A nice defense of penal substitution

November 18, 2014

In this fine blog post, “The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitution Atonement,” Derek Rishmawy answers every objection to PSA that I’ve read.

The objection that’s closest to my heart—in that I struggle with it myself—is #4: How is moral guilt transferable from sinful humanity to Christ? I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said that it’s far more important to understand that it happened than to understand how it happened. After all, we’re delving into the deepest mysteries of God. Why do we imagine it would be easy to understand?

Even still…

Although the transfer of guilt accords with scripture, especially the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53, it isn’t quite satisfying to answer, “Because the Bible tells me so.” As an evangelical, I’m willing to live with that answer if that’s all I’ve got, but Rishmawy offers much more.

We already believe that Christ represents humanity in so many other ways, including the fact that Christ wins his victory over sin, evil, and death on our behalf—and his appeal to early Church Father Irenaeus’s view of recapitulation is precisely on point. Proponents of the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement could hardly object that Christ can represent us in this one way but not in the other.

The key for Rishmawy is this: whereas a merely human being can’t suffer moral guilt in place of someone else, Christ is no mere human: he is also fully God. This is why courtroom analogies break down. What Christ does on the cross is unique, without adequate analogy, because he is fully human and fully God.

Here’s Rishmawy’s full response to this objection:

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about. Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

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