Christian Theology, Biblical Theology

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Views of the Atonement

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Views of the atonement and the error of the Penal Substitution Theory. The early church didn't fully develop any formal dogma regarding the nature of the atonement until the 11th century when Anselm promulgated his Theory of Satisfaction which weighed heavily on logic versus Scripture. Anselm viewed the nature of the atonement from a feudalistic paradigm. Up to his time many of the great Church Fathers believed that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. Anselm claimed that the ransom was paid to God in satisfaction of His honor. The Calvinistic view or Penal Substitution (PS) theory is a modification of Anselm’s theory in that it was not God’s honor that needed to be satisfied but rather His justice and wrath. The other leading view which many Arminians hold to is called the Moral Governmental theory (MG) which states that Christ was not a substitute in punishment but in sufferings; and God was able to accept His sacrifice as satisfaction of His justice in maintaining His moral law and can now freely pardon all who accept Christ through faith. This view teaches that Christ's substitution was in place of the penalty not the sinner. God can still uphold the integrity of His moral law and hence His moral government while offering clemency to the guilty sinner. 

The Calvinist or Penal Substitution (PS) theory has some serious flaws which will be discussed later in this article. One of the major flaws is that it promotes antinomianism instead of maintaining and strengthening the moral law of God by which God still governs His universe (men and angels). The PS teaches that Christ fulfilled the righteous demands of God's moral law, and now this moral law is of no consequence to salvation; this further degenerates into the moral law having very little consequence in the life of those who hold to this teaching.

Under the PS theory God ignores the breaking of His law because Christ has appeased His wrath & righteousness and kept the law in place of the sinner. Consequently, when God sees the sinful behavior of the Christian, He sees the imputed righteousness of Christ and continues to accept the Christian as though the law was never broken. This is similar to what we see happening in our own society today. We continue to write laws without enforcing the ones on the books. In effect we have disregard and contempt for the law by not allowing its proper place in regulating and imposing the punishment of the lawgivers. Additionally a set of rules without any penalty for breaking them is no law at all. This view is also very similar to the heathen views in that their gods must be appeased with the death and shedding of blood.

The MG theory does not teach that God's wrath or righteousness had to be appeased. God in His mercy, acknowledges that the sinner is guilty of breaking His moral law and will suffer the punishment of eternal damnation; however, He is willing to substitute the sufferings and death of Christ in place of the punishment or sentence of eternal damnation for the repentant sinner. Under this theory God's moral law is not cast aside but the punishment is substituted on the conditions of repentance and faith in Christ and the integrity of His moral law by which He governs His creation is maintained. Under the MG theory God is not required to punish the sinner to appease His righteousness or wrath; instead from His mercy He accepts the sufferings of Christ in place of the punishment of eternal damnation. Another problem with the Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories is they are very similar to the heathen teachings of an angry despotic blood-lust god who needs appeasement.  

As mysterious and speculative is the nature of the atonement, there are Biblical truths that God has decided to reveal to us that are adequate so far as saving faith is concerned. Most orthodox theologians will agree on the following Biblical truths regarding the nature of the atonement:

1. Vicarious – Whether the Penal Substitution or Governmental theory both schools of thought agree with the explicit Biblical view that Christ died for us. Whether He died in place of us as an absolute substitute in punishment (Penal Substitution) or as a provisional substitute in sufferings (Governmental), all will agree that He died for sinners.

2. Real Atonement – All will agree that the atonement was necessary and had intrinsic value regarding the forgiveness of sins.

3. Reconciliation – The death of Christ reconciled man with God.

4. Redemption – Christ’s death redeemed us from the curse of the law, sin, and bondage to sin and Satan.

5. Satisfaction – The death of Christ was acceptable to God for the salvation of man evidenced by His resurrection. God was satisfied with His atoning death as the grounds for the forgiveness of man's sins.

We must not forget that while the death of Christ is the grounds of our justification we are saved by our union with His resurrected life. Romans 5:10 “For while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

The MG theory maintains elements of substitution and satisfaction in a different sense than that of the PS theory. The MG view holds to a substitution in sufferings and emphasizes God’s satisfaction in a rectoral sense.

The PS theory lays much of its emphasis on God’s obligation to punish sin because of His holy nature and punitive justice while acknowledging His retributive justice. The MG theory lays its emphasis on God’s acceptance of Christ's sacrifice to uphold His honor and the integrity of His moral government as the moral ruler of the universe.

The PS theory maintains that Christ in His life of obedience (active righteousness) and sufferings and death (passive righteousness) provided a substitution in penalty for the elect. God’s nature and divine justice demands that sin be punished and God was obligated to punish sin because of its intrinsic demerit. This punishment is not remissible as it is what provides satisfaction to God and divine justice. Christ was imputed with the guilt of the elect, therefore; sin was fully punished in Him. These are the theories in a nutshell.

Problems with the PS View of the Atonement:

1. Justification by works: Christ’s active righteousness or obedience to the Law fulfilled the obligations of the Law. This righteousness was then imputed to the elect. This is what the Penal Substitution theory maintains – but this is justification by works, though it is done vicariously through Christ. Yes, Christ lived a sinless life and He could do nothing else because of His divinity, but no where in the Bible does it declare this concept active righteousness. In Romans 5:18 Paul writes “So then as through the one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through the one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” NASB. This one act being Christ’s death.

2. Is God required to punish sin: “God is determined, by the immutable holiness of His nature, to punish all sin because of its intrinsic guilt or demerit; the effect produced on the moral universe being incidental as an end.” – Dr. A.A. Hodge Reformed theologian. God is not required or obligated by any law or by His nature to punish sin; though He does punish sin for both rectoral and retributive purposes. There is no Scriptural proof that God is obligated by His nature or law to punish sin. Additionally if God requires that sin be punished in the sinner or a substitute as the grounds for forgiveness; then this is not gratuitous forgiveness. To exact the punishment from the sinner or substitute and then declare them forgiven is not true biblical forgiveness. The judge either pardons or punishes but not both. Jesus gives us a good example of forgiveness in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Mathew 18:23. In this example the servant’s master forgave him his debt without any retribution or punishment. Psalm 103:10: …He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. This scheme of propitiation is similar to the heathen religions in that they must sacrifice to their god to appease his wrath. The only difference being that under the Penal Substitution theory; the sacrifice is eternal and never has to be repeated.

3. Satisfaction is impossible: The Penal Substitution theory asserts that the judicial infliction of the punishment of sin is on the grounds of personal, intrinsic demerit. Those that hold to this theory maintain that the guilt of sin was imputed to Christ but not the moral turpitude or personal demerit. This raises many questions: Can you separate guilt from personal demerit or the sinner in any real sense? No, guilt cannot exist apart from sin—guilt is not sin. You cannot transfer or impute moral character. Therefore if satisfaction demands that sin be punished solely on the grounds of its intrinsic demerit, then satisfaction by substitution is absolutely impossible. Even if it were possible to separate guilt from sin in any real sense (versus the abstract), sin would still not be punished in Christ but merely the guilt! Nothing could be punished in Christ that was not transferred to Him. Divine justice demands that “the soul that sins shall surely die” and “the wages of sin are death”; therefore the actual sinner must be punished accordingly—eternal death.

4. Acquittal and justice: Most who hold to the Penal Substitution theory maintain that justice demands that when the payment is made for the sin the sinner is acquitted. This would imply that all the elect were saved at Calvary. So accordingly, when someone gets saved; they are actually just waking up to the fact that they have been saved all along. According to this theory it would be unjust for God to hold the elect accountable for sin when it has already been paid for by Christ.

5. Equality of punishment: If the punishment of sin is eternal damnation, can Christ provide satisfaction though He didn't suffer eternal damnation? Again the answer is no. Advocates of the Penal Substitution theory maintain that since the substitute is of much greater value, the punishment can be reduced. This is sort of like trading gold for silver. The Penal Substitution theory is very strict in that it maintains that God is obligated and justice demands that sin is fully punished according to its demerit, the wages of sin being eternal death. Can the temporal death of a substitute fully punish sin? Adherents to the Penal Substitution theory are very strict with regards to God’s obligation to punish sin in its totality to its fullest measure.

6. Absolute or proviso nature: The Penal Substitution theory maintains that since Christ substituted for the sinner in punishment; if God were to condemn someone for their sins that Christ had already paid for; He would be guilty of double jeopardy; therefore Christ had to die for the elect and only the elect and couldn't possibly pay the penalty for the non-elect. This is the essence of limited atonement. This raises more questions: To charge God with double jeopardy is a misunderstanding of God’s justice. This same reasoning would also charge God with injustice when He had His Angel of Death kill 70,000 innocent Jews when He punished David for taking a census; yet none would dare make any such accusation.

The Old Testament sacrifices required the sinner to appropriate the sacrifice to their lives. The Passover lamb is an excellent example of this. Though the sacrifice had been made, it was of no benefit to the individual unless the blood of the lamb was applied to the door posts of his house. So this sacrifice had a proviso nature and not an absolute nature as proffered by the adherents of the theory of Penal Substitution. The atoning benefits of the sacrifices had to be appropriated to the individuals much like the serpent in the wilderness had to be appropriated by faith of the individual.

7. The Penal substitution theory promotes antinomianism. This is because the theory teaches that the moral law was fulfilled in Christ and has nothing to do with man's salvation any longer. The problem is that God has chosen to rule His universe by moral laws instead of laws of causality or some other law that would render man as a mere robot. But if the law was fulfilled in Christ, then the Christian is not capable of sinning or breaking God's law nor is he capable of any acts of virtue. The PS theory as rendered the concept of free moral agency moot. When Christ walked on the earth and told the world that He fulfilled the law, He was only speaking of the prophecies that spoke of Him, and the dietary and ceremonial laws that pointed to Him. Could you imagine God no longer ruling His universe without a law?

8. Christ died on behalf of sinners, not in place of sinners: Christ compared the nature of His atoning death to that of the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness John 3:14-15. Here Jesus clearly shows us the proviso nature of His death. Only those who looked to the serpent in faith were healed, yet it was raised up on the pole for all who were bitten; just as only those who look to Christ’s atoning death in faith shall be saved. This picture of the atonement clearly shows us that Christ died on behalf of us not as an absolute substitute in punishment. No one would argue that the serpent was not functioning in the office of a substitute. Of the 29 scriptures in the New Testament regarding the atonement of Christ; only 1 employs the word Anti which means for or instead of (substitute) and the other 28 employ the word Huper which most commonly means for or in behalf of or for the benefit of. Mat 20:28 the word Anti is used to describe Christ’s death as a ransom for (anti) many. In Lk 22:19, 20, Jn 6:51, 10:11, 15:13, Rom 5:6, 5:8, 8:32, 14:15, 1 Cor 1:13, 15:3, 2 Cor 5:14, 15, 5:21, Gal 1:4, 2:20, 3:13 Eph 5:2, 5:25, 1 Thes 5:9, 10, 1 Tim 2:6, Tit 2:14, Heb 2:9, 1 Pet 2:21, 3:18 4:1, 1 Jn 3:16. In all of these scriptures the word Huper is employed where the word for is used. Examine each scripture and as you read them instead of the word for replace it with the phrase in behalf of, for the sake of, for the benefit of. Christ dying on behalf of mankind is much different than Christ dying for the elect.

9. Righteousness has no metaphysical existence and cannot be imputed to the sinner no more than sin being imputed to Christ. When Christ became sin or bore our sins He did so in the sense that His sufferings and sacrifice would ultimately be accepted in place of the punishment for the sins. Sin and Righteousness have no existence apart from the moral agent committing the righteous or sinful acts. Secondly if Christ's righteousness was capable of being imputed, then the Christian would be incapable of sin or virtue. The bible often speaks of men living virtuous lives such as Job. The bible also tells us in 1 John "The one who practices righteousness is righteous." This is definitely not speaking to any sort of imputed righteousness; in fact all of 1 John speaks to God demands of holiness and virtuous lives of His people.

Conclusion: Christ’s death was not an absolute penal substitution but rather a substitution in the punishment due the sinner. Moreover it is closer to the Scriptures to say that Christ died on behalf of sinners and was a substitute in sufferings. The atonement was essential and satisfied God which was proven by the resurrection. Each theory has some elements of truth but not to the exclusion of the other theories. What God has revealed to us in His bible is sufficient for salvation. Let’s accept the simple fact that Christ died for sinners, His death reconciled us to God and redeemed us from the Law, sin and Satan; and it was absolutely necessary for Christ to die for us; God was completely satisfied by His death.

The atonement or the mystery of redemption as the apostle Paul describes it is just that – a mystery which none of the leading theories can fully explain. Most theologians acknowledge the speculative nature of the views on the atonement and openly refer to them as theories. All of the theories seem to go well beyond the pages of Scripture and are constructed on logic and philosophy more so than the plain and simple Scriptural truth that Christ died for sinners and His death was an acceptable sacrifice; and satisfied God’s need to deal with the sin issue once and for all.
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