Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?

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At the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix, our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters passed a number of resolutions causing many of us outside the SBC to stand and applaud. They passed a resolution “On the Anti-Gospel Of Alt-Right White Supremacy” denouncing racism and they passed a resolution “On The Importance Of Moral Leadership,” calling upon civic leaders to conduct themselves with moral character, a timely resolution given the moral toxicity of the current American political climate.

One of the other resolutions that seemed to go unnoticed was “On The Necessity Of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” With this resolution, a theological line in the sand has been drawn for Southern Baptists concluding that “the denial of penal substitutionary atonement constitutes false teaching that leads the flock astray.” This resolution says it is a response to Protestant voices who have “boldly attacked the doctrine” and others who are “recasting the atonement as a basis for pacifism” with an anti-violence approach to atonement.

It looks like another theological shot has been fired in the name of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).

The Battle of The Atonement

There has been a war of words within evangelicalism over the meaning of atonement for some time now. While I do not claim to be an expert in this area, I have wrestled with atonement theology for years as a pastor and a serious student of Scripture. The recent resurgence of Reformed theology from the neo-Calvinists and the emphasis on nonviolence from the neo-Anabaptists, among others, has resumed a battle that never really ended.

I am saddened that the SBC would make one theory of the atonement the “burning core of the Gospel,” and, in effect, anathematizing those who love the cross, the gospel, Jesus, and are wholeheartedly devoted to the mission of the Church, but have chosen not to interpret the atonement in terms of “propitiation” and “satisfaction.”

This resolution is a defensive overstep which may cause SBC faithfuls to miss the peace teaching of Jesus in the name of preserving one model of atonement. The language of a “warrior-savior” who will “crush the head of the serpent to obliterate the enemy,” is true as far as it goes, but it tends to evoke images that tap into our dissatisfaction with the offensive humility of Jesus who road a donkey—not a warhorse—in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus is the white horse rider, but in these post-Christian days of hostility, it’s more powerful to preach Jesus as the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

Preaching Jesus as the slain lamb is crucial in these hostile days. Click To Tweet

Atonement is a Mystery

J.I. Packer’s influential and widely-read essay on Penal Substitutionary Atonement entitled, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution” makes the case that PSA is at the heart of the gospel. I appreciate the precision with which Packer writes. He avoids the mistake of making PSA synonymous with the gospel even if he places it at the heart of the gospel. He describes the atonement as a mystery, and our knowledge of atonement as a theory which is separate and distinct from the reality itself. Theories of atonement are analogous models helping us understand the meaning of the cross, not the mechanics defining exactly how atonement works.

According to Packer,

If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remains a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably.[1]

Packer’s approach to atonement, which notes the mystery involved, is helpful for those who over-confidently assume denying a strict interpretation of PSA is false teaching and a denial of God’s character. PSA is not the only model of atonement consistent with orthodox Christian faith. Within the mystery of atonement, we find room for discussion regarding how to interpret it.

Within the mystery of atonement, we find room for discussion regarding how to interpret it. Click To Tweet

Propitiatory Satisfactional Atonement

I agree with Scot McKnight that completely removing Penal Substitutionary Atonement from our conversation of the atonement is not possible. I do find both “penal” and “substitutionary” elements in a Jesus-centered reading of scripture on the subject of atonement. God condemns sin in the flesh of Jesus (Romans 8:3). Jesus does indeed die a once-for-all death so that we, in some sense, do not have to experience death (Romans 6:9-11). This way of thinking about the “penal” and “substitutionary” nature of the atonement seems consistent with the apostolic witness to the gospel and the historic Christian faith.

The most concerning issues I have with PSA are not the penal and substitutionary aspects, but the “propitiatory” and “satisfactional” elements within the classic Reformed view of PSA. In other words, I don’t have a problem with Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I have a problem with Propitiatory Satisfactional Atonement. For many with a Reformed view of salvation, penal substitution equals propitiation and satisfaction.

“Propitiation” is the English translation in the ESV (and others) of the Greek word hilasterion, used most notably in Romans 3:25. Packer describes propitiation as “ending God’s judicial wrath against us.”[2] The Greek word speaks of the mercy seat, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, hilasterion is the Greek word used in the Septuagint for the mercy seat, which was not the place of pacifying the anger of the God of Israel; rather it was a place where God met with his people (Exodus 25:22).

On the Day of Atonement the blood of a goat would be sprinkled over the mercy seat to cleanse Israel of her sins (Leviticus 16:30). A better English translation for hilasterion from this Jewish historical perspective is expiation. The death of Jesus did not turn away the wrath of God as much as Jesus’ death took away our sin.

Wrath is Not What You Think

Anger or wrath is not a literal attribute of God. As used by Paul in Romans, wrath is a metaphor for God’s eschatological judgement. God is not a mixture of love and wrath or love and anger. God is essentially a holy community of persons within whom there is no anger. God is pure love. God judges not from a place of judicial retributive anger, but from a heart of love.

As N.T. Wright has noted, hilasteron in Romans 3:25 cannot be that which saves us from the wrath of God as a part of our justification because then Romans 5:9, which says “We have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him for the wrath of God,” would make no sense. Paul would be making the logical fallacy of tautology, “being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath.”[3] God offered Jesus as the mercy seat, the place where divinity and humanity met and the sins of all humanity were taken away.

Jesus is the mercy seat, where divinity & humanity meet. Click To Tweet

Connected to propitiation is the concept of satisfaction whereby the death of Jesus satisfied the justice (or wrath or holiness) of God. Packer notes that “satisfaction” was the word used by the Reformers for atonement.[4] It is connected to the idea that Jesus “paid the price for our sins” or “paid the penalty for our sins.” The primary issue with “paying or offering satisfaction” is that it is clearly not the language used in the New Testament to describe the death of Jesus.

The closest we get to the concept of “paying a price” is the concept of redemption (Greek word apolytrosis) as in Romans 3:24 “…justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” However redemption is not satisfaction language but Exodus language. “Redemption” speaks of buying back a slave from the slave market, which the God of Israel did in Egypt. He bought a people, freeing them from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. Exodus was not about God’s people paying or offering God “satisfaction.” Exodus was God’s act of rescuing his people so that they may carry forth his mission in the earth.

God has Never Been Against Us

For Packer, the death of Jesus reconciles us to God who was, in Calvin’s words, “hostile to us.”[5] Jesus’ death seemingly propitiates the anger of God. Moreover Packer sees Jesus’ death as offering a satisfaction for our sins whereby God’s “no to us could become a yes.”[6] Jesus’ death seemingly puts us back into God’s favor. The fundamental flaw in Packer’s logic is that the God revealed in Jesus has never been against us.

Packer does not envision a monster God hell-bent on blood and violence. Packer’s interpretation of God’s wrath is that God is holy and just with a righteous hostility towards evil and injustice. But in Jesus we see God’s holiness is not God’s intolerable hate for a sinful world full of sinful people. God’s holiness, God’s distinct otherness, is love. God’s unflinching love remains unchanged by human response. God was love. God is love. God will forever be love.

The problem Jesus came to address was not the problem of a “holy” God of justifiable wrath punishing a world of sinners. Jesus did not come to die for our sins to remove God’s hostility and turn God’s no towards us into a yes. God’s attitude towards us has always been yes. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like (John 1:18). When God in Christ encountered sinful people, did he punish them? Did he express God’s no to them? Did he condemn them? Did he exhibit hostility towards them? No! God forgave them, healed them, and restored them. As a God of love, God certainly does not approve of sin. However God’s rejection of sin and evil doesn’t imply that God is personally offended by sin and needs to be “satisfied” in order to forgive.

God does not need to be satisfied in order to forgive sin. Click To Tweet

God, in Christ, forgives us of our sins because God is love. Christ didn’t die for our sins to avert God’s anger but to take away our sin that we might die to sin, live to God, and carry forth the mission of bearing God’s image in the world (John 1:29, Hebrews 9:26, 1 Peter 2:24). This view is “penal;” Jesus was punished by sinful people for sinful people and receives the ultimate punishment of death. This view is “substitutionary;” Jesus died on our behalf. But nothing in this view looks like propitiation or satisfaction.

What we need when we preach the gospel is not the bad news of an offended God, but the good news of a God who loves, forgives, and heals.


[1] J.I Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” in In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement, eds. J.I. Packer and Mark Dever (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 64.

[2] Packer, 25.

[3] N.T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 303.

[4] Packer, 92.

[5] Packer, 61.

[6] Packer, 72.

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35 responses to “Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?

  1. Hi there. Just curious about what you would do with these two verses that came to mind as I read this article:

    John 3:36 – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

    I agree that anger and wrath are clearly not attributes of God, but it appears that Jesus is implying that anyone who does not believe in Him is currently under the wrath of God. In my mind, this would further imply that anyone who does believe and receive Christ by faith is therefore made in right relationship to God, and the wrath that was formerly upon them was removed by through their faith in Christ.

    Colossians 2:13-14 – And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

    I know the verse following this, verse 15, is where many theologians get the “Christus Victor” theory from, but what do you make of the phrase “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands”? I would say this phrase doesn’t necessarily imply wrath, but implies that God was satisfied when the debt of our sin was “paid” or removed by Christ’s death on the cross. Would you categorize this as something other than PSA?


    1. A helpful interpretive practice for me has been to substitute the word “judgment” for “wrath.” Those who do not believe are already under judgment as the consequences of sin. In this view, judgment is not retributive, but divine consent to our own choices. As far as “the record of debt” standing against us,” I see this as a picture of sin and the satan. Sin is our debt and the devil is the accuser reminding us of sin. Jesus wipes this out through his cross.

      I really like the language Packer uses to describe atonement. It is a mystery and a model…not an exact mechanism. So we get pictures and images that communicate a higher meaning in the references to atonement throughout Scripture, but these are not to be taken as detailed explanations of exactly how atonement “works.”

        1. I think I have explained why in this post. If you would like a more detailed explanation I would recommend three books: The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright, A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak, and (Re)union by Bruxy Cavey. They all declare it too. 🙂

  2. Here’s where you lost me: “Anger or wrath is not a literal attribute of God. As used by Paul in Romans, wrath is a metaphor for God’s eschatological judgement. God is not a mixture of love and wrath or love and anger. God is essentially a holy community of persons within whom there is no anger.”

    You may interpret wrath as a metaphor, but His wrath is spoken of throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. It’s given over and over, not as a metaphor, but as a reality. Yes, He is long-suffering, but in order to be fully just, wrath and judgment have to be delivered. Your phrasing seems to indicate what I would call a false dichotomy.

    Scripture gives the ability to be angry and not sin (Eph 4:26). 1 John 4 does reveal that God is love, but that isn’t the only thing He is. He is also perfect justice, fully holy and righteous. His attribute of justice doesn’t minimize His love, and His anger doesn’t have to be sinful, and also wouldn’t minimize His love.

    Thank you for sharing about the mercy seat. I do love that verse in Exodus. If Jesus being the mercy seat where God meets with us is central to us understanding the person and work of Jesus, do you feel there’s any explantation of that concept in the book of Hebrews, where Jesus is explained through the priesthood and sacrificial system?

    1. References to God’s wrath abound in Scripture, but Bible never says God is wrath. It does say, however, God is love. You may be mistaking essence for attributes. God in God’s essence is love. God’s wrath, which is God’s judgement, is an anthropomorphic. Packer and I agree on that. God’s wrath is not essential to God’s nature and certainly is not portrayed in the life of Christ as hostility.

      Jesus is our high priest who offers himself to “put away sin” Hebrews 9:26. No propitiation there just at there is no propitiation in Exodus 25. The sprinkling of blood on the Day of Atonement was to purify Israel and take away their sins.

    2. References to God’s wrath abound in Scripture, but the Bible never says God is wrath. It does say, however, God is love. You may be mistaking “essence” for “attributes.” God in God’s essence is love. God’s “wrath” is a anthropomorphic. Packer and I agree on that. God’s wrath is not essential to God’s nature and certainly is not portrayed in the life of Christ as hostility.

      Jesus is our high priest who offers himself to “put away sin” Hebrews 9:26. No propitiation there just as there is no propitiation in Exodus 25. The sprinkling of blood on the Day of Atonement was to purify Israel and take away their sins.

      1. Well said. So your overall point of “wrath is metaphor” is now “wrath is an attribute, not His essence?”

        1. Sorry for the confusion. I am attempting to connect the two thoughts that wrath as a metaphor point us to God’s judgement which is an attribute of God flowing out of his essence with is pure love. The attribute we see in the references to God’s wrath is that God is a judge and he will set right a world gone wrong. He will do so not because Jesus offered satisfaction to God enabling God to love us, but Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice because God has always been for us.

      2. So you are saying that Jesus was not hostile in John? To the religious who shut heaven in other people’s faces? Who he proclaimed “woes” to? I recommend a new, fresh re-read of the book of John highlighting EVERY time Jesus had tough/harsh words to say to the Jews of his day and esp. the leaders and religious folks. It is frankly shocking!!! Even watching the Gospel of John movie (without edits, word-for-word) is shocking in his harsh words! his was the same author who penned God is Love so he obviously saw no contradiction.

        Second, why is God is Love not anthropomorphic or metaphorical? Why is it definitive to the exclusion of all else when clearly John was using that terminology to make a point rather than pen a systematic theology?

        Are you saying God is no more than Love in it’s/His essence? I am just getting the sense that this is a very 21st century theology/interpretation of Jesus and God here, masquerading as the whole truth since it’s “extreme” (bad use of language) emphasis seems “unique” to history/our day and age of postmodernism, liberalism, “live and let live,” “God is this,” “God is that” (actually a modernistic, well-defined, Greek) mentality.

        1. By “hostile” I mean as Websters defines hostility, i.e. “deep-seated usually mutual ill will.” The religious leaders with whom Jesus spoke harshly wanted to kill Jesus. John makes this clear in his gospel. Jesus didn’t want to kill them, he wanted to save them. There was no mutual “ill will,” between Jesus and the Pharisees. The hostility in that conflict was one sided; it was coming from the Pharisees, not from Jesus. He spoke harshly in order to call them to repentance because he loved them and wanted them to come to the knowledge of the truth. He was never against them. He never desired their demise.

          Love is not a metaphor because it is the witness of the church that God is love in God’s essence and being. This witness is rooted in the triune nature of God. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and there is nothing but love within the triune nature of God.

    3. I have to agree here. Just because all our wrath or anger is fallen and self-centered, we interpret and judge God in all the same ways regarding His ability to express anger or wrath. This is simply the creation standing in judgement of the creator and arguing as spoken of in the Scriptures. Muslims do not do this but allow God to be God. we would do well to follow their example in this one small way rather than always looking down – Looking for what we can learn instead.

      1. we interpret and judge God by looking at Jesus, who expresses no anger or anything that looked like wrath toward our sinful nature.

        1. I agree with a caveat: God is one, before Jesus came to earth to redeem man He was fully God as revealed in O.T. scripture. I would hate to say that the O.T. presented a faulty view or was a primitive view of God or lacking in representing God or Jesus well. I would not want to pit the two covenants against each other like that yet, this view that God “is a mirror copy” of Jesus seems to do that as well as misrepresent the variances within the Trinity Himself.
          Also, to represent Jesus solely by His coming to redeem, to the exclusion of His coming to judge or restore all things/set all things right – Incl. dealing with those who continue in rebellion/will not bow or accept His rightful reign IS SPOKEN ABOUT pretty clearly in Scripture incl. from Jesus’ own mouth. I suggest that there is a difference between his roles and functions in His comings. To base everything solely on Jesus as redeemer would be to base everything on one aspect of how He is bringing all things into subjection to God including death.

          I very much like the “Christlike God” view, but I realize it’s limitations. It suggests that God/Jesus as redeemer is the only role we should see God in. It bases everything on “God is Love” which is used in context of redemption and God wanting all men to come to a knowledge of the truth, (i.e. it excludes other essential aspects of God’s self revelation or pits one attribute as “above” another rather than all of them equal in perfection. It limits Jesus’ role and character to one aspect – That of redeemer and how He revealed Himself at that time and is now is relationship to salvation/mankind/the Lamb. It causes there to be a contradiction within God’s self-revelation over time. It causes their to be a contradiction between revelation within the Trinity. It rewrites O.T. passages to “shoehorn” into Jesus is Love. God is Love. God is like Jesus….

          Realize that I have taught the Gospel of John esp. in the past SPECIFICALLY to say that the way we know God, apart from O.T. revelation is in the revelation of Jesus. So I am very much in agreement with the view that we KNOW GOD through Jesus. My issue isn’t with that doctrine or the concept, only our 21st century interpretation and expression of that concept that limits God and puts Him into our box of comprehension and then says He cannot be anything else, or more, or violate or understanding of Love, or Anger, or Wrath, or Righteousness, or Victor. “Let God be God and every man a liar.”

  3. <>

    I truly appreciate your insight and discussion of this issue. I especially like the point that our understanding or expression (right or wrong) does not affect the act of God in Jesus itself (our redemption).

    I question the above statement as it seems to negate the story of the expulsion from the garden. It also tends to minimize the very nature of sin itself – rebellion and a willful tearing down of the Kingdom of God until we are left with a world much as we find it today. If God was not somehow “offended” at that wrecking of all that was made good to function to better people, then He also would be quite unloving/uncaring/preoccupied with other issues than mankind themselves.

    I wonder how much of this discussion is simply a Western, 21st century retelling of God, much like the Reformers before us, and the early church before them. I do not see this problem being “felt” by Jewish believers in Christ or by Muslim “followers of Jesus.” They allow God to be God, above definition, and rather submit to Him than try to put Him in a box (including the box of “LOVE” as defined and judged and interpreted by men). I daresay we cannot understand Love or make it subject to our judgement or definition, anymore than we can stand in judgement on God or Jesus or define Him (to exclude all else).

    IMHO, someday people will look back and find our arguments and definitions to be lacking and very ethnocentric, just as we are judging the Reformers and their views based on their context.

    1. Adam and Eve were not expelled from the garden because of their sin. Read Chapter 3 again. Their punishment starts in verse 16 and ends in 19. It moves on in verse 20. Then there’s some grace showed in verse 21 and then in 22 God speaks, not to man but to himself about taking them from the garden. God seems to say that it would be awful if man were to live forever with a knowledge good and evil. So it wasn’t a punishment. That’s how it plainly reads to me.

      1. Romans 5:12
        Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin,

        and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

        13To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not
        charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.
        14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over
        those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a
        pattern of the one to come.

        15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass
        of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by
        the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
        16Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The
        judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift
        followed many trespasses and brought justification.
        17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man,
        how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace
        and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man,
        Jesus Christ!

        18Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also
        one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.
        19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made
        sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be
        made righteous.

          1. I was comparing scripture with scripture, responding to <> The question is how did the original hearers/readers understand the fall, sin, shame, death, judgement. How did Jesus and N.T. readers/writers understand it?

        1. Right… how did the original hearers/readers understand the fall, sin, shame, death, judgement indeed.

          So Romans says that death is the result of sin, it definitely says it has a condemning effect on the sinner it dosen’t say anything about it being a punishment. But the main thing is, it literally says nothing about the Garden of Eden…. So that’s why I asked what it had to do with my response 🙂

          1. It seems to me that the original Jewish hearers of the gospel understood punishment in terms of exile. Israel was sent into exile because of her sin, immorality, and idolatry. And even though they had returned to their homeland, they were still under the domination of a foreign power: first the Medo-Persian Empire, then the Greek Empire, and by the time of Jesus and Paul, the Roman Empire. Death was connected to this “enslavement,” this exile. So Jesus reveals the purpose in his death in John 12:30-32 and Matthew 26:26-29 in terms of a victory over the powers, and a new covenant and thus new exodus, free from the powers (both spiritual and earthly) who enslave which leads to death…empires always rule by the threat of death. His death was also a new Passover, a new Exodus from not only the present empire, but also from the enslavement of sin. N.T. Wright fleshes this out in more detail in his book The Day the Revolution Began.

          2. that’s really excellent Derek and indeed true! I love NT Wright’s understanding. I see it also in Ephesians 6:12. However, I dont necessarily see the exilesenslavement as some kind of punishment from God though, rather the result of the separation from God and the blessing that come from communion with Him.

            Among all the major themes of the bible, sitting close to top is “God the deliverer” who delivers us from slavery and thus of death. Never into slavery. We are constantly sinful, and its the sin that has us in slavery. When we sin, God doesn;t hand us over to our slave master for punishment, but rather he seeks to deliver us from the slavery of sin. If we are willing, he fights for us. If we are not willing, he allows us to go our own way, and it breaks His heart.

  4. Derek – thanks for engaging with us SBC’ers!

    First, let me say that I appreciate you praising the passage of resolutions that condemn the alt-right and praise moral leadership.

    Second, I would urge a bit of caution in stating that the SBC has drawn a line in the sand because I think the line has already been there. The resolution makes clear that PSA has been affirmed Baptists for many years. The resolution was drafted in response to the recent onslaught of denials of PSA among some evangelicals. The SBC has simply echoed what Packer states in his article – “PSA is at the heart of the gospel.” Any attempt to deny this is simply not consistent with orthodox Christianity and it is a breakaway from what the church has affirmed for centuries (per Packer).

    Third, the drafting of the resolution was done by Malcolm Yarnell, who is not a Calvinist, even though you seem to indicate the driving force behind the resolution is the rise of Calvinism in the SBC. The resolution itself clearly denounces this notion (“WHEREAS, Baptist pastor-theologians and scholars with differing soteriological convictions have made the preaching of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ the foundation of their ministry…”). It’s purpose is to caution SBC pastors and congregations from wholesale neglecting the PSA theory as a faithful/orthodox description of the atonement in favor of the “peace teaching of Jesus” as if both cannot coexist within a theological framework. That caution is all the more important based on your concluding sentence in that paragraph (“Jesus is the white horse rider, but in these post-Christian days of hostility, it’s more powerful to preach Jesus as the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”). Why bifurcate what Scripture does not? Let’s affirm both and let the tension exist as a mystery.

    Fourth, the sentence “God’s holiness, God’s distinct otherness, is love” is sentimental but not biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we find “God is holy because God is love.” God’s holiness is a characteristic ascribed to him (among many others) as is love but they are distinct characteristics. Jesus does not give us a picture of God is love and only love. He gives a full and complete picture of what God is like and that picture is consistent with the written Word of God – Old Testament Scripture in Jesus’ day and the entire canon in our day.

    Fifth, sin is an offense against God. Sin by its very nature is transgressing divine law. David recognized this when he affirmed that he had sinned against God alone (Psalm 51:4). Attempting to explain away the wrath of God against sin, which is clearly a biblical concept, is troubling. Call it wrath…call it judgment…but it is time and again evident throughout Scripture that God exercises his judgment against sinners. In fact, the language often used is that God’s “cup of wrath” is consumed by those he judges (Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17,22; Jer. 25:15-17, 28-29, 49:12; Rev. 14:10, 16:19). The logic follows that if Jesus took upon himself our sin on the cross, as our sacrifice/substitute, and God’s wrath is poured out (Jesus drank the cup the Father gave him – John 18:11) on sin…then Jesus took the wrath that we deserved. It’s not pretty but it’s beautiful and it is good news.

    Sixth, death is not the ultimate punishment…eternal separation from God is the ultimate punishment. Here is where I want to press the issue with a simple question: Will those who reject salvation through Jesus spend eternity separated from God or will everyone ultimately be saved? The natural tendency of a “God is love and love alone” theology often leads to universalism at worst and annihilationism at best (both of which have been deemed heretical).

    1. Hey Michael! The only thing I love more than my SBC peeps is a numbered list. 🙂

      1) The resolutions condemning racism and corrupt civic leadership are worthy of applause.

      2) I did see that “the preaching of the substitutionary sacrifice” has been foundational in Baptist thought and life. And for what it is worth, I affirm the substitutionary nature of the atonement. What I am arguing against is the propitiatory and satisfactional interpretation of PSA. I do not know SBC history, but the line in the sand that has been drawn is that this resolution claims that those who deny a strict interpretation of PSA are preaching false doctrine and leading the church astray.

      I disagree with propitiation and satisfaction. I find them problematic, but I would never say proponents like Packer and others are teaching false doctrine.

      3) I am not assuming that neo-Calivism within the SBC is the driving force. I just use the rise of neo-Calvinists and neo-Anabaptists within evangelicalism as an example of why this debate has been heating up.

      I do believe an emphasis on a “warrior savior” can cause those who believe in propitiation to obscure the peace teachings of Jesus, particularly for those who in addition to propitiation hold to a violent Jesus coming back to literally kill God’s enemies. Propitiation and a violent eschatology are not necessarily connected logically, but they seem to go together in some people’s thinking.

      I do not believe that an actual tension exists between Jesus teaching to love our enemies and a God who is hostile towards sinners pouring out retributive wrath. I believe the peace teachings of Jesus are consistent with the character and nature of God. We love our enemies, because that is what God is like. He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil (Luke 6:35-36).

      4) I would say “God’s holiness is God’s love” is a theological statement, much like the Trinity, that is witnessed to in Scripture and revealed supremely in Christ, but is not clearly spelled out that clearly in one single verse of Scripture. God’s holiness is certainly not his wrath. “Holy” means separate, other, distinct. Lots of gods have anger. Only our God is pure love. And God is love in God’s essence. All of the attributes of God flow out of who God is. God is triune in essence and nature…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and there is no anger, no wrath, no hostility within or among the members of the Trinity.

      Jesus does show us what God is like and when Jesus approaches sinners where do we see “retributive wrath”? We don’t. Jesus reveals the heart of the Father which is a heart of love. Within this love there is no co-dependency. So Jesus does tell people to go and sin no more. He does rebuke the Pharisees. He does over turn the money changers tables, but does he do this in anger? Does he threaten to kill every man, woman, and child? Does he do it to express God wrath and hostility towards them? Does he do so to pay them back with retributive punishment? The gospels never say this.

      5) Sin is an offense towards God, but it is not like a human offense, whereby God is so angry somebody has to offer him “satisfaction” so that he can forgive. The very heart of my critique is that “satisfaction” is not a biblical concept. God’s offense is like that of a violin maker who sees his violin being used as a tennis racket. 😉

      I do believe God judges sin. I am not trying to explain away judgment. I believe judgment is a present and eschatological reality. I just believe God judges out of a heart of love and not a heart of anger/wrath. I think there is room to interpret Jesus’ death as “drinking the cup of God’s wrath.” I respect the approach that interpretation is taking, but as I argue in my article, I think that logic has flaws. It is after all an interpretation of the text. John 18:11 does specifically say wrath was involved in the cup Jesus drank.

      6) I think annihilationism and Christian universalism are possible ways to interpret final judgment, however I find both of them problematic. I do believe in the age to come there will be those outside of the kingdom of God, experiencing the torment of their own selfish and rebellious ways. I hope that they have the opportunity to repent and accept God’s grace, but we can only speculate at best. We really don’t know. I agree with C.S. Lewis that there will be those in the end who say to God, “Not my will but yours be done”…and there will be those to whom God will say, “Not my will be yours be done.” Hell in the age to come is an expression of God’s love, because God is pure love and God will never force anyone to accept God’s salvation.

      Christian universalism and annihilationism haven’t been anathematized by all Christians, especially annihilationism. John Stott for example held to that interpretation.

      Thanks for engaging Michael. I appreciate you brother!

  5. Strong work, Pastor Derek! Thank you for writing such a straightforward and accessible article addressing a very pressing subject that has massive ramifications. I couldn’t agree more! And you also model incredible patience and tact with your interlocutors. May we all grow in that area.

    I wonder if you’re familiar with the work of Paul Petter Waldenström, a Swedish Christian thinker who was a part of the “Mission Friends” who became the Evangelical Covenant Church in the United States. He researched and wrote on atonement and reached many of the same conclusions as you write about. His work was never discussed at the seminary I attended. I only learned about his work while taking ordination classes with the ECC.

    P. S. – Love the Word of Life podcast!

    1. The Greek word translated “propitiation” in 1 John 2:2 is the same word used by Paul in Romans 3:25; it is hilasterion, which I argue in my article is best translated “expiation” not “propitiation.” Indeed not on English translations use the word propitiation. The NRSV, NIV, NLT, and others uses the phrase “atoning sacrifice” here in 1 John 2. The hilasterion refers to the mercy seat in Exodus 25 and Leviticus 16 where God met with God’s people, blood was sprinkled, and sins were cleansed and removed from the people. No mention of “turning away God’s wrath” there.

      To my knowledge, there is no reference to “satisfying God’s justice” or “turning away God’s wrath” in Hebrews either. We see Jesus the high priest who offers himself as a sacrifice to make a holy, innocent, and unstained people for himself. His sacrifice cleanses us from our sins and takes sin away. This is what I gather from Hebrews 9:11-15. The key verse for me is Hebrews 9:26: “…he appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In other words, his sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross wasn’t to offer God “satisfaction,” it was to put away sin. Jesus died bearing our sin to take away our sin so we could live free from sin. Jesus took sin down into death and left it there. Ok…so that last sentence isn’t in Hebrews, but that’s how I imagine it. 🙂

      I hope this helps!

      1. Is this not saying the same thing just another way? Why require a sacrifice or a “mercy seat,” or a temple with strict regulations, in the first place? If justice did not require something? (Muslims are fond of saying that God can just forgive whomever He chooses to forgive, that sacrifice is unnecessary.) Why strike dead those who exceeded God’s word and entered, touched, etc. accidentally or otherwise? I think this is one aspect of sacrifice that N.T. Wright affirms, if I am not mistaken (Love N.T. Wright!).


        What am I missing here?
        Jesus took away sin because sin = death = justice = holiness = God’s character = separation = judgement = “wrath”

        1. God can forgive without requiring anything. We call this grace and mercy. Jesus, doing only what the father does, routinely forgave people without the need for someone to be punished. According to Romans 3:21, Jesus dies in order to demonstrate God’s covenant faithfulness, Greek word dikaiosune often translated “righteousness.” Jesus dies as a fulfillment of the law and prophets, in fulfillment to God’s promises to Abraham. The bigger question you are asking is why Israel, why a temple, why Abraham, why a sacrificial system to begin with? That is a great question! I could make something up, but honestly I do not know.

  6. This paragraph misses the mark:

    “On the Day of Atonement the blood of a goat would be sprinkled over the mercy seat to cleanse Israel of her sins (Exodus 16:30). A better English translation for hilasterion from this Jewish historical perspective is expiation. The death of Jesus did not turn away the wrath of God as much as Jesus’ death took away our sin.”

    Are you redefining propitiation into expiation? There were 2 goats on the day of the atonement. The blood of the one was put on the mercy seat to make a ‘cover’ for the holy place, the altar outside of the veil, and ‘for the people’ not necessarily to ‘cleanse the sin of the people.’

    Secondly, the second goat (scapegoat) is the one that symbolizes expiation. On the day of the atonement, we have both propitiation and expiation in the first and second goat.

    Oh and it’s not Exodus 16:30, it’s Leviticus 16:30.

    1. Oh thank you for catching that typo. It should be Leviticus 16:30. We will get that changed.

      I am not redefining propitiation into expiation, I am arguing that propitiation is not the best translation of hilasterion. There were indeed two goats used on the day of atonement, but there is no mention in Leviticus (or Exodus!) that the the goat killed and blood sprinkled was offered as sanctification to God. Such an interpretation is an assumption that I do not see in the text itself.

  7. Absolutely agree with the “mercy seat” connection; this has not had a lot of hermeneutical leverage in interpreting Romans 3 (and elsewhere). What I find difficult is the hermeneutic of love outweighs all other attributes of God–as if “love” is the only or primary attribute of God. I get the lens of Jesus, but even there it seems selective. Holy, just, vengeful, wrathful (yes, you don’t like that one, I get that). How do you (et al.) get around texts such as Nahum 1:2, “A jealous and avenging God is the LORD; The LORD is avenging and wrathful. The LORD takes vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies.”

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