Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

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By now it has become fairly common for many evangelicals to have expanded their understanding of the gospel to include the good news about the Kingdom of God, and about a new way of life that is made available in the Spirit because of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. This should be celebrated! And the message still needs to be proclaimed throughout our culture and the whole earth, for that matter, but it is really great that there has been some headway made on this front in many churches, thanks to scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others before and after them.  

At the same time, a problem remains within these same evangelical circles concerning the way we think about the gospel.  The “Kingdom-of-God critique” does succeed at making the gospel bigger and more contextualized. It reveals that the good news is for all of creation, and not just human beings, and it situates the story of Jesus within the larger history of Israel as its climax and completion. This is very good, but we still need more.

Because, despite this welcomed and necessary expansion of the good news, it is not fundamentally corrective enough. Which is why it has been picked up fairly easily and simply “added on” to the “forgiveness-of-sins-gospel” – what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel.”[1] It’s kind of like when preachers say, “The gospel isn’t just about going to heaven when you die.” To which everyone then replies in their minds, “well, sure, but if Jesus had to pay for my sins in order for God to forgive me, isn’t it still the most important part?” And based on that logic, the answer is “Yes, it is.” Which is why the logic itself has to be challenged. The question is, how is the forgiveness of sins understood in the first place?

Tony Jones has recently written a book entitled, Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. This is because Tony thinks that this is pretty much the most important question facing Christian theology right now, and I agree with him. Tony calls the dominant atonement theory in many churches the “payment model,” more commonly known as penal substitution. In this post I want to very briefly compare and talk about two ways of imagining a substitutionary model of the atonement. In short, what I think we need is a substitution model that isn’t penal. Because, for one thing, without substitution, I think we lose something central and essential when it comes to our reasons for being Christian altogether. And for another thing, “penal” sounds way too much like “penis.”

The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us – namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins.  And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.

In an interview with Gary Moon a number of years ago, Dallas Willard said this about penal substitution: “It is true that human beings have sinned, and this sin is ultimately an offense against God. The question is how this can be set right.”[2] The problem with penal substitution, for Willard, is that it “presents God as someone who never [really] forgives.” Because “if you get off the hook, it’s because someone paid for it,” Willard explains – not because you were truly forgiven. It takes the gospel out of the gospel!  If someone owes me a debt, and a friend pays it instead, I may very well decide to call it even, but that does not mean I have forgiven anything. In fact, the whole exchange has still taken place according to the law.

One of the most damaging outcomes of this kind of theology, in my experience, has been how it can lead people to feel, whether consciously or unconsciously, like God doesn’t really love them. Now, some well-known pastors in neo-reformed churches are fond of the rejoinder that God loves us exactly as we are right now – not some future version of us. True enough, but the theology of many of these preachers doesn’t jive with this statement. It would be more correct if they said, “God loves you just as you are right now, because when God looks at you, God sees Jesus – not you.” No wonder this logic can leave people afraid of God and moralistic in their practice of faith!

The other way to understand substitution, as “non-penal,” might go something like this: God is indeed grieved over our estrangement from right-relationship with him. God is angry when we hurt each other and when we idolize impermanent things. God’s love has been wounded, and for this God is rightfully “wrathful” toward our sin. But in God's love through Christ, that sin is "paid for" by God simply eating the cost of it, so to speak — not by having someone else pay for it. This is not cheap grace. It still comes at a huge price to God. It is “paid” by God stepping in to take the blow that we are levelling against ourselves and against God. God does not kill Jesus. We do. Our sin and violence does. And the performative demonstration of this is the cross, which is the ultimate expression of injustice, alienation and betrayal of God and others. It is both the symbolic and the real history of what God has always already been willing to do, which is not to demand payment, but to incur the debt of sin into his own being. In this way the "debt" is vanquished.

I find the way Brian Zahnd has put it here to be illuminating: “At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives” (emphasis added) [3].

Of course, some will understandably ask where this alternative theory comes from in Scripture. And I would first point out that the payment model isn’t spelled out in Scripture either. It too is a theory. Many times when we read about sacrifice, ransom, the shedding of blood for forgiveness, or Christ’s “dying for our sins,” we assume we already know what is being said because we’ve been taught a particular theory as the one true meaning. So we aren’t able to hear anything different.

Secondly, a genuinely Trinitarian understanding of God is what allows for an enriched and more biblical, as well as more traditional, concept of grace and salvation. God in Christ (their agency can never be divided!) takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), to use John the Baptist’s words, and then converts it into a peace offering (John 20:21). This is actually what it means to be loving, to live life in the Spirit, and to live in the Kingdom of God: to become the kind of people who are able to transform for others what they cannot transform for themselves.  All of their resentment, negativity, fear, and hate is consumed and swallowed up rather than reciprocated. And so God in Christ subsumes our evil and does not return it. By this we are enabled both to be freed from it, as well as to free others from it – which is also a good job description for the church!

But maybe nowhere in the Bible is forgiveness better illustrated than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When the younger brother abandons his family and asks to receive his inheritance only to go and squander it, the costliness of the father's consent to this request is unimaginably high. The burning passion he must have felt against his son's rebellion and dishonoring behavior was surely inexpressibly painful and enraging. And yet, at the center of all the conflict within the father's heart remains an unconditional offer of forgiveness even before the son decides to return. What the return activates is simply the process of relational reconciliation, not the efficacy of payment for the debt that he owed. The father has already “paid" the debt with his love in all his time of waiting – love which is big enough to "satisfy" the sin and grievances of seventy times seven sons! Technically though, it is not payment of debt, as many of our praise songs would suggest, but forgiveness of debt.

This difference makes all the difference.

[photo: Keoni Cabral]

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/04/24/you-might-have-a-soterian-gospel-if-you/

[2] http://conversationsjournal.com/2010/04/getting-the-elephant-out-of-the-sanctuary/

[3] http://brianzahnd.com/2014/04/dying-sins-work/

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21 responses to “Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

  1. This is excellent stuff! I heartily agree. What is needed are means of talking about the atonement that are robustly substitutionary without being penal. On this front, T.F. Torrance and Colin Gunton have been deeply helpful to me. Thanks for this! I’ll share it broadly.

  2. Hi Bill. I really don’t have an ax to grind either way on this subject (not being a Reformed Calvinist or anything like a Calvinist myself). My goal is to read scriptures as faithfully as possible (recognizing my own failings; intellectually; culturally; and personally that impact that reading). It seems very clear that there are multiple metaphors for how God forgives. There is no “one” story about the meaning. And, it’s a debatable matter as far as “penal substitution.” But, it comes down to analyzing what particular texts actually say. I say that to say it can’t just be argued on a philosophical level.

    I also don’t think it’s accurate to say the prodigal son story is the closest to what is going on or how God forgives. That seems to do just what Wright and others argue against (reducing forgiveness and God’s work on the cross to only one metaphor). That seems also to be just one of many arbitrary selections that suits one model best. But, that’s not the text that fits a courtroom model of substitution. It’s one of many stories and descriptors in scripture that picture forgiveness – but it’s certainly not complete or thoroughly telling the full theological story.

    I generally agree with Brian Zahnd’s statement, “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” But, some might say, “What God endures in Christ in order to forgive” – which is different from either of the extremes Zahnd posits. And, herein rests one of the problems with I think your own essay as well as some of Brian’s arguments – the PS argument is posited often in straw man extremes (“An angry God inflicting suffering on His son to punish him instead of us” vs. another model). But, that does not negate the concept of penal substitution – or describe every view of those who hold to that perspective as one of several symbolic descriptions of what God is doing in the cross. It speaks against one flawed and troubling perspective, to be sure. But that’s all it does. But, if God determines to pay a “penalty” (hence the “penal”) for sin in or on himself (“endures in Christ”) that’s a different picture. The problem I keep hearing (in this above and elsewhere) relates in part to the whole discussion of the nature of God and the godhead (which is a near impossible picture). It’s not altogether easy to “separate” completely “father and son” (For the wholeness of God dwells in Jesus when he dies – Col. 2:9; etc.). Richard Bauckham brings this out powerfully in God Crucified. If we think in terms of God himself taking the ‘penalty’ for sins – that is not inflicting something on someone else and it doesn’t mean there is no “penalty” metaphor in describing what God is doing on the cross. I think you’ve posited a straw man for at least some penal substitution theories (with which both Wright and Bauckham would disagree; even though they would not discount the PS imagery altogether).

    In fact, one could well say that this is the nature of forgiveness. For, to forgive is to accept the pain of being sinned against (whatever that sin is) and not inflicting a “just” penalty on the sinner. It is accepting their sin and not retaliating. Instead, forgiving and renewing the relationship. That requires taking deep pain. It is in one sense accepting the penalty on one’s self (taking the eye being plucked out and accepting it, not plucking the other’s eye out). In that sense a form of PS can be brought to bear on the subject.

    Christus Victor is one of the central images of what Christ is doing, but as NTW notes, “It’s not the central way of understanding the cross, I don’t necessarily think we can get to that [not even in the prodigal story, I’m afraid]… to summarize that at all [even, I would say, as is attempted with the prodigal] is to risk losing some of the force that is actually there.” As Wright notes, if CV is in the middle where it should be, “I want all the theories of atonement because they do ultimately all fit together … if you do take one of them, say PS, and take it out of its biblical context, then you do have a God as a sort of bullying headmaster.”

    Ironically, I find a parallel in this discussion and the young earth creationist (literal reading of Genesis) debates between agnostic scientists and YECs. Both atheistic scientists and YECs read Genesis 1 literally (and incorrectly, imo, missing all sorts of historical and literary elements) and it serves unbelieving scientists nicely to argue that this and throw out the whole of Scripture. So, too, here, the concept of a Father punishing his son so that the father can forgive others is one way of framing penal substitution but that is not the only form in which it is exegeted from the text. There are alternative forms and descriptions that are not boxed into that singular PS model – which is highly problematic in itself.

    While I do appreciate the problems with some PS models – I think this article above doesn’t capture all the nuanced positions very well and focuses only on the extremes (much as a scientist might dismiss summarily the Genesis creation account by only reading it through the lens of non-evolutionary, young-earth, literalist-reading, creationists).

    Dismissing extremes ultimately can be of use if the other nuances are discussed. But, if discussions are just focused on those extremes and the entire baby is thrown out, they degenerate, imo, into a dismissiveness that only polarizes and prejudices legitimate and honorable discussion.

    Some food for further thought. In peace and grace.

    1. Hey Jeff, thanks so much for your very thoughtful engagement and fair-minded push-back here. I really appreciate several things you said, which I will name. But first, a few clarifications.

      I do not think of this as an article on atonement, but as a sort of polemical, “manifesto”-style blog post. I do not even mention the several other dominant theories, like Christus Victor, on purpose. I’m trying to avoid an academic tone altogether, and in no way intended to “capture all the nuanced positions,” as you say — for it cannot be done in this space.

      Rather, what needs to be done, in my opinion, is to address, as I claimed, “the most popular understanding of substitution”… A lot hangs on that phrase “most popular,” which is what I presupposed. So I do not think it is necessarily a straw man or caricature, at least in the way that you suggest, because I already called it that myself, If that makes sense 🙂

      Now, just to address a paragraph you wrote that jumped out to me, because it seemed to capture the spirit of what you’re saying. You said:

      “In fact, one could well say that this is the nature of forgiveness. For, to forgive is to accept the pain of being sinned against (whatever that sin is) and not inflicting a “just” penalty on the sinner. It is accepting their sin and not retaliating. Instead, forgiving and renewing the relationship. That requires taking deep pain. It is in one sense accepting the penalty on one’s self (taking the eye being plucked out and accepting it, not plucking the other’s eye out). In that sense a form of PS can be brought to bear on the subject.”

      I feel like this could have been a word-for-word paragraph in my post. I see no disagreement or even difference, really, between this and what I was trying to say. And, I specifically mention as well that a more Trinitarian view of God is the key for a better understanding of the atonement. Again, I think we are on the same page.

      Then you said this, however, which I think is the clearest challenge you make:

      “I generally agree with Brian Zahnd’s statement, “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” But, some might say, “What God endures in Christ in order to forgive” – which is different from either of the extremes Zahnd posits.”

      And here our disagreement may come to the surface. I do not think Zahnd is positing two different extremes. I think he is positing the only two options for PS, period! The third one you state, I would contend, is actually not a third one at all. It’s the first one restated, just in Trinitarian form, but it still has the same problem, namely, that God has to punish in order to forgive. Only now he’s punishing “himself” (?) instead of a different person, Jesus — but it’s still the same problem. This is what I meant to get at when I said, “What the return activates is simply the process of relational reconciliation, not the efficacy of payment for the debt that he owed.” In other words, when God “suffers the payment” of forgiveness, it happens after God has made the decision to forgive, not before. The pain of God absorbing the debt himself is simply what is necessary for the invitation to restored relationship to be offered, but not for forgiveness. This is perhaps one reason why it makes sense for Jesus to be able to forgive sins in his ministry before having died on the cross…

      You are right though to point out that the Prodigal Son parable is inadequate for building a whole atonement theory. But I don’t start with the Prodigal Son. I just think the Prodigal Son is a great illustration of what many others statements Jesus (and Paul!) are already saying — not an entire model unto itself. Indeed, the parable is more of a lesson for the Pharisees than an example of God’s forgiveness, but I see no reason why it can’t also be the latter.

      And finally, I lament the fact somewhat here that the main interlocutors are contemporary evangelical biblical scholars (Wright, Bauckham, McKnight, etc.), when the truly original 20th Century retrievals of Trinitarian visions of atonement were carried out by those like Moltmann on the one hand, and many other marginal or Global South voices on the other hand. Along these lines, here is a paragraph that I left out for the sake of brevity:

      “A quick disclaimer: I am sympathetic to those who want to criticize the violence of the cross. For this reason, I am generally partial to liberationist interpretations of it. And yes, of course we need to appreciate the other models and metaphors that the church has historically employed, for no analogy can fully capture how the forgiveness of sins really happens. But if we don’t first have an intelligible framework for thinking about God as genuinely forgiving, then there’s no point in talking about the problem of violence. And if we can’t make better sense of the dominant atonement theory that’s been used in the West since the time of Anselm, then I don’t think retrieving older theories is ultimately going to help us very much.”

      Thanks again for the great feedback. I’m not interested in dismissing extremes. Instead, I want to constructively and faithfully criticize uncritical, popular theology that can be harmful. I hope that’s what I did, but I welcome your pointing out some inevitable shortcomings!

      1. On a similar note, Stott in “The Cross of Christ” dismisses “God killed Jesus” talk as “street-level” versions of Penal Substitution that aren’t the robust version he ascribed to. My thought in reading that, though, was similar to yours. If your model is such that popular or “street-level” versions of it get turned into something problematic, maybe there are some underlying problems with the model at all levels.

        1. That is very interesting about Stott. Yeah, he is someone who is usually presumed to be a PS guy. Good to know.

          And your second point is really significant, I feel. Let’s get as deep and nuanced as we can, when we can, but let the model be durable enough to get expressed in simplistic form without totally undermining itself. No scare quotes around forgiveness!

          1. This was the beginning of my walking away from PSA. I was doing a good bit of speaking in youth ministry (Young Life) and found that I was having to make such complicated qualifying, clarifying remarks to explain how it wasn’t God killing Jesus that I began to question the construct.

          2. Yes. It needs to be “youth-group proof.” What would a youth-group-level formulation be? Jesus died in your place… What does this mean? Maybe that we’re on a path of self-destruction, but Jesus intercepts us on it. Or, God showed both his disapproval of sin and and willingness to forgive it by coming into the world through Jesus to take it away? Or, three “e’s” come to mind for what God in Jesus does to sin: exposes, endures, and expels it. Neither excusing nor avenging it, God takes it on at the deepest, darkest level, then overcomes it to give us life without it?

          3. I’ve found the price paid by Hosea to be reconciled to his wife Gomer and the price of self-humiliation of the Prodigal father to be reconciled to his son work well. Out of the courtroom, into the home.

      2. Thanks for the kind response and clarifications, Bill. Totally understand the challenges of a brief blog (like a sermon or class, it can’t cover every nuance). Appreciate your clarifications here as well. I continue to consider these features – but there are also texts that give me pause about rejecting any substitutionary atonement theory (e.g., Romans 3). But, those are bigger and broader debates. Peace.

    2. I like what you’re saying here, Jeff. It does seem like Bill’s original article doesn’t treat PS with enough sensitivity and tends to set up a straw man to knock down. Part of the straw man syndrome is a tendency to argue that if anyone who takes such and such a theological position is more or less bound to end up at logical conclusion xyz, which is obviously unacceptable, so we should reject that position out of hand. The problem with this kind of “slippery slope” argument is that people who hold that position (or as you nicely suggest a given version of that position) often do not go to that supposed logical conclusion but stop well short of it. (For example, I am inclined to believe in a version of PS — though I can’t say I’ve worked out the details of that — but no way to I feel unloved because of holding to this theory of atonement. Bien au contraire!!!) I remember reading through For Calvinism (Michael Horton) and Against Calvinism (Roger Olson) a couple of years ago and being frustrated because it seemed to me that both of these authors fell into this pattern of reasoning. If you are calvinist then that necessarily leads to… (followed by dark warnings). and If you are Arminian… (followed by more dark warnings). But many (maybe most) Calvinists and Arminians do not go to those extremes. Some do, and they get used by the other side as amunition for attacking the whole position they represent, including their more sane and moderate (and biblical?? 🙂 ) sisters and brothers on “their side” of the debate. So I guess I long for a different way of talking about these kinds of issues. It seems to me that those who see elements of truth in the different models are on to something…

      1. Thanks Timothy for this. I think you’ve pointed something out that’s also very important. Here’s something else that I wrote when I was working on the post but ended up leaving out. I think it echoes some of your concerns:

        “It’s important to make a final caveat, however. Just because many people have been taught and continue to think about the gospel in legalistic terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean that those same people really believe in a legalistic gospel. And it certainly doesn’t mean that many of these same people haven’t still experienced and shared God’s pure, unadulterated grace – which can only be a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit to move, guide and convict us in spite of our theology sometimes, and not merely because of it. This is also an encouraging and humbling reminder that, even as we continue to wrestle with what might be a better and truer understanding of the gospel, the good news of God’s grace will always be a mysterious gift at some level – just as long as it doesn’t contradict the very thing it claims to be giving.”

  3. Just to add briefly – I think some of what is debated above is a ‘caricature’ not a full picture. Thanks again (and that’s not to say I don’t think there isn’t much good in the above piece – for much of it I do appreciate). Blessings,.

  4. I continue to be baffled at how little a role the theme of covenant plays in discussions of the cross and atonement. There is a recent book that was released but even it didn’t really get there. How Jesus reflects Passover and Day of Atonement/mercy seat but ultimately goes beyond them is essential to understanding the cross. His death establishes a NEW Covenant. The problem with penal substitution is that it is rooted in the law which is precisely what Jesus was abolishing in his death. Restorative language is crucial, not so much in kingdom language, but regarding image and likeness language (I.e. God is restoring us to his image). CV is essential in as much as Jesus’s death destroyed the one who held us in slavery by the fear of death. There is a lot wrong with penal substitution, not least of which is that it is thoroughly white and western and sanction for a colonialist system of punishment that has eradicated more restorative practices of indigenous peoples. PS is not only harmful it is illogical. If there is punishment how can there be forgiveness? If we still die spiritually and physically, how is there substitution?

    1. Well, to be fair, Peter, on a couple of matters: the earliest exegetes who considered penal substitution were not white and western, nor colonialists. There are plenty today who aren’t as well. Abuses really don’t prove something (there are many who express faith in Christ who abuse; but that doesn’t imply they will be violent oppressors – many also who embrace penal substitution do not believe the logic follows that violence is a necessary or allowable conclusion). Abuse of a theology does not prove the theology bad. Otherwise one could throw out every theological conclusion. It is not necessarily illogical as a metaphor for salvation (The only question is – do texts teach it). The penal part is more challenging and problematic theologically and logically (even so, there’s all sorts of inexplicable things about God – even if you or I might not see the logic of something – as incredibly finite creatures – that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a logic to such). But, more so, I don’t think substitution is undermined by physical or spiritual death from any logical perspective; the death of Christ is efficacious for who embrace Christ in faith (e.g, Rom. 11). Spiritual death (separation from God) is still present for those who don’t (“depart from me” – and that’s not to get into the issue of hell). And, substitution need not imply the prevention of physical death if it leads to resurrection. There’s not really a logical problem there. It still falls to whether the texts teach it or not (which comes down to exegesis), it seems to me. 🙂 Grace.

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