
Can we really say that God “forgave” sins if Jesus paid the price for them?
For many Christians, one meaning of the cross is that Christ willingly bore the penalty that we deserved. Therefore, there is “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8.1), because Jesus was condemned in our place. This is referred to as “penal substitution,” and it sometimes focuses on the idea that sin’s price was paid in full.
Yet for the contemporary theologian Greg Boyd, this runs counter to the Bible’s claim that God “forgives.”
As Boyd argues, forgiveness is “the release of a debt.” Yet:
“If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely, “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?”
Boyd thinks not. And for him, this is yet another reason to abandon penal substitution for more coherent understandings of atonement (see more here ). As he explains:
“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”
So what do you think? Does Boyd’s point resonate with you? Why or why not?
While I would not claim that penal substitution is somehow the “most important” model of atonement, I am currently looking at some objections to it for a chapter in a larger book. Hence the repetition of the penal substitution questions.
This question builds on two previous posts (here and here), which examined a related objection involving the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are new, see those prior posts for further context.
 Gregory Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 104.
And to be honest, it seems almost profane to dissect the organs of atonement on this day. “We murder to dissect.” 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.”
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.
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.
For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a book on the atonement. And since that’s where my research has been, I thought that Holy Week would be a good time to start an ongoing series on the subject. Toward that end, this first installment (part 1 of 2) involves a parable and penal substitution.
Without question, the parable of the prodigal son, or the two sons (Luke 15), is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.
It is the gospel itself. And even leaving aside questions of meaning and application, the arrangement of the narrative is simply brilliant.
This is true right down to the open-ended final scene. Here, the screen fades to black just as the father invites the elder brother to join the party, and the hearers are left wondering which path he’ll choose: the way of nature, or the way of grace (Cue that beautiful scene from the movie “Tree of Life”). The question is made all the more pointed when we realize that Jesus is telling the story to a room that is literally divided between the elder and younger brothers (Pharisees and tax collectors). For this reason, it was likely a rather tense transition to whatever came next that day.
So here’s what may seem like a strange question: Does this parable really discredit the idea that our forgiveness hinges upon Christ bearing the divine penalty for human sin?
Since the query may seem unrelated to Jesus’ story, I begin with some context.
The above understanding of the cross—in which Jesus freely takes the punishment that we deserved—is often referred to as penal substitution.
Amongst modern evangelicals, it is arguably the most common model of atonement, and it is also highly controversial. As stated above, it centers on the idea that Jesus suffered a divinely sanctioned penalty (whether damnation, divine wrath, god-forsakenness, etc.) “in our place,” and “instead of us.” For this reason, God’s justice is seen to be maintained in that he punishes sin, even while divine mercy is displayed in that God forgives repentant sinners.
As one might expect, there is a mountain of scholarly literature surrounding penal substitution. Whole rives of ink have been spilled and entire forests slain.
Thankfully, almost none of that concerns us here.
For now, the only question I am interested in is the one above: Does the story of prodigal son discredit penal substitution?
Interestingly, several scholars think so.
Take, for instance, the Oxford theologian, Paul Fiddes.
As Fiddes argues, penal substitution wrongfully places a law of necessary punishment above the character of God. In so doing, it wrongfully claims that God could not forgive apart from Christ bearing our punishment. Fiddes, rejects this notion, and he finds support for this rejection in the story of prodigal son.
In the parable, the father freely forgives his repentant son without the need to punish anyone. This, after all, is what forgiveness is. And if this is how it works with the father in the story, then why not with our heavenly Father? Why must Christ be punished in order for God to forgive his wayward children? Clearly the parable does not depict forgiveness like this.
In recent years, evangelical scholars like Mark Baker and Joel Green have made similar statements about the implications of the parable.
To add some color to such claims, Robin Collins even offers a creative reworking of the story to show how it might have gone if the presuppositions of penal substitution were in place.
Think of this as a an alternative history, Reformation re-mix:
Here, the father “cannot simply forgive” the returning son, for “it would be against the moral order of the entire universe.” As he states:
“Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.”
In a twist, the elder brother then speaks up, as the Christ figure, with an offer to endure the father’s wrath on behalf of his guilty sibling (as you can see, this brother is quite different from the one in Jesus’ story). As he states:
Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.” … And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
The retelling is ingenious, but does it really show that the actual parable invalidates belief in penal substitution?
While this post (part 1) has merely sought to introduce the charge, the next one (part 2) will provide my own thoughts on this question.
In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts. What say you?
 Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 101–103 esp.
 Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 174.