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Penal Substitution is The Heart of the Gospel

As we approach Easter there is always someone stirring the theological pot; throwing doubts over Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. On this occasion, the thesis isn’t penned by an atheist, agnostic, or nominal Christian, but a pastor of a church.

Chuck Queen is Senior Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky, and he has written a piece denouncing the ‘heretical’ doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitutionary atonementQueens comments,

“In the church I pastor we omit certain verses of hymns because of allusions and references to Jesus’ death as a substitution. … Bad Christian theology leads to bad Christian living. If one has any doubt about that just consider the voting record of evangelicals in the last election. Eighty percent voted for Trump.”

Is Penal Substitution Sub-Christian?

Queen claims that substitutionary atonement derives from ‘an ancient, primitive view of God’ that contrasts with the view taught and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. While he does not explicitly equate this ‘primitive view of God’ with the God of the Old Testament, it's difficult to see who else he might have in mind. 

Yet the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New, and PSA is central to the atonement in both OT and NT. 

PSA was the heart of temple-religion. The idea that the blood of an animal might avert the wrath of God is central to the sacrificial system and most clear on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16).

The entire trajectory of Jesus’ earthly ministry as recorded in Scripture is an embodiment of the suffering servant who’s life culminated in a cross and death, before climaxing in a resurrection

PSA is explicit in the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, which delivers a penal substitutionary perspective on both the atonement and the work of God’s servant. The four Gospels either explicitly quote or implicitly reference the Servant Song more often than any other OT passage. As R.T France observes, the entire trajectory of Jesus’ earthly ministry as recorded in Scripture is an embodiment of the suffering servant who’s life culminated in a cross and death, before climaxing in a resurrection:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)

PSA feature prominently in Paul’s letter to the Romans where the apostle depicts it as God's answer to the guilt and wrath brought on by our rebellion God. The great turning point in Romans is the exegesis of the gospel in 3:21-26, where Paul explains how God’s gift of righteousness, comes through faith in Jesus Christ and by his propitiatory death on the cross. As J.I. Packer notes:

“With the other New Testament writers, Paul always points to the death of Jesus as the atoning event, and explains the atonement in terms of representative substitution – the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s judicial retribution”
(J.I Packer, Knowing God)

God Didn’t Need a Sacrifice?

Queen believes, ‘Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed.’ Scripture offers a different testimony.

Both prior to and following the events of Easter, Jesus himself said, he had to die.

‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life’ (Luke 9:22).

On the day of Pentecost, Peter explained that while human beings plotted Jesus’ death, it was also of God’s design and plan. Not only this, Peter makes explicit links between Jesus’ death and resurrection with Old Testament promises. Affirming both human culpability and Divine intent, he tells the crowd that, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:29-36)

Is Penal Substitution Simply a Metaphor?

In another attempt to explain away PSA, Queen asserts that it is being used in a non-literal way, “Perhaps the first step in dethroning such a terrible doctrine is to help Christians realise that the  sacrificial language utilised in the New Testament are symbols and metaphor, not to be taken in any literal sense.”

In one of the rare examples where he uses the Bible, Queen cites Matthew 20:28  in order to prove his case: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” For Queen, the phrase, ‘ransom for many’ is metaphoric, but the accompanying infinitive phrase, ‘to serve’ is (conveniently) literal.

Yet references to penal substitution are scattered throughout the entire Bible. How will Queen exegete Roman 3:21-16, Romans 4:25, Galatians 3:10-13, 1 Peter 2:21-25 and 3:18? What we see in these verses is the divine interpretation of historical events. There may be symbolism and metaphor to be found—there are certainly different aspects brought to light—but the atonement cannot be reduced to those categories; it is an actuality.

Did Constantine change the Christian message?

Queen offers a strange rewrite of history when suggesting that PSA was given prominence post-Constantine. While it is possible to site examples on both sides Constantine’s rule where Christians play various doctrines over others, the historical record demonstrates that penal substitution was treated as foundational prior to Constantine, not only by the New Testament authors, but among the Early Church Fathers. Justin Martyr, writing two centuries before Constantine writes:

“If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He has been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?” (Dialogue with Trypho, 95)

Penal Substitution and Christian living

Queen believes PSA is powerless to transform Christian living. It “reduces salvation to a legal transaction that has nothing to do with the actual transformation of the individual.”

To bushwhack both history and contemporary Christianity in this way is simply disgraceful.

Belief in a righteous God; who is angry with sin (and, ultimately, sinful people); who judges rightly—this belief does not (or should not) produce judgemental Christians. It has produced many men and women who are loving and passionate and keen to see their neighbours also know the righteous God who saves.

The biggest problem with Queen’s thesis

At the end of the day, as Queen admits, penal substitution doesn’t reflect his view of God:

“The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honour or pay-off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?”

“The nonviolent God of Jesus, however, is incompatible with a God who makes a horrendous act of violence a divinely required act of atonement.”

This is the real issue. Queen comes with a pre-conceived view of God, and then attempts to bend, re-shape and even remove any part of the Bible that doesn’t conform to it. What remains is an image of his own making whom he worships and calls God. His nonviolent god does not account for Jesus’ actions in the temple where he physically drove out local businessmen and bankers. His nonviolent god ignores the God of war in the Old Testament. His nonviolent god does not permit Paul to write to Christians, ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’

The world needs a powerful and good God who punishes wrong and who can show mercy to wrongdoers.

Four Basic Positions on Penal Substitution

Two years ago I wrote a post in which I outlined 4 basic positions on the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I appreciate that these are generalisations, and the accusation of straw men might be apt, apart from the fact that I know people who fit into each of these groups. For all the dangers when making generalisations, I think they have warrant and might offer some clarity to this situation.

First, those who deny PSA. There are two basic groups of people who fall under this category: those who reject the idea that PSA is affirmed in the New Testament, and those who believe it is taught but have decided to reject that part of the Bible. There are of course further subgroups: those who have issue with the concept of substitution and those who only discredit the adjective penal.

Second, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA, and believe it is necessary but not the centre. They understand it to be one aspect of the atonement they dismiss the notion that it is the necessary central concept of the atonement.

Third, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA and who believe it is central, but who believe that other aspects of the atonement have been downplayed and need to rediscovered and given proper emphasis. To explore other dimensions of the atonement at length is not too deny PSA, but it is restoring the beauty of these facets that are sometimes hidden. Of course, there is also more to the ministry of Christ than the atonement: there is his pre-incarnate work, his incarnation, life, resurrection, ascension, reign, intercession, return and kingly judgement.

Fourth, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA but downplay other aspects of the atonement.

It is difficult to see how the first position is tenable within Christian orthodoxy: PSA is intricately tied to too many Christian doctrines. Chuck Queen is a case in point: the God he remakes in the image of his own ideas—one who would not and cannot permit penal substitution—is not the God of the Bible.

The second position is problematic because the Bible does view PSA as critical and foundational. There are many Gospel presentations found in Scripture that do not explicitly speak of either substitution or penal, but of course no Gospel outline ever says everything. And yet, there is a clear weightedness given to substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death which appeases the righteous wrath of a righteous God.


There are many Gospel presentations found in Scripture that do not explicitly speak of either substitution or penal, but of course no Gospel outline ever says everything.

When it comes to things like apologetics and evangelism, we would rarely begin with PSA, although there may be conversations where this is possible. When eating an apple you don’t begin with the core, but with the skin and flesh, and eventually you reach the core. Different aspects of the Gospel will connect with some people more readily than others. For example, reconciliation may make more sense to people in our community than ransom or Christus Victor; yet, regardless of where we begin, we will need at some stage to unpack the issues addressed by PSA.

I wonder whether the problem lies not with PSA but with Christian thinkers not working hard enough to demonstrate how it connects to all the facets of life and society and the world (I’m thinking of my own ministry as much as anything).

The fourth position is understandable when ministering in a context where PSA is being attacked, however in defending the truth of one doctrine we must be careful not to neglect other important biblical notions of the cross.

The fourth position can end up becoming a reduced gospel. If we only ever preach on the penal aspect of the cross, we will be missing out on the full wonder of the atonement, and we will also be guilty of executing Scripture poorly. If we never speak about PSA then we are guilty of misrepresenting God’s message, and if we neglect those other facets then we are starving our churches and cutting bridges with people where we should be building them. If Chuck Queen’s criticism was of those who represent this fourth view, there would be some validity to his concerns, however he is reaching well beyond, and steadfastly places himself in, the first category.

The third position is where we ought to find ourselves. Penal Substitution is at the heart of the atonement, and therefore the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and yet there are other aspects that are beautifully and powerfully affirmed in Scripture and need to be presented at length so that we can properly engage with people and encourage our churches. I want to argue that preaching all the aspects of the atonement, as they arise in Scripture, we will make us better preachers. This requires substantive thinking, both in the text and in our culture, and while some parts of our theology are more easily communicable to our culture than others, we will begin where we begin and we will endeavour to take people into the wonders of God in Christ who died for us, in our place, that we might have our sins forgiven, reconciled to God, and adopted as his children.

Conclusion

So does the Bible teach and affirm penal substitutionary atonement? The simple answer, in both Old Testament and New Testament, is yes. Penal substitution language, imagery, and actions are found at key junctures in both Testaments—especially in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. 

Do we believe and trust God’s explanation of salvation?

Chuck Queen’s  theological cut-and-paste job characterises the stench of death that is theological liberalism, which continues to plague and destroy churches across the Western world. He is committing violence on the word of God and stripping the good news of Jesus Christ of its power. It is unsurprising to learn that elsewhere Queen describes himself a ‘universalist’. Those who reject penal substitutionary atonement do so against the face of the Biblical testimony, and so it is inevitable that other Christian teachings are also thrown into the bin. At the end, Christianity becomes another moralist religion that turns on what we must do—rather than on the good news of what God has done for us in the death of Christ.

This Easter at Mentone Baptist Church, we will be singing all the verses of ‘In Christ Alone’, and with joy we’ll be thanking God for the incarnation, life, atoning death, resurrection, and the promised return of the Lord Jesus.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)

(A longer version of this post originally appeared on murraycampbell.net)

Murray Campbell is a child of God, husband, dad, pastor at Mentone Baptist Church in Melbourne, coffee drinker, Carlton supporter, music snob. You can follow Murray on twitter @MurrayJCampbell.

Murray is a member of the TGCA editorial panel and oversees the Evangelism and Apologetics channel.

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