As I mentioned in the first article, my intention with this conversation is to explore three areas of confusion and potential conflict between reformed evangelicals and their Anabaptist neighbours. The first article dealt with the foundational issue of the doctrine of Scripture, what we reformed folks like to call “the formal principle”. In this article the conversation shifts to “the material principle” or the doctrine of the atonement. Once again the dialogue is presented in stylized form – the seed of the initial conversation having grown through subsequent interactions into the substance of the dialogue now presented. In the conversation that follows “M” stands for “Me” and “B” stands for “Bruxy”. This presentation has been reviewed, revised and finally approved by both parties.
On The Doctrine Of The Atonement
M: Bruxy, with respect to the atonement I recognize that the term Penal Substitutionary Atonement (or PSA for short) is not a term that you like to use, however I’d like to get behind that if I can and find out what you believe about the essence of that doctrine. Let’s start with this: do you believe that Jesus died for our sins?
B: Yes. Absolutely. Jesus “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV) – this is a central tenant of the Gospel.
M: I often use the language of “the Great Exchange” when explaining the Gospel to people. I speak about my sins being hung on Christ on the cross through confession, repentance and faith and the righteousness of Jesus being put on me as an act of sheer kindness and mercy – in essence Jesus “bears and becomes my sin” – to use language from 2 Corinthians 5:21 – and I bear his righteousness and become really and truly righteous because of his grace and mercy – that is the heart of the heart of the Christian Gospel as I understand it; is that something that you would be happy to affirm?
B: Yes! I’m right with you there.
M: Bruxy, I’ve heard you say things – or maybe better – I’ve heard you seeming to affirm things – that would appear to imply that you don’t believe that it was God’s will for Jesus to die on the cross. I have a hard time reconciling that with Isaiah 53:10 which says: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:10 ESV) That sounds for all the world like it was in fact God’s will for Jesus to die on the cross. I understand the cross as having been ordained by God as the means of my redemption – but you seem to suggest otherwise, am I misunderstanding you here?
B: Yes, you are misunderstanding me. As I’ve taught before in sermons and blog posts (see here and here), the sacrifice of Christ was the will and plan of God. Jesus prays in the garden, “Not my will, but yours be done.” The crucifixion of Christ was the will of God. Peter preaches in his Pentecost sermon that: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24). The plan was all God’s; but notice, the violence was all ours. Peter preaches about the cross in a way that calls his hearers to take responsibility for rejecting, crucifying, and killing Jesus. Then he highlights God’s agency again in the act of resurrection.
M: That’s a helpful distinction. Luther takes a slightly different tack, he says that the cross was of course the foreordained means of our redemption, but he says that, in actual fact, it was the law that killed Christ on the cross. When “the law” finds Christ upon the cross bearing the sins of the world “it sets upon and kills him”. Most reformed folks would see this sort of multi-layered causality as an example of compatibilism – the idea that there is no essential contradiction in seeing God’s gracious ordination and man’s, or even the devil’s malevolent agency at work in the same action or event.
B: You reformed guys have the best words!
M: I agree; it’s one of the main draws 🙂 and it brings me back to one of my concerns that perhaps some of what is going on here is that some of your reformed neighbours – who are very invested in our armoury of excellent words – are reacting less to your beliefs and convictions and more to your alien terminology.
B: Yes, I think that may be true, so let me try to be as clear and unaccented as I can be. I affirm the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. In other words, I affirm the “SA” in “PSA.” I’m more aligned with people like C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright on this topic. My objection is with what we traditionally depict as the “P” in “PSA” because I can’t find it in Scripture, at least not the way it is traditionally described, and I think I’m part of a growing movement of Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist Christians who would make the same argument. To say God was angry at Jesus or “poured out the cup of his wrath upon Jesus” (a popular image in Evangelical preaching) goes too far beyond what is written. That part is atonement theory, not atonement fact. Rather, the one who knew no sin became our sin – that is how the LORD crushed the Servant in Isaiah 53:10 – with our sin, not with his wrath. That much IS stated clearly in Scripture. I find this way of expressing the sacrifice of Christ – emphasizing the healing nature of his substitutionary sacrifice – more aligned with Scripture. The idea of God pouring out his wrath upon Christ on the cross is our language, our graphic image, not the Bible’s.
Me: I suppose again, however, that it depends on how you understand the “P” in Penal Substitutionary Atonement. A.A. Hodge – a favourite theologian of C.H. Spurgeon – defines the “P” this way. He says: “’Penalty’ is that kind and degree of suffering which the supreme legislator and judge determines to be legally and justly due in the case of any specific criminal. If these sufferings are endured by a substitute, they are no less the penalty of the law if they in fact satisfy the law.” Therefore, in its essence, the phrase “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” means that on the cross Jesus paid the legal penalty that corresponds to my sins and rebellion (along with all others included in the same covenant of grace) and by so doing returns me to a state of grace, peace, blessing and favour before Almighty God.
B: I agree, a lot depends on what someone means by “Penal” in Penal Substitutionary Atonement. If someone says that the penalty for sin is death, and Jesus died for our sin, therefore he has taken the just penalty upon himself – if that’s what they mean by PSA than I’m right with them. In that sense, I affirm PSA. But you and I know that many Christians go beyond that, and equate PSA with God actively outpouring his wrath upon Jesus, as though God had to vent his wrath somewhere so it wouldn’t fall on us. That’s the version of PSA I do not think can be supported biblically. It says too much and goes too far beyond what it written.
Can I ask you a question?
M: Of course.
B: Can you think of any passage in the Bible, including and beyond Isaiah 53, that clearly says God poured his wrath out on Jesus?
M: Well, I suppose I could reference Psalm 88:7, which both Luther and Athanasius considered Messianic and used to support the idea of Jesus bearing the wrath of God upon the cross, but that might be a bit obscure and I do concede the point that you are trying to make. There is no verse in the New Testament that explicitly says that Jesus bore the wrath of God upon the cross. However, most reformed evangelicals ground this kind of phraseology in places like Galatians 3:13 which says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). Again following Luther, most reformed Protestants understand the word “wrath” as a synonym for “the curse of God”. Luther for example says, “the curse, which is the wrath of God upon the whole world, has a conflict with the blessings; that is to say, with grace and the eternal mercy of God in Christ…Therefore if you look upon this person Christ, you shall see sin, death, the wrath of God, hell, the devil, and all evils vanquished and mortified by Him.” So we would see Jesus becoming a curse – that is bearing in himself the wrath of God, sin, death etc. and defeating those things through his death and resurrection.
B: Interesting. I would identify more with what you mentioned Luther saying earlier, that it was the curse of the Law that Jesus became. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:14-15, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.” This ties in with what Jesus himself held in his mind regarding his own crucifixion – the ushering in of “the New Covenant in my blood”. And included in this New Covenant is cleansing from sin, the coming of God’s Kingdom, and the defeat of the Enemy (e.g., Christus Victor). It all works together under, I would argue, under a “New Covenant” banner.
Can I ask you another question: do you think that PSA is the Gospel? Meaning, do you think that a person has to understand and agree with the common understanding of PSA in order to understand and cling to the Gospel? Because from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like some in your camp make that equation.
M: I don’t think that you would find too many reformed evangelicals who would say that PSA is the Gospel. Jesus is the Gospel. Sinclair Ferguson for example says that explicitly in The Whole Christ; “Jesus Christ is the Gospel” so I think we are on the same page there. I think many reformed folks – myself included – would say that PSA is an important and necessary way of speaking about the central act of our redemption; but it would be reductionistic and plainly inaccurate to say “PSA is the Gospel”. How could anyone say that? In Galatians 3:8 the Apostle Paul says that: “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8 ESV) So “the gospel” preached to Abraham was simply the Good News that in his Seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The mechanics of how that would be accomplished were not clearly spelled out, and yet, according to Paul, it was the Gospel.
B: I’m with you. If you read through the Acts of the Apostles and listen to them preaching the Gospel in the over-a-dozen gospel sermons, you won’t hear anything about the wrath of God poured out on Christ. Peter didn’t use that word or emphasize that concept on Pentecost. He said that Jesus was crucified and was raised up and is now made both Lord and Christ. 3000 people were baptized that day and recognized as Christians without any mention of the wrath of God being poured down on Jesus. When Paul preached the Gospel at Antioch of Pisidia he narrates the fact that Jesus was crucified but again the emphasis is on the fact that God raised him from the dead and that through this resurrected Jesus people could have forgiveness of sins and freedom from the law of Moses – again no specific mention of the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus. So for me this is about trying to imitate the emphasis of the earliest Gospel preachers.
M: Yes, however, the letters of Paul are generally acknowledged as being even earlier than the Acts of the Apostles and in Romans 3:25 Paul refers to the death of Christ as “a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Leon Morris proved definitively that this word “propitiation” means “the averting of wrath”, so we are dealing here with a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God are we not? And this was part of the earliest presentations of the Gospel – should it not therefore be a part of your contemporary presentations of the Gospel?
B: No argument with what “propitiation” means, yet many scholars would argue that this word is not the best translation of “hilasterion” in Romans 3:25 and elsewhere (they would advocate for phrases like “mercy seat” or “place of atonement,” etc). But we can save that linguistic debate for another time. For now, I am in full agreement with you on this point – Christ’s death saves us from the wrath of God, and this is a crucial part of the good news of the gospel. What I am addressing when I push back against traditional retellings of PSA is one theory about the mechanism God used to remove that wrath. If Christ’s death really does accomplish the “Great Exchange” that you mentioned earlier, then we are made genuinely innocent. We are not just declared innocent, but actually are innocent, pure, reborn anew. In more fancy words, God’s propitiation is achieved through our expiation. We are no longer under God’s wrath because we have been cleansed and made righteous.
I want to be as clear as possible, so let me say the same thing a few different ways. The Bible answers the question of “Where did our sin go?” Our sin went onto Jesus. But the Bible does not address the question, “Then where did God’s wrath go?” What we do know is that, if God makes sinners righteous, then we are no longer children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). God’s wrath is gone, but I am overstepping Scripture to declare that God got rid of his wrath by pouring it out on Jesus. Please understand, I’m not asking anyone to rethink the results of the atonement, only one aspect of one theory about how the atonement achieves those results. I think when we affirm what the Bible clearly affirms – that Jesus became our sin and we became his righteousness – then we know that we can stand before the Judge of all the earth as genuinely innocent, genuinely pure, genuinely reborn people, free from wrath.
To put it another way, when you look to the cross in your mind’s eye, where do you spatially locate the Father? Do you see him hovering over Jesus, pouring out his wrath upon his Son? I don’t think that is a biblical image, not the image God the Father wants us to imagine. Instead, I think we are meant to see that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
M: Yes, I would agree with that. In fact plenty of reformed thinkers have expressed concern with the tendency to over emphasize the wrath of God in our atonement discourse – or maybe it would be better to say that they are concerned that we have under emphasized the love of God in our atonement discourse. We must never forget that the atonement itself flows out of the eternal love of God for his people – Paul emphasizes that in Ephesians one saying: “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4–5 ESV) and again in Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV) I would agree – and I wouldn’t be the first or the most important reformed person to say it – that we have at times put the emphasis on the wrong syllable in our atonement discourse.
B: Amen. It’s easy to find ourselves emphasizing one thing at the expense of another. We all add our own flourish and emphasis in gospel preaching, your tribe and mine. I would just love for the Protestant Church to recognize that we have tended to make one aspect of one atonement theory (the Father pouring out his wrath upon the Son on the cross) an essential element to our gospel preaching in a way that oversteps how the gospel is presented in Scripture. I see real value in adjusting the way we picture and describe the atonement. If I’m fixating on a picture of God the Father pouring out the cup of his wrath onto Jesus while he suffers on the cross, I am diluting the two other clear biblical realities we should “see” when we look at the cross: a) it is our sin that is crushing Christ, and b) God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.
And I’m holding out hope for change, since the Church has gone through this process before. Early Christians used to say too much about the ransom theory of the atonement, but eventually we recognized that we had crossed a line and we became more biblically aligned. We knew that Jesus said he came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and we ran with that, trying to complete the ransom image by hypothesizing who the ransom was paid to – God or the Devil or someone else? Most Christians theorized that Jesus paid the ransom of his life to Satan which tricked Satan into releasing his grip on humankind. Atonement became a kind of sneaky deal with the Devil. But later the Church realized that we went too far and said too much. There must have been a reason Jesus never said more than he did. He left the metaphor of ransom in its most simple form for us to focus on what ransom means for us – Jesus was paying the price for our freedom. Period. That’s the point of biblical ransom theory, not a debate over who the ransom was paid to. And I’m hoping, just as we realized we said too much regarding ransom theory and made a course correction as a Church, so today we can admit that we’ve done the same thing with how we describe the “penal” aspect of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
M: The purpose of these articles is really for me to let you explain your views in your own words and I’ve already said a fair bit over the course of this part of the conversation, so maybe I’ll conclude here by asking you to share how you teach your people at The Meeting House to share the Gospel. You have a 30 word tool that you use; I wonder if you could share that with us and unpack it a little bit so that people from outside your culture could understand exactly what sort of Gospel presentation folks are hearing over there in your part of the neighbourhood.
B: Happy to. This is not a formula to memorize and parrot, as much as it is meant to be a helpful mental rubric to help us organize our thoughts about all the Bible says about the Good News of Jesus. Here is “The Gospel in Thirty Words”…
Jesus is God with us, come to…
SHOW US God’s love,
SAVE US from sin,
SET UP God’s kingdom, and
SHUT DOWN religion, so we can
SHARE IN God’s life.
There’s so much I could say here, and you know I’ve written a book recently, called (re)union, that unpacks the gospel using this framework. So I’ll try to keep my comments brief.
First of all, it’s interesting to know who is stuck in the anal stage of Freudian development – they are the ones who have already counted the words to see if they are exactly thirty. If that’s you, welcome to that club.
Secondly, while our conversation here has focused on one central aspect of the gospel – being saved from sin (and hell and wrath) – as wonderful as that truth is, the gospel is even bigger and better than that. Paul boiled God’s saving message down to three beautiful words: “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9). This has implications, not just for where we go when we die, but how we live in the here and now, with Jesus as our king and each other as fellow citizens and ambassadors. We know Jesus summed up his message in terms of the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 24:14; etc) and so did the early Church leaders (Acts 8:12; 28:31; etc). The good news about the establishment of Christ’s kingdom and his call for us to submit to his rulership should not be relegated to the margins of the gospel message.
Thirdly, what I call “shutting down religion” is my way of starting the conversation about the implications of the New Covenant, a covenant that makes us righteous by faith, from first to last. As the writer of Hebrews said, “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13).
I could say more of course, but maybe this is enough for now. At The Meeting House we use a “Gospel Cheat Sheet” for believers to tuck into their Bibles and review regularly. We want to get a coherent understanding of the gospel and associated Scriptures into our memories, so it can come out naturally in conversations with friends and family. And we’re happy to share it. You can find it here.
M: Thank you so much for doing this Bruxy. I think we need to reset how conversations of this sort take place within the Canadian evangelical context. I think it is important to demonstrate that it is possible to be convictional and civil at the same time. I appreciate the honesty and the transparency that you have demonstrated throughout the process. Bless you.
B: Thank you Paul. I’m grateful to you and the leadership of The Gospel Coalition for helping our different Christian groups better understand and learn from one another. This must be making Jesus smile.
Once again I would like to state clearly that my purpose in writing these blogs is to pursue clarity through direct and civil dialogue. This is intended as an exercise in long form listening. Analysis and reflection will come at the end.
The next post in this series will deal with questions concerning the methodology, missiology and miscellany of The Meeting House.
And may God alone be glorified.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.
 Martin Luther, Commentary On Galatians (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1988), 182-183.
 A.A. Hodge, Outlines Of Theology (Edinurgh: The Banner Of Truth Trust, 1999), 402.
 Luther, Galatians, 184-185, emphasis mine.
 Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 40.
 Leon Morris, The Atonement (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1983), 169.