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On the Atonement

Jan 25, 2009

At the very heart of the Christian faith is the truth of the atonement. It is the incredible and mysterious work of Christ on our behalf, in which he suffered our just punishment in order that we might be reconciled to God. Without this most basic of beliefs, the Christian faith simply disintegrates.

Of course the atonement has been understood in differing ways over the centuries. Different theories about the atonement exist, and perhaps some truth can be found in each, although some of the theories seem more faithful to the whole of the biblical data than others.

Probably the majority of Christians – certainly evangelicals – have held to some form of penal, substitutionary atonement. By that we mean that in some way there was punishment borne, and this was done in our place. Thus the punishment we deserved as sinners was instead carried by Jesus, our substitute, at Calvary. This view has certainly been championed throughout most of church history, and took on even greater prominence during the Reformation.

But not all believers have endorsed it. For example, consider English emergent church leader Steve Chalke, who was recently here in Australia. He is renowned for his 2004 book, The Lost Message of Jesus, in which he strongly condemned the penal, substitutionary understanding of the atonement, regarding it as “cosmic child abuse”. The context of his remark is this:

“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. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a construct stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil” (pp. 182-183).

This view was quickly and strongly critiqued by many Christian leaders – and rightly so. It seems to seriously deny or distort the biblical understanding of the work of Christ, as well as the nature of God. Of course Chalke is not the first evangelical, or the first Christian, to question the doctrine of penal substitution. So perhaps a bit of background here is in order.

Somewhat recent controversy regarding the doctrine of penal substitution has arisen over how we are to understand a fundamental word group in the New Testament (and Septuagint). This is the hilas- word group. The Greek words built on this are used in differing ways. For example, hilasmos can be rendered propitiation (eg. 1 John 2:2), while hilasterion can be rendered mercyseat (Hebrews 9:5).

But a debate has arisen as to how we deal with the word group. For example, C.H. Dodd in 1931 wrote an influential article in which he sought to argue that the Greek words should be thought of in terms of expiation (the cancellation of sin) instead of propitiation (the turning away of the wrath of God). People like Chalke obviously strongly reject the propitiation understanding of the terms.

But that case has been strongly defended. In 1955 Roger Nicole had an important article in the Westminster Theological Journal challenging Dodd on this. And Australian theologian Leon Morris (d. 2006) has certainly led the way in defending propitiation. His very important works on this topic are regarded as modern classics in the field: The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955; revised 1960 and 1965); and The Cross in the New Testament (1965); and The Atonement (1983).

But does the Bible teach a doctrine of penal substitution? The discussion is complex and involved, but let me briefly look at some of the key biblical texts in question. Certainly 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a vital passage here: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Clearly the idea of substitution is taught here. Compare this with Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’.” Here we have substitution alright, but a clear penal component as well. Because he was made by God to be sin for us, that meant he took upon himself the curse of the law.

These passages hearken back to Isaiah 53 and the coming Servant who would suffer for his people. There we are told there that “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). Verses 4-5 make clear how God was involved in all this: “we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”

Indeed, “it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (v. 10). Many have tied this in with 2 Cor. 5:21, arguing that Paul understands Jesus to have been made a “sin offering” for us.

Comments Garland, “Christ experienced the consequences for human sin. The one who lived a sinless life died a sinner’s death, estranged from God and the object of wrath. He was treated as a sinner in his death. . . . Even though Jesus was sinless, God deals with him as though he were a sinner by letting him die an accursed death.” Or as Barrett puts it, “Christ became sin; that is, he came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath.”

Of course other Old Testament concepts of sacrifice and atonement are being referred to here, including the passage from Deuteronomy 21:23 which says, “cursed is everyone who hangs from a tree”. Christ, by hanging on a cross, took upon himself the curse of God directed at sinners.

As Romans 3:25 states, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement”. Here the term hilasterion is used. The term means to placate or remove the anger or wrath of an offended or aggrieved party. In pagan understanding, an angry God had to be propitiated. His wrath had to be averted and his favour restored, by human means. But in Christianity it is God himself who deals with this divine anger. The divine son voluntarily takes it upon himself.

Again, Old Testament teaching on sacrifice is behind all this. The Hebrew verb kipper means to cover or atone. Thus we speak of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the Old Testament period, animals were sacrificed to atone for sin. But that could never take away sin fully and properly. So Jesus is the final sacrifice, taking the wrath of God that we deserve upon himself.  Moo comments:

“While the persons of God the Father and God the Son must be kept distinct as we consider the process of redemption, it is a serious error to sever the two with respect to the will for redemption, as if the loving Christ had to take the initiative in placating the angry Father. God’s love and wrath meet in the atonement, and neither can be denied or compromised if the full meaning of that event is to be properly appreciated.”

One final verse (of many) to consider is 1 John 2:2 (similar to 4:10): “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”. Here the term hilasmos is used. Again the debate arises as to whether we are talking about expiation or propitiation.

Some scholars prefer the former, some the latter, while others say both senses can be understood simultaneously. Yarbrough in his new commentary says this: “While Jesus’s death certainly has the effect of expiating sin (wiping away its penalty), it is difficult to avoid the impression that it also propitiates (turns away the wrath of) God’s promised punishment of sin and sinners whose transgressions are not atoned for on the last day – a day of condemnation spoken of by Jesus in John 12:48.”

Other passages could be looked at here. But in taking all the relevant biblical evidence together, it is certainly hard to separate the idea of propitiation from what Jesus did on the cross. The love of God is very real, but so too is his wrath. Indeed, as Morris concludes his lengthy study on propitiation,

“It is the combination of God’s deep love for the sinner with His uncompromising reaction against sin which brings about what the Bible calls propitiation. . . . [The] use of the concept propitiation witnesses to two great realities, the one, the reality and the seriousness of the divine reaction against sin, and the other, the reality and the greatness of the divine love which provided the gift which should avert the wrath from men.”

Thus attempts by some – like Chalke – to somehow drive a wedge between God’s love and his wrath seem untenable. What happened at Calvary was a demonstration of both the exceeding holiness and righteousness of God and his hatred of sin, as well as his everlasting love and mercy for sinners. Somehow it took the tremendous suffering of divine wrath to make possible the forgiveness of God. He should not shy away from these truths, but affirm and celebrate them.

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9 Responses to On the Atonement

  • Last year the primate of America, Archbishop Katherine Jefferts Schori took to the road putting on a production which could be called “Conversations.” In this Barnham’s circus performance, which I attended in Salisbury Cathedral, she mentioned the conversation between the Father and the Son as described in Mark 1:9ff:

    “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

    She then tried to impute that pleasure directly to us. We were told to shut our eyes for seven minutes and meditate on just how much God was pleased with us. There was no mention of the absence of this same voice as Christ hung on the cross, or the fact that Christ cried, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks Bill.
    It seems to me that these “emerging church” people are simply repeating history, but clothing it with somewhat different argumentation. However, the positions adopted are those of the liberalism of early to mid C20th. They deny substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, salvation by grace and so on. They preach a social gospel, these days presented as “social justice”. In my student days in the 1960s and early 70s we went through the whole issue of substitutionary atonement. It was one of the major issues of controversy between liberals and evangelicals.

    What we now see is pompous scholars in a self-confident belief that they are announcing some new discovery come up with the same denials as C.H. Dodd (“shoddy Doddy” we called him), Vincent Taylor, D.E. Nineham and others. These ‘Johnny-come-lately’ scholars are liberals – plain and simple. Let’s recognise them for what they are.

    And if any of these types allege that God giving up His Son to suffering and death is guilty of Divine child abuse, they are in dispute not with modern evangelical scholarship, but with the apostle Paul: “He who did not spare His own son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him?” (Romans 8:31). Therefore what we have here is men concocting an ethic (derived from certain post-modern obsessions, e.g. that of ‘child abuse’) and using them to judge the Almighty. So impudent man sits in judgment on God. “He that dwells in the heavens laughs”.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • When Steve Chalke was here, he spoke in a church about his view of Genesis 1 – that it was poetry, that it was probably written after the Babylobnian creation myth as a ‘liturgy’! He claimed Christian and Jewish scholars believe this.
    Well, some might, but not Orthodox ones who believe the Bible!
    On this matter he has told the media that he believes the idea of creationism, specifically 6-day creation, is “rubbish”. In fact he said “It won’t be taught in the school because I think it’s rubbish. It’s a bizarre thing to claim the Bible suggests that.”
    Read Guardian article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2004/jul/13/schools.uk4

    Of course, when people reject the start of the Bible, it isn’t long until they reject whole chunks of it!
    Including the cross and the atonement.
    The question is – remove all that and what do you have left?

    Jenny Stokes

  • i read steve’s book and its not clear to me that he is saying that. it could be read both ways. Even NT Wright what Chalkes take on that phrase, which was actually taken from someone else (Yancy?)
    Andrew Jones, New Zealand

  • Thanks Andrew

    I am not so sure that Chalke is so unclear here. For example, in the paragraph immediately preceding the one I quoted he says this:

    “John’s Gospel famously declares, ‘God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son’ (John 3:16). How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his Son?”

    These two paragraphs taken together seem fairly clear to me. He makes this typical emergent false dilemma: either God is a God of love, or he is a God who punishes. Of course Scripture teaches that God is both. He does love, but because he is holy and righteous he can and does and must punish sin. Jesus of course took our place and was punished on our behalf. Both Father and Son agreed to this.

    And there was nothing “sudden” about this as Chalke falsely suggests. Again, a simple reading of the great Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) makes this quite clear: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). Nothing sudden about this. It had been foretold centuries earlier.

    So it seems that Chalke, like many emergents, is forcing us to choose between this false dilemma. I must reject such false dichotomies since the biblical data does not allow me to make them.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Jenny Stokes, I remember Steve Chalke visiting our church, probably over a decade ago. At the time he related a conversation with a non-believer who complained that the problem with Christianity is that it was all about negative rules and regulations: Don’t do this and don’t do that, especially with regard to the Ten Commandments. Steve gave a reply which many of us at the time consumed without it even touching the sides of the throat. He said that it was not at all as the objector had described. It was more of “don’t do this because you will hurt yourself; don’t do that because God does not want to see you wrecking your life.”

    He preached a utilitarian gospel. The whole thing was based upon what material benefits the gospel might bring. There was no “Be holy because I am holy.”

    On the matter of the historicity of the Bible, a woman whom I recently heard preaching said that Daniel was just a story that contained spiritual truth. Likewise I heard the ex bishop of Goulburn and Canberra, George Browning, only just last Thursday, declaring that the Flood story was also just that, a story. Ironically he was wearing a long woolly scarf with a rainbow knitted into it. Needless to say that this was not the rainbow of Noah but that of diversity and homosexuals.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Hi David,

    I wondered what the recently retired George Browning was up to these days. He is best known in this country for preaching the global-warming religion so I’m not surprised to hear he rejects such an important biblical event as Noah’s Flood. It usually follows that once a Christian abandons belief in God’s Word that they are susceptible to believing all sorts of myths and fables.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Ewan, greetings to you sir. George Browning was telling the respectful assembly in our village school, this time last week, that the number one mission of the church in the 21st century was the saving of the planet and that man would do it – irrespective of what God had to say on the matter.

    When I proposed that maybe the number one concern of the church, the second coming of Christ, might be a threat of infinitely greater significance to the eternal destiny of mankind, than global warming, nuclear war, pandemics, world poverty, he dismissed this by saying that Paul was mistaken on this issue as well.

    Again when I proposed that if the church wanted to talk about conservation why didn’t he mention the predicted destruction, this year, of nearly a quarter of a million of unborn babies and the destruction of marriage, the family and our children through promiscuity and homosexuality? Were these not first order issues?

    I would have gone on to mention that the divorced woman, who convened the meeting and who has been given spiritual authority, by Salisbury Diocese, over the eleven country parish churches of our Okeford benefice, has just got rid of the one and only person (admittedly part-time and therefore unpaid) who is biblically qualified to be a church leader, i.e., husband of one wife; children who are a credit to him and someone who is faithful to preaching the word of God. But that might have been too much for the gentility of these folks.

    David Skinner, UK

  • David, do you mean that Browning claimed Paul to be mistaken about the second coming?!

    As you say, ultimately this world will come to an end by God’s doing so there is no reason to worship it or assume it will last indefinitely. Having said that, I still believe in the Christian concept of good stewardship meaning with regard to the earth that we are to develop it in a responsible and sustainable way. But the Brownings of this world make the mistake of caring more for the earth than they do for humanity – a totally unchristian concept.

    Ewan McDonald.

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