Substitutionary Atonement: Let me clarify

June 12, 2010

Substitutionary Atonement, part two

Photo by Randy OHC (license)

Welcome to Part Two. I certainly stirred up more with Part One, Substitutionary Atonement: It’s just a theory than I expected! I do want to explore what I began in The Six Deadly Sins of Evangelicalism — namely, that penal substitutionary atonement may not be the right story to frame the cross of Christ in post-Christian cultures. That’s a lot of buzzwords — or as Kay complains, too many syllables.

There is no “ultimate explanation,” because salvation is in a Person who is deeper than the sum of our explanations.

But I need to clarify some things before we dig in further. Unfortunately, this means I will not get to Matthew Tuck’s good questions this time: “1) What is your critique of the penal substitutionary atonement theory? 2) What alternative(s) would you propose?” Sorry, Matthew, I only have room for hints this round! I’ll get there, but let’s regroup before we go on.

First, I want to acknowledge that penal substitutionary atonement is widely taught (and dearly held) by many evangelicals, especially those in Reformed traditions. So for some people, my raising questions may sound like I am questioning whether Christ died for our sins. And my suggesting alternatives may sound like I am suggesting there are other paths to salvation that avoid the cross.

Of course, that’s not it at all.

Let me respond to some specific comments. (And thank you for each comment!)

nstryker wrote,

i’d like a primer on all this in your own words. i tried to take in the wiki pages and just got overwhelmed by jargon.

The wiki pages of nine different explanations of atonement can be rather boggling! So let me take a quick stab at it:

atonement — Put simply, this is the forgiveness of our sins. For this discussion, it is a question, “How does God forgive our sins?” (…But even this question raises questions for me. It can be distorted into a gospel of “sin management.” What is good news for a “sinless” society?)

substitutionary atonement — This is one answer to the question. In this answer, “Christ takes our place on the cross.” That’s great, and I say that with no irony. (…But what about the resurrection? Doesn’t that figure into this somehow? Because evangelicals tend to focus on personal sin, and substitutionary atonement as the answer, I’m afraid the resurrection is largely an afterthought.)

penal substitutionary atonement — This is a more specific definition of substitutionary atonement that says that God must punish something for our sins, so Christ took that punishment for us. If you see things in terms of cosmic justice, this makes a lot of sense, and the cross becomes the means for both justice and mercy. (…But if you’re someone like Randy who saw God as a cosmic bully, this only reinforces the idea!)

Steve Fuller wrote,

Sounds like you are just choosing one atonement theory (personal) over another (penal substitution). So what makes your theory ultimate, and the other theories just theories?

I’m afraid my use of the word “personal” confused things, unintentionally bringing in a theological term. “Personal atonement” is a way of saying Christ died not just generally for “the sins of the world,” but for my sins personally. I was not saying anything about personal atonement. In fact, my point is that there is no “ultimate explanation,” because salvation is in a Person who is deeper than the sum of our explanations. This is was what I tried to say with the facets-of-a-diamond illustration.

Chuck wrote,

Is there then a time, a situation, where using the penal description of atonement is the best way to lead someone to saving faith?

Of course! It worked for you, didn’t it?

And this may actually help bring out where I differ with many devout Christians, both “conservative” and “liberal”: I am less interested in “What is universally true,” and more interested in “What is helpful in this situation.” My goal is not to define truths, but to help people enter into relationship with Truth (a person, not a doctrine). …Is it okay if that looks different for people of different cultures?

Coming up: Why is penal substitution an unhelpful story in post-Christian contexts? Can Jon offer an example of a helpful story? Make sure to subscribe to see how this unfolds…

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

12 responses to Substitutionary Atonement: Let me clarify

  1. I get your point about the problem of investing ourselves too heavily in certain specific beliefs, and making those beliefs the litmus test of “true” Christianity. I’m glad you brought it up.
    Here’s my problem: from one atonement theory to the next, I fail to see how any of them impact my daily life as a follower of Jesus. I’m grateful that Jesus paid the price for me, but I’m absolutely challenged day-by-day to live up to his instructions for his followers. Take the Sermon on the Mount–there’s enough on there for a lifetime of following Jesus. When I asked one believer whether she thought we could attain to His instructions, she said, “No way, it’s impossible.”
    I asked, “Well why did Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount if we can’t possibly live up to his words?”
    She answered, “Just to prove to us that we constantly need forgiveness.”
    That sounds like a bummer of a motivating plan to me!

  2. Well said, Jon, but I wouldn’t have used that vulgar term for God before I knew Christ! (A different profane one for sure, but not that one)
    I love what you wrote at the end: “I am less interested in “What is universally true,” and more interested in “What is helpful in this situation.” My goal is not to define truths, but to help people enter into relationship with Truth (a person, not a doctrine).” This precisely what missionaries strive to do, and it’s what worked for me. I have nothing against the 4 spiritual laws, but that probably would not have done much for me. I just read yesterday that many Muslims literally need to hear the gospel 50 times before they can understand it, and they need to hear it within the context of relationship or they’re not motivated to listen. Pretty different from Brother Lawrence meditating on a tree losing its leaves and thereby accepting Christ, huh?
    My two cents: the atonement never changes, but our words to describe it must change based on the situation. Jesus, Peter, Stephen, Phillip and Paul all did this, and so should we. Trusting the living God never becomes rote!

  3. Ray, you say “Here’s my problem: from one atonement theory to the next, I fail to see how any of them impact my daily life as a follower of Jesus.”
    I wrote, as part of this larger discussion, regarding why I think one’s theology of the atonement does impact one’s daily life at my blog – Why Theology Is Important. In short, if you really believe it, then it will show in your daily life. The atonement is a pretty basic belief that includes what we believe about the basic nature of God, of justice, of how God’s universe works. If that doesn’t impact how you live your daily life, then no amount of teaching will make any difference. So… I would say that your theory of the atonement does impact how you live, you just haven’t thought about it enough to now what the guiding principles are underneath those daily behaviors.

  4. oops… sorry I didn’t close my tag correctly in my previous entry (I’m embarrassed)
    so let me add another piece. All of the above reasons are precisely why I do not believe in substitutionary atonement, especially penal substitutionary atonement.

  5. Hi Roy:
    Thanks for the dialogue. Without a doubt the Atonement reveals something about the basic nature of God. I think we agree there. God Himself loves us so much He is willing to pay the price. And that realization would indeed find it’s way into any thoughtful person’s life. The reality of God’s gracious act has impact every day, indeed every moment.
    Forgive me for splitting hairs, but I said I fail to see how theories about the atonement find there way into everyday life. My personal experience is that the various theories, and those who consider them important, seem to argue only about the position, and not about the outworking of that position. I would really welcome an argument for any theory of atonement that applied it’s conclusions to my life as a follower of Jesus.
    If you have applications which will help me follow Jesus (as opposed to mere head knowledge) I’m wide open!

  6. the interesting thing to me anyway is that I “shared” your original post on my google account and one of my readers whose faith background I am not familiar with had this to say:
    “Oh my. I’m 5 for 6 on that list only because I don’t know what the heck that last one is. But since I’m a non-believer heathen, I suppose I should put a check mark on that one also. :)”
    So here we are arguing about something that is incomprehensible and not understandable by the average joe on the street; its like were shuffling chairs on the titanic…

  7. Ray,
    One of the problems with rationalistic approaches to explaining atonement is that they do little for eminently practical people like you. That’s part of the reason I want to add “mystery” to people’s theological vocabulary — not as a cop-out, but as an invitation to keep pressing in deeper.
    But also check out the post Roy shared, because I also wonder if you been taught a theory of atonement that does not touch you. Perhaps you would find a different one more helpful — not so much to explain atonement as to give us handles on healing, wholeness, relationship, forgiveness, etc.
    As for the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings… what a sad way to approach Jesus, as another layer of Law! I think I would respond to your friend, “You’re right, it is impossible, even for Jesus. He could not live that on his own, and he said so. But he invites us to live it the same way he did: through an indwelling Lord.”

  8. Randy,
    Sorry, I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth! I edited it, replacing my phrase with yours.
    Bingo on the missionary endeavor. Thank God others bothered to do this for us! I like your list, and only now noticed that it starts with Jesus, which is not just a nice touch — it’s fundamental. The book So Beautiful calls out a divine DNA of three strands: missional, relational, incarnational.
    When faith is in a system of beliefs, then it leads to becoming rote. It is so important to put our faith in a person. Yes, I keep harping on that! 🙂

  9. Let me give two concrete examples… If God requires punishment for sin (think penal substitutionary atonement), then I’m likely to think the death penalty is a good and necessary thing. Closer to home, I may have no problem at all beating the daylights out of my disobedient 5 year old, indeed it is a good thing. After all, I would reason, God requires death as the penalty for sin right? On the other hand, if I adhere to a moral influence theory of atonement, then the death penalty or beating the child are positively unacceptable.
    Don’t get so caught up in the word “theory.” All it is trying to convey is that there are different ways of understanding the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What I am saying is that the way we understand those events is central to how we experience God and by definition has critical impact on the way we live as followers of Jesus in the real world. We are not just shuffling chairs… or counting dancing angels… we are talking about the very nature of God and the vision of what we are called to be.
    I like the praxis model that was practiced in the base community movement in South and Central America – act, then come together as a community to reflect theologically on those actions, then act again. The question again becomes, how does my understanding and experience of God inform my living? Why Jesus died seems to me to be pretty important in that endeavor.

  10. Jim,
    You must be referring to The Six Deadly Sins. Number six really was an oddball in that respect. Yet I know people who, though they’ve never heard of the term “penal substitutionary atonement,” have heard of the concept and find it odd at best, repugnant at worst.
    Thank you for passing it along! I hope it opens conversations…

  11. I’ve held back from being the first to respond, because I was a bit charged in my responses to the last couple of times Jon started into this. And I’m glad I’ve waited. I’m glad to see what’s been written.
    Let me say that a theological treaty in and of itself does not save someone. Jesus saves.
    Jesus died. Jesus rose again. Jesus saves.
    I’m glad I’m not hearing anyone removing Jesus’ death and resurrection from Jesus’ répertoire. Because I wouldn’t be fine with that.
    If you want to go ‘artsy’ on me and back-off from ‘logic’, fine be artsy. But if you want to deny that Jesus died and rose again (which I am not hearing above) while breaking away from a description such as ‘penal substitutionary atonement’, then ‘No!’ I am not fine with that. But realize that for those that are more ‘logic’ driven that they are glad to have stringent ‘theological definitions’ that mesh with the beat of Jesus’ heart, life, words and hope.
    Maybe artsy people just need to have their esoteric Jesus put together in a ‘theo-artistical karma’. But don’t do so at the expense of letting logic people have their ‘theological definitions’ … their theology. Shoot mystery is alive and well in theology as well. Faith is defined with hope in the unseen (mysterious). Spirit is alive with etherealness and yet The Holy Spirit is a real person that Jesus says we should look to accept/expect/desire to have a relationship with. It is quite a mysterious situation to have a relationship with God. And yet it is real.
    Fine, be artsy, have it your way and don’t utilize ‘logic’ based tools like ‘penal substitutionary atonement’.

  12. Chuck, I find the terms you use (“artsy” and “logic”) interesting, because post-moderns are not necessarily artsy, but there is definitely a cultural shift from left-brain to right-brain. Then we throw the post-Christian shift into the pot, just to make things even trickier.