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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10 responses to “Me and Phyllis Tickle? On the Future of the Church?

  1. As an Anglican I read Phyllis Tickle's book and yours together for a D.Min. class at Fuller. While I appreciated some of her insights into our shifting culture (her take on the effect that AA had upon spirituality in the sense of cutting the practice loose from the narrative of salvation was an eye opener, sending me back to that first chapter of After Virtue), ultimately I was disappointed her idea that what is happening is some sort of harmonic convergence of disparate forms of protestantism into the Great Emergence. When you look closely, it seems that what she envisions is something that looks like a hybrid of the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, with wistful memories of John Wimber.
    I think that she, while perhaps claiming the mantle of postmodern in her sensibilities, has smuggled in a good dose of good old modernist mythology of progress. Reading The Great Emergence I was reminded of a quip by Lesslie Newbigin that the underlying belief of modernism is that the purpose of history is to create people like us.

  2. Richard, perhaps this is what is at stake between Phyllis and myself on the future of the church. In other words, a Christendom view (I'm sure she wouldn't buy that) that sees all churches as heading into a convergence, and a post Christendom approach (myself) which basically argues we have to become communities of integrity and incarnation on a local level to in essence infect the world with the presence of Christ incarnationally. We must become little politics of Jesus. We might even say Phyllis approaches things from a macro and myself from a micro. I don't believe there is a macro any longer. Another difference? Phyllis lives in Memphis the Christendom south – I live in the vast suburbs of Chicago – a post Christendom setting in my opinion. Anyways, I look forward to this place being a opportunity to explore these themes.Thanks for your contribution here on the blog

  3. Holy macro!
    And I'm being serious here. (See, I'm actually using upper-lower case responsibly!)

    Something isn't quite sitting right about this macro vs. micro stuff. While you might not believe there's a macro anymore, Dr. Fitch, is it possible there are actually multi-macro patterns going on globally, with some level of accuracy in what Ms. Tickle suggests, but other trends going in exactly the opposite direction? At least in my understanding, the disciplines of strategic foresight and of macrohistory (patterns for interpreting history) suggest multiple drivers of long-term change could coexist.

    In my thinking specifically about changes in the types of intrachurch collaborations I've been observing for a couple decades, I don't expect the version she apparently describes [haven't read the book nor heard the speech] to win out in the long run, despite a lot of shuffling around as denominations and movements fragment and then pieces find their realignments. I suspect the predominant (and perhaps lasting) post-Christendom pattern will be one that has more of a covenant involved, to stick things out together long term based on personal and communal commitment rather than confessional uniformity, organizational union, or functional/pragmatic activities together.

    We'll see … should we live so long. Hope the dialog on macro and micro mediates more insights.

  4. Brad … that's the shortest comment you've ever posted on this blog. Wow. But I can agree with where you're going … to me it speaks to that the local (church) can never really be who it is (the church) without its connectedness to the church catholic. In that respect, there's much to talk about ..

  5. Interesting, I wish I could be there. I heard Phyllis speak at Ann Arbor Vineyard a few years ago. I haven't followed her recently, but I believe the crux of what she was saying was that existing church structures were not sustainable, that we were in a period of great change (at least in the American church), and people were starting to "leak" between structures (with more emphasis on a common core). I don't think an integrative view necessarily implies a universal church structure, but may portend the breaking down of macro structures altogether, so we just have God, and we have the people of God defined as those who are responsive to Him (although this wouldn't of course preclude small and midsize organic communities like missional churches)

    1. We may find some intriguing insights on the kind of "leakage" you describe, David, if we consider a somewhat parallel situation of what happened across various denominational lines when the Church overall was persecuted behind the Iron Curtain, and so disciples of all denominational persuasions found themselves in the same situation of control and chaos. I mostly tracked the situation in the 1980s and 1990s, but have lost track of the aftermath of the fall of Communism and the relative freedom of church denominations in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. But it would be interesting to know if anyone's been analyzing and interpreting the aftermath to see what longer-lasting intradenominational ties have emerged from connections that were forged in the former chaos. Could that give us some general ideas of what could happen at a larger level in the post-modern paradigm shift, even if it's not the ultimate macro level of a Christendom?

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