October 29, 2020

Preference, Problem or Person?

I told my son-in-law (who teaches/preaches with me at the ministry where we serve) that I believe we are dealing with more atheistic students this year than ever before. What’s encouraging to me is that I am hearing from them, and some are asking questions.

Several Christian students have been part of these dialogues and it has led to one of the most basic and inevitable questions you will ever get when you do student ministry.

Today, after I finished preaching, a girl came to me with this question. I’ll try to preserve her diction:

“Mr. Spencer, you know there are atheists, people who believe in Mary and Muslims. Many different beliefs. And there are people who believe the world is going to come to an end. If the world were to end, would all of these people who are not Christians go to heaven or hell?”

I love this question, because it opens every door I want to open with a student.

Think with me.

A) Why do we have a longing to know what happens to us and to others after death? You won’t find a human culture that doesn’t have rituals and practices related to the question of what will happen to us. If it is so deeply ingrained in every culture, perhaps it’s just part of our evolutionary past….or perhaps it is the remnants of our collective memory of who we are- persons with a creator- and our longing to “go home.”

B) We want to believe that “going to heaven” is about a PREFERENCE on our part. We make a choice or no choice, and we get the same result. But the Gospel of Jesus tells us that we don’t have PREFERENCE issue, we have a PROBLEM. Unless our sins are removed and forgiven, and unless our relationship with God is made right, we won’t go to heaven.

C) We believe that if a person is nice, or at least not a terrible person, God is unconcerned with whether they are an atheist, a Muslim or a Christian. In a sense, God does look at all of us the same (we are all sinners), but he doesn’t look at our FAITH the same. If God only looks at us, he sees our PROBLEM, because that problem of sin separates us from God. If our problem has been placed upon Jesus, then he sees a PERSON, a MEDIATOR, the one who makes things right. Our Faith is alway in/on something/someone. That matters a lot.

D) Christians don’t believe they are better than someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. We don’t hope in our goodness, but in Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is better than all of us- perfect in fact- and that only his perfection will cover up our PROBLEM. It’s as if we all “stink,” but for those who trust in Jesus, he covers over the “odor” of our sins with the fragrance of his righteousness and covers our sins with his blood.

E) Christians don’t know any person’s spiritual condition, we can only know what the Bible says and what people say about Jesus now. The Bible says that it’s given to every person to die once, and then to go to God either with their PROBLEM or with the PERSON who solves the problem. There is no other way for sin to be forgiven. That’s not a verdict on who is nice, because some non-Christians are much better people than some Christians, but the Bible says that even our right actions and thoughts are still so covered in our PROBLEM that they can’t possibly make us right with God. The only people the Bible says are saved from God’s judgment against sin are those who have placed their sins on the right PERSON: Jesus.

F) Is God more generous than what I’ve described? To save anyone is very generous. Look at Noah’s flood in Genesis 6. All we know about God is from the Bible, and in the Bible God is a certain and consistent judge who does what is right. Counting on God to lay aside his judgment and be generous to all totally apart from Jesus is saying that the Bible is 100% wrong inthe way it presents God. That could be right, and everything is fine. But if the Bible is telling the truth, then the PROBLEM of sin can only be solved by the PERSON of Jesus.

G) I can’t judge anyone, but according to the Bible, God has sent his son to the cross to be judged for the sins of the world. If Jesus was judged for sins, what awaits the person who rejects Jesus? Judgment.


  1. Terri, I lean in a similar direction. Without going back through text-books for accuracy, Plato and Aristotle were big on the idea of human immortal spirit. Big sections of the substance v form debates were centred around trying to work out exactly what part of a person what their “eternal” bit. Which led to the inevitable question regarding whether or not this part had always existed (i.e. was eternal previously as well as into the future).

    For me, human conciousness is inherently mortal. The proof of this, for me, is the fact that when we are unconcoiuss we are basically turned off as persons. This is what death is. Just like before we were born.

    The only possible way of continuing any kind of concious existence after we die would be for some supernatural even to occur that re-created our bodies(or at least our brains – with memories and neural structures intact to a degree that permitted continuity of personhood). I’m guessing that only God could achieve that. Now, whether or not that occurs, would be totally up to the discretion (call it ‘grace’ if you will) of this God.

  2. Jonathan Hunnicutt,

    good comments, although I would associate “rights of the devil” more with the “ransom” theory than Christus Victor. And, of course, we’re only talking about the history of Western Christendom, as the East has stuck more with Christus Victor. And Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén has argued that Christus Victor was actually closer to Luther’s views.

    As for N.T. Wright, to put it in a modern colloquialism, he’s the bomb. To the charges, oft repeated in Reformed circles, that Wright is inventing something new that Christianity couldn’t figure out for 2000 years, I would counter that, at least from my limited reading, Wright seems closer to the Early Church Fathers than many of the Reformers. Maybe Wright is not “inventing,” but rather, “rediscovering.”

  3. People need to be mellow, stress-free, relaxed, optimistic. If they aren’t, they suffer heart attacks, ulcers, mental breakdowns.

    Christianity is serious, heavy stuff, not exactly a religion that encourages a relaxed and mellow state of mind; at least not for me any way. If you are able to find peace and mellowness and relief in Christianity then that is great.

    I want to be a Christian, but not if means being stern, stressed, worried, pessimistic, and tense all the time.

  4. I could never understand the atheist point of view, but then recently, I was able to see it as they see it, and it made me weep. The idea of my loved ones just ceasing to exist after death? ugh!

    this may sound weird, but I think I’d rather that they go to Hell than that they be annihilated. (Of course, I myself would rather be annihilated :D) Annihilation makes everything meaningless.

    Of course, we shouldn’t believe things because we like the belief, we should believe things because they are true, whether or not the belief is appealing

  5. Tim W,

    My father died in October. He was an atheist. Thinking that I will never speak to him again is worthy of weeping. However, I would much rather he were “annihilated” than existing forever in torment.

    Let’s see it’s been 6 months since he passed. Only billions more to go for him if there is a conscious hell.

    Saying it that way is shocking and puts “hell” in its proper perspective.

    I had been thinking through all these ideas before my father passed away, so they are not a sole result of his passing, but it definitely gives one pause to put a face to what we’re talking about.

    I think some Christians reject annihilation because they see it as being too “easy”. Such a view stems from the fact that many of us haven’t really faced death and realized, as you have, what an awful thing ceasing to exist would be.

    If the conversation is reframed, I think we could see what a terrible judgment it would be to have the God of the universe decide that we were unfit to exist anymore.

    Can things get more severe than that?

    In some ways, the urge you express about thinking hell better, is true…because we have created an image of hell as a place where we are still “us” even if we’ve been rejected by God. We’re miserable and in torment…..but ..hey…..we’re still there…right?

  6. “Let’s see it’s been 6 months since he passed. Only billions more to go for him if there is a conscious hell.Saying it that way is shocking and puts “hell” in its proper perspective.”

    I remember thinking that at age 7 when I became a Christian. I was lying in bed thinking about heaven and hell and where would i go if I died; it wasn’t the flames and devils that scared me, it was the concept of FOREVER that scared me! The idea of no end!

    The idea of existing forever in heaven was only slightly less horrible than the idea of existing forever in hell. Forever is forever, no matter where you are. What if I went to heaven and got bored? I’d still be stuck there forever.

    The idea of eternity makes me feel physically sick if I think about it too much.

  7. Tim W.

    The concept of eternal life (going on and on and on) is scary for me too. Perhaps I’d rather think of an eternal supply of LIFE now, than an eternal carrying on of existence into a never ending future.

  8. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Christopher Lake:

    I understand Isaiah 53 to be both a prophecy and a description of Israel’s vocation. The servant of Isaiah 40-55 is Israel, of the twelve times that ‘servant’ is used, it is directly equated with Israel six of those times. Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, did for Israel what Israel could not do for herself.

    As for the penal substitutionary stuff, my only question is: where? Outside of Isaiah 53, where does the bible say things like: “God punished Jesus” or “Jesus was punished instead of me?”

    I’m not asking where you think the text means that (thought perhaps that might be helpful), but where does the text actually say that?

    And if (other than Isaiah 53) the bible doesn’t often speak about the death of Jesus in this way, then why do we?

  9. Justin Fowler says

    haha. What a can of worms you’ve opened here, iMonk.

    Some of the last posters might find some interest in these next statements:

    “As I normally understand it, yes. But I leave God room to define his terms as well as mercy.”

    Are you referring to where I asked what Lance’s concept of eternity is?

    The only problem with leaving God to define his own terms, if you mean what I think you mean, is that language is a human phenomenon, and we are therefore only sluffing off a personal responsibility to be correct in our expression of things. Did God create English, or even Greek?

    The Greek (heck, ancient) concept of eternity was more a qualitative sense than a quantitative one. Ancient people didn’t bother, for the most part, about silly concepts like linear time going on forever and ever without end. They mostly saw time as cyclical. As well, the Hebrews, whom wrote of eternity as well in their scriptures were more present-minded and referred to ages, but their concept of endless days was rather vague.

    And then there are problems with the idea of endless days or infinity as a number. (Look up Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hotel, for instance.) So, the question comes to mind, what does scripture really mean in all of this? Why did Jesus talk about eternal life as if it is something that we can have NOW? Why do the scriptures allude to God’s desire for the salvation of everyone and then act as if this is impossible?

    No, the idea of eternity from an ancient viewpoint was more an idea of something absolute in itself, fully integral. It calls to mind Plato’s world of ideas (if only I could find his writings on it right now…), the ever-present concentration of being in one moment without past or future. In other words, eternal life is unassailable life. It is something that we can have now. And, of course, it will not meet with decay and therefore it has assumed longevity – but we are not left to speculate about endless days.

    Aeon was the greek word used for eternity in the bible, a word from which we get our ‘eon’ – which is basically another word for ‘age’. A time with its own particular characteristics, self-defined and integral in its own right.

    Basically the thought goes that the sheep will be separated from the goats so that God’s righteousness will be understood and made manifest, and presumably there will be a time in the future after this righteousness has been revealed (alluded to by the admittedly potentially tampered-with Gospel of Thomas) where God will reconcile all to himself, just as Paul speaks of in Romans 5:19 and 11:32.

    “God does judge me on who I am as a person.

    That’s what happened on the cross.”

    I agree, if you mean that Jesus dynamically changed the world by unleashing the Holy Spirit upon us, tearing the veil between God and the entire race of humankind and thereby bringing about transformation and utter annihilation of the flesh. This isn’t a matter of theoretics, though, or legalities. The kingdom of God consists not of talk but of power. For we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh.

    1 Corinthians 3:10-15, each house will be tested for what it’s worth (this is referring to local churches but presumably can also be applied to individuals).

    You are right in that Jesus is our only means of justification, but by virtue of His transforming us and therefore causing us to be justified. Does God hide sin? Not unless he’s schizophrenic or has become a different person since the OT times (or NT times, even – look at people like Ananias and Sapphira).

    It’s scary to think about but what other God is there worth believing in? I want to be right, not be condemned to be hopelessly wrong for the rest of my mortal existence. I can’t tolerate that, I need my Father to help me become a true child worthy of my inheritance in Him.

  10. Christopher Lake,

    You refer to the “God of the Bible.” May I suggest that this may be the God of a particular or individual interpretation of the Bible?

  11. “As a post evangelical I’m rather cautious about announcing we have finally discovered what 2000 years of Christian theology missed.”

    AMEN, and thank you for a great initial post and conversation.

  12. Except that 2,000 years of Christian theology has not taught penal substitution in the manner that is so familiar to us today. It’s honestly extremely hard to find this model in the first 1,000 years or so of Christian writing. When I have found a writer using language that resembles a penal substitutionary explanation of the cross, it has not been presented as anything close to a primary explanation of the atonement, and I find such language couched among other metaphors of the atonement that have much more prominence.

  13. Jonathan Hunnicutt

    You seem to concede that Isaiah 53 might say something like “God punished Jesus,” but even there, you might agree, that it is a stretch, no? “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” says nothing about punishment per se. Nor does “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put him to grief.” It pleased the Lord to do so, not because the Lord (who does not take pleasure in death, Ezekiel 18:32) took pleasure in meeting out a punishment, but because he was pleased to effect our redemption by the Son’s assumption our nature to the point of willing and obedient death in order to conquer death.

    I’m not suggesting you disagree with this. It just seems like you might have been conceding that Isaiah 53 describes penal substitution, when it ain’t necessarily so.

  14. Christopher Lake says

    Donna G,

    If you think that what I’ve written about how one is reconciled to God is just my personal interpretation of the Bible, then I am curious as to how you would interpret the following verses:

    “Whoever believes in him (Jesus) is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 18)

    “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Jesus, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 12, verse 30)

  15. Christopher Lake says

    Jonathan Hunnicutt,

    In Romans 3:25, Paul writes of Jesus as the one “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” You may well already know this, but in the Bible, “propitiation” is a theological term used to signify the quenching of God’s wrath. In other words, God put Jesus forward so that through His death on the cross, Jesus would quench God’s wrath. What is this, if not God the Son being punished by God the Father, so that those who trust in the Son would be reconciled to God?

    On the cross, quoting Psalm 22:1, Jesus Himself cries out,”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) In this specific context, Jesus is expressing His understandable anguish at being punished by His own loving Father. Jesus knows that it must be done, but in His humanness, He still hurts.

    The reality of penal substitutionary atonement is seen in Galatians 3:13, in which Paul writes that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree…” In this verse, the “cursed” which is written of is that of being cursed, not ultimately by man but *by God.* Again, what is this, if not divine punishment so that we, who deserve the punishment, can be reconciled to God?

    I could give more examples, but first, I would like to hear your response to these.

  16. Christopher Lake,

    Only one thing I would be hesitant on: Jesus Himself cries out,”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) In this specific context, Jesus is expressing His understandable anguish at being punished by His own loving Father.

    I would suggest that Jesus is expressing anguish at being suddenly “separated” from the father, as opposed to being PUNISHED in this instance by the father. Whether or not one wants to view this separation as a kind of punishment is a moe complex issue, but it does not seem to me to be deliberatley clear from the text.

  17. Sorry Christopher, but I’m surprised that you don’t see yourself reading penal substitution into those verses.

    First of all, “propitiation” does not necessarily signify the quenching of God’s wrath by way of punishment of Christ. It only has that meaning for a certain number of Christians: the ones who already believe God had to punish Christ. Those Christians gave the meaning you cited to that word, but that’s not actually what the word means. For other Christians, including the early fathers, that term had no such meaning. “Propitiate” comes from the Latin, where it basically means “to make favorable” or “to make gracious.” In the Greek (full disclosure: I’m not a Greek scholar), the word has more to do with being or performing an act of mercy. So God putting forward Christ Jesus as a propitiation by his blood is just as easily read as God finding favor with or showing mercy to human nature because Christ Jesus, in his humanity, fulfilled the debt of perfect obedience. This seems to be borne out in Hebrews 2:17-18, where it says “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” How does he make propitiation? Well, we seem to find the answer a few verses earlier: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

    As for “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” These words don’t necessitate the interpretation that the Father is punishing the Son. They are words of anguish, of course, but the fact that the Father wills and allows this suffering to happen is not the same thing as the Father dishing out a punishment upon the Son. Jesus himself announced before his death that it would not happen if he did not go willingly. He was experiencing punishment, but he was not punishing himself. He was being punished at the hands of evil men, the psalm indicates. Psalm 22, which Jesus was quoting, indicates Christ’s sufferings but also indicates “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You.” In his words of forsakenness, Jesus was announcing the fulfillment of the prophetic hope, not simply bewailing some punishment.

    Again, the passage in Galatians 3, indicating Christ became a curse for us, does not tell us that the Father punished the Son. To say so is to insert a presupposition. You presume that this curse is from the Father, but the only thing the Father ever says about the Son is that he is well pleased in his Son. The passage in Galatians can easily be understood without a penal substitutionary reading. Christ took on our nature in its fallen, weak and suffering state (yet he was without sin, of course), and he took it on to the point of death. This is indeed becoming a curse for us. He died “so that he might taste death for everyone,” as the writer of Hebrews says.

    There’s absolutely no need to read Christ being punished by the Father into any of these passages. This seems to be one of the initial points that Jonathan Hunnicutt was trying to make, which is that none of the passages typically cited in support of penal substitution actually say that the Father punished the Son. Sure, if you’ve already been taught that, then it might seem so obvious that that is what those passages mean, but if you read the passages for what they actually say, you won’t really find it there. And if you consider the fact that Christians really didn’t advocate such a view until the second millennium, then you might want to question the habit of reading your presuppositions into those passages.

  18. Justin Fowler says

    Perfect job mome, and I would like to add that the penal substitutionary view divides up the unity of the Trinity and pits Father against Son, and ultimately Father against us. The Son himself said that he did nothing but what he saw the Father do… is the Father willing to sacrifices himself for us too? We see that he is, for it says that he gave his very own special son to us, and himself in His Son, for the Son again says that the Father is in Him, and He in the Father. Therefore the Father was in Christ as He was being crucified. It only felt as if they were separated, so that the sacrifice might be complete.

    I quote George MacDonald here:

    “Without this last trial of all, the temptations of our Master had not been so full as the human cup could hold; there would have been one region through which we had to pass wherein we might call aloud upon our Captain-Brother, and there would be no voice or hearing: he had avoided the fatal spot! The temptations of the desert came to the young, strong man with his road before him and the presence of his God around him; nay, gathered their very force from the exuberance of his conscious faith. “Dare and do, for God is with thee,” said the devil. “I know it, and therefore I will wait,” returned the king of his brothers. And now, after three years of divine action, when his course is run, when the old age of finished work is come, when the whole frame is tortured until the regnant brain falls whirling down the blue gulf of fainting, and the giving up of the ghost is at hand, when the friends have forsaken him and fled, comes the voice of the enemy again at his ear: “Despair and die, for God is not with thee. All is in vain. Death, not Life, is thy refuge. Make haste to Hades, where thy torture will be over. Thou hast deceived thyself. He never was with thee. He was the God of Abraham. Abraham is dead. Whom makest thou thyself?” “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” the Master cries. For God was his God still, although he had forsaken him–forsaken his vision that his faith might glow out triumphant; forsaken himself? no; come nearer to him than ever; come nearer, even as–but with a yet deeper, more awful pregnancy of import–even as the Lord himself withdrew from the bodily eyes of his friends, that he might dwell in their profoundest being.”

    -Unspoken Sermons, The Eloi

  19. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Christopher Lake and Mome:

    Actually, I think you are both wrong. In Romans 3:25, the key word there is ‘hilasterion’ in the Greek, which literally refers to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which was stored inside the Holy of Holies, where atonement happened in the OT. Metaphorically, it may refer to propitiation or expiation, but both of these are interpretative decisions usually based on assumptions.

    My reading of Rom 3:21-26, suggests that the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is the TIME and the PLACE of the dealing with the problems of Ro 1:18-3:20. The time part come from the “But now” of 3:21, and the place part come from the ‘hilasterion.’ In other words, this passage has been made to bear more theological freight than it does.

    As for Galatians 3, Christopher Lake might have a good point if the text said: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of God,” but it does not, it says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.” Is it God who cursed Christ, or the law who cursed Christ? The text says the law.

    Though, I will admit, Chris, Gal 3 is a closer to substitionary thought that I had supposed. But, it’s like Romans 8:3-4, if Paul means that God punished Jesus, why doesn’t he just say it? Paul seems to be working very hard NOT to say that. Why?

    This reveals another problem with far too many explanations of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement: it’s pits the Trinity against one another. That is NOT Biblical. I don’t think Penal Substitionary Atonement inherently does this, since I have heard better explanations.

    As for Mome, I appreciate your frustration with Substitionary Atonement, but I cannot see how anyone could say there is NO substitionary atonement in Isaiah 53. I agree that it is not as prominent as other think, but phrases like: “Struck down by God” (vs 4), “the LORD has laid upon him the iniquity of us all” (vs 6), and “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.”(vs 10), are directly saying that God punished him. Like I said, I’m 10% Penal Substitionary Atonement. However, most readings of Isaiah 53 have ignored the surrounding context to their peril.

    And Mome, Jesus did not quote Psalm 22:27, he quoted psalm 22:1. Yet, the whole psalm fits beautifully well into Jesus Kingdom of God theology, and Jew can use a quote to bring the whole passage to mind, and Jesus was certainly doing that. But he was quoting verse 1, because it really sucked to be on the cross.

    I prefer Moltmann’s explanation in Crucified God. The cry of Jesus on the cross does not destroy the Trinity, but instead demands a Trinitarian conception of God. What kind of God both forsakes, and is forsaken? What kind of God, in the cross of Jesus, takes up God-forsakenness into his own being?

  20. Jonathan Hunnicutt

    I like your thoughts. I just have to say, though, that I did not oppose all ideas of substitutionary atonement in what I said (or at least I didn’t mean to). I was challenging penal substitution.

    I also have to say that I admitted up front my weakness with the Greek. I was aware that “propitiation” in Greek is “hilasterion,” and I’m aware that this word has also been translated “mercy seat.” The word’s root comes from the same word as “cheer” in Greek, and so the idea of this word has some root in “making glad” or “making favorable.” Again, I’m no Greek scholar (not even close!), so dismiss what I say in this regard if you see fit. “Hilasterion,” I have read, also had use in the Hellenistic world to refer to sacrifices made to pagan Gods to appease their anger, so such a notion is not entirely foreign to the word’s meaning, but it is also not necessary to the word’s meaning. Just because I make you glad does not mean you were angry with me in the first place. In any case, what is revealed to us in Christ about God’s love for mankind, the Father’s love for the Son, the unity of will and presence of the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father, and all sorts of other things certainly does make it impossible for me to read penal substitution into the Romans passage.

    Your time and place comment struck me. Thank you.

    Another thing I must remark on is that I am, of course, aware that Jesus quoted only the first verse of Psalm 22 and not the 27th verse. However, Jesus certainly knew that the entire psalm prophesied his innocent suffering at the hands of sinners and the resultant blessings that complete the psalm. Jesus’ quote of the first verse leads us into a reflection upon and understanding of the meaning of the cross in light of the entire psalm. The entire psalm is prophetic. He wasn’t just up there making a literary allusion in order to express how bad it was on the cross. He was expressing the anguish and the hope of the cross, where his greatest emptying and abasement was also the breaking forth of his glory. And I also do not see in Jesus’ cry on the cross a “separation” between the Father and the Son, which simply does not happen with these eternal and inseparable persons. I see instead Jesus in his humanity experiencing what humanity experiences in death, which is forsakenness. The psalm gives a good picture of the experience of forsakenness as not being utterly forsaken. I think that this shows us that Christ’s forsakenness on the cross isn’t some kind of abandonment by the Father in anger. Instead, it’s the full weight of the miserable consequence of sin (and that consequence — death — is itself a mercy from God, lest we live forever in our misery). It’s the complete (and willing) emptying of Christ that Paul refers to in writing to the Philippians. Christ endured the cross and despised the shame.

    You know all this. I’ll stop now. If it sounds like I’m arguing, please forgive me. I’m just long winded when I comment on blogs.

  21. Also Jonathan,

    I commented earlier on Isaiah 53. Don’t know if you saw that. Just because God struck/crushed/laid iniquity upon Jesus doesn’t mean God was punishing Jesus in a legal sense to appease his wrath. Rather, God was giving Jesus over to the fullness of human experience, which is suffering and death. This is an incomplete thought here, but I don’t wish to write another long-winded comment at the moment.

  22. Christopher Lake says


    You make a good point. I probably made an interpretive “leap,” to a degree, with that aspect of my explanation of Christ’s words on the cross. I would still say, though, that even in the Son’s being momentarily “separated” (I prefer the Bible’s term, “forsaken”) from the Father’s fellowship, there was a punishment there, which we deserved but which Jesus took on our behalf.


    Respectfully, it seems to me that you are trying very hard to *not* see penal substitution in Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25, and Galatians 3:13 (see my comment to Jonathan below). I don’t deny Christus Victor, or Jesus being a moral example for us, or a certain form of solidarity with humanity, in the Atonement. All of those aspects are there. For you to *deny* that penal substitution is there, though, seems like not wanting to see what is in the text. If God had to be “made gracious” to us, through Jesus’s death on the cross, then that death did take on and absorb God’s righteous anger against sin. If that is not punishment, then the word has no meaning. It may be hard for you to understand or accept that the Father could punish the Son, and yet the Trinity still remain the Trnity. I don’t completely *understand* it, but I must accept it, because the Bible teaches it.

    Jonathan Hunnicutt,

    To be fair, I can’t get into the specifics of the translation of “propitation” from *my own learned knowledge* of the original language (because I haven’t yet learned Greek), but scholars who know far more about the Bible, and the original languages, than I do, *do* understand “propitiation” to mean the quenching of God’s wrath. Also, it’s not just Romans 3:25 in which the word appears, in English translations– it is also found in Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:1-2, and 1 Jon 4:8-10. Are all of those translations incorrect?

    In several places in the book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the Lamb.” This is not an arbitrary appellation for Him. In using this name, John likens Jesus to the sacrificial lambs which were slain for the sins of the Israelite people in the Old Testament. The curse of God, which should have fallen on the people, fell upon the lambs. Similarly, in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, the curse of God, which we should have borne, was borne by Christ. How is this bearing of the curse of God not a punishment from Him– especially when He *planned it* for our salvation (Acts 2:23)?

    Similarly, in Galatians 3:13, when Paul writes that Jesus “became a curse for us,” because “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,” the “cursed” was understood by people of that time to mean cursed by *God Himself,* not simply by the law or man.

  23. Christopher Lake says

    Sorry, Jonathan, due to some mistake on my part, two of those “propitiation” passages aren’t coming up correctly, when I click on them. I’ll try again:
    1 John 2:1-2 and 1 John 4:8-10.

  24. Jonathan Hunnicutt says


    I generally think that the Greek background is more or less worthless when finding the meanings of word theological terms. The first place we should look is the LXX, and then perhaps at the other religious overtones later. Even if the early Christians spoke Greek, they thought in Hebrew.

    I liked your comments about psalm 22. I was probably too hard on you about psalm 22. I worry that people jump to quickly to the end of psalm 22, when Jesus emphasizes the beginning. You don’t seem to do that.

    I still think there is some punishment in Isaiah 53. Remember the Servant is Israel, and Israel has just been punished by the brutal violence of a pagan empire. Jesus takes up that Servant vocation of Israel.

    Christopher Lake:

    Yes, I do think those translations and scholars are wrong, because they give the term more precision that it has. The root word is the same as in Romans 3:25. It seems to me that those scholars are reading penal substitionary atonement into this one word, trying to make it bear the whole weight of the doctrine, and it simply will not work. The word is simply not that precise. It would be like old KJV which translated ‘agape’ as ‘charity.’ It’s just too precise.

    I do encourage you to take enough Greek to realize how much the English translations butcher the Greek. The NIV is particularly awful with Paul. But you are using the ESV. I don’t know too much about that translation.

    Also, as I said earlier, sacrifice does not always entail a punishment idea. Read some anthropological literature on this. Or a good commentary on Leviticus. Sacrifice meant many, many things in the ancient world. One of those things was punishment. It was not the only one in ancient Israel or the surrounding cultures. Just because it looks like punishment to us, does not mean it was interpreted like that in the ancient cultures. More likely, they had a sacrifice-as-gift mentality. So sacrifices were like make-up presents to God. So when I do something stupid, and I bring flowers to my wife, nobody thinks that the flowers bore the punishment of my sin. I know that sounds silly to us, but hey, cultures are weird. The Bible does not think like 21st century Americans.

    I agree that Jesus is the lamb, in fact, I think that Isaiah 40-55 presents a New Exodus schema, and Isaiah 53 is the ‘passover lamb’ (hence the allusion to the passover in 52:12, and the use of lamb in 53:7.) But again, God never says that He punishes lambs instead of us. The passover lamb, for instance, was simply a marker of who not to punish in the tenth plague. God never said that he was punishing the lamb instead of the people. In fact, the sacrifice of the lamb, and God’s punishment of the Egyptians were two separate actions.

    Honestly, I don’t understand what precisely Paul is trying to argue in Gal 3:10-14. The reformation reading assumes that there is an unstated principle between verses 10 and 11, that “no one can obey all the law.” That reading does work well, and fits in nicely with penal substitionary atonement. However, that assumed statement would be the precise point of contention between the Judaizers and Paul. The Judaizers are arguing that the Galatians CAN do the law, thus getting circumcised is an OK thing.

    I cannot imagine Paul would be so stupid and build so terrible of an argument. It would be like building an argument against abortion without ever saying “life begins at conception” since ultimately that IS what the argument is about. Also Paul in Phil 3:6 seems to think that he could do the law.

    And none of the New Perspective readings of Gal 3:10-14 are satisfactory either. So i confess I don’t know what it means.

    But let’s assume for the moment that you are correct and that Gal 3:10-14 does clearly teach penal substitionary atonement. So you have Isaiah 53, and Gal 3:10-14. Two passages. Why are these given interpretative priority above all other statements about the death of Jesus? Why is Penal Substitionary Atonement the main explanation of how the atonement ‘works?’ Why does it trump all others in the presentation of the gospel?

    I talked about this earlier, but it’s worth saying again that the Roman legal tradition assumed that justice=punishment. The Bible seems to be far more nuanced. I get the impression that we read our Roman legal heritage of justice=punishment into the Bible and the cross. Might we be reading a Roman concept of justice into the scripture?

  25. Warning to everyone: this comment is a piece of lengthy and undisciplined writing that might very well be a waste of your time. Maybe, perchance, it will be of interest to someone.

    iMonk, just delete this if you believe I’ve crossed the line with excessive or tedious length or ridiculous chatter. I need a little chastisement from time to time.

    Jonathan Hunnicutt,

    You gave me pause when you wrote: “I still think there is some punishment in Isaiah 53. Remember the Servant is Israel, and Israel has just been punished by the brutal violence of a pagan empire. Jesus takes up that Servant vocation of Israel.” I think I’d respond simply by acknowledging that there is some kind of punishment there, at the hands of evil men, to whom God has handed over his Servant. By extension, we go on to read verses describing God as performing the punishment. But I can’t go any further than that myself. For my part, I certainly can’t make the jump from that into what I have heard and read as the penal substitutionary theory, particularly one that describes God as having to “quench his wrath” or be “appeased” by exacting a punishment (not that I think you are advocating any such explanation — even your 10 percent penal substitution seems to be different). I can see chastisement in the Isaiah passage, but I see nothing juridical in the passage. I can’t really see hard evidence for a penal substitutionary explanation of the atonement in the passage, and if I don’t see it here, then I doubt I’d be able to see it in anywhere else.

    On another interesting note, if you read Isaiah 53 in the Septuagint, you don’t find the sentences “… yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (verse 4) or “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (verse 10). Instead, the same verses read “… we accounted him to be in trouble and calamity and ill-treatment” and “And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow.” However, in verse 5, it does read “upon him was the discipline (also translated “chastisement” or “punishment”) of our peace.” So the LXX passage doesn’t lend the same potential for support of a penal substitutionary view, but it still does offer a bit of a foothold for that view.

    Actually, I see in these Isaiah statements (the ones that seem to suggest that God is punishing the servant) a parallel in Job. God handed over Job to the devil’s punishing activity but was not actually punishing Job. He was instead proving Job’s righteousness and obedience. Job is a type of Christ. Job on numerous occasions attributes or seems to attribute his suffering to God, even though we know that it is Satan who did the actual smiting, with God’s permission. God was not punishing Job, yet Job says “the Lord has taken away,” “though He slay me,” “shall we accept good from God and not adversity?” Job says, “the arrows of the Almighty are within me, their poison my spirit drinks. The terrors of God are arrayed against me.” These words are at least as strong as those in Isaiah, yet we know that God was not “punishing” Job in any juridical sense. In some sense, God dealt the blows to Job, who did not deserve them, as far as the text is concerned, but who also did not unjustly receive them, and God offers no justification for this (no explanation of wrath or retribution or any such thing). There’s much more to be said here, but I think my main point is that simply attributing the act of smiting or crushing or whatnot to God does not mean God is punishing anyone, and even saying that God is punishing someone does not mean he is doing so in a juridical sense. God does not rationalize his actions. I see penal substitution as a way to rationalize God’s work on the cross.

    Also, I think you’re quite right in pointing out that the Hellenistic background can be unhelpful in seeking the meaning of New Testament Greek words. The use of “logos” in reference to the Son is a good example of that. Early Christian attempts to apply the philosophical heritage of the word “logos” to Christ tended to create misconceptions that led to bigger problems that needed correction later. I guess I just tossed out the pagan meaning of “hilasterion” more for the purpose of suggesting why someone might think of “propitiation” in the “appease the gods” sense.

    Christopher Lake,

    You cite scholars who do understand “propitiation” to mean what you say it means. I do not deny that such scholars are out there. They have been trained in their particular school of thought and have been convinced by it. I have heard and read such scholars. But surely you know that scholars are not unanimous on the matter. There are also very capable scholars who do not understand the word to match your stated definition. So there we have an impasse. Citing scholars means little. I usually try to take my cues from Church fathers, and particularly the Greek and Syriac ones, for much of my theological direction. They do not teach penal substitution. Some of them approach the idea at times, but it is not at all primary for them, and I’ve never seen any of them treat the subject in the way that it is commonly understood or explained today. To me, if penal substitution was not obvious in the Church’s early centuries, then it’s not obvious at all. It really is no strain for me not to see penal substitution in the passages you cited, as if I don’t see it because I do not want to see it (which, I admit, is entirely possible). Because of my own dull mind, it might be a strain for me to try to explain to you why it’s not obvious to me, but I don’t have to “try hard” to not see penal substitution. I just find that we are living in a Christian environment where penal substitution has been widely considered as THE explanation par excellence of the atonement. There are some historical reasons for this. But when you live in such an environment, people tend to look at certain biblical passages and see with ease what they have been conditioned to see. By the same token, Christians who have not been steeped in this interpretive environment have not read penal substitution into those verses. Basically, what is obvious to you in these passages is actually not obvious to everybody, and therefore is not actually obvious.

    You say, “If God had to be “made gracious” to us, through Jesus’s death on the cross, then that death did take on and absorb God’s righteous anger against sin. If that is not punishment, then the word has no meaning.”

    Well, I didn’t say God HAD to be “made gracious” to us by absorbing his righteous anger against sin in Christ. I just said that propitiation means making favorable. This can be as simple as Christ’s blood making a bad situation into one where a good outcome is possible. That’s as simple a meaning as “propitiation” or “making favorable” needs to have, though that’s not all it has to mean. This doesn’t mean that it is God’s attitude that is being made favorable. God is not subject to any necessity whatsoever. He is able to forgive mankind simply by saying the word. But I understand that he meant to heal humanity and unite himself to humanity in Christ and share his life with us. In my comment to Jonathan Hunnicutt, I made the remark that “just because I make you glad does not mean you were angry with me in the first place.” I don’t deny that there was a problem between man and God that needed a solution (a propitiation). I certainly don’t deny that we were at enmity with God and that Christ’s death on the cross is the solution to that enmity. But this does not mean that God was “angry” and needed his anger to be “appeased” or “quenched” as though he were like one of the pagan gods throwing a tantrum until he were shown the proper respect (I realize I’m caricaturing a bit here, but it’s not too far from the truth of what many Christians seem to believe) or experiencing some compelling appetite for some kind of “justice” that forces him to punish. The word “propitiation” doesn’t demand such thinking about God. The word “propitiate” does not necessitate an idea that God is angry and in need of satisfaction (which is what you have stated is the very essence of the word). It means that there is a problem that needs to be made right, an unfavorable circumstance that God, in his mercy, has made favorable. The problem is not with God. He does not need to be restored to favor regarding us. “For God so loved the world …” “The Lord is gracious and compassionate.” God is a lover of mankind, the one who promised destruction on Nineveh, but whom Jonah knew would show mercy at the Ninevites’ repentance. His favor toward mankind has always been and was never lacking. The only sacrifice he ever wanted was a humble and contrite heart, not the blood of animals. We were the ones at enmity with God, not God with man. We were the ones hellbent on our own destruction because our preference for the creation rather than the Creator. Man’s helplessness before God and enmity with God is what needed the solution and the propitiation. That problem was never God’s supposed anger and need to punish, but rather it is man’s sin and man’s preference for darkness and the gradual drift toward death, which is the drift away from God’s very life (which itself is man’s very life). Man in this state could not be united with a righteous God, because the eternal fire of God’s glory would simply consume man. As we know, man could not solve this problem, could not make propitiation for himself, could not put himself and his passionate nature in a condition where it could bear God’s presence, so God did it for man in the Son by becoming man and fulfilling the debt of obedience and righteousness and restoring man’s dignity and nature. God could have simply forgiven man, but that does not solve man’s problem, because man’s problem is not primarily a legal problem. It is an ontological problem. Man would have remained in broken communion and just sinned again, and then repented again, and then sinned again, and a continuing cycle would have ensued (this in fact was the reality under the Law, which is why the Law is a curse and not a solution: It brings no lasting reconciliation). Since man had condemned himself to death by turning from God who is his life, Christ also shared in man’s death, because he emptied himself entirely in order to share in the entirety of man’s condemnation (and, by the way, condemnation does not equal punishment).

    God knew exactly what was was going to happen when he made mankind, he wasn’t taken by surprise when Adam and Eve fell. He was as present at the fall as he was at creation, and he is just as present at the cross as at those previous points. Christ’s redemption of mankind was not a “Plan B.” Irenaeus goes so far as to say that God created man to save man, such is God’s immense love, and such is the expanse of his grace. Nobody in the Church that I’m aware of ever challenged Irenaeus on this or sought to amend his thinking here. If this is so, and I think it is, then the penal substitutionary explanation, while not being entirely out of the question, just doesn’t fit into the overall vision of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

    Sorry for rambling. Most likely, I’m not being very articulate. I’m just providing a bit of background into of why penal substitution does not provide the obvious and necessary interpretive apparatus for the word “propitiation.” Certainly, the penal substitutionary way is one way to understand that word, but it isn’t the necessary way. It only appears necessary if you think of man’s sin and God’s justice in purely juridical terms. My argument is not that Jesus is not our propitiation. He is, and it is thoroughly biblical and needful to say so. My argument is that “propitiation” doesn’t carry the definition that you have put forth, which, you said, is that it ” is a theological term used to signify the quenching of God’s wrath.”

    I’m not claiming to be the authority, and despite my many words, I’m not out to change your mind. I’m just trying to show you that the way you have described is not the only way to read those words, and there’s a good pedigree out there for reading them differently. I guess I’m trying to show that one’s understanding of what propitiation means really depends on how one views man’s problem. So, no, I am not “trying hard” to avoid a penal substitutionary reading of the verses in question. I read those verses and I simply see it differently from you.

    I’ll move on to some other things you mentioned. You mention Jesus being called “the Lamb,” and how this is not an arbitrary appellation. I agree. Of course you are right when you say that John likens Jesus to the sacrificial lambs that were slain for the sins of the Israelite people in the Old Testament. But then you say “the curse of God, which should have fallen on the people, fell upon the lambs.” Well, what exactly is this curse of God? Is it death? All the people who availed themselves of these sacrifices (save Elijah, perhaps) went on to die, and they all went to Sheol. They died just like the pagans, and pagans themselves prospered on the earth at least as much as God’s people did, living lives just as long. We can assume that those who devoted themselves to God went to Abraham’s bosom while the rest did not. Still, the people of God died and were imprisoned in death until Christ set them free. Not only that, but the people of God also continued in their sins (making the law a curse for them, as Paul describes it). So these lambs of the old covenant, while they may have been accompanied by God-pleasing repentance, didn’t spare them from any curse. Hebrews 9 and 10 describe the blood of the old covenant sacrifices as bringing a certain provisional sanctification “for the purifying of the flesh,” but they brought no (lasting) reconciliation and had to be repeated (“both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience;” “For the law … can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshippers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins”) Again, the law is a curse. And to go on, this curse actually wasn’t God’s curse; man essentially cursed himself by abandoning his own life in God and giving himself over to sinfulness and darkness (“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world , and men loved darkness rather than light”). The OT lambs did nothing to avert man’s dilemma. In the prophets (and repeated in Hebrews 10), God says that he took no pleasure in the blood of these animals, which could not take away sins. They were a shadow of the true sacrifice. But the question, again, is whether man’s problem is “the curse of God,” as you call it, or simply the curse that man brought upon himself by his own failure to pay the debt of obedience to God and, once the light came into the world, for preferring the darkness. Certainly, there is a way in which we can all understand it to be a curse of God, but we need not see this as some kind of necessity to which God is bound or something for which God needs an appeasement. We need not see this as some insult to God’s honor, as though honor is something above God or as though God’s honor can actually be besmirched in truth. Moreover, several early Church fathers describe this curse of death as an act of mercy on God’s part, lest man remain forever in his wretched condition. Christ’s death is indeed a sacrifice that redeems man from his sins in very truth, but not necessarily because he was appeasing his seething Father. It was because he was restoring man’s whole nature to its heights by going to its depths and lifting it up.

    One of the things about the use of “propitiation” in Hebrews 2:17-18 is that it almost seems to be saying the Christ as our high priest is making propitiation for the sins of the people even now, after he has been made like his brothers in every respect (including in death). I’m not prepared to make a full explanation of what this might mean, but if this is indeed true, that Christ is even now, in eternity and at the right hand of the Father, making propitiation for our sins, then it suggests again that “propitiation” is more than a matter of appeasing or quenching God’s wrath in a legal sense. It is something ongoing, or better, timelessly eternal. Indeed, Christ is not only the propitiation, but he is also the high priest making the propitiation. This has eucharistic undertones, in fact.

    On another matter, I agree with you in preferring the biblical term “forsaken” over the term “separated.” For one thing, the psalmist tells us that even in Sheol, one does not escape God’s presence. This suggests that even in being “forsaken,” one is not separated from God. To be separated from God in any absolute sense is no longer to have any existence at all.

  26. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Mome, the more I read your stuff, the more I realize we agree.

    I too am incredibly frustrated that the penal substitionary guys seem read everything as punishment. In fact, I’ve been ranting about Anselm but even Anselm didn’t see Christ’s death as penal, but satisfactionary.

    So many Christians have divorced the cross and resurrection from the OT, and covenant overtones. I’ve found N.T. Wright to be helpful is seeing those. Israel’s punishment was exile, and death was the ultimate exile, so Jesus takes the curse of exile, death itself into his own being, and overcomes it by rising from the dead, which is the ultimate symbol of return from exile. Put in this kind of context, penal substitution takes on a very different flavor.

    One of the things that really frustrates me is that the penal sub folks treat the cross as if it solves God’s problem, not human’s problem. As if God wanted to be nice, but his gosh darn justice side wouldn’t let him. Yeah right.

    We have the problem, not God, and Jesus has come to rescue us.

    I really, really like your bit about the law only bringing temporary atonement, which thus becomes part of the cycle of disobedience, and is thus a curse. Where did you get that? Can you point me to some books or church fathers?

    I can tell you come from a more Eastern perspective. Are you Eastern Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, something else?

  27. Christopher Lake says


    I’m sorry, friend, but that comment was just too long (not even broken up into many sections– just too hard to read and interact with) for me to answer on this blog. I don’t think that you and I are going to see eye-to-eye, short of a radical change of understanding on one (or both) of our parts.

    You seem to think that scholars who hold to penal substitution do so mainly because they have been “trained in a particular school of thought.” That may be true for some of them. I do *not* accept penal substitution because I have been “trained in it.” I accept it because it seems very clear to me from the Biblical picture of sacrifice, atonement, and God’s righteous justice expressed against sin, both in the OT and on the cross.

    Both you and Jonathan seem to be frustrated that I am reading penal substitution as the *entire* picture of Christ’s Atonement. However, I explicitly said in my last comment that I do see Christus Victor, moral example, and solidarity with sinful humanity in the Atonement. I also see penal substitution as a crucial part of the picture.

    Jonathan Hunnicutt,

    In no way do I see “everything as punishment,” when it comes to the Atonement (see above, for my comment to mome). Speaking for myself, I have not *at all* divorced the cross and resurrection from the Old Testament. It is partially *because* of OT teaching on sacrifice, sin-bearing, and atonement that I *do* believe in penal substitutionary atonement.

    I wrote to you earlier that the specific passages to which I referred on propitiation were not the *only* such passages in the Bible. Other examples– the passages which speak of “reconciling” and “reconciliation” of sinners to God through Christ’s death on the cross.

    How can there be reconciliation if there were not a serious conflict to begin with– and who was the conflict between, who resolved the conflict, and how was it resolved? Obviously, the conflict was between God and sinful humanity. The Father *and* the Son resolved the conflict– the Father by planning the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), the Son by accepting and submitting to it. As far as I can tell, from the Biblical teaching, the conflict was resolved by Jesus taking the weight of God’s righteous justice against sin. This is why the cross achieved reconciliation between God and His people, who had been at odds.

    Your understanding of penal substitution, as expressed in your last comment, really seems like more of a caricature. We *do* indeed have the problem, and part of our problem is that God is just. He *will not* allow sin to go unpunished, because as rebellion against Him, it is the ultimate offense to His holy character. So, who takes the punishment for our sins? Jesus does.

    It is quite Scriptural to say that Jesus “paid” for our sins, because Scripture speaks of Jesus as a “ransom” for sinners (Matthew 20:28, 1 Timothy 2:6, 1 Peter 1:18, Revelation 5:9).

  28. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Christopher Lake

    We are all part of some interpretative tradition brother, whether we admit it or not, see it or not. The tricky part is that the Enlightenment sought to create a tradition of traditionlessness, where every individual found their own truth. You exist in a tradition of scholarship that decries tradition so it cannot see itself as tradition. I came from a tradition like that.

    If you do not divorce yourself from the OT, then what is the purpose of Israel? I hear far to many gospel presentations that skip from Genesis 3 to Romans 3, leaving out 90% of the story of the Bible. How does the death of Jesus, and his resurrection move the story revealed in scripture forward? How is the death of Jesus the climax of his life and ministry?

    So why does reconciliation demand punishment? Every time I do something stupid to my wife, she does not beat me after wards. Nor does she kill something to atone for my sins. Reconciliation does require one or both parties to bear the hurt that the other caused, and that’s what is going on in the cross of Jesus.

    You said that “We *do* indeed have the problem, and part of our problem is that God is just. He *will not* allow sin to go unpunished” I fail to see how this reveals that the problem is us, and not God. I get the impression from your comment that God really wants to let us off the hook, but he cannot. God’s justice is not my problem, God’s justice is my only hope! My sin is my problem. The devil is my problem, death is my problem.

    Why is punishment the main way to deal with sin? Of course God does discipline us for our sin. Sometimes it seems that God often lets sin run it’s course, and that is ‘punishment’ enough.

    Ransom language alludes to the Exodus or the New Exodus. (Isaiah 43:3, 50:2) Punishment should not be our primary paradigm for salvation, the Exodus should.

    I agree that I am caricaturing penal substitutionary atonement. However, all I hear is the charicature. Can you point me to some good books that present an even and balanced view of the atonement that do not reduce it to charicature?

  29. Christopher Lake says


    I don’t deny that I generally subscribe to the Reformed theological tradition (though as a Reformed *Baptist,* not completely), but I do so because I believe that that tradition best reflects what the Bible actually teaches. I was a “God is a gentleman who will not interfere with our free will” Christian well before I was a Reformed Baptist. Studying God’s sovereignty in Scripture brought me to my current convictions.

    However, I do not completely decry tradition, as you say that you used to do. Tradition is helpful when it does not lead us away from clear teachings of the Bible (such as penal substitutionary atonement).

    As far as Israel’s place in a Gospel presentation– the story of Israel is the story of God showing, over and over, to a people that He is holy, just, and loving, that He demands obedience from His people, and yet, they cannot and will not be obedient in their own strength through the law. Hence, the *curse* of the law– God, as God, has the right to demand perfect obedience, yet the Israelites continually sinned against Him (as do we), and even at their “best,” they would never have the *perfect* obedience which God rightly required. Thus, they looked to the Messiah– who came in the incarnate Jesus, lived a life of perfect obedience to God and died the death that bore God’s *curse* by bearing every last bit of His just wrath against sin. Israel’s place in a Gospel presentation is to show that sinners *need* the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, if they do want to bear God’s wrath against sin themselves in Hell. Either Christ bears that just wrath, or we do.

    You compared God’s reconciliation of sinners to you forgiving your wife after a fight. Brother, God is *perfectly holy and just.* When your wife sins against you, you don’t have the right to punish her, because you are a sinner yourself. When we, as sinners, sin against God though, we are sinning against perfect, unblemished holiness. Who will bear the just punishment for that crime of infinite proportions? The Bible’s answer is, Christ *has* borne it for His people.

  30. Christopher Lake says

    I meant to write, “…sinners *need* the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, if they do *not* want to bear God’s wrath against sin, themselves, in Hell.”

  31. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Christopher Lake,

    I have such a love/hate relationship with the Reformed tradition. If Plato could be exorcised from the Reformed tradition, I would happily count myself in the reformed camp. I sometimes do count myself in the reformed camp, though I’m sure John Piper would chase me out with a pitchfork.

    The platonism of the reformed tradition makes it very static, searching for the unchanging forms of pure doctrine. The scriptures tell a story, not a doctrine. I hear no story in your presentation.

    A few questions about you understanding of purpose of Israel: If God’s purpose with Israel was merely show them that they could not follow the law, why didn’t he just do that? Why spend almost 1500 years working on that? I mean it doesn’t take long. Heck, in Ex 32 the Israelites broke the covenant like 40 days after getting it, why not send Jesus then?

    Also if Jesus’ main purpose was to be perfectly obedient to the law, why don’t the gospels emphasize this more? Heck, why doesn’t Jesus say, “hey, I’ve come to be perfectly obedient to the law, and then die as punishment for your sins?”

    What does Jesus’s gospel of the Kingdom of God have to do with his perfect obedience? This goes back to my original critique of iMonk’s gospel presentation. How does Jesus life, his teachings, the Kingdom of God, his healings, his exorcism, his actions in the temple, his cross, and resurrection, connect together? Are these actions merely Jesus’ obedience, or might these actions mean something about what God’s Kingdom and the gospel are about?

  32. “If a man approaches a woman he desires and says, “I love you, and if you don’t reciprocate my love I am going to keep you in my cellar and torture you for years on end. Do you love me?”

    This squares with what I heard this weekend during a discussion about why God lets bad things happen to good people. The answer given was that He wants everyone to know him, so He does things to wake them up. Like tsunamis, or children dying of cancer.

    God casts people into hell to burn for an eternity because they don’t believe in Jesus. On the other hand, faith in Jesus is a ‘get out of jail free’ card that allows any amount of sin to be forgiven.

    You all can argue theology until the world is flat, but this is the cornerstone of Christianity as believed by millions and explained to me since childhood. Theology is theory. What gets taught in thousands of Baptist churches every Sunday is “fact.”

    Is it any wonder that Christians are seen as evil? We tell people that they can do anything and go to heaven as long as they’re a Christian, but the most moral person on earth is bound for hell unless they believe John 3:16.

    This is justice? This is the philosophy of the Prince of Peace?

  33. Christopher Lake says


    Respectfully, I think you are reading Platonism *into* Reformed theology. Yes, there is most definitely a story being told in the Bible, but it is a story told by an unchanging God who speaks Truth, and this Truth is expressed in both story *and* doctrine. It’s not either/or.

    God showing the Israelites, over the course of many, many years, that they couldn’t keep the Law, *is* a story. It’s a story about the relationship between a faithful, holy God and His people and about the lessons His people learned *in* that relationship. As for why He didn’t just show the Israelites that they couldn’t keep the Law very quickly and then just send Jesus, how would that have helped in the forging of the relationship?

    Jesus emphasizes his death very strongly in the Gospels, when it *reaches the point in God’s plan* for Him to do so. Prior to that, He is gradually revealing Himself and His mission to the disciples and to others. Part of this “revealing” is through the doing of miracles, which show that the Kingdom has arrived (in an “already/not yet, making all things new” sense), and which are physical signs of deeper spiritual realities (our spiritual blindness/death, from which Jesus saves us).

    In the vein of what I wrote above, when did I ever say that these things were *only* about Jesus’s obedience? Certainly the Kingdom could be emphasized more in Gospel presentations to unbelievers, but Biblically speaking, isn’t the main problem that they are in rebellion to God and under His wrath, and the main solution the cross of Christ, through which sinners are saved from God’s wrath and reconciled to Him? The Kingdom doesn’t truly begin, in a personal sense, for unbelievers, until they are reconciled to God through faith in Christ.

  34. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Christopher Lake –

    I think we are just talking past each other at this point. But I shall keep trying. I will admit, I get quite frustrated with your point of view, mostly because it is the point of view I used to hold. Few things are more frustrating that arguing with people who believe what you used to believe. Surely you must feel that frustration when you argue with those “God is a gentleman” type Christians. (And keep arguing with them! God certainly was not a gentleman with me, and thank God for it!)

    Either way brother, forgive me for my egotism. I am probably arguing more against my own simplistic former beliefs than your own. Hopefully, the church, and dialogues like these are about seeking the truth together, and iron sharpening iron.

    Excellent point about God’s relationship with Israel. I agree, but what do you think God’s purpose in electing Israel was? What is Israel’s vocation?

    And I go back to my question to iMonk: If your summary is the gospel, then why doesn’t Jesus ever just say that? Why doesn’t Jesus preach the gospel like this? I mean the closest he gets is Mark 10:45b, but that has a whole context that is decidedly not about God’s wrath and our sin, but about power and service, and what the Kingdom means.

    I keep asking this question for two reasons: 1) I don’t think I’ve gotten an answer 2) This was the question that eventually led to me have serious problems with my former theological system.

    Is the main thing the cross does is save individuals from God’s wrath?

  35. Christopher Lake says


    God’s main purpose in electing Israel was the main purpose that He has in all things- showing His glory in His attributes.

    Deuteronomy 7:7-9: “The LORD did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath He swore to your forefathers that He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commands.”

    Yes, the main thing that the cross does is save from God’s wrath– not “merely” saving individuals though, but rather, saving and purifying a people, a Bride, the church who was/is ransomed by Christ’s blood. All of the other benefits of the cross are secondary to its saving us from God’s wrath. Think about it– would you really *care* about the other benefits of the cross if it *didn’t* save you, and other believers, from God’s wrath?

  36. Christopher Lake says


    It grieves me to have to write this, but there are quite a few things which you have been taught that simply do not agree with Christianity, as it is shown in the Scriptures. I don’t know why you were taught these unScriptural ideas *as* Christianity, but you were, tragically, taught wrongly.

    God never lets bad things happen to “good” people, because no one is good, in and of themselves. Sinners (all of us) are rebels against a holy God, not basically good, moral people. There are simply sinners who are forgiven (through Christ’s blood and faith in Him) and sinners who are not forgiven. No one *deserves* forgiveness, just as no one, ultimately, deserves any good thing from the God against whom we have all rebelled. The real question is, why do good things happen to bad people (all of us)– that “badness” being shown so clearly in Romans 3:9-18?

    As for belief in Jesus, a truly *Biblical* belief in Him is a living, abiding trust, which is shown (not completely but at least to some extent) in a changed life. Such belief is not a “get out of jail free” card. It cost Jesus His earthly life to free us from our bondage to sin, and for us to truly trust Him, it *should* cost us our light view of sin.

    In Romans 6:12, Paul exhorts Christians to “let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” In verse 15 of the same chapter, he specifically tells us that we are *not* to sin because we are under grace. Even more pointedly, we are told in Matthew 24:13 that “the one who endures to the end will be saved”– certainly not a prescription for laziness as a Christian!

    Philippians 2:12 tells us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” even as the very next verse explains that we do so only by God’s grace and God’s power– “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” This is not “works salvation,” but neither is it “belief in Jesus” as a “get out of jail free” card.

  37. Jonathan Hunnicutt,

    I’ve appreciated your comments here, so it’s nice to know you see agreement between us. Yup, I’m Orthodox, not Syrian, but I do love the Syriac fathers.

    I dipped into some N.T. Wright, but barely, reading some articles online and Simply Christian. The whole concept of “new perspectives on Paul” seems like a misnomer, because in many ways, it appears to be an old perspective on Paul (I mean that in a good way), but perhaps addressing debates that are more modern. I really don’t know much about Wright and his views on the OT, but I like what you said in your brief synopsis about exile.

    Yes, we have the problem, not God, and our problem is not God, it is us and our helplessness. Notions about God’s justice too often subject God to the necessity of principles (such as concepts of holiness and justice) and penal substitution pits his love against his justice, when actually his justice should be identified with his love. There’s so much to elaborate on here, but I’ll just hold back for now.

    I can’t think of a single specific source for my statement about the law bringing temporary atonement. This just seems to be the message of Hebrews 9-10 in combination with statements in Galations 3 and elsewhere about the law being a curse. My thinking on the matter, though, is probably heavily conditioned by reading Irenaeus, who I would heartily recommend to everybody always. His “Against Heresies” is a long and sometimes slogging work, but it is immensely rich and I think it is crucial to understanding patristic thought about the Bible. Book Four contains much of his thinking about the Old Testament. The work of Fr. John Behr is great for understanding Irenaeus.

    Christopher Lake:

    I’m sorry if you felt my lengthy comment was too unwieldy, and I agree that one or both of us would have to have a significant change in understanding before we saw eye to eye. Please know, though, that my goal here is not to win an argument. I only hope to give a bit of an explanation about how and why someone could look differently at the very texts that appear to you and many others to be clear expressions of a penal substitutionary view. I also felt it necessary to challenge your certainty in understanding words like “propitiation,” “ransom” or “reconciliation” as you do. I also write for other readers who might be interested about this stuff.

    Much of what you have gone on to say is already addressed either directly or indirectly in my earlier comment, which I’m inclined to think you might not have really given adequate thought to, so I’ll try to be shorter here. But short for me still means long, and I know how unlikely it is that simple and short explanations will penetrate the ready responses and presuppositions of the penal-substitution viewpoint. Any strongly juridical viewpoint about God tends to supercede all other viewpoints, even if it acknowledges them. Please excuse my logorrhea. Respond as much or as little as you please. Feel free to tell me just to leave you alone if you like. I may or may not comply, but you can always choose to ignore me, which will probably send me wandering elsewhere until we meet again :-).

    Yes, everyone who holds any convictions about scripture or passages of scripture is indeed trained in some particular school or schools of thought, whether formally or haphazardly. Even if you were raised by wolves or something and then instantaneously learned how to read and then picked up a Bible, you’d be understanding it in a manner influenced by your pack of wolves. Anyone who is a Christian and gets together with other Christians is being subjected to some kind of theological influence, even in cases of disagreement. This doesn’t mean one isn’t able to form his own conclusions to some degree, but I don’t believe anybody understands the Bible (or anything else) in an uninfluenced way. So when I talked about scholars trained in a school of thought, I wasn’t trying to suggest that I and people who believe like me have also not received some kind of training as well. But scholars in particular are scholars because they have been schooled and have received formal courses of training (even when largely autodidactic), so my statement is especially true for them.

    Forgive me if I gave an impression that I’m frustrated with your views (I’m not frustrated with you; if I’m ever frustrated, it’s because of my own inability to express myself adequately). Also, forgive me if I didn’t acknowledge your acceptance of views other than penal substitution. Here’s the thing about penal substitution, though. For the people I have known and read who insist on it, it is THE explanation of the Gospel. Sure, penal substitution folks often do accept other atonement explanations, but those don’t rise beyond the level of “secondary” matters that would not matter at all without the supposed resolution of the central issue, which is the sinner’s criminal offense to God’s holiness and the consequent need to appease his just wrath. And this central issue defines everything that is “secondary.”

    What I see as the main problem with penal substitution is the concept that God’s wrath needs to be assuaged and that this is why Jesus died. This submits God to necessity and makes him responsible to abstractions like “justice” and “honor” and even “holiness” such that, even if they originate in God himself, they exert demands upon him and he is bound to some principle of consistency. We really have no grounds for presuming the inner motives of God other than his revealed motive of love (wrath is not motive or attitude, but activity). Sin has power against God in the penal substitutionary viewpoint, because sin necessitates his wrath. It’s as though God is bound to a law that he must keep. If you try to tell me that these things — justice, honor, holiness, etc. — are God’s attributes and as such he follows what he is, you are only presenting me with a conceptual and philosophical god, who himself is an amalgam of principles, and not the living and almighty God whose only revelation is found in Jesus Christ.

    The penal substitutionary view also has this as its problem: it starts with ideas of “god” and who he must be given the attributes that are posited regarding him, and then works back from that idea into an explanation of what God has done or said. Sometimes these ideas of God are gleaned from scripture, giving them an air of authority, but this doesn’t change the methodology. This is the wrong approach. The right approach is to look at Jesus Christ in the gospels, and then to interpret everything regarding God in scripture by means of Christ. Jesus is the revelation of the Father. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father. Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing. If you want to know anything about the Father, you look at Jesus Christ. If you want to know the meaning of the Father’s wrath, you look at Jesus. Don’t just look at his harsh words to the Pharisees or his driving out of the moneychangers because those things fit with your preconception of how God acts in his wrath against sinners, but look also at his silence before Pilate and the Roman torturers. Look at his plea for forgiveness for those who put him to death. The revelation of Jesus shows not that the Father is full of mercy and compassion only after his wrath has been “satisfied.” No, it shows us that the Father is full of mercy and compassion, period.

    I do not deny that God is holy and man is sinful and that the two are incompatible. I do not deny that in the last day the fire that goes before the face of Christ will burn up the sinful chaff in man, and that even those who will be saved will be saved as through fire, as Paul wrote, and their worthless works will be burned up. And I do not deny that Jesus shared in humanity’s punishment/curse, the ultimate end of which is death. Jesus didn’t share in this curse in order to appease or alter some state in God but in order to assume and recapitulate all of humanity and thereby alter it. And this punishment of death for man is itself a chastising act of mercy, setting an endpoint for our fallen state and making it possible for redemption to take place, and this not by escaping our own suffering and death, but by faith being united to him in them, and consequently being united to him in resurrection as well. He participates in our lives that we may participate in his. Man’s curse is not the result of God’s anger because of his offended honor and holiness, as though God cannot handle the fact of sin (again, this view supposes sin has some power over God and forces some reaction from him). In any case, this punishment of death is self-inflicted on man’s part. It is a consequence of moving away from God, who is life. Moving away from God is moving toward death. Read Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” for more on this. Once we set off toward death, we were in bondage to it (which is the same as being in bondage to sin). We were unable to move back toward life. This is the problem that Christ solved. This is the reconciliation that he wrought. This is why Jonathan Hunnicutt is right when he says that the Exodus should be our primary paradigm for salvation. Christ is the passover lamb.

    God saves us from our bondage to sin and death, not from his own wrath. God saves us from our passionate selves and the power of satan, not from himself. Jesus shares our human nature that we may partake of his divine nature in the Holy Spirit.

    If God’s holiness cannot bear the presence of sin, then what of the incarnation itself, where God enters into and unites himself with his fallen and sinful creation. Christ was without sin, but he experience all the effects of sin and he mingled with sinners. Christ united himself with all of humanity in its brokenness. This is a revelation of the Father. So much for a God who cannot tolerate sin and whose only reaction toward it is some kind of anthropomorphic wrath.

    Jesus Christ did not come to be punished. He came to bring life to his creation. “I have come that they may have life …” This meant sharing in all of human experience (including suffering and death) in order to recapitulate it in himself and become the new Adam. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the completion of his creation. As Christ’s participation in our death allows us to participate in his death in order that we might also participate in his life.

    I thought I’d weigh in on the question of the purpose of Israel. The answer is Jesus Christ: the Creator’s entrance into his creation and the dawning of his kingdom. Israel certainly provides examples of how God deals with sinners in their rebellion and in their repentance, but this is not the primary purpose of Israel. Israel exists to prophesy and provide Christ for his creation. Israel’s purpose is found in God’s promises to Abraham: “In you all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed,” and “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be your God and the God of your seed after you.” And Paul calls Abraham the father of all who share in his faith. My answer perhaps isn’t comprehensive, though, because one could ask why such a long history. Why didn’t the incarnation happen, say, right after the Israelites settled in Canaan? I don’t know. All I can say is that the “fullness of time” had not yet come. God continued to reveal himself in act and prepare the way in prophecy and sanctification of Israel until the time came when the virgin said “let it be to me according to your word” and the Uncreated One entered into creation. Israel’s purpose was the salvation of the world.

    But there are other questions that I’ve asked before, along with the question that Jonathan Hunnicutt asked. These continue to go unanswered.

    Jonathan’s question (hopefully, I’m wording it right): Why is penal substitution not clearly spelled out in the Bible? It’s not enough for you to point out words like “propitiation” or “ransom” or “reconciliation” because I have already demonstrated that these words do not automatically express the meanings that you say they do, as is obvious from Christian history.

    My question follows closely on that: If penal substitution is so obvious in the Bible, then why did it take more than a millennium for anything like a fleshed-out version of this viewpoint to be developed? And why was it developed by folks who didn’t even speak the biblical languages, while hundreds of years worth of spiritual giants who were native speakers of New Testament Greek never arrived at such conclusions? And, if it’s a matter of Hellenism vs. Semitic thought, then why didn’t the Syriac church (Syriac is just a dialect of Jesus’ own tongue of Aramaic) ever arrive at a penal substitutionary viewpoint? Why did the Church have to wait centuries before hearing even a rudimentary form of penal substitution (Gregory the Great) and even centuries more before hearing a more definite form. I know sometimes penal substitution backers find what appear to be patristic proof text in lots of Church fathers, but those usually fall apart upon closer examination. So, as I said in my earlier comment, if penal substitution was not obvious to the most diligent Christian minds of the early Church, holy men who had God’s words written on the tablets of their hearts, why should it be obvious to me?

    As for words like “ransom” and “payment,” it is possible to speak with such terms without identifying a payee. If I were to fight in a war, for instance, and I were wounded or killed in battle, some patriotic people back home would probably say that I paid a price to help preserve freedom. It would be true, but I would not have actually made a payment to anyone in particular. In the same way, the word ransom could be used. The lives of soldiers are a ransom for winning a victory against enemies, but this doesn’t mean the enemies or anyone else received this ransom.

    Here’s a quote from Gregory Nazianzus to illustrate my point (this comes from his Second Paschal Oration, which every Christian should read):

    “Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence.”

  38. Joseph,

    God doesn’t send suffering on people to “wake them up,” though it’s obvious that sometimes suffering does wake people up. Sometimes, however, it just embitters them.

    Sometimes, Christians try to rationalize suffering by describing it as part of God’s plan in the sense that God is its source. But in reality, suffering is horrible, and Christians do not need to try to justify it or do anything more than deplore it. Christians who try to rationalize it and ascribe it to God are babblers like Job’s friends, whom God rebuked.

    However, God shares in human suffering, and because of God’s identification with us in our trouble, the inherent vanity of suffering can find purpose in our own salvation. This is a far cry from God “sending” something horrible our way. It’s more like God “joining” us in our pain. Jesus Christ stands as God’s answer in suffering because in him we see the impassible God who in love has willingly suffered with his creation.

    A fine, short and rich book on this topic is “The Doors of the Sea” by David Bentley Hart.

    God does not cast anybody into Hell. God gathers all of his creation to himself and shines his light upon it all. Hell results when a person prefers the darkness to this light, thus hating God and turning his back toward God. Christ said, “this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light.” It is not for me or anyone else to examine peoples’ beliefs or statements and declare who will be saved and who won’t. Every last one of us human beings is a sinner, but God forgives the repentant. The difference between Sodom and Nineveh is repentance, and by that I don’t mean perfect theology. God’s grace upholds all creation, and Christ will not neglect a single person. Christ came to seek and save that which was lost. Those who end up in Hell will not be thrown there. They will have willfully rejected Christ.

    Much of what is called theology is indeed theory. However, true theology is the life of Christ.

    God is a good God and he loves mankind.

    Forgive me

  39. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Wow Mome, you’re back to this debate with a vengeance! I don’t have much else to add. You make me want to be Eastern Orthodox.

    But I would like to reiterate a few points to Christopher Lake: God’s purpose in electing Israel is not his glory, it is the blessing of the families of the earth. Gen 12:1-3 is one of the major turning points in scripture. Israel is elected and blessed to be a blessing to the families, the nations, and the whole world. Now of course, God does derive glory from this.

    Also neither Gen 12:1-3, nor Deut 7:7-9, does God say something like: “I gave you the law, so you would realize how much you cannot do it, and look for something else.” Since Israel is blessed with an Exodus liberation and covenant relationship with Yhwh, she is supposed to bless others. Israel and the covenant are God’s ways of dealing with the fallenness of creation. Read Isaiah 42, which is not about Jesus per se, but about Israel.

    I also agree with Mome that the western tradition (and most specifically the Reformed tradition), has too separated the love of God and the justice of God. God’s justice is derived from his love. When I lived in Mexico for a month, and saw children living on the street, selling candy because their parents were alcoholics, I felt God’s anger. But it was anger that comes from his love of the children and their alcoholic parents. God is angry with us because we are killing ourselves with sin, and he loves us! Not because we offend his holiness.

    You said that God cannot be in the presence of unholiness, but Mome pointed out that the incarnation contradicts this. I’d like to add that most of the Old Testament contradicts this. One thing I love about the revelation of God in the OT is that God doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. And thank God for that.

    I believe that your last comment is very telling: “Think about it– would you really *care* about the other benefits of the cross if it *didn’t* save you, and other believers, from God’s wrath?”

    Why would it matter if I care or not? I thought we were arguing about what is true, what scripture teaches? Why have you resorted to a pragmatic argument appealing to my self interest?

    Ultimately, I think your understanding of the cross is too small. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” Not just individual sinners, not just Israel, not just the nation, not just the elect, but the whole creation. God’s salvation in the cross and resurrection of Jesus is SO big. I am like the Syrophoenician women, I only need the table scraps of God’s big salvation, because it ultimately is not about me.

  40. To mome who posted at 8:14 on March 31: although I ususally just skim such long comments, your comment captivated me and I printed the whole thing out. I like very much what you have to say about what it was that Jesus did for us on the cross and I agree with you. My favorite sections are:

    “Jesus is the revelation of the Father. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father. Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing. If you want to know anything about the Father, you look at Jesus Christ.”

    “Jesus didn’t share in this curse in order to appease or alter some state in God but in order to assume and recapitulate all of humanity and thereby alter it.”

    “He participates in our lives that we may participate in his.”

    “Once we set off toward death, we were in bondage to it (which is the same as being in bondage to sin). We were unable to move back toward life. This is the problem that Christ solved. This is the reconciliation that he wrought.”

    “God saves us from our bondage to sin and death, not from his own wrath. God saves us from our passionate selves and the power of satan, not from himself. Jesus shares our human nature that we may partake of his divine nature in the Holy Spirit.”

    “Jesus Christ did not come to be punished. He came to bring life to his creation. “I have come that they may have life …” This meant sharing in all of human experience (including suffering and death) in order to recapitulate it in himself and become the new Adam. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the completion of his creation. As Christ’s participation in our death allows us to participate in his death in order that we might also participate in his life.”

    This understanding of Jesus, the cross and God has the ring of truth to it that other theories of what happened on the cross do not have, in my opinion. I read a book called The Inner Kingdom by His Excellency Kallistos Metropolitan of Diokleia (otherwise known as Bishop Ware…see
    http://www.thyateira.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22&Itemid=46)and I do SO appreciate many of the teachings and history of the Orthodox Church. (I am Roman Catholic myself, so we are not “far” apart in lots of ways.)

    Joanie D.

  41. Christopher Lake says


    As I’m sure that you know, the Reformed and the Orthodox have significantly different beliefs about the Bible’s teachings on God’s wrath and the nature of our personal sinfulness. I do have some knowledge of Orthodox theology. My uncle is Greek Orthodox, although he is probably more “liberal” in his theology than you are (influences of postmodernism and such). I have read about the Orthodox understanding of various Biblical themes, from more conservative Orthodox sources (such as Timothy Ware) and from other sources as well. All of which is only to say that, I’m not coming from a place of being ill-informed about Orthodox theology. If I believed that it best reflected the Bible’s teachings, I would *be* Orthodox. Obviously, I don’t, and therefore, I’m not.

    I noticed at least two assertions in your last couple of comments that, rather than being supported by Biblical evidence, were simply *left* as assertions– and an assertion does not a Biblical case make. To Joseph, you wrote, “God does not cast anybody into Hell.” What, then, do you do with Luke 12:4-5:
    4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

    If “God does not cast anybody into Hell” (in your words), then who is being referred to in this passage, mome? Who is it that kills and has authority to cast into Hell? If you’re going to say that it is Satan, then that will have the unfortunate effect of making Satan sovereign over peoples’ deaths, rather than the God who created them.

    To Jonathan, you wrote: “Notions about God’s justice too often subject God to the necessity of principles (such as concepts of holiness and justice) and penal substitution pits his love against his justice, when actually his justice should be identified with his love.” Mome, respectfully, these are nothing but assertions. You give no Biblical support at all for them. Who are *we* to say that “penal substitution pits God’s love against His justice”? Such a presupposition (which is exactly what it is), if embraced, will cause one to either ignore or significantly misunderstand Biblical teaching on God’s holy wrath against sin and Jesus’s atonement for sin on the cross.

    This is a big part of why I am not Orthodox. Again, respectfully, I see presuppositions in Orthodox theology that cause real misunderstandings of what the Bible teaches on certain crucial subjects. Orthodoxy seriously downplays the Biblical passages on God’s wrath and defines sin primarily as “sickness,” on the part of humans, rather than willful rebellion (primarily, not completely). Reformed theology acknowledges and takes into account the Biblical passages which speak of sin as sickness, but it also takes into account the numerous passages, throughout the Bible, which speak of sin as deliberate, knowing, hateful human rebellion against a holy God. Penal substitution is the supreme Biblical expression of the fact that God’s holy wrath and justice (in regards to sin) are *part of* His love. He justly punishes sin on the cross because He *loves sinners.* 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

    Speaking of which, the problematic (Reformed) “notions” of God’s holiness and justice that you mentioned (and to which I hold) come from *the Biblical texts themselves.* If many early church fathers had different understandings on these issues, should we take their opinions over the teachings of the Scriptures themselves?

    Please understand, I am far from holding an *anti*-tradition view. The Reformed tradition itself, historically, valued the early church fathers, which you already know, if you have read much of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, as I have written earlier, tradition becomes unhelpful when it leads us away from the Scriptures and Scriptural understanding– as I believe that the Orthodox tradition does, in certain important areas. I don’t mean that disrespectfully– again, if I were persuaded that Orthodoxy best reflected Biblical teaching on these issues, I would become Orthodox as quickly as is humanly possible. I am simply not persuaded though.

  42. Christopher Lake says


    When I wrote to you, “Think about it– would you really *care* about the other benefits of the cross if it *didn’t* save you, and other believers, from God’s wrath?,” I was not in any sense making a pragmatic argument.

    I asked you that rhetorical question because you seem to think that the secondary benefits of the cross (and yes, I do believe they are secondary) should be emphasized as much (maybe even more) than its primary benefit of saving believers in Christ from God’s wrath.

    The salvation of sinners does not merely comprise “table scraps,” in terms of God’s plan, Jonathan. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

    You think that I see the cross as too small. I know that it purchased many blessings other than the salvation of sinners– but speaking as a sinner, a former enemy of God, that blessing is definitely the most precious one to me (not the only one, by far, but the most precious and important one, for us sinners!).

    More importantly, though, than what you might see as my “subjective” view, as a sinner, the salvation of sinners is also the “blessing of the Cross” that I see emphasized *most in the Scriptures,* especially when one understands that many of the “physical” manifestations of the Kingdom (miracles and such) were *signs* pointing, not exclusively, but largely, to Jesus’s work on the cross and the Holy Spirit’s work in conversion.

    Yes, they were signs of the Kingdom’s outbreaking and its healing of a fallen creation. If the creation were healed, and *we* weren’t reconciled to God though, we would continue to destroy it and each other. Moreover, God is a *personal* God, and it is clear from the Scriptures that *as* as a personal God, He places an even higher premium on reconciling personal fallen beings to Himself than an impersonal creation. Not that He doesn’t do, and isn’t doing, the former, but Jesus didn’t die primarily for the creation. He died primarily to *reconcile sinners to God.*

  43. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Christopher Lake:

    I don’t want to say that my personal salvation is not important, I am sorry. I have read things like Galatians 2, so I do believe that there is a deeply personal aspect of salvation. However, in our incredibly individualistic American culture, I think we emphasize this individual dimension far too much.

    I believe that the salvation that Jesus won on the cross and resurrection is holistic, it’s political, it’s economic, it’s spiritual, it’s social, it’s ecological, it’s personal, it’s communal, etc. Of course, if God saves everything but individuals, then we as individuals would run amok destroying everything else. On that point, we seem to agree. However if God only saves us spiritually, the reverse logic applies, the unsaved areas of our politics, economics, social life, etc. will infect our spiritual salvation, because they are all connected. In other words, if we are no longer enemies of God, but our politics, economics, and social practices, etc are still enemies of God, our salvation is incomplete.

    So what I’m trying to argue for is balance, and I think we are quite unbalanced.

    Now, humans do have dominion over creation, we do bear the image of God, so humanity is thus the hinge of restoring/renewing creation. Similarly, Israel is the hinge of humanity, and Israel’s Messiah is the hinge of Israel, thus the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, will lead to the restoration of Israel, humanity, and all of creation.

    I know this probably sounds odd in the reformed tradition, but look at 1 Cor 15, look where Paul goes with the text. Jesus resurrection leads to the restoration of Israel (symbolized by the twelve in vs. 5 and the rest of the Christian community, but it continues to the restoration of humanity (vs 20-22), to the restoration of all creation (vs 28).

    Now, I agree, my table scraps are important to me. But I would be lying if I said they were the whole feast.

  44. Christopher Lake says


    I’d like to hear more about your statement that salvation is “political” (among the many things that you mentioned). What does that look like, in your understanding? I definitely agree that it is good for Christians to live out the implications of their worldview in the political sphere (especially as it is a *worldview*).

    You seem to only (or perhaps, primarily) be aware of one stream of the Reformed tradition. Have you heard of Abraham Kuyper and/or Francis Schaeffer? If not, it might be encouraging for you to read some of their works. These men, and others in Reformed Christianity, definitely did not believe in private, individual salvation in a way that does not affect the wider world. Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis has a similar “holistic” Reformed worldview which you might find encouraging.

  45. Jonathan and JoanieD,

    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate them.

    Christopher Lake,

    My first reaction to reading your response was the sense that now that you know I’m Orthodox, I’ve been bagged, tagged and stuck on a pin. Of course, this background is going to be present in my debate here with you, but really, this back-and-forth we’ve been having about penal substitution is not specifically a discussion of Orthodox theology vs. Reformed theology. None of the points I’ve made in this discussion are exclusive to Orthodoxy. I think Jonathan Hunnicutt’s contributions and many of the comments from people farther above serve as proof that you don’t have to be Orthodox to hold to many of the convictions I’ve expressed, or at least ideas that are similar. I mean, heck, much of what I’ve said could be found in the pages of C.S. Lewis. Penal substitution is debated in many Protestant quarters, so not everyone agrees that it is a clear summary of biblical teaching.

    Anyway, I’m emphasizing to you that I’m not here trying to peddle Orthodoxy to you or anyone else. I seems like a decent chunk of your response was devoted to outlining the theological “category” I belong to and telling me in a few different ways that you thought the Reformed tradition more accurately represented biblical teaching than the Orthodox tradition. It seems to go without saying that this would be your position. But you really have addressed very little of the actual arguments and statements I’ve made regarding penal substitution, and the two main questions that have been asked remain unanswered.

    The first question was: Why doesn’t any Bible passage clearly spell out the penal substitutionary viewpoint? I know that you have said repeatedly that this viewpoint comes from the biblical texts themselves. But then, so do contrary viewpoints, which interpret those texts differently. I’m familiar with much of the biblical rationale for your view, but most, if not all, of it is very inductive. It seems more grounded in reasoning about concepts of God’s character than in the exclusive revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

    I should be more clear about something, though. I am not dissenting with everything you have said, and there are components of the penal substitutionary view that I know are biblical, such as the fact that death is the sentence or punishment for sin and Jesus willingly took that sentence upon himself when he gave himself as a sacrifice for the world. It’s not incorrect to say that Jesus took on the consequence of the sins of the world and died in our place, but it means that he participated in our death, thus allowing us to be participants in his resurrection. We still die, after all, but death has been conquered and everyone will be resurrected in the last day. As Christians, we actually die with him now before our physical death, and by his grace, we put to death sin in our members, so that we might participate in his resurrection and life now. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24).

    I also don’t dispute that Christ gave himself as a ransom, that he paid the price of sin. You and I have some variations in the way we think of these things, obviously, which come out of or contribute to the really significant divergence between us, which is this talk about God’s justice and wrath needing appeasement.

    Where is the biblical text that makes it clear that God’s wrath must be appeased or that supports such a notion of necessity in God? That Jesus was made to be sin for us and that he became a curse for our sake do not tell me that God’s wrath must be appeased. These truths about Jesus fit nicely into the overall vision that I have tried to express. God shared our life, assuming even the depth of its miserable fallenness, that we might share his. “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 Cor. 5:21). This verse that you quoted matches what I have been saying, but tells me nothing about appeasement of God’s wrath. It tells me something about the lengths to which the Father, in his love for mankind, would go in surrendering his own Son to our condition, giving the most valuable gift that could be given, in order to fix our problem, to fix US.

    Jesus’ death on the cross definitely did fulfill the justice of God and canceled the debt of righteousness that we owed but could not pay. It fulfilled the sentence of death for us. But this was not because God needed this to happen, and it was not due to an unquenched wrath of the Father that needed satisfaction and that was meted out upon the Son. God, being the Almighty One, is able to cancel our debt simply through the exercise of his mercy, which never fails, and there would be no injustice for him to do so, because all he does is just and he may do as he pleases because he is sovereign. But he showed his power and love when Jesus paid the debt himself by offering his sinless humanity and the Father willed to receive such a precious offering. It was not the Father’s wrath that was being poured out on the Son. The curse of sin and death is not God’s wrath. It is the consequence of having turned away from life. God didn’t tell Adam and Eve that he would punish them in wrath if they disobeyed him. He told them they would surely die. But even after sin came into the world, God sought faith and and accepted repentance in his people. Look at the Ninevites, who averted wrath by repentance. The biblical picture, over and over, of God’s wrath is not a picture of a fixed and emotional sentence, but of a phenomenon that is turned away by the contrite heart. Does this mean God changes his mind? No, he is unchanging. It means that his one visitation and one action is grace upon the humble and repentant and punishment on the proud and hard-hearted.

    The second question was: Why do we not find the teaching of penal substitution in the early centuries of the church? If this teaching is the primary truth about the cross, and if it’s clear in the pages of scripture, then why does it take hundreds of years for it to begin to take shape in rudimentary speculations and then hundreds more years for it to appear as a developed conviction in writers such as Thomas Aquinas and, later, the reformers?

    Actually, you did give me something of an answer to the second question, but it seems unsatisfactory to me. You told me that your views come from the Bible and then you asked if many early church fathers had different understandings on these issues, should we believe them or the Bible. Well, when you word it like that, how else can I answer? But the early church fathers knew the scriptures well, and many of them spilled their blood to teach what scripture taught. They knew their scriptures as well as any reformer knew his scriptures (read Irenaeus if you want proof of this), and of course I would argue that the early church fathers knew them better, knowing the language (in the case of the Greek speakers), being closer to the cultural context (and being free of the nominalism of the late Middle Ages and the Rennaissance). I’m not making an apologetic for patristic infallibility at all, mind you. Rather, I’m saying that when you see a consensus in the early church, then you have a pretty good idea of what early Christians believed on some particular matter. When you see that the early church’s consensus about the atonement doesn’t even resemble penal substitution, it doesn’t suggest that penal substitution is the clearly biblical idea that its proponents make it out to be … unless, I suppose, you are some kind of restorationist or you think that the early church just didn’t know how to read its scriptures and understand its most central teachings.

    When you see the church in its early centuries consistently reading the Bible differently from the way you read it, it should be some kind of red flag, at the very least. The ease with which you brush aside the convictions of the early church seems to indicate that this church was populated by so many biblical dunderheads who just didn’t get the most central message of the scriptures. Here, we’re talking about the church that endured wave after wave of persecution and heretical onslaught, the church in which countless martyrs died and in which illustrious people who knew God defended and articulated the faith and doctrines that we hold dear and biblical regarding the Trinity and the incarnation against teachers of false doctrines who were able to cause much havoc among Christians. It’s quite insufficient to simply say that the fathers disagree with the Bible because they don’t read particular scriptural texts the same way you do or the same way the reformers do. There are reasons they read those texts differently and it’s not that they just don’t get it.

    All of us have the tendency to read our own presuppositions into the Bible. This is why it’s healthy to examine Christian consensus, especially the earliest and most widely distributed teachings, and question our own divergences from that. In the case of penal substitution, there is a marked divergence between that paradigm of the atonement and the paradigm that dominated the early church. Why is that? It most definitely is not because the early church didn’t know the scriptures.

    I said that penal substitution pits God’s love against his justice but that his justice should rather be identified with his love. You said that these are just assertions and nothing more (this retort is just an assertion as well). But penal substitution posits that God loves people and at the same time he is justly wrathful against them, or it says God loves people and wants to gather them to himself, but there is an obstacle that he couldn’t get around, which is that God must carry out justice or quench his wrath by punishing sin. Admittedly, in your view, love arrives at a resolution, but this view cannot avoid depicting an “episode” (for lack of a better word) of conflict in God in which his love toward mankind is pitted against his just wrath toward mankind. You ask who are we to say this, but it’s hard to see how this isn’t what the teaching of penal substitution says (at least insofar as I’ve heard it explained, including from you). For one thing, you have the cross, where the Son is the manifestation of God’s love and the suffering and death that he undergoes is the manifestation of the Father’s wrath being poured out upon him, and God is being punished by God. If this isn’t a conflict in the life of God, albeit a conflict that is also its own resolution, then I don’t know what it is. I’m not the one saying it. But I don’t know how you can square this conflict in God’s life with biblical teaching of the unity of the Father and the Son and Jesus being the very revelation of the Father.

    I also said that notions about God’s justice too often subject God to the necessity of principles. Don’t just tell me that this is an assertion, tell me how it isn’t true. In penal substitution, God is obligated to punish and quench his wrath because of his justice. He cannot simply forgive the repentant person until he has carried out the obligatory sentence. In this view, justice becomes something other than an attribute, it becomes a determining principle. In this view, justice is spoken of the same way we would speak of an ideal human justice and it plays a role that is independent from God’s love, and God’s wrath is often anthropomorphized.

    My other statement, that God’s justice should be identified with his love, isn’t just an empty assertion. “God is love” backs this up. Everything he does is love. You yourself said his wrath and justice are part of his love, though I would say that the penal substitutionary view separates these two things. I think it’s necessary to identify justice and love, because all of God’s activity is revelation of himself and God is not divided. All his activity is the multiform manifestation of the single unity of who he is.

    If I sometimes I do make assertions, it’s basically for economy’s sake. If I were going to provide the most comprehensive citations or background for every statement I made, I might as well stop writing blog comments and start working on a book. But none of my assertions are made out of the blue. There’s more to be said about any of them, but there just isn’t always the time to give them the fullest treatment.

    About my assertion that God doesn’t cast anybody into Hell. Here’s a great way to totally sidetrack our conversation. I think I explained myself when I say that we are the ones to choose hell for ourselves (in the manner of choosing life and death in Deuteronomy 30:15). I was primarily responding to Joseph, who essentially described God casting people into hell simply for not possessing a “get out of jail free card.” He was describing God as though God were arbitrary. But God is not arbitrary, as I’m sure you agree. The people who go to Hell are those who prefer the darkness to the light of Christ (that is the condemnation, according to Christ’s words). This darkness they prefer is the outer darkness, Gehenna, the consuming fire of God’s glory, the “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:9; if you read that in the ESV, be sure to take note of the footnote for that verse). This fire of Christ’s appearing in his glory is the judgment that burns up sin, and when a person has given himself over to sin, it burns that person up. They prefer it; they pick it. They have put themselves in that place (this is necessary to the view that sin is willful rebellion against God). It is their experience of the glory of his power according to where they have placed their love. God “casting” them is figurative language, I think (after all, God will not be picking people up and throwing them), just like language about God having hands, which he would need to do any literal casting. We always should avoid anthropomorphism when interpreting words about God. So, I responded to Joseph and challenged what appeared to be his common caricature of Christian teaching on the punishment of sinners. But you ask what I have to say about Luke 12:4-5. I say that God is the one who has the authority to cast into Gehenna, and thus we should fear him and not fear men who only have the ability to harm our bodies in this life. Satan does not have this authority, for Gehenna was prepared for Satan and his angels.

    A few comments on your comments about Orthodoxy: You said “Orthodoxy seriously downplays the Biblical passages on God’s wrath and defines sin primarily as “sickness,” on the part of humans, rather than willful rebellion (primarily, not completely).” If you believe Orthodoxy doesn’t understand sin as willful rebellion, you aren’t as familiar with Orthodoxy as you suggest you are (a reading of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete would be helpful for clearing this up, or just a perusal of the prayers before communion or some typical morning and evening prayers). The sickness is our fallen state and the subjection of our will to passions in this fallen world, wherein we are given to sin, which is rebellion toward God. This state is broken communion from God. It’s called the flesh. It is the tendency toward death, thus it is sickness. This sickness leads us to sin, and it is exacerbated by sinning. It is healed by sharing in the life of Christ, wherein the restoration of communion between God and man is progressively brought to manifestation in the Christian. This is what it is to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This is what “to live is Christ” means, or “it’s no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” or “be perfect” and other such biblical statements. This is what it is to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” and thank God that it is he who works in us.

    Orthodoxy doesn’t “downplay” biblical passages on God’s wrath. It understands them differently than you do, but it takes them no less seriously. And again, if you think Orthodoxy doesn’t understand the fear of God or God’s absolute holiness, then you don’t understand it as well as you think you do. This is not something you’ll always pick up in reading introductory books, but it’s something you can’t miss in the Church’s prayers. In any case, I don’t want our discussion to become a debate about Orthodoxy. I just thought I needed to respond to a couple of your statements about it, particularly because it might help to avoid presumptions about other things I’ve said.

    I think I should also make it clear to you, Christopher, that despite our differences, I have been enjoying this exchange with you and appreciate your patience with me. I hope that any abrasiveness in my comments are not offensive to you. Sometimes, a debate like this is worth having, if for no other reason than helping each of us to clarify things in our own minds, but I don’t want to be a burden to you with my many words or an overbearing tone. Forgive me if I have been that sort of interlocutor.

  46. Christopher Lake says


    Thank you for your reply. I do wish, though, that you would either make your responses a bit more brief or at least break them up into shorter paragraphs. This would help me, both with ease of reading and of responding. I haven’t replied in great detail to some of your comments simply because they were so lengthy and very hard on my eyes, sitting here in front of a computer screen, trying to read them.

    About the early church fathers and the Atonement, there is not the consensus among them which you claim regarding this issue. If you click on the following link, you will find excerpts from the writings of eleven early church fathers, commenting on the Biblical teaching of Jesus being “cursed” or “punished” by the Father for our sins: http://piercedforourtransgressions.com/content/category/5/15/52/ I recommend that you read the entire excerpts (which are not terribly long), not simply the parts which are in bold, in order to understand the entire Biblical argument(s) being made.

    I didn’t mean to imply that because you are Orthodox, I already know exactly what you believe and why you believe it on the nature of the Atonement. However, what you have written on this issue, thus far, does go along fairly well with what I have read from both Orthodox sources themselves, and from non-Orthodox sources, explaining the teaching of the Orthodox Church. I did overstate, to an extent, when I wrote that the Orthodox tradition “seriously downplays” Biblical teaching on God’s wrath. I apologize for that carelessness on my part and ask for your forgiveness. There is no doubt, though, that the Orthodox tradition has a significantly different understanding of God’s wrath against sin than the Reformed tradition, and I do believe that the Reformed understanding is much closer to the *whole* Biblical understanding of God’s wrath than is Orthodoxy.

    As for your interpretations of the specific Biblical texts to which I have made reference, it is honestly hard to know how to respond to you, because you are denying what, to me (and to many others, *throughout* history), they say quite clearly. If you don’t believe that the “curse” in Galatians 3:13 is ultimately from God, perhaps the excerpts from the church fathers will convince you. If you don’t believe that Isaiah 53 refers to the Suffering Savior whom we know as Jesus, again, read the texts above from the aforementioned early church fathers which refer to the passage. The fathers who refer to Isaiah 53 very much think it to be a description of Christ’s Atonement on the cross. The same is true of the fathers who refer to Galatians 3:13-14 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. These are the very same generations of early church fathers which you say are more likely to have a right understanding of the texts than me or you. In the excerpts that I have provided for you, these men do understand the Biblical texts in question in a penal substitutionary way.

    In the end though, even if we didn’t have these writings of the early church fathers, we still have the Biblical texts themselves, and you and I simply understand them quite differently. I believe that one understanding is clear; you believe otherwise. Who is right?

    Well, one thing which I have noticed is that you say I am holding God to “abstract principles” of holiness, justice, etc., and that my doing so seems to do violence to the Biblical texts. Mome, my understanding of God’s holiness and justice is *from* the text of the Bible as a whole. God’s holiness and justice *demand* punishment for sin. It is not as if He really wants to forgive sinners, but He somehow can’t, because sin must be punished. It is also not as if He simply wants punish sin, in an out-of-control outburst, and that this punishment has nothing to do with love.

    On the cross, God’s wrathful punishment is *bound up with* His love, and vice versa. His love is *bound up with* His justice, and vice versa. They are all parts of the character of God, and the cross expresses them in a way which is *not* contradictory. In this vein, I still fail to ascertain any *Biblical* logic behind your assertion that penal substitution pits God’s love against His justice. Rather, penal substitution *expresses* His holiness, His justice, and His love. These are far from being abstract principles to which I am “holding” God. They are actual characteristics of God Himself, from the Scriptures.

  47. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    You know what I like about this conversation? Both Mome and Christopher Lake have far more depth than I originally thought.

    To Christopher Lake:

    Yes, I do know a little more of the reformed tradition, and the part of the reformed tradition that offers respectful engagement with the world is excellent. I wish more Christians (myself included) better knew that part of the tradition. BUT I have not read any Kuyper or Schaeffer, sorry!

    As for the politics of the cross, I think the cross is inherently political. Jesus was crucified with “King of the Jews” atop his head, and crucifixion itself was a political act against rebellious populations. I think the cross reveals a very different kind of politics. This seems to be what Mark 10:35-45 is all about. We American Christians seem to have done far too little thinking about what that means, and instead, keep trying to get at the top of the hierarchy.

    I think that the Exodus is the primary metaphor for salvation in the Bible. And Jesus reorients the passover-and-Exodus around himself and the cross with the last supper. In other words, the cross is not primarily about punishment, but about Exodus, about setting slaves free. Of course it is only paradoxically in becoming enslaved to the Lord Jesus that we find true freedom. But even in the Exodus itself, the movement was not from slavery to freedom, but from enslavement to Pharaoh to enslavement to Yhwh.

    So, in a sense, I am a liberation theologian. However, some liberation theologians seem to think that setting people politically free with guns is the way to go, but this seems to me to be 180 degrees from the Exodus and the cross of Jesus. Of course, as we talked about earlier, if you set people free politically, but not economically, or spiritually, then your politics will eventually become corrupted.

  48. Christopher Lake,

    It’s a flaw, I know, but I can’t seem to keep my writing from getting long. I do understand that this can make it hard to respond, and I also realize that I sometimes end up burying some of my own main points. I’ll try to be briefer this time, but I can’t make any promises.

    I read with interest the excerpts from the church fathers that you provided. I have long respected these fathers (don’t know much about Gelasius of Cyzicus, though). But the quotes provided do seem to prove my point about the early church. These excerpts all state in various ways teachings that I already said I accept. However, what these quotes omitted to say is quite telling. None said anything about God’s wrath being appeased, satisfied or quenched or needing such appeasement, satisfaction or quenching. None said anything about God needing a sacrifice in order to fulfill justice or honor or wrath or anything else. None says the Father put a curse or a punishment upon the Son (rather, the Son took upon himself our curse, which is depicted as punishment only in a limited sense, insofar as it is the consigning of the human condition to the truth of its current mode of existence: that of decay and death that is the result of sin rather than the result of wrath or judgment, for the true judgment has not yet occurred). None of the quotes describes a change in God or in God’s disposition toward man. They all describe a change in humanity wrought by Christ, who in his one person mediated human and divine natures by bringing them into unity. These kinds of points in particular are what what I’m talking about when I refer to the “late developments” in penal substitutionary thinking that cannot be found in the first millennium of Christianity (or in the Bible).

    I’m not even sure why the quote from Athanasius was offered as being exemplary of penal substitutionary teaching. It is among the most clear iterations of what I’ve been trying to say all along. “On the Incarnation” is one of the most foundational patristic texts on this topic. He says “The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death.” This is the curse of sin, but it’s not depicted at all in connection with God’s wrath. It follows naturally from sin, the turning away from God, who is life (as Athanasius’ treatise is so clear about). This is true whether God is wrathful or not, it’s not the result of wrath that must be appeased by the death of its cause, nor is it the imbalance of injustice or dishonor.

    The quote from Gregory of Nazianzus comes out of the same magnificent series of paschal orations as the quote which I provided earlier (my comment from March 31 marked at 8:14 a.m.), which is very explicit in saying that Jesus’ blood was not a payment (or satisfaction) to God (or to the devil, for that matter — if anything, it was a trick against the devil, according to some fathers).

    The quote from Cyril of Alexandria can be fleshed out a bit more with another quote from him that represents early church thinking on Christ’s work: “For as long as sin sentenced only the guilty to death, no interference with it was possible, seeing that it had justice on its side. But when it subjected to the same punishment Him Who was innocent, and guiltless, and worthy of crowns of honour and hymns of praise, being convicted of injustice, it was by necessary consequence stripped of its power.” (from his treatise on the Incarnation) Here, it is not the devil or God that is paid in any way, but it is the power of sin, which in itself is a nonentity, that is negated by Christ’s unjust subjection to the penalty of sin. More specifically, I would add, it is the power of sin to hold humanity that is negated.

    This is to say nothing of Augustine who directly challenged the objectionable points of penal substitution centuries before the theory came into vogue. He was very forceful in denying any need in God for sacrifice or for anything (this is borne out by numerous Old Testament passages), and in making the point that the atonement effected no change in God, but rather in us who needed the change. Augustine says in The City of God, “And who is so foolish as to suppose that the things offered to God are needed by Him for some uses of His own? Divine Scripture in many places explodes this idea. Not to be wearisome, suffice it to quote this brief saying from a psalm: ‘I have said to the Lord, Thou art my God: for Thou needest not my goodness.’ We must believe, then, that God has no need, not only of cattle, or any other earthly and material thing, but even of man’s righteousness, and that whatever right worship is paid to God profits not Him, but man. … God does not wish sacrifices in the sense in which foolish people think He wishes them, viz., to gratify His own pleasure.” Later, Augustine writes, “In Scripture they are called God’s enemies who oppose His rule, not by nature, but by vice; having no power to hurt Him, but only themselves. For they are His enemies, not through their power to hurt, but by their will to oppose Him. For God is unchangeable, and wholly proof against injury. Therefore the vice which makes those who are called His enemies resist Him, is an evil not to God, but to themselves.”

    Augustine’s whole view of the atonement isn’t much different from that of Athanasius or from his teacher, Ambrose. In On the Trinity, Book Four, it’s fleshed out well. I wish I could quote the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt: “For it was brought to pass that the bonds of many sins in many deaths were loosed, through the one death of One which no sin had preceded. Which death, though not due, the Lord therefore rendered for us, that the death which was due might work us no hurt. For He was not stripped of the flesh by obligation of any authority, but He stripped Himself. For doubtless He who was able not to die, if He would not, did die because He would: and so He made a show of principalities and powers, openly triumphing over them in Himself. For whereas by His death the one and most real sacrifice was offered up for us, whatever fault there was, whence principalities and powers held us fast as of right to pay its penalty, He cleansed, abolished, extinguished … For whither (the Devil) drove the sinner to fall, himself not following, there by following he compelled the Redeemer to descend. And so the Son of God deigned to become our friend in the fellowship of death, to which because he came not, the enemy thought himself to be better and greater than ourselves. For our Redeemer says, Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Wherefore also the devil thought himself superior to the Lord Himself, inasmuch as the Lord in His sufferings yielded to him; for of Him, too, is understood what is read in the Psalm, For You have made Him a little lower than the angels: so that He, being Himself put to death, although innocent, by the unjust one acting against us as it were by just right, might by a most just right overcome him, and so might lead captive the captivity wrought through sin, and free us from a captivity that was just on account of sin, by blotting out the handwriting, and redeeming us who were to be justified although sinners, through His own righteous blood unrighteously poured out.”

    There are similar quotes from most of the fathers provided on the Web site you referenced. In the end, I can’t help but seeing that the patristic passages that you linked to are being quoted without a deeper consideration of the broader teaching and milieu of those fathers. Sure, there is not perfect consensus in all the fathers about everything. Sure, if we didn’t have the fathers, we’d still have the Bible (and we’d also have to rehash the struggle for right doctrine that the fathers had to face). But that’s hypothetical. We do have the fathers, and therefore we do get to glimpse into the mind of the church in history (as we should if we believe we and they follow the same faith). When we look back, we see a persistent vision that does interprets the Bible in a way that not resemble the penal substitutionary view as typically espoused in our times, despite some points of agreement.

    Also, I do believe that Isaiah 53 refers to the suffering savior whom we know as Jesus. The passage will be read at vespers for the Orthodox Holy Friday next week. There’s no disagreement from me that this is a passage on the atonement, and I acknowledge the fathers’ use of this and other passage, but I continue to maintain that they don’t read the passages in a penal substitutionary way.

    Something else I wanted to clarify is that when I referred to you holding God to “abstract principles” of holiness, justice, etc., I was not suggesting that your every mention of such things was wrong. I was instead trying to say that when you speak of God in a way that suggests he is bound to act a certain way because of his holiness or his justice or his honor, then you have elevated the abstract concept of holiness or justice, etc., to the level of something that guides God or obligates him. Even if you are careful to depict such attributes as attributes, as being “internal” to God, the concepts end up being used to describe forces that drive God to act one way or another. We, being humans, can hardly help ourselves from thinking of God’s holiness, justice, wrath, etc. in ways that sound like God is subject to some higher determinism. Your own assertion that “God’s holiness and justice *demand* punishment for sin” lacks a biblical equivalent assertion and essentially says that God must react toward sin a certain way. But the fact is that God is bound by nothing, and he could forgive sin and heal its consequences simply by his will. But instead he chose to save us through the kenotic love described in Philippians because his love was such that he not only wanted to fix us, but he wanted to unite himself to us and share with us the perfect communion shared by the persons of the Holy Trinity. There is plenty of biblical logic in that. The whole logic of sacrifice, which is symbolic in the OT of self-offering (which is indicated by God’s words about sacrifice in Psalm 51 and many similar passages), a symbol that is reality in Christ, depicts this reality.

    There’s a good chance that you will want to respond to my statements here. If so, know that I’ll be reading what you have to say, but I probably won’t respond soon, if at all, because I’m about to take a trip. My Internet access won’t be guaranteed, and it’ll be more than a week before I get back home. This iMonk post will probably have decended to Page 3 of the blog by then, and I suspect it’s time to move on. I just want to say again, though, that I’ve enjoyed our little clash here. Your way of explaining the penal substitutionary view has much to recommend it, even if you and I don’t agree. May the peace and blessing of Christ our Lord be upon you, Christopher. And may it also be upon you, Jonathan H. This has been a good conversation. Thanks.

  49. Christopher Lake says

    mome (and Jonathan),

    You’re right– I would like to respond, but given the fact that the original post is now on page 3, it’s probably time for this thread to close. We continue to disagree, both on certain Biblical texts concerning the nature of Christ’s atonement and on church history’s treatment of those texts, but that will probably not be resolved here.

    One last thing though, because I just realized this myself a few nights ago, and I’d like to see what you have to say about it — in Romans 3:25-26, Paul speaks of God putting Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

    Now, completely putting aside our disagreement over what “propitiation” even means (because I don’t necessarily think we’re going to see eye-to-eye on that), Paul further writes that God put Jesus forward “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

    If God “had passed over former sins,” but now, with the cross, He was “showing His righteousness,” what exactly does that mean? Is there not a clear implication of the *punishment* of sins on the cross?

    Also, in verse 26, Paul states that Jesus had been put forward “to show his (God’s) righteousness at the present time, so that he (God) might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” This verse states, with no equivocation, that the cross shows God’s righteousness in His *justice.* What in the world does an innocent man being crucified have to do with justice? What injustice needed to be set right? Note that I’m not imposing “legal language” on the text here– it is in the text itself.

    Similarly, as to the above questions– they are not questions which I’m coming up with myself. They are questions which fairly cry out from the texts themselves, and I fail to see how these questions can be coherently answered without the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross. If you don’t wish to answer though, I understand– it has been a long discussion, and I thank you for it and wish both of you a blessed Easter Sunday!

  50. Christopher Lake,

    Thanks for your kind words. A (relatively) short response is all I can give today (you might be saying “thank goodness!”). We could probably keep discussing these ideas for weeks, though, and not exhaust all we had to say.

    I don’t think the clear implication of God “showing forth his righteousness” is punishment, even when that statement is connected to the preceding words, “God passed over former sins.” It’s not that such language couldn’t be referring to punishment, but neither does it demand such a reading. “Righteousness” means so much more than dispensing what’s owed or deserved. It means so much more than “doing what’s right,” especially in reference to God, whose every deed is right. God’s righteousness is his glory, his perfection, his self-emptying love, his power, and much more besides these. It is the goodness and appropriateness of all these things. It could be said that the showing forth of his righteousness is the same as the showing forth of himself: the Father’s self-revelation in the Son as man. In us, it is his life, the gift of himself.

    Verse 21 says “the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed to by the law and the prophets,” etc. This righteousness of God is first of all Jesus Christ himself, the revelation of the Father, and then it is Christ in us, “even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” Christ’s righteousness is apart from the law. It isn’t because he kept the law (which he certainly did), but because his life, being God’s life, is the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God that comes “to all and on all who believe” is none other than the life of Christ in us who believe. His righteousness is our righteousness not because he successfully kept the law (though he did obediently do that when we couldn’t), but because he is righteousness in his being and life, which is shared with us, apart from the law, in spite of our inability to keep the law (which itself was only a shadow, an indication, of righteousness, anyway).

    God passed over the sins previously committed. Certainly, it was within his rights to punish, but it was not a necessity for him to so so, and rather than doing so, he in mercy showed his forbearance with humanity until the fulness of time, when his Son would be revealed, showing forth his righteousness and sharing it with all through his self-offering. This is God’s intent with man, to share himself with man, whom he knew from eternity would fall short of his glory. He passed over sins because his intent is not to punish but to save, and to do so by giving himself and so bringing man into communion with God. From what are we saved? Not from God, but from lack of God, from death, in which we had imprisoned ourselves when we forsook our life (God himself) for what seemed better to us.

    And God was showing forth his righteousness and effecting our justification not just on the cross. It was in the entire incarnation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, which is the entire economy of our salvation. The verses in Romans say “now” it is revealed, after the cross has occurred in time. It can’t simply be that this is referring to an instance of justice being served during the hours when Jesus hung on the cross.

    This leads to your second point about the passage “to show his (God’s) righteousness at the present time, so that he (God) might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” You say this unequivocally states that the cross shows God’s righteousness in his justice, which I don’t dispute as far as that goes. Then you note that you’re not imposing legal language here. My contention is that, biblically, “justice” is a much broader notion than any courtroom/sentencing scenario allows. The words “just,” “justified” and “justice” aren’t merely legal terms implying the proper way to pay back deeds. They also indicate the proper way to live and act (“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness (mercy or steadfast love in some translations), and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8) Words relating to justice do have their legal and equitable aspect, which dominates in English. But “just” means more. It means “right” or “straight” or “proper.” This is clear in how that word is used in French, for example, where “le mot juste,” for example, doesn’t mean “the word that is fair” but “the word that is right and appropriate.”

    I’m just trying to say that God being “just and the justifier” does not mean that he simply passed the test morally or legally (which he definitely did), and that he makes us “just as if” we did too. Rather, it means that he, in the incarnation, lived justly, properly, appropriately, according to the truth of our nature, as man was created to live, in communion with God. By his communion with us, he justifies us. That is, we become as we were created to be, we have our true source of life, and we are thus justified, made right.

    You ask “What in the world does an innocent man being crucified have to do with justice? What injustice needed to be set right?” The injustice was that man had not given himself to God (true sacrifice is self-offering), had not obeyed God as he was created to do. In Christ, man did so, recapitulating the human condition by obediently assuming all the consequences of sin even unto death (which was the will of God for our salvation). That he was an innocent man meant that death had no claim on him (and no longer had a claim to justice of any sort) and he was able to burst asunder the gates of Hades that imprisoned humanity. That’s the justice in the injustice. A man has to die in order to enter Hades, and he must be innocent in order to rightfully despoil it for the sake of all humanity.

    So, you and I have some differences about the signification of “justice,” just as we do with a word like “propitiation.” I read the word “justified” in my Bible, and I understand something other than “declared not guilty.” I must be clear, however. I am not denying the reality that Paul employs legal concepts as he writes to the Romans. It’s just that even in the midst of such concepts, he is clear that Christians are justified in a way that goes far beyond any legal corrective (which would be insufficient for our salvation without an ontological corrective). The law makes clear our weakness, and yes, our guilt. But Christ is our righteousness not within the framework of any law but apart from the law, and we appropriate him as our righteousness through “the law of faith” referred to in verse 27 and described in Chapter 4.

    Well, those are some answers to those questions about how I can read those passages without feeling it necessary to resort to penal substitution. It’s not my goal to change your mind with this, I just hope I’m able to make some coherent sense regarding a different point of view. God bless you. Take care. Christ is risen!