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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Charles Spurgeon on the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement

An old acquaintance of mine from my Christian days, Phil Johnson, is the Executive Director of Grace to You, the broadcast and publishing ministry of John MacArthur. MacArthur is one of the best known evangelicals on the contemporary scene. I met Phil in 1995 when I was still a Bible college professor. Phil took me to lunch and gave me several of MacArthur's books that I didn't already have. He was a very gracious host that day.

Phil has a website which is called The Spurgeon Archive. For those that don't know the name, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was a famous Baptist pastor in London in the 19th century. He was a great orator and a staunch Calvinist. Even 100 plus years after his death, Spurgeon's sermons are still widely read and he is highly revered in conservative evangelical circles.

On Phil's very popular blog, Pyromaniacs, he recently had a post concerning Spurgeon's affirmation of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement. In the post, Phil linked to a sermon preached by Spurgeon on April 15th, 1860 entitled, Christ—Our Substitute. In the sermon, Spurgeon defends the PST of the atonement against some in his day who were denying it. In reading the sermon, I found that Spurgeon is guilty of several contradictions within his own theology. He, as most defenders of the PST today, failed to recognize the internal contradictions.

Let me make myself clear. I am not criticizing his view from the standpoint of an agnostic. I am assuming for the sake of argument the truth of classic orthodox Christianity and then evaluating his teaching based on the doctrines he claimed to hold.

Spurgeon says: . . . the ground of punishment lies in the positive guilt of the offender. I believe that when a man does wrong, he ought to be punished for it, and that there is a guilt in sin which justly merits punishment.

I fully agree.

Then Spurgeon says of Jesus: he did not share in the original depravity, so he did not share in the imputed sin of Adam which we have inherited—not, I mean, in himself personally, though he took the consequences of that, as he stood as our representative.

I agree with Spurgeon that orthodox Christianity has held that Jesus was sinless.

Spurgeon continues: All that were in the loins of Adam sinned in him when he touched the fruit; but Jesus was not in the loins of Adam. Though he might be conceived of as being in the womb of the woman—"a new thing which the Lord created in the earth,"—he lay not in Adam when he sinned, and consequently no guilt from Adam, either of depravity of nature, or of distance from God, ever fell upon Jesus as the result of anything that Adam did. I mean upon Jesus as considered in himself though he certainly took the sin of Adam as he was the representative of his people.

Here he is making the claim that Jesus did not inherit the depravity that every other man does because Jesus was born of a virgin. Technically, the Bible nowhere says that Jesus was free from inherited sin due to the virgin birth but this is a common evangelical assertion. The fact is that classic Christianity has held that Jesus was fully man, having inherited a human nature from his mother Mary, albeit not a sinful nature. Roman Catholics have been sensitive to the problem of how Jesus could not be sinful if he was born of a sinful woman. Thus, they have pushed the problem back one place in saying that Mary herself was immaculately conceived. The Catholic Encyclopedia says: Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul. Evangelicals deny this but nevertheless say that the human nature Jesus received from Mary was not a sinful nature.

Spurgeon then says: The fact is, brethren, that in no sense whatever—take that as I say it—in no sense whatever can Jesus Christ ever be conceived of as having been guilty. He knew no sin. Not only was he not guilty of any sin which he committed himself, but he was not guilty of our sins. No guilt can possibly attach to a man who has not been guilty. He must have had complicity in the deed itself, or else no guilt can possibly be laid on him.

Apparently Spurgeon does not realize that he just contradicted his earlier statement: the ground of punishment lies in the positive guilt of the offender.

Our sense of justice, which Spurgeon would no doubt argue comes from the fact that we are made in the image of God, tells us that the person who commits the crime is the person deserving of punishment. To punish an innocent person would be a miscarriage of justice.

How does Spurgeon attempt to free himself from the horns of this dilemma? He says:
Jesus Christ was made by his Father sin for us, that is, he was treated as if he had himself been sin. He was not sin; he was not sinful; he was not guilty; but, he was treated by his Father, as if he had not only been sinful, but as if he had been sin itself. That is a strong expression used here. Not only hath he made him to be the substitute for sin, but to be sin. God looked on Christ as if Christ had been sin; not as if he had taken up the sins of his people, or as if they were laid on him, though that were true, but as if he himself had positively been that noxious—that God-hating—that soul-damning thing, called sin.

I note several problems here. First, Spurgeon says that Christ was not sinful but that he was treated by his Father as if he were sinful. How is that just? How can you treat someone as sinful when they in fact are not sinful? Second, Spurgeon says that Jesus somehow actually became sin. He appears to be treating sin as some type of abstract thing. Is that how the Bible presents sin? No, it presents sin as an action done by human beings. It is the transgression of the law. The Bible does not present God as angry with sin but as angry with sinners. Sin cannot be somehow divorced from the sinner and treated abstractly.

Spurgeon continues:
The righteous Lord looked on Christ as being sin, and therefore Christ must be taken without the camp. Sin cannot be borne in God's Zion, cannot be allowed to dwell in God's Jerusalem; it must be taken without the camp, it is a leprous thing, put it away. Cast out from fellowship, from love, from pity, sin must ever be. Take him away, take him away, ye crowd! Hurry him through the streets and bear him to Calvary. Take him without the camp—as was the beast which was offered for sin without the camp, so must Christ be, who was made sin for us. And now, God looks on him as being sin, and sin must bear punishment. Christ is punished. The most fearful of deaths is exacted at his hand, and God has no pity for him. How should he have pity on sin? God hates it.

Classic Christian orthodoxy, since the time of Chalcedon (451 CE), has taught that Jesus was both human and divine, albeit only one person. A full human nature and a full divine nature somehow inhabited the one person of Jesus. Spurgeon has just said that God is angry with sin and that it cannot be in his presence, etc. If that is so, how could sin in anyway be attached to the person of Jesus where a full divine nature dwelt?

Spurgeon continues his sermon:
He turns his eye to heaven, he sees nothing there. How should he? God cannot look on sin, and sin can have no claim on God: "My God, my God," he cries, "why hast thou forsaken me?" O solemn necessity, how could God do anything with sin but forsake it? How could iniquity have fellowship with God? Shall divine smiles rest on sin? Nay, nay, it must not be. Therefore is it that he who is made sin must bemoan desertion and terror. God cannot touch him, cannot dwell with him, cannot come near him. He is abhorred, cast away; it hath pleased the Father to bruise him; he hath put him to grief. At last he dies.

Here Spurgeon claims that Jesus was forsaken by his Father because as he puts it, God cannot touch him, cannot dwell with him, cannot come near him. He is abhorred, cast away. . .

My question is this: Did Jesus cease to be God while on the cross? If he did not, then how could his divine nature, which Spurgeon claims cannot touch sin, cannot dwell with sin, etc., have remained while Jesus was made sin for us? It seems that the very person of Christ must have been divided, even though the Chalcedonian Creed states that the these two natures are "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation." It seems to me that either the Chalcedonian creed is in error or the PST of the atonement is in error.

In addition, if the Father forsook the Son, then a break within the supposedly indivisible Trinity took place. Thus, again, either the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity is in error or the PST of the atonement is in error.

How does one explain this? Spurgeon makes no effort to do so and I am not sure he is even aware of his theological inconsistencies.

Spurgeon quotes from Jonathan Edwards, Puritan preacher from the 18th century:
"If any man could disprove the doctrines of the gospel, he should then sit down and weep to think they were not true, for," says he, "it would be the most dreadful calamity that could happen to the world, to have a glimpse of such truths, and then for them to melt away in the thin air of fiction, as having no substantiality in them."

While I never set out to disprove the doctrines of the gospel, as Edwards phrases it, I have arrived at the conclusion that they do "melt away in the thin air of fiction, as having no substantiality in them." Does it make me happy to admit that I was wrong for 20 plus years? No, it does not. I have wept many a tear over the loss of my faith. It is a deeply traumatic thing both emotionally and psychologically. However, I have to be honest with myself. The doctrines I used to believe are in my mind fictious. Am I sad today? No, I am, as Bart Ehrman calls himself, a happy agnostic. There is something liberating about intellectual honesty. As Socrates is reported to have said, the unexamined life is not worth living.


  1. Am I sad today? No, I am, as Bart Ehrman calls himself, a happy agnostic. There is something liberating about intellectual honesty. As Socrates is reported to have said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

    Quoted for truth.

    Once I got over the initial stages of fear, regret, then a desire for self-flagellation over my own attempts to push Christianity, I've found I get a bit happier every day. Or, at least, every week or so.

    Especially on Sundays when I go grocery shopping at 10 am and no one else is in the store.

  2. "I have wept many a tear over the loss of my faith. It is a deeply traumatic thing both emotionally and psychologically."

    This I believe is what the Christian critic of the deconvert fails to see and comprehend. We have wept and mourned at the conclusion that many of us neither sought nor desired. Yet eyes once opened to the light of reason can never deny what they have seen.

    Peace to you.

  3. Thank you for your post today. I also have struggled emotionally to say good bye to a faith I had for 30 years.

  4. Spurgeon ... how I adored him. I devoured his sermons, even reading an entire volume of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit from cover to cover. His words were often a balm of comfort when I suffered the depression and anxiety brought on by the despicable Calvinist theology he himself imbibed. Strange -- almost like an abusive relationship: He would present a theology that made me miserable, then he'd cheer me up with encouraging words.

  5. Penal Substitution is not a biblical doctrine. It contradicts the Hebrew Bible and the Teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels.
    Paul of Tarsus is the first to insinuate this absurd theory that allegedly one god-man died to remove sin. Here are some of the problems with this doctrine:

    1. It creates problems for the bible. Why were people punished for their sins in the bible? Why was Adam considered guilty and how was he forgiven? What about Jonah and his forgiveness? What about the penitential Psalms of David? What about Jesus and the lord prayer ... etc.
    It is impossible to square penal substitution with anything in the Bible. Just read Deut 24:16.

    2. It posits that Jesus became a curse to redeem sinners according to the blunders of Paul (see Gal 3:13). How? this makes no sense. It is obvious that Paul is not quite sure either what he is talking about once you read the verse.

    3. It assumes that sin is a spiritual death even though according to Christianity the spirit does not die! Why introduce a problematic metaphor? Nonetheless, it gets worse than that. The metaphor of spiritual death, rather than understood metaphorically, get to be literalized into a historical context! Evangelicals are confusing literal and metaphorical truth. Why isn't sin metaphorically a 'spiritual valley' since a valley is a segregation in the same manner death is understood to be? At this point could the evangelicals say that Jesus would have to become a valley, literally, to forgive sins?! Otherwise, how exactly does death (of an innocent man!) forgive sins?

    3. It assumes universalism (many evangelicals are!) and allows everyone to freely commit sin since they are no longer condemned or held accountable for committing sin. Penal substitution sounds like a blank check!

    4. It fails to address the argument of infinite good. It assumes that even the slightest of sin is eternal, but ... what about a minor good action, is it also an eternal good since they are allegedly against an infinite god? Evangelicals insist that humans cannot possibly create an infinite amount of good and thus break their own standard.

    5. It fails to show how a 'momentary' death of a god-man should take care of the 'eternal' sin of many.

    6. It assumes that God is both unforgiving and unjust! If there is a payment then there is no forgiveness. If someone else pays your debt thats atonement and not forgiveness. forgiveness is more gracious than atonement. By the same token, it fails miserably when it comes to justice. Holding an innocent person morally accountable for others' personal failures is not achieving justice. What is the point of killing an innocent person anyway if the offender is off the hook?

    7. It fails miserably to communicate spiritually and effectively with sinners. It lacks a certain spiritual element to it. Words such as Judge, Debt, Court, Law, Payment, and so forth are used continuously to make analogies. It is too legal and too mechanical for something that is meant to be too personal and too spiritual. The sinner is almost better off consulting a lawyer than a priest under penal substitution!

    George Howard

  6. George,

    I am not sure what theory of the atonement you hold but it is my opinion that a good exegetical case can be made that the Scriptures teach the PST of the atonement. 2 Cor. 5:21, the text used by Spurgeon in this sermon is a good example. I would suggest you read Leon Morris epic book, The Cross in the New Testament. I think he sets out a very strong case that the NT teaches the PST.

    Now whether you agree that it does or not really doesn't matter because the fact is that evangelical Christianity overwhelmingly accepts PST as biblical. Not only as biblical but as a non-negotiable truth of evangelicalism. See my previous post on the subject.

    My whole point is that Evangelical Theology is internally contradictory.

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