“‘Til on that cross as Jesus died…”

March 17, 2014

Yesterday I preached on James 2:14-26, which includes Abraham’s offering of Isaac as a sacrifice as evidence of faith and good works “cooperating” with one another. Since I preach Christ crucified in every sermon these days (and I’m sorry for those early years in which I didn’t), I used the Abraham story to make an obvious connection to the cross:

Now consider this: God didn’t ask Abraham to do anything that God himself wasn’t willing to do—when God the Father sent his only Son Jesus to the cross in order to pay the price for our sins, our disobedience, to ransom us from death and hell, to win a victory for us over the forces of evil, and bring us into a saving relationship with God.

By doing so, hasn’t God proven how much he loves you and me?

In these two sentences, you can see that I covered a few different atonement bases (including Christus Victor and moral influence), but my central message, as always, was penal substitution or “substitutionary atonement”: that on the cross Christ takes our place, pays the penalty for our sin, suffers God’s justifiable anger over sin and evil, and meets the demand for justice. In classic Reformed language, the cross satisfies God’s wrath.

As is my wont, I recently got into an online argument with a fellow United Methodist pastor who believes that penal substitution is a misguided way of understanding atonement. That’s putting it mildly. He actually says, among other things:

If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.

If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.

And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.

This is me, making the gagging motion with my hand to my mouth.

This pastor/blogger is a smart and theologically well-educated guy, and he knows better than to reduce substitutionary atonement to this kind of caricature. I called him on it in the comments section. He allowed that while there was a “place for God’s wrath” when discussing atonement, it’s “inconsistent” with God’s character for us to make God’s wrath, or justice, or punishment for sin a central motif of the cross.

If he were merely saying that we need to emphasize God’s love above all else, well, I completely agree! But what’s more loving than a God who pays with his very life the debt that we ourselves are unable to pay? As I said in yesterday’s sermon, we can’t comprehend God’s grace without knowing why God needs to be gracious toward us in the first place!

To me, my fellow pastor’s viewpoint trivializes the problem of sin, but he’s hardly alone in doing so. In fact, while penal substitution has always been the primary way that Protestants have understood atonement (not that Catholics haven’t also emphasized it), I’ve read many contemporary Protestants who speak as if this emphasis misreads the Bible and the history of Christian thought. They say that no one considered substitutionary atonement until Anselm in the 11th century, and then Thomas Aquinas came along and set him straight. And that it wasn’t until the 16th century, when the Reformers came along, that penal substitution became a central doctrine among a minority of the Church.

Is that right? Have we gotten the Bible and tradition so badly wrong?

A resounding “no” on both counts, and if you doubt it, read this fine essay by Presbyterian theologian Robert Gagnon, who was himself responding to last year’s controversy over the PCUSA’s decision to reject “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal.

He makes his primary biblical case from Romans 1:18-3:20. Among other things he writes:

The message here has everything to do with the debt that humans incur before God for their wrongdoing and nothing to do with paying off a debt to Satan. Lest one miss the point that God is an active judge in all this, Paul adds a quotation from Prov 24:12 (= Ps 62:11): God “will repay to each in accordance with his works” (2:6). It is not as if death and permanent exclusion from God is merely a natural or mechanistic outgrowth of one’s choices over which God has no active involvement. God actively repays. And what does God repay to the impenitent? Paul is clear: “wrath and fury” (2:8) and “affliction and distress” (2:9). By “wrath” he clearly means the punishment that God actively inflicts of exclusion from eternal life (note the contrast with “eternal life” in 2:7). Later in ch. 2 Paul refers to “the day when God judges the hidden things of people” (2:16)…

After showing in 1:18-3:20 that all humanity rightly stands under God’s wrath and deserving of God’s cataclysmic judgment because of their sins, Paul offers in Rom 3:21-26 what is arguably the single most important unfolding of the core gospel in the Pauline corpus. According to Paul (and it is “according to Paul” whether or not there is a hymnic fragment in 3:25-26a), we are

24being justified (= pronounced righteous) as a gift by his (= God’s) grace through the redemption [or: the ransoming] that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God set before himself as an amends-making offering [or: propitiatory gift, atoning sacrifice] in [= by] his blood, through faith, for an indication of his righteousness, because of the letting go of the previously occurring sins 26in God’s holding back…

As Gagnon makes clear here, humanity owes a debt to God alone (and not Satan, as a version of the “ransom theory” holds), which means, among other things, that the “ransom” that God the Son pays, he pays to God the Father. And God’s wrath isn’t simply letting human beings suffer the natural consequences of sinful choices (as some theologians and pastors argue): God actively punishes.

What’s the objection to this? That sin isn’t a big enough deal for God to be so concerned, much less angry? How does that not minimize the crisis of sin and evil?

Dr. Gagnon even takes issue with an idea that has become conventional wisdom in mainline seminaries:

It is commonplace for theologians to claim that there are many different ways of conceiving the atonement, of which “penal substitution” is only one alongside of many others such as redemption, justification, reconciliation, victory over spiritual powers and Christ-as-example. This is an instance where theologians are commonly wrong, confusing the results or effects of the atonement (or, in the case of Christ as example, not even an effect) with the atonement proper. Paul indicates here that believers are justified “through” or “by means of” something. From the Godward side it is “by his grace” and from the human side it is “through faith.” When talking about the Christward side it is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” a means that is further clarified as God setting “Christ before himself as an amends-making offering by his blood (i.e., death).”

For example, the popular “Christus Victor” theory of atonement argues that the cross is the means by which God won a decisive victory over sin, Satan, and the forces of evil. Well, yes… But how is this victory won? What happened on the cross to make this victory possible?

What happened is that Christ took our place and suffered God’s wrath on our behalf, thereby liberating us from sin and Satan and the forces of evil that enslaved us. To say that a “victory” is a means makes no sense. Christ’s substitutionary death is the means.

In an appendix to his essay, Gagnon also gives the lie to the popular myth that Christian theologians never considered penal substitution prior to Anselm. He quotes heavy hitters like Eusebius, Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Augustine, who expressed the idea of “satisfying God’s wrath,” even if they didn’t use those words.

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