My blogging friend Morgan Guyton recently published a post in which he took on Four cringe-worthy claims of popular penal-substitution theology. I heartily commend the post to all, and I cringe right along with Morgan each of the points he highlighted. Nevertheless I find myself pushing back in some regards, and pushing further in others. My intent here is to interact directly with Morgan’s article, so I encourage the reader to begin by reading his post.
Morgan’s first objection is to the popular notion in Penal-Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) that God’s d cannot tolerate the presence of sin…that “God is allergic to sin” as he amusingly puts it. He’s absolutely right that this claim is baloney (I’ve addressed this before in my post Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?), and that Jesus’ becoming human in order to get close–even to befriend–sinners is prime evidence of this fact. His further statement “It was not that Jesus couldn’t tolerate imperfection but rather that His perfection was intolerable” is, I think, a reasonable characterization. He then concludes “God is light; He doesn’t need the cross to protect Him from our darkness; we need the cross so we can survive entering into God’s light.” I think he’s almost right…the cross was for us and not for God…but not so much so we could “survive” God: only God’s love and graciousness are needed for that. Rather, we “needed” the cross in part because it demonstrated the positively crazy lengths to which God would go to invite humanity into his presence. Without that prodigal expression of sacrificial benevolence, we could not (or would not) trust the Father when he invites us into his presence. Thus the “boldness” we are challenged to exercise in Heb. 4:14-16, is the appropriate response to the cross.
Morgan’s second point is to oppose the notion that God sees Jesus, not us, when he looks upon those who have been justified through Christ…”that the reason God gives us His “approval” is because He doesn’t see us when He looks at us but sees Jesus instead. That’s not approval; that’s deception.” Morgan is absolutely right. I’ve always found the notion that somehow Jesus was helping us pull the wool over his Father’s eyes to be frankly offensive. I can’t say it better than Morgan himself concluded this section: “God doesn’t need to see a Jesus mask over our faces to approve us; His unconditional prior approval of us is the reason He sent His Word made flesh to empower us for holy living through our incorporation into His body.”
The third issue Guyton takes on is the notion that “Since God is infinite, he is infinitely offended by our slightest sins.” Morgan goes into the history of the “Satisfaction” theory of atonement, which suggests that the cross was necessary to satisfy God’s honor which had been sullied by the sins of his creation. Here again, he makes the assertion that the sacrifice of Christ, to the extent it would satisfy God’s honor, was because *we* need to be sure of God’s satisfaction, not because God demanded it. My objection to this is that the whole notion that God’s honor needs to be addressed through a sacrifice is itself not a Biblical concept as far as I can see–it certainly is not part of any description of sacrifice that I can recall in the Bible. I have not read Anshelm myself, but Guyton makes no mention of Anshelm’s having appealed to Scripture for the rationale of satisfaction, nor does Morgan himself appeal to Scripture in correcting the doctrine. I suggest that it ought to be ditched wholesale as an extrabiblical proposition.
The fourth “cringe-worthy” point Guyton refutes is the claim that God poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross. As he says partway through the section: “I cannot find anywhere in scripture that makes the Father the primary agent behind the crucifixion of His Son.” He’s right. I’ve argued similarly when I refuted the notion that God had turned his back on Jesus on the cross. Guyton correctly points out that Romans 1:18-31 tells us the evidence of God’s wrath is him handing people over to the very depravity they desire. That’s just not what happened on the cross. In fact, nothing I can find in Scripture suggests that Jesus was the recipient of God’s wrath in any form. As Morgan states, “In any case, what happened on the cross is that God the Father did not prevent God the Son from being killed by the Jewish religious authorities. He let Him drink the cup of (His/our?) wrath which He came to Earth to drink. But this in no way means that the Father was the executioner of the Son for the sake of His own anger management. When we talk about the Father “pouring out His wrath” on His son, we make Him look like a drunken child abuser.”
Morgan concludes “Penal substitution is an important part of the rich mystery of the cross — just not in the oversimplified, canned version that has come to predominate our juvenilized evangelical church.” I’m frankly confused by this, because he’s just made very good points that Jesus was not being punished (the penal part) by God, but also because (and Guyton doesn’t say this) I see no evidence in Scripture that what Jesus did was “in our place” either…that is, whatever Jesus was doing was not as a “substitute” for us. The Biblical testimony is clear that Jesus died and was resurrected for our sakes. I do not mean in any way to deny or diminish that fact. But the evidence that his death was somehow in loco humanis just isn’t there. Penal-substitution doesn’t need to be reclaimed from poor interpretation, it needs to be discarded entirely.
Which is why I still find Christus Victor a much better way to attempt wrapping our puny brains around Jesus’ death and resurrection…