Penal Substitution is good news

The salvation of men and women from the penal consequences and power of sin through the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ, His atoning death, His resurrection from the dead, His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and His unchanging priesthood. (Article 5 of the Australian Baptist Union Doctrinal Statement)

 

Scott Higgins is offering Australian Christians an alternative Gospel to the one deeply held and preached by evangelicals.

In a recent blog post titled, Now this is really good news! Reframing the Gospel, he suggests

“The gospel of Jesus paying the penalty for our sin may have resonated powerfully in mediaeval times through to enormous upheaval in thinking, values and attitudes that emerged in Western society in the 1960s. In our era it has lost resonance.”

Higgins doesn’t settle for the view that the concept of penal substitution is no longer powerful and relevant, he wants us to believe that it is not of the Gospel taught by Jesus and by the Apostles, rather PSA belongs to a formulation created by the medieval church.

He writes,

“Walk into any evangelical church today and this is not what you are likely to hear when people declare the “good news”. You’re much more likely to hear that God is a loving but holy king who is deeply distressed at our refusal to worship him, and who is bound by the demands of justice to punish all human beings for their wrongdoing. So grievous is our offence that that God will condemn us to live eternally in hell, a place so void of goodness, so utterly and excruciatingly painful, it is beyond our worst nightmares. Yet because loves us, God has found a way out of this terrible destiny. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and took the penalty we deserved, meaning all of who choose to follow Jesus will be considered as if we had never sinned and will be welcomed into heaven.

I suspect that there is a lot more mediaeval in the articulation of the gospel we proclaim today then we would like to admit. Go back to the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and you will not hear the gospel described this way. The emphasis is placed firmly on the resurrection as a sign that God had done something extraordinary in the world and that all people should follow Jesus. Was the notion that Christ paid the penalty for our sin part of the follow-on teaching that people received after they converted? Maybe. Maybe not.”

 

There are more than a few problems with Higgins presentation. Here are 4:

Firstly, Higgins hides history

Higgins’ suggestion that an emphasis on penal substitution relies on medieval theology and not the New Testament cannot be sustained.

A thousand years before medieval Europe, the Early Church Fathers taught and affirmed the necessity and centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. Here are just 3 example quotes:

“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?” (Justin Martyr)

“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by .the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.” (Athanasius)

“But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death.  And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment.  And these words “every one” are intended to check the ignorant officiousness which would deny the reference of the curse to Christ, and so, because the curse goes along with death, would lead to the denial of the true death of Christ.” (Augustine)

Not only did the early church affirm and explain PSA, so did Christian theologians throughout the early and high middle ages, the Reformers, and Evangelicals from the 18th through to 21st Centuries.

Second, does the Bible teach penal substitution?

Higgins casts aspersions on the idea that either Jesus or the Apostles necessarily believed and taught the doctrine of penal substitution. To use his own words, “Maybe. Maybe not”.

Readers are left wondering, if he believes in PSA why does he want readers left to doubt?

It of course doesn’t require a Bachelor of Theology to know that both Jesus and the Apostles readily affirmed different facets to the atonement, including penal substitution. For example, the Gospel writers interpreted the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of the Old Testament, chief among them was the Passover, Yom Kippur, and the Servant of Isaiah 53. In all 3 cases one who is innocent dies in the place of the guilty in order to satisfy Divine wrath.

All four Gospels either explicitly quote or implicitly reference the Servant Song (Isaiah 53) 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 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.”

Indeed, Jesus described his coming death in these terms,

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. (26:28)

1 Corinthians ch.15 is the one of the Bible’s most wonderful explorations of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and of its significance. The Apostle begins the chapter by outlining the Gospel.

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”

Paul makes it clear that the Gospel he received and preached, is the Gospel the Corinthians received and believed, and is the Gospel which saves. This Gospel contains primary (or essential) elements, which includes the person of Jesus Christ, the testimony of the Scriptures, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and his substitutionary death. The preposition used by Paul here, huper, denotes substitution; Christ died on our behalf/in our place for of our sins.

Thirdly, Higgins unnecessarily pits cosmic and social renewal against personal redemption.

He bemoans evangelicals talking about personal accountability before a Holy God and personal salvation through Jesus Christ, and instead wants us focusing on God defeating the powerful, the wealthy and other structures who trample on the poor and on the environment. Why do we need to choose between the two? Is not the love of money an expression of personal sin before God? Is not using power to crush the weak a demonstration of personal guilt and of need for atonement?

The Gospel of Christ offers a redemption that is individual, corporate and cosmic. We find all three in Colossians 1:15-23.

“15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

“21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

There is peace is for the individual who has been justified through faith in Christ (Romans 5:1). God does not redeem individuals to remain isolated and separated, for peace is inherently about relationships. In the first and primary place it is relationship with God, but God is also making peace between people, and this on view in Colossians. The cross has a established a corporate peace, known as the Church.

This peace issued through the cross will have a reconciling effect on all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven. Colossians 1:20 is a challenging verse, and it is difficult to conceive how this promised cosmic renewal will appear. Paul can not  be arguing that somehow every single person will be justified and brought into heavenly citizenship and that even the cosmos might somehow attain salvation; Paul was no universalist. The Scriptures make clear that the wrath of God is no empty phrase and that hell is a real place which will hold those things that have been exposed by the light and not saved to the light.

Of Colossians 1:20, F.F Bruce explains, “ultimate reconciliation involves peace. This does not imply “that every human being, irrespective…of his attitude to God, will at last enjoy celestial bliss. “When Paul speak here of reconciliation in the widest scale, he includes in it what we should call pacification”. By pacification, he is referring  to realities submitting against their will to a power they cannot resist. We must appreciate however that such Divine power is never used as an unjust and abusive sword, but always with precision against evil, not “because God is hard but because he is good”.

Murray Harris writes, “The whole universe has been restored to its God ordained destiny”. Peace is not the inclusion of all things into a state of salvific bliss but the right ordering of all things, which focuses on a great salvation but which also includes judgment.

“The point is not that the stars and planets have sinned and need atonement as human beings do. But rather, the sin of human beings has led to a twisting of the whole universe that only redemption of human sin can set right.” (John Frame)

 

Fourthly, Higgins suggests a view of God that is problematic.

While he doesn’t want to say it unequivocally, it appears as though his gripe with PSA is that it conflicts with his view of God and that God could ever exercise violence.

“God was refusing to play by the rules of violence and power. God’s reign would not be achieved through the triumph of violence. God would absorb every vindictive blow, every greedy grasp for power, every hateful curse and meet it with love and forgiveness. Incredibly, Jesus’s prayer was “Father forgive them”.

The problem is not so much what Higgins says in these couple of sentences, but what he insinuates by connecting them with his condemnation of Christians preaching about PSA. While again being careful to avoid open denial, he is sketching a view of God where a violent action like penal substitution is unbefitting the God who opposes violence and power. This is another example of Higgins creating a false dichotomy and fudging the biblical presentation of the cross.  As the Gospels show us, Jesus’ extraordinary words of kindness and love from the cross were accompanied with these other words, ““Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).”

On the cross the Father turned his face away. This was not an accident. God was not passive. The crucifixion was not merely the act of evil persons, for God had willed and planned that his Son would willingly go to the cross, to take the punishment of sinners,

“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 2:23)

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At a stretch, one might read Scott’s argument as an attempt to restore an aspect of Christ’s work that is sometimes overlooked. If he is simply saying, “don’t forget about the cosmic and social implications of the cross and resurrection”, that is useful. However, he seems to be saying more than this. He’s trying to remove from Gospel presentations talk about penal substitution. According to Higgins, PSA has no power to convict and covert contemporary Australians, and it’s probably not a bible idea anyway!

I have elsewhere summarised the 4 basic positions toward the doctrine of penal substitution and I think it is worthwhile repeating them here:

4 Basic positions on penal substition

First, there are 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 concept of substitution and those who only discredit the adjective penal.

Second, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA, believing it is necessary but dismissing the notion that it is central.

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. Rejecting PSA is often preceded by a changed doctrine of God. It is worth noting that those who deny penal substitution in one hand are often redefining sin on the other hand. Scott is not the only Australian Baptist who throws mud at PSA while arguing for godly sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage. Perhaps we should not be surprised though, that those who don’t believe what God says about sin also don’t accept God’s answer to sin.

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.

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. As I mentioned before, if this Higgins’ point then he has something worth saying, but if that is so, why not say it? 

My question to Scott Higgins is, in which of these 4 positions do you fit?  Do you believe Jesus death on the cross includes propitiation?

Aspects of the Gospel may not be popular in Australia right now but that is no reason to minimise them, or worse, to deny them. I’m not saying it’s easy. Then again, did Jesus ever say that evangelism would be easy? What Australian Christians need is to take even greater care to understand the Gospel as revealed in Scripture and to explain with clarity and earnestness this good news of God to our neighbours. It is the failure of Churches to do this, and a lack of imagination to trust God’s Gospel that will make Churches ineffective and irrelevant to Australia in 2018.

2 thoughts on “Penal Substitution is good news

  1. It so much. And since when did Augustine get accepted as an early Church Father? Other quotes taken out of context. Penal Sub is not Apostolic. It is not historical. It certainly is not Orthodox.

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  2. Scott Higgin’s observation is spot on that most evangelical churches are preaching this: “So grievous is our offence that that God will condemn us to live eternally in hell, a place so void of goodness, so utterly and excruciatingly painful, it is beyond our worst nightmares.”
    Virtually all Christians agree their is a terrible consequence to sin. The overwhelming majority agree there is personal accountability before God. However, those who refuse God can be judged by God and as a penalty or consequence cease to exist WITHOUT burning eternally in conscious agony.
    Whatever his other views, good on Scott Higgins for explaining that the Good News of the Gospel is about being reconciled with God and others – rather than simply avoiding the flames.

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