Penal Substitution – More Thinking, Less Rhetoric

I still follow with trepidation the discussions of penal substitutionary atonement coming from the emergent church conversation. This is my attempt to establish a working theory after my last bit of polemics.

For a theory to be valid, it must take into account all of the particular facts the Bible gives us. It gives us facts, arranged in prepositional sentences. It uses words to communicate. Everyone who has ever told me that words were inadequate because of my own particular biases and culture has used words to tell me that. Their argument seems difficult for a small town boy from West Tennessee to follow.

Now that we have established logic in a back-handed fashion, let’s move on to the traditional understandings of a penal substitutionary atonement. Most of the theologians I have ever read talk of the active and passive obedience of Christ. His active obedience, detailed in the gospels, involved following all of the particular requirements of the law. It enables Christ to expiate our real guilt for our sins, to take our guilt away from us. It secures a righteousness He can see that we are credited with.

His passive obedience involved suffering the wrath of God as the bearer of our sins. It pays the penalty for sin and propitiates God’s wrath. That is, it satisfies God’s wrath so that He is not mad at us anymore. It does something to God.Of course Christ is a special Person. He is the Eternal God-man, a person of the Trinity. This is a key element of the gospel message. Only the eternal God-Man was capable of suffering infinitely in His soul for our sins.

Of course, Christ is active in the lives of those who trust what He said about how to live their lives enough to follow His teaching (repentance) and trust what He did for them to pay the penalty for their sins and give them a righteousness from God (faith).

He is the risen Christ who lives to intercede on behalf of His people, securing a status for those who have faith that ensures confidence to overcome sin. He is the risen Christ who sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to lives that glorify God.I do not know of any proponent of penal, substitutionary atonement who would not affirm the facts related above (although I am sure some would quibble about my simplistic wording). But I beg those in the emergent conversation, do not come with any of this nonsense about one important aspect of a thing not being integral to the thing as a whole.

Please keep in mind the Bible passages which equate penal substitution with the gospel (e. g. Romans 3:21-31; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Counted Righteous in Christ by John Piper details technical language issues that are beyond the abilities of this country-boy engineering major.

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