Thursday, January 24, 2008
While Penal substitution has been the predominant theory of the atonement among Evangelicals such as my self, it in fact does not coincide with an Evangelical understanding of the new birth which has to do not only with a legal change in our relationship, but far more with regeneration: the renewal of our very being - God's act of giving us new life, a new birth. John Wesley writes,
While Penal substitution has been the predominant theory of the atonement among Evangelicals such as my self, it in fact does not coincide with an Evangelical understanding of the new birth which has to do not only withjustification:
a legal change in our relationship, but far more with regeneration: the renewal of our very being - God's act of giving us new life, a new birth. John Wesley writes,
“Justification implies only a relative, the new birth a real, change. God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, he does the work in us. The former changes our outward relation to God, so that of enemies we become children; by the latter our inmost souls are changed, so that of sinners we become saints. The one restores us to the favor, the other to the image, of God.”
What Wesley here is addressing is the contrast between the doctrine of justification that had been developed under Lutheran orthodoxy post-Luther which focused on a mere legal change, justification understood as acquittal. In contrast, beginning with German Pietism, and then through both Methodist and Reform channels we have the flowering of Evangelicalism which returned the focus to the need to be born again leading to waves of revivals in the First and Second Great Awakening. Simply put, this idea of justification going together with regeneration was and is at the very core of Evangelical faith then and now.
Luther himself underwrites this interpretation of the Gospel in his Preface to the Book of Romans. Luther decries an understanding of faith with “no betterment of life or works that follow it” as merely a detached theoretical human faith “that never reaches the depths of the heart” and contrasts this with genuine faith which he describes as “a divine work of God in us” that “changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (Jn 1:3)". This faith, Luther says, “kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men of us in heart and spirit. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith, and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly.”
Simply put: At the very heart of Evangelical faith is the idea of being born again. Regeneration and justification together constitute a proper Evangelical understanding of salvation. Therefore an Evangelical understanding of the Atonement needs to address both the issue of justification and regeneration. Any theory that addresses only part, is an incomplete theory that does not present the full Gospel.
Penal substitution on its own only addresses justification, but not regeneration. It speaks of what God does not do to us (he does not punish), but it says nothing of what he does do in us to make us a new creation. So even if we accept that one of the things that happened on the cross is that Christ took the penalty on our behalf, the atonement means much much more. Penal substitution on its own is at best a half-Gospel. Simply being aquitted is not enough if we are “dead in our sins” as Paul says. We need to be made alive, to be born again. So the question that remains unaddressed by penal substitution is: “how does God work that new life in us through the atonement?” At the very least one would need to combine penal substitution with other theories which can account for how regeneration is achieved in the atonement. Solely on its own penal substitution only explains what God does externally for us in the cross, but not what he does in us.
So why is it that despite the clear teaching within Evangelicalism for the need to be born again, we have adopted an understanding of the Atonement that does not reflect this? It is interesting that Wesley while he re-thought what salvation was about, adding the idea of regeneration to justification did not do the same with the Atonement. Instead he simply adopted the traditional penal view of his church. Like Luther, he was a practiical theologian rather than a systematic one. As a result he did not follow things to their logical conclusions, but simply focused on his one core message. It is the task of those who follow to continue along that path, and to ask how the idea of substitution may be understood in terms of how the Christ-event makes it possible for us to be born again.