Is there an overarching model of the atonement?

Penal substitutionary atonement has come under significant attack within evangelical circles in recent decades. Defenders of its legitimacy have often argued that it is the dominant or overarching biblical concept of the saving work Jesus accomplished in his death, even when they grant that it is one of many biblical derived theories which complement one another.

Many critics of penal substitution have been equally sweeping in their denunciation, not simply lowering its importance but denying it altogether. Objections include the charge

  • that penal substitution is inherently unjust because an innocent person is penalized and the guilty go free
  • that the doctrine of divine retribution is unbiblical and portrays God sadistically or hypocritically, since Jesus urged us to turn the other cheek when offended
  • that it is too legalistic a framework to properly represent God’s relationship with his creatures
  • that it sets the Father against the Son in a form of child abuse, or at least that it portrays God as violent, which fosters violence at the human level [In a review article, I examined Stricken by God?, a book including numerous essays that voiced this concern.]
  • that it is incoherent unless universal salvation occurs, because the penalty for sin would be exacted twice, on Christ and on the unrepentant sinner.

Excellent responses to all these criticisms have been made, and I won’t repeat them here, but I believe that substitution or representation is fundamental to a biblical understanding of Christ’s work, and I think that a penal aspect of that representation, Christ’s bearing the punishment that sinners deserved, is widely attested in the New Testament and prefigured in the Old Testament sacrificial system. It is, in my view, one model that can not be excluded from an adequate explanation of the atonement, indeed it is a very prominent concept.

I notice that critics of penal substitution tend to favor an imitative/moral influence theory, the governmental theory, or the Christus Victor theme. These all represent very valuable aspects of the New Testament’s teaching concerning the atonement. We are exhorted to imitate Christ’s sacrificial love. We acknowledge that God did demonstrate his righteous disapproval of sin and exemplify its punishment in the suffering of Christ. And we are forever thankful that Christ has overcome the evil one who holds us in bondage through our disobedience to God’s law, which gives him a legitimate claim on us (1 Jn 3:8; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14). These accomplishments of Christ’s work I affirm with gratitude.

A large problem occurs, however, when Christus Victor, moral government, or moral example are presented as explanations of Christ’s work to the exclusion of penal substitution, because the latter is essential to all three of those aspects of Christ’s work. If the death of Christ was unnecessary to satisfy God’s justice, it can not serve as a useful model for us to follow, and subjective reconciliation is inseparable from objective reconciliation. We must not confuse God’s method of saving people with our experience of being saved. The moral government theory puts an emphasis on the rectoral justice of God at the expense of his retributive justice, severing the connection between sin and punishment. It fails on its own principle because “public justice” can not be maintained by the punishment of an innocent person, and it provides no ontological reason for the death of Christ, but only a demonstrative one, which is very inadequate. The liberating victory of Christ over the evil one is inexplicable apart from a clear explanation of the ground upon which Satan holds us in his bondage, namely, that we are under God’s condemnation because of our violation of God’s own law (cf., Col 1:13; 2:14-15).

Penal substitution is an essential aspect of the atonement, but the question I put on the table in my title for this post is whether one of the theological  models of the atonement is most comprehensive. Quite commonly, evangelicals propose that penal substitution has that place, and they find evidence of this in that it is not possible to explain how the other models work, apart from Christ’s satisfying the Father’s justice on our behalf.

We might be best not to identify any one of them as primary, but to stress the greatness of Christ’s atoning work which is demonstrated in the many facets that the various biblical metaphors present, to which  theories of the atonement try to do justice. On the other hand, if there is a  model that can be viewed as comprehending the others to some extent, I think that it is probably Christ’s victory. A brief but persuasive case for this approach was summed up by Michael Bird, a couple of years ago. Here is the essence of his argument in that post:

 I agree that CV [i.e., Christus Victor] and PSA [i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement] go together because Jesus is only Christus Victor because he is also Agnus Dei. PSA deprives the Satan of his key weapon: accusation against the saints! However, I think CV is the most comprehensive model of the atonement for several reasons:

1. Canonical: The first and last intimations of the atonement in Scripture are about the victory of Jesus’ death (Gen 3:15; Rev 12:11).

2. Historical: CV appears to have been more popular in Church History as a model for the atonement than any other. Though PSA can be found in the fathers as a minor key, CV can be found among the Reformers as a minor key too.

3. Biblical Theological: CV links together a lot more themes than PSA does. CV brings together kingdom, atonement, resurrection, and new creation.

4. Pauline: Note how Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 both start off with the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, but then climax in affirmations of divine victory! PSA is the basis for CV, but CV is then the goal of PSA.

I like the words of John Calvin on the subject: “Finally, since as God only he could not suffer, and as man only could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, and by the power of the other, maintaining a struggle with death, might gain us the victory … But special attention must be paid to what I lately explained, namely, that a common nature is the pledge of our union with the Son of God; that, clothed with our flesh, he warred to death with sin that he might be our triumphant conqueror (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 12:2-3).

Calvin also wrote: “And so, by fighting hand to hand with the power of the Devil, with the horror of death, he won the victory over them and triumphed, so that now in our death we should not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up” (Institutes II.16.11).

A faithful representation of the New Testament teaching regarding salvation requires that we affirm that the salvation of sinners in all ages of human history is accomplished only by the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:12; 1 John 2:2). It is effective in the justification of all who believe in Jesus because we are united to Christ through baptism in/with the Spirit, and by means of this incorporation into Christ we die to sin and rise again to new life. The penalty due to us as sinners has been borne by Christ, in our place, and so we are justly declared not guilty and will eventually be transformed into the image of God, that is, the likeness of Christ, which was the original state of Adam and Eve. Creation will no longer suffer the consequences of human sin, and the shalom of God’s kingdom will be reestablished upon a renewed earth and heaven. God will be all in all, once again we will flourish under his loving rule. God’s victory over all his enemies will be complete, and all of this will have been brought about by the work accomplished by the Son. He took our nature upon himself, as second Adam, to deliver us from the bondage begun in Adam and reenforced in the lives of all his descendants by their own acts of disobedience.

As we used to sing in the male quartet of which I was a member in my Bible College days,

Oh, victory in Jesus,
my Savior forever,
he sought me and bought me
with his redeeming blood.
He loved me ere I knew him,
and all my love is due him;
he plunged me to victory
beneath the cleansing flood.

(written by Eugene Monroe Bartlett Sr., in 1939)

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