Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Why Substitutionary Atonement is Not Necessary for Evangelical Faith

Life has been a bit crazy and for various reasons writing is something that I just don’t seem to get around to much anymore. So this post is about 2 months later than was intended which too bad as it was somewhat as a response to an article posted by Owen Strachan which you can read over here entitled ‘Why Substitutionary Atonement is Necessary for Evangelical Faith’.  Malcolm Yarnell and Owen Strachan’s ‘resolution’ was presented to The Resolutions Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in an effort to persuade the committee that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the ‘burning core of the Gospel message’ and should be defended and presented as such.

So if you have read a few of my posts before you would know that I strongly disagree with that viewpoint and therefore I would like to list some of the points that Owen and Malcolm brought up and add some commentary of my own to them. There are 20 points in total so this post will be split up into two. Perhaps you will agree with my comments and maybe you won’t, either way, I hope that my arguments can add perspective and cause others to not be so quick to excommunicate anyone and everyone who sees things a little differently than they do. We all agree that Jesus saves, THAT is the gospel message and what makes us Christians, as to the nuts and bolts of HOW the cross and resurrection save us there should be room for discussion. We have not passed from death into life or darkness into light because we have all the right answers. Rather, we are saved because we are in Christ. It’s not that our answers are not important either, they are. If the truth sets us free then error will put us in bondage. For all I know the authors of the article are beautiful, godly brothers whom I could learn a lot from and I am not going to write them off as easily as I think they might be persuaded to do from their side. Anyway, let’s test what they have to say about penal substitution and why I think they’re wrong.

  1 - Without penal substitutionary atonement, there is no satisfaction of the Father’s just wrath against sinners. 

This may be my biggest gripe with PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) right off the bat. PSA firmly declares that the death of Christ was to fix a problem not with man but with God. Father is angry and incapable of freely forgiving others or showing mercy. Only blood can satisfy His righteous anger. Reflect on that for a moment. The problems of sin, separation, death, the earth under a curse and the sway of Satan all become secondary issues with the primary focus being shifted to Gods need to balance opposing attributes (at least in the way that they are presented) of love and wrath.

2 - Without the satisfaction of divine wrath, there is no forgiveness for sin. Without forgiveness for sin, there is no gospel. 

There are countless examples of both God and Jesus freely forgiving people and nations in the Bible. Where was the wrath that reigned down on Ninevah or the woman who was caught in the act of adultery? Ideas like this come from taking verses like Hebrews 9:22 out of its context. It’s true that without forgiveness for sin there would be no gospel but fortunately God is not like us and He does not harbor unforgiveness in His heart. The impression I get is that Owen and Malcolm are mistakenly connecting forgiveness to eternal life. When Jesus was hanging on the cross He prayed to His Father saying, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Did all the Pharisees, spectators and Roman soldiers present receive eternal life because Jesus forgave them?

3- The “anti-violence” model of the cross of Christ weakens the Bible’s teaching by recasting the atonement as a basis for pacifism (in contradiction of Romans 13:4).

Isaiah 53:9, just one verse removed from the favorite PSA proof text, tells us that in Christ (who is the exact image of the Father) is no violence. It’s not that the cross was not violent and ugly, the question is, whose violence? Isaiah 53:3 says that He was despised and rejected by men and we hid our faces from Him. PSA has switched the roles and projected our actions onto God which is inconsistent with the pattern revealed in the gospel messages given throughout the book of Acts which consistently says that wicked men killed Him but God raised Him up (Acts 2:36, 3:14-15, 4:10, 5:28).

4 - God is perfect in His holiness (Isaiah 6:3) and perfect in His justice (Deuteronomy 32:4), as He is also perfect in His love (1 John 4:8).

Amen! But this is not a conflicting character triangle, God reveals His holiness, how His ways are not our ways, in Isaiah 55 in that He seeks the restoration of those who do not deserve it rather than their destruction. Holiness in this chapter is directly tied up with Gods mercy. Likewise justice is also mentioned many times in conjunction with Gods mercy. For PSA, mercy is the total opposite of Justice as it is giving someone what they DO NOT deserve. Yet scripturally speaking, justice has a very different meaning. Zechariah in chapter 7:9 gives us a proper definition for justice:

This says the Lord of hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.

‘True justice’ is not contrary to love and mercy, neither is true holiness.

5 - On the cross of Christ Jesus the perfect love of God perfectly applies the perfect justice of God to satisfy the perfect holiness of God in order to redeem sinners (Romans 3:26).

Like the previous statement, this one is true but misleading because the authors have a wrong understanding of justice and holiness, thereby arriving at different conclusions as to what it means. The PSA interpretation of justice here is actually quite confusing though because how can killing the innocent and letting the guilty off freely be considered a just payment? Imagine a man is wrongfully sentenced to death for a murder and years after his execution the true culprit is identified. Is it right to say, “Oh well, we killed someone else so the guilty party is free and exempt from prosecution’. No, justice means making things right again. In the original languages it actually means the same as righteousness. The cross reveals Gods love (John 3:16) by making things right (restoration and undoing the work of sin, Satan and death) to satisfy Gods holiness.

6 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement in effect denies the holy and loving God the exercise of His justice, the overflow of which in a sinful world is the outpouring of His just retributive wrath.

I’m not sure where the idea of Gods wrath being poured out on the Son is taught in scripture? And I am not sure how not affirming PSA prohibits justice or wrath in any way and reveals Gods loving nature either. Scripture has a lot to say about Gods wrath but where is it linked to the cross (Isaiah 53:10, Hebrews 9:22 and Matthew 27:46 are not good arguments).

8 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement thus displays in effect the denial of the perfect character of the one true God.

I wish this point was elaborated on more so one could know exactly what is meant by the perfect character of God and how PSA reveals it. How does slaying ones only Son exhibit perfect love? How does punishing the innocent in place of the guilty display perfect justice and how does retributive violence demonstrate perfect holiness?

9 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement constitutes false teaching that leads the flock astray (Acts 20:28) and leaves the world without a message of a sin-cleansing Savior (Romans 5:6–11).

Because the doctrine of penal substitution is only 500 years old one must logically conclude from the above statement that from the time of Pentecost until the time of John Calvin the church was always under false teaching. There are other atonement theories which more directly and scripturally deal with the sin-cleansing Savior such as the Christus Victor model. All atonement theories struggle with the question of evil and present a message of a sin-cleansing Savior, PSA is not unique in this at all except insofar as its particular explanation.

10 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement necessarily compromises the biblical and historical doctrines of propitiation, expiation, ransom, satisfaction, Christus Victor, Christus Exemplar, and more.

This is another confusing statement as most people who do not hold to a penal substitutionary view of the atonement would hold to something else, like ransom, Christus Victor or moral influence views. While I believe that there are elements of truth in most theories I think it should be obvious that PSA is not the pillar of truth that all other theories are built on. I simply cannot see how belief in any of the doctrines mentioned above is weakened or denied if PSA is rejected.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my response.
In the meantime, why not check out my article on a better way of understanding the atonement by clicking here or by clicking on the image of my book on the right for a free PDF copy.