Defending substitutionary atonement again

January 10, 2019

Just this morning, Roger Olson has a fine post called “The ‘Judge Judged in Our Place’: Substitutionary Atonement Reclaimed,” which I recommend to anyone who struggles to understand or believe that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in our place on the cross. Sadly, this would include many of my United Methodist clergy colleagues—certainly those who went to seminaries like the one I went to, the Candler School of Theology,[1] where substitutionary atonement[2] is practically verboten.

But plenty of evangelicals are questioning the doctrine, too, egged on by “exvangelicals” such as Steve Chalke and Brian Zahnd, both of whose ideas I’ve criticized in the past.

So I admire the clarity with which Dr. Olson defines and defends the doctrine. Here’s how he defines it:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, God the Son, voluntarily suffered the judgment of God on sin that we deserve and suffered it in our place. He did this in order that he, God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, could forgive us and justify us righteously. Without his suffering he could not forgive righteously; without it forgiveness would be indulgence. The cross event is a work of love that includes a work of justice (and wrath).

Note his emphasis on God’s righteousness, or justice. It would be unjust of God to forgive sin without at the same time paying the cost—indeed, suffering the penalty—to do so.

Forgiveness is never free. To see this, I refer you to a thought experiment that I’ve used in sermons before, based on a sermon illustration from Tim Keller:

Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: the man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “you get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. What’s it going to be?” Now I know that’s not going to happen in real life, but just work with me…

Suppose you chose to forgive the man. He doesn’t have to serve jail time. He doesn’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.

O.K., let me ask you: Is your forgiveness of this man free? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.

Who’s going to pay for all that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are. And I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t forgive him; I only want you to see that forgiveness even in this trivial case isn’t free. It’s costly. Somebody must pay for the damaged car… Either the person who committed the crime. Or his family. Or the insurance. Or you. Regardless, the price must be paid.

And so it is for evildoing we commit against a holy God: in the interest of justice, someone must pay for it, either the perpetrator or God.

But in his recent debate on substitutionary atonement, for example, Brian Zahnd said that God doesn’t need to pay anything to forgive us: as he put it, “God forgives because God forgives.” In other words, Zahnd would say, it’s in God’s nature to forgive. While I agree that it’s in God’s nature to be merciful (“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” Exodus 34:6 and many parallel verses in the Old Testament), God’s mercy is costly. Otherwise, as Olson says, “forgiveness would be indulgence.”

Suppose, by contrast—as we proponents of substitutionary atonement believe—that justice is a part of God’s loving nature—that God cannot merely overlook sin because to do so would be to deny a part of himself. (Indeed, I don’t care whether you say that justice is a part of God’s nature or, as I believe, justice proceeds necessarily from God’s love, which, as the apostle John makes explicit in 1 John 4:8, characterizes God’s nature. Same difference.) The cross of God’s Son Jesus solves the problem of God’s justice, or resolves the tension (if you want to think of it that way) between mercy and justice, or love and justice. How so? On the cross, God’s commitment to perfect justice and God’s perfect love find their fullest expression: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

This is why I can live with N.T. Wright’s—ahem—substitution of “the love of God was satisfied” in place of “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone”—so long as I footnote it to explain that God’s love is satisfied in part because God poured out his wrath on sin through his Son Jesus. (Wright, who believes in substitutionary atonement, would accept this explanation.) Don’t get me wrong: In the context in which I minister, I would prefer to keep the song the way its songwriters wrote it and explain why it’s theologically and biblically appropriate to speak of God’s wrath. (There are, I’m sure, some preachers who speak of God’s wrath too much, but I’ve never heard a contemporary Methodist preacher who had that problem!)

Getting back to Olson, he describes the satisfaction both of God’s love and justice (righteousness, holiness) succinctly as follows:

[I]n order to forgive sins righteously and maintain his holiness God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners—death as separation from God—and he did this out of a motive of love even though justice required it.

Notice he says that “God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners.” Remembering that Jesus is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, who wants the redemption of sinners exactly as much as his Father and the Holy Spirit, and willingly does what is necessary to make it happen, guards against popular caricatures of substitutionary atonement, all of which pit a vengeful, angry father against a loving, merciful son—as if a bloodthirsty God needed to torture and kill some innocent person to satisfy his wrath, and, behold, his Son would have to do. Or God’s wrath was going to be “fired at” human beings until this “second party,” God’s Son Jesus, stepped in to “take the bullet” on our behalf.

This is ridiculous! But watch this debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown and tell me that Zahnd doesn’t caricature the doctrine in this way. It’s irresponsible and disingenuous, to say the least. Zahnd, a self-described fan of David Bentley Hart, reads some dense theology. I’m sure he’s capable of accurately describing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement even if he disagrees with it. When you’re in a debate, after all, you should always attack the best version of your opponent’s position. Otherwise, you’re guilty of committing the “straw man fallacy.”

As Olson puts it, “What many people miss when they ‘picture’ substitutionary atonement is that Jesus Christ was not just an ‘innocent man’ on whom God took out his wrath; he was God the judge judging himself in our place thereby judging our sin and making it possible to forgive without neglecting holiness.”

Amen.

In a future post, pastor John Piper will help me describe the way in which an allegedly “competing” theory of atonement, Christus Victor, fits hand-in-glove with substitutionary atonement.

1. I urge anyone interested in pursuing professional ministry to avoid the Candler School of Theology! It’s awful, and it’s caused great harm especially to the United Methodist Church. (I describe one example of harm in this post.) If you think think it’s impolite of me to say so, at least appreciate that I’ve paid for the privilege. Indeed, I continue to pay, both through student debt and in my spirit. Also, I write this as someone who graduated toward the top of my class. I’m not holding a grudge against Candler, for instance, because of my grades or its alleged academic rigor.

The alma mater that I love is the Georgia Institute of Technology. I have two undergraduate degrees from that fine institution, and I display these diplomas proudly on my office wall. Meanwhile, I literally have no idea where my Emory diploma is. I assume they keep records!

2. In this post, I’ve used used the term “substitutionary atonement” because Dr. Olson uses that term. Normally, I’m happy to say “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). Olson draws a distinction between the terms that I wouldn’t make. Whether I speak of PSA or substitutionary atonement, I want to affirm, alongside Olson, that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, apart from which none of us can be saved. On the cross, God did something objective through his Son’s suffering and death to make forgiveness of sin possible.

One Response to “Defending substitutionary atonement again”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good post. I like the car theft illustration.


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