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.

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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.

Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution? (Part 1 of 2)

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.

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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

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.[1]

In recent years, evangelical scholars like Mark Baker and Joel Green have made similar statements about the implications of the parable.[2]

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.[3]

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?



[1] Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 101–103 esp.

[2] 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.

[3] Robin Collins, “Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory,” (accessed Mar. 16, 2016).