It is impossible to exaggerate the importance, glory, and beauty of the atonement of Jesus Christ. The love of God in the cross and resurrection of Christ stand at the heart of the Christian message. Although no doctrine of Scripture is given merely for the intellect alone, the atonement is a doctrine that touches our heart and soul in a special way.
Throughout its history, the church of Christ has turned its aesthetic imagination and emotional intensity towards the cross. Redeemed by the blood, believers have celebrated the atonement. Christ’s church has also recognized its central significance in the biblical narrative, systematic theology, ethics, apologetics, and history.
Though nobody comprehends all that was accomplished and experienced at Calvary, the little we can understand is enough to engender worship both now and forevermore. Today, however, there have been bitter debates about the nature of the atonement.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
The view of the atonement that is most widely held in conservative evangelical circles is penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). In this view, Jesus died on the cross as the substitute for sinners. He died in our place. Christ’s death is penal because he paid the judicial penalty for our sins.
The Father’s nature and character is such that he will not allow sin to go unpunished. He is not a judge who is under the authority of an external code of law or external moral standard. He himself is the Law. He himself is The Good. As such, his decision to forgive sinners must be compatible with his own nature; he will not deny himself. Jesus Christ lived a perfect life, and he was willing to substitute himself in the place of sinners, taking upon himself the wrath and punishment that God’s holy goodness required. In paying the penalty for our sins, Christ satisfied the Father and upheld God’s righteousness. Because of Christ, our guilt is removed and atonement is made for our sin.
It should be said that any fully-orbed view of the atonement will say a lot more than this. Christus Victor considerations remind us that Christ at the cross defeated Satan and the powers of evil. But proponents of penal substitution can rejoice in this truth as well, and locate it in their theology. Christ defeats Satan through offering a penal substitutionary atonement which satisfied God’s justice and results in resurrection life.
Christ’s atonement is also a great moral example and the finest display of love in the history of the world. But it is a moral example and a display of life because it accomplished something more than just providing an example. A soldier who is shot in a courageous act on the battlefield provides a moral example. A soldier who intentionally gets himself shot for no other reason than showing his comrades he’d die for them also provides an example, but not an intelligent one. The sacrifice must accomplish an objective to be coherent.
Preaching the Atonement Is Hateful and Abusive
Unless you are familiar with debates about the atonement, you may be rather surprised to discover that some opponents of PSA believe that it causes hatred, bigotry, abuse, murder, and crimes against humanity. And that’s just the short-list. PSA has also been called misogynistic, since it allegedly teaches women that the most beautiful act in history is to be bullied and beaten and even killed by the one who claims to love you. Thus, PSA apparently encourages spousal abuse and domestic violence.
It likewise apparently legitimizes child abuse, since the Son submits to the violence of the Father. Once violence and retributive justice are given divine endorsement, we are now in a position to justify hatred and xenophobia, which is a necessary condition for genocide. So, say some, PSA is responsible for war crimes.
Now, not every opponent of PSA claims these sorts of things, but it certainly is not uncommon. Those who do hold to PSA cannot help but account these characterizations as bizarre, even as they patiently try to demonstrate that the associating links are illogical. It is wearying to have a position caricatured and misunderstood, and then also to have deductions drawn from the erroneous premises that are logically fallacious. The analogies overdraw points of contact, and miss the points of dissimilarity which are crucial. There is no time to expand, but it should be obvious that the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, is not a helpless little child whose will and body are overpowered by his brutal Father.
The Prodigal Son and the “Forgiving Father”
Those who reject PSA often appeal to the Parable of the Prodigal Son (which some want to rename the Parable of the Forgiving Father). They suggest that the father in the parable obviously had no need to offer a blood atonement for the sins of his younger son before he forgave him According to this argument, God does not need to provide an atonement in order to forgive sinners. He can simply be a forgiving father.
Prodigals have no need for a substitutionary atonement—they simply need to know that the father loves them and that they are safe to come home to his embrace. Satan and the powers of evil are defeated because they do their worst to Christ, but instead of lashing back he simply endures their wrath, and thus exhausts and defeats them. The parable, then, is taken as biblical evidence that the doctrine of penal substitution is wrong, since a blood atonement was obviously unnecessary for forgiveness and reconciliation in the narrative of the parable.
The “Forgiving Father:” A Quick Assessment
We do not have space to explore the larger foundation on which this interpretation is constructed, but we will take a quick look at the PSA-denying interpretation of the parable. Here are just three basic points:
First, it is a parable. This does not mean that it does not teach theology or doctrine (it does). This does not mean that it is not fully inspired and authoritative (it is). But recognizing the genre is important. This parable is not designed to teach everything about soteriology. We should not be shocked if some things we need for salvation are not mentioned in this story.
Second, this parable is the third in a sequence of parables that all teach the same thing. Critically, Jesus tells these parables because of the attitude of the Pharisees (Luke 15:1-3). The parables are designed to highlight the joy and celebration in heaven that occurs as the lost are found, which establishes a contrast with the hard-hearted (and therefore unlike the Father) Pharisees. Yes, the father in the parable represents God the Father. But the point is his attitude and dispositional stance towards lost sinners: The Father’s attitude is not on the mechanism for atonement!
The shepherd in the first parable didn’t offer a blood atonement for his sheep. The woman in the second parable didn’t offer a blood atonement for her lost coin. The father didn’t offer a blood atonement for his returning prodigal. This may be relevant if any of the three parables were about atonement. But they’re not.
Third, the argument proves far too much. There are many other elements that the parable doesn’t include. For example, there is no Christ at all! There is no Son of God incarnate. There is no resurrection. Are we to believe that sinners do not need Christ as mediator, since the father in the parable embraces the sinner without a mediator of any kind? There is no mention of the Holy Spirit. Are we to believe that we can be reconciled to God apart from the Spirit’s work in our lives?
It is true that there is no blood atonement in this parable, but there is no Jesus, either. Using the same hermeneutical principles as those who use this parable to reject the need of PSA, we can also reject the need for Jesus. One doesn’t need to be a biblical scholar to know that a text is being misread if one can use exegetical principles that end up making Jesus unnecessary for salvation.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most popular stories in the Bible, and for good reason. When read it in context, however, we see that it stands as a sober warning to religious hypocrites. But it also stands as an incredible invitation to those who feel their sin: The Father rejoices—as do the angels—when the lost are found and the ones who were dead come alive!
This is a precious truth. It gives us the motive for the atonement but not the mechanism. In the context of the parable, the mechanism of atonement is simply not the point. To suggest that the parable’s silence is grounds for dismissing the need for PSA is hermeneutically preposterous. It is time for those who oppose PSA to stop appealing to Luke 15. The parable is simply not intended to be used the way that they are trying to use it.