penal substitution and being born again

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 justification: 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.

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Penal Substitution AND Christus Victor?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Dave sent me an email with some challenging questions regarding my article “ Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor” that I thought it might be interesting to answer in a blog. So here we go. I'll put Dave's questions in bold.

I read your article "Penal Substitution V Christus Victor" with interest. It is a very stimulating document. However -can I challenge you to engage more with what those advocating Penal Substitution are and are not arguing. There are a few things worth considering.

First the literature around -worth considering the old classic The Cross of Christ -John Stott and of course more recently Sach Ovey and Jeffry, Pierced for our transgression. Also Tom Wright's support for Penal Subsitution. Certainly the line would be not CV v PSA but rather PSA and CV togethr helping to give a full picture.

I have read Stott's book many times. It is certainly a classic as far as PS goes. I have also read “Pierced for Our Transgressions” and thought that was in contrast very poorly researched. I think they completely misrepresent for example the positions of people like Augustine and Athanasius. NT Wright has had some pretty negative things to say about this book. For what its worth, I have also spoken with NT Wright personally about PS, and he actually rejects it while embracing substitutionary atonement understood within the context of CV.

Let me mention a few other books on the side of PS that I found quite good. “The Glory of Penal Substitution” has quite a few good papers in it worth reading. I particularly liked the one by Van Hoozer. Packer's article “The Logic of Penal Substitution” is brilliant (and available online). Leon Morris “Apostolic Preaching” has some phenomenal research in it. Then there are people like PT Forsyth and James Denney who have some great stuff too.

One thing here that crystallizes with reading Forsyth, Denney, Van Hoozer, and Packer is that a great deal of the criticisms that are made of PS have also been made by people advocating PS too. So it is possible to embrace PS and at the same time be critical of its more legalistic and “crude” expressions. The question then becomes: what would a sophisticated and grace centered version of PS look like as opposed to a legalistic one?

This is perhaps best captured by Packer's now famous quote
“…Jesus Christ our Lord moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement for which we were otherwise inescapably destined and so won us forgiveness adoption and glory.”


Great quote. Do you recall where Packer said this?

It may surprise you to hear that, as it stands, I would agree with the above quote. I would want to refine and clarify a few points I am sure, but I will say that I do think that substitutionary atonement (which is a broader term than PS) is the linchpin of the entire atonement – the means of our redemption.


Where I would want to tweak the above statement is the phrase “endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement”. I do not think that the God needed to “get his anger out of his system” by punishing someone, even if that someone was himself. I would say instead that wrath is averted through our purification, or in technical terms that propitiation happens through expiation. Remove the sin (expiation) and you remove the cause of judgement (propitiation). Expiation is the key concept here in the atonement – our transformation and purification through Christ's blood.


So with that in mind can we say that Christ endured the judgement and death that humanity was due? Absolutely. The question is why? For what reason? That's where I think PS gets it wrong. The reason is expiation.


Key things there

1. Moved by a love... -this is language of love. It is an uncharitable nonsense to suggest that "In Satisfaction-Doctrine love is not central, but viewed with suspicion." I appreciate my language is strong there -but we have got to be right when we talk about what people believe.


Yes, love does need to be seen as the motivating factor. Some (for example Emil Brunner) have instead stressed that the need to fulfill the demands of justice or moral law was the key factor. I disagree, and so do people like Packer and Denney.


I's say that most Evangelicals who embrace PS do so because they see the love and grace of God in that he would endure suffering out of love for us. This is something I certainly would embrace as well. The problem is that many other people hearing the stress on God demanding punishment have gotten the opposite impression which has lead them to a hurtful image of God that damages their trust and can keep them from grace. Beyond any theological issues, I think this is the key issue: how can we present the Gospel and atonement so that people hear the message of a loving and just God they can trust? At least on a popular level (and often on an academic level as well) this has been quite problematic with PS because people are often more concerned with defending doctrine than they are with communicating grace (and here I will resist naming names, but I can unfortunately think of quite a few). I do want to stress also that I do not mean to imply that you are doing this at all. On the contrary, I greatly appreciated the generous and irenic tone in your post.


If it is as Aulen would say about reconciliation between God and man -then it is our relationship to him. Is sin simply the thing that oppresses us? What about the sense in which we identify with those who killed Jesus -those who are hostile to God.


I think you may be misunderstanding Aulen here (which may be my fault). He would say that the cross is primarily about our redemption (deliverance) by God from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil not of reconciliation (forgivness) between God and humanity. In that context he speaks of a “doublesidedness” where we are at the same time the victim of sin – its captive – and are guilty and culpable because it is our sin that has led us into this bondage. So we have humans as being both victims and perpetrators, needing to be liberated/ransomed/redeemed and reconciled/forgiven.

Christus Victor in opposition to Penal Substitution places us in a difficult position because -we are the ones who should be defeated by his victory.


I agree and disagree here.

I disagree in that I'd say our “defeat” is a necessary part of the atonement in that our sin and we are overcome and in that our identity is transformed from being a “son of perdition” to a son or daughter of God. Our enmity is defeated.


I would agree that a full view would need to see the themes of substitution and ransom rather together rather than as opposed, but would say that because PS and CV are essentially incompatible this merger, this would need to be in the form of CV together with an incarnational understanding of substitutionary atonement.


We need of course to bring other elements to bear -especially the idea of faith union.


Yes! I would argue here that the way to understand substitutionary atonement is not in terms of satisfaction of punishment or propitiation of wrath, but as recapitulation – God enters into our wretchedness, lostness, suffering, sickness, and sin and as us representationally overcomes death and hell in rising from the dead. In dying and rising as us (representationally, incarnation ally) Christ makes it possible for us to die and rise in Christ as well so that we are made holy through our union with him, us in Christ and Christ in us transforming us through an indwelling personal relationship with God.


Thanks for the challenging questions, and I hope you find some edification here in my response as well.


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