I'm reading through the book The Atonement Debate
which is a collection of essays by evangelical theologians who gathered together at a symposium hosted by the Evangelical Alliance
and the London School of Theology
to debate the pros and cons of penal substitution in the wake of the recent controversy in Europe sparked by a comment by Steve Chalke in his book The Lost Message of Jesus
that was critical of the doctrine.
In this post I want to address the chapter by Garry Williams entitled "Penal Substitution: A Response to Recent Criticisms". Williams begins by addressing a criticism raised by Steve Chalke: that it would be inconsistent for God to command us not to practice retribution, if God made retribution the center point of his redemptive work in Jesus. Chalke sums up his position saying that "I for one believe that God practices what he preaches". Williams in response argues that God does
in fact have a right to act differently than humans do. He appeals to Paul's argument in Romans 12 where he urges us not to practice retribution, but to leave that to God.
Williams is, I think, right in saying that God is not subject to the same rules as humans are. God can judge in a way that no human can. God has a right to demand our worship in a way that no human does. So Williams makes a valid point here generally. However, while we cannot take everything God does is a model for human behavior (since we are not God), the cross is presented in the New Testement specifically as a model for ethical behavior
. So we can and should take the message of the cross as a model of how we should act. Paul grounds his teaching on ethics in Philipians on our imitaion of the way of the cross. Jesus also calls us to "take up our cross" and follow him. If, as Williams insists, the central message of the cross is a demonstration and affirmation of retribution, this would mean that retribution is being set forth as a model of human interaction. If the "way of the cross" is the "way of retribution" then we are called to follow in that way. Since we clearly are not
called to practice retribution in the New Testament, retribution is not the "way of the cross".
Secondly, Williams in championing retribution seems to be missing the larger point of the gospel. Even if we do accept that divine retribution is justified and right, and that we as sinful humans are headed towards that judement, this by itself is by no defintion the "gospel". The gospel is a way to avoid
that retribution, a way for God to not
send us to Hell. The whole point of the gospel is that the economy of quid pro quo justice, of get what you deserve, of sewing and reaping is superseded by the superior economy of grace where God acts, despite the fact that we have not earned it, to save us, heal us, and set us free. I am sure that Williams agrees with all of this, but his focus on retribution seems to loose sight of the larger perspective of salvation and grace.
This is not simply a matter of semantics. Williams, in focusing his soteriology seemingly exclusivly on the idea of retribution leaves no room for the idea of sanctification. As Williams puts it, the only problem is the need for punishment. Once that punishment is "exhasted" on Christ, Williams says, the "obstacle" to new life is removed. In other words, there is no objective onological problem of sin in people that needs to be healed, the problem is with God. Here I think Williams gets it backwards. If God is angry at sin, it is because sin is a real problem. Remove the problem by healing the sin, and you remove the cause of God's righteous anger. So God acts in Christ to heal, to cleanse, to renew, to sanctifiy, to liberate, to make us new, thus addressing the problem of sin which is our
The papradigm here is a medical one. If a person is sick they need a doctor. That is precisly the reason Jesus gives of why he has come to seek sinners: they are sick and need a doctor. If salvation is framed however only in terms of retribution, then the entire idea that sin is a problem that needs to be healed is simply lost. Sin becomes only an act that needs punishment, and once that punishment is taken care of, the problem just vanishes. This strikes me as a very shallow understanding of the depths of human brokenness. There are real consequences to us hurting and being hurt. Deep and profound consequences. We might even describe them as a kind of "retribution" flowing out of that action, as Williams does. But the task of salvation is for God to break that vicious cycle, to set us free from that bondage, to heal our brokenness, to make us new and clean again. That's a perspective that allows for the reality of so called "divine retribution" (and we do need to be very cautious of such phrasings as they can easily evoke a picture of sinful and petty human anger), but views it in its proper perspective within the larger picture of God's redemptive work. Simply put, it is the dilema, not the solution. The solution is grace, which is a creative, restorative, transformative, action
of God, not an inaction.