Penal Substitution Atonement vs. the Gospel

Penal Substitution Atonement vs. the Gospel

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Published:
March 13, 2022

On a mid-summer day in the German city of Graz, Johannes Kepler experienced what he thought was a moment of discernment in 1595. While presenting an astronomy lecture, he noticed a geometric fluke associated with the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Jumping to conclusions on what he saw as God’s perfect geometric design of the universe, he soon extrapolated this happenstance relationship to 3-dimensional space, conceiving a model of planetary orbits involving the 5 geometric solids of Plato.[1]

Kepler devoted the better part of his life trying to refine this model into a perfect theoretical device. It had one problem, though. It was wrong. His motives were pure: to uncover God’s design plan of the universe. Unfortunately for Kepler, no such geometric pattern exists.

Good Intentions, Bad Theology

Growing out of this same century is a particular understanding of how God rescues humanity, known as penal substitution atonement. Just as with Kepler, its architects had good motives, wishing to understand God’s actions. Here is a brief outline to refresh your memory:

  • - The sovereign God of the universe has decreed a law, which requires the death of anyone who breaks it.
  • - We all have broken God’s law, and accordingly, must die.
  • - Jesus came to Earth to die in our place, to be a substitute for us by taking the penalty, thereby satisfying the demands of the law.
  • - Because of His holiness and fixation on justice, God the Father is not willing, or able, to simply forgive sin without requiring the payment of death for it.[2]

Martin Luther, trying to calm his intense feelings of unworthiness before God, and John Calvin, with his formal legal training, are credited with being major influences in developing penal substitution theology. For many, this is the plan of salvation that Jesus came to Earth to deliver. But if this is the good news—the Gospel—why didn’t Jesus have anything to say about it?

Jesus spoke Aramaic during his ministry, though the New Testament writers recorded Jesus’ words in Greek. Jesus is quoted using the Greek word euaggelion, which gets translated to English as gospel.[3] If we summarize the message of the few passages where Jesus used this word, we see a picture of the gospel as something that brings healing and hope to the poor, wounded, and oppressed people on Earth. We realize that there is inclusiveness for all who wish to be a part of God’s family. We see that people will hate us for embracing the other-centeredness found in God’s family because it highlights the self-centeredness found naturally in humanity.

What the Good News Was About

In August of 2013, a hymnal committee for the Presbyterian Church decided to exclude the popular hymn “In Christ Alone.” The song’s authors, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, refused to allow a change in the original lyrics, which say, “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.” The reason for the conflict was that Townend and Getty felt it necessary to preserve the message of penal substitution atonement, where God’s wrath is satisfied by the death of Christ.[4] How did notions of penal substitution atonement get so deeply woven into our vocabulary, our music lyrics, our mental pictures? Bits and pieces of this view are strewn throughout Christianity, including Adventism. How did we get here?

Eight Reasons the Penal Substitution Atonement Is Not the Gospel

Although this Gospel According to Jesus seems evident from His own words, penal substitution atonement is viewed by many as the real gospel. Is it? Nowhere in these passages where Jesus is quoted using the word gospel does the context remotely suggest any of the four tenets above. Moreover, there are a few problems with the theory of penal substitution atonement.

1. The typical Evangelical has no problem with saying that God the Father got appeased by Christ’s Death. This isn’t such an easy conclusion to reach if you are an Adventist. Ellen White casts serious doubt on the plausibility of Jesus’ death satisfying God the Father.[5]

Frequently in conversation and in song lyrics on this topic, you hear reference to, “paid the price.” Are we to view this literally, or figuratively? I try to get out on the bicycle whenever I can. If I go on an excessively long ride, the next day I might be saying in casual conversation that I’m now “paying the price” for the previous day’s activity. Am I meaning this literally? If so, who got paid?

On two occasions, Paul writes words that cut sharply against this Father-gets-appeased thinking.[6] In these two passages, Paul makes clear that the death of Christ was not to change God’s thinking about us, but to change our thinking about God. We are the ones who need to have our thinking reconciled, not God. The most popular text in the Bible is also at odds with this offended-Father concept.[7]

2. If penal substitution atonement is an accurate description of the good news, were Enoch, Moses, and Elijah bought on credit? The death penalty had not yet been paid for their entrance into the hereafter. Was the credit limit insufficient for Job, Abraham, Joseph, David, Isaiah, and Daniel? To the exacting, legal-oriented mind of John Calvin, why was this glaring inconsistency not realized?

3. Penal substitution atonement negates God’s forgiveness, for it claims that God was paid in full. If He was paid off, that isn’t forgiveness. We as parents are able to assure forgiveness to our children when they goof up. We harbor an attitude of forgiveness prior to the offense being committed by our kids. We don’t hold a grudge until they formally ask for us to release it, do we? If we as imperfect parents can manage this spirit of forgiveness, can’t God? Ellen White describes God’s willingness to forgive Lucifer without mentioning the death of a substitute.[8]

4. An assumption of penal substitution atonement is that death in the end is a punishment imposed by God’s direct intervention. This is a repackaged version of what the serpent communicated to Eve in the garden, suggesting that if God would only leave us freedom-seeking creatures alone, we could experience this idyllic, higher plane of existence with no consequence. The idea that this final death might be the natural consequence of us freely turning away from Him is sternly rejected, feeling that punishment necessarily must be dispensed by God’s own hand in order for justice to prevail. Which of these two interpretations best fit with Paul’s remark in Romans 6:23, where he writes, “The wage sin pays is death, but God’s free gift is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”? Penal substitution atonement requires the adherent to rewrite this passage as saying, “The wage God pays us because of our sin is death, but God’s gift, which is free to us, is eternal life through the appeasing payment of Christ Jesus our Lord.” Is that what Paul really meant to say?

John writes:  “All those who sin are lawless, because sin is lawlessness.” (I John 3:4) This uncontested definition of sin depicts us holding on to a lawless attitude. This self-absorbed, lawless attitude is what God wants to heal in each of us. We didn’t ask for this attitude. It came to us naturally through being a member of the human race. Each of us have taken the selfish attitude that we were born with and have developed it further. The freedom that God’s kingdom stands for is such that He will eventually allow us to walk away from Him, the Source of Life, if that is what we insist on. Death is a natural result, not an imposed penalty.

5. Penal substitution atonement makes the penalty for sin a temporary thing, for Jesus was dead less than 36 hours. How does this pay the penalty of eternal death for the millions or billions that will live eternally as a result of this payment? Doesn’t God the Father realize that he’s not getting an equitable deal in all of this?

6. Penal substitution atonement is based on the pagan notion that one death was as good as another in satisfying the law. “Pilate was forced to action. He now bethought himself of a custom which might serve to secure Christ’s release. It was customary at this feast to release some one prisoner whom the people might choose. This custom was of pagan invention; there was not a shadow of justice in it, but it was greatly prized by the Jews.”[9] If there is “not a shadow of justice” in freeing the guilty, how can penal substitution atonement be seen as something where justice prevails?

7. A basic assumption of penal substitution atonement is that guilt and righteousness can be transferred from one person to another. How does that work, though? Transfer of guilt would never be seen as acceptable in any court here on Earth. If it were, then deals would be made routinely with people in hospice care, whereby the dying person would accept the guilt of a criminal in exchange for monetary compensation to the dying person’s family. Guilt and righteousness are states of being. If I’ve done some horrific deed, I’m guilty. Period. Nothing is going to change the reality of this. This state of being can’t be traded away like a baseball card.

8. If, as penal substitution atonement asserts, our debt of eternal death has been paid in full, then a spirit of gratitude should be outpouring from us. Our lives should be transformed in appreciation for the pardon we’ve received. But, if our feelings of gratitude wane, or if the lure of self-gratification hooks us once again, then the pieces are in place for an existence not much different from what Martin Luther experienced early in life: a toggling back and forth between feeling saved and lost, with no lasting peace of mind or assurance of the hereafter. I’ve encountered a number of adults who live life from one confession to the next, with no assurance in between. The best they have hope for is to whisper with their last breath, “Jesus, forgive me for my sins.” Is this the gospel message? Is this the good news that Jesus came to reveal to humanity?

Just as with Kepler’s model of the 5 geometric solids of Plato, which he imagined bounding the orbits of the then-known planets, a zealous adherent of penal substitution atonement (as we say here in the South) “has some splainin’ to do” in order to be taken seriously. And if, as with Kepler’s imagined structure—if the evidence consistently leads in another direction, we need to be willing to pause, to rethink, to reassess. No amount of proclaiming a wrong idea will make it right. No amount of repetition of favorite proof texts for this model will invalidate all of the other passages or lines of reasoning that simply can’t be harmonized with it. We can’t appeal to “alternative facts.” If we can’t make sense of the evidence without prostituting our sense of reason, either the atonement is beyond our understanding, or penal substitution atonement is wrong.

The Gospel According to Jesus

During Jesus’ ministry, people thought that the wealthy and healthy were blessed by God, and that the poor and sickly were cursed by God. Ellen White comments on this when describing the man by the pool of Bethesda[10] and when describing Jesus healing the leper.[11] Jesus’ use of gospel seems to be addressing this misunderstanding. For Him to say that there is healing for your body, mind and soul—now that is good news. For Jesus to say that it doesn’t matter whether or not your family has money when it comes to being part of God’s family—that is good news. For Jesus to say that decisions made by your parents and grandparents don’t define you—that is good news.

Hosea records God saying, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.9 I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:8-9 NIV). If this is true, how has Christianity gotten to the common view that God is upset with us for being born distrusting rebels? How have we pictured God as someone whose rage is stoked by our poor choices? How did we misunderstand the illustrations given by God in the sacrificial system as acts that change God’s thinking toward us, rather than acts that change our thinking toward wrongdoing, as they were supposed to do?

What is the gospel according to Jesus? If we desire to answer this question, we have to focus on Jesus’ words and actions, especially his parting words.

On the night he was betrayed, He started the evening off by demonstrating God’s service-oriented attitude. Can you see him washing those dirty feet? When asked directly by Phillip to “show us The Father,” Jesus assures the disciples that they’ve already seen Him. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9 FBV) As the writer to the Hebrews says, “The Son is the radiant glory of God, and the visible expression of his true character” (Hebrews 1:3 FBV). This is good news.

In describing the kind of prayer life the disciples should have, Jesus says, “At that time you will ask in my name. I’m not saying to you that I will plead with the Father on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you—because you love me and believe that I came from God” (John 16:26-27 FBV). This passage puts a dart in the heart of penal substitution atonement. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Similarly the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We don’t know how to speak with God, but the Spirit himself intercedes with and through us by groans that can’t be put into words.” (Rom 8:26 FBV) This is not describing the Spirit changing the Father’s opinion of us as we pray but changing our opinion of the Father as we pray. Yes, the Spirit is interceding with us, changing us to understand Him. All three of them have the same service-oriented character that Jesus revealed to us. This is good news.

Jesus answers our question of how we are healed and saved in his prayer: “Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:3-4 FBV). Getting to know the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit in an intimate, life-changing relationship is the essence of at-one-ment. About this process, Paul writes, “So all of us, with our faces unveiled, see and reflect the glory of the Lord as in a mirror. We are being transformed into the same mirror image, whose glory grows brighter and brighter. This is what the Lord the Spirit does” (2 Cor 3:18 FBV). Elsewhere, Paul writes, “Now that we have been made right by God by trusting in him, we have peace with him through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1 FBV). This is atonement—when we are at one with God and are no longer struggling to live a self-centered life.

An extensive review of the evidence leads to a different perspective than what the well-meaning Luther and Calvin imagined, where Jesus’ death served to satisfy an offended Father by pacifying His rage against sin. The gospel according to Jesus isn’t an imagined structure like Kepler’s planetary system. The good news that Jesus came to share with humanity is that despite the unfortunate state in which we find ourselves—born with an unrequested, undeniable bias toward self-centeredness—there is hope. Yes, Jesus died for me, giving me the gift of truth that could not be communicated effectively for all time in any other way—truth about the lethal effects of sin and truth about the trustworthiness of God.

This way of escape does not come about through the waiving of a magic wand. It doesn’t occur through falsifying the record books in heaven. It doesn’t happen by God overpowering each of our wills. Not in the least. The gospel that Jesus talked about is the realization that the Father is on our side, or as Paul writes, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31 NIV) The gospel Jesus talked about is not a legal transaction that gets us off the hook, with little or no character transformation, but rather is the repairing of a broken relationship. And as we get to know God the way that Jesus revealed Him to be—by beholding, we become changed. As our relationship with God grows, our inherent preoccupation with self wanes.

The gospel according to Jesus includes God’s openness to us passing judgement on Him. The first angel of Revelation 14 shouts out, “Give God reverence and glory, for the time of his judgment has come.” (Rev 14:7 FBV) We are to make up our minds about Him. We are encouraged by David to, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8 NIV)

The gospel according to Jesus has nothing to do with imagined merits of our own, or of substitutionary merits applied to our account to garner God’s favor. Jesus came to heal and restore. Jesus came to set right our thinking about God, to correct the propaganda we’ve learned from the father of lies. The good news that Jesus delivered is that God loves us beyond measure, that there is hope for each of us broken individuals, and that if we choose to be healed of our malady, we have an eternity ahead of us to develop meaningful relationships with the rest of the beings in God’s creation. That is good news!

 

Notes & References

[1] Swetz, Frank J. "Mathematical Treasure: Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum." November 2014. Mathematical Association of America. 2019 November

[2] Packer, J. I. "The Logic of Penal Substitution." 17 July 1973. The Highway. 16 November 2019.  ¶49-52.

[3] Mt 9:35; Mt 11:5/Lu 7:22; Mr 13:10/Mt 24:14; Mr 16:15; Mr 14:9/Mt 26:13; Mr 1:15; Mr 8:35; Mr 10:29-30; Lu 4:18-19

[4] Smietana, Bob. Presbyterians' Decision to Drop Hymn Stirs Debate. 5 August 2013. 16 November 2019.

[5] Desire of Ages 112.6; Education 75.2; Prophets and Kings 685.2; Steps to Christ 13.2

[6] Romans 5:9-11; 2Corinthians 5:18-19

[7] John 3:16

[8] 4 Spirit of Prophecy 319.3

[9] Desire of Ages 733.1

[10] Desire of Ages 202.1

[11] Desire of Ages 262.1,3

 


 

Larry Ashcraft has taught high school physics, math, and computer science for the last 40 years. He enjoys conversing with others about God’s character and rides road bicycles in his spare time. He lives with his wife of 4 decades and his two daughters.

Photo by Megan Ellis on Unsplash

 

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