Adam Hamilton on penal substitution

"Gordon's Calvary": A proposed Protestant site for the crucifixion. If you squint your eyes, it does look a bit like a skull.

Adam Hamilton writes at length about penal substitution (what he calls substitutionary atonement) in 24 Hours That Changed the World. For my fellow Methodists who get all squishy on the topic, you might appreciate that another, rather more famous and influential United Methodist also endorses penal substitution as one important way of understanding the cross.

Some have dismissed the substitutionary theory of Atonement as simplistic or even confusing, but for many it is the clearest way to understand what Jesus intended to happen as a result of his death on the cross. In the trial before Pontius Pilate we get a glimpse of the this idea—one concrete example of a larger idea. For here at the lithostrotos [another name for the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem] Jesus took the place of a “notorious criminal” named Barabbas, who was himself awaiting death. Barabbas, a convicted criminal was set free; and Jesus, an innocent man, was crucified in his place.[1]

The substitutionary theory of the Atonement, which we touched on before, can be summarized in this way: Every one of us has sinned, and in our sin we have been alienated from God. Justice calls for punishment for the collective weight of that sin; the Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and eternal separation from God. But God, who loves us like parents love their children, does not desire us to be eternally separated. God wishes us to receive grace. An ordinary person could not die for all humankind; but Jesus, being God in the flesh, could die for the sins of the entire world. He paid a price he did not owe, giving us a gift of grace we did not deserve. This is what we see in Barabbas walking away free from the prison and Jesus hanging on a cross.[2]

Hamilton also puts his finger on the very reason I’ve recently become outspoken on the issue: sin—and, frankly, my own sense of it within myself. A commentator on this blog once told me that being so self-conscious about my own sinfulness was surely not good for my self-esteem (or something like that). Sorry… I am a sinner. But thank God I’ve been redeemed by the blood of Jesus! Or course I believe that Jesus died in my place and took the punishment that my sins deserved! He needed to!

Does that make me “Baptist” (as if that label would offend me)? What does that make the pastor of the world’s largest United Methodist church?

Stepping off soapbox… Hamilton continues:

Some of us feel that sin does not require sacrifice or atonement. But there are moments when the idea of Christ’s death being for us comes into focus, moments when we have done something so awful and our shame is so great that we know there is no way we can save ourselves. It is in those moments when we find ourselves drawn to the cross and the understanding that Christ suffered for us. We look at the cross and realize that a price was already paid for us.[3]

[1] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 68.

2 thoughts on “Adam Hamilton on penal substitution”

  1. I agree with penal substitution. What else, exactly, would Jesus have been doing up on the cross? By the way, being likened to a Baptist really is nothing to be ashamed of! 🙂

    1. I thought you’d like that remark, Tom!

      There are other theories of atonement, some of which I buy into and which complement penal substation nicely… By all means, Christ won a victory over sin and death for us through his death and resurrection. By all means, Christ’s death was a ransom for sin (I don’t see how “Ransom theory” is any different than penal substitution, but some people say it is). By all means, the cross was the most profound example of God’s love for us. By all means, through his participation with humanity in the Incarnation, God perfects humanity.

      But no theory explains what the cross means or how forgiveness is effected through it better than penal substitution. If you strip penal substitution away, the cross itself becomes almost incidental. Jesus could have died any old death—he may as well have died of old age!

      No, God deals with sin on the cross. What do people think God does if not punish it—”condemn it,” as Paul says in Romans 8. The reason many Methodists and others have problem with it is because they don’t want to believe that God has wrath toward sin.

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