Atonement Wars – Part 2

(December 2010/January 2011 – Volume 16, Issue 6)

In Part one of “The Atonement Wars” a number of atonement theories having found favor at various points in church history were explained.  These included the moral influence theory, Christus Victor and the Ransom to Satan theory.  While I reject the last of these theories, the other two have biblical backing and thus fill out our understanding of why Christ went to the cross.  However, I believe the central teaching of Scripture in regard to Christ’s cross-work is best defined as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).  It is PSA that is facing resistance from many who would be happy to embrace the cross as a moral example of love or a victory over the forces of evil.  Yet the Bible teaches that while Christ’s death was a great example and resulted in the defeat of evil forces, more importantly His death was necessary in order that our sins might be forgiven and we be reconciled to God.

Definitions and Challenges:

Wayne Grudem provides this helpful definition,

Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died.  His death was also a “substitution” in that he was a substitute for us when he died.  This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment for the penalty for sin.[1]

Millard Erickson says it plainly, “The idea that Christ’s death is a sacrifice offered in payment of the penalty for our sins [sic].  It is accepted by the Father as satisfaction in place of the penalty due to us.”[2] Erickson further refines the doctrine, “By offering himself as a sacrifice, by substituting himself for us, actually bearing the punishment that should have been ours, Jesus appeased the Father and effected a reconciliation between God and Man.” [3]

A helpful article written by Mark Dever explains that PSA has come under attack in modern times for a number of supposed reasons such as: it is a medieval doctrine not found in Scripture; it is irrelevant and does not make sense to modern cultures because it glorifies abusive behavior; it is too individualistic, focusing on individual guilt and forgiveness while ignoring the bigger issues of social justice; and it is too violent, requiring of God a violence for redemption that He would condemn in humans.[4]  This final criticism of PSA has received much attention of late because of some blunt and shocking statements from a few claiming credentials in evangelicalism. For example, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Barker recently wrote Recovering the Scandal of the Cross in which they reject any notion of divine wrath besides that of allowing people to go their own way.  “The Scriptures as a whole provide no ground for a portrait of an angry God needing to be appeased in atoning sacrifice,” they say.  PSA, therefore, is rejected as ridiculous, and as apparent proof Green and Barker cite a boy in Sunday school who said, “Jesus I like, but the Father seems pretty mean… Why is God so angry?”[5]  In similar fashion Brian McLaren places the following words in the mouth of the main character in his fictional works, “If God wants to forgive us, why doesn’t he just do it?  How does punishing an innocent person make things better?  That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation.  It sounds like divine child abuse.  You know?”[6]

Old Testament Support for Penal Substitutionary Atonement

While PSA of Christ comes into focus in the New Testament scriptures the Old Testament clearly points to this truth through at least four means.

  • The Passover at the time of the Exodus provided a glorious picture of what would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ (Ex 12:3-13).  Just as a lamb would be killed and its blood applied to the entry way of Jewish homes in order that the inhabitants of those homes would be spared physically, so the Lamb of God would shed His blood so that we would be spared spiritually and given eternal life.
  • On the Jewish Day of Atonement the lives of two goats would be substituted for the sins of the people.  One goat was sacrificed and slain on the altar; the other, the scapegoat, would symbolically take away the sins of the people as it was released into the wilderness (Lev 16).  So Christ would not only die for our sins but take them away as well. 
  • The direct prophecy of Isaiah foretelling the fact of Christ dying for us, in our place, and is stated nine times (Isa 53: 4-6, 8, 11-12).
  • Finally, PSA is clearly depicted in the whole sacrificial system in which animals were sacrificed as substitutes for men and women who deserved death because of sin.

New Testament Support for Penal Substitutionary Atonement

While the Old Testament sacrificial system provided marvelous shadows and symbols of the work of Christ, they were incapable of covering man’s sin, for it was “impossible for the blood of bull and goats to take away sin” (Heb 10:1-4).  True atonement would necessitate a greater sacrifice, a more acceptable substitute than anything known previously.  It would take the substitutionary death of the Son of God to fully expiate sin. While the sins of Old Testament saints were truly taken away and forgiven prior to the Cross, such was made possible only on the basis of what would ultimately happen at the Cross.  All the Old Testament ceremonies pointed to the One who could provide salvation by meeting the righteous demands of a holy God.  Animals could not meet those demands, nor could man do anything to satisfy God’s justice – only the Son could do so.  We need to take a look at what the New Testament actually teaches at this point.

As Our Substitute

We will begin by surveying some of the New Testament references that speak of Christ dying as our substitute. 2 Corinthians 5:21 heads the list: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  Some have termed this “The Great Exchange” as the Sinless One took our sin upon Himself and gave us the righteousness of God.  The implication is that this spiritual transaction is made possible only through the sacrifice of Christ.  I Peter 2:24 adds detail, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”  Christ then became sin on our behalf (i.e. in our place) at the Cross, for it is there that He bore our sin in His body.  He did so to free us from sin and bring us righteousness, but our healing was made possible only because of His wounds.  I Peter 3:18 reiterates the same thought by saying, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God…” In Roman 5:8 Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Christ death was “for us.”  His death accomplished what nothing else could.  Jesus Himself speaks of penal substitution when He states that He came “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  And John the Baptist declared Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

One of our best hymn writers, Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) expressed it well,

‘Twas I that shed the sacred blood;
   I nailed him to the tree;
I crucified the Christ of God;
    I joined the mockery.

Of all that shouting multitude
   I feel that I am one;
And in that din of voices rude
   I recognize my own.

Around the cross the throng I see,
   Mocking the Sufferer’s groan;
Yet still my voice it seems to be,
   As if I mocked alone.[7]


While the Christus Victor and moral influence views of the atonement have biblical validity, neither adequately handles the Godward side of the atonement issues.  That Christ died to set us free from the bondage of sin, death and Satan, and that He died to provide for us an example of perfect love, explains important facets of Christ’s death.  However neither of these views, or any others except PSA, address why the death of Christ was necessary from the perspective of God Himself.  Yet Scripture teaches that God is righteously angry at sin and therefore His wrath and judgment is being, and will eternally be, poured out on sinners who have not had their sins cleansed and forgiven.  At issue is the fact that God is just in His judgment of sinners and, being holy God, cannot ignore our sin and accept us as we are.  Something must take place that satisfies the righteous anger of God.  That something is termed propitiation in the Scriptures.  At the Cross Christ took upon Himself the righteous wrath of God that sinners deserve in order that He might appease the anger of God against sin and sinners.

Propitiation is foreign to the minds of modern people and often confused with pagan concepts.  Pagans, both of biblical times and today, see propitiation as an act of man to keep vengeful and mean-spirited deities off their backs.  These deities are often seen as anything but holy.  As a matter of fact, they are viewed as super-sinners out for themselves.  To keep them happy, or to secure their favor, pagans will sacrifice something of great value to them personally.  The Hollywood picture of tossing a virgin into a volcano to please the gods and thus obtain victory in battle or to produce rain is one that comes readily to mind of many. 

To speak of the true God as needing this pagan kind of sacrifice is offensive to God and perplexing to us.  Therefore it is important to understand that biblical propitiation differs in at least two ways.  In pagan sacrifice man is doing something to please the gods, in Christ’s sacrifice God has done something to satisfy His own righteousness. In pagan propitiation an evil, spiteful deity demands that his unholy appetites be met, while in Christ’s death the holiness of God is at stake.  At issue with God is how can He who is infinitely holy accept people who are deeply corrupt and sinful?  Something must take place to enable God to be Holy and at the same time accepting of sinners.  At Christ’s death the holy nature of God was satisfied in order that sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ could be received by Him.

Still propitiation is difficult to swallow for many, which might explain why many modern English translations have replaced “propitiation” with such terms as “expiation” or “atoning sacrifice,” even though the proper translation for the Greek word hilasmos is unquestionably “propitiation.”  Rightly understood however, the concept of propitiation gives the salvation process the fullness it deserves.  Taking a look at a few terms will be helpful:

Expiation: Expiation is a fancy term that means that God has taken away our sins – they have been removed from us.  Such removal of sin was made possible only through the substitutionary death of Christ.  Isaiah 53:12 prophecies that the Messiah would bear the sins of many.  Christ “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself… having been offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:26, 28), and He has “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev 1:5b).  Expiation is directed at our sin, propitiation is directed at God’s holiness.  Expiation purges us from sin; propitiation satisfies God’s just anger toward the sinner.

Propitiation: J. I Packer writes, “It is a sacrifice that averts wrath through expiating sin, and canceling guilt.”[8]  Through propitiation the divine wrath is averted from us and placed on Christ.  I like the way Thomas Schreiner frames the issue: “Modern people tend to ask, ‘How can God send anyone to hell?’  Paul asks a completely different question because he thinks theocentrically and not anthropocentrically. He asks how can God refrain from punishing people immediately and fully.”[9]

Reconciliation: David Clotfelter provides us with a very useful distinction: “If expiation is the removal of our guilt, and propitiation the removal of God’s wrath, reconciliation is the consequent renewal of relationship between God and us.  Because we are no longer regarded as guilty and are no longer objects of wrath, there is now no barrier to hinder us from coming to God and experiencing peace with him… The death of Jesus has opened the way for God to embrace those from whom He was previously estranged by their sin.”[10]

Redemption: “Propitiation focuses on the wrath of God which was placated by the cross; redemption on the plight of sinners from which they were ransomed by the cross.”[11] James White makes this distinction: “Redemption contemplates our bondage and is the provision of grace to release us from that bondage.  Propitiation contemplates our liability to the wrath of God and is the provision of grace whereby we may be freed from that wrath.”[12]

Justification:  John R. W. Stott has it right when he explains, “Justification will take us into the court of law.  For justification is the opposite of condemnation (e.g. Rom 5:18; 8:34) and both are verdicts of a judge who pronounces the accused either guilty or not guilty… Forgiveness remits our debts and cancels our liability to punishment; justification bestows on us a righteous standing before God.”[13]

Other New Testament Scriptures examined

Romans 3:21-26 is one of the key passages addressing the atonement issues.  In the excellent book Pierced for Our Transgressions, the authors offer this interpretation which is faithful to the context and direction Paul has taken his readers,

All people are sinners, whether Jew or Gentile, but all may be justified through faith in Jesus.  For God, who in the past had left his people’s sin unpunished, has now demonstrated his justice by punishing their sin in Christ. He was set forth as…a propitiation, (v. 25) turning aside God’s wrath by suffering it himself in the place of his people.[14]

In the flow of Paul’s argument he has used most of the first three chapters of Romans to demonstrate the condemnation that mankind is under because of sin. Perhaps the key verse has been 1:18 wherein we find that God’s wrath is poured out against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.  As Paul brings this section of his great epistle to a close he shows the hopeless condition of sinful humanity by telling us that even the Law of God was unable to purify us from sin, for the Law was only able to reveal sin and thereby condemn us and hold us accountable before a holy God (3:19-20).  It would take something even greater than the Law to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and redeem us from its power.  It would take something that could allow God to both justify unworthy sinners and at the same time maintain the justice and holiness of God (v. 26).  Only the sacrifice of the Son of God could do both.  Christ died in our stead, taking upon Himself the full wrath of God that we deserved.  God’s sentence against sin was fully carried out on Christ so that we might be redeemed. In verses 24-25b we read, “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith…”  This is the doctrine of penal substitution.

Thomas Schreiner argues that Galatians 3:10-14 plows much the same ground. In verse ten Paul writes, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse.” “How is such a curse removed?” Schreiner asks?  “Not by Christ’s good example.  Not merely by Christ defeating demonic powers.  Not merely by God healing our damaged souls.  Galatians 3:13 answers the question posed: “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.’ The curse we deserved was borne by Christ.’”[15]

Galatians 1:4 reads, “Who [speaking of Christ] gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age…”  Christ voluntarily died for our sins in order to rescue us.  Nothing but the great sacrifice could set us free.

In Hebrews 2:17 we find this affirmation of PSA, “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”  Christ’s high priestly ministry directly targets the need for our sins to be propitiated.  Under the Old Testament system the Jewish high priest would sacrifice animals to atone for the sins of people and temporarily appease the wrath of God against those sins.  But final removal of those sins, as well as ours, would await the perfect sacrifice at the cross.  The difference was not so much in the methodology used as it was in the sacrifice itself.  The weakness in the Mosaic system was that the animals sacrificed were not capable of taking away sin (Heb 10:1-4).  A final, once for all, holy sacrifice was needed to pay for our sins.

The apostle John, while not dealing as intently or directly with the doctrine of substitution, is not hesitant to speak of propitiation.  In 1 John 2:2 he writes, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world.”   Again, in chapter 4 verse 10 we read, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Other passages of note include: Titus 2:14, “Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, jealous for good deeds.”  Ephesians 2:13 says this, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  And few texts are clearer on the subject than Isaiah 53:4-6, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried… But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.  All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

While there is helpful truth to be found in some of the other atonement theories, especially Christus Victor and moral example, the central theme of redemptive theology as found in Scripture is that salvation could be made possible only through a perfect sacrifice that could not only redeem us from sin and declare us justified (righteous) but could also satisfy God’s holy wrath against sin.  While many substitutes have been suggested, such as our own merit by keeping the Law or through the death of animals under the prescribed Old Testament sacrificial system, none of these would do.  Paul, who confessed to trying these other means, gloried in the fact that because of Christ his righteousness was not “of my own, derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9).


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 579.

[2] As cited by Richard Mayhue, “The Scriptural Necessity of Christ’s Penal Substitution,” The Master’s Theological Journal Vol 20 #2 p. 140).

[3] As cited by Michael A. Vlach, “Penal Substitution in Church History,” The Master’s Theological Journal, Vol 20#2 pp. 200-201.


[5] As cited by David Wells, Above all Earthly Pow’rs ( Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2005), p. 219.

[6] Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In ( San Francisco; Jossey-Bass, 2003) p. 102.

[7] “Twas I That Shed the Sacred Blood,” as cited in John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ ( Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 63.

[8] J. I. Packer, Knowing God p. 141.

[9] Thomas Schreiner in The Nature of the Atonement, Four View, edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy ( Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006) p. 88.

[10] Dave Clotfelter, Sinners in the Hands of a Good God, Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy ( Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004) p. 196.

[11] John R. W. Stott, p. 173.

[12] James White, The God Who Justifies, ( Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2001) p. 195.

[13] John R. W. Stott, pp. 179-180.

[14] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution ( Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007) p. 80.

[15] Thomas Schreiner p. 89.


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