Penal-Substitutionary Atonement–It has God’s Role Wrong

I want to highlight a thought my friend Ben just posted over at his blog, that I think adds an additional dimension to the (mis)understanding of atonement which we have been discussing. This is the role of God the Father in the whole process.

As Ben proposes the analogy, we look at atonement in an (appropriately) law-court setting. In classic PSA, God is both plaintiff bringing the accusation against humanity, and judge deciding the case. God proposes and finds man guilty, and as he is pronouncing sentence, Jesus volunteers to accept the sentence in our place. In CV, as Ben proposes it, God is judge, but not plaintiff. That role is the role of Satan and the Powers (appropriately, as Satan is named the “accuser” in scripture). It is the accuser who seeks the death penalty for the defendant (humanity), and the accuser is all-too-glad to accept the judge’s son in place of the defendant. When the judge then trumps the sentence by raising Jesus from the dead, the enemy’s design is foiled.

Like all analogies, this one can be carried too far (and we have yet to unpack the loaded terms of “sin” and “atonement” so we still have a long way to go. But I think Ben is correct in re-directing our attention to who, after all, is the accuser and who, after all, is demanding the sentence.

12 thoughts on “Penal-Substitutionary Atonement–It has God’s Role Wrong”

  1. Jc_Freak:

    Like Mason, I’ve attempted to stay out of this discussion for the most part, though for different reasons. My views on the atonement are very much still in process, so I don’t really have a position to defend.

    However, I have never seen a PSA defender you proposes that God acts as the plaintiff. Every time I’ve seen PSA described in terms of the courtroom, the Father always and clearly remains in the judges seat with Satan acting as plaintiff. Why do you believe that PSA teaches otherwise?

  2. Dan Martin

    Every time I’ve seen PSA described in terms of the courtroom, the Father always and clearly remains in the judges seat with Satan acting as plaintiff. Why do you believe that PSA teaches otherwise?
    The claim that the Father, because he is holy and cannot tolerate sin, demands blood in payment for it. We are countering that it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who is demanding the blood.

    It’s an imperfect analogy, and I wouldn’t want to stake too much on it. What I DO want to defend is my statement that the PSA notion that blood was demanded by God as payment for sin, is erroneous. And that seems to be one of the foundational points of PSA, would you not agree?

  3. Jc_Freak:

    To some degree. It is more that the law demands blood of sin, which I would say is in the OT. God wrote the law, so to some degree God objectively and generally demands blood of sin, but that doesn’t mean that He demands our blood in the sense that a prosecutor would. It has to do with the nature of the law, and the importance that God places on life (which blood is mainly a metonymy for life in Scripture)

  4. Dan Martin

    Actually, go back and look at the law (the Torah/Pentateuch, of course). I was surprised. While there are plenty of mentions of “sin offerings,” there is nothing I’ve found so far that I would classify as “propitiation” or “penalty.” Frankly, in context it appears more to me like an offering of thanksgiving for sin forgiven, than any condition of the forgiveness/expiation/purging of the sin itself. Note how many of the sacrifices have nothing to do with sin at all. . .and don’t assume that the English word “atonement” necessarily means what we now say, “payment for sin.” The exact same Hebrew word is also used of the cover over the ark.

    So I think even in the Law, we’ve allowed 17 centuries (maybe more) of theology to color our reading of the text, and not necessarily for the better.

  5. David Rudel

    Whoa, Dan. It looks like you conflating a bit too much here.

    Saying the sacrifices were not for “propitiation” is very different from saying they were not for “penalty.”

    And blending together “propitiation” “expiation” and “purging” is a recipe for disaster.

    The “sin” sacrifice and “guilt” sacrifice were done before the forgiveness/cleansing (so they can hardly be an offering of thanksgiving for sins forgiven.

    I think the “guilt” offering is very clearly an offering as “payment” [the same word is used to refer to paying back God for an offense and paying back a person you have wronged.] Look at the word in Numbers 5:3 and the various “guilt offerings.” This is why with the “guilt offerings” there was so much focus on having the proper valuation, because you were paying back.

    Finally the word for the “Mercy Seat” is not the same as the word for “atonement.” In fact, the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament suggests the two words are not even etymologically related.

    I think one thing that has to be kept in mind is that these sacrifices served primarily to keep the temple of God clean and to cleanse people to allow them to enter it. The reason we do not read of many sacrifices for things we are more accustom to seeing as “sins” is that most of what we would consider “sins” would have brought the death penalty upon the person who sinned. The sacrifices were meant to cleanse the “unclean” [whether unclean through what we would consider sin or through something else]to allow them into the temple. This is an important observation because that is exactly what Jesus did in cleansing the Gentiles to allow them into the Living Temple of the New Covenant and receive the Spirit [Galatians 3:13-14, Acts 10:15].

  6. Dan Martin

    Thanks for joining the debate, Dave. I would love for you to further unpack what you believe the difference between propitiation, expiation, and purging. I'm not sure I see the distinction.

    My contention on the offerings not being payment for sin is predicated on my reading of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus so far (ran out of time before getting into Numbers). But I'm not sure what you mean by referencing Numbers 5:3, which talks about separating the unclean (leprous or having touched a dead body) outside the camp. That has nothing to do with sin at all. If you are referring somehow to the fact that sacrifices were also used to cleanse from uncleanness, I would only suggest that conflating ceremonial uncleanness with sin is inappropriate–for example it wasn't sinful that a woman was on her period.

    My contention is that the sin offerings I have seen referenced in Torah so far, never state that the offering is a consideration or payment for the forgiveness offered, much less is there any indication that the offering precedes the forgiveness (I would encourage you to submit references to the contrary–I don't claim to have exhausted the subject). To the extent my observation is true, the implication of any sort of conditionality (offering >> forgiveness) is unbiblical. That's all I'm trying to say here.

    As for "Mercy Seat" and "atonement" not being related in Hebrew, my original observation was from using Young's Analytical Concordance–I claim no Hebrew authority. However I see Strong's online makes the same link. See kapporeth, which is the word translated “Mercy Seat” in KJV and “Atonement Cover” in NIV, then see kaphar, the word translated “atonement.”

    A quick Google of “kapporeth kaphar” turns up quite a few suggestions that the words are, in fact, linked. This suggests to me at least the possibility that the Theological Lexicon may have started with what “everyone knows” about atonement rather than with etymology. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened. . .

  7. David Rudel

    Hi Dan,
    I will definitely respond more later, but right now I just wanted to correct the verse I sent earlier.
    It should be Numbers 5:7.

    I think you might be combining “guilt offering” with “sin offering.” They are two separate items. I’ll post more later. Thanks for your interest in my views.

  8. Dan Martin

    Numbers 5:7 is a great paradigm:

    he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. (emphasis mine)

    That’s restitution to the wronged party. Says nothing about a condition for divine forgiveness, and says everything about repairing the temporal injury caused to another. It’s a great law to live by (now as well as then), but I don’t believe it adds to the discussion of God’s requirements or methodologies of forgiveness.

  9. David Rudel

    My point is that this verse is clearly a description of “paying back” and appears to match the “guilt sacrifices.” The word for “guilt” or “wrong” is the same as the word for “guilt sacrifice.”

    In particular, compare Numbers 5:7 with Leviticus 5:15-16.

    Furthermore, since one cannot repent of unintentional sin, it would seem odd to say that these offerings were a “thanksgiving” offering for forgiveness already given. Doesn’t Leviticus 5:17 say exactly the opposite? The person is guilty and will bear his punishment even though his sin was unintentional.

    I don’t see how Leviticus 5:16 or 5:18 can be read as saying anything other than “The person makes restitution and then it is forgiven.”

  10. Dan Martin

    I don’t see how Leviticus 5:16 or 5:18 can be read as saying anything other than “The person makes restitution and then it is forgiven.”

    Except for the minor detail that the subject of "forgiveness" doesn't appear in either passage. You (and along with you, most systematic theologians from Augustine on) are assuming that this restitution and forgiveness–and therefore eventually Jesus' work–are linked. That assumption is not borne out by the text.

    In other words, I am suggesting that the entire paradigm of sin >> payment/restitution/atonement >> forgiveness is itself an unbiblical paradigm. In contrast, I am suggesting that God instituted laws to right the wrongs against temporal persons, and even symbolic payments to himself for wrongs done against his law, but the assumption of conditionality–the notion of forgiveness in any way being a product purchased for consideration–is a false assumption.

  11. David Rudel

    So, if I’m reading you correctly, the problem lies in the question of what “atonement” means.

    How does this relate to verses that say “the person will bear the punishment” for his sin? (example: Leviticus 5:17) And then (presumably) the sacrifice is to absolve himself of that punishment. Or are you claiming the sacrifice is the punishment?

    In Leviticus 5:17 we have the person “bearing the punishment”
    Then we have the sacrifice
    Then we have the person being forgiven.
    There is clearly a change in state. If the sacrifice is not what caused the person to go from “bearing the punishment” to “being forgiven” then what did?

  12. Dan Martin

    You know what, Dave, I missed that one. I’ll have to go back to my notes (which are at home) and see whether I just passed over it, because this passage clearly does show the guilt offering preceding the forgiveness. Not necessarily as payment or consideration, but certainly a temporal association that I missed.

    Thank you. I need to chew on this along with the other passages I’ve been studying.

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