Penal Substitutionary Atonement: An Internal Dialogue

Below is an internal dialogue in my own head over the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). For what its worth I think the view can be partially valid, but only to the degree that God is not the Punisher. I wrote a book on the atonement in 2019 and have had a fair amount of positive feedback. I presented a new model that finds the middle ground between Penal Substitution and Christus Victor. I call it Perfectus Liberatio (Perfect Liberation). If you shoot me a message, I will be happy to send you a link where you can get it for only $1. I am now re-editing that book to expand my view into a full-fledged theory. I want to share my own internal debate that made me eventually realize (especially as a missionary) that the view cannot provide clear answers to the most basic questions I have heard on the mission field. Feel free to share how you see things. Shalom, Matt.

THE DIALOGUE BEGINS:

NON-PSA ME: What is the essence of the Penal Substitionary Model?

AFFIRMING PSA: The essence of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model is that God is pouring out His wrath on Jesus, to punish Jesus to death for our sins, and this allows God’s justice to be satisfied or sufficiently re-paid for grace to be extended without God’s justice being compromised.

NON-PSA ME: I agree that Christ suffers the consequential penalty of sin our place—death—and I even believe that can be interpreted as “punishment.” But why assume God is the PUNISHER extracting payment for sins out of Christ’s suffering? I see verses that say God “surrendered Jesus up” to death, or “gave Jesus over” to death.

AFFIRMING PSA: God has to be the Punisher, because God is pouring out all His hatred, indignation and punishing wrath on Jesus as our sin-bearer to pay back His offended justice. Jesus must absorb God’s wrath so we can avert it.

NON-PSA ME: Ok, let’s start there. I’m already lost. What exactly is God doing to Christ in pouring out His punishing wrath? What is Christ absorbing?

AFFIRMING PSA: What is God doing that Christ is absorbing?

NON-PSA ME: Yes, please tell me. Is God inflicting punishment by afflicting Christ with whips and thorns and nails?

AFFIRMING PSA: No, that is the Romans and wicked men.

NON-PSA ME: So what is it? How is God pouring out His wrath? What is the nature of God’s wrath that Jesus is absorbing on our behalf?

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, Jesus is being crucified.

NON-PSA ME: We are back where we started. Is God’s wrath inflicting Jesus with whips, thorns and nails? Does Jesus need to reach a threshold of pain to make the atonement work?

AFFIRMING PSA: Not exactly. I wouldn’t want to say it like that.

NON-PSA ME: So, exactly, what is it?

AFFIRMING PSA: I already said it is God punishing sin. He can’t let sin go unpunished.

NON-PSA ME: Ok, so again, what is God doing to Jesus that Jesus is absorbing as God’s wrath or punishment of sin?

AFFIRMING PSA: He is putting Jesus to death.

NON-PSA ME: Is God directly putting Jesus to death? Is God directly executing or killing Jesus?

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, not directly, but indirectly through others.

NON-PSA ME: So, Jesus is indirectly absorbing God’s wrath through others killing him?

AFFIRMING PSA: Yes.

NON-PSA ME: And this indirect absorption satisfies and pacifies God’s wrath?

AFFIRMING PSA: Yes.

NON-PSA ME: What about the two thieves on either side of Jesus who are also being crucified? Are they satisfying and pacifying God’s wrath for their sins?

AFFIRMING PSA: No, I wouldn’t want to say that.

NON-PSA ME: Why not?

AFFIRMING PSA: Because it is impossible for them to pay back their sin-debt by being crucified for their sins.

NON-PSA ME: But if Jesus is being indirectly crucified by God as punishment for sins, and they are also being crucified, why aren’t they also pacifying God’s wrath in virtue of being crucified like Jesus.

AFIRMING PSA: The difference is they deserved to die. They are truly guilty.

NON-PSA ME: I understand that. But if Jesus is absorbing God’s wrath so that we don’t get what we deserve, but they are actually getting what they deserve, then why doesn’t their deserved crucifixion pacify God’s wrath against them?

AFFIRMING PSA: Because being punished by God’s wrath is more than crucifixion?

NON-PSA ME: We are back where we started. What exactly is the nature of God’s wrath that is being poured out on Jesus?

AFFIRMING PSA: We deserve hell. So, God is pouring hell out on Jesus. Jesus is suffering an eternity of hell in 3 hours on the cross. God is inflicting Jesus with an infinite amount of punishment in hell in 3 hours.

NON-PSA ME: Where does the Bible say anything like you just said?

AFFIRMING PSA: Well—it doesn’t, not exactly or specifically.

NON-PSA ME: Well, I want to stick with exact statements in the Bible, so we can unpack them—especially if you say the core of the gospel is God’s wrath punishing Jesus in my place. I want to know what that means—exactly.

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, the Bible explicitly records that Jesus wondered why God forsook him. Sin separates us from God. Jesus was experiencing separation from God as punishment for sins.

NON-PSA ME: But if Jesus is experiencing separation from God, then how is God pouring out His wrath on Jesus. Wouldn’t that require proximity, not separation?

AFFIRMING PSA: It is a mystery.

NON-PSA ME: Is it mystery because the Bible says it is, or because you can’t find clear evidence for it?

AFFIRMING PSA: Jesus is definitely absorbing God’s wrath because the Bible says Jesus is our propitiation, which means “place of averting wrath.”

NON-PSA ME: Even if the English word “propitiation” is a proper translation of the Greek word “hilasterion” which is translated as mercy seat 28 times in the Greek Septuagint, it would still only mean Jesus’s death for sin averts God’s wrath from us. It would say nothing about Jesus absorbing God’s wrath. How do you go from: “Jesus’s death AVERTS to Jesus ABSORBS?”

AFFIRMING PSA: We have to have Jesus being punished by God for our sins because Jesus takes the penalty—our wages—which is death.

NON-PSA ME: I agree that Jesus takes the penalty of our sins, which is death, but that is the farthest we can take the idea of punishment. But that doesn’t require that God is the Punisher! The Bible says God “handed Jesus” over to death and “delivered Jesus up” to death. It says nothing about personally punishing Jesus or pouring out His wrath.

AFFIRMING PSA: But our sins offended God’s justice and put us in debt to His justice. For God to be just, He needed His justice to be satisfied through re-payment of sins before He could extend us forgiveness. By punishing Jesus for our sins, God justice is paid in full.

NON-PSA ME: So, are you suggesting that God’s grace is reimbursement and God’s forgiveness comes through re-payment?

AFFIRMING PSA: What do you mean?

NON-PSA ME: It sounds like your argument has four connecting points: 1) Our sins put us in debt to God’s justice. 2) God had to first get the judicial “capital” to “fund” a judicial offer of grace to us. 3) God funded that just offer through His justice getting reimbursed, and 4) that reimbursement was acquired by extracting payment for sins out of Jesus’s suffering death.

AFFIRMING PSA: Well, the way you put it makes it sound like a transaction settlement, and not grace.

NON-PSA ME: Where have I gone wrong or misunderstood you?

AFFIRMING PSA: I don’t know if you have, it’s just that it sounds better when I hear it from my R.C. Sproul or John MacArthur.

NON-PSA ME: One last question. If God was extracting satisfaction or re-payment out of Jesus’s sufferings on the cross, were the crucified thieves also paying God back for their own sins?

And around and around we go. These are the questions you get on the mission field (I’ve bee in S.E. Asia for 15 years) from probing minds who are not impressed by fancy, theological words that they can’t even understand anyway. When you have to break it down into simple language, it makes Penal Substitution into Payment Substitution–and that is hard to square with the Bible.

About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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11 Responses to Penal Substitutionary Atonement: An Internal Dialogue

  1. Dana Steele says:

    Hi Matt,
    I enjoyed reading your internal dialogue. I come from a PSA upbringing myself so it is mostly the only theory I know, though I have read brief summaries of other views. I appreciate your missions perspective as you try to break things down into simple language. I also liked your exhortation (to the other you) to focus on “exact statements in the Bible” to support your theory. I took it to heart myself.

    I’m certainly no expert on atonement theories. I haven’t written a book or developed my own custom theory, but for what its worth, it seems to me that theories are by definition merely possible explanations that lack sufficient evidence to be classified as fact. There is nothing wrong with developing theories, in fact they can be quite helpful. The problem is when people forget their theory is just that, a theory, not a fact. Case in point: the “theory of evolution”. Evolutionary scientists no longer consider it a theory even though there remains a lack of scientific evidence to prove it as a fact. Christians can do the same thing when they fall in love with their theories. I’m not saying you have done that, just offering my two cents worth of perspective in the discussion.

    I think atonement theories are important tools for addressing objections in apologetics. If confusion about the mechanics of how Christ’s death relate to our salvation are keeping some from embracing Christ, then an atonement theory might be a tool God uses to bridge that gap. I’m glad you are thinking practically how this impacts your presentation of the gospel on the mission field. I’m praying right now that the Lord uses this to enable you to reach more lost souls for Christ.

    I suspect that most (if not all) of the predominant atonement theories have some element of truth in them, some Scriptural grounding. There is certainly a sense in which Christ’s atonement conquered death and the grave (Christus Victor). Even the ransom theory (which I find highly problematic) is wrestling with the sense in which Christ gave his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:L45). I am not aware of an atonement theory superior to PSA but I wouldn’t say it is a fact. If you send me the link to your book I may check it out.

    I’ve grown weary over the years of playing the mystery card to often but certainly there is an element of mystery in the atonement. For many Christians, particularly young believers, they may be content to accept by faith that Christ died for them and that because he did, they can be saved. In children’s ministry I don’t get too deep into these weeds, but children, particularly older children, are capable of deep thought and can sometimes surprise us with their questions about the how and why of salvation. Often I find a few confident responses as you offered the other you, are enough to quiet a child’s inquiries. But as you push back in your internal dialogue and ask for clarification, it reminds me that while an incomplete answer might avoid the crisis of a tough question in the moment, it may not best serve the sincere inquirer. So you’ve got me thinking, which I think is a good thing. Thanks brother!

    In Christ, Dana

    • StriderMTB says:

      Hi Dana, thanks for your very good thoughts and well-articulated comment. I am happy to give you the link to my book (only 100 pages). It begins with a parable story to set the stage for how both discipleship and the atonement ought to be seen through the lens of spiritual warfare. I am re-edited my book now to make it more robust in some areas. Since I have developed what I believe to be a unique, mediating view between Penal Substitution and Christus Victory, I feel this second edition needs to defend its uniqueness more. The main thesis of my view (Perfectus Liberatio) is that SIN itself is treated as a personified enemy that must be condemned in the perfection of Christ’s sinless humanity and obedience. Moreover, Christ’s sinless state of perfect obedience had to be tested to the max on the cross. I make this argument in my book, but I recently added the section below (that is not in my current edition, and I don’t have a date yet for the launch of the second edition). The section below will defend my view that sin is indeed being personified by Paul and that is why in Romans 8:3 to speak of “God condemning sin IN the humanity of Christ” is not the same thing as saying God condemned Christ. Paul is treating sin as personified defendant in order to condemn sin itself. Below is how I arrive at that idea:

      [….However, as we steadily move forward, it will become clearer to you that in order for God to decisively deal with sin, once and for all, God must prosecute and condemn sin as a personified defendant in the courtroom of His justice. In saying this, it may sound like I am making sin out to be a living person. I want to repeat that sin is not a person, but there is no denying that the Bible attaches personal, human attributes to sin in order to describe its mysterious, sinister nature.

      Recall what we already learned above. The first time the Hebrew word for sin is introduced to us in the Bible, it is not only characterized as a crouching beast that is ready to devour Cain, but it is also personified as having a human-like desire for Cain’s life in order to rule over him.

      Later when the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, God warns them not to commit the same sexual sins of the Canaanites before them. He metaphorically speaks of Canaanite sexual sin as a defiling, foreign poison entering a stomach that the land must “vomit out” (Leviticus 18:25). But of course, it was the Canaanite people themselves that were “vomited out” of the land. The point of God’s warning was that the Canaanites had become so identified with sexual sin, that to speak of one was to speak of the other.

      The use of metaphor and personification to describe sin is most readily seen in the New Testament. For instance, sin is personified as a human that is born and grows up and then, like a pregnant woman, gives birth to death (James 1:15). Out of all biblical writers, Paul personified sin the most. In four chapters, Romans 5-8, we see numerous examples.

      He describes sin in a manner that brings to mind an invading king that has reigned since the time of Adam (Romans 5:14, 21). Sin is like an oppressive ruler that reigns and rules in our bodies and wants us to obey its desires (Romans 6:12). In the next verse, Paul personifies sin as a military recruiter seeking to recruit our body parts as weapons for unrighteousness (Romans 6:13). Sin is also likened to a paymaster that pays out the wages of death (Romans 6:23) and a slave-master that we are sold to (Romans 7:14) and enslaved under (Romans 6:16).

      Building off these images, Paul goes on to describe sin as springing to life (Romans 7:10) and seizing opportunities to first be his deceiver and then his executioner that puts him to death (Romans 7:11). Paul goes so far as to personify sin as an indwelling power that robs him of his own self-agency by doing acts of evil through him (Roman 7:20). Paul speaks of this alien power living within him as having the ability to wage war against him, like a warlord, and hold him imprisoned under its law a jailer (Romans 7:23-25). But then, only a few short sentences later, Paul will adopt courtroom language to speak of sin as a defendant that God condemns (Romans 8:3).

      That last verse is key to understanding Paul’s theology about the death of Christ, and we will examine it in greater detail soon. Paul’s aim is to direct our attention to all these personified images of sin because he wants us to view God’s final condemnation of sin through the lens of personification. That is to say he wants us to know that on the cross God condemned sin itself as if it was a foreign agent whose reign and rule over human hearts (Romans 6:12) was finally brought under God’s judgment. Thus, it is more theologically accurate to see God’s activity as judicially bringing an end to sin through Christ, rather than judicially bringing an end to Christ because of sin (i.e., punishing Him to death).

      As has already been noted, the basic meaning of “condemn” is to be judicially declared to be “in the wrong.” Because we are all sinners, our sin has put us “in the wrong” and therefore deserving of just condemnation. But God does not want to give us what we deserve; He wants to give us grace. Indeed, we are expressly told that God did not want to condemn the world but save the world through His Son (John 3:17).

      God accomplished this great act by bringing sin under His condemnation instead of you and me. What this means is that God judicially declared the sin of the world to be “in the wrong” in the righteous life of the world’s sin-bearer, Jesus. The first time you hear this idea, it may sound strange. And yet this is the central act that is occurring on the cross that allows God to “transfer us out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13).

      To repeat the point above more basically, in order for God to redeem sinners from sin’s condemning enslavement, sin itself needed to be condemned as being “in the wrong” and sinners needed to be put “in the right.” Scripture’s announcement that God put us “in the right” (declared righteous) through Christ (Romans 3:26) is not just an abstract theological truth; it is our only means of being liberated from sin’s condemnation.]

      Dana, here is the link to the current edition. It is only $1 for a kindle version. God bless!

      https://www.amazon.com/FALL-REDEMPTION-SHADOWMERE-COMMENTARY-DISCIPLESHIP/dp/1733376518/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=The+fall+and+redemption+of+shadowmere&qid=1628146894&sr=8-1

      • Dana says:

        Thanks Matt. I will check it out and let you know what I think. One quick thought that comes to mind is Isaiah 53:10 – God was pleased to wound Christ and make his soul an offering for sin. Christ’s death is the antitype of OT sacrifice. God killed his son just as Abraham had already done in his heart with Isaac before God intervened with a substitute ram, which foreshadowed Christ’s substitutionary role.

        But just as it can be said in one sense that God is an agent in bringing about the death of his son, in another sense we see this is only indirect through permission granted to the free agency of sinful men. He was delivered up (Acts 2:23). He was handed over (Luke 24:7).

        Personifying death as the true object of God’s wrath rather than Christ himself helps to insulate God from getting his hands dirty but doesn’t indirect causation through permission do the same?

      • StriderMTB says:

        Thanks for the follow-up, Dana. More good remarks for me to interact with 🙂 FYI you suggested that I was saying Paul was “personifying death as the true object of God’s wrath.” While I do think Paul does personify death too, his main emphasis is to personify sin in Romans 5-8 in almost a dozen ways to set the reader up for God’s plan to end sin’s reign and rule (another personification of sin as a ruling king). Namely, Paul personifies sin one last time as a defendant God condemns in Romans 8:3. But Paul is very careful how he says it. He does not say God condemned the Son (as guilty, etc). He says, “God condemned sin… in the flesh/humanity of the Son…” To condemn sin itself is an odd idea, but remember Paul has been personifying sin in odd ways throughout the past few chapters (paymaster, enslaver, ruler, jailer, executioner, etc) Keep in mind, God’s wrath is not a divine outburst of anger, but God’s morally perfection nature judging everything that falls short of that nature-i.e. sin. This is not the Son. But this idea is in line with sin being the target of God’s wrath and condemnation. To condemn anything is to judicially declare it to be “in the wrong.” But how can God declare sin to be “in the wrong” in a world of sinners who have given it every right to be in them? Certainly, God could not condemn sin to be “in the wrong” in my life? For, I have given sin a passport of citizenship to my life. To condemn sin in my life would be to condemn me too! But that is what God wants to avoid. God sent His Son into the world to save the world, not condemn it.

        So, God needed a sinless human, someone who would be tested in all points, yet remain without sin. Such a sin-bearer can then absorb the totality of sin in such a way that sin cannot justify its presence in that sin-bearer (i.e., cannot find fault). If sin can find no place to condemn the God-man as being disobedient or wrong, then God can now turn the tables on sin and judicially–through His moral wrath–condemn sin to be “in the wrong” in the sinless life of His sin-bearer. The sin-full-ness of sin is judicially undone by the sin-less-ness of Christ.

        It is clunky analogy, but like pouring bacteria into bleach, the defiling nature of bacteria undone in the purity of the bleach. The bacteria doesn’t infect the bleach, the bleach kills the bacteria! The Bible repeatedly emphasizes that Christ is the pure, holy, sinless and spotless Lamb, and remained in that state even on the cross. Only He could absorb the sin of the world “once for all” and not be condemned, corrupted or infected by sin. Only He could destroy its power by allowing God’s wrath to not only transfer it but judicially declare it to be “in the wrong” in His righteous humanity. Of course there is a lot more to say, but I find no evidence that the Son is the object of God’s wrath, or that He is in any way being judicially condemned as “in the wrong” for us to be put “in the right.” To the contrary, we are declared to be “in the right” in Christ because His righteousness was the means by which our sins were judicially condemned “once and for all.”

        Now none of this means that Christ is not taking on the consequences of sin laid out in Eden–i.e., death. He certainly is, and we can view that as penalty/punishment, but God is not the PUNISHER in that scenario. God is not executing Jesus as “payment” to Himself, or trying to extract reimbursement out of Christ’s sufferings to “pay back” His offended justice and “fund” grace. Isaiah 53 is about sacrifice, and the “pleasure” is grounded in its result. God is not deriving pleasure through execution. God’s pleasure is knowing redemption is on the other side of sacrifice. God and the Son are agreed as to the pleasure of their combined will to redeem a much loved people through dual acts of sacrifice. The Father gives His Son and the Son gives His life. Both are sacrificing, both are paying, neither are “paid.”

        In the way PSA is often preached/explained it interprets Isaiah 53 as an execution. But it is not execution; it is sacrifice. There is a big difference. As you note God is “handing over” and “giving up” up His Son to death and the Son is laying down His life. If terrorists were to hold a mother and 3 daughters hostage, and the father and son came up with a plan wherein the son substitutes his life in exchange for his mother and sisters (knowing it will cost his life) would you think the father was indirectly executing his son? I think to assume such would be to take the heart out of the sacrifice. I think PSA does this by going one step too far and saying God was the Punisher extracting payment out of Christ’s sufferings.

  2. Dana Steele says:

    Sorry I misquoted you. I was responding fast on my phone and mistakenly substituted “death” for “sin”. Thanks for correcting me. 🙂

    I agree God’s pleasure in Isaiah 53 is grounded in the redemptive results of wounding His Son, not the wounding itself. My point was that God didn’t personally wound His Son – only indirectly through permitting the free agency of sinful men. So there is no need to save God from the uncomfortable concept of punishing His Son since He is already insulated through indirect causation.

    But reading that last sentence I realize that I have made an unfair assumption that your motivation is discomfort and a desire to save God from unpleasant association as a punisher. I can see that you are just wrestling with the biblical data trying to make sense of what the text says. As you note, Paul is careful to say God condemns sin rather than His Son.

    Is it fair to say your view entails God punishing our sin in Christ and Christ’s death is merely the collateral damage incidental to His main focus which is to punish sin? I intentional worded that with strong language to point out how it could be perceived.

    Also, how does your view understand the provisional nature of the atonement? Does God actually destroy our sin in Christ or just provide a judicially acceptable payment in escrow that is available to be drawn upon by faith?

    What is your understanding of payment? If God does not pay Himself, who is he paying?

    One more: Gal. 3:13 – Christ was made a curse for us. The text does not say God cursed His Son, but the curse is grounded in God’s Word which previously declared that any who hang on a tree would be cursed. Cursed by whom? It must be God who curses, no?

    Perhaps we can be cursed by association. Hanging on a tree is associated with a curse so Christ took on that reputation and association. Thus God did not curse His Son but rather established the principle that any who associate with this symbol of curse are thus treated as cursed themselves. The principle of association is also seen in our blessings in Christ. We enjoy the benefits of Christ’s election, righteousness, inheritance, ect., by virtue of the fact that we are associated with Him, united in faith union with Christ.

    Perhaps it was the sinful men who hung him on that tree who made him a curse. But again, we see God’s indirect causation through permission of free agent choice. Indirectly, God made His Son a curse by handing him over to sinful men who He knew wanted to likewise make Him a curse by hanging Him on a tree, and so God allowed it because it served His good plan and intention for redemption.

    Relating this to your argument, could I not say that God indirectly punished His Son by indirectly wounding Him and making Him a curse through permission of the free agency of sinful men? I think you are correct to note a distinction between God punishing His Son and punishing sin. But is it sufficient to say that the punishment of His Son is indirect, while the punishment of sin is direct?

    Maybe you covered these questions in your book so feel free to say as Roger Olson told me once, “read my book.” 🙂

    OK, one more thought. Your view reminds me of other atonement theories I have read about where God traps sin by inviting him into the body of the sinless Christ and is thus finally able to condemn sin where He could not previously because sin was justified in the body of a sinner. Thus Christ becomes the bait for sin and tricks the devil into aiding his own demise along with sin itself and death, etc. So there are elements of Christus Victor as well.

    Thanks for engaging me in this discussion. I hope it helps us both to proclaim more faithfully Christ’s death until He comes. Even so come quickly Lord Jesus!

    • StriderMTB says:

      Hi Dana, sorry for the delay. Right now, I am actually in a strict quarantine in a hotel in Thailand. I crossed over from Cambodia recently, and I am required to stay completely isolated as a precaution for 16 nights. My food is brought to me by people in hazmats suits, lol, and I can’t open up my door to step outside for even a minute. I am in my 14th day and not being able to feel the sun or walk more than a few feet in one direction is starting to have an effect on my thinking, ha.

      The questions you ask are good, and I will lay out my view in greater detail below (something I was not able to do because of space constraints in my earlier book). First a couple preliminaries. I would not even want to say God is punishing His Son indirectly, unless I am able to unpack that. The way in which Christ is absorbing the penalty of death on our behalf is vicarious, and it can be thought of as punishment, but only to the degree we don’t view God as the Punisher extracting payment out of Christ’s death (indirectly or directly).

      Secondly, do you have a source on the following remark: “Your view reminds me of other atonement theories I have read about where God traps sin by inviting him into the body of the sinless Christ and is thus finally able to condemn sin where He could not previously because sin was justified in the body of a sinner.”

      That does sound similar to my view, but I have not yet seen it in scholarship. But I have not read everything.

      Ok, so here is how I see Christ being cursed (this is in my upcoming edition):

      In 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, Paul will quote two lines from Hosea 13:14 to describe Christ’s ransoming victory over an adversary that took God’s people hostage—Death.

      “Then the saying that is written will take place:
      Death has been swallowed up in victory.
      O Death, where is your victory?
      O Death, where is your sting?” (vs. 54-56).

      Paul then goes a step further than Hosea and unpacks what the sting of Death actually is, saying,

      “Now the sting of death is sin, and
      the power of sin is the law.
      But thanks be to God, who gives us
      the victory
      through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (vs. 57).

      Now this is where things get interesting. Paul’s little explanation of death’s “sting” reveals why the law could prosecute our sin, but not redeem us from sin. Paul figurative language most likely has a deadly scorpion in mind. Death would be the scorpion; the stinging barb is sin, and the poison is the law’s power to prosecute us as deserving death. We needed to be redeemed from all three: sin, death and the law! Knowing this to be the case, Paul will tell the Galatians, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

      Paul is not judging God’s law to be evil; he is saying the law’s curse is that it can deliver a death penalty on those that deserve it. Our sin imprisoned us all in this “deserved” category, but God’s plan of redemption was to give us what we don’t deserve—His grace. This redeeming grace came to us in the form of self-giving love when God surrendered Christ over to sin’s original curse—death—in our place. Although we can interpret this as sin’s penalty, it is exactly here where we must again push against the notion of divine punishment.

      To speak of Christ absorbing the penalty of death in our place, is not about Christ absorbing God’s punishing wrath in our place. The latter idea has to be imported into Scripture. To the extent that advocates of Penal Substitution argue for it, is to the extent they have stretched the view to an unbiblical extreme. Christ’s perspective can re-center us. He did not see His death as His moment to be judged as legally guilty and judicially executed by God (whether directly or indirectly). Quite the opposite. He saw His death as the judgment of a world order that had come under the rule of a dark lord whose dominion reached all the way into death.

      Thus, Christ knew His mission was to draw us into His victory over sin and death, while simultaneously expelling the rule of Satan from our lives. We must return again to Christ’s words in John 12 to see how these two events (our drawing and Satan’s expulsion) coincide. After Jesus spoke of His coming death as God’s glorification and the reason “why I came to this hour” (vs. 27), He declares,

      “‘Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out. As for Me, if I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all [people] to Myself.’ He said this to signify what kind of death He was about to die” (John 12:31-32).

      Let those words sink in because you are to be found there! Jesus interpreted being “lifted up from the earth” on a wooden beam as His exalted enthronement above the earth and Satan’s dethronement! Early on in His ministry, He refused Satan’s “high place” where He was lifted up and offered “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time” (Matthew 4:8 NIV). Now, at the end of His ministry, He chooses kingship through a different high place—a cross.

      Yet, as He was raised up with a crown of thorns, He drew into Himself a fallen humanity under sin’s penalty of death. He did this to free us from sin’s claims upon our life—claims that Satan had gotten his grimy hands on (as the accuser and ruler of a fallen world). We were drawn into Christ’s victory by being drawn into His death. This too is why it is said, we “have been crucified with Christ” and “we died with Christ” (Galatians 2:20; 2 Timothy 2:11). But this was not to be Christ’s end or ours. We were also drawn into His resurrection, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him” (Romans 6:9).

      The sum of the matter is that Christ’s suffering and death was vicarious. That means it was done on behalf of others. And that is exactly why Jesus spoke of his death as a ransom for our redemption. But a ransom paid to God’s wrath? No.

      When viewed through a cultural lens, redemption refers to freedom obtained by payment of ransom. In the Roman era, specifically, redemption often involved a household slave in the Roman era being purchased or ransomed out of their household slavery. Thus, redemption became a biblical metaphor, a helpful image to aid us in understanding our dire predicament. The New Testament informs us that the ransom paid for our redemption was the life of Christ. Christ specifically stated that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many” (Mark 10:46). By borrowing the idea of a ransom payment, Christ interpreted His coming death to be the purchase price for our redemption out of the slave household of death.

      Although prior to the cross, Satan is pictured as “holding the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14), we don’t have to imagine that Christ’s blood was literally offered to Satan as a ransom payment for our redemption. That would be to stretch the metaphor too far.

      It is helpful to recognize that we have been redeemed from a state of being (dead in our sins) rather than a personal being (such as Satan or God).

      • Dana Steele says:

        Sorry to hear about your confinement. It sounds like a metaphor for bondage to sin and redemption we are discussing. Like Charles Wesley’s “And Can it Be” we lay fast bound in sin and natures night until Thine eye diffused a quickening ray. Praise God for your soon deliverance and our deliverance in Christ!

        I’m sorry I can’t recall a source for the similar atonement theory I once heard. If I run across it again I will let you know. To be clear, what I recall reading was how some say God tricked Satan into killing Jesus as a trap to destroy his power by luring him into an unjust punishment. The concept of Jesus as bait is tied to the Ransom theory I believe.
        I do not recall hearing your specific suggestion that God could not condemn sin in us because we gave sin the right to be there. I just meant I saw a connection between those ideas and some of other theories such as Ransom and Victory.

        There is a newer theory called scapegoat, but it is not what we were discussing. But the scapegoat is another biblical metaphor for atonement. It conveys the idea of sin being removed from the camp to restore purity. There are many metaphors for atonement in Scripture. Another interesting one is the Passover Lamb. The blood of the lamb is a covering which identifies the inhabitants of the house as under a covenant of protection. It is not ultimately their obedience that saves them but rather their faith in God that He will uphold His promises. I think the Bible uses many metaphors because no one metaphor is sufficient. That’s why no atonement theory seems adequate either. Your attempt to combine elements from several theories reflects this reality.

        1 Cor. 15:54-56, John 12:31 and Hebrews 2:14 do seem to support a Christus Victor theory. It is curious that 1 Cor. 15:57 describes sin as the sting of death. I would have thought it was the other way around. Death is the sting of sin (cf. Rom. 6:23a). After all it is sin that produces death not death that produces sin. But your personification model does make better sense of the order. If Death is a person who wants to kill us, he needs to first sting us with sin. Your connection to law is also interesting. Where there is no law sin is not taken into account (Rom. 5:13), so the person Death uses the Law which God established for a redemptive purpose and wields it as a weapon to kill us. Fascinating indeed.

        Regarding John 12:32, I know many use this verse to support universal prevenient grace but I see it as more a support of universal atonement. I am thinking based on your usage here that you may agree. It could mean that after Jesus’ death He will “then begin to draw all men to Himself through various gracious means.” But the more natural reading to me is that the death of Christ itself is in some sense an act of drawing all men to Himself in that moment. Does the death of Christ have the residual effect of attracting sinners as an example of love and grace? Perhaps, but I like your idea that Christ was actually drawing sinners to Himself while on the cross in the sense that he was bearing their sins and we are thus crucified and die with Christ in that sense.

        Your suggestion that the term “lifted up” implies Christ taking a high place of glory to reign over the earth is a new one to me. I’ve never heard that before. Doesn’t v. 34 work against that assumption? For the Messiah to be exalted would fit well with the Jewish understanding. Yet the crowd clearly understood the phrase to mean something contrary to understanding that the Messiah would “remain forever.” So it seems the crowd took the phrase the way I have always taken it, referring to a humiliating act. This is why it made no sense to the crowd. V. 33 also ties the phrase to death rather than reigning. To be fair, the crowd focuses more on the phrase “Son of Man” than the “lifted up” but this also suggests they clearly understood that the phrase “lifted up” implied death. So I need more convincing on that one.

        I agree with your use of Ransom without stretching the analogy too far to say the ransom is paid to Satan. That is why I said before all the theories have an element of truth in them but we need to avoid stretching them too far. I appreciate your efforts to stick with what the scripture says. You have given me pause in how I articulate PSA. Perhaps it is better to refer to God as condemning sin rather than punishing Christ or pouring out His wrath on Christ. I also agree with your emphasis on the perfection of Christ as a necessary element of the atonement. I’ve been meditating on those passages in Hebrews lately.

        Do you talk about propitiation in your book? My understanding of the term is that it was used in pagan cultures as an appeasement of the wrath of the gods. Different forms of the Greek word in Rom. 3:25 and 1 John 2:2 are sometimes translated propitiation. Your view seems to allow for the atonement being a satisfaction of God’s wrath as long as it is not wrath toward the Son Himself. God’s wrath is directed toward the sin Jesus bears vicariously for us. Am I understanding you correctly?

        I hope by the time this reaches you, your quarantine is over. Grace and peace,
        Dana

    • StriderMTB says:

      Dana, a couple more things. You asked:

      //Is it fair to say your view entails God punishing our sin in Christ and Christ’s death is merely the collateral damage incidental to His main focus which is to punish sin? I intentional worded that with strong language to point out how it could be perceived.//

      It is better to use the word condemnation than punishment. Condemnation is to judicially declare someone or something to be in the wrong–and that is the focus of Romans 5-8 and God’s condemnation of sin as a personified enslaver-king that has been reigning since Adam. I think what you are really asking is if Christ’s suffering was ultimately irrelevant, unintended collateral damage. I would want to strongly say NO. I am going to paste in another excerpt from my upcoming edition:

      [Concerning this very point, Peter declared that Jesus “entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly… when He Himself bore ours sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 23-24). In saying this, Peter most certainly did not mean that Jesus trusted the Father to justly judge him legally guilty of our sin when He “bore our sins in His body.” Far from it! The heart of the cross is that Jesus is suffering unjustly—”the just for the unjust” is how Peter goes on to speak of Christ’s death (1 Peter 3:18 NKJV).

      Without reservation, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes that it is the unceasing, perfect nature of Christ’s humanity on the cross that saves us.

      “During His earthly life, He offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death… Though He was God’s Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. After He was perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him…” (Hebrews 5:7-9).

      Here the writer of Hebrews speaks of Jesus being perfected in His humanity through perfect obedience to His Father—an obedience that was tested to the point of suffering death. To be sure, Christ’s perfection unto death is what qualified Him to be the “source of eternal salvation” from both sin and death.

      In suggesting this, the writer of Hebrews is actually looking back upon something he wrote three chapters earlier, when he declared, “For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God… should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).

      The point is, we are not meant to conclude that God sentenced His Son to death because He became legally blameworthy of our sins. Instead, the theological idea we are meant to have in our heads is that Christ’s human obedience had to be tested and perfected in all points—even to the point of death—if He was to become the source of God’s salvation for other humans who will pass through His death to stand on resurrection ground on the other side (i.e. “bringing many sons to glory”).

      This too is why Christ could not simply die from an accidental drowning or from tuberculosis. Mere death is not sufficient. His obedience unto death had to be tested to be perfected. In light of this truth, we can better see that Christ’s suffering was not a measurement of God’s punishment, but rather a measurement of Christ’s obedience.

      To deny that Christ’s suffering was a mark of God’s punishment is not equal to saying His suffering was irrelevant. Not in the least! Starting in Gethsemane, the cup of suffering that tested the Son’s obedience to His Father’s will could not be passed over because the Father’s plan was to strip sin of its powers within that tested obedience. Given the preceding sections, you now know how the Son fulfilled His mission to secure our salvation and why the Mosaic Law was never meant to be God’s global solution for sin.

      To recap, let us recall that Paul’s personification of sin in Romans 5-8 set the reader up for his “grand finale” of God’s victory over it in Romans 8:1-4. The first thing Paul made clear was that sin escaped God’s condemnation in the Mosaic Law because of human weakness. The writer Hebrews defined this “weakness” in terms of the high priests themselves falling under legal guilt due to sin. The result was they could not provide perfect mediation between sinners and a holy God.

      But then Christ comes on the scene! What the Law (with its priestly order) could not do, Paul says God did. And what exactly was that? When we combine Hebrews 5:7-9 with Romans 8:1-4 a clear answer emerges. God sent His Son in human form to have His obedience tested to the max—death on a cross—so that through His perfect obedience, God would be able to prosecute and condemn sin in the moral and legal innocence of His Son’s life.]

      Lastly, you ask this good question:

      //Also, how does your view understand the provisional nature of the atonement? Does God actually destroy our sin in Christ or just provide a judicially acceptable payment in escrow that is available to be drawn upon by faith?//

      The atonement is certainly universal in its provision, but conditional in its pardon. There is no justification for the claims of Limited Atonement insisting that Christ’s death not only provided atonement, but was applied securely on a past, select-elect before they were even born. This can’t be squared with Paul. Paul believes that entering into the saving benefits of Christ’s redemptive work was CONDITIONAL even for believers who inform his category of “elect.” In Ephesians 2:1-2, he tells believers “you once WERE dead in trespasses and sins… and walked in accordance to the ruler of the atmospheric domain [just like other sons of disobedience.]” Later, he will tell the elect that prior to faith in Christ, they once “were children under God’s wrath.”

      I also don’t see redemption/atonement “like a payment in escrow that is available to be drawn upon by faith?” I see it along the lines of a pardon, and in a judicial pardon it is understood the guilty are being freed without time served–without “payment.” But pardons can be rejected. Below is an excerpt you will find in my current edition:

      [Immediately after Paul concludes that God condemn sin to be in the wrong in the righteous humanity of the Son, he declares, “Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus because the Spirit’s law of life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1–2).

      This is the essence of the biblical doctrine of justification. We are judicially declared to be in the right— no longer under sin’s condemnation.

      Like a hub at the center of a wheel, every theological “spoke” connects back to the central act of God disarming Satan’s “weaponization” of sin by condemning sin in Christ so that it could no longer condemn us in Christ.

      Looking at the cross through this lens allows the true nature of our pardon from sin to come into focus. To the extent God judged the sin of the world “to be in the wrong” in Christ, is to the extent we can say God’s justice was satisfied. This in turn paved the way forward for us to be pardoned and forgiven—to be “put in the right” (made righteous and justified).

      “For God did not send His Son into the world, that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him,” (John 3:17) is how Christ spoke of His mission. Clearly, He saw His life acting like a grace-filled pardon from God to us.

      But pardons can be rejected, which is why Christ went on to declare, “Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God” (verse 18).

      To reject a pardon is to remain in one’s own sins—to insist on paying sin’s wages on your own! It is to reject the very One sent from above to separate you from sin’s condemnation. This is precisely why Jesus warned the religious Pharisees, saying,

      “You are from below… I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. Therefore, I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:23–24).]

      HOPE THAT HELPS 🙂 Shalom!

      • Dana Steele says:

        I think I am starting to understand you. Let me try to summarize and you can tell me if I am getting warmer:

        [Christ’s death was necessary for His perfection to justify God’s condemnation of our sin in a perfect sin bearer. God did not kill or punish His Son because His Son bore our sins.
        Even though He became sin for us, He remained innocent. Rather, His Son’s death was necessary to establish God’s just condemnation of our sin in Christ’s body on the tree. Unless Sin personified does something wrong (like condemn an innocent person) God cannot condemn Sin for rightly condemning a guilty person. Sin is otherwise justified in his actions. But Christ’s death in more than collateral damage, it is an integral part of the plan of redemption.]

        What I like about this view is it maintains Jesus’ innocence and glory throughout the redemption process. He became a curse but not deservedly. He became sin but not deservedly. He exposed Himself to sinful men and took on our sin vicariously to expose the weakness of our sin against the power of His superior indestructible life (Heb. 7:16).

        In my response to your previous response I asked about propitiation. I am still wondering how God’s wrath (John 3:36) fits into your system. If you can say that God punishes Sin and pours out His wrath on Sin in the person of Christ on the cross, then I am satisfied (no pun intended).

        I also want to preserve in my atonement theory the idea that Christ died for my sins personally and specifically (1 Cor. 15:3), not just a general governmental atonement or a Christus Victor defeat of sin in general. Does your view allow room for this? It seems like it could.

        To be clear, I do not feel compelled to preserve in my atonement theory the Calvinist idea I once held that Christ died for my sins specifically to the exclusion of others’ sins. While Calvinists won’t admit it, I am convinced this notion appeals to their flesh. As a former Calvinist, it certainly appealed to mine. We feel special because God supposedly loved us more than our neighbor. God does love present believers in a unique relational way but this relationship is made available to all by God’s grace. But I digress…

        I also have an issue with your analogy of pardon. While I think it is a fine analogy in one sense, it seems to have its limitations. A pardon is something that the executive government grants at a moment in time and while I have heard that there is precedent for individuals choosing to refuse the pardon granted, that decision is still a moment in time. I don’t think there is precedent for one accepting a pardon and then later changing their mind and going back to prison. I could be wrong.

        My concern with the pardon analogy is that it suggests a one time decision to receive rather than an ongoing commitment to repent, believe and follow Christ. Those who hold to inevitable perseverance would probably like the analogy but I think we agree that perseverance is not inevitable for the present believer. That is why I prefer the escrow analogy. The funds belong to us as long as we are in Christ, but they are not drawn and used until we need it at the day of judgement.

      • StriderMTB says:

        Sorry for the delay. I finally got out of quarantine and moved up to Northern Thailand. I will respond hopefully later this week. Shalom.

      • StriderMTB says:

        HI Dana, I am now re-settled in Northern Thailand and finally have the time to address your question on propitiation. First, let my say your summary of my view is on target. I also see no reason why it could not be concluded that Christ died personally and specifically for our individual sins. He is indeed absorbing the sin(s) of the world into Himself as the sin-bearer, not to be judged as forensically guilty by God, but to strip sin of its power to hold us under its condemnation. In regard to “propitiation” I do believe my view can serve as a middle ground on this on-going debate (propitiation vs. mercy seat). For my upcoming addition, I will be adding this section below:

        [Any scholarly discussion on the wrath of God in relation to the crucifixion of the Son of God will inevitably involve the Hebrew and Greek terms that biblical writers utilize to describe Christ’s sacrificial death. Hebrews 2:14-17 can serve as a lighthouse to keep us close to the biblical shoreline in the fog of such discussions. The writer’s aim is to press the contextual point that Jesus had to come in flesh and blood so that He could simultaneously fulfill three functions: 1) be the high priest, 2) be the sacrifice for sin, and 3) be the sacred ark of the covenant. Keeping all three functions in mind is crucial.

        The main function of the high priest was to take the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkle it on the covering lid of the ark of the covenant where the wings of the cherubim meet together to form a seat—or the throne of Yahweh. This covering lid of the ark is called in Hebrew kapporeth. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX) it is translated as the “hilasterion” over twenty times in the Old Testament (see Exodus 25:17-22 for an example). This ritual performed by the high priest symbolically cleansed the sanctuary of uncleanness and defilement brought on by Israel’s sin. In the New Testament the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is also referred to with the noun hilasterion (and the similar noun hilasmos) to describe Christ’s sacrifice as being a parallel to the sacrifices in the former covenant (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:5; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). These words are translated as “propitiation” in some English translations (NASB, ESV, HCSB, KJV).

        Much ink has been spilled by theologians trying to decide if the biblical writer’s usage of hilasterion/hilasmos should be primarily interpreted as averting the wrath of an angry deity (as is seen in some extra-biblical, Greek texts related to pagan sacrifice). If so, the English translation “propitiation” would be suitable because it would carry the sense that Jesus propitiates, or turns away the wrath of God from sinners. However, other commentators will argue that the biblical writers are not trying to draw our attention to how pagan, Greek cultures tried to pacify or propitiate the wrath of their angry gods through sacrifice. Instead, they will point to how the Greek Septuagint (LXX) adopts the Greek word “hilasterion” to translate the Hebrew word “kapporeth” which comes from the Hebrew root verb “to cover” (kaphar). This is then rendered in English as “mercy seat.” As already noted, it refers to the covering lid on the Ark of the Covenant which God set apart to be the sacred meeting place where He would meet with the priestly mediator in the holy of holies above the wings of the two cherubim. It has been called the “mercy seat” because it was where God mercifully and symbolically cleansed away the defilement of His sin-stained people through the sprinkling of blood on the sacred ark covering—i.e. kapporeth/hilasterion (Leviticus 16:14).

        Moreover, when we recall the two cherubim on either side of the mercy seat, it is no coincidence that at the resurrection, Mary said she “saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet, where Jesus’ body had been lying” (John 20:12). With all of this in mind, it is possible to merge the theological concerns of both views together and say that through His sacrifice, Jesus became the sacred meeting place of mercy between sinners and a holy God. Therefore, those that trust in Jesus, and are found to be “in Christ,” have no reason to fear the coming day of God’s wrath when His holiness is fully revealed against everything that is unholy. They have no reason to fear it because mercy has already been granted to them “in Christ.” In this sense, Christ is their propitiation that allows them to avert or escape the coming, future day of purifying wrath when the old creation gives way to the new creation. This would be in agreement with Paul’s future emphasis when he spoke of Christ saving us from the “wrath of God to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10; see also Romans 5:9).

        Lastly, none of this means God’s wrath is not to be found in the past at the cross. A simple way to reconcile and merge the concerns of both views (propitiation vs mercy seat) is to say that God’s wrath was averted away from sinners, not because it was targeted against Jesus, but because it was targeted against sin itself! God’s wrath was turned away from sin-stained sinners when Christ became the means by which God prosecuted and condemned sin as a personified defendant in the courtroom of Christ’s sinless, righteous life (Romans 8:3). This, in turn, became our reconciliation to God and the means by which God could extend mercy to sinners and redeem them from the domain of sin and death. The benefit of the Perfectus Liberatio (Perfect Liberation) model I am presenting is that it can extend a handshake to both views and pull them together. ]

        P.S. I am reading a journal article now that reveals some incredible information that hilasterion is best understood as “reconcilation” or “reconciler” because two inscriptions have been found on two alters that praise Augustus Caesar as the people’s “hilasterion”! This is due to him bringing peace and reconciliation to warring factions in the Roman Empire (hence Pax Romana). But Caesar didn’t offer himself as a sacrifice to the gods to absorb their wrath! So there is no use attempting to argue that it means Caesar was our propitiation. The implications are quite huge, and the author wonders why the N.T. scholarly community has not picked up on this incredible find from archeology.

        Here is the article: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222017000300003

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