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.