January 24, 2021

Are We More Gracious than God?

prodigal return

Return of the Prodigal Son, Tissot

 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

– 1 Peter 4:8, NRSV

Love…keeps no record of being wronged.

– 1 Corinthians 13:5, NLT

* * *

This is not meant as a formal theological analysis of the meaning of the atonement. It’s more like street-level questioning of the way people often talk about sin and grace and God, especially when we place too much or exclusive emphasis on the common evangelical metaphor of penal, substitutionary atonement.

Are we more gracious than God?

The following is what I often hear about God and his stance toward our sins. Some of these are direct quotes from sermons or theological writings or evangelistic articles. The sentiments are so common that I will not cite sources or name names. Just Google “sin must be punished,” and you’ll get lots and lots of statements like these.

gavelThere is a price tag on sin, and therefore sin must be paid for. God cannot allow sin to go unpunished.

Justice requires that sin be punished, because sin deserves punishment. The justice of God obliges him to punish sin.

God, in his holiness, is infinitely opposed to sin. He cannot overlook it but must act with righteous judgment, exacting vengeance against it.

Since God has given us his Law and commanded us to live by it, he must punish those who break his law. Not to do so would be unjust.

In Scripture, sin is spoken of not merely as a terrible evil; but, much more than this, as legal guilt, which the righteous Judge must punish; as something so abhorrent to his holy nature that he cannot allow himself to be approached by any one on whom that guilt still rests; that he cannot meet with anyone from whom that guilt has not been removed by sacrifice.

In order to avoid defying a part of His character, God must judge sin. God cannot ignore sin no matter how loving and kind He is for to do so would deny one of His attributes, i.e., His righteousness.

God is love, but He is also just and righteous. If so, he must punish wickedness in the same way that a judge in a court must punish for crimes.

God is love, but genuine love cannot mean leaving sin unpunished either. Rather, because he loves us, God took the punishment for our sins on himself in Jesus.

If God could just overlook sin, there would be no need for Christ to have taken our punishment on the cross.

Sin must be punished.  God provided a punishment for our sins – Jesus bore our punishment.  We can choose to accept the punishment that Jesus made on our behalf, or take the punishment ourselves.  Either way, sin must be punished.

I have heard and taught this for decades, and still agree with Scot McKnight, who wrote, “I don’t know how to read elements of (especially) Paul without explaining his soteriology as penal…” (A Community Called Atonement). The Bible’s portrait of God as a righteous judge who punishes evil as part of putting his fallen creation to rights is an undeniable part of the biblical witness.

But, as McKnight also reminds us, “Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors…Each is designed to carry us, like the pole, to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing.” We need all the metaphors (such as sacrifice, reconciliation, redemption, and ransom) and, even then, must humbly confess that we understand only the the outlines of who God is, how he loves us, and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.

As I was driving today, the verse heading this post came to my mind. It immediately struck me as yet another clue to the unfathomable love and grace of God toward you and me:

“…love covers a multitude of sins.”

prodigal returnThese words were written to suffering followers of Jesus Christ, encouraging them to show deep love for one another. The author reminds them what love does — it covers sins. That is, it overlooks them, it regards them as of no account. Love is generous with others and releases them from expectations of sinless perfection. If you love me, you will not hold my sins against me. You will accept me in spite of my weaknesses, failures, and offenses.

As the complementary citation from 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love…keeps no record of being wronged.” I don’t keep a running tally of your sins. In considering your actions or words, I assume your best intentions. I place the value of remaining on good terms with you above holding you accountable for any grievances I might have against you. Insofar as it depends on me, I try to be at peace with you.

So there are times we choose to ignore each other’s sins and shortcomings. We forget them. We overlook them. We don’t consider them worthy of damaging our relationship. We give each other grace, and space. Freedom to fail. The okay to be imperfect. We are committed to each other in a covenant of love. Sin cannot break that.

If this is what love is, and if God is love, why then can’t we factor in this same attitude in our thinking about how God views us and deals with us in our sins?

Are humans, who show this kind of love to each other, more gracious and loving than God?

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian preacher or teacher say,

“God loves you, and he overlooks your sins.”

“God won’t let your sins stand between you and him.”

“God values you too much to hold your weaknesses and failures against you.”

“God loves you so much that not even sin can separate you from him.”

Perhaps he is like the father of the Prodigal Son, and not just like a righteous judge upholding the law.

Love covers a multitude of sins.

However, this is obviously not the whole story either.

This idea of “love covering sins” is simply one metaphor among many — a metaphor of relationship that grows out of the stuff of everyday life: family, friends, neighbors, fellow congregation members, coworkers, teammates, partners, fellow citizens. It grows out of living descriptions (not definitions) of love in action and the gracious forbearance, patience, and kindness human beings often show each other in commonplace daily interactions. It doesn’t indicate that we fail to take sin seriously. It just means we think other aspects of relating to each other are more important. It means putting sin in its place and not allowing it to win by pitting us against each other.

But there are times when other metaphors must take precedence. Sin can and does break relationships, and reconciliation is required. Sin, from one perspective, is a crime, and justice must be served through the payment of a penalty. Sin takes us captive, and we need to be set free (redemption) by some sort of payment (ransom) or atoning sacrifice.

All these metaphors become real in the person of Jesus Christ. We are perhaps most familiar and conversant with the concept of Jesus paying the just penalty for our sins by dying on the cross in our place.

But even on the cross, Jesus uttered the words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). That is not the language of penal substitution. Those are words of generosity — Jesus is asking God to overlook the ignorance of his executioners.

Maybe sometimes Jesus just looks us in the eye, touches us, and says, “Go in peace.” Maybe sometimes he just runs down the road, throws his arms around us, and welcomes us home.

Maybe sometimes he just lets us off the hook.

His love covers a multitude of sins.


  1. He really does love us.

    So much so that He isn’t content to just tell us to “Go in peace.”

    But He adds…”…and sin no more.”

    He doesn’t relish us getting into trouble and all that goes with it, any more than we do.

    • Sometimes he just said, go in peace.


      • If he said it to the woman, He says it to us. Otherwise how loving of a God would He be?

        He does not desire us to sin. Period.

        • Whether he desires us to sin or not is not the point of the post, Steve. No one is suggesting that God desires us to sin.

          • Then why do you have a problem with my adding what the Lord and what Holy Scripture (also the Lord) adds in many places?

            Some Christians erroneously confuse “being let off the hook” for God winking at sin.

            I believe a good theologian will always keep us on the hook as far as our sin is concerned so that we can die (to ourselves) and any perceived “goodness” that is in our nature to look for a tout.

            It’s all connected, Mike.

            • Steve, it’s futile talking with you about this. You have a single focus lens through which you interpret everything you read. What I’m suggesting in the post is that a single focus does not and cannot capture the fullness of God’s revelation of himself, his love for us, and our salvation. Your single focus helps you in many ways and I respect that. But it does not always help you in listening well to what others are saying.

          • I’ll give you the last word, Mike.


        • Then I heard, for the first time in my life, the gospel for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, proclaimed to me, in it’s fullness and clarity, with no qualifications, no strings attached. Nothing left for me to do.

          No more religious ladders, no more biblical principles for Christian living, no more of me having to do…anything!

          Christ has done it all! True freedom, won by my Lord, for me. And all I have to do is…nothing!

      • CM – +1

        Good post.

      • Interesting. This is subjective/anecdotal, but sometimes when I’m going on and on about my sin,(forgive me again for…..) I’ve heard HIM say, “SHHHHHHHHHH……….”

    • Jazziscoolithink says

      Yeah he said that, knowing she would go and sin some more. If your focus of that Jesus story is the “go and sin no more” part of it, you have heroically missed the point.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        If your focus of that Jesus story is the “go and sin no more” part of it, you have heroically missed the point.

        I’ve noticed that in this guy’s comments before,and gotten bashed for it. They always sound like a sermon — so Spiritual and Christianese they often “heroically miss the point.”

    • Isn’t the story of the woman caught in adultery of highly questionable canonical status? Even John Piper doesn’t endorse that as the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Sin is bad, but the Benediction is not followed by a Commission. God’s grace is the final word, period. Unless you’re in a Reformed, third use of the law paradigm. 😛

      • Marcus Johnson says


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “Third use of the law”?

        Never heard that term before — some doctrine of Calvin?

      • I’m confused, please help me understand this (I’m not being sarcastic; I really do want to understand).

        Regardless of the veracity of John 7.53-8.11, how does being in a “Reformed, third use of the law paradigm” abrogate in any way the idea that “Benediction is not followed by a Commission”? I believe in the three uses of the law in the New Covenant. According to R.C. Sproul, they are:

        “The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.”2 The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.

        A second purpose for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. Calvin says this purpose is “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”3 The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

        The third purpose of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God Himself delights in it. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.”

        For the life of me I do not see anything in this statement which would lead me to believe that God’s grace would not be the final word. What am I missing?

        On a related note, the phrase “sin no more” also appears in John 5.14, a passage which canonical status is not disputed. In the this passage a man who had been an invalid for thirty eight years is asked by Jesus if he wishes to be healed; the man responds in the affirmative and is healed. Shortly afterwards Jesus and the man meet up again and He tells him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” In this instance the Benediction is missing and the Commission is not only present but also appended with a “cause & effect” warning. How do we reconcile this passage with what was previously stated that God’s grace is the final word? This is not a rhetorical question; I am asking for clarification.

        • If the highest function of the law is to steer us right, then after believing there is a to-do list to be gotten busy with. It’s law – you need a savior, gospel – here He is, and law – now this is what he wants from you (aka your part of the equation). This works itself out a variety of ways in differing Reformed communities, some more gracious than others, but Steve and I are Lutherans. We believe in the law-gospel distinction and reject the third use as the Reformed understand it. We don’t say that the law enlightens. We say that the law kills, period. Then the Gospel gives life. End of story. Hope that makes sense! For more information, see: http://www.lutherantheology.com/uploads/works/walther/LG/

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And in my experience in-country, that to-do list just gets longer and longer and longer. Entirely by adding Thou Shalt Nots. Until almost everything is Forbidden and what is not Forbidden is Absolutely Compulsory. Long Live Big Brother.

          • Miguel, I visited the website you noted, but it was way too lengthy to read and respond to it.

            You also state that “Steve and I are Lutherans. We believe in the law-gospel distinction and reject the third use as the Reformed understand it.” I’m Reformed, yet I, too, believe and teach the law-gospel distinction. Perhaps we are not so far off as you might think.

            But in response to your comment that “If the highest function of the law is to steer us right, then after believing there is a to-do list to be gotten busy with.” I don’t think that’s what Dr. Sproul, et al., intended to say with statements such as, “the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.” A careful reading of this implies that it is giving honor and glory to God which is at issue here, as stated in passages such as “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15.8)

            I don’t see the third use of the law as a to-do list but as an admonition and encouragement to walk in the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit to the glory of God (Galatians 5.22-23).

          • Seriously, Calvin, there isn’t a difference. “Walk in the spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit to the glory of God” is all about the things we do. The reformed do not hold the law-gospel distinction the same way that Lutherans do, though some today are recovering a more Luther and Walther style approach to it. Sproul can couch it in as much good sounding “soli deo gloria” terminology as he likes, and imo he is an excellent teacher, but to say there’s a difference between living for God’s glory and obeying his instruction is just plain silly. I listened to Sproul daily for nearly three years. He maintains the guilt – grace – grattitude paradigm of classic Calvinism. The Lutheran paradigm is simply two fold: death, and resurrection.

          • Perhaps I did not state it clearly enough, so let me clarify it now. I am not saying that there’s a difference between living for God’s glory and obeying his instructions; on the contrary, I see these two as being symbiotic.

            I can appreciate the simplicity and elegance of the Lutheran paradigm of death and resurrection. But it appears to me that to include the third use of the law is necessary for two reasons. First, as a much needed reminder that we glorify God by bearing fruit for Him (John 15.8). Second , as a guard against antinomianism.

            Other than that I think we may need to agree to disagree (I believe John Wesley was the first to say that or at least, to put it in writing, with regards his disagreements with George Whitefield).

            On a different note, and I am not singling you out on this, it is a common theme I’m sensing from reading many of the comments on this site. Is there an anti-Reformed Theology bias @ internetmonk.com? Seems as though it and its most well known proponents gets picked on more than any other Christian tradition. One comment went as far as to equate it it with Islam.

      • Just an aside …the story of the woman accused of adultery is not about adultery at all, but about an attempt to entrap Jesus, hoping he would either publicly advocate a violation to Mosaic law or offend Roman law under the noses of Roman authorities. He did neither. His writing in the dust was primary and constituted a brilliant escape. His statement to the woman secondary and only incidental to the story. His invitation to throw the first stone was the climax.

        Great post, CM. Thank you.

        • Marcus Johnson says


        • Good point. Except, what exactly did he write anyways?

          • Marcus Johnson says

            A lot of people (including Rob Bell, in his latest Tumblr post) claimed that He was writing their names.

            Personally, I don’t dwell on it that much. It’s one of those details, like the “Go and sin no more” statement, that is not major plot point in the story.

          • I believe he was writing names, likely the names of some of those Pharisees present. For those Pharisees, Jesus’ writing in the dust would have constituted a physical “remez”, a teaching technique they would have been all too familiar with. It was His not-so-subtle reference to Jeremiah 17:13. That would have been both obvious and ominous for those scholars and would account for their hasty departure from the scene.

            An important part of the context to this passage is where they were at the time and who else was present. Temple courts, feast days, the group who had been listening to Jesus teach, those opportunistic Pharisees, the temple crawling with Roman guards on the lookout for trouble and trouble makers. Any audible declarations would have been overheard by the long arm of the law.

      • Miguel, is it considered questionable? It’s recognized that it’s not in the earliest of the existing documents, but it’s also recognized that it’s a very Jesus story, and a very John story too, wherever it first showed up.

        • Marcus Johnson says

          Agreed. Whether or not it was a real event, or whether or not John actually penned the words to this story, might be questionable, but there is no question as to its importance in orienting its readers to who Jesus actually is.

        • Oh, I believe it happened. But hardcore inerrantist can never have absolute certainty. I heard Piper preach this text quite tentatively and hypothetically, taking extra care to demonstrate that any point he made from this text could also be made from others. I thought it a rather silly exercise. Tradition has included it in the cannon, and I’m more than willing to go with it.

  2. Sin takes us captive, and we need to be set free (redemption) by some sort of payment (ransom) or atoning sacrifice.

    What a precise phrase to describe a liberating truth! Well put. The problem I have with penal sub is not that I don’t believe it, but it is severely misused. The whole point of that doctrine is to bring comfort to guilty consciences by assuring them that whatever they had coming has been suffered vicariously. All too often it is instead used to turn grace on its head by making the Gospel of Calvary into a club for pummeling the conscientious into submission. “You killed Jesus, he bore your punishment, so YOU OWE HIM. Get your life together, stop screwing up, and start living 100% totally sold out for Jesus since he gave it all for you.” It kind of turns the free gift of grace into a law with demanding conditions. This should not be. The work of Christ on the cross doesn’t enslave us, it frees us. He died so we could be freely forgiven, despite the fact that our most valiant efforts could never begin to repay Him. It’s almost as if, deep down inside, we want God to somehow feel that redeeming us was a good idea after all. We are totally worth it, right? It’s just so hard to admit that God saved us not because we’re that good, but because He is.

    The other significant metaphor of atonement is that of a covering. Just as the animal skin covered Adam’s shame, the righteousness of Christ covers our sinfulness. I believe there’s other references to the idea of covering in some of the old covenant rites. Perhaps this is being hinted at with the phrase “love covers a multitude of sins?” For pete’s sake, there is even a robe put on the prodigal son. A free gift given as a token of renewed kinship. There was no “this robe is yours as long as you act like a son.”

    • But WHY? Why does there *need* to be an atoning sacrifice? How is it possibly a good thing to say that someone NEEDS to suffer?

      • @ Donalbain….no theologian here, just an old cradle Catholic, so take what I say in context and with an appropriate grain of salt for the source…..

        Christ did not “need” to suffer; he chose to become a human, live what most of us would consider a short and crummy life, and die a miserable and embarrassing death to show us exactly Who He and His Father really are…..a source of love beyond our wildest imagination. By becoming one of US, He showed how much He cares and desires us to be with Him now and forever. He could have made us without the free will to sin, but then we would have lacked the capacity to choose to love HIM and others…..as CS Lewis noted, He wanted children, not slaves. He lived and died only to conquer death once and for all, and to show us the Way to the Father. In His suffering, He became our servant leader…..breaking forever the bonds of sin and death for those merely willing to SEE HIM and repudiate their own sin and failings…..for which He forgives 70 times 7. Just as the Hebrews symbolically “put all the sins of the people” on an animal who was then sacrificed, Christ became the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, not because He needed to, but because He chose to do so.

        • Why bother though? Why not just conquer death without the crucifixion? It all seems so stupid and unneccessary, not to mention cruel.

          • The Cross shows that sin is serious business.

          • Marcus Johnson says

            It’s actually much more gracious than I think you or I could possibly comprehend, but here’s a better answer:

            First, I think you’re approaching the crucifixion narrative as though it was written yesterday. It wasn’t, so we have to look at the people who would have witnessed this event and were the immediate audience for the gospel narratives. Many of them were surrounded by cultures in which child sacrifice was a well-known ritual, used as a strategy to please the gods. Piss off a god, kill a child, then you and the god are on good terms again. If you haven’t pissed off a god, you might as well kill a child just to be sure; consider it a down payment for the next time you screw up.

            But this God is different. Rather than demand that humans kill their children to please Him, He offers His own Son as a sacrifice (and uses the terms “Father” and “Son” to describe the nature of their beings, so that the people of that era would understand that the responsibility for sacrifice was shifting from them to Him). This was a monumental shift, and it had to be a visual, public display, because the world needed to bear witness to the fact that the days of men offering sacrifices in order to stay in good standing with God were officially over.

          • Have you read any of Rene Girard’s work regarding mimetic desire? Essentially what he says is that the cross was not a sacrifice that God demanded. It was what humanity demanded. Christ became our scapegoat, as it were, and by doing so eliminates our need for future scapegoats.

            Tony Jones has a good article on it here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/03/07/a-better-atonement-the-lastscapegoat/

          • Jesus assumed our humanity, and identified himself with everything human – including human death. He couldn’t deliver us from death without entering into it. He humbled himself all the way to death, and the most despised death at that. There was “no lower” that he could go.

            FYI, in the Orthodox Church we do not view Christ’s death as “penal.” The Cross is about 1) Jesus’ identification with every aspect of being human; 2) the display of God’s forgiveness in the face of sin being, in a sense, heaped up upon him – he did not respond in retaliation, but rather swallowed up all of the dark deeds of humanity; 3) Jesus entering into death “in the fullness of time” so he could burst it apart from the inside.

            Jesus didn’t need to “pay” for our sin; we each pay for our sin with death (the wages of sin is death) – everyone dies. And with death comes the end of sin; a corpse can no longer commit evil acts or separate itself in unlove from others. If death were not ultimately defeated, then the enemy would have won out over God and God’s creation. God is the giver of life and does not take back that gift, and so he had to do something about humanity’s turn toward death. Christus Victor is the primary view of the earliest Christians of the meaning of the cross & resurrection, and secondarily the Ransom view, both having to do with the defeat of death and our rescue from it. (As we enter into the death of Christ in Baptism, our “old man” is put to death and therefore we are no longer captive to fear of deat, but are free to live as if we are really alive.) Our problem is ultimately not forensic (sin); it is ontologic (existence/life).

            It’s all about hermeneutics/interpretation.


          • Yes, this is such a good question — with no good intellectual answer, that I have read. But that answer will probably unite us with Christ:
            In our understanding of our own suffering, our own Cross’.
            In how we understand what love is: selfless, long-suffering, emptying.
            In how we understand what joy is. James 2.
            In how we understand forgiveness:
            “Forgive them for the know not what they do” would mean so much less without suffering.

            I have to admit, that when I am suffering or see suffering, that imagining Jesus, still alive, hanging and suffering on a cross makes God a little closer, a little more in control of my messed up life. I don’t just need forgiveness, I need a lot more.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > He wanted children, not slaves

          I hear this a lot. And I am a big fan of Lewis [and the Inklings in general]… but…. where in scripture does it say anything that even implies this?

          > Just as the Hebrews symbolically “put all the sins of the people” on an animal who was then sacrificed,

          **symbolically**? So did the sacrifice not actually bear the sins of the people? I doubt a Hebrew of that era would look at it that way. This seems to me like a 21st century re-factoring of the ritual because we are uncomfortable with things that look like magick.

          I believe in the atoning sacrifice, but I am a bit uncomfortable with the various ways people attempt to explain the mechanics of it. So what *really* *happened* at the crucifixion? I do not know, it is possibly well above my pay-grade. The common chasm and the children metaphors, at least to me, seem stretched, retrofitted, and not terribly illuminating.

          It is almost comical to imagine a room of angels with Michael standing in the front, with a presentation projected on the wall behind him, going through the bullet points of what-the-crucifixtion-means-for-you… But if I were an angel I’d probably skip the talk and go surfing on Neptune…. 2,000+ km/hr winds, the waves must be spectacular.

          • > He wanted children, not slaves

            I hear this a lot. And I am a big fan of Lewis [and the Inklings in general]… but…. where in scripture does it say anything that even implies this?

            “I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father.”

            Jn. 15:15

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > But I have called you friends,

            So “friends”, sort of like children. Me heads to the cross-reference … need to check the context and various translations…

            >“I no longer call you slaves,

            So… this implies he did call us slaves.

            >I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father

            Hrm. Honestly, this statement has always bothered me. The “everything”. What does that mean? If it is a large context statement it is odd – Christ’s ministry was rather short, what he said fairly brief. That was “everything” he heard from his Father?

            Things to ponder.

          • Here are some other passages to consider: John 1:12-13 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, b)he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood (c)nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
            1 John 3:1 ¶ See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
            Galatians 3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

      • What helped me with this question was the historical reality of the cross. It’s not just some airy, heady, conceptual event whereby God effected a legal transaction off in the sky somewhere. Their “needed” to be a sacrifice because Jesus was in the midst of a maelstrom of human sin, and no one would truly recognize him, or God’s will for Israel and the world, until after he was crucified and raised. Human sin put him there, the “wrath of God” is a euphemism for the a nation’s debauched sense of right and wrong, and God’s subsequent retreat from protecting it from its own self-destruction. Into this situation walks Jesus, men crucify him, and he becomes the “sacrifice” that brought men to God, by drawing their violence onto himself, forgiving it and exhausting it’s power.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      All too often it is instead used to turn grace on its head by making the Gospel of Calvary into a club for pummeling the conscientious into submission. “You killed Jesus, he bore your punishment, so YOU OWE HIM. Get your life together, stop screwing up, and start living 100% totally sold out for Jesus since he gave it all for you.”

      And the interest just keeps compounding on what YOU OWE HIM…

  3. Aidan Clevinger says

    Can we really call those aspects of the atonement “metaphors”? A metaphor is meant to point us to something else. By contrast, the Atonement really IS a penal substitution, really IS a random, really IS a redemption.

    I’ll also point out that the “covering over” language is probably taken from the Old Testament and the Ark of the Covenant, which was covered with the blood of the sacrifice made on the Day of Atonement. It probably also fits in with language of putting on Christ in Baptism. I’ll also ask whether or not grace gives us “freedom” to fail – doesn’t rather give us freedom from the consequences of our failures? Forgiveness, rather than license?

    I loved the post overall, I just wanted to share a few thoughts.

    • I’ll also point out that the “covering over” language is probably taken from the Old Testament …

      And so also is the PSA motif taken from the O.T. (Is. 53).

    • Aldan, in a very real sense all language can be thought of as metaphorical. Words are symbols representing ideas and not the ideas themselves. We each read into them our own understandings. We interpret them from our experience and, hopefully, arrive at some degree of consensus as to their meaning. Once you cross the barriers of time and culture, the likelihood of misunderstanding is greatly increased. If the Greeks had four different words, each of which we reproduce as our word “knowledge”, how much of the original intent of the original writing might be lost?

      “Ransom” might be our closest approximation to the concept expressed in the Greek the Hebrew or the Syriac rendering of the text but may, in fact, be several degrees off. Many of our theological concepts were first articulated by ancient and medieval theologians who may or may not have had access to the original works.

      When we attempt to articulate God’s intent, His way of thinking or summarize His perceptions and standards we are in way over our heads. But try we must.

  4. This is not meant as a formal theological analysis of the meaning of the atonement.

    Can anyone recommend anything that discusses the various atonement theories and how they differ? Examples: differences between PSA vs Christus Victor vs … others… etc. I’ve tried reading some stuff online but either they just sound the same or some author is promoting one (usually PSA) and implying that anyone believing others will burnburnburn. (Perhaps an exploration of atonement theories could be an iMonk series…?)

  5. Number of genocides ordered by me: zero
    Number of places of eternal punishment created by me: zero
    Number of people I have said that should be punished because of the actions of their ancestors: zero

    So, yes I am more gracious than the god that many Christians worship.

    • Seneca Griggs says

      Having read your post Donal, I wouldn’t want to be at your mercy. I hope I’m never at the mercy of someone who doesn’t think they haven’t sinned terribly.

      • Why? What makes you think I would not show more mercy than a god who orders genocide?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          What about those who try to become Godly and have such an image of God?

        • You may think you’d be a nice, kind judge, but if my sins were all laid out before you, we’d see how much mercy you’d show me.

          On the flip side, I wouldn’t want the job of judge. I’d let way too many people go who deserve something for the horrible things they’ve done, and I’d probably be hard on some people who deserve leniency.

          I’d never want God’s job.

          • If the judgement came after your death, and it was within my power to prevent you harming anyone else ever again, I would not punish you at all. I wouldn’t see the point. The point of punishment is (in my opinion) to keep other people safe whether it is by keeping you away from others, or by way of deterrence. Any eternal punishment doesn’t help towards those goals so would be utterly pointless imho.

    • Second option?? Maybe you understand less than you believe you do about the Creator of the universe, and the way His mind works, and how His actions throughout recorded history have been interpreted by we mere mortals??? (Or, those you are commenting upon have this issue, depending on the intent of your post.)

      I mean, my dog doesn’t understand many of the things I do to and for him….but he has a tinier brain and no concept of time, causality, or why I restrict his freedom and/or punish him…..to keep him safe and alive.

      • And how exactly does genocide, eternal punishment and/or punishing people for the sins of their ancestors keep anyone safe?

        • Marcus Johnson says

          It doesn’t. That’s why God never tells us to commit genocide, torture people in hell for all eternity, or punish people for the sins of their ancestors.

          You’re making the same mistake that ultra-conservative Christians make: interpreting the Bible literally and out of context and, consequently, creating a distorted picture of who God actually is.

    • Who are we to question Almighty God, our Creator? If He says good is evil, and evil is good, then that becomes true and right. If He says “Take thy son, and dash his brains out,” then it behooves us to bow our heads and submit ourselves to His Will. For He alone is righteous, he alone is just. The fool saith in his heart, “There is no God,” but God is not mocked–one day the scoffers, mutterers, and workers of iniquity shall be held accountable. Every knee shall bow before His Throne, and none shall contradict Him then.

      Who dares defy their Creator? What arrogance, what ingratitude leads the atheist to prefer the vain opinions of mankind for God’s Commandments? Whoever says “God is unjust,” or “God is under judgement,” let him beat his breast and repent before He Who is the Lord of Right and Wrong.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Al’lah’u Akbar
        Al’lah’u Akbar
        Al’lah’u Akbar…

        • The Moslem knows not Christ, and so–like the pagan, and the Jew–dies in his sins. This is because God cannot abide the sight of iniquity. Until we are washed by the blood of the Lamb, we are loathsome unto His Eyes. We deserve death, having incurred the wages of sin.

          The creed of Mohammedanism is refuted by its very founder, whose corpse lies in his tomb. But Jesus is alive. His tomb is empty, for He has risen! By this means Christ offers salvation to all. But for those who reject Him, by their own free will they merit eternal punishment, for such is God’s Righteousness that he cannot abide any sin or filth in his presence. He who proclaims another savior is a thief and a lier, and must one day answer for each word that proceeds from his foul lips.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Okay, can you speak in something else than a Sermon in Fluent Christianese?

            Or something else than a Hellfire-and-Damnation ending?

            And funny thing about Mohammedanism(TM) — Islam is so much like Calvinism (Predestination Uber Alles, God as Omnipotent WILL — i.e. POWER — above all else, Worm Theology) there must have been some cross-fertilization. Either that or we have two similar ideas of God with similar side effects. And Calvin IS as much THE Prophet (pbuh) to Calvinists as Mohammed is to Muslims. Do Calvinists Know Not Christ and like the Pagan(TM) die in their Predestined Sins? And does Calvin’s corpse still lie in his grave?

          • Craig, you’ve said more than once “God cannot.” Think about that.

          • If I ever opined on what God can or ‘cannot’ do man I’d be hiding under the couch for a week…

          • I speak but the plain language of Holy Scripture. Hell and damnation are God’s promise, not mine. Take care, lest ye defy His Sovereignty!

            If any man take John Calvin as his savior, then his blasphemy condemns him, just as it does the Moslem (or Mohammedan, or Islamist). Calvin himself would refute him. His theology came from Scripture, not the Koran (or Alcoran), which is the false Bible of the Mohammedans. The pagan offends God by adoring idols of wood and stone; the Jew, by trusting in his own righteousness before the Law; the Moslem, by denying Christ.

            To say that God “cannot” do wickedness is no paradox, for He ordains all righteousness from the beginning. He himself decrees what is right and wrong, and limits himself for the sake of man’ free will, that we might choose salvation or damnation.

          • HUG, this dude’s gotta be a troll. Let him troll along his merry way.

          • “And funny thing about Mohammedanism(TM) — Islam is so much like Calvinism (Predestination Uber Alles, God as Omnipotent WILL — i.e. POWER — above all else, Worm Theology) there must have been some cross-fertilization. Either that or we have two similar ideas of God with similar side effects. And Calvin IS as much THE Prophet (pbuh) to Calvinists as Mohammed is to Muslims. Do Calvinists Know Not Christ and like the Pagan(TM) die in their Predestined Sins? And does Calvin’s corpse still lie in his grave?”

            “Islam…like Calvinism”??? This is either very poor satire or “uber” (to use your own own words) ignorance of Islam, Reformed Theology, or both. If there is a point to be made here it is lost in the vitriol. I can certainly understand disagreeing with Calvin, but to malign an entire Christian tradition by associating it with a non-Christian religion is way over the top!

            And by the way, John Calvin asked to be buried in an unmarked grave precisely so that he would not be venerated.

          • Ted, I have absolutely no problem with “God cannot.” For the Bible class I teach to 11th grade boys, we compile a list of things throughout the year that God cannot do. God cannot lie. God cannot sin. God cannot permit evil to go unrestrained. God cannot make a mistake. Am I limiting God?

            The thing is, when God reveals himself, in order for us to know anything about him, he must give us some sort of defining description. As soon as God reveals himself to be something (good, for example), that by implication rules out that he could be the exact opposite (evil). So it’s not so much that those who say “God cannot” are limiting God as it is that we are appealing to God’s own self-definition (in the Christian Scriptures, of course).

          • Miguel, I agree with you about God’s attributes, but I think it’s theologically more sound to say “God will not” rather than “God cannot.”

            Some of the examples you’ve cited, like God cannot sin, or God cannot make mistakes, are essentially meaningless because it’s God who defines what sin is, or perfection, or mistakes.

            Then there’s the old riddle, “Can God make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?” Well, yeah, he probably could, but I have no idea how he’d pull it off. I’m still working on that chicken and egg conundrum.

          • Excellent, Ted. For the rock scenario, I believe R. C. Sproul has answered it definitively: No. What the questions is really doing is pitting two of God’s abilities against each other – the ability to create, vs. the ability to modify said creation (modify its location, in this instance). One cannot be greater than the other, because one infinite cannot be greater than another.

      • Marcus Johnson says

        Gotta agree with HUG on this one. How many times did you watch Elmer Gantry? You know that was satire, right?

    • Donalbain, I can have somewhat heretical points of view so take what I say within that warning. BUT…I don’t believe God did the things you listed here. I believe men did what they did, thinking it was what God wanted or wanting to believe it was what God wanted. But Jesus came and showed us and told us what God was really like. And the God he portrayed to us is not one that would do the things in your list.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        My take on passages like those are “Welcome to the world of Bronze Age Semitic Tribal Warfare.”

      • Which is why I was careful to say that I was talking about the god that SOME Christians worship.

        • Yes, I noticed the nuance of your wording. And frankly, the god some Christians worship isn’t anywhere close to being the God who really is.

        • I believe this becomes the tendency when the OT God is worshiped without reference to the NT Christ. What the OT God does that seems harsh must be understood through the lens of the cross, else it is not a Christian conception of God, but a Jewish one.

    • Michael Spencer wrote an excellent post on interpreting the Bible that included a way of thinking about this issue (albeit briefly). It’s called “A Conversation In God’s Kitchen.” You should be able to google it.

      Basically, as I have come to understand it, we don’t have to believe that God, strictly speaking, ordered genocide. The people writing the texts were brutal and simple. The language they used was limited. Their theology was unsophisticated. The words we find in, say, Judges, are the best the people at the time had available to them to describe how God was interacting with history. But it could have been more like “we decided to commit genocide, God is active among us in preserving our people for his purposes, therefore we’ll go ahead and say that anything we do to that end is “ordained by God.” No, by our modern standards, this rationale doesn’t cut it, but it’s what the ancients had available to them at the time.

      • Nate, I suspect you underestimate the ancients. I would suggest that they were neither primitive, brutal or simple, and were no less sophisticated than we. In their world, survival was a priority. With us it’s comfort. They wrote to serve their purposes. Their language had, perhaps, more nuances than ours, a factor that acts to limit our perceptions of what they meant. And we still use the same rationales today to manipulate people to our way of thinking, our standards of behavior.

        • I’m with Jim on the nuances. All languages are complete, and capable of describing the ideas and techniques and environments of their cultures–much better than a foreign culture can translate them into its language, especially one that’s thousands of years out of touch.

    • Come to think of it, you really haven’t wiped out entire ethnicities of people. I guess you’re a pretty good guy after all. Perhaps you are due the eternal rewards of paradise as a commendation for not being Hitler.

      • Hitler is a better person than the god who is described in some forms of Christianity.

        • Marcus Johnson says

          I doubt anyone would argue with you there. But we don’t worship that god, and no one in this forum is talking about that God, so why bring it up as a point of discussion here?

        • Do you not see the irony of arguing against the Judeo-Christian God from an ethical framework developed from the same religious culture? Consider why we look down on such atrocities today, whilst in other times, places, and cultures, people did not.

        • Come to think of it, the “ad-hitlerum” sword swings both ways.

          How is it possibly a good thing to say that someone NEEDS to suffer?

          It’s called proportional justice. Would you honestly assert that despicable perpetrators of heinous mass violence ought not receive a pinch of retribution? Hitler’s quick and painless suicide balanced the scales for the evil he committed?

          • A few points:

            1) I think the idea of balancing evil is nonsense in and of itself. Punishing someone for harming another does not delete the harm done. The purpose of punishment is to PREVENT harm as much as is possible.

            2) Eternal suffering is NEVER proportional.

            3) There is nothing proportional about killing a person who did not commit any harm.

          • So on point 1, are you saying that retribution is never justified? After the wrong has been done, there’s no undoing it, so we might as well just let it go? Yup, your concept of justice is so radically different from the Judeo-Christian God it’s no wonder he seems so harsh to you. He is not a pacifist; he tramples evil and the workers of evil under his feet.
            2. Maybe. It isn’t unjust if it is chosen (ie, God won’t drag the unwilling into his presence in paradise for eternity). Also, not all Christianity believes in the eternal, literal, conscious torment in hell. I myself lean towards annihilationism, the idea that those outside of Christ just simply their end at death.
            3. There is such a thing as a capital offense. The whole concept behind Christianity is that all sin is a capital offense, because to thumb your nose at the giver of life is to insist you don’t want what he gives. However, God doesn’t carry out the sentence immediately. Under the old covenant law, there are many sins considered capital offenses by that governmental system (i.e., you will be put to death for them, not just die eventually). While it does seem harsh to our contemporary eyes, it was actually among the more lenient of its contemporaries in other civilizations. The idea of “an eye for an eye” likely originated here. But it is written from the perspective that God, and not you, has the right to your life, and by crossing certain lines you forfeit it. I believe this would be more along the line of your first point, to prevent these harmful things from being done. Of course, not all the capital offenses under old covenant law seem harmful to contemporary libertine ethics. But if we worshiped a God with whom we never disagreed over the definition of what is good and what is evil, chances are we’re just worshiping ourselves. I can’t imagine a primitive hard line theocracy that would possibly comply with modern sensibilities.

          • 1) No.. your god doesn’t trample the evil. He tramples everyone unless they suck up to him. The acts of a Hitler are punished the same as the acts of a Ghandi.

            2) Blah blah blah… people choose to go to hell.. nonsense.

            3) Then you throw away your claim to any idea of proportionality. If all crimes carry the same sentence, then the punishment is not proportional to the crime.

          • He tramples everyone unless they suck up to him.

            Really? Sorry Donalbain, but you clearly understand nothing about Christian theology. Exactly what kind of sucking am I supposed to be doing in order to escape his wrath? I rather believe he is completely self sufficient and in need of nothing from me.

            2. Compelling rhetoric. Really. First you accuse God of being a tyrant, then resort to gibberish when I point out that hell is not a universal component of Christian faith AND that God offers to man the freedom to choose. Which is it?

  6. In the list from googling sermons, the first 7 of the 10 statements have some form of “God must” or God cannot.”

    No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

    • Amen brother! Penal Substitutionary Atonement seems to make God’s attributes – whatever those are – more powerful than God. It seems to reduce God to some weird kind of paralegal looking for loopholes and bizarre ways of constantly redefining love, justice, holiness, and whatever else. I prefer to say that God’s attributes describe how he normally interacts with us from our perspective but do not limit him in any way.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Socratic Atheism.

        If something — Predestination, or “God’s Attributes – whatever those are” — is more powerful than God, then God is not God, Those Attributes are and God is just another meat puppet dancing on their strings.

  7. My experience is that saying “Go in peace” always involves paying a price, though unseen; this price comes to the fore and becomes evident when we are asked to say “Go in peace” again and again to the same person for the same offense.

  8. There is much wisdom in your post, Chaplain Mike. I hope you will indulge me and let me put here a passage that many evangelicals will never see because they do not have the book of Wisdom in the Bibles they read. But Catholics do have the book of Wisdom and here is something very beautiful that is part of the readings for mass for today.

    This is taken from Wisdom 7:22-8:1 from the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE). It speaks of wisdom as:

    There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy,
    unique, manifold, subtle,
    mobile, clear, unpolluted,
    distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,
    irresistible, beneficent, humane,
    steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
    all-powerful, overseeing all,
    and penetrating through all spirits
    that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.

    For wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
    because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.

    For she is a breath of the power of God,
    and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
    therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.

    For she is a reflection of eternal light,
    a spotless mirror of the working of God,
    and an image of his goodness.

    Although she is but one, she can do all things,
    and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
    in every generation she passes into holy souls
    and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
    for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

    She is more beautiful than the sun,
    and excels every constellation of the stars.

    Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
    for it is succeeded by the night,
    but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

    She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
    and she orders all things well.

  9. The seven deadly sins and the contrasting seven catholic(small c) virtues are the very heart of morality. I don’t think the Gospel has much to do with being moral. In fact it is scandalous to forgive us sinners. And to forgive even those who “again and again…the same offense” And the rewards( or in another analogy wages) given to those who labor early or late makes no difference. My biggest struggle is to come to grips with merit. I can’t really ever seem to come to point of believing that merit, before or after “becoming a Christian”, is a healthy approach. We are all( and I mean every person on earth) complicated, mysterious, mixed up on the moral spectrum. I do really believe Jesus words in the Beatitudes(virtues), that we are blessed if we are in each condition with the corresponding result. People I know think I’m a universalist, because I think we will all be shocked with who is saved. I think all are, but some are not( only those who persistently and finally resist God’s will for them). God’s will is not the same for people in different culturals, geographic locations, and times.

  10. Daryl Wheeler says

    “The disposition of sin is not immorality and wrong-doing, but the disposition of self-realization–I am my own god. This disposition may work out in decorous morality or in indecorous immorality, but it has the one basis, my claim to my right to myself.” Oswald Chambers

  11. Marcus Johnson says

    I think we also forget in our interpretation of Scripture that much of the “hellfire and brimstone” judgment references were made within a specific cultural context. Baal, Molech, the Greek gods (and the Roman rip-offs) were all violent, vindictive, vengeful gods (see how I alliterate?). Tick them off, fail to give them the right homage, or just be standing next to someone who displeases them, and you’re as good as dead.

    In comparison, the Bible narrates man’s evolving understanding of a different kind of god. If you make the mistake of proof-texting, grabbing one verse from Genesis, another from Amos, another from Isaiah, another from Matthew, then stitch them together, then it’s easy to create the image of a vengeful god who is no different than Baal or Jupiter. Place them in order of their historical and cultural context, and it is easier to see how God, over time, was slowly re-orienting man’s perception away from this vindictive cretin image to a Supreme Being that is defined by his love. For example:

    Every Bronze Age religion had a narrative in which a god sends a flood, but this God promised after the great flood never to flood the earth again in a direct covenant with man.

    Hundreds of years later, many contemporary religions at the time of the Exodus required child sacrifice, but this God promised (in the story of Abraham) a substitute for sacrifice and later offered up his own Son as a sacrifice.

    Hundred of years later, most contemporary religions at the time of Isaiah required animal sacrifice, but this God said that the sacrifices and holy days were meaningless; he would rather reason with us and cleanse us.

    And on and on.

    You have to place all of these narratives in order, but when you do, it’s easier to see God differently. Rather than starting off telling the people of Israel on day one that they had to accept a God that was totally beyond their comprehension, he placed man’s consciousness on a wheel that turned slowly enough for the people to realize that this God was different than any other god. It was an extensive evolutionary process, one that took thousands of years, and before we start making these affirmations about God’s judgmental nature based on Bible verses, perhaps it would serve us well to remember that.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The following is what I often hear about God and his stance toward our sins. Some of these are direct quotes from sermons or theological writings or evangelistic articles.

    The one in my past was something I read in a tract. (I think it was a booklet titled “The Calvary Road”.) Don’t remember anything else, except the all-caps are the tracts, not mine: “FOR GOD HATES SIN WITH SUCH A PERFECT HATRED…” then something about “HE WILL NOT ALLOW ANYONE IN HIS PRESENCE UNLESS HIS SINS HAVE BEEN COMPLETELY ATONED FOR!”

    Coupled with vivid descriptions of “AND IN HELL” (HELL also always all-caps), it had a long-term effect. Apparently God does nothing but sit up there in Heaven thinking of new ways to Reject and Punish us. Reject and Punish You. Reject and Punish Me. Punish, Punish, Punish, Punish, Punish.

    • Those who have heard the Truth, but rejected it, are condemned by their own mouths. Each transgression is recorded in the Book of Life, and separates us eternally from God, unless it be blotted out by the Blood of His Son.

  13. David Cornwell says

    We will never completely understand the depth of meaning in “penal, substitutionary atonement.” However it may satisfy OUR sense of justice as much as it does that of God. The depth of our sin seems to demand something, a price, so to speak. Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be” speaks to this, our guilt before God and the chains that hold us:

    1. And can it be that I should gain
    An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
    Died He for me, who caused His pain?
    For me, who Him to death pursued?
    Amazing love! how can it be
    That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?
    3. Long my imprisoned spirit lay
    Fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
    Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray:
    I woke the dungeon flamed with light!
    My chains fell off, my heart was free,
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

    4. No condemnation now I dread:
    Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Penal Substiutionary Atonement goes hand-in-glove with Worm Theology and Utter Depravity. Apparently Sin makes us so FILTHY FILTHY FILTHY that only God bloodily killing His own Son can satisfy his bloodlust(?) and hatred(?) on the Ledger Book. This also goes hand-in-glove with “Under the Blood”, that we are not truly Redeemed and Sanctified, God just looks at The Blood and marks the Checklist. Check, Check, Check. Our SIN SIN SIN is still there, Hated by God with Such A Perfect Hatred, just we’ve got a new coat of camouflage paint over it.

      I don’t think Penal Substitutionary Atonement was the original Theology of Redemption — that was Christus Victor, triumphant over death and sin, bringing the Ultimate Tikkun Olam. This must have been a later development. Given the side effects of Penal Substitutonary Atonement, I wonder if it originated as legal theory with Calvin? It sounds like something a Lawyer would come up with.

      • Anselm, building on Augustine. Feudalism.


      • Marvel not that God hates sin, or that the sinner is cast into hell, but rather rejoice that Christ has indeed achieved victory over death through his Substitutionary Atonement. His Blood camouflages nothing; rather the elect shall be given glorified spiritual bodies. Calvin did not invent this, but it comes from the Word of God, Who hath not wished that any soul should perish, yet grants man the gift of free will, even if it be to his condemnation. Hell is nothing less than turning away from God, like the fish which cries out to the sea, “Go away, I do not need you!”

  14. “a single focus does not and cannot capture the fullness of God’s revelation of himself, his love for us, and our salvation.” – Chap. Mike

    This piece was great reminder of the importance of not getting stuck with one focus (analogy, metaphor, lens, etc.). Thank you again to the Imonk writers and many of the regular commenters for being part of my exposure to other focuses on Christ which has helped me put together a better idea of what Christ is like while exposing to me just how little I actually know resulting in a humility my younger self could have never imagined.

    • What a blessed relief it was to finally realize that God is far bigger than the box I used to put him in.

      “Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
      Too noble to neglect
      Deceived me into thinking
      I had something to protect
      Good and bad, I define these terms
      Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
      Ah, but I was so much older then
      I’m younger than that now”
      ~ Bob Dylan

  15. Chaplain Mike, you listed several “…direct quotes from sermons or theological writings or evangelistic articles.” I’ll copy & paste the first two for reference:

    “There is a price tag on sin, and therefore sin must be paid for. God cannot allow sin to go unpunished.”

    “Justice requires that sin be punished, because sin deserves punishment. The justice of God obliges him to punish sin.”

    Here’s my question… Are these anonymous statements saying that the payer is the sinner or that the Payer is Christ? If the intended payer is the sinner, then the statements are heretical. But if the intended Payer is Christ, then the statements are orthodox.

    My understanding of penal substitutionary atonement is that it is the doctrine that Christ’s sufferings and death on the cross substitute as the payment we sinners should have paid but could not. In effect, God imputed both the guilt and sentence of our sins on Christ. In other words, he suffered and died in our place, thereby satisfying God’s wrath, justice, and righteousness. Supporting verses include:

    “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53.4-6)

    “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

    Even so, PSA proponents like J.I Packer caution against focusing on the details of its workings rather than what it means to us as the redeemed, the beneficiaries of Christ’s atonement. He writes that “I think it important for the theory of penal substitution to be evaluated as a model setting forth the meaning of the atonement rather than its mechanics.” (What Did The Cross Achieve, The Logic of Penal Substitution).

    So back to the quotes… I do not know what the thoughts or intentions of these evangelical preachers were as the statements are not written in the context of whatever else they may have said. But I seriously doubt that all of them–any of them, perhaps–were referring to the sinner having to pay the price of his/her own sin. Based on my own experiences, however, I would not be surprised if some of them are more concerned with the mechanics of PSA rather than the more important meaning that Christ was victorious over sin and death and that we are victorious in Him.

  16. “When I stand before the throne,
    Dressed in beauty not my own,
    When I see Thee as Thou art,
    Love Thee with unsinning heart,
    Then Lord, shall I fully know,
    Not till then, how much I owe.”

    -Robert M. McCheyne

  17. I really like NT Wright’s picture of penal substitutionary atonement found in “Simply Jesus. ” At first glance, it bears almost no resemblance to the PSA doctrines you usually hear “on the street.”

  18. Good interview with N.T. Wright, in which he discusses related issues, and others:


    Scroll down the center section on the page to “Listen on Demand” – it’s a few entries below.


  19. Ch Mike,

    you wrote you have never heard a Christian preacher or teacher say “God loves you so much that not even sin can separate you from him.”

    Here is St John Chrysostom, from the Divine Liturgy:

    “You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. ”

    And there is much like this in the hymns (liturgical poetry) of the Orthodox Church all throughout Lent. If your seminary library has it, check out the Lenten Triodion and have a look.

    Sent with a hug-

    • Dana, it’s little things like this that are increasingly drawing me towards Orthodoxy. I’m glad you’re around the comments here. (I miss Mule….)

      • Umi, you’re one of several who show up here with whom I wish I could sit down over coffee.

        Unsolicited advice: Be careful of “fringe Orthodox” on the Internet. Fr Stephen is your best blogging source, and for a “short theology” see http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith – very easy to navigate. Best would be to find a (canonical) Orthodox Church near you and converse with the priest, and maybe go to Liturgy – and children are welcome.

        I miss Mule too. Not sure of my motives, but I see cranky people as a (good) challenge for me in terms of really demonstrating love – there are reasons people are cranky.

        Sending a hug to you as well-

        • thanks for the unsolicited advice.

        • Thanks Dana!

          This isn’t the first time I’ve heard some cautions against “Fringe Orthodoxy”; how would you characterize that? Maybe this isn’t the forum, but you can email me if you want to continue the conversation in private (smallspaulson@gmail.com)

      • Don’t those early saints belong to us all regardless of our current affiliation?

        • Yes, indeed, if we want to “claim” them. Often Protestants will say that asking for their prayers is useless, or worse. Of course, that doesn’t keep them from praying for us 😉


  20. I was reading yesterday in John’s Gospel. I noticed for the first time that the verse that says “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me . . . ” is preceded by “Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.”

    You will deny me three times — Let not your heart be troubled. Amazing

    I probably would have laid a guilt trip on him. It made me think a lot about how I react to sin in myself and others. Jesus is gracious to Peter, to me, and to all His disciples. This post came along and helped reinforce my need to be more gracious. Thanks Chaplain Mike for a balanced, thoughtful word for today.

  21. An excellent post, Chaplain Mike.

    A book that helped me see that the church has had several views of the atonement is by Gerard Knoche, “The Gift of the Gospel.” He was my pastor many years ago in Madison and later became an ELCA bishop. I believe he’s retired now. At any rate, in one chapter in his book he gives 5 different views of the atonement throughour church history. Like looking at a mutl-faceted diamond is how I believe Knoche puts it.


  22. First, thank you so much, Chaplain Mike, for expressing the view that we should embrace the all the distinct ways in which the New Testament authors express the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This view is dear to my heart.

    Second, the question ‘Are we more gracious than God?’ provides us with a wonderful thought experiment.

    I think that this is one of those articles that I’ll wind up recommending to friends in the future.

    Now for a question (please don’t rush to say ‘no’!)–or perhaps better, a proposal (I’m not sure myself how seriously I want to take it). Here it is: Do you think that the penal substitution story, the Christus victor story, and so on (insofar as you can find different ways in which the atonement is talked about in the New Testament) are all literally false? By literally false, I mean that they do not track any facts about anything that’s really going on–they’re all fictional accounts meant to make a more general point. The point is that sin is to be forgiven, and the world is to be set right. There is no need to appeal to any means by which this is accomplished–God can and does do it by fiat, and shows us that this is so in dramatic fashion (i.e., the crucifixion).

    For example, the penal account explains the work and promise of the crucifixion and resurrection in terms of the traditional sacrificial cult. The Christus-victor-type accounts paint vivid pictures like ‘death being put to death’ or the harrowing of hell to show us the promises of God secured by Jesus. But in each account, the lesson is that sin is to be done away with, and the world is to be set right–not that there has been some sort of heavenly sacrificial transaction, or that there is such a thing as Death to be put to death, or that Jesus burst into some otherworldly prison to proclaim any good news. Again, all are powerful and often poetic ways of expressing the general point, but they are not descriptions that correspond to any actual events. In a word, they are fictions.

    I guess the view I’m suggesting comes down to this: the doctrine of the atonement is literally a fiction; the point of these atonement narratives is rather to show us the point God is trying to make–namely, that sin will be overlooked and the world will be set right.

    Now I’d like to specify some advantages I think that such a view may boast.

    Here’s one advantage: there’s no need to figure out which New Testament presentation of the atonement is the true one. None of them are, and looking for the right one misses the point of the narratives. It straightforwardly yields the result for which I praised Chaplain Mike above–that no one way of expressing the atonement in the New Testament is to be given a privileged status.

    Here’s another advantage: it doesn’t require any serious appeal to any bizarre premises about what justice requires; e.g., ‘justice requires a sacrifice’. Does the friend of this claim mean to suggest that justice can’t be done in a world in which sacrifices are impossible?

    Here’s still another advantage: it is no longer mysterious why torturing an innocent person to death should do me any good. Literally speaking, it doesn’t. But for whatever reason (to which God has not made me privy), that’s the way God decided to make his point–that sin is to be forgiven, and the world is to be set right.

    I’ve offered some deliberately provocative and admittedly underdeveloped points, but I hope that they are interesting.

    Thanks again!

    • I think you may have hit on a key part of the discussion. Ultimately, all attempts to explain what happened in Jesus’ incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection are attempts to use words and pictures to something that is actually beyond human comprehension. It is a mystery.

      For instance, sin is not actually a gummy nasty smelly substance that must be washed from us by liberal applications of “Christ’s Blood (TM)” all purpose cleaner. Yet we talk about being washed in his blood. It’s a powerful picture to help us understand a facet of what God has done to reconcile us to him.

      Nor is sin a destroying dragon that must be slain before it drags us to hell. Yet we talk about Christ conquering and destroying sin for us. It is a powerful picture of a facet of what God has done to reconcile us to him.

      The work of God on our behalf is much greater than any one picture can contain. This, I think, is the point of the post.

      Much like the physicist who says, “Light is a wave.” and who also says, “Light is a particle.” While in fact, both are metaphors to help us non-physicists grasp what light is, and both are true.

      • Thank you for your friendly response, Dave. I think that we’re mostly in agreement–or at least we’re barking up the same tree.

        There are a couple of things I’d like to say. First, I don’t think I’ve made any appeal to mystery here–at least, not in the way I think you have in mind. I made some claims about what I take to be the descriptive (in)adequacy of different ways in which we talk about the means by which God atones for sin–so this is a claim about how our descriptions of the means by which God atones maps onto the way atonement is actually achieved. And I’ve suggested that none of them are descriptively adequate at all. Another way to put it is this–I’ve made a claim about the way in which these accounts refer to actual events (i.e., they don’t).

        We might gloss the claim like this: thinking that these accounts of the atonement are descriptions of actual events is misguided; instead, we should think of them as illustrative fictions about what God is doing with respect to sin and, in general, what’s wrong with the world.

        Now, at this point, there are a couple of things one might say. One is to say that there is *some* account of the means by which God has atoned for sin which is unknown to us. This is not an unreasonable approach, and it is the kind of appeal to mystery which I think that you, Dave, have in mind. But I’m not quite comfortable with that. I think we can say more.

        Insofar as I have appealed to mystery, it’s mystery about the reason why God chose the crucifixion rather than any number of alternatives as the way in which the atonement story is to be acted out. But that doesn’t commit me to mystery about the means of atonement–I did give an account of the means by which God atones for sin–divine fiat.

        Now, if I may, I’d like to note a problem for the general ‘fictionalist’ (let us call it) approach that I’ve suggested here. Part of what it would take to defend the view is to show that for any account of the means by which God atones for sin found in the New Testament, that account is completely descriptively inadequate. That’s admittedly a tall order, and one might think that some descriptions are (at least to a point, perhaps once we sort through some of the metaphors) adequate–they pick up on some actual events involved in what God does in order to atone for our sin. I suspect that some Christus Victor version of the story might do this (for example, it’s not terribly hard to imagine that the ‘harrowing of hell’ is descriptive of *something*, once you sort through the metaphors, rather than an utter fiction).

        Anyway, though I think that what I’ve suggested is on the trail of something right, it’s very much ‘in the works’.

        Thanks again for your response, Dave.

        • Whew. OK. I read through that three times to make sure I was picking up what you are putting down.

          I don’t think I’m as smart as you give me credit for. 😉

          Our inability to describe is indicative of the mysterious nature of it — that is, a nature beyond our comprehension. I see description and comprehension as equivalent. The reason we can’t describe it is that we can’t comprehend it.

          I can push the button on the remote and the TV comes on. I have only crude language to describe why. There is electricity involved and phosphorescent pixels, but I lack the capacity (not being an electrical engineer or physicist) to explain the phenomenon in any but the most crude fashion. What goes on inside the box is real, but a mystery to me.

          Now ratchet that up by any number of degrees that might be required to apply to the greatest event of all cosmology.

          It is true to say that the TV turns on because I hit the switch, but apparently that is not the whole story. To say that God forgives likewise does not seem to be the whole story.

          I actually think Robert Capon hit it best when he posited that the crucifixion is a sacrament of God’s forgiveness. I forget which book it came out of. The crucifixion (a real event) is the sign that points to the forgiveness of God. It is the metaphor of what God’s forgiveness is. When I first read that, it knocked me out. Thinking of it now makes me lightheaded.

          Mysterious. All of it. Blessed be the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          • Yeah, that’s the sort of view on mystery that I thought you had in mind. Thanks for the clarification, it’s very helpful.

            The view you draw from Capon, that “the crucifixion (a real event) is the sign that points to the forgiveness of God” is exactly the sort of thing I’d like to push for (I think), as well. What I’ve been worried about are accounts of *how the crucifixion is supposed to work*. And the different ways of telling the story of ‘how the crucifixion works’ are all ways of bringing out the main point, which is, as you say, the forgiveness of God.

            Where we differ, I think, is in the sense in which the way in which the way the crucifixion works is mysterious. I guess I’m inclined to think that it’s *a bit* less mysterious than you do, insofar as I maintain (1) the suggestion that divine fiat explains how the crucifixion works or (2) that one or several of the accounts do latch onto actual events which contribute to the efficacy of the crucifixion for the forgiveness of sin (this second option would be a modification of the position I originally articulated).

            Also, there may be a difference in the way that each of us is using ‘mystery’ here. I suspect you would call (2) mysterious insofar as we don’t grasp the *whole* story. But I have been using ‘mystery’ to refer to areas about which we can say nothing at all.

            Thanks for the feedback! It’s very helpful to me!

  23. I really like this one and have struggled with the idea that it seems that God requires me to be better than Himself at times… or at least better than certain sections of Christianity’s popular view of God.

    I was watching a debate between a Muslim and a former Muslim/now Christian pastor with a leadership class in Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago and was actually pretty amazed that everyone, besides myself, seemed to dismiss the Muslim’s claim that God didn’t NEED to do anything (ie the Cross) in order to forgive us because He was God and can do whatever He wanted (which Jesus does on numerous occasions in the gospel accounts). I realized that the Muslim man had articulated something that I had been wrestling with, but could not pin point.

    My issue was with people saying that God cannot do something because I believe that speaks to His lack of ability. I can accept that there are things He may never do because of His character, but that really points to the problem of how many descriptions of PSA paint the picture of God that is an angry, out of control dad who is either going to beat the kids or kick the dog, but there’s no way he can or will resist taking it out on someone. He winds up looking like a narcissist who can never just let things go.

    I think that we forget that the passages in the Epistles are one side of a dialogue and we have trouble admitting that maybe the questions being answered are not the ones we are asking.

    I think that JIG’s first comments really point towards a better way of trying to get to the right questions. My own current view sees the cross as more of a demonstration than an achievement. It seems to me the larger point of Jesus was to give a better picture of who God is and what He is like and the cross ties into that. I thin the penal aspect is simply Him showing us that He takes the “hit” of our sin upon Himself and we don’t need to be worrying about it coming back up like some bad fight with your wife where she drags all your skeletons out of the past.

    • “My issue was with people saying that God cannot do something because I believe that speaks to His lack of ability.”

      Can God stop being God?

      “My own current view sees the cross as more of a demonstration than an achievement.”

      You mean it was an act, and Jesus was just trying to make a point? That seems docetic to me, and morally convoluted.

      • “Can God stop being God?”

        This is an impossible task because of the task, not because of lack of ability. God is not His job. It is Who He is. He can no more stop being God than you can stop being you.

        An example of what I mean is asking “can God lie?”. Of course He has the skill and the power to be able to do the act, but His character prevents Him from acting a certain way, much in the same way you might say someone does not “have it in them” to shoot someone. Of course they can aim and pull the trigger, but their makeup is what prevents them from choosing that course of action.

        “You mean it was an act, and Jesus was just trying to make a point?” No and yes. Jesus was really suffering and dying, but I am thinking that the cross was making the point of God’s attitude towards our sin not somehow metaphysically removing and forgiving us through the cross was some kind of lever that needed to be pulled so that God can be merciful to us.

        I am not made innocent by a judge declaring me so and while I am open to the possibility, I do not see the cross making me forgiven, but rather declaring it (and some other things as well.

        • I understand your points. But I think the cross is where God in Jesus Christ absorbs sin and evil, suffering and sacrificing himself to mend broken relationship with humanity. He forgives precisely in the action whereby he surrenders his prerogative as the sinned against party to hold our sin against us. To the degree that this is true, the cross is not only a moment in time, but also an eternal moment in the life of God. And it involves not only a declaration of forgiveness but an actual relational transaction in which sin is forgiven. I’m not thinking in juridical terms here, but in relational ones. Sin and forgiveness are both relational in time and declared as given from eternity.

  24. In all this discussion about the nature of atonement, I think it is incorrect to isolate the crucifixion of Christ from the rest of his life.

    I think Jesus’ entire life was an atonement, and that it was the offering of his life, not his death, that fixed and established the point of reconciliation between humanity and God. The passion of Jesus was not a discrete moment at the end of his life separated from all the other moments; the passion, rather, was present throughout his ministry and his life, and his very incarnation participated in his passion and the atonement he made.

    What happened during Holy Week and on Good Friday was the capstone of a life given in offering and sacrifice for the sins of the world. Though we rightfully focus on these dramatic events as we remember the narrative of redemption, it is salutary for us also to remember that behind Golgotha was the redemptive self-giving life of the incarnate God, a life often mundane and ordinary, but every bit as crucial and saving as the death it lead up to.

    That the suffering of this expanse of Jesus’ life was ordinary and unremarkable rather than extraordinary and compelling does not make it any less atoning.

  25. Brother John says

    While it is certainly true that God is most like the father of the returning prodigal son and is not *only* a judge, in light of the context (especially note 1 Pet. 4:1-7 and 4:15-18), the idea that God ‘overlooks’ sin and doesn’t hold sin against the sinner clearly cannot be the meaning of the phrase in v.8, that “love covers a multitude of sins.” It seems more likely that this is in the same vein of reasoning as our responsibility to forgive as we have been forgiven, just as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us. In other words, we should love because we have been so loved. But again, it is simply not the case that God ‘overlooks’ or ignores sin. Forgiveness and reconciliation are meaningless if sin doesn’t matter. (By the way, I am not a believer in the PS theory).

    • I’m not saying sin doesn’t matter. I am saying that as human beings we make a decision to not let a sin matter between us and other parties. The sin is not “paid for,” it is simply overlooked out of love. Often those who stress penal substitution emphasize that with God, every sin must be paid for and sinners held accountable for every sin. Otherwise justice is not served. Is it possible that God, who certainly knows how serious sin is, sometimes covers it with loving forbearance rather than exacting a just penalty.

      It seems to me that humans do that. Are we more gracious than God?

      • I agree in part with what you’re saying, CM, but when you talk about overlooking sin, I think you underestimate the degree to which such overlooking is a form of sacrifice, and is not without cost to the one doing the overlooking.

        • “I think you underestimate the degree to which such overlooking is a form of sacrifice, and is not without cost to the one doing the overlooking.”

          I think that is the point. God chooses to bear the “slight” of our sin and to take upon Himself the work of repairing the damage and redeeming the lives of the others effected by our sin. He doesn’t have to. He certainly is not hurt by anything we do unless He chooses to make Himself more vulnerable by beccoming like us and suffering with us and because of us.

        • You are absolutely right, Robert, and I think you actually reinforce my point. God’s sacrificial love is bigger than any one atonement metaphor can describe. He sacrifices himself for us in a multitude of ways. But those who focus only on the legal metaphor constrict our understanding and appreciation for that love.

          • Agreed, CM. The legal metaphor is less important than the relational reality. My concern is that we not lose touch with the language or reality of God’s self-giving sacrifice in Jesus.

          • One last thing, then I’ll leave it alone: juridical language, when used well, is one way of expressing the reality that whenever sin is forgiven by God, it involves a price, a penalty, a sacrifice, that he pays. God’s fatherly forbearance, which you referenced above, is not a metaphor that contradicts the legal metaphor when both are well used; they both point to the reality that God absorbs the pain of our sin into himself, that Jesus absorbs the anguish of our sin into himself. That, not a contraption made of wood, is the cross.

  26. Brother John says

    I agree the text does not fit with penal substitution, and like I said, I am not a believer in penal substitution at all, but the context requires us to deny that God simply ‘overlooks’ sin. The clear statements in that chapter to the contrary, which specifically speak of God’s judgement of sinners and the exhortation to holy living absolutely rule out the idea that God simply overlooks sin. Even the atonement concept of cover/kopher is not God overlooking sin, it is God cleansing it by sacrifice, thus making genuine reconciliation possible. God’s sacrificial love indeed does cover a multitude of sins, for those willing to be personally reconciled to the love of God.

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