How (not) to affirm penal substitution

How (not) to affirm penal substitution

“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.”

I wrote on the topic at length in The Mosaic of Atonement.

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).


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

See here to purchase a copy of Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

Raised for our justification

Raised for our justification

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.

RESURRECTING JUSTIFICATION

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.

For this reason, N. T. Wright claims that

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 Atonement arguing 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.

Likewise, Constantine Campbell is right to say that

Believers share in the vindication of Christ’s resurrection by dying and rising with him; they are declared righteous by virtue of their participation in these events.

The Hope of Glory, 338

Union with Christ provides the foundation on which the language of justification and penalty-bearing make sense.

And it explains why Paul can say that Christ was not only “delivered over to death for our sins,” but also “raised to life for our justification.”


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”