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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Penal Substitution and the Trinity

In the recent book defending the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement (PST), Pierced for Our Transgressions, the authors state:

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty of sin. This understanding of the cross of Christ stands at the very heart of the gospel. . . . That the Lord Jesus Christ died for us—a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place—has been the wellspring of the hope of countless Christians throughout the ages. (p. 21)

The key elements in PST are: 1) Man has sinned against God; 2) God is holy and cannot excuse sin(ners); 3) God’s holiness results in his anger and wrath focused against sin(ners); 4) Jesus Christ, the Son of God, bore the full wrath of God against sin(ners) on the cross and completely propitiated God; 5) This propitiation enables God to righteously forgive sinners, declare them righteous and thereby reconcile them to himself. (I have used sin[ners] because as I understand the Bible, God's wrath is not focused against sin in the abstract but against sin as it manifests itself in human beings, i.e. sinners).

PST advocates believe that this teaching is clearly seen in Romans 3:21-26:

But now apart from the Law {the} righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even {the} righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. {This was} to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, {I say,} of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

It is believed that Paul here is explaining how God can remain just (i.e., righteous) and yet still be able to justify (i.e., declare righteous) sinners. He is able to do this because of the propitiation made by his Son, Jesus Christ on the cross. A key word here is obviously, propitiation . The Greek word, hilasterion , can mean either to “placate or appease” or “to expiate.” (C.H. Dodd has argued for "expiation" but most scholars have sided with Leon Morris in translating it, propitiation.) The Greek word occurs 4 times in the New Testament (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; Hebrews 2:17). In classical Greek, the word is used to refer to sacrifices which appeased the gods. So, the PST view is that through the death of Christ on the cross, God’s wrath against sin(ners) has been “propitiated”, i.e., placated, satisfied, turned away (they don't like to use the word "appease" because of its pagan connotations). This is because Christ bore in his own body the punishment that was due to sin(ners). See also 1 Peter 2:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 and I John 2:2. Now that God’s holy wrath has been quenched, He can reconcile sinners to himself and declare them righteous.

What are the problems with this view?

1. Is it only the Father that needs to be propitiated or is it the Trinity, including the Son and Holy Spirit?

2. If it is only the Father, then how can the Son and the Spirit be said to be fully God? It seems that if they were equally holy as the Father, their nature would also demand that they be propitiated.

Yet, the New Testament speaks of the Father sending the Son to die (John 3:16, etc.) and of the Father being the one whose wrath is turned away (Romans 3:25, etc). The NT never speaks of the Son nor the Spirit being propitiated.

3. If the need for propitiation does include the Son and the Spirit, then how does the Son propitiate himself?

First, it seems to be a contradiction for the same person to be both the subject and the object of the verb, “propitiate” (notwithstanding the arguments to the contrary in Pierced, pp. 282ff.) How does one quench his own wrath by punishing himself?

Second, even if its not a contradiction, how exactly does the Son accomplish the propitiation? The penalty for sin is death and God cannot die (by definition). Thus when Jesus died on the cross bearing the penalty for man’s sin, it was not his divinity that suffered and died but rather his humanity. If it was just his humanity, then why was the incarnation necessary? Could God not have just created another perfect Adam and had him pay for the sins of the world? Most theologians would say that the death of Christ is infinitely valuable precisely because he was God. But as I have already pointed out, God cannot die so it was not his deity that died.

Third, I do not believe that the hypostatic union of the Person of Christ answers this problem. The hypostatic union states that there are two complete natures, human and divine, in the one person of Jesus Christ. These two natures communicate their attributes to the single person, thus making the person both divine and human at the same time. However, it also states that these natures are not confused or mixed or inter-mingled but rather retain their distinctions. The early Church hotly debated these matters in the so-called Christological controversies but the final conclusion was stated in the Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
If the divine nature cannot die, then it cannot pay the penalty for sin. If only the human nature died, then it did not have inherent value sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world. To say the person who was both God and Man died would not solve the problem, in my opinion, because it remains true that the divine nature in the person of Christ could not and did not die.

Fourth, if one holds that the person of Christ (which was both human and divine) did in fact die a spiritual death (which is the penalty for sin), then you have the untenable position that there was at least for a time a split in the Trinity. If the God-man Jesus Christ suffered the penalty for sin as our subsitute then he must have suffered "spiritual death." What is spiritual death? It is being cut-off from the presence and blessing of God. Is this what happened when Jesus cried from the cross: My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Listen to Luther and Calvin on this.

Luther: ‘Christ himself suffered the dread and horror of a distressed conscience that tasted eternal wrath;’ ‘it was not a game, or a joke, or play-acting when he said, “Thou hast forsaken me”; for then he felt himself really forsaken in all things even as a sinner is forsaken” (Werke, 5. 602, 605)
Calvin:‘he bore in his soul the dreadful torments of a condemned and lost man’ (Inst. 11. xvi. 10).

Modern advocates of PST have basically followed Luther and Calvin's lead on this matter. For example, J. I. Packer in his article entitled, The Logic of Penal Subsitution, writes:
Calvin explained Christ’s descent into hell: hell means Godforsakenness, and the descent took place during the hours on the cross.
Yet neither Packer nor any of the other PST advocates that I have read attempt to explain how the second Person of the Trinity can be separated even for a few hours from the other two members. This seems like a logical dilemma for those advocates.

Therefore, it is my opinion that the PST actually is inconsistent with classical orthodox teaching on the Trinity.


  1. You've done a great job of exposing the irrationality of this doctrine. It is logically inconsistent with itself in the extreme. Plus, it makes Jesus out to be the loving Person of the trinity who saves us from the angry Person of the trinity. (No wonder people love Jesus more than the Father.)

    Back in the early 1990s, I read an old, disintegrating book about unitarian Christianity and, within a matter of hours, realized what preposterous rubbish the whole trinity dogma really is. It's not taught with any clarity whatsoever in the Bible (a book that supposedly reveals it to mankind). In fact, the Bible contradicts the idea all over the place in the clearest language imaginable. But that didn't stop the centuries of absurd theologizing about the nature of Jesus and the "persons" of the Godhead from doctors of divinity. (Imagine the blank stares these theologians would have gotten had they tried to explain the teaching to Peter, John or any other ancient disciple.)

    As a unitarian, I constantly ran up against the idea you're expressing here: Jesus had to be God in order to make a sacrifice sufficient to propitiate our sins. But when pressed, advocates of this doctrine will admit that Jesus' divine self didn't die on the cross at all. That's the point at which the whole scheme unravels like a ball of string.

  2. Ken:
    I agree with SteveJ - this is an excellent series.

  3. I am absolutely certain that you don't have a PHD. A person who really had a PHD would not have made so many mistakes in an argument.

    I would recommend that you spend some more time thinking these issues through. You have not presented the Biblical perspective on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and have made a number of obvious errors which tells me you are not famaliar with the arguments.

    What is your purpose in misrepresenting your identity?

  4. I find the attacks issued at you saddening Ken.

    I've found the whole bloodthirsty God notion repugnant since I was baptized at 17. Thankfully I was baptized by some Mennonites that never thought it was important in the first place! I'm really a follower of Dallas Willard's thought on the matter nowadays...which is...

    The whole obsession with atonement theories is the problem with Christianity in general (see first or second chapter of Spirit of the Disciplines)! I say we kill Jesus every time we do that because we teach the ideas of men as doctrines (truth).

  5. Sam,

    Don't worry about ZDenny. He will be okay once he gets back on his meds.

    Interesting that you are a fan of Dallas Willard. A guy that used to be on staff at the same Baptist church that I was in Arizona is now a member of the Vineyard and he just recommended some Dallas Willard articles to me. I am in the process of reading his article: On Knowledge and Naturalism. Its fascinating.

  6. Sam, BTW, can you provide me with a link where Dallas says that obsession with atonement theories is the problem? I would love to read it in context.

  7. Ken, the difference between you and me is that I rely on the Scripture to speak for itself. It is very obvious that you consider non-Biblical sources your source of thought. If you allowed the Bible to speak for itself and followed the internal logic, you would see that it is consistent.

  8. I reject penal substitution. This came about after much meditation on prevenient grace. I have come across an alternate view of the atonement. To me this one seems to bring it all together, such that "righteousness is APART from the law". The guy who wrote this piece I believe is anabaptist, I'm methodist and it really speaks to me and conforms to my understanding of a God that never changes.,mnOD=PDF,mnOD=My%20Documents,dc=pjc,dc=pnmc,dc=mennonite,dc=net

  9. There is hope that there would be those reading this who have "seen" organized 'religion' for what it is, and not what it pretends to be, and have realized, not just read, that "the natural man does not receive the things that are of The Spirit of G-D, for they are foolishness unto him and he can not know them, for the things that are of The Spirit of G-D need to be Spiritually discerned".......

    As for "Pure And Undefiled Religion".......

    "Pure religion and undefiled before G-D The Father is this, to visit the fatherless (those children who know not their Father, HE WHO is The Only True G-D, Father{Creator} of ALL) and widows(those who are not joined together as One with The Messiah, His Brethren and Our Father) in their affliction and to keep oneself uncontaminated by the world."(James1:27)

    Simply, all other religion is impure and defiled.......

    And notice that "pure and undefiled" religion is "oneself(individual)", The Brethren of The Messiah doing The Will of Our Father, as they are led by The Holy, Set Apart, Spirit.......

    Simply, corporate "religion" is pagan and of this wicked world ;-(

    "Brethren" is not "religion", for what are The Brethren of The Messiah and sons of Our Father if not Family?

    And would not The Family of The Only True G-D, Father(Creator) of ALL, "The Body of The Messiah", be much closer than a natural, fleshly family?

    And so it is that most of those who have chosen to follow The Messiah on "The Narrow Way" have had to "forsake their natural father, mother, brothers, sisters" and all others who will not follow The Messiah because they "love this wicked world and their own life in and of it".......

    The Brethren of The Messiah have "forsaken all for The Kingdom of Heaven's sake".......

    They are truly "strangers and pilgrims while on the earth".......

    Father Help! and HE does.......

    What is declared to be "religion" today is the 'd'evil's playground indeed.......

    Simply, Faith will not create a system of religion.......

    Hope is there would be those who take heed unto The Call of The Only True G-D to "Come Out of her, MY people"!

    For they will "Come Out" of this wicked world(babylon) and it's systems of religion, and enter into "the glorious Liberty of The Children of The Only True G-D".

    And so it is that they will no longer be of those who are destroying the earth(air, water, land, vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Light, Truth, Life, Love, Peace, Hope, Faith, Mercy, Grace, Miracles,,, All that is Truly Good).......

    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world and it's systems of religion, for "the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one" (1John5:19) indeed and Truth.......

    Thankfully Truth IS, lies never existed and never will.......

    Abide in The Truth....... francis