In Praise of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

1 Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no [stately] form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. 3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 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. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. 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?] 9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. 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. 12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa 53:1-12 NASB)

2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for [those of] the whole world. (1Jo 2:2 NASB)

3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:3 NASB)

21 He made Him who knew no sin [to be] sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21 NASB)

18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, [the] just for [the] unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; (1Pe 3:18 NASB)

13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. (Col 2:13-15 NASB)

45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mar 10:45 NASB)

25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. [This was] to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; (Rom 3:25 NASB)

8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8 NASB)

1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (1Co 15:1-3 NASB)

Penal Substitution is Biblical

That is a lot of verses. I think it important to make the point that the idea that Christ died for our sins is the bedrock of the Biblical message. He rendered Himself a guilt offering. It satisfied justice – He is just and the justifier (Romans 3:26).

If that was my only point, I think that would be enough. Penal substitution may be twisted and crazified in some circles, but it is genuinely Biblical and it must be taken seriously. Perhaps many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of a wrathful God, so we come up with notions of atonement that slide around that issue. But these notions also seem to slide around the need for justice. God does not transgress justice in order to be kind – He’s much better than that. God does not slide around justice – grace is not simply letting people “get away with it.” There is no love without justice. When you are harmed by someone else’s sin, God in His great love for you is passionate about saying NO, this will not stand.

But You Don’t Understand!

Some might say, “you are not understanding the nuance of the Christus Victor atonement!” Whatever. The scriptures seem very clear. To be frank, “Christus Victor” atonement is a confusing mess of theological posing however I’ve ever heard it explained. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand any of these explanations because they aren’t ultimately true. That long list of scriptures is just a tiny smattering of the verses that could be quoted in support of penal substitution atonement. Penal substitution is the root message of the book of Romans, the book of Hebrews, the book of 1 John, and many other passages. Isaiah is brimming with prophetic references to Christ’s atoning sacrifice as a penal substitution. One begins to wonder if a position is truly orthodox if it tends to marginalize the main message of the book of Romans.

The Real Power of Sin, Consequence, and Justice

There is another deeper idea here though. We are talking about atonement. If we are estranged from God, it is not God who has left us. We left God. The problem is on our side. So if God is going to do something to solve that, He does not need to address His own problem – He doesn’t have a problem. We have the problem. God has to reach through our sins and our misunderstandings and our ignorance. So let’s throw a dog a bone and pretend that God isn’t a wrathful vengeful being and can actually create justice ex nihilo without wrath, justice, or blood sacrifice. Would we fallen creatures, in our own minds imprisoned by the goodness of the law under our own fallen consciences, be able to accept that? Would we be able to count that as justice, really? It seems to me that it would be a cheap, small, and fragile grace. It would be an atonement that we could not trust, an atonement without gravitas or cost. Consider that when the history of heaven and earth comes to a screeching halt because no one is found worthy to open the scroll, it is Jesus Christ’s propitiatory death that counts him worthy apart from all other beings (Rev 5:2-3, 9).

The God of Our Worst Fear

Instead of this toothless grace, God in His great kindness presents in the Gospel a God who is our worst fear: a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and thoroughly righteous! A God who rightly stands ready to address our wrongs down to the most granular warp and woof of our very moment-to-moment experience at the root of our souls. A God who stands at the threshold of our ultimate destiny and says to us, you are not qualified and you damn well know it! A God who rightly says, “depart from me, I never knew you.” If there is good and right and justice at the root of things, and we all hope there is, it is a problem, because we don’t belong in that universe.

The Wrath of God is Kindness????

And how, pray tell, is this a kindness? Because this is what we really think about God! He is not addressing the fears in Himself. He has no fear. He is addressing the fears in us. We are the ones who doubt His kindness. The gospel says, the meanest and most coldly just God you can imagine cannot condemn you because of Christ’s blood. This is what atonement is all about. “At-One-Ment” means we are restored to God. God doesn’t need restoring. He needs to convince us in the face of our terrible sense of conscience and justice that He is resolutely kind towards us. He has to convince us through costly means that He is just AND the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). He has to address our fears at our worst to save us. It is not our joyous best which is our true identity and we all kind of know it down deep. But God knows this and has saved us despite all of our ridiculous posing and pretending and masking of our deep fears.

Can God Just Get Over It Already?!

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they suddenly gained the notion that God was going to be angry and would destroy them. Their efforts at covering this sin were not effectual; fig leaves are not bloody and violent and did not really cover their guilt or address their own fear that the consequences of their indulgence should be and would be death (Gen 2:16-17). But God atoned their sin by providing a bloody and violent consequence that substituted for their own violent blood (Genesis 3:21). The substitute addressed their own fears. God did not simply say, “I laid down the law with that forbidden fruit, but really, it doesn’t matter! What a silly thing to quibble over! I just love you no matter what, your actions really have no consequence at all. Don’t worry about it!” He didn’t say that. God maintained the law more than they did, for them. His covering addressed their genuine fears, instead of just dismissing them and leaving them unaddressed.

We don’t need atonement for a kindly toothless God who has no wrath and cares nothing for justice. Some theologians are trying to sell us a cheap grace by saying God is not wrathful and by extension will not uphold the law. But this idea does NOT address the inward voice of our conscience that knows the real truth: we’re bad and we’re rightly screwed. The voice within us that was born at the forbidden tree (https://thereforenow.com/2011/04/two-kinds-of-good/) says we’ve done wrong and we won’t get away with it. That voice is strong in us, and regardless of how you try to explain it away, it demands a penalty. Any form of “atonement” that does not address this voice leaves the possibility of our condemnation on the table.

The Power of Propitiation

So the simple clear ubiquitous teaching of scripture on the atonement says there is a penalty and it has been visited upon another, upon God’s beloved Son. Real atonement through a propitiation in His blood says, you really are very guilty, and there really are consequences, and Jesus Christ has saved your soul at great cost. Jesus did not simply “triumph” over sin and death, because however great that might be, my conscience tells me that the victory might be right for Him and possibly for some others, but it is not for me. This kind of theology is really just sewing fig leaves when what we need is a real penalty, a real consequence visited upon our wrongs. Jesus was rendered sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yes, Jesus died for our sins, and it worked. Justice is preserved, yet there is mercy. Justice and mercy have kissed in the cross of Christ (Psalm 85:10).

How Then Shall We Live?

What does this mean for us? It means that your worst fears about yourself are richly true, and that your condemnation is just. It also means that your salvation is strong and deep and rich and true and will last forever and ever. The final say about you is not the good and terrifying voice of your conscience against you – it is the word of God, Christ crucified for your sins. You are really saved. God is rich in mercy and lavish in grace. If you were so evil that you killed God’s only beloved Son, He would forgive you and raise from the dead in unyielding powerful kindness that you could not ever hope to resist! You do not deserve it, but God has rendered you to be deserving because of His great salvation. Rejoice my beautiful friends!

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God [is] for us, who [is] against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring charges against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, but rather, was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? [Will] tribulation, or trouble, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? Rom 8:31-35 NASB20

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