Revisiting Penal Substitution

By Chris Chalmers

I was recently in a theology forum of quite conservative evangelicals and some of them were vigorously attacking the penal substitution theory of the atonement (PSA). This is quite concerning; if we let go of this important doctrine as a central model of the atonement, the gospel message we share is seriously compromised. Here is NT scholar, Thomas Schreiner’s, definition of PSA:

The theory of penal substitution is the heart and soul of an evangelical view of the atonement. I am not claiming that it is the only truth about the atonement taught in the scriptures. Nor am I claiming that penal substitution is emphasized in every piece of literature, or that every author articulates clearly penal substitution. I am claiming that penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole. I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy his justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. The riches of what God has accomplished in Christ for his people are not exhausted by penal substitution. The multifaceted character of the atonement must be recognized to do justice the canonical witness. God’s people are impoverished if Christ’s triumph over evil powers at the cross is slighted, or Christ’s exemplary love is shoved to the side, or the healing bestowed on believers by Christ’s cross and resurrection is downplayed. While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christ’s atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement.

I think a lot of the modern rejection of PSA has more to do with a rejection of God’s holiness, wrath and judgement, a rejection of hell being eternal and the doctrine of total depravity. They all seem to be linked to me: if we are not really that bad, then eternal hell seems unjust and then why would God be angry at sin and require a substitute? Ever since the Enlightenment (which stressed human rationality, ability and that we are inherently good), we moderns have struggled with the idea of human inability and evil.

This has huge implications for how we share the gospel, up until the early 20th Century, Arminians and Calvinists preached the holiness of God as well as his love, hell as well as heaven, and the need for repentance as well as faith. I believe this is the biblical balance, not the one-sided way it is preached in many churches today.

In my experience, I have found that most people I know who reject PSA have a very fuzzy definition of the gospel. It is a so-called attempt to broaden the gospel, using lots of trendy theological jargon, that is very difficult to coherently share with someone who knows nothing of Christianity. The rejecters of PSA often don’t share the gospel with strangers anyway (or their version of it).

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