Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the Gospel
I recently had to cease supporting the ministry of Jason L. Petersen (an author whose book I reviewed and recommended some time back), due to his departure from orthodoxy. Petersen has openly rejected penal substitutionary atonement (hereafter PSA), i.e. the biblical doctrine of the atonement, claiming that it is not found in Scripture. In response to a questioner who voiced some concerns over whether or not PSA is biblical, Petersen wrote –
Yeshua was not punished for our sins, and he could not be punished because he did nothing wrong. Instead, he gave himself as an offering for our sins. (Source)
This rejection of PSA explicitly contradicts Scripture in several ways which I will lay out below. Before I do that, however, I would like to state that I and many others have addressed Jason’s departure from the truth openly, but to no avail.
I not only do not recommend his ministry, I also warn against it strongly.
A False Dichotomy
Petersen claims that Christ was not punished for our sins but, rather, gave himself as an offering for our sins. This dichotomy falsely pits Christ’s giving himself and his being punished by the Father against one another. The problem here is that Scripture is clear that prior to Adam sinning, death was not in the world. Death came about as the punishment for man’s sin. Thus, death is penal in nature. As Paul the Apostle explains in Romans 5:12-21 –
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for fall men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Note that death is explicitly identified by the apostle as the punishment for sin. The universality of death testifies to the fact that all who are born in Adam are, ipso facto, sinners. Considered in itself, death is the penalty for having broken God’s Law. Petersen’s dichotomy is false, therefore, seeing as human death is, in and of itself, an indication that the person in question, i.e. the one dying, has been judged as worthy of condemnation. All human death is, in and of itself, a punishment for sin.
Human death differs significantly from animal death, for every human death is, in and of itself, an indication that the one dying, has been counted by God as a transgressor of the Law. While an animal could die without its death being a punishment, in other words, the same cannot be said of a human. It cannot be the case that Christ’s death was not penal, for death is, in and of itself, a punishment for the one dying.
Now, I’ve been saying “in and of itself” in order to make a distinction between death considered in itself and death considered from the standpoint of the believer, for whom it is a blessing. And this needs to be emphasized, for if the death of God’s people is precious to him (cf. Ps 116:15), and the death of the believer is a blessing that brings us into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 1:21-24), then the death of the believer cannot be condemnation from God, nor can it be punishment for our sins.
So where has the punishment gone?
Where has condemnation gone?
Scripture tells us –
Christ died for our sins.
-1st Cor 15:3.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Given the fact that death is the punishment for sin incurred by Adam for all of his descendants, it follows that when we say, along with the Apostle Paul, “Christ died for our sins…” we are simultaneously saying,
Christ was punished for our sins.
To assert that Christ died for our sins, in other words, is to assert that he was punished for our sins. The two assertions are logically equivalent. You cannot consistently affirm that, on the one hand, “Christ died for our sins” and yet, on the other hand, that Christ was not punished for our sins.
If you don’t believe that Jesus was punished for your sins, you don’t believe that Jesus died for your sins. For these two assertions are one and the same in meaning.
And if you don’t believe that Jesus died for your sins, you don’t believe the Gospel.
Death as Restorative Punishment?
Some have attempted to argue that while Christ was punished, this does not clear things up because punishment could be restorative rather than retributive. Scripturally, however, death is not restorative. We are not discussing the nature of punishment in general and what is logically possible given the broadest definition of the word punishment, which would include restorative discipline (which is actually what such objections are talking about). We are dealing with death as the punishment for sin. The death promised to Adam was not restorative, and neither is the death of any of Adam’s descendants after him.
It is the case that God will use death to deter men from further sinning in some cases (e.g. 1st Cor 5:1-5 & 11:17-32). However, this is a reality only the children of God face. Those who are in Adam are not disciplined as children, according to the Word of God. Hebrews 12:4-8 is clear –
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Those who are the children of God, by faith in the Gospel, are disciplined, and only those who have believed the Gospel. Thus, even if the righteous are disciplined with death, this does not change the fact that the sentence of death promised to Adam and all of his descendants is retributive.
Sin is that which earns the wages of death, moreover, but it is also a debt we owe to God that can only be paid for with our lives. Death is both our payment to God for our sin, and God’s payment to us for our sin. Death is essentially penal, and can only be considered to be something other than the punishment for sin in the case of animals (who do not sin and are not, therefore, either condemned or disciplined by death) and in the elect (for whom “punishment” by death is more accurately defined as discipline).
Returning back to the original problem of Petersen’s rejection of PSA, I want to make some final remarks here about church history. While it is the case that a fully articulated formulation of PSA did not exist until the Reformation Era, it is most certainly not the case that the fathers did not believe that Christ’s death was the punishment of our sin placed upon him. To fully elaborate on this would take too much time here, but I will post some links below dealing with the church fathers and how their understanding of Christ’s death was not very much different from what we now call penal substitutionary atonement. Again, note that I’m not saying their doctrine was wholly identical to PSA. I am only acknowledging the fact that their doctrine was identical with respect to the basic core elements of PSA, specifically regarding whether or not Christ was punished with death in our place for our sins.
Contemporary writers and scholars, it seems, are beginning to deal with this subject more in our day. For instance, see the following –
- Atonement in “On the Incarnation of the Word” – Maged M. This Coptic Orthodox blogger notes that Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and John Chrysostom affirm the idea that Christ paid the penalty for our sins in our place, i.e. he was punished in the place of those who believe, for their salvation).
[Please note that I do not consider Coptic Orthodox “Christianity” to be Christianity at all, seeing as it denounces key Christian doctrines such as Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and has added uninspired books to the inspired Word of God. I only reference this author to show that even those who claim to have a stronger historical basis for their religious beliefs and practices, which they call Christianity, acknowledge that PSA was not entirely absent from the patristic authors they venerate.]
- Penal Substitution in Church History – M. J. Vlach Michael J. Vlach was Assistant Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary. His article notes that PSA, in its core elements, can be found in Clement of Rome, Ignatius, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebeus of Emesa, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, Severus of Antioch, Occumenius, and, of course, Martin Luther.
- Historical Reflections on Substitutionary Atonement – James E. Bradley Professor Bradley teaches at Fuller Seminary, and in this article shows the similarities between early patristic articulations of the atoning work of Christ and PSA as it appears in Luther, Tyndale, and Calvin, among others.
[Note here that James E. Bradley appears to reject the intermediate state, and I do not agree on that matter. I simply use him as another person who acknowledges that the fathers were not embracing an atonement theory that completely excluded the basic elements of PSA, but actually strongly affirmed those elements which the Reformers themselves would later stress.]
- Did Early Christians Believe in Substitutionary Atonement? – Michael J. Kruger Dr. Kruger demonstrates that the author of The Epistle to Diognetus (ca. AD 130) embraced and articulated a view of the atonement that has much in common with PSA as articulated by the Reformers.
- “His Flesh for Our Flesh”: The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Second Century – John Aloisi In this article, against the formerly prevalent liberal idea that PSA didn’t begin to exist until the Reformation Era, John Aloisi demonstrates that “many of the second-century church fathers viewed the atonement of Christ as involving substitution for sinners and satisfaction for sins” (p. 25).
- Penal Substitutionary Atonement in the Church Fathers – Gary J. Williams This article deals extensively with the early fathers, demonstrating that by close exegesis of their writings, one can be assured that they taught PSA.
These are just some of the more recent contributions to studies on the doctrine of the atonement in the early fathers. Please read them, and consider the unanimity of their conclusions. PSA is not a recent notion added to an already accepted variety of theories that all see Christ’s work as accomplishing something entirely different from each other theory. Not at all. Historically, the church has always affirmed that Christ died for our sins, the just for the unjust, bearing our penalty to free us and make us acceptable to God.
Soli Deo Gloria