Reframing Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Atonement, Quote

“…by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” Romans 8:3

“Here is a point that must be noted most carefully. Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself. The physical, mental, and spiritual agony that Jesus went through on that terrible day was not alleviated in any way. But theologically speaking—and with regard to the implications that run through many aspects of church life, teaching, and practice—it makes all the difference. 

The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are ‘in the Messiah’ are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not. All those narrative fragments we saw in Luke and John come into their own.”

N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began

Does God need to punish?

Atonement

Retributive punishment might be a deterrent, as punishment is by nature punitive. It might also make a victim feel better to know that the offender was punished. Yet, punishment seldom equals the actual loss occurred by a crime. Seizing a thefts assets might help replay his victims, but in the case of capital offense, the punishment of one person does not repay or restore heath and lost life.

Thus, when we are tempted to say or believe, “God needs to punish and kill” in order to forgive or provide us life, it’s like suggesting that killing an innocent person will bring your murdered family member back to life.

Real justice—true and greater justice—cannot be answered with death. It can only be answered with life. Real justice is not focused on ending the life of the violent, but with ending the cycle of violence and death. Retribution is not the path to life, redemption is.

So…Does God need to punish? No. Not to provide life.

 

*Related post: FORGIVENESS AS JUSTICE

 

A problem when speaking of the atonement

Atonement

The problem with much atonement theology is that the conversation begins and is twisted around ‘God’s need’ (e.g. payment, punishment, blood sacrifice) and not about what God provides (e.g. cleansing, forgiveness, healing, redemption).

Starting with what God needs renders him passive. He is not passive. He is active in the story of history. He sends. He provides. He saves.

From the opening pages of Scripture when the first humans sinned, God acted. When the humans felt for the first time naked and ashamed, God came to them and provided for their need. When he looked upon the dark power they had unleashed into the world he promised one would be sent to crush it.

Sin may hold us back from God, but it does not hold God back from us. From the Garden to the incarnation and beyond God is a seeking, sending, and saving God.

…and our need is not to escape God, but Sin, Satan, and Death.

 

Forgiveness isn’t weakness

Forgiveness, Quote

“Resurrection is the result of death’s defeat; forgiveness, the result of sin’s defeat. Those who learn to forgive discover that they are not only offering healing to others. They are receiving it in themselves. Resurrection is happening inside them. The wrong done to them is not permitted to twist their lives out of shape. Forgiveness isn’t weakness. It was and is a great strength. Resurrection and forgiveness together are vital for understanding the extraordinary and large-scale result of the victory won on the cross. The nations of the world were now set free to worship the one true God.”

― NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion

Divine Judgment: A Relational Framework

Atonement

Is God’s display of justice (e.g. wrath/judgment) a deterrent, reformatory, retributive, punitive, or vindictive?

How is one to understand the basic framework of God’s justice? Are his judgments “intrinsic” or “extrinsic” to human action? For example, does God say, “Do that and I’ll hurt you”(extrinsic) or “Do that and you’ll get hurt”(intrinsic)

This is topic that deserves a great deal of study and conversation. However, my short answer is that in the Scriptures reward and punishment, blessings and curse, are intrinsic (i.e. the consequences are inherent in the act of obedience or disobedience themselves). Ultimately, in Scripture, one’s relation to Christ is both the criterion and the result of judgment. God’s supreme reward is himself, and likewise, the worst thing that could befall someone was his absence (Isaiah 59:3, Psalm 51:11-12; 89:46).

Jesus discourse in John 3:16-21 highlights the relational understanding of God’s justice.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Through Jesus, God reconciles the world to himself. Apart from the Jesus the world already stands condemned and awaits judgment. Eschatological (future) salvation is the continuation and consummation of a relationship with God already experienced. To call it a reward in the retributive sense would be like calling marriage a reward for being engaged.

Yet, one must not error in separating God from his acts of justice. God’s judgments do come from God (and can be spoken of as coming from God) because they are directly connected to one’s relation to God. Intrinsic does not mean God is not distant or uninvolved in the process. This is what the Scriptures mean when they mention the direct agency of God’s justice (e.g. wrath/judgment/punishment).

The relational framework of God’s justice does not contradict the repeated Scriptural references to judgment based on works (Romans 2.1–16; 14.10–12; 2 Corinthians 5.10.). Good works (i.e. right/righteous action) is directly linked to knowing God, the exercise of faith, and the power and presence of his Spirit (Romans 1:18—2:11; 8:9-17; Galatians 5:16-25; Hebrews 11:6). Jesus says obedience is a manifestation of love. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

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For a deeper exploration of this topic see Stephen Travis’s Book, Christ and the Judgement of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought

What happened on the Cross? And Why Does It Matter?

Atonement, Book Review

I just finished reading N.T. Wright’s new book The Day The Revolution Began. If you’re unfamiliar with N.T. Wright, he is the former Bishop of Durham and one of the premier New Testament Scholars. His newest book is a 416-page examination of the narrative, cultural, and theological purposes of Jesus’ crucifixion.

I wanted to share my summary of his basic conclusions concerning the Cross and what is traditionally regarded as Atonement Theology. I originally wrote this summary as a way to help me digest the book. However, this summary will benefit any looking for a deeper understanding of Jesus death.

I hope you enjoy…and I encourage you to pick up the book for yourself.

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Humans were made for the vocation of priests of God in creation (i.e. “image bearers’). Humanity rejected this vocation (a.k.a. sin), resulting in humanity giving it’s power to the people and realities we worshiped, both seen and unseen. These new ‘Powers’ enslave us, take us in exile from our original purpose, and ultimately destroy us in death.

The Kingdom of God was established by disarming the Powers on the cross through the ‘forgiveness of sin,’ thus freeing those held captive by these Powers (and reconciling us to God) to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world, already now, completely in the age to come.

If the enslaving Powers are to be overthrown, they cannot simply be outmatched force for force. If one force overcomes another, it is still force that wins. Thus, the Kingdom of God is established, overcoming and overthrowing the Powers, by, not the power of force, but the power of self-giving love.

If the enslaving Powers are to overthrown they must be robbed of the source of their power; and if the source of their power comes sin (i.e. human rejection of their vocation as priests through the worship of realities other than God), then when ‘sins are forgiven’, the Powers are robbed of their power. Thus, releasing people from their sin and from the effects of those sins is the means by which Christ is victorious over the Powers.

The ‘forgiveness of sin’ thus required one who could lead humanity out of exile, bringing justice to the covenant faithfulness of God (i.e. the promises of God to Israel, particularly that through Israel God would bless all nations), and cleanse the people from their guilt and shame. Enter Jesus. As the Messiah, Jesus is the representative of Israel, both the King and High Priest. Jesus takes on the full plight of the people’s exile; dying a rebels death for his rebellious people, though he himself was not a rebel; dying a slaves death for his enslaved people, though he himself was not a slave. As a result, Jesus’ self-sacrificial death reveals the covenant faithfulness of God, and provides passage home from exile for his people, via union with his death (and thereby his resurrection). His split blood, as the result of his death, was nothing less than the “blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of sins,” a sign that something new was coming into being.

The cruciform shape of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, therefore implies a cruciform mission for its citizens

Forgiveness as Justice

Forgiveness

Forgiveness and justice seem incongruous. In fact, they are often treated as clashing forces. Justice demands balance and restitution. Forgiveness accepts imbalance and releases debt. Justice delivers fair judgement. Forgiveness extends mercy, grace, and kindness. Yet, when we treat forgiveness as something incongruous with justice, we display a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel and Jesus’ death on the cross.

In the world where the only assumed options to injustice are fight or flight (i.e. acceptance, avoidance, retribution, or retaliation). Jesus offers us a third-way; forgiveness. Forgiveness is a practice that is at the center of God’s mission in putting the world right. Forgiveness is not turning a blind eye to injustice. God forgives, not because he doesn’t care about injustice or sin, but precisely because he does care. God forgives because he refuses to let injustice and sin have the last word in the way the world is moving.  God plan is greater than fairness or balance. God’s plan is redemption, reconciliation, and the uniting of all things in Christ.

Forgiveness breaks the cycle of injustice and sin by denying the right to act upon its power to build walls between people or respond in kind toward the offender. Forgiveness denies the right to right to resentment or revenge and instead returns offense and injustice with blessing, compassion, kindness, and benevolence. Forgiveness is central to how God is working to put the world right.

God’s Justice

Atonement, Quote

“God’s justice is not simply a blind dispensing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way. God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place.” NT Wright, Evil and the Justice of God