I’ve been asked to clarify my views on the atonement — and on penal substitutionary atonement, in particular — and I can easily understand the necessity for this, given the nature of the evangelism role. In that way, I’m thankful for being offered another chance to express where I’m coming from, and would welcome any response to what I’ve written. This brief treatment can’t be comprehensive by any means, so I’ll assume that you have these particular questions in mind:
Is penal substitution a valid atonement model for me?
Is it a controlling model, or one of many?
What should be included in a Gospel message or an invitation to faith?
And related, what constitutes saving faith?
Perhaps I can start with a personal story.
As a college student, I was at a church retreat one night, eyes closed in prayer. While the snow fell and packed lightly on the New Hampshire soil outside, I sat cross-legged on a thinly carpeted floor. My soul began to stir as a slideshow of images began to play in my mind. The first picture was a silhouette of a hill, with the skies backlit in layers of magenta, purple, and vermillion. The next picture zoomed in closer, to reveal three crosses standing near the top of the hill. The picture closed in, revealing a body on each cross. The next picture cropped in even closer on the centermost cross. Then the focus of next three images shifted around: the nail in his right wrist, the nail in his left wrist, the nail through his feet. And the slideshow ended on a final picture: the crown of thorns, digging into Jesus’s brow, with rivulets of blood streaming down his cheeks.
In sheer instinct, I literally fell facedown and whispered these four words under my breath, over and over:
Please, don’t kill me.
Intense, I know. But I also knew, deep in my soul, that I was unworthy to stand before a holy God. My litany of offenses, including deeds left undone or unimagined, would not stand before his justice — his need for everything to be made right.
After repeating that phrase at least a dozen times, I heard a voice say: “I did this for you.”
I stopped shaking. Everything became still. Fear disappeared. Joy rushed in. Tears steamed down my face, as love threatened to burst my heart wide open. The sense of forgiveness, palpable. Worship came easily.
That story speaks of a long-held truth: God designed us and all things for good. But we all decided that God shouldn’t run the show. We wanted to be in charge. And in our arrogance, we’ve sinned and continue to sin. We’re bent toward evil, since we are all damaged by it and continue to contribute to the mess. By our deeds, both done and undone, we deserve death. God’s justice demands it. Yet, in his mercy, though we deserved to be punished, he took on our sin and died in our place. He died instead of me. Only through Jesus — and his cross and resurrection — is this possible. We are forgiven because our penalty has been paid.
To ignore penal substitution is to ignore the justice of God. He hates evil, oppression, and injustice. He’s vehemently against it when it happens to us, and is rightfully against it when we contribute to it. We are always a part of it — from the evil urges that swirl in each of our hearts to the unjust systems that swirl around us — and it will all find judgment in the end. God’s sense of justice gives us hope for a world made right in the Kingdom come. In the divine courtroom, we all stand guilty. But since our penalty is paid, we walk free and the court decides in our favor — justified. Guilt and shame are stripped away. We are forgiven.
And, to God’s glory, it doesn’t stop there.
He doesn’t just die for the penalty of our sins, although he does. One image isn’t enough to talk about the cosmic scope and central hope of the cross and resurrection. He also died to break the power of sin and death in our lives, and to break the power of sin and death in our relationships, our communities and in the world. Jesus doesn’t merely take care of the penalty of our sins, but also to deal with sin itself. If Jesus died merely for the penalty of our sins, then we need not change. But if he breaks the power of sin and death within us, then we can’t help but change in the power of His Spirit. Sin and death no longer have the final say. A new life and a new world are possible. Not only is this good news for those who are truly suffering, but we can also be a part of God’s healing, in us and through us. Yes, Jesus died for me, but he also died for us and the world. And though he died for us, in him, we also have died on the cross, and in him, we also live in his resurrection.
The shedding of his blood is a sacrifice, atoning for our sins. It’s a pleasant and fragrant offering, offered once and for all, appeasing the righteous anger of a holy God.
He reconciles us to each other, through his blood shed on the cross. The cross actually puts hostility, between people and people groups, to death. Reconciliation is now possible, because of what Jesus did on the cross. His forgiveness wasn’t meant to be hoarded, but was meant to be spread around. Because we are forgiven, we can forgive others.
There are other images in Scripture. All of them speak of the enormous scope of what happened on the cross and in his resurrection. Colossians 1:19-20 is a crucial Gospel text: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” All things. Not just individuals, but also relationships and systems. All of it can be made new.
Each of these biblical images, on its own, gives us a picture of what Jesus did on the cross and in his resurrection. But each picture alone is incomplete. No one metaphor can explain everything that Jesus did. And to grow as apprentices of Jesus, we must study and embrace them all. In fact, we’ll never be done studying all of them in a lifetime. Each of these pictures stands as a doorway into the larger house of atonement. And it is the theological task to hang out in each of the rooms, to study the implications that these biblical images have on our theological models throughout our lifetimes — to grow as heralds of the Gospel.
Yet when it comes to the rhetorical task for sharing the Gospel, however, we may choose any one of these doors. The Scriptures themselves do this: Jesus chose to talk about the Kingdom of God — it’s governmental language. Paul hinted at the courtroom’s justification in Romans and Galatians. He wrote on the marketplace’s redemption in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, of being bought from slavery to freedom. He communicated about the family’s reconciliation in Romans, Ephesians, and in a cosmic way, Colossians. In military language, Paul writes of Jesus’ victory in Romans and 1 Corinthians. The author of Hebrews lands heavily on the temple imagery of sacrifice. The point is, Jesus and Paul themselves don’t use every metaphor at their disposal for every call to faith — and they often don’t use each other’s — though they are communicating the same good news! Each of the images has their unique strengths and weaknesses in communicating the gospel in certain contexts of culture, ethnicity, gender, economics and worldview.
So, to be even plainer:
I heartily affirm penal substitution as a biblical and necessary atonement model, and that it offers a biblical, unique and necessary understanding of what happened on the cross. Without it, God’s sense of justice is compromised, weakening what God is doing in us and in what he’s doing in the world — making all things new. It is a key component in understanding our personal, individual relationship with God, and the sense of forgiveness is absolutely freeing for those who are heavy-laden with guilt and shame.
I heartily affirm the necessity of other atonement metaphors found explicitly in Scripture. To add to the courtroom language of justification (Romans 5:1-21, etc.), other biblical metaphors include marketplace language of redemption (Ephesians 1:3-14, etc.), the temple language of expiation (Hebrews 10:1-18, etc.), the familial language of reconciliation (Ephesians 2:11-22, etc.), and the military language of victory (1 Corinthians 15:12-57, etc.). None of these metaphors, in and of itself, is complete. Each of these biblical metaphors and subsequent theological models highlights a unique and crucial aspect of atonement — and together, they help us understand the enormous scope of what Jesus did on the cross and through his resurrection.
Since none of these biblical metaphors or theological models deal comprehensively with Jesus’ death and resurrection on its own, any one of these biblical metaphors (or a combination of them) may be used to share the Gospel or make invitations of faith. For example, in proclaiming the Gospel, Jesus used the government language of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15, etc.). The Gospels, Acts and Paul’s letters show a variety of ways sharing the good news, and inviting people to faith. But after someone responds to one of these invitations to become an apprentice of Jesus, the other atonement metaphors and models are not only helpful, but also crucial, in grasping a fuller picture what Jesus did on the cross and in his resurrection.
In it all, the cross and the resurrection must remain absolutely central — in timing and in importance — within the arc of redemptive history (Colossians 1:15-20).
Lastly, any invitation to follow Jesus must call for repentance (metanoia, “change of mind”) and belief (pistis, “to place your trust in,” Mark 1:14-15). This kind of response — one that proclaims Jesus as Lord and Savior — is saving faith. Discipleship must follow this kind of response — one of complete surrender — which is the result of placing our trust in Jesus, so that we can continue to learn and do what Jesus did for the reasons he did them.
Please let me know if you have further comments, questions or concerns. But for now, thank you again for the chance to express where I’m coming from.
** I’m indebted to Dr. Rick Richardson, who helped me understand the difference between the theological and the rhetorical task of the Gospel.