I have trouble following the conversation in the blogosphere of late regarding “penal substitution.” N. T. Wright especially confuses me. It may well be that some of what I am about to write is due to this inability to understand. I do not attempt to explain my terms here. If you want my attempt to communicate the gospel simply, please see my other posts here and here.
Penal substitutionary atonement is the fact that Christ took the credit for our sins, suffered God’s wrath for them, and earned righteousness that can be credited to us. The atonement cannot be described without explaining the idea that Christ died for our sins, and that very idea conveys most of the content of penal substitution.
How could anyone possibly think that those of us who hold penal substitution as the proper understanding of the facts of the atonement ignore the gospels, the Old Testament, or any other part of Scripture? Christ told us that He was the theme of the Bible in Luke 24:27 (cf. 24:13-35). Did He not say, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Even a country-boy industrial engineer like me who went to public school and state university can understand “suffer these things.” What did Christ suffer? Why did He have to suffer? It does say, “Must.”
What of the other theories? Whom was the ransom in the Ransom Theory paid to? Satan? If the ransom was paid to God, how was it paid? Was it paid by suffering the underserved penalty for sin or by some other means? Money perhaps? If it was paid by suffering, are we not back to penal substitution?
What exactly is “satisfied” in the Satisfaction Theory? What is satisfied? Just God’s need to uphold His dignity? What is done for the sinner? What changes for God?
Is the atonement just to show God’s love? If so, how is God’s great love shown without any help being given to the sinner? The old illustration holds up well: it’s like a man who, seeing his friend drowning, and being perfectly capable of saving him, jumps into the water next to him and drowns to death to show his love. How does this help?
Do we just see an example of righteous living in the atonement? Is it just to show us how to live? I can’t help but think of that sacrilegious Monthy Python movie: “The Life of Brian.” It’s like Jesus hanging on the cross at movie’s end singing, “Always look on the bright side of life,” and whistling a tune. Is that all we are left with.
How is it that the Christus Victor theme can be understood outside of Christ’s triumph over the law because He satisfied God’s wrath and freed us from the law’s curse? How did He gain victory?
Whom were we reconciled to? Did we reenter fellowship with a God who only showed us love and had no place for wrath in His attributes? Would we even need to be reconciled to such a God anyway?
How is the book of Romans to be understood? What of Galatians? How can we understand Luke 18:9-14? How can we understand Isaiah 52:13-53:12? How can we understand 1 Corinthians 15?
Take parts of Colossians Chapter 1 and 2 as an extend example:
Since “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation …” He is to be held as preeminent because He is “the firstborn from the dead.” His cross and resurrection define His importance. God reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” by “making peace by the blood of his cross.” The old hymn “Nothing but the Blood” comes to mind.
We “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” Christ reconciled “in his body of flesh by his death.” His death and suffering are enabling the reconciliation. He presented us “holy and blameless and above reproach,” without sin because the debt had been paid by Him.
Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” because He canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” He did this by “nailing it to the cross.”
The gospel cannot even be understood without the facts presented by penal substitution in a prominent role. The other theories can only be well understood by smuggling in penal substitution.
If you take the facts described by penal substitution out of the Bible’s themes, you are left with little else to discuss. If you take penal substitution out of your framework for understanding the atonement, you are left with un-understandable gibberish.
Lastly, the atonement is not a theory in any sense of the word. It is not an idea about a thing that requires further proof before we believe it. It is not a set of facts that must be completed by other facts. It is not a thing that occurs in the abstract world of ideas. It is real. It occurred in history. That makes it important.
The atonement is important to us because it is the only hope we have to stand before a Holy God. May the Lord help us to understand more of His great act. Let's not confuse that issue as we try to understand.