Theories of the Atonement – Substitution theory (p.2)

Today’s post is a continuation of a series and is part 2 in our discussion of the Substitution theory.  Click here to read part 1.

Here’s my definition of the Penal Substitution theory:

 “By offering himself as our sacrificial substitute on the Cross, taking upon Himself our sins and thus bearing the punishment that should have been ours, Jesus has fully absorbed the holy and just wrath of God that we deserved. He has thus secured a perfect reconciliation between God and every person who returns to God through Him.”

Penal substitution, then, emphasizes that the guilt and enmity that human sin creates, and the wrath it provokes from God (since God can clearly not forever put up with sin); this sin was borne by Jesus Christ in His own body on the cross, and thus was taken out of the way by His atoning sacrifice.

This theory of the Atonement can be seen in numerous places in the Scriptures, but also traced all the way back through the church fathers. Admittedly, it was not the dominant view through the first several hundred years of church history. Yet it can readily be seen in the writings of the early church fathers (which we will review in the next post.)  Again, it began to have a fuller expression in St. Anselm in the 12th century, and then an even wider and compelling acceptance during the Protestant Reformation of the 16-17th Centuries and beyond.

Cultural and worldview background:

  • The Reformation was a powerful return to Scripture…SOLA SCRIPTURA!…and turning away from medieval and non-biblical church traditions and rituals. The essence of the biblical Gospel was restudied and rethought.  And thus traditional church teachings…that didn’t square with the Scripture were thrown off:  Ransom theory, etc.

Problems and Opponents:

  • Beginning with the Liberalism of the 18-19th Centuries, the Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories have been often criticized and discounted.  Many believe this theory too closely resembles the heathen ideas of blood-sucking deities, who were unstable, capricious, and brutally needing to be appeased.  There has been a resurgence of criticism of these theories in the 21st Century.
  • How could a loving God be capable of vengeance and violence? Wouldn’t killing an innocent Man be breaking God’s own law against murder?
  • Can seem to hide God’s love and mercy, while promoting His justice and wrath.
  • Can look like God has to be appeased before He can love us.
  • Can make God look conflicted…or schizophrenic…two sides battling against the other. Wrath vs mercy. Jesus vs. Father. NT vs OT.
  • Appears to some as a form of “cosmic child abuse”. In popular church discourse, sermon illustrations of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross have fueled complaints about substitution. For example, there is the story of the railroad switching operator who learns that the bridge ahead is out.  He thus needs to switch the tracks to save the lives of hundreds of people on the fast-approaching train. But at that moment he comes to realize that his son is at play in the gears and machinery of the switching station. So he pauses to reconsider.  This illustration has been used by many preachers as an example of the atonement.  But this example actually borders on the grotesque—as we’re told that the man decided to go ahead and sacrifice his son’s life in order to save those on the train. Such an unwitting sacrifice has led to the charge that this idea of the Atonement is suggesting a form of child abuse.
  • By focusing on a legal substitution and pardon, the more enduring reality of God’s fatherly heart of love and of His desire for relationship with His children in every aspect of life can be hidden.

Criticisms not withstanding, each of the above problems with the Substitution theory can be answered by a more thoroughly Biblical explanation of the doctrine.  Before finishing this series by answering these objections, I want to introduce one other major theory of the atonement: the Christus Victor theory.

Stay tuned.

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