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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Can A Person be a "True" Christian and Reject Penal Substitution?

I have repeatedly shown that the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement is not a theory for most evangelicals (see here and here.) It is a fundamental and essential doctrine of the Christian faith. It is for them the sine qua non of true Christianity.

So, when commenters suggest that the Bible really doesn't teach the PST of the atonement, their argument is with their fellow evangelicals Christians who doubt that one can even be a "true" Christian while rejecting the PST.

Listen to D. Martyn Lloyd Jones:

[U]nless you believe that man, by nature, is dead in trespasses and sins, and that there is such a thing as the wrath of God upon sin, whatever else may be true of you, you are not in this holy temple in the Lord, in which God dwells . . . But thank God it does not stop at that, it goes on to tell us about the grace of God . . . the Lord Jesus Christ, His Person and His work . . . it is by His death, by His sacrificial death, by His substituting Himself for us to bear the punishment of our sins, that we are saved. It is by the blood of Christ!

. . . [T]here are people who call themselves Christians who scoff at it. There are leaders in the big denominations who say that it is scandalous to talk about a substitutionary atonement. And I am asked to be one in fellowship with them. How can I be? It is impossible. I have no choice; this is fundamental. The blood of Christ! ‘He bore my sins in his own body on the tree.’ It is by that alone that I am delivered, and by the power of God in regeneration, and the gift of the Spirit
(God’s Way of Reconciliation, 1972, p. 347).

While somewhat more moderate, listen to Garry Williams:

[T]he critics need to say that they do believe in penal substitution itself and just not in warped forms of it. But if the accusation is indeed an accusation against penal substitution itself, as I suspect it is, then I fear that we cannot carry on as we are. As much as I would like to, and mindful of the injunctions of the Lord Jesus Christ himself to seek peace, I find it impossible to agree that this is just an intra-mural, within-the-family dispute, when it has been acknowledged by all parties that we are arguing about who God is, about the creedal doctrine of the Trinity, about the consequences of sin, about how we are saved, and about views which are held to encourage the abuse of women and children. So long as these issues are the issues, and I believe that they have been rightly identified, then I cannot see how we can remain allied together without placing unity above these truths which are undeniably central to the Christian faith. I say this with a heavy heart ("Justice, Law, and Guilt – Evangelical Alliance Symposium on Penal Substitution", 2005).

Also Simon Gathercole:

In the case of substitution, however, it seems that the combination of the Bible’s clarity on the issue … and the fact that it is an essential requirement for assurance means that it is not a legitimate area of disagreement amongst Christians ("The Cross and Substitutionary Atonement" in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 21 [2003]: 155).


  1. This is the #1 fallacy I see used by Christians: No True Scotsman.

  2. Agreed:
    Many evangelical Christians both subscribe the PST.
    Many regard adherence to it as required of every true Christian.
    There is a strong scriptural basis for the PST.

    But it's also true that
    theories in the alternative have run through the history of theology: Origen, Gregory, Aulen, Bultmann, Tillich, Anselm, Clement of Alexandria, Abelard, Schleiermacher all propound views at least elements of which provide a soteriology that might substitute for penal substitution.
    These theories have a scriptural basis. Why does Paul so seldom refer to "guilt"? Why does he so often end up speaking of participation in the death of Christ? Why does Luke speak of Jesus's death as an act of forgiveness?

    Most important, if God is great--far above and beyond man in comprehension and acuity--then we are intellectually and morally frail reeds in comparison to Him. What His sending of Jesus means is something every human but feebly grasps. It would be surprising, flabbergasting, if Luke and Paul and all the other first followers of Jesus--frail reeds, humans--had a firm grasp of the meaning of Jesus's coming. It's only to be expected, given their limits and greatness of God, that they offer us nothing simple or clear or certain as to the meaning of Jesus's presence among us and departure from us.

    To claim certitude and clarity as to what His presence and departure meant can only reflect undue arrogance and presumption--an assertion of powers far closer to God's than any human possesses.

  3. Dear Ken,

    Do you have an opinion on the place of the Book of James and Luke/Acts in this whole matter of the PST?

  4. Dean,

    I don't think James or the book of Acts reflects a developed theory of the atonement. That is not surprising as James was one of the earliest NT writings and of course Acts reflects the preaching of the earliest disciples.

  5. Dear Ken,

    I agree with you about James being early, but not necessarily earlier than Paul. Isn't it interesting that James 1:19-2:27 can address the issue of being "justified," being a fried or enemy of God, and passing through judgment (2:13) without even mentioning the death of Jesus? I am quite familiar with the standard evangelical harmonizations with Paul, which basically sit James's discussion on top of the Pauline substructure as if James just assumed it all. I don't buy that. I think Luther was right to believe that James's teachings implicitly contradict Paul's teaching on atonement and justification.

    Luke includes his versions of Paul's own preaching on several occasions, and an atonement doctrine is noticeably missing in all of them. I presume you already know this. What do you make of it?

    Full disclosure: I have a vested interest in finding alternative early Christian views of how we "pass" in God's judgment. I still believe the NT furnishes sufficient clues for a way to "follow Jesus" that is only good. This is not in any way orthodox and maybe shouldn't be called Christian. Personally, I don't care what it's called anyway.

    As part of my search for clues I would like to believe that at least one of the Biblical authors rejected or at least avoided the absurdities and evils of the PST. Ultimately, though, if that is not possible, I still reject the PST (and a bunch of other orthodox views) nontheless and stand outside the church as a (IMHO) "loyal dissident" follower of Jesus.