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Monday, November 9, 2009

How Important is the Penal Substitutionary Theory to Evangelicals?

In a previous post entitled, Why Do I Focus on the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement?, I laid out a "who's who" of evangelical theologians who support voicferously the PST of the atonement. This is not a peripheral doctrine according to Evangelicals. It is at the very heart and core of what they believe about Christianity.

Today, I want to demonstrate this fact further. Al Mohler is the President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.

In 2005, shortly after the anti-PST book by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, came out, Mohler wrote the following on his blog:

The doctrine of penal substitution--the understanding that, on the cross, Christ died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sin--is described as "a form of cosmic child abuse"[in The Lost Message of Jesus].In their words: "The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse--a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed." They go further to suggest that "such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement 'God is love'."

The penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement--the doctrine that has stood at the very center of evangelical faith--is rejected as based on a misunderstanding of the cross, described as a "twisted version of events" that is "morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith."

Attacks upon the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement are hardly new--in fact they are to be found among some who would claim to be evangelicals in the United States. Evangelical identity is at stake in this controversy. But, far beyond that, the Gospel is at stake.

In an interview conducted in 2009, John MacArthur, the President of The Master's College and Seminary in Southern California, was asked about the cosmic child abuse claim in the book, The Lost Message of Jesus. Here is what he said:

My response to that is that you couldn’t be a Christian and say that. That’s just…that’s outright heresy.

It sounds like the language of a flat-out anti-Christian pagan atheist mocking the cross of Jesus. That’s mockery. That’s…that’s outright mockery. These people…and he thinks he’s really cute and clever, this kind of stuff is going to shock people…and it does, that’s why it stood out when you read it. But this is not even Christian thinking.

John Piper, the Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and one of the most prolific evangelical authors, had the following to say about the importance of the PST.

Oh, how I wish that at least here, at the center of the gospel, there would be common ground among those who claim to be followers of Jesus today. But that’s not the case, and one of the reasons is that the postmodern mind, inside and outside of the church, has no place for the biblical truth of the wrath of God. And therefore, it has no place for a wrath-bearing Savior who endures God’s curse that we might go free. One of the most infamous and tragic paragraphs written by a church leader in the last several years heaps scorn on one of the most precious truths of the atonement: Christ’s bearing our guilt and God’s wrath.

After quoting the famous "cosmic child abuse" passage from the Lost Message of Jesus (pp. 182-183), Piper continues:

With one cynical stroke of the pen, the triumph of God’s love over God’s wrath in the death of his beloved Son is blasphemed, while other church leaders write glowing blurbs on the flaps of his book. But God is not mocked. His word stands firm and clear and merciful to those who will embrace it.

Wayne Grudem, Professor of Theology at Phoenix Seminary and author of one of the leading Systematic Theology textbooks for Evangelical schools, was asked if he agreed with John Piper's assessment that the cosmic child abuse statement was blasphemy. Here is what he said:

(1) Yes. (2) Yes. (3) Yes. Chalke is denying the heart of the Gospel. (Ed: Grudem has since retracted his agreement to the use of the word blasphemy of Chalke but not his strong criticism of Chalke's views)

Evangelicals in the academic world battled against liberals in scholarly writings about this issue fifty years ago, and I think that evangelicals like Leon Morris won the argument and won the theological battle. Now Chalke is giving away the hard-won victory. He is giving away the heart of the Gospel. I would never agree to give my approval to anyone who denies penal substitutionary atonement to be an elder at a church I attended, or to be a pastor or Bible teacher, or to teach at a theological seminary where I had influence on the appointment.

So, you have four of the leading evangelical theologians in the USA saying that the PST of the Atonement is the heart of the gospel, the center of the gospel, and the doctrine that has stood at the very center of evangelical faith. According to them, those who deny the PST: 1) are not true evangelicals, 2) are not true Christians, 3) are outright heretics, 4) are speaking the language of anti-Christian pagan atheists, and 5)are committing blasphemy. Is there really any doubt as to how important the PST is to evangelicalism?

As a personal illustration, yesterday I went with my mother to her Southern Baptist Church in Northeast Georgia. The Pastor preached from Hebrews 12 and made it emphatically clear that only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ which was offered to God in place of sinners could man be saved and avoid an eternity in hell. While that pastor may not even know the terminology, Penal Substitutionary Theory, he certainly knows and believes the doctrine.


  1. Just want to drop in and say how much I really love this blog. It is an education. Thanks. I've been "de-converting" now for about a year. You give voice to what my emotions have been nudging me to reject. I understand now why the brutal theology of Evangelical Christianity, has not jived with the peace I sought with the faith. For me, my Christian world-view helped lead to a pretty awful emotional break-down. My recovery is contingent upon the practice of reason. Your blog helps strengthen my reasoning abilities. I appreciate you. Peace.

  2. Ken, perhaps you can define the wrath of God for me. I bet you just like the sound of the word wrath and have no idea what the wrath of God involves.

    I have so much fun reading your blog because you are suppose to have a PHD and you make so many obvious mistakes in your understanding of the PST.

    You are always quoting theologians; however, you never deal with the Scripture itself.

    The bottom line is that if you don't understand everything and I mean everything (implying you are God), then Christianity is false. The logic doesn't follow... :) It is the same mistake that Eve made in the garden wasn't it?

    God Bless...

  3. In skimming a lot of those articles, it seems as though the author's say that Chalke got it wrong, in terms of the PST. But they don't really say why. They provide some Bible quotes, they say that it's nothing like a vengeful God causing an innocent man to suffer for something he didn't do, that it's not cosmic child abuse ... and then don't really elaborate why.

    The other thing is that in reading Chalke's book, I didn't detect any elements of scorn or mockery. He was genuinely concerned with the direction of the Church, with how Christianity is portrayed in the culture today, and why so many people reject it -- and he highlighted PST as a big reason. He highlighted why -- the cosmic child abuse, because that is how a lot of people see it.

    Instead, he gets labeled as a "anti-Christian pagan atheist" or "cute and clever."

  4. Staunch Calvinists like these guys always get their Fruits of the Loom in a knot over dogmas that don't fit the strict orthodoxy template. So many relish putting on the "doctrinal police" badge, like Barney Fife, parading around all solemn and authoritative ... sanctimonious big-shots for God. And they toss around the word "heresy" all the time, emulating their murderous forefather, John Calvin, who was more than willing to visit death upon the alleged heretic.

  5. Ken, perhaps you can define the wrath of God for me. I am still waiting on you to define the wrath of God...

    I will give you a hint. Jesus said a few words on the cross that give you some insight.

    A man with a PHD would certainly not allow a stone to remain unturned.

    This may be your turning point back to the Christian faith so define the WRATH of GOD Biblically.

  6. I think Christianity in general is the ultimate abusive relationship. We screw up, God throws us in hell for all eternity. It's okay, because we deserve it. If we hadn't told a lie, gotten mad at our husbands, been more submissive (ahem), he wouldn't have to do such horrible things to us. But he's so nice to give us a way out. Isn't he wonderful? They say it's a "relationship" built on "love." No, it's not! It's a group of people begging God to listen as they pray to empty space with no answer, and continuing to follow the ideas because the alternative is eternal punishment. For the conservative denominations, anyways. I know some of the more liberal ones don't even believe in hell at all. In which case, I have decided I will know God when I get to heaven, and why bother killing myself to try to find him now? (Of course, added with some other things, I don't really believe in God at all, anymore, but if he does exist in liberal Christian form, I will be quite happy to get to know him in the future! I am just not betting on it!)

    This is why I get aggravated when people prescribe more God to me as a way to fix the problems God created in my life in the first place.

  7. (I am having trouble posting just my name. I promise I am not trying to promote my site. Blogger keeps giving me errors when I try to sign in under anything else, and yesterday, I couldn't post at all. I don't know what's going on. User error, I'm sure. My apologies!)

  8. redheadedskeptic,
    I'm so glad I discovered your site thru this site. And I agree a relationship with God is like an abusive relationship-so many parallels. It's a no-win situation trying to be in that "relationship." Never could see how you can have a relationship with someone who doesn't talk back, but...

  9. Chuck--Thanks for the kind words. I am glad that my "labor is not in vain" as Paul would have said.

    OneSmallStep--you are exactly right. Chalke is a fellow evangelical to these guys. They condemn him but do not explain why he is wrong, except to say that PST is at the heart of their belief system. As Steve says, evangelicals are a grumpy bunch when it comes to "messing" with any of their dogmatic teaching. Many take delight in "standing for the faith" and see it as their duty to go around Christendom pointing out everyone's errors except their own.

    Redhead, I am glad to have you here. I am glad you included your site name as I have found it an interesting blog. We all come at this thing from different angles and different life experiences but we are united in having finally thrown off the mental straightjacket called evangelicalism.

  10. FormerFundy,

    **hey condemn him but do not explain why he is wrong, except to say that PST is at the heart of their belief system.**

    I wonder how much of this behavior can be traced back to the authoritative nature of their religion. In their religion, God doesn't owe you an explanation. Whatever He says, goes, because He's God and He's in charge. The everything's set up simply is.

    And then we see those who follow this religion simply saying that PST is standard and the only Biblical thing, without actually providing any sort of proof. Whatever they say, goes. It's enough that it's stated -- it doesn't need to be explained.

  11. Hmmm… Define the Wrath of God, aye?

    In the Bible, there are 10 occurrences of the Phrase “Wrath of God”. The Number, 10, signifies Divine Perfection – The Perfect Wrath of God.

    There are 29 occurrences of the phrase “Day of the Lord”. The number, 29, is the combination of 20, the number of expectation, and 9, the number of judgment. The Day of the Lord is an Expected Judgment.

    So between the two numbers, 10 and 29, we have the idea that the Prefect Wrath of God is a part of an Expected Judgment in the Day of the Lord.

    Also there are 39 occurrences of the phrases “Wrath of God” and the “Day of the Lord” together. 39 is the number of stripes that Jesus received and by His Stripes we are healed and also escape God’s Judgment or Wrath, because God is not willing that ANY should perish and is the savior of ALL men and Jesus, Himself, said that He would draw ALL men to Him.

    So why worry about God’s Wrath, ZDENNY? God’s Wrath is appeased. Unless, of course, you doubt the Bible and Jesus’ Words and think He failed to do God’s Will.