When trying to wrap your mind around penal substitutionary atonement, what was one of the things you found most surprising?

Mike! Welcome back, brother. So glad to have you with us this week. :slight_smile:

As we are in the Lenten season, I wanted to ask you about some of the study you’ve done on the death and resurrection of Jesus. When trying to wrap your mind around penal substitutionary atonement, what was one of the things you found most surprising? Were there any insights that opened things up for you a bit?

As background to this question, I am reading NT Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began in the lead up to Holy Week, and I am finding it refreshing! Sometimes I think we, as evangelicals, can be guilty of only preaching that God is angry at our moral failures, and that His wrath needs to be satisfied…which is where Jesus (thank goodness!) comes in… :thinking: I don’t doubt Jesus’ role as the Passover lamb, but I think that when we keep Him only in that role we miss the larger picture. Would love to hear some of your thoughts!

P.S. I also wanted to thank you for your response on women in ministry last time you were here. I’ve directed people to it on a number of threads, and it’s been an encouragement to many folks. Your time and thought was (and is) much appreciated!


Hey Kathleen,

Again, what an awesome question – thanks for throwing this my way. Apologies on the delay in getting back to this, I was hoping to wait for some more time to have a ‘real’ crack at it. However, it turns out time is getting away with me, so I may need to provide my holding answer for now and send you something more detailed a little later, if that’s ok? My apologies!

I think the biggest point I would like to highlight has to do with the general frameworks we use to interpret the death of Jesus. I am inclined to agree that we hear a lot about Jesus as satisfying God’s perfect justice through his death and resurrection, so that sinners might be pardoned and receive eternal life. This is certainly part of the story, but I can’t help but feel it slants the story too much in one direction. N.T. Wright offers a helpful corrective to this by saying that the Gospel is not merely about salvation from wrath so that we can ‘go to heaven when we die’ (I too loved his book The Day the Revolution Began , which majors on this, and very much recommend Christians give it a read). It is not about going to heaven, says Wright, but New Heavens and New Earth ( pace Rev 21-22): that is, humankind being re-formed as genuine, image-bearing, vocational beings who embody the rule and reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. We are being re-given our vocation through the Victory of God on the cross. This of course includes the forgiveness of sins, but places it within a different story – the story of God gaining the victory over the powers of darkness and restoring humanity to their original vocation. For me, we fall short of the immensity of the Gospel reality if we stop at personal salvation without going on to see the expansiveness of Christ’s cosmic, restorative victory.

One of the ways to avoid the error of over-emphasising one theory of atonement at the expense of another, is to balance out the various NT “images of salvation” provided (Alister McGrath’s terminology). McGrath carries on in his book Making Sense of the Cross to say there are five main images that the NT highlights to make sense of the meaning of the cross, namely: ‘images from a battlefield’ (victory), ‘images from a court of law’ (justification), ‘images from a relationship’ (adoption), ‘images from a prison’ (redemption) and ‘images from a hospital’ (healing). Stephen Holmes does something similar in his book The Wondrous Cross , arguing for multiple “stories of salvation” and further translating them into corresponding social contact points – i.e. temple, marketplace, law court and living room (he misses out the hospital). The point in all this, it seems to me, is that the Bible argues for multiple images that can help us make sense of the immensity of the cross, one such image being the law court. However, it seems to me that in order to hold a biblical view we need to hold the various pictures in tension with each other. The danger of focusing, for example, on the legal metaphor to the exclusion of the relational metaphor means that we may end up with a forensic faith lacking in warmth and joy. On the other hand, focusing solely on the relational metaphor (i.e. removing God’s wrath at sin from the picture) may lead us to a casual view of sin and ultimately to a casual view of God. What we need is biblical balance. Not one metaphor elevated over another, but each given equal weight.

In Romans 3:23-25 alone, Paul uses three different images in a single unit of thought:

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [legal] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption [prison/ market place] that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [temple] by his blood, to be received by faith.

I will give the last word to Alister McGrath: “The problem with many approaches to the cross is not so much that they are wrong, as that they are inadequate.”

I hope this helps a bit!
Mike :slight_smile:

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