Substitutionary Atonement

by Stephen Rodgers

Considering Dr. Snider’s recent sermon on the centrality of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement within the Bible, I thought it might be valuable to examine a number of the objections currently being raised against this central tenant of Christianity. As he mentioned, originally the character of God was under attack (with the rise of open theism/free will theology in the early 90’s), then the doctrine of eternity came under fire (pun intended) with the marginalization of Hell within evangelical circles, and finally now the heretical chicken has come home to roost with substitutionary atonement.

Hostile critics of substitutionary atonement (as opposed to “friendly critics” such as John Stott and J.I. Packer who simply and correctly argue for a complete understanding of the doctrine) generally formulate their objections around one of several major categories. I’d like to take a brief look at the three most common objections in order to better understand how to answer their objections.

Many argue against penal substitution by claiming it is contrary to the position of the Early Church. While it is true that the early church emphasized the idea of Christus Victor, (the death of Christ as a means of overcoming sin, death, and the devil), it would be theologically simplistic to the point of error to say that was the only consequence of Christ’s death on the cross. Yes Christus Victor is a part of it, but so is propitiation and expiation of sins, reconciliation of man to God, the revelation of God…the list goes on. And yes, substitutionary atonement is definitely on that list (see Isaiah 53:6, 12; Romans 3:25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 10:1-4; etc.).

Many more argue that the whole idea of penal substitution is inherently unjust. The most famous quote in this category likens the death of Christ to “cosmic child abuse.” What this metaphor utterly fails takes into account is the fact that child abuse is only possible in an inequitable relationship; in other words, what makes the crime of child abuse so heinous is that it occurs between an individual who has relatively ultimate power, and an individual who is relatively impotent. But before we start characterizing Christ as a victim, we should go read His words in John 10:17-18: “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” That doesn’t sound like a powerless victim to me!

Some argue that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is based on Natural Theology. This argument can be addressed in a similar fashion to the first argument based on the position of the early church. First though, a quick definition of Natural Theology: essentially this is a label to categorize the establishment of an understanding of God based on worldly examples and experience rather than an understanding of God based on the revelation of Scripture. And while it could be argued that a strictly limited view of penal substitution was originally drawn from a worldly concept of judicial retribution, such was not the Reformers intention. They fought against such theological reductionism, and so should we. In fact, we will face this all the more precisely because we live in a sound byte culture that judges the validity of an argument simply by how good of a headline it makes! While it may be convenient for us to summarize, abridge and simplify, such actions and attitudes only display our utter disregard for God’s word. Don’t do it!

However, possibly the most commonly encountered and widespread threat to the doctrine of penal substitution is not the threat of theological revision and/or reductionism, but rather that of doctrinal marginalization. It is a rare church these days that declines to water down their theology in order to be more socially acceptable, less offensive, and more culturally relevant. One of the largest churches in America makes it their practice to avoid sermons dealing principially with the topics of “sin, blood, death, hell, or the cross.” And by logical extension, if these topics are not open for discussion, then substitutionary atonement is off the table as well.

Unfortunately, by extension, so is Jesus. And that my friends, to turn the list of objections back on itself, is “unacceptable, utterly offensive, and absolutely irrelevant.”

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The Beacon is the monthly newsletter for Lighthouse Bible Church in San Diego, California. It covers a variety of subjects including LBC events, church history, current events from a Christan perspective, ministry profiles, and messages from our pastors and elders. To join the Beacon ministry, please contact Stephen Rodgers.

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