Recently, I wrote a piece in which I reflected on the reception of Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali into the Roman Catholic Church. In that piece, I dwelt rather explicitly on the difference in the doctrine of justification held by the two Communions. At first, I was hesitant to write the piece: I asked myself if I was not simply bringing up differences that are centuries old. Was I not dredging up matters that were solved in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation?
But, no, I was dealing pastorally with experience of people I know who are, at this very moment, wrestling with an attraction to Roman Catholicism, and others who are struggling with Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory, the “treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (i.e., the treasury of merit), works of supererogation, the invocation of saints, relics, statues, and a host of other “Reformation” issues that are still very much a difficulty today, especially as many of these are still a part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
At the same time as I was dealing with the importance of a biblical understanding of the doctrine of justification, I found myself also dealing with a recurring and very perturbing challenge to the basis of a biblical understanding of justification, namely the nature and effect of Christ’s atonement; in particular, the Penal Substitutionary theory of the Atonement.
One of the trends I am seeing among thinking Christians of a certain age is the tendency to qualify or nuance belief in long-held understandings of Christian Doctrine, which often leads to the challenging or outright denial of those doctrines.
A recent example of the trend was an article on the Beliefnet website entitled, “Jesus Did Not Die on the Cross For Our Sins” with the subtitle, “The idea Jesus ‘paid the price’ isn’t found in the Bible,” an article that directly challenges belief the Penal Substitutionary theory of the Atonement. Beliefnet frequently publishes articles of this sort, such as “5 False Teachings in the Evangelical World” and “6 Things Jesus Didn’t Die For”—all designed to appeal to marginally woke young Christians, who are tired or disillusioned with the Christianity of their forebears.
The tragic irony is that, instead of strengthening faith, articles like this tend to weaken it by creating a skepticism that any belief of Christianity, no matter how widely-held and deeply-cherished, is ultimately to be trusted. Articles like this are appearing with such frequency that I am starting to believe Beliefnet should be renamed “Unbeliefnet.”
Writing articles like this Beliefnet piece is a variation of something one often sees in academia, where a tried and true way of writing a book or a doctoral dissertation that demonstrates an “original contribution to the field” is to take a long-held assertion or truism in a particular academic field and write a thesis that challenges it. The practice often continues among established academics, where the pressure to publish new and interesting ideas leads to innovative challenges to previously dominant views. I have sometimes wondered if “the New Perspective on Paul” among New Testament scholars is an example of this tendency.
But with regard to the Atonement, incredibly, the Beliefnet article claims:
“No matter how hard you search, you will not find a single passage in the entire Bible that says anything about Jesus paying the penalty for our sins. That’s because this is a ‘Christian belief’ that the Bible doesn’t teach. Rather it was a theology created by humans.”
While I hate to “proof text,” the claim that not a single verse in the Bible says anything about Jesus paying the penalty for our sins must be answered.
Does the author believe that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of the Messiah?
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6 NRSV)
And what does the author do with these verses?
- Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
- 1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
- 1 Peter 2:24, “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (quoting Isaiah 53).
- 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin [the Greek word used can also mean ‘a sin offering’] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
- Hebrews 9:28, “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
If there is anything the Bible teaches plainly and in numerous places, it is the penal substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross.
But, regarding “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” the author asserts:
“This theology was not part of Christian doctrine for the first 1,600 years after Jesus was crucified. The ideas was originated and developed by human beings who were having trouble understanding what the Bible teaches about how Jesus Christ saved humanity. They worked with what they could to better understand Jesus’ teachings, but missed the mark. This lead to a creation of a belief that wasn’t really based on the Bible.”
So, in saying Penal Substitutionary Atonement was not a part of Christian doctrine for the first 1600 years, the author is saying it is nowhere to be found in patristic sources. However, a look at the Early Church Fathers reveals that this is not the case.
The early, great Christian apologist, Irenaeus (130-202) wrote:
Now this being is the Creator … by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “the Mediator between God and men”; propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience (emphasis mine); conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. For this reason also He has taught us to say in prayer, “And forgive us our debts; ” since indeed He is our Father, whose debtors we were, having transgressed His commandments.… And in what way can sins be truly remitted, unless that He against whom we have sinned has Himself granted remission “through the bowels of mercy of our God,” in which “He has visited us” through His Son? [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]
Notice that, for Irenaeus, sin is defined as transgression of the law. The incarnation was to restore enemies to a state of friendship. How? By ‘propitiating’ the wrath of God. Is that not the heart of the Penal Substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement?
In that venerable father of the East, Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373, we find the following:
“none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and only the Word who orders all things and is alone the Father’s sole begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols. But beyond all this there was a debt owning which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die (emphasis mine). Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us; namely that proving his Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own Temple on behalf of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.” (On the Incarnation, Section 20)
Here then, Athanasius speaks to both the wages or penalty of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23), and also original sin, as well as Christ’s atonement, which takes care of both.
Later, Athanasius says, “Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid.” (On the Incarnation, Section 20)
And, he continues, “Have no fear then. Now that the common Savior of all has died on our behalf, we who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law.” ((On the Incarnation, Section 21)
So in laying out the death that was due to mankind, the debt that had to be paid, the settling of man’s account with death, and the threat of the law, Athanasius is casting the Atonement in a forensic light.
But possibly the most explicit reference by Athanasius to a penal substitutionary understanding of the Atonement comes in chapter 6 of On the Incarnation:
“And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father — doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body).”
Another Early Church Father, John Chrysostom (307-347), says in his commentary on Hebrews: that Jesus was “a sacrifice which had power to propitiate the Father.” He goes on to say: “And what is the meaning (in Hebrews 9) of “He bore the sins”? Where has Christ done this? He took them from men, and bore them to the Father; not that He might determine anything against mankind, but that He might forgive them.
Among the Western Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) writes: “For then the blood, since it was His who had no sin at all, was poured out for the remission of our sins.” (On the Trinity, 15)
Also among Western Fathers is Ambrose of Milan (c. 337-397) who wrote: “He it was who offered to the Father a sacrifice of atonement on our behalf, presenting God with an oblation capable of justifying us. He it was who slept and woke again.”
But when it comes to the Penal Substitutionary view of the Atonement, another contemporary writer raises the objection:
“The penal satisfaction theory is entirely legalistic. It assumes that the order of law and justice is absolute; free forgiveness would be a violation of this absolute order; God’s love must be carefully limited lest it infringe on the demands of justice. Sin is a crime against God and the penalty must be paid before forgiveness can become available. According to this view God’s love is conditioned and limited by his justice; that is, God cannot exercise His love to save man until His righteousness (justice) is satisfied. Since God’s justice requires that sin be punished, God’s love cannot save man until the penalty of sin has been paid, satisfying His justice. God’s love is set in opposition to His righteousness, creating a tension and problem in God….According to this legalistic theology, this is why Christ needed to die; he died to pay the penalty of man’s sin and to satisfy the justice of God. The necessity of the atonement is the necessity of satisfying the justice of God; this necessity is in God rather than in man. And since this necessity is in God, it is an absolute necessity. If God is to save man, God must satisfy His justice before He can in love save man.”
Unfortunately, this objection misunderstands the relation of God’s love to his justice. Justice is not something that is external to God and that places limitations on God or his love. Justice is one of God’s attributes, a part of his nature; it is inseparable from and an inevitable reflection of his holiness. “But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness” (Isaiah 5:16).
Deuteronomy 32:4 says of God:
“The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he.”
God is justice, and the reality of his justice means that, as a holy God, fallen man is separated from him, and so God’s justice is what causes the demonstration of his love in sending his Son to die the death that enables sinners to be reconciled to him. This is important in understanding who God is: God’s justice is not in opposition to his love. It does not limit his love. His justice is the source and motivation for his love. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
While steering clear of the error of Patripassianism, we must not overlook the Unity of God. The Atonement is not a case of a loving Son wringing forgiveness from a stern and unloving Father, it is a case of a just and loving God the Father sending the Son to pay a debt and remove an obstacle that can only be removed by the death of a sinless individual who is himself God, and who, therefore, dies a death of infinite worth and effect. Nor is the aim of God’s work in sending his Son merely our acquittal, it is the re-establishment of a relationship, the restoration of fellowship with God.
The author of the Beliefnet article goes on to misrepresent Penal Substitutionary Atonement and erect a number of straw men in the process:
There are some limited verses that speak about Jesus’ death in relation to our sins, but they only point to Jesus’ death somehow being related to our sins, but not that His death was a substitute or penalty because of our sins. His death did not scrub us clean of the sins we would commit in the future, or give us a “free for all” pass to do whatever we wanted. His death is not an excuse for our sins, which the “penal substitutionary atonement” alludes to.
I don’t know of anyone who says that Christ’s death scrubs us clean of the sins we would commit in the future, or gives us a “free pass for all” to do whatever we want. And the death of Christ is not an “excuse for our sins,” nor does Penal Substitutionary Atonement” allude to it. This is a straw man, a total mischaracterization of what the theory teaches.
But in making clear that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a correct and valid understanding of the Atonement’s effects, we are not saying that it is the only effect. In fact, the atoning death of Christ has numerous vectors. The Atonement of Christ is Satan-ward, ransoming fallen sinners from his captivity, as numerous Scriptures (Matt. 20:28, Gal. 3:13) and the early Fathers declare. It is sin-ward, expiating (driving out) our sins. It is man-ward, providing a moral influence in demonstrating the great love of God for us and applying Christ’s victory over death to us (Christus Victor). But, above all, it is God-ward, paying the penalty of the sins that separated us from God, and satisfying God’s justice and his love.
When Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin articulated a Penal Substitutionary view of the Atonement, they did not feel they were inventing something new, but that they were merely developing the straightforward implications of statements in the New Testament in a way that was consistent with the historic understanding of the Church.
Scholars, teachers, and preachers today may stress one aspect more than others, but they typically recognize the multiple facets of the atonement mentioned above. They nearly all hold that, in addition to taking the penalty for our sins, Jesus defeated death and the devil, sent the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower righteous living, enabled our adoption as sons and daughters of God, and provided a worthy moral example.
This broad inclusivity is consistent with the numerous New Testament passages cited above, which portray a rich picture of Christ’s work in reconciliation. Nevertheless, the Penal Substitutionary theory of the Atonement should not be dismissed, as certain contemporary authors are quick to do, but rather seen as an important and necessary demonstration of how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings reconciles fallen humanity, and indeed, all things to God.
The Catechism of the Anglican Church in North America, TO BE A CHRISTIAN:
An Anglican Catechism is explicit in teaching Penal Substitutionary Atonement when it speaks on the suffering and death of Jesus:
“he suffered under pontius pilate”
59. Why did Jesus suffer?
Jesus suffered as a sacrifice for our sins so that we could have peace with God, as prophesied in the Old Testament: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 52:13–53:12, see 53:5; John 1:29; Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:3–4)
60. In what ways did Jesus suffer?
On earth, the incarnate Son shared physically, emotionally, and spiritually in the temptations and sufferings common to all people, yet without sin. In his agony and desolation on the Cross, he uniquely suffered in my place for my sins and, in so doing, revealed God’s love and compassion for fallen and suffering humanity. (Psalm 22:1–24; Matthew 4:1–10; 27:26–50; Hebrews 4:14–16)
64. What did Jesus accomplish on the Cross?
Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures by dying on the Cross as a sacrifice for sin in obedience to his Father. He thereby showed the depth of the love of God for his fallen creation, satisfying the justice of God on our behalf and breaking the power of sin, Satan, and death. (Le viticus 23:18–21; Psalm 34:15–22; Colossians 2:13–15; Hebrews 10:11–14)
65. What does Jesus’ death mean for you?
Jesus bore my sins and died the death that I deserve, so that I could be saved from sin and eternal condemnation and reconciled to God. (Psalm 32:1–2; Isaiah 53:10–12; Matthew 20:28; Romans 5:8–10; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21)
Readers who are interested in meaning of Christ’s atonement would do well to read the excellent and exhaustive treatment of it here:
Another excellent treatment of the Reformed view of the Atonement is Derek Rishmawy’s article, The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement.