“In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.”
As we approach Easter there is always someone stirring the theological pot and 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.
Over the last few days, an article has been appearing on Facebook feeds, and one concerned colleague brought it to my attention.
Chuck Queen is Senior Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky, and he has written a piece denouncing the ‘heretical’ doctrine of penal substitution, It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitutionary atonement.
He is not the first person to cast aspersions over penal substitution and he will not be the last. In every generation, there are ‘Christian’ leaders who explain away core teachings of the faith.
In what is one of the most important volumes on the atonement written in our generation, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach open Pierced for our Transgressions with this summary of penal substitutionary atonement,
“The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.
This understanding of the cross of Christ stands at the very heart of the gospel. There is a captivating beauty in the sacrificial love of a God who gave himself for his people. It is this that first draws many believers to the Lord Jesus Christ and this that will draw us to him when he returns on the last day to vindicate his name and welcome his people into his eternal kingdom. That the Lord Jesus Christ died for us – a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place – has been the wellspring of the hope of countless Christians throughout the ages.”
It is this doctrine that Chuck Queen wants to be repudiated and removed from Christian pulpits. This will take some doing, for PSA is deeply held by hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide, and one can’t ignore the fact that many of history’s most notable Christian thinkers affirmed PSA with love and wonder, including Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Bunyan, John Owen, John Stott, John Piper, Tim Keller, and on and on. Ultimately though, truth is not a popularity contest, but it is determined by God who reveals truth in his word.
I don’t intend to speak to every argument in It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitutionary atonement, for many words can be written, however, something needs saying given the popularity of his piece.
“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 per cent voted for Trump.”
“Perhaps the first step in dethroning such a terrible doctrine”
We are left in no doubt that Chuck Queen believes penal substitution is heretical, immoral and to be expunged from Christian Churches. Notice also, Queen’s not so subtle slight of hand in associating Donald Trump with the Evangelical teaching on PSA! Such ad hominem attacks are plainly silly and achieve nothing to help us understand the atonement.
Does Jesus believe in penal substitution?
Queen claims that the presence of substitutionary atonement as deriving from ‘an ancient, primitive view of God than the view taught and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth.’
This revisionism is simply appalling. While he does not explicitly equate this ‘primitive view of God’ with the God of the Old Testament, it is difficult to see who else he is directing this remark. The Bible, however, does not make such a distinction between Jesus and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, having the same being, character and purpose. Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all the Old promises, he is word incarnate, he is the I Am, he is the paschal lamb.
PSA is a central concept to the atonement in both OT and NT. To cite 3 examples:
First, the temple was central in Israel’s life and key to ministry of the temple was the sacrificial system, and at the heart of the sacrificial system was the blood of an animal taking the place of the sinner to avert the wrath of God. Indeed, the most sacred day in the calendar was Yom Kippur. Kippur (or atonement), carries connotations of forgiveness, ransom, cleansing and averting God’s wrath, and this final aspect is clearly on view in the teaching about the day of atonement in Leviticus 16.
A second example is the Servant Song of Isaiah 53; it may only constitute a small part of this prophetic book and an even tinier part of the OT, but its significance is rarely overestimated. The Servant Song delivers more than a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, but PSA lays at the heart of its presentation of 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. R.T France is correct when he talks about Jesus‘ repeated self-identification with the servant of Isaiah 53. Thus, the entire trajectory of Jesus’ earthly ministry as recorded in Scripture is an embodiment of the suffering servant whose 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.”
A third example is Paul’s tome, the letter to the Romans. Paul explains that the primary human condition is sinful rebellion against a righteous God who is now revealing his wrath against us. No human effort can save us from this judgment, only the substitutionary death of Christ. The great turning point of Romans is that masterful exegesis of the gospel in 3:21-26, which spells out God’s gift of righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ and by his propitiatory death on the cross. Throughout Romans Paul explores the full gamut of the atonement, in all its facets and with many of its wonderful implications, but laying at its heart is PSA.
“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?
In contrast to Queen who 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).
The verb, ‘must’, functions as a Divine imperative, reinforcing the notion that in God’s wisdom he ordained for his Son to enter the world and to die on the cross.
On the day 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.
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 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. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
To an audience in Jerusalem who had only weeks earlier witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter both affirms human culpability and Divine intent.
Is Penal Substitution language merely metaphoric?
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 realize that the sacrificial language utilized 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.”
It is important to understand how Queen is arguing his point. He begins by asking us to doubt that these words were ever spoken by Jesus. But just in case they are genuine (although now we’re told to believe they’re probably not), he then adds another layer of doubt by suggesting scholars no longer believe ransom means ‘ransom’. (However, see Leon Morris’ seminal work, The Apostolic preaching of the Cross, for a clear explanation of ransom).
I agree with Queen, in that Jesus is presenting his disciples with a model of servanthood, but there is more at stake here.
For Queen, the phrase, ‘ransom for many’ is metaphoric, but the accompanying infinitive phrase, ‘to serve’ is not a metaphor. Grammatically, it is implausible that of two co-joining infinitival phrases, one is literal and the other metaphoric. Jesus is not speaking of himself as metaphorically serving, but actual serving and he is not speaking of dying as a ransom metaphorically, but literally.
Queen carefully chooses a Scriptural example that can be used in part to highlight the exemplar model of the atonement, but what of the multitude of other references to penal substitution that are scattered throughout the entire Bible? How does he exegete Roman 3:21-16, Romans 4:25, Galatians 3:10-13, 1 Peter 2:21-25 and 3:18, and many other passages?
Is atonement language merely metaphorical? The answer is, no. “Facet” or “aspect” are better ways to describe such language, for in speaking of the atonement we are dealing with historical events which are given Divine interpretation in Scripture. The cross carries more than symbolism, but effects actual judicious judgment, brought upon the Son in the place of sinful human beings. We can no more speak of the cross as metaphor and symbol, as we would of the Federal Court of Australia sentencing a guilty person to prison. There may be symbolism and metaphor to be found, 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 other and more important idea such as Jesus’ life and teaching, found a diminished role in Churches catechisms. While it is possible to site examples on both sides Constantine’s rule where Christians play various doctrines over others, the historical record demonstrates the penal substitution was treated as foundational prior to Constantine, not only by the New Testament authors, but among the Early Church Fathers.
For example, Justin Martyr who lived almost two centuries before Constantine wrote,
“If, the, 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?”
Penal Substitution and Christian living
Another contention for Chuck Queen is the apparent powerlessness of PSA to cultivate Christian living. He says,
“Another problem with substitutionary atonement is that it reduces salvation to a legal transaction that has nothing to do with the actual transformation of the individual…In such a Christian system the actual life and teachings of Jesus have little bearing on what it means to be a Christian.”
To bushwhack both history and contemporary Christianity in this way is simply disgraceful.
Flowing from the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, who taught the centrality of penal substitution, were many organisations caring for the poorest of Londoners, including orphanages.
Tim Keller has been used of God to plant and grow Churches across New York City, and accompanying Redeemer Presbyterian Church is Hope for New York, a mercy and justice outreach to the city providing volunteer and financial resources to more than 40 nonprofit organizations serving poor or marginalized populations in New York City.
The man who wrote perhaps the most famous defence of penal substitution in the 20th Century was John Stott. Stott was responsible for the global Lausanne movement and was known for calling Christians to engage in social justice ministries. John Stott famously did not serve in the armed forces during the Second World War, largely due to his convictions about violence, and yet he defended and articulated the case for penal substitutionary atonement. Belief in a righteous God who is angry against sinful people and who judges rightly does not lead to angry judgemental Christians (well, it ought not) but rather it produces men and women who are loving and passionate and keen to see their neighbours also know this righteous God who saves.
In short, it appears as though any time Queen doesn’t approve of way the Bible speaks of God, sin, and humanity, he explains it away by arguing, “this isn’t the god I believe in”, or “it’s a metaphor”, or “we can explain it away because culture of Rome isn’t ours”.
We are left wondering, how does Chuck Queen view the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross? He suggests,
“Jesus bore our sins on the cross in the sense that he, as the Son of Man, as the representative human being, bore the hate and animosity of the world in his service to God. He became a scapegoat to end scapegoating, to expose the folly and evil of scapegoating any human being. He became the lightning rod where the pent up oppositional energy of the powers that be (the world) became focused. In bearing the sin — the hate, evil and animosity of the world — he exposed it and exhausted it, thus overcoming it. The resurrection served as God’s vindication, God’s “yes” to Jesus’ sacrificial life and death.
No need for a sacrificial victim.”
Does Chuck Queen realise that the scape goat of Leviticus ch.16 was in fact a substitute for the sins of Israel?
According to Queen’s view, God absorbs the world’s hate, like a lightning rod. There is no punishment for sin, no one will account for their own sins before a righteous God for he simply sucked it all in. For clergy who rape children, for totalitarian regimes who oppress and murder their own people, for the 10,000s of victims of Islamic State, there is no day of reckoning, no God who is angry and punishes with hell.
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, and that is precisely his problem.
“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 honor 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.
Queen doesn’t begin with Scripture and allow God’s self-revelation to inform, shape, correct our own understanding of God; he begins with a pre-conceived view of God, that (s)he is a non-violent god, and from that belief he then attempts to bend, re-shape and even remove any part of the Bible that doesn’t conform to his portrait. In the end Queen is left with 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.
4 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, they nonetheless have warrant and therefore they offer some clarity to the discourse.
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, for PSA is intricately tied to too many Christian doctrines. Chuck Queen is an example in point, his view of the god whom he worships would not and cannot permit penal substitution. Rejection PSA follows adherence to an imaged God who is not that God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
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.
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. Depending on ones’ context different aspects of the Gospel will connect with our engagers more readily than others. For example, reconciliation may make more sense to people in our community than ransom or Christus Victor, and yet, regardless of where we begin, we will need at some stage to unpack this thunderous doctrine of 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.
The question is quite simple, does the Bible teach and affirm penal substitutionary atonement? The answer, in both Old Testament and New Testament is, yes. Penal substitution language, imagery, and actions are found at key junctions in both Testaments, and especially in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The second question is also simple, 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, where we must do. Rather, the good news that is Christ’s death for us is that God has done.
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)