Taking the Low Road – Penalties and Substitutions

5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. … 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? … 10 But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. – Isaiah 53:5-6, 8, 10-11 NASB

24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:24-25 NASB

8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. – Romans 5:8-9 NASB

Penalties vs. Victories

There is quite a disagreement brewing in the church around the notion of atonement. It seems the two main ideas are the “old school” idea of penal substitution, and the new kid on the block, Christus Victor. Here is a nice definition of Christus Victor atonement:

The idea is this: Christ is victor. Christ in his death and resurrection overcame over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection, those powers variously understood as the devil, sin, the law, and death. While the model assumes humanity’s guilt for getting ourselves into this predicament—beginning with the original sin of Adam and Eve—the theory’s anthropology (view of humanity) emphasizes not our guilt but our victimhood, at least the way it is often discussed today. – Mark Galli,

To be sure, I don’t think that this is completely untrue. Jesus did overcome hostile powers that hold us in subjection. However, I don’t think it is an atonement theory, and I certainly don’t think it replaces or stands in opposition to penal substitutionary atonement. I think it is simply another wonderful thing that flows from penal substitutionary atonement. I think you’d really have to have serious reading comprehension problems if you think the Bible doesn’t extensively teach penal substitution or that Christus Victor is more biblical. Indeed there are a few verses like this one that seem to indicate a Christus Victor perspective:

15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. – Colossians 2:15 NASB

If you look at the context of these verses, they are actually rooted in context to a penal substitutionary framework. If you are truly unconvinced, this article makes an excellent case:

Penalties for the Heart

However, I am not trying to prove that penal substitution is Biblical. I think that it is abundantly clear that the Bible teaches penal substitution on virtually every page. I don’t think people’s objection to penal substitutionary atonement is really based on too little Bible study. I think it is an emotional reaction – this is really a discussion about God’s genuine goodness. So I want to make the case from a philosophical, and perhaps an emotional perspective. I want to give your conscience muster to wholeheartedly embrace the Biblical position of penal substitution.

I often ask people if, when they go ziplining, they would rather have a zipline that is just barely strong enough to hold their weight, or if they want a zipline that is far more than strong enough to hold their weight many times over. Of course we want the stronger zipline. Yet in our spirituality and beliefs, we act as though we prefer the weaker zipline. Many people make the mistake of thinking that God is pleased with them when they are doing really well with their moral life, and is poised to reject them when they are failing. Though we profess belief in the gospel of grace, we many times functionally live as if we believe in moralism. Clearly the problem with this is that it is a very fragile and conditional hope. I want to know that God is committed to me when I am bad – that He loves me while I am yet a sinner (Romans 5:8). I want to know that God loves me at my worst, and not just at my best. The worth of a doctor is not proven when the patient is well, but when the patient is sick. If God only forgives and accepts when all is well, that isn’t really anything worth believing at all.

Reverse Atonement

Well, I think this works the other way too. God has provided atonement, not just for our kindest and best and highest view of God, but for our harshest and most fearful view of God. Notice that this may or may not have anything to do with how God actually is. I believe that if God does not have wrath, it means that He does not love deeply and does not care about injustice. I also am assured that some of His wrath is tied to my genuine guilt. But atonement is for us as well as for God, if it is to be a true atonement. If it turns out that God really is a God of wrath, or if it is simply true that I have a suspicion that He is a God of wrath, I don’t want an atonement that only works if He is a pushover and is weak on sin and retributive justice. I am not looking for a “barely enough” grace – I am looking for lavish grace. I don’t want that suspicion hanging over my head for eternity. Penal substitution doesn’t just achieve justice if I have been rehabilitated or if I have paid back my debt or if I have repented deeply enough. Even if I could promise those things, they are of no avail anyway – it’s like a murderer trying to make up for his murder by repenting of his murderous past. It could never be enough. Penal substitution assumes that the most medieval schoolyard view of retributive justice holds true, and a great penalty has been expressed, so that we can be assured that we have been saved to the uttermost.

25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:25-27 ESV

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  1. So, what do you think of Fleming Rutledge’s sophisticated attempts to avoid the penal in substitution?

    Rutledge—The penal substitution theory, which was an unfortunate development in late 18th- and early 19th-century Protestantism… was overwrought and overly rationalized and taught in a way that sabotaged the unity of the Trinity [as if the Son were placating the wrath of the Father]. It is not in the spirit of the Passion narratives

    Ruteldge—Does judgment involve punishment? Well, maybe. We certainly think of it that way in our courtrooms. But I don’t hear much in the Old Testament about punishment…. In Isaiah, we read that the chastisement was laid upon him, yes. It’s imaginative, though. We’re not asked to imagine punishment. We’re asked to imagine this miraculous thing that is happening in the gift of the Servant, who is being put to death.

    So you don’t believe the Cross is just a declaration of our righteousness.

    It’s not an amnesty. This is why I talk about the inadequacy of forgiveness as a theme. God is not going to just forgive sin; he is going to do something about it. The sin, the error, the evil is to be wiped out and erased from memory. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. This calls for a much stronger word than forgiveness.

    Are we mistaken to think that New Testament writers, when they sum up the gospel, often use the word forgiveness to do so?

    We have to be careful about that. Luke does that, but Paul does not. The Gospel of Luke is justifiably beloved. We would be terribly impoverished without it. But at the same time, Paul needs to be the lens through which we read Luke and not the other way around, because Paul is more radical

    mark–In my opinion, at the end of the day, she is more interested in attacking “memorial societies” (which she thinks is a criticism of assemblies which look back to the cross in terms of law-satisfaction) and promoting the idea of the need of ordained preachers to make “the living body of Christ” actually distribute grace. Even though Rutledge teaches that divine love causes Jesus to come to be a sinner with other sinners. she functions with an ecclesiology in which that love is distribute through sacrament and ordination.

    Paul Zahl (a short systematic)— God become flesh in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago, but where is he now? He is “present in his absence. ”Jesus is not present among us in the same way that he was bodily present to his disciples two thousand years ago. His ascension brings us an experience of absence, despite our Lord’s promise to be present with us to the end of the age.. The hidden-ness of God is grounded in the creator’s free decision to hide himself in the world he has made.

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