The common reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109).
.. Duns Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used by the Gospel writers and by Paul). He was inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) and gave a theological and philosophical base to St. Francis’ deep intuitions of God’s love.
.. The terrible and un-critiqued premise is that God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept God’s own children! These theories are based on retributive justice rather than the restorative justice that the prophets and Jesus taught.
.. For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but had to be the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the incarnation—or we were steering the cosmic ship! Only perfect love and divine self-revelation could inspire God to come in human form. God never merely reacts, but supremely and freely acts—out of love.
.. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God!
God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model—which the ego prefers—to a world in which God’s mercy makes any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) notions of human and animal sacrifice (common in most ancient religions) and replaced them with an economy of grace and love.
.. Jesus was meant to be a game-changer for the human psyche and for religion itself. But when we begin negatively, or focused on a problem, we never get off the hamster wheel of shame, separation, and violence. Rather than focusing on sin, Jesus—“the crucified One”—pointed us toward a primal solidarity with the very suffering of God and thus of all creation.
.. God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!
THE TYNDALE BIBLICAL THEOLOGY LECTURE, 1973*
Why evangelicals give pride of place to penal substitutionary understandings of the Cross.
.. Evangelicals more than most are deeply moved by the notion that Christ died for us on a cross, that he was a substitute who suffered in our stead, that he endured a punishment we deserved.
.. To be sure, it has been framed sometimes in crude and even pathological ways. But it remains a way of looking at the atonement that deeply moves millions and draws them in grateful love to the one who hung on that cross.
.. reminding us of the many models of atonement alluded to in Scripture. Like the ransom model: We are held in the power of the devil until Christ died and freed us from his grip. And Christus Victor: The malevolent principalities and rulers of this age have been defeated by Christ on the cross. And the moral model: Seeing the lengths to which Christ went to demonstrate his love by dying on the cross, we respond in love.
Still, evangelical Christians believe there are persuasive theological reasons for privileging penal substitution among these and other models
.. The main reason is simply this: It makes intuitive sense to men and women of an evangelical disposition.
.. But they are not sophisticated theologians when they first find themselves astonished at hearing about what Christ has done for them on the cross.
.. They are grateful because they have, as we have noted in earlier essays, “an urgent sense of man’s predicament … a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated.” The mood is despair, and the urgency comes from a foreboding: If the reason for this despair isn’t addressed, one is doomed. The despair is grounded by guilt and shame for transgressions against divine law, which evangelicals recognize not as an impersonal and arbitrary law, but one that is a direct expression of the Personality behind the law.
.. When we sin, we are keenly aware of the connection between the law of God and person of God. We have not merely violated a law but a person, and as such we are subject not just to punishment but also wrath, not merely just consequences but also rejection.
.. Many argue such notions are more akin to primitive religion that seeks to appease angry gods
.. The biggest problem is the sabotaging of trust; the teen has failed to respect, honor, and love his mother.
.. “The wages of sin is death”
.. What type of universe is this in which every day and relatively harmless behavior—lying, greed, pride, lust, and so forth—deserves eternal and irreversible damnation? Evangelicals respond, “This type of universe,” and point to common experiences with very much the same dynamic—relatively insignificant actions that result in horrific and lasting consequences.
.. A woodworker thoughtlessly moves his hand too close to the table saw blade, and in an instant, his hand is lost forever to him. A jogger glances at her cell phone and momentarily wanders onto a busy street; she is hit by a passing car, and after multiple operations, she is told she’ll never be able to run again. Why the world is built this way
.. where small lapses in physical laws can have such devastating consequences
.. evangelical Christians are also more comfortable than most in calling such consequences a form of punishment. To talk only about consequences drains the blood from the dynamic and moves us in the direction of deism, into a world where God sets up the moral and physical laws and steps away.
.. thus in Scripture, God reacts to sin less like a judge who impassively metes out justice, but more like a wounded lover who has been rejected. It’s very personal.
.. This personal dynamic is what gives substitutionary atonement such homiletic force, and why it is a staple of evangelical preaching, teaching, and devotion. Of all the models of atonement, it best reflects the personal God of the Bible
.. The punishment that results is not an arbitrary expression of a rejected lover’s wrath, but also an act that somehow balances the moral books. That is why forgiveness as a mere act of the will is not sufficient
.. Sins must be paid for, as a debt must be paid for. Why this is the case, why the moral universe operates in this way, is hard to say, another deep mystery of life.
.. An apology from her is all well and good, but you are not satisfied until your father adds that your sister can’t watch TV for a week. Punishment is part of the solution to this problem, and if there is no punishment, you feel like justice has been cheated.
.. Or take the trope that Hollywood regularly relies on in revenge movies. The screenwriters are appealing to something deep and basic in the human heart: When a great injustice has been done, retribution is due.
.. The villain rapes and murders a series of teenage girls; all through the movie, the viewer wants the villain not merely caught but punished, usually in some violent scene that leads to the villain’s death. In spite of the predictable fireworks and excessive violence, we keep coming to such movies precisely because we are deeply satisfied by the punishment of offenders.
.. Again, evangelicals see this dynamic at work at a spiritual level. Our sins cannot be swept away by the wave of a hand. They deserve death, and only by death can they be adequately paid for.
.. Again we’re tempted to think we’ve regressed to primitive religion, but once more, we look around to see this phenomenon all around us. It’s another regular trope of storytellers, who create “Christ figures” whose deaths liberate others.
.. This is a powerful motif not merely because it mimics the crucifixion but because we recognize a mysterious law of the universe in play: Sometimes the suffering and death of one key person—who is perceived as good and loving—transforms the lives and situations of others for the good, as the deaths of activists like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. suggest.
.. evangelical preachers have proven themselves more open-minded and ecumenical than their liberal brothers and sisters. Whereas the latter insist on completely eliminating substitutionary atonement—and especially penal substitution—as primitive and unworthy of the modern mind, evangelicals simply will not eliminate any of the other models, no matter their weaknesses (which each model has).
.. evangelicals give priority to substitutionary atonement; they see it as the one model that holds all the others together, making sense of each one. And many agree with Packer who, in the essay noted above, suggests that substitutionary atonement is not a theory as much as a model, not an ironclad explanation of the mysterious ways of God but a dramatic narrative
.. is not in any sense to “solve” or dissipate the mystery
.. the effect is simply to define that work with precision, and thus to evoke faith, hope, praise and responsive love to Jesus Christ.
.. Yes, the model has been abused. Some have explained it as if Jesus appeased the wrath of an angry Father who gleefully watched his Son tortured to death—as if the Father and the Son had two different wills about what was going on. Not quite. Substitutionary atonement grounded in good Trinitarian theology insists on the unity of purpose of the Father and the Son, since “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, NASB). That is, God was enduring in his own self the divine wrath that we deserved—that I deserved.
.. Where Christus Victor, for example, is a wonderful model to describe cosmic redemption, substitutionary atonement is about my salvation: Christ died for me. It doesn’t get any more personal than that. And evangelical religion is nothing if not personal.
In church we often sing worship songs with themes and phrases that say, “there is none like you!” I believe those songs are beautiful, because it’s true– there is no God like our God.
But if penal substitution is true, God isn’t unique at all– God would be just like every other ancient god who had a thirst for blood.
I mean, how is a god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano any different than a god who needs a bloody human sacrifice on a cross? Both gods would functionally be the same.
.. if penal substitution is true, God is not all powerful and neither is he free. Instead, God is constrained by his wrath, unable to freely forgive those who have wronged him or misunderstood him without first getting his pound of flesh in.
If penal substitution is true, God cannot or will not do what he asks us to do: freely forgive.
Here’s a question: if penal substitution is true, wouldn’t that make God a hypocrite? After all, it would mean God either cannot or will not do the very thing he asks us to do: forgive without demanding something on the part of the one who offended us.
.. However, if God demanded a blood sacrifice and was unwilling or unable to extend forgiveness without it, God himself is unwilling to follow the teachings of Jesus.
“If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”
.. Surely, we don’t teach our children this idea of forgiveness. When someone says, “sorry” we teach them to respond with, “I forgive you.” We don’t teach them to say, “I will forgive you, but I have to punch you in the face first, or at least punch a substitute for you, before I can forgive you.”
.. At the heart of penal substitution is the belief that God had to punish someone– that violence was the only solution to fallen humanity. This, of course, is highly problematic.
.. In orthodox trinitarian theology, the father and the son are one in essence. Jesus in fact claimed that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father” because he and the father “are one.”
Yet, penal substitution would divide them– they would not be one in essence, or in full harmony and agreement.
.. I grew up believing in penal substitution, and it was to be unquestioned. No one told me it was a new theology, born largely out of the reformation, and often articulated by European theologians who had previously been lawyers– making sense of the fact they’d understand the cross by way of strict legal terms.