// you’re reading...


Substitutionary Atonement

First someone asked:

What is the importance of the resurrection if substitutionary penal atonement is the primary way of understanding the meaning of the death of Jesus?

Among other comments, another offered:

The weakness of substitutionary atonement is that is seems to focus on Christ’s death without making very much of the ideas of either incarnation or resurrection.

(Clue #1)

And another:

Romans 4:25 says “he was handed over for our sins and raised for our justification.” The commentaries are interesting on this verse which is puzzling – how does resurrection provide our justification? Dunn says “Paul does not intend his readers to distinguish between Jesus’ death and resurrection as effecting quite separate results. The distinction here is purely rhetorical.”

(Clue #2)

And another:

There is a tendency under the penal substitution theory to separate out the death of Christ from his life and ministry, and to see the cross as an isolated act unconnected to the rest, but I am not sure that Paul intends that, or that scripture bears that message. Certainly the gospels do not portray it in this way. For classical substitutionary penal atonement purists… but is it meant to be the whole story, or an explication of part?

It strikes me that we sometimes want to press a single interpretation of the death of Jesus into a single, systemic and complete explanation for the work of God in Christ. Does one interpretation deny another, even if the two appear mutually exclusive?

(Clue #3)

Now let me add a few more clues, starting with three Evangelicals: (the more conservative) John Stott, the slightly less conservative (at least on this question) Leon Morris, followed by the more radical Evangelical stance of Tom Wright, and finally a ‘non-liberal’ (so he says) critique of Evangelicalism, James Barr:

1. John Stott (who said ‘More of my heart and mind went into the writing of The Cross of Christ than into any other book’ [1]: ‘According to Kittel’s great Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the Greek word for salvation was used in the ancient world from Homer onwards of ‘an acutely dynamic act in which gods or people snatch others by force from serious peril’ whether the danger was a battle, a storm at sea, condemnation in a law court, illness or death… We use the same terminology today, when a surgeon saves a patient’s life by an operation, the fire brigade saves someone trapped in a burning building, or a rescue team saves a climber stranded on a mountain rockface. In each case somebody is in acute peril. ‘Salvation’ means nothing unless there is a situation of grave danger from which a person needs to be rescued…’ ‘Salvation Today’, a sermon

‘We strongly reject every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its centre the principle of “satisfaction through substitution” (The Cross of Christ, p. 159)… ‘Substitution is not a “theory of the atonement”. Nor is it even an additional image to take its place alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself’ (Ibid., pp. 202-3).

2. Leon Morris: ‘The NT does not put forward a theory of atonement, but there are several indications of the principle on which atonement is effected. Thus sacrifice must be offered, not the sacrifice of animals, which cannot avail for men (Heb. 10:4), but the perfect sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 9:26; 10:5-10). Christ paid sin’s due penalty (Rom. 3:25-26; 6:23; Gal. 3:13). He redeemed us (Eph. 1:7), paying the price that sets us free (I Cor. 6:20; Gal. 5:1). He made a new covenant (Heb. 9:15). He won the victory (I Cor. 15:55-57). He effected the propitiation that turns away the warth of God (Rom. 3:25), made the reconciliation that turns enemies into friends (Eph. 2:16). His love and his patient endurance of suffering set an example (I Pet. 2:21); we are to take up our cross (Luke 9:23). Salvation is many-sided. But however it is viewed, Christ has taken our place, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Our part is simply to respond in repentance, faith, and selfless living.’ [2]

The three traditional theories of the Atonement, a demonstration of love, the bearing of penalty, and victory over evil may have had more appeal to earlier ages than our own… Australian New Testament scholar Leon Morris has suggested that today we might also see the cross addressing problems of futility and frustration (see Romans 8:20, Hebrews 2:8-9); sickness and death (Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 8:17); ignorance (Jeremiah 17:9, 1 Timothy 2:4); loneliness (Genesis 2:18, Mark 15:34, Romans 8:38-39); and selfishness (Luke 9:23, Galatians 2:10, Romans 6:4). [3]

3. Tom Wright: ‘I continue to respect the Reformers, and men like Charles Simeon, of 200 years ago, John Stott, Jim Packer and Michael Green, at whose feet I was privileged to sit, and whose work in a variety of ways created space for me to do things differently. Where I disagree with them it is because I [am committed to]

biblical theology. The evangelical tradition at its best encourages critique from within. It sends us back to the Scripture which stands over against all traditions, our own included.’

Concerned that evangelicalism was far too driven by historical debates and party lines rather than by Scripture, Wright became more concerned with arriving at biblical answers than with arriving at traditional evangelical answers. Without turning his back on evangelicalism, Wright came to believe that the evangelical tradition was in need of re-examination in the light of Scripture on a number of issues. [4]

4. ‘In Oxford Professor James Barr’s major attack on conservative evangelicalism in his book, Fundamentalism, he charged Evangelicals with picking out from the mass of Biblical material certain themes, passages, contexts, and emphases, and representing those as the core doctrines of the Christian faith. He said that the Bible taken alone and as a whole does not lead to the Evangelical position. Surprisingly, Barr did not consider his position to be a liberal one.’ [5]


[1] http://jmm.org.au/articles/8182.htm

[2] http://jmm.org.au/articles/17997.htm

[3] http://jmm.org.au/articles/9638.htm

[4] http://jmm.org.au/articles/19026.htm

And for a couple more:

http://jmm.org.au/articles/14474.htm – Steve Chalke on Penal Substitution

http://jmm.org.au/articles/2306.htm – Stott/Romans

Shalom! Rowland Croucher Feb. 2007


Comments are disallowed for this post.

Comments are closed.