The Problem of Penal Substitution

The last post I wrote got me thinking on the subject of the atonement. Here is what we know. Jesus Christ through his incarnation, death and resurrection has made salvation possible for us. These saving acts make it possible for things to be right between man and God. Somehow the death of Christ atones for our sin. What we don’t know are the details of how this is, the mechanics. We cannot fully grasp these mysteries and it is a healthy thing to accept that fact.

There have been and are, many theories of how Christ atoned for sin. The primary protestant  idea is called penal substitution and was developed primarily by John Calvin. This theory is in my opinion too simple and mechanical. It thinks of things almost exclusively in bankers terms of debt and payment. In this thinking  the cross took place in the past and is over, so all merit necessary for the debt of justice owed to the Father for sin had to be paid during that finite amount of time in which Christ suffered the wrath of the Father in our place. The credit is applied to our debt from Christ’s bank account (of merit). I’m sorry but this seems excessively juridical to me. The result of this is that Calvinists debate amongst themselves and with other Protestants things such as ‘limited atonement’. Here are some of the problems I have with penal substitution, please note that I do believe Christ atoned for sin.

  1. Limited atonement (is the Idea that Jesus only atoned for the sins of those predestined to be saved) Jesus Christ is God and therefore infinite, we are not. Since Christ is infinite his merits are also infinite, it matters not whether he suffered for one man or all. Thus the debate is stupid.
  2. Christ suffered the cross because the justice of God demanded it.  What about the injustice of killing a perfect sinless man and inflicting on him a punishment he doesn’t deserve. Furthermore this particular man is divine (and thus infinite) making for an infinite injustice, if it is merely a question of justice. Surely there is more to it.
  3. The Father poured out his wrath upon his Son who experienced separation from his Father (damnation) in our place. First this makes God a sadist. Second orthodox Trinitarian theology is that the three persons are undividable, and that the two natures in Christ are inseparable. You cannot believe this unless you are a heretic.
  4. It leads to the immature attitude of ‘Jesus suffered so I don’t have to’ these people usually apostatize when they encounter trials. They also tend to fail to follow Christ’s example and do what’s right even when it’s difficult. ‘God loves me and wants me to be happy’ is used to justify all sorts of sin.
  5. A simplistic balance sheet mentality.

The cross is not primarily about justice it’s about love. In this world, this valley of tears with all its sufferings and evil we have a God who suffers with us and for us. He has embraced suffering and death and by so doing transcended and conquered them. I would invite any protestant reading this to think more broadly and understand that theology is a grasping an attempt to understand the mysteries of God which cannot be fully grasped. Penal substitution apart from being novel is, I think, inadequate. It also is an obstacle for conversion of non-Christians who rightly think it sounds sadistic.

‘Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!’ – from the Byzantine liturgy

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One Response to The Problem of Penal Substitution

  1. Pingback: Absorbing the Evil | Broken Believers ♥

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