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Substitutionary atonement

A response to recent attacks
Don McLellan1
There never was a time when the doctrine that Christ died in our place for our sins was
popular. Few have been the times when it was widely understood. Many have been the
times when it has been grossly distorted and caricatured, frequently to the point of
making it quite repulsive. Sometimes it has been turned into complete nonsense by well-
meaning folk. Paul, to whom we owe most of what we understand about the atonement,
once remarked,
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God
decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For
Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a
stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called,
both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:21-
24, NRSV).
The late James Barr, an important biblical scholar who wrote a famous anti-evangelical
polemic titled Fundamentalism, noted in one of his last publications,
“The centrality of a penal/substitutionary view of atonement… may lie deeper in the
fundamentalist psychology than any other factor, even than the inerrancy of
Evangelicals once would have worn that accusation as a badge of honour, even if the
“fundamentalist” epithet did not appeal. But it seems that this may no longer be the case.
Some evangelicals want to skirt around penal substitution. Others are ashamed of it and
want to apologise for it. I am among those who strongly believe that we should continue
to support it with pride. Indeed, while I hesitate to put God’s people in neatly labelled
boxes, I hold the view that the demarcation of evangelicalism from other forms of
Christianity should be precisely this shibboleth: “Do you accept that, when Christ died on
the cross, he paid the penalty of our sin?”
In the preface to his great book The Cross of Christ, John Stott tells the story of when the
Student Christian Movement approached the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union
with an olive branch just after World War I, in an effort to reunite the two bodies. CICCU
entered cordially into the discussion; but when its secretary asked if the SCM put the
atoning blood of Christ central, and the best the SCM president could respond with was
that it was acknowledged but not central, that settled the matter. 3 CICCU did not rejoin,
and it grew into the IVF and expanded into other universities.
Until recently the IVF continued to hold strongly to the doctrine of penal substitution.
However, IVF’s publishing offshoot IVP is now publishing works both for and against
substitutionary atonement. Even-handedness is to be commended, but surely this is not
Don McLellan is Campus Director of the Mt Gravatt campus of Harvest Bible College in Brisbane. His
PhD dissertation was a critical evaluation of the atonement theology of Leon Morris.
James Barr, The Dynamics of Fundamentalism. Perth: St George’s Cathedral, 2001, p. 13.
John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Leicester: IVP, 1986, p. 8.
some peripheral area of theology on which we can have vigorous but irenic debates and
end up agreeing to differ. The death of Christ is at the heart of all that Christianity is
about. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that the two sacraments directly
commanded by Jesus himself, baptism and communion, both focus on his death. Clearly
Jesus intended us to see some significance in it beyond its horrific violence, and Paul
sums it up in five simple words: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).
Recent criticisms of penal substitution
There are too many recent critics of penal substitution to cover them all, and new
publications are coming out all the time. But let me start with Denney Weaver.4 Weaver,
along with others of his persuasion, is embarrassed by the claim that the history of
Christianity is littered with bloody episodes of revenge and retribution and conquest, and
accepted the propositions of certain radical theologians5 that this is a natural corollary of
a doctrine claiming that God’s justice could only be satisfied if blood was shed. If
Christianity is to be consistent with Jesus’ alleged opposition to violence, Weaver says it
must divest itself of its violent presuppositions. On this ground the doctrine of penal
substitution must be abandoned, and Weaver then attempts to show that the Bible does
not require it.
We could also cite Joel Green and Mark Baker,6 who consider that there is enough
scandal in the cross without the scandal of a theory of atonement which, in their view, is
atrocious. Christopher Marshall has joined the fray with a book suggesting that we must
take the idea of penalty out of the cross and instead interpret it in terms of restorative
justice.7 Then there is Larry Shelton,8 who sees the cross as an act of covenant love, and
believes that the idea of penalty does not necessarily arise in the OT portrayal of
atonement. Therefore we do not need to find it in the NT. The list goes on.
Atonement theories
It is true that any number of Scriptures can be cited that, at first glance, speak of salvation
in other terms. We are saved because God chose to save us (Eph 1:3-8). We are saved
because God in his mercy, knowing that we had no power to save ourselves, gave us the
empowering Spirit (1 John 4:13). We can only be saved if God graciously gives us the
faith to trust him (Eph 2:8-9). We are saved because God is building his spiritual house
with us as the building blocks (1 Pet 2:4-5). Christ rose from the dead (Matt 28:8-10) and
promises that those who believe in him will also experience resurrection life (Gal 2:20).
These assertions can indeed be read out of these texts, and some would love to define
salvation only in such terms. But if they do, they fail to take into account the whole thrust

J. Denney Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
e.g. James Cone, God of the Oppressed, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997; Joanne Carlson Brown and Carol
R. Bohn (eds), Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989.
Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and
Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and
Punishment. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. This particular take on atonement has resonated with a
number of other writers.
R. Larry Shelton, Cross and Covenant: Interpreting the Atonement for 21st Century Mission. Tyrone, GA:
Paternoster, 2006.
of the Scriptures. Every one of the above texts contain either implicit of explicit
references to the cross in their contexts.
Others think it best to focus on alternative theories of atonement. Broadly speaking,
theories of atonement may be categorised under three main types: Christus victor, moral
influence, and substitutionary atonement.9 Christus victor focuses on the resurrection
which, according to Gustaf Aulén, demonstrates Christ’s power over death and the evil
one.10 Oversimplifying it for the sake of space, the application is that when we put our
faith in Jesus Christ, his resurrection life becomes our life, and we can live victoriously.
Heb 2:14 is one of many supporting texts. There is no problem in conceding that this is
an important corollary to substitutionary atonement. The problem is that Aulén is
attempting to make the corollary the theory, when the corollary must disappear if the
theory is abandoned.
The moral example viewpoint, expressed in Christian literature first by Peter Abelard in
the 12th century, says that Jesus showed his incredible love by being willing to die for us.
When we realise the extent of Christ’s love, we are moved to put our faith in him because
of the great example he set. 1 John 4:7-12 is cited in support, and the lovely hymn “When
I survey the wondrous cross” expresses it so well. But if the moral example theory does
away with substitution, it has a fatal flaw, and it is simple to illustrate. If I see my
beloved wife drowning in a flooded river and plunge in to rescue her, and if as a result
she lives but I die, then I have made an heroic sacrifice. But if my wife is safely on the
bank and I plunge in to show her how much I love her and die in the process, my sacrifice
is silly and pointless. Similarly if we are in no danger from the wrath of God, and if
Christ’s death only shows his love in an effort to get us to love him in return, his death
makes no sense. Roger Nicole is surely right when he describes substitutionary
atonement as the linchpin that holds together everything else the NT says about the death
of Christ.11 Christus victor and Moral Influence have no substance apart from their links
to Penal Substitution.

Why we need substitutionary atonement
All of the objectors cited above have come up with new ways of viewing the significance
of the cross. Some of their ideas are plausible, and some have insights that are worth
considering and exploring further. All of them have their reasons for repudiating penal
substitution, but in every case it seems to me that they have either distorted or not come
to grips with why we need substitutionary atonement and why there is no alternative.
We need substitutionary atonement because of the wrath of God
If the Bible is to be our authority on atonement, then we must accept that God’s attitudes
and actions concerning sin come under the rubric of “wrath.” As the late Leon Morris
explains, divine wrath “is no capricious passion, but the stern reaction of the divine
nature towards evil. It is aroused only and inevitably by sin.” 12 The word does not require
There are many subtypes, as outlined by Roger Nicole in “Postscript on Penal Substitution” in Charles E.
Hill and Frank A. James III (eds), The Glory of the Atonement, Downers Grove, IVP, 2004, pp. 445-452.
Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, tr.
A. G. Herbert. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003. Originally published in 1931.
Nicole, “Postcript”, p. 451.
Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd edn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, p. 150.
us to have images of God exploding in anger, but it embodies God’s deliberate and
determined opposition to sin, since it is an affront to his holiness and a blight on his
creation. It also results in him taking punitive action against those who commit sin. God
is longsuffering, and his grace restrains his hand even as his wrath hangs over the
unrighteous. But it is a grave mistake to minimise either divine wrath’s place in the
biblical record, or its consequences. The time inevitably comes when God moves to be
appeased of sin, and sinners have only two alternatives: to accept Jesus Christ as Lord
and Saviour, so that through baptism his death becomes their death (Rom 6:1-7), or to
suffer the eternal consequences in themselves (John 3:36).
Morris first came to prominence as a biblical scholar and theologian when he wrote an
important paper refuting the findings of the great Welsh scholar C. H. Dodd in his study
on the Greek word hilasterion. Dodd had concluded that this Septuagint translation of the
Hebrew word kpr did not mean appeasement but reparation. The corollary was that when
the word appears in Rom 3:25 it does not indicate that Jesus appeased God’s wrath, but
that he paid reparation for human sin. Morris carefully examined the word afresh in all of
its contexts, and demonstrated that in the vast number of cases where kpr was applied to
temple sacrifices, the notion of the wrath of God was either a stated or implied
background issue. He concluded that Rom 3:25 should carry that idea in whatever way it
is translated, the word “propitiation” being therefore appropriate.13 Modern translations
tend to dodge the controversy by translating hilasterion at Rom 3:25, “Whom God set
forth as a sacrifice of atonement through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (so
TNIV, NRSV etc.) But the preceding context, all the way from Rom 1:18 to 3:20, is
about God’s wrath, and Paul continues to refer to it in later chapters (4:15; 5:9; 9:22;
12:19).14 The wrath of God is unquestionably a difficult concept, but no biblical scholar
should pretend that it does not exist.
We need substitutionary atonement because a debt must be paid
Implicit in a number of objections to penal substitution is the notion that demanding
penalties is somehow beneath the character of a gracious and loving God. Human society
may require penalties, justifying them as an attempt to reform a wrongdoer, and the threat
of penalties may be justified as providing deterrence to would-be offenders. But does
God demand penalties for those reasons? We may certainly agree with the opponents of
penal substitution, that if those are the reasons, they make little sense because they
succeed all too rarely on both counts. But they are not the only reasons. The main reason
as Morris points out, is that a sinful action puts the sinner in debt to the victim, whether
God or mortal person, and some way must be found to repay it.15
There is no credible way to dismiss what Morris says here, and society generally seems to
agree. A man I know whose life had changed completely through conversion, felt it his
duty to confess to a robbery committed with a gun ten years earlier. In spite of the fact
that he went to the police voluntarily, and in spite of the best efforts of his lawyer, this

“Propitiation” is an obsolete English word meaning “appeasement,” i.e. an act that causes an angry
person to cease from their anger.
This does not mean that the alternative the RSV originally used, “expiation,” is inappropriate in any
context. Morris also pointed out consistently that sin must be paid for, which is what expiation means, and
it is an entirely acceptable translation where the repayment of a debt is implied.
Leon Morris, Glory in the Cross. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979, pp. 39-44.
now upright citizen was sent to jail. His confession and his good citizenship were taken
into account in the term set, but this was not enough. In the judge’s eyes, society’s
disapproval had to be reinforced by the payment of a penalty, but in terms of either
rehabilitation or deterrence the sentence was meaningless. In fact, if it had any deterrent
effect, it was probably to dissuade anyone else from confessing to a similar crime.
Penalties are therefore less than useful when it comes to rehabilitation or deterrence, and
we should all admit this. So, if we are to insist on penal substitution, what is the point of
the penalty? Simply that there is no other way for the moral debt incurred by an evil
action to be repaid. It is no coincidence that Jesus uses the word for debt to mean sin in
the Lord’s Prayer and the comments that followed (Matt 6:9-15). It is also used in the
parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:21-35). And if it be argued that the king
simply forgave, it must also be considered that in the process he lost 10,000 talents, a vast
fortune. That is not the point of the parable, but it is definitely an implication. Penal
substitution does not say that an unfortunate man paid the debt we all owe God, but that
God himself provided a way of paying our debt, through his beloved Son Jesus. The
implication is that God fulfils the requirements, not only of his divine law, but of the kind
of justice most ordinary folk can understand. When it comes to sin, someone has to pay,
and since we can not pay it ourselves it is God himself who pays. To change the
metaphor slightly, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself…” (2 Cor
We need substitutionary atonement because God’s law demands it
It is not denied that the cross is about much more than salvation in its narrow sense of
providing an escape from punishment. John Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ portrays a
breathtaking panorama of our salvation, rather like a Holman Hunt landscape, with as
much attention to the detail as to the vista. The cross means a vast number of things. All
the more reason then to say that if the cross is taken out, all we have is “God with us,” a
glorious idea in itself, but one that does not address the problem of sin if our guilt in
terms of the law is not dealt with.
If the holy God is with us in the person of Jesus Christ, then our fallenness and sinfulness
are only all the more apparent. His compassion for us in our sinful state is demonstrated
over and over again in the Gospels, but his compassion does not exonerate us from
judgment. The story of the woman caught in adultery illustrates this (John 7:53-8:11).
Jesus said nothing to contradict the law of Moses, nor did he forbid the woman’s accusers
of carrying out its sanctions. Quite the opposite. He accepted that its deadly requirement
should be met, but made a single proviso: that the one without sin should throw the first
stone (John 8:7). There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus ever suspended the
judgment of God on sinners. Rather he taught about hell more than anyone else in the
entire Bible, and warned that only those with a righteousness greater than that of the
scribes and Pharisees are fit for the kingdom (Matt 5:20).
Occasionally we come across theologians and biblical scholars who seriously
underestimate Paul’s valuation of the Law. This is too large a topic to cover here, but as
far as Paul is concerned, God’s Law applies to both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 2:9), and its
requirements must be carried out. But this is the glory of the Gospel: Jesus Christ has
died for the powerless, for the ungodly, for the sinner, indeed, for God’s enemies (Rom
5:6-11), in fulfilment of God’s Law. Or as he puts it in Gal 3:13, “Christ has redeemed us
from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is
everyone who is hung on a pole’.” Only through the cross is God’s Law fulfilled.

The atonement is God’s work
It is true that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and specifically of penal
substitution, can be made to look quite silly. For example, it is not justice for an innocent
party to die in the place of a guilty party – in fact that is the epitome of injustice. Neither
does it make any sense to suggest that God’s wrath towards sinners is appeased by those
sinners killing his son. But both of those objections betray the lack of a truly trinitarian
understanding of God, of salvation, and of Jesus Christ himself. The cross is God’s work,
done by God for God, because his nature as God required it. For our part, we must see sin
in the serious way that God sees it, we must accept that only God can deal with it, and we
must therefore bow the knee to Jesus Christ who “died and lived again, so that he could
be the Lord of the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9, NRSV).
The cross, that horrific execution device dreamt up by reprobate human minds, has
become the symbol of the most beautiful thing that ever happened. Paul came to regard
the cross of Jesus Christ as the only thing ever worth boasting about (Gal 6:14). Brothers
and sisters, so should we.