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Thursday, October 29, 2009

PST and the Doctrine of Imputation

Norman McIlwain is a a British Christian who has authored a book, which is available online, entitled: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross .

Its a very interesting book in which McIlwain argues against the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement. In an online article he reviews Pierced for Our Transgressions, the most definitive defense of PST in recent times. In the article, he states: Justice is not upheld by punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty. You don't need a law degree to see that. It is common sense.

He begins his review by rejecting the authors of Pierced claim that the death of an innocent in place of the guilty is justified due to the doctrine of imputation. The doctrine of imputation is based on the Greek word λογίζομαι (logidzomai)which occurs 49 times in the Greek NT. The KJV translates it: to reckon, to count, to impute. It is a term that was used in accounting to refer to placing something on one's account. While the word is not used, the idea is found in Philemon 1:18, where Paul tells Philemon in regard to Onesimus (a runaway slave): If he hath wronged thee, or oweth [thee] ought, put that on mine account. There are 3 elements to the doctrine of imputation. 1)God put Adam's sin on his posterity's account; 2)God put man's sins on Jesus' account, (and Jesus paid the debit on the cross with the result that), 3) God puts Christ's righteousness (as a credit) on the believer's account.

While McIlwain agrees with the idea of #1 and #3, he rejects #2. He writes:

For Jesus to have become legally guilty for the sins of believers, He would need to have consented to their crimes. Mere relationship to those who sin does not impart guilt: ‘The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son’ (Ezek.18:20, NKJ). The ‘union’ that is required of one to be imputed criminal guilt is that of complicity in the unlawful acts. Legally and biblically it was not possible for Jesus to have been made guilty for sin. The punishment He suffered was an act of injustice, as the Bible states: ‘His justice was taken away’ (Acts 8:33, NKJ). ‘He submitted Himself to Him who judges righteously,’ Peter wrote (1 Pet.2:23, NKJ). The resurrection was God’s act of justice - overturning the verdict of an illegal court, whilst proclaiming the righteousness of the One who died.

He continues: It is all about consent. Sin cannot be imputed to Jesus because He never yielded to evil. He yielded His will to the Father. To be attributed sin, one must consent to sin. Those who give their consent to evil without repentance will be condemned with the devil.

I think he makes a good point. The imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity makes sense to McIlwain in that man validates and confirms Adam's decision to disobey every time man disobeys God again(of course there is another whole issue here which we will have to deal with later, i.e., is it fair to condemn mankind if they are born with a nature that makes it impossible for them to avoid sin?). The imputation of man's sin to Christ does not follow because Christ never consented, never validated, the sins by committing them himself. He cannot be tied in any real sense to man's sin.

He uses an illustration that I think is helpful:

The owners of a company are responsible for actions that happen within the company rules and consent of management. Corporate manslaughter is a good example. However, the company would need to be involved in the action. One employee murdering another in a fit of temper, for example, would not make the owners of the company guilty for the crime. It would have happened without their consent and certainly against company rules. However, drugs manufactured that later are found to cause death would make the company and its owners liable. Guilt would rightly be imputed - because of the company's consent to the manufacture. Consent makes all the difference.

In my opinion, he has delivered the death blow to PST with this argument. If the sin of mankind is imputed to Christ, then he would have needed to be culpable in some way for man's sin. Otherwise, the imputation is unjust. So you either have a sinful Savior or an unjust Father. Either one destroys evangelical Christianity.

He also deals with the argument put forward by R. L. Dabney in Christ Our Penal Substitute that even though PST is counterintuitive to man's sense of justice, we must accept it on the authority of God's word (J. I. Packer argues the same way in The Logic of Penal Substitution ). McIlwain responds:

According to Dabney, regardless of what we know by moral intuition, the authority of Scripture is paramount and must override all objections of conscience. Nevertheless, the obvious danger of this position is in the misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture to defend positions or actions that are either completely wrong or, at best, far from the ideal.

Clear examples include Dabney’s own defence of North American slavery; the German reformer Martin Luther’s use of Scripture to support anti-Semitism; and the doctrinal support given by Thomas Aquinas for the Inquisition and the use of the secular arm for the execution (normally preceded by torture) of those supposed guilty of schism or heresy (Summa Theologica, 2-2: 11, 3 & 4). Luther not only preached that the age-long sufferings of the Jews proved God's hatred of them, but went on to advise the Germans to burn down the homes of Jews, to close their synagogues and schools, to confiscate their wealth, to conscript their men and women into forced labour; and wrote, ‘All Jews should be given the choice between either accepting Christ, or having their tongues torn out’ (Concerning the Jews and their lies, 1542). One could also mention the drowning of Baptists in Calvin’s Geneva besides giving many more instances where a God-given conscience and moral intuition within man should have claimed precedent over man’s logic and his interpretation of God’s written word.

I think McIlwain's point is well made. PST defies man's innate sense of justice which according to the Bible is derived from God (see Rom. 2:14). Therefore, evangelicals who adhere to PST have a contradiction in God's revelation to man that they must resolve. I personally don't think it can be resolved. Thus, I reject evangelical theology.


  1. His statement, "Justice is not upheld by punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty. You don't need a law degree to see that. It is common sense"

    He is clearly demonstrating that he doesn't understand the nature of PST in making such a comment.

  2. Doesn't McIlwain go much, much farther than simply rejecting PST (unintentionally, I would assume) in your quote? Specifically:

    Mere relationship to those who sin does not impart guilt: ‘The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son’ (Ezek.18:20, NKJ). The ‘union’ that is required of one to be imputed criminal guilt is that of complicity in the unlawful acts.

    By this logic point #1 (I'll use the post's bullet points) of god imparting the sins of Adam upon his descendants is destroyed and, therefore, point #3 of Jesus' righteousness being given over as a credit is rendered moot. I mean, that assumes we take the Genesis story of Adam and Eve as literal and The Fall as an actual historical event (which I do not). And since The Fall is the foundational story of Christianity, this is a problem for anyone who wants to support the traditional Christian interpretation of the Bible.

    From this argument Original Sin must be discarded. This leaves only two good options that I can think of at the moment: sin/atonement as given in the Christian story can be ignored or there would have to be as many small, individual falls as there are individual people. I, being non-religious, choose option one. But a theoretical case can be made for option two.

    The question then becomes, "What, if any, implications are there for the Christian story if Original Sin must be rejected as a doctrine but the idea of sin/atonement is to be kept?"

  3. Zdenny, since you are apparently one of the few people who actually understand PST, perhaps you could be so kind as to explain it to us?

  4. Geds,

    McIlwain argues that the sin of Adam can be legitimately imputed to man because man is organically connected to him and man validates the sin of Adam by also committing sin. Now there is a problem here, which I alluded to in my parenthesis, namely, that it doesn't seem just for God to punish man for doing what he could not avoid doing. Adam could have avoided sin but his descendants cannot, at least according to evangelical thelogy. Every man is born with a sin nature and will sin, according to ET.

    If you drop original sin or imputed sin, as Pelagius did, then theoretically each man could avoid sinning in his life. Some Pelagians argued for example that Job never sinned. Job is called a "perfect" man. However, Augustine argued forcefully against Pelagius and his teachings, Pelagianism, were condemed as heretical in the 5th century.

  5. I always thought this text refuted the doctrine of imputed righteousness:

    "Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous." (1 John 3:7)

    Evangelicalism is committed to the opposite idea: Doing what is right has nothing to do with being truly righteous. A friend of mine once said that the standard doctrine of justification means "God fools himself into thinking we're righteous when we aren't."

  6. Ken,

    What do you think of the concept that believers are "in Christ" and were in Christ from eternity. That they participated in some way in his death, burial and resurrenction. Therefore in they participated in the payment for sin.

  7. Steve, You are right. That is just one more example of where the theology of John differs from the theology of Paul. There are many of these.

    Rover, well if they were in Christ from eternity, then they should have never sinned and if they did, then their sinning contaminated Christ.

  8. Thanks, Ken, for your comments.

    Having recently found this reference to my website, I should clarify that I have never claimed to have been supported in mission in China. I would prefer not to be called a missionary for this reason. About my book - I have added four extra chapters and further comments in the Addenda: 'Penal Substitution - Answering the Advocates' (with ref. to PFOT). This can be found here:

    Or, navigate via the 'Contents' page:



  9. Norman,

    Thanks for your comments. I look forward to reading your new chapters. Would you be willing to share with us what your current religious beliefs are?

    And I will change the post to remove the referece to you being a missionary.