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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At 8:04 PM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Have you considered the strain of thought that being born again *is* having faith (trust) in God? To say the same thing the other way around, that the new birth shows itself exactly as trust God and is comprised exactly of trust in God?

On this line of thought: Christ's life, death, and resurrection show God's faithfulness. Anyone who recognizes God's faithfulness is said to "have faith", since this is what "faith" is: recognizing God's faithfulness. So Christ's incarnation, life, death, and resurrection do not merely make possible some theory about atonement. They actually accomplish that reconciliation.

If you're interested in reading more of that line of thought, Gerhard Forde's _Where God Meets Man_ might be a decent place to start.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,

I like the idea of trust, but am not sure I am really following you here. Could you elaborate?

Or maybe I could ask: having faith (trust) in God for what? What is God faithful about specifically in relation to the new birth?

Look forward to learning more about your perspective.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Derek

On this line of thought, "trust in God for what" is the second question, not the first, so if I'm going to expound I need to start by backing up one.

"Trust in God?" is the ultimate question of religion. And here the first question isn't "trust God for x, y, or z", but more like -- did you see National Treasure, the first one? There's a scene where Nicholas Cage drops his girlfriend over a chasm. He'd just said, "Do you trust me?" That comes closer to describing the kind of trust I'm talking about, when I talk about "faith". It's not trust with an object somehow beyond the person (or Person) in question, trust him for x, for y, for z. It's a trust that latches directly onto the person you're talking about: Do you trust him? Unqualified trust.

And once there's that unqualified trust, it follows that trust in God will also involve trust in his intentions towards you, trust in his redemption, trust in his word, trust in his promises. But these are derivative of that main trust: the "Do you trust me?" which attaches not to some action that God has promised, but to God himself.

Trusting God on this level is only possible through the cross. It *creates* that kind of faith whereby we see Christ as our brother and therefore God as our Father. The cross itself restores that broken relationship. Consider that the original fall was primarily a loss of trust in God.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 7:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with all you say about trust, but am not yet following how it relates to the new birth. Specifically the aspect of how we were "dead in sin" but "made alive in Christ" as a "new creation". It seems that this particular "biological" metaphor picks up an aspect that the relational trust metaphor does not (although your idea of unconditional trust comes as close as is possible I think). I see them coinciding, but would want to retain both. It seems however that we may be saying very much the same thing. I just like having multiple ways to say it. The trust image is difficult because our trust relationship with God is on a more fundamental level than we can have with any human - God is the one in whom we "live and move and have our being". Our source of life.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

I think the regeneration comes in at the cross. I think it is not merely a metaphor but a spiritual reality that we die with Christ and are raised with Christ.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, when I say "metaphor" I mean a way of speaking of something real in analogy - saying "it is like this". Metaphors if they do not connect to the real are meaningless of course.


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