Allan Bevere, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, has a nice reflection on different theories of atonement in this post. I largely agree with him, except I would make an important distinction between the different theories that he fails to make: between objective and subjective theories of atonement.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I do have a theological axe to grind when it comes to penal substitution: although I’m eager to distinguish the true theory from the caricature, I believe it’s the primary biblical motif of how atonement is accomplished.
But forget the label “penal substitution” for a moment. The main question, in my mind, is, “Do you believe that Christ’s death on the cross does something for us, objectively, to deal with our sins and reconcile us with God?” We can argue about the particulars all we want: if we agree on the answer to that question, we probably don’t have any important disagreement on the matter. As a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness at every moment, I need to know that my saving relationship with God, at least to a very large extent, doesn’t depend on me.
If it mostly depends on me—on my response to the cross, my will, my efforts—I’m doomed. This is why Abelard’s “moral influence theory,” which seems to be the only classical theory that theological progressives are willing to embrace, is, for me, least important. Yes, the cross inspires love within me, but that love itself can’t save me apart from the fact that my sin is imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me.
I talked about penal substitution in yesterday’s sermon, without using the term, when I talked about Jesus’ reference to Numbers 21:4-9 in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I asked how it is that we experience the new birth that Christ talks about. I said:
Jesus gives Nicodemus an illustration from scripture to help him—and us—understand how it is that this new birth is accomplished. In verses 14 and 15, he says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” “Moses’ lifting up this serpent” is a reference to something that happens in Numbers 21, beginning with verse 4. The Israelites have become impatient with Moses while wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And they’re grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They’re referring to manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that God has graciously provided them. They’re literally blaspheming against God.
“Then,” it says in verse 6, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Get the picture? The Israelites would get bitten by these poisonous snakes, and when they did, they would look up at this bronze snake on a pole and their lives would be saved. Similarly, Jesus says, when he is “lifted up”—by which he means lifted up on the cross, on Calvary—it’s like Moses lifting up this bronze snake on a pole. Christ on the cross is like that snake on the pole. I know this sounds like a really strange comparison, but let’s think about it:
Because of their blasphemy, because of their unfaithfulness, because of their sin, Israel was facing God’s judgment and God’s wrath. God was justifiably angry because of his people’s sin. As punishment, he was sending these poisonous snakes to kill them—until the people repented and Moses intervened and prayed to God. The bronze snake, please notice, wasn’t preventative medicine; it was only needed by those who were already snake-bitten. Once they had been snake-bitten, their only hope for rescue was to look upon this image of a snake—a symbol of the very thing that was killing them. That’s how they would be saved.
In a similar way, Jesus is saying, we are all snake-bitten by sin. We’re all dying. Because of our sin, we’re all under God’s judgment, and, unless we’re rescued, we will all face God’s wrath for our sins. And what do we do to save ourselves? Just as the Israelites looked at a symbol for the very thing that was killing them, we, too, look to the symbol of the very thing that’s killing us—not a poisonous snake this time, but our sin. That’s exactly what Christ represents for us on the cross. When we look at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Bible says we are looking at our sin. Remember 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Christ became our sin—it’s as if he took within his own body the deadly venom that was killing us—and died in our place!