Atonements Debate: A Response to Recent Criticisms

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

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 problem.

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.

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At 1:05 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Awesome post, Derek. The logic in the third paragraph blew me away, bro. In the last paragraph you address the "punishment" as a shallow understanding of the gravity of sin. I completely agree, but what is odd is how often people like you and I are accused of not comprehending the gravity of sin within our framework. Strange indeed.

I was recently conversing with a bud about Christus Victor and his immediate response was to be very grieved. I pressed him further and his response was, "Any time you start to take away from the power of the Blood I'm going to be weary," and proceeded to quote, "...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9.22b NIV).

I did talk about trying to carry the position through to the fullness of its implications, which, to me, includes the possibility that God did not NEED Jesus to die in order to forgive us (He does so by His grace simply because He is gracious), but that Jesus died in order to release us from our marriage to sin, death, and the devil.

What do you think about that? I still affirm that Jesus "died for my sin," but within aforementioned context. Am I wrong to understand it this way? What do you make of the Hebrews verse?

One more thing, Boyd had a post about an interesting encounter he had with a penal sub guy that gave him a different spin on penal sub than Boyd (and I, and probably you) was used to hearing. Read it at

What do you think?

At 9:03 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Zack,

I would say that while the issue of forgiveness on a human level is about our "letting it go" that this is not the case with God's forgiveness. God clearly was willing to love us without the cross. That is why "while we were his enemies" God "so loved the world...". The issue of forgiveness with God is about our healing. Forgiveness is a creative act of God that imparts new life (regeneration). So the issue is that without that new life, that healing, we are dead in our sin. God does not want this because he loves us, and so acts to change us. So God's action in Christ are needed because without them there would be no cleansing of sin, and no new birth.

In regards to the passage in Hebrews, this is a partial quote. The entire verse is "the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Showing that the context (and indeed the entire context of Hebrews) is that the purpose of the blood in the temple sacrifice was to cleanse sin. Without our being cleansed by the blood of Christ there is no forgiveness.

I had read the Boyd post earlier. From the post, I don't think I agree, but perhaps if I spoke with him longer I might. I would say that it is not about appeasing wrath, but overcoming it.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

The Hebrews quote was partial, but intentionally so. I (and my friend) both understand the context in which the quote is given, but this verse gives me trouble with affirming (along with you) that God didn't "need" the cross to forgive us. I'm sure you're addressing this, but I'm just not seeing your solution so plainly. Elaborate on it for me if you don't mind.

Which POV are you not agreeing with in the Boyd post? The POV of the penal sub guy (as not truly representative of penal sub) or of Boyd affirming this "other" penal sub view along with him? The question in the article wasn't so much "appease" vs. "overcome," but the object of the wrath as Jesus Himself or sin.

I agree that Jesus overcame sin, but I have a hard time with the concept of Him overcoming God's wrath. It doesn't make much sense to me to say that Jesus "overcame" God's wrath. It seems to put them at odds with one another. Maybe this isn't what you're saying though...

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

BTW, do you Twitter?

At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

No I have a severe allergic reaction to Twitter :)

What I am saying re: Hebrews is that the issue is ultimately our need for sanctification. God sanctifies us through the Christ event. Without it we would not be sanctified. It's not about God's subjective disposition towards us (which is love, prior to the cross), but the objective problem of sin in us that needs to be addressed. Could God call us sanctified without our being sanctified? No. So did God need to act to give us new life? Yes. The means that God chose was the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. In that sense God's salvic act is needed, but to say that God "needs it" changes the focus away from addressing our needed healing, liberation, and transformation, and makes it about effecting a change in God's disposition towards us, which was never the problem. God loves his enemies. God initiates atonement, both in the OT and NT.

Re: Boyd, I think this is a legitimate articulation of PS, and disagree with it. So I disagree with Boyd's POV here (from what I can tell, it is rather brief). Most advocates of penal substitution btw would agree that sin is the object of God's wrath, not Jesus. John Stott for example would stress that in Trinitarian terms it is God giving his life and bearing wrath.

I realize that the idea of God overcoming his own righteous judgment is challenging, but this was also the position taken by a great many of the church fathers, and by Luther. Think of it as God practicing the idea of "dying to self". Or recall what Paul says in Romans about the law being "holy and good" but then "becoming death" to him that he needed to be "set free from," and then that same law being "canceled" and "nailed to the cross". It's quite radical, but I believe also deeply biblical.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Hmm...I get the "dying to self" analogy, but I'm still having a hard time swallowing it. Paul's talk in Romans didn't help at all. I get that you are affirming both the wrath and love of God, but to say that He had to overcome his own disposition puts Him at odds with Himself. As if His nature requires one thing, but He acts in a manner that is contradictory. I don't like that. His wrath is still going to be poured out on sin, death, and the devil (and thus anyone still "married" to them), so I can't see that it's been "overcome" in any real sense.

I'd really appreciate it if you could articulate this better for me. Either I'm misunderstanding you or I completely disagree with you. I just can't imagine that God is overcoming His own wrath through love. How is this deeply biblical?

Keep in mind that I affirm a Christus Victor view of the atonement, but this is not a familiar aspect of it to me (if that's what your getting at).

So what's with you and Twitter?

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

"I just can't imagine that God is overcoming His own wrath through love."

Don't read too much into that line.

At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think the difficulty is that you are conceptualizing of God's wrath as a disposition. I would say that wrath is the inevitable consequence of our hurtful actions. Biblically it is a parallel concept to "judgment" meaning that it is based on our deeds, not on God's mood. It's like "moral gravity" falling down on us. It's not an emotional mood of God, it is the bad result that flows from our sinful actions connected to a moral universe.

Think of it this way: a doctor can affirm that sickness flows from a person making bad choices. Say they sit out all night in the cold rain and get the flu. The doctor would tell the person that they should not do that. But they would also act to help that person with shelter and medicine. So the doctor "overcomes" the sickness, while still affirming the laws of medicine. Wrath is like sickness, a sickness that is our fault, which the Great Physician heals. The doctor's disposition is always one of care.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

I completely agree with this mentality when speaking of the consequences of sin. What seems to bother me is that it is personalized into "God's wrath" or "the wrath of God" (i.e. it "belongs" to God). This kind of wording makes it seem more like a personal disposition of His to me. Like it isn't so much the consequences of a moral universe as it is a righteous God punishing sin. I'm completely willing to accept that this is what is meant by "God's wrath" (equating the consequences of sin with God's wrath), but I think the personalization of it is what is hampering me.

So I agree with the conceptualization of it, I just have a hard time calling it what it is so often referred to as because it doesn't seem accurate to personalize the wrath in such a way if indeed it is merely the consequences of a moral universe.

Equating it with judgment, however, seems to do me some good. I don't understand judgment in the negative light that so many evangelicals do. To me, judgment is a good thing that should be hoped for, for it is when God will renew all things and them everything right. So I have no problem personalizing judgment, but then I have the opposite problem of having a hard time NOT personalizing it.

I can understand God as "overcoming" something that is the natural result of a moral universe, but I cannot understand Him overcoming something that ultimately begins with Himself. It is still as though He must overcome His own nature.

Maybe I'm just getting caught up in semantics and it's confusing me, but this seems to be a legit issue to me. Thanks for being patient with me and trying to help me work it out.

Any more thoughts?

At 5:16 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"I completely agree with this mentality when speaking of the consequences of sin. What seems to bother me is that it is personalized into "God's wrath" or "the wrath of God" (i.e. it "belongs" to God)."

Yeah, I understand that the terms "wrath" and "anger" are hard not to associate with emotions. Because of that they often miscommunicate, which is why I try to use different vocabulary. Theologically speaking, wrath should not be seen as a disposition, but a righteous response. One can get mad because they love someone so much. Think about a mother screaming at her child who has run into the street. That is I think the emphasis which the prophets want to draw out in "personalizing" wrath - they want to show that God is not dispassionate, but cares when we are hurt and hurt others.

"it doesn't seem accurate to personalize the wrath in such a way if indeed it is merely the consequences of a moral universe."

A moral universe with God at the back of it. So it's not just mechanical. It just is not capricious.

"To me, judgment is a good thing that should be hoped for, for it is when God will renew all things and them everything right."

I think you are confusing justice with judgment. As the terms are used in Scripture, justice is God's act to make things right, while Judgment is bad news. Judgment is how things are if God does not intervene and bring about justice. You could say that judgment is the vicious cycle of reaping and sewing, hurting and being hurt that we are trapped in, and justice is God breaking into the cycle and stopping it, like a wrench stuck into the spokes of a moving wheel.

"I cannot understand Him overcoming something that ultimately begins with Himself."

What I think you need to factor in is that the moral universe (which God created and maintains) is also fallen. That's why Paul can talk about the law as being a "tyrant" because it like everything can become dysfunctional. Religion can be abusive, authority can be corrupt, in fact the more potential something has to be good for us (like a parent) the more they can hurt us when they go bad. That's why the whole idea of the "powers" and the devil are so vital in our soteriology. Christus Victor ultimately says that God overcomes Satan, but that Satan was acting as an agent of God's righteous judgment. So God overcomes his judgment, not by ignoring it, but by healing it. Again think of a doctor who judges you to be sick, then preforms surgery on you and then pronounces you well. That's what's going on. The doctor did not change his mood or mind, she changes your state, and with it the judgment of sickness becomes invalid because you are not sick.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Thanks, Derek.

Your first response paragraph was very helpful. I've been on a slow journey moving toward a more EO understanding of "sin as sickness" and so the last paragraph was extremely helpful towards that end as well. Thank you very much.

About judgment, thought, I do intend to use the word judgment. Judgment is GREAT news. It is only bad to those who fall on the wrong side of it. For those on the right side of it, it spells vindication and freedom, a renewal and settings things right. That is what takes place at the end, the Great Day, the Final Judgment, the Day of God's Wrath, etc. Almost all of the "results" of the Final Judgment are positive. The only real "negative" aspect is the punishment of unbelievers; and the ultimate destruction of sin, death, and the devil. Believers, however, receive eternal life, salvation, redemption, and a crown.

Justice, I believe, is a product of a righteous judgment. Judgment brings justice.

Again, thank you very much for taking the time to spell things out for me. As sharp as I can be in these matters, I often find myself clinging to old beliefs, unwilling to let them go.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Ken Pulliam said...

I just found your blog as I was doing a search on PST. I am a former evangelical Christian who gave up my faith. One of the reasons (and there were many) was my inablity to reconcile PST with any viable concept of justice. I have started my own blog on the subject.

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Judgment is GREAT news....the Great Day, the Final Judgment, the Day of God's Wrath,...the punishment of unbelievers..."

wow. that's scary.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I agree. I think Zack (whom you have quoted) is a good guy, but I hope he would reconsider his words, which are not good news for sinners, but for the righteous. As Jesus said "I have not come for the righteous, but for sinners. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick". So justice is not about good news for the good guys, it is about good news for the bad guys, for the lost and broken and rejected. It is about making things right again, not about punishment. Punishment is not justice, it is the reason we need justice. Real justice is about grace.

So I hope Zack would consider how his words would sound to the primary audience of Jesus - to the least and the lost - and would for the sake of the gospel think of a better way to express these ideas so that they convey grace and good news.


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