The atoning work completed by Jesus Christ on the cross is summarized within a confessional statement penned by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, with the center of his statement being “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Throughout much of Christian history, theologians have reflected upon the connection between the death of Christ, and the sins of the world. These reflections have brought about several models of Christ’s atonement, with some being quite controversial. A proper understanding of Christ’s atonement must take into consideration the precedent set forth within the Old Testament in which God required something to die in the stead of the sinner to serve as a covering for sin. Christ Himself, along with the writers of the New Testament understood that Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. In this paper, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement while be argued for in light of these previously formulated theories by examining the character of God, and His law, in order to more rightly grasp what exactly the law of God requires.
Theories of the Atonement
As previously mentioned, throughout church history there have been various theories on what exactly Christ’s death on the cross was meant to accomplish, and for whom it was meant to be accomplished for. The most prevalent, and widely accepted understanding of the atonement at present is John Calvin’s theory of penal substitution. Charles Ryrie suggested that most of the historical theories of the atonement can be placed in three categories being: (1) views that related the death of Christ to Satan (Origen, Aulen). (2) Views that consider Christ’s death as a powerful example to influence people (Abelard, Socinus, Grotius, Barth). (3) Views that emphasize punishment due to the justice of God as substitution (Anslem, the Reformers). Ryrie adds that there is some truth to the theories that do not include penal substitution, but adds that “it is important to remember that such truth, if there is some, cannot save eternally.” This is because only Christ’s substitutionary death can provide that which God’s justice demands.
Controversies and the Atonement
Mark Rathel recently published an article in the Journal of Baptist Theology and Ministry, in which he recounts several aspects of the controversies that arose between the faculty of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary between 1959 and 1985. This period was named by James Nalls, as the “Period of Extreme Multiformity.” Rathel notes that this time was characterized by experimentation that included replacing traditional categories and abandoning biblical models of the atonement in favor of contemporary models that reject the previously understood legal and forensic categories. Like within liberation theology, the salvific events of Christ were expanded to include the incarnation, earthly life, and resurrection. This spirit of novelty led former New Testament professor, Frank Stagg (1945-1964), to deny the necessity of the death of Christ by saying, “Jesus would not have had to died had men been willing to die-to die the death of self.” To fully understand the necessity of Christ’s atoning death, one must first understand themself in relation to the Law of God.
God’s Character and Sacrificial System
According to Anselm, God is thought to be most fundamentally as “that than which no greater can be conceived” and therefore exhibits maximal perfection. Because of this, the sinfulness of man is the absolute antithesis of God’s holiness, which is to say that God is categorically and ontologically set apart from man. As the prophet Isaiah was standing in the presence of the thrice-holy God with seraphim hovering above the throne declaring “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!”, Isaiah quickly understood the degree of his wretchedness and helplessness in relation to the Lord.
Millard Erickson argues that theories of the atonement must be constructed upon a robust understanding of God’s moral, and spiritual law. The laws that were given to Moses are much more than an arbitrary set of rules, but rather, these laws are a direct expression of God’s character in written form. Erickson goes as far as to say that “the Law is something of a transcript of the nature of God.” That is to say that God has revealed Himself within His Law and has demanded that all those who follow Him must be conformed to His image that is revealed in the Law. Whether a person relates to the Law positively or negatively, the individual should understand that the object that is being related to, is not just an impersonal document or set of regulations, but God Himself.
Before Christ’s atoning death, sacrifices would have to be regularly offered as compensation for the sins committed by the people. These sacrifices were not seen as reforming the sinner, or as a deterrent for later sin, but specifically as an atonement for the person’s sin that deserved punishment. Paul interpreted God’s law in this way and declared in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death” and later in Galatians 6:8 that “whoever sows to please their flesh, from flesh they will reap destruction.” Whenever sin occurs, God demands that the infraction be made right and by His grace, He allowed those in the Old Testament saints to sacrifice a goat, or a lamb in their place. This sacrifice would serve as a covering for their sin. The offering of sacrifices for sin had the objective effect of appeasing God.
The Atonement as the Means for Justification
From a plain reading of Scripture, one can deduce that Jesus Christ was certain of His earthly mission as one in which “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” The apostle Paul understands Christ’s work on the cross as purposed “to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.” The Apostle Peter recognized that Christ “bore our sins on a tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. For you were straying like sheep but have now returned to the Shephard and Overseer of your souls.” The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Articles of Religious Belief, states “Justification is the judicial act of God by which the sinner is declared forgiven and freed from the condemnation of his sin, on the ground of the perfect righteousness of Christ, imputed by grace through faith.” Jesus Christ came, and died to offer the only means by which sinful man can be saved.
Despite the biblical and beautiful notion that God loved the world enough to take on flesh and humble Himself by coming and offering Himself as a propitiation for the sins of the world, the previously mentioned Frank Stagg treated the blood of Christ as a common thing by suggesting Christ’s historical, and literal death on the cross was unnecessary for salvation. Stagg was quoted as having said, “However sophisticated any transactionalism which sees God as unable to forgive sins and save persons until the completion of certain events run against massive biblical evidence.” Trinitarian theologian Fred Sanders suggests to the contrary that “the biblical witness itself gives rise to the impulse to admire God’s work not only in themselves but with respect to God’s eternal being.” Whether deemed necessary or not, Jesus was predestined before the foundations of the world to be sent as its savior, and since that time, the Book of Life has been kept by the Lamb that was slain . The goodness of God flows forth from His plentitude of being to such a degree that “it pleased the LORD to bruise Him” and “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross despising the shame and set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
David L. Allen, of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that “the penal substitutionary atonement… is the bedrock doctrine for explaining the work of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world.” Christ’s death on the cross satisfied the justice and wrath of God against the sinner. Apart from Christ and the atonement that He made for the sins of the world, there is no salvation. The word “penal” is used to describe the punishment in which Christ endured on the cross and the phrase “substitutionary” describes the way in which Christ gave Himself up to take the place of the sinner on the cross. No atonement theory that omits penal substitution, as at least part of the theory, can hope to account adequately for the biblical passages associated with Christ’s work on the cross, especially Isaiah 53 and the New Testament’s use of it. With all of that said, the question must be asked, is that all Christ accomplished on the cross?
Philosophical Challenges **
Ever since Faustus Sonicus, the doctrine of penal substitution has faced a seemingly insuperable philosophical challenges from those practicing the sub-discipline of philosophy of law and their theory of punishment. The doctrine of penal substitution has been dismissed by these philosophers by asserting that it would be unjust for God to punish an innocent person for another person’s sins. These objections can be avoided by properly developing a definition of punishment and a justification of punishment. Sonicus recognized that punishment included harsh treatment, but harsh treatment alone is not sufficient for punishment. Because of this, one must determine what transforms harsh treatment into punishment.
Alec Walen, a philosopher of law, characterized punishment as having to contain at least four basic elements. First, to be considered punishment, the act must include some sort of cost, or hardship imposed upon the person being punished. Secondly, the punisher must do so intentionally, and not as a side-effect of pursuing some other end. Thirdly, the hardship, or loss must be imposed in response to what is perceived as a wrongful action. Finally, the punishment must be imposed, at least in part, as a way of condemning or as a way of sending a message of censure for what is believed to be a wrongful act. At this point, philosophers of law reject penal substitution, not as being immoral for God to punish Christ for other’s wrongs, but because God simply treating Christ harshly does not qualify as real punishment.
**Substitutionary or Compensatory?
Whatever one’s view is concerning the atonement, one must account for what God actually sought to accomplish by sending His Son to be the Savior of the world. Even though Jesus did not have much to say about His death in the first part of His ministry, His understanding of His mission becomes clear as the Apostle John records Jesus saying, “For I have come down from Heaven not to do my own will, but to do the will of Him who sent me”. Furthermore, John declares that “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” All of this is to show that the work of Christ is not independent, or in contrast, to what the Father is doing, but is one and the same. Jesus makes it clear at the Last Supper that He recognizes Himself as the one who will fulfill Isaiah chapter 53 saying, “It is written: ‘and he was numbered with the transgressors’ and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” Jesus also describes Himself in, Mark 10:45, as giving His life to be a ransom for many.
There is no question that Christ humbled Himself, took on flesh, lived a perfect and sinless life to then be crucified, buried, and three days later, rising from the grave to declare victory over sin, death, and the grave after taking the sins of the world upon Himself. The question is, was His death substitutionary, compensatory, or both? A biblical theory of the atonement must include propitiation, which is the appeasement of God’s wrath against sin. Anselm argued that Christ paid the price that was owed by all sinners to God, while the Reformers argued that Christ took on the punishment that the sinner deserved. The problem associated with this question can be seen in a small illustration.
Imagine if a troubled youth steals a person’s car, wrecks the car and is subsequently arrested, tried, and found guilty of this crime. For arguments sake, assume that the owner did not have insurance on the car and therefore had no way to replace it. Now suppose that this car thief had found an innocent by-stander who agreed to serve the car thief’s jail time as his substitute. In this context, most would probably say that what the by-stander did was certainly praiseworthy, but the question would still have to be asked, has justice been done? Have things been made right with the victim of this car thief? It seems not, for the victim still has no car, an innocent man is in jail, and the guilty party is still free.
Now imagine the same scenario, but instead, the innocent by-stander recognizes the troubled youth’s plight, and unbeknownst at the time of the crime, the by-stander finds out that the boy is an orphan and feeling compassion on the orphan boy, adopts the boy as his own son, and in order to make things right, the bystander goes and intercedes on the boy’s behalf. The innocent by-stander goes and meets with the victim of this crime, who for arguments sake, is actually the innocent by-standers own father, and the innocent by-stander tells his father to drop the charges against his newly adopted grandson, and then takes out his checkbook and signs over a blank check to his father saying, “Whatever the damages are, considered them paid in full.” In this way, the by-stander suffers real loss, and therefore punishment, by compensating his father for the loss of the car, the newly adopted son is over-flowing with gratitude and admiration for forgiveness provided him by his savior, and the debt that was owed is paid. Subsequently, it seems that Christ atonement was not only substitutionary, but compensatory as well for He suffered in the place of the sinner, and paid the debt that was owed by the sinner.
The sinner can fully appreciate the atoning work of Christ by considering that, “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the day of judgement.” God, in His perfect justice, could have chosen to save no one, and left the world waiting in their sins in the same way He did the angels, but God chose by His own good will and pleasure to do otherwise. John the Baptist understood the atoning work of Christ as he saw Christ approaching and declared, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
To be sure, in the case of Christ, it was His own blood that paid the debt and served as a substitute for the blood of the sinner while also substituting Himself by enduring not only the shame of the cross, but also the agonizing physical pain associated with it, and the death that followed. Salvation is offered freely to all who will call upon the name of the Lord, but the sinner would be mistaken in thinking that the gift of salvation is free because the Son of God incarnate paid for it with the shedding of His own blood.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” , but also asked that the will of the Father be done. Because Matthew took time to record this prayer, one can be assured that Christ prayed with the fullness of faith, and even so, this prayer shows that it was not possible for Christ to have saved the world in any other way than by His death on the cross. Sin must be atoned for by the shedding of blood. The hymn writer, Elvina M. Hall, understood this quite well when she penned the familiar words “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.”
Charles Ryrie. Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic for Understanding Biblical Truth. Victor Publishing. 309
Mark A. Rathel. “The Cross and the School of Providence and Prayer: Atonement Controversies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary”. JBTM 14.2 (Fall 2017). 23
Thomas V. Morris. Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. (Vancouver: Regent Publishing) 1991, 35
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2013, 733
1 Peter 2:24-25
Fred Sanders., The Triune God: A New Study in Dogmatics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan) 2017. 28
David L. Allen. “Recovering the Gospel: Why Belief in an unlimited Atonement Matters” JBTM, 9.2. Fall 2012. 41
J.P. Moreland and Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic) 2nd ed. 2017. 613
Alec Walen. “Retributive justice” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/justice-retributive.
Moreland and Craig. 615
Erickson, Christian Theology. 736
Ibid., 736. Quoting Luke 22:37
Moreland and Craig. 623
2 Peter 2:4
Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan) 2000, 569
Allen. Recovering the Gospel. 41