Saturday, 16 October 2010


Friedrich Nietzsche once said that 'God is Dead'.

Of course many have argued since that God is not dead and that faith is continuing to grow.

I watched this the other day:

'Do you know what's kept me alive all these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike. Hold it high in the streets so all can see. That's what preserves the order of things.'

I sometimes think that there are those who believe the best way of 'keeping God alive' in society is fear. A notion that if you offend God He will, as it were, cut out your tongue. Sam has blogged about offence here.

John Piper, among others, insists on speaking about the wrath of God as some outside source, almost like it is a god in its own right (although he would never put it like that!). He often writes about how we should be thankful that God has saved us from His wrath as though God is a schizophrenic. I have written before about my rejection of penal substitution. One of my problems with it is when people like Piper say, 'if God did not punish the Son in my place then I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.' In this theology God becomes a Bill the Butcher character who 'cuts of our hands' if we steal from him. God's wrath becomes a god that God Himself is subject to. It's all about fear.


This is not the God I see in revealed through Jesus.

This is not the God I see who loved, lived, died and rose again.

This is not the God I see who beckons us to Himself, to know Him in Jesus.

Perfect love drives out all fear.


Tess said...

If we use the word 'justice' instead of 'wrath' does it make the vicarious atoning sacrifice of Jesus more comprehensible?

It's not the wrath of God I fear, but His justice, under which I am surely condemned without the sacrifice of Christ.

The unfortunate side-effect of dropping 'penal substitution' from my theology is that I would lose a very significant driver of my gratitude for His Grace and Mercy. If I was never under His judgement, and if Christ did not really suffer for my sins... my response all starts to feel rather optional and deflated.

How is it that you can love an unjust God? I do think that I need to fear Him. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, even if love may be the end result of it.

I'm no more comfortable with penal substitution than you are, but all the alternatives seem to deflate the love and gratitude God draws from me in response!

warmest regards,

Joe Haward said...

Hi Tess - Nice to hear from you.

I'm not sure any theology of the Cross can ever make the atonement comprehensible. It is exactly the opposite, it is beyond our understanding.

I always come back to what Karl Barth said, 'In that He takes my place, it is decided what my place is.' So death should be what happens to us, but life is given through Christ.

And I don't think you need penal substitution to know God's Grace and Mercy and Justice. I think penal substitution says far too little and leaves us with a deflated God!

If we see it in the way Irenaeus sees it in terms of recapitulation; Jesus' death re-orientates us and all of creation back towards God in order that we might become like Christ, then we can see God's Grace and Mercy in abundance. We are 'sin-sick' and the only cure is the Jesus. Without his death we die. But in His Grace He provides a cure.

In my opinion God's Justice is not about punishing those He has created for breaking a list of rules. God's Justice is about seeking to redeem all that is 'sin-sick' and establishing His Kingdom.

I believe Christ did indeed suffer for my sins more than I will ever comprehend. But the way I understand that is not in penal terms.

Does this answer something of what you're saying?

Nick said...

Folks like Piper and virtually ever other proponent of Penal Substitution need to study Scripture more closely.

This article looks at how the Bible itself defines "atonement" - and many will be shocked to see it's not at all favorable to Penal Sub.

Joe Haward said...

Thanks Nick.

I agree with you about looking at Scripture more closely, but then we all read it through a lens don't we.

The problem is, like you say in your post, that so many texts are read in light of penal substitution and they don't need to be read that way. The scapegoat is a clear example of this and a mis-understanding of levitical sacrifice. I think there is a real movement in evangelical circles away from PS, but it is still quite lonely!

Good to have you over on this blog.

Tess said...

Hi again Joe (and Nick),

It so happens I'm reading Leviticus at the moment and I'm struck immediately how the sacrificial system was in no way a transfer-of-blame from the guilty to the sacrifice.

I see no sense in which God is subject to some higher law that forces Him to require blood sacrifice before He can forgive. Indeed in Hosea 6:6 God indicates that the atoning sacrifices are not the point at all, but rather a sort of 'less preferred' solution to the problem of disobedient hearts.

However, in your subsequent post ("How do you respond to the man on the cross") you write "Because we have not loved God with all our heart soul, mind and strength, the One that has, hangs in our place. As he is suspended in our place, the horror of our sin and its consequences are heard." This is language I have always associated with penal substitution. cf 1 Peter 2:24a "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross..."

Does this only become 'penal substitution' if Christ is in fact receiving the eternal penalty for our sins (as opposed to dying for them in the way that a goat was sacrificed, as a sign of repentance)?

It suddenly seems possible that I may have assumed I agreed with penal substitution when in fact I do not. I had thought that if there was no penal substitution then Christ did not die for my sins and I am stuck with a self-help gospel of rules and effort and always trying harder and never being good enough, but given your mighty post on the cross, I see that there is more than enough to drive me to my knees in gratitude without the requirement that Jesus was actually taking on the eternal punishment for sin in my place.

If you could clarify your position on this I'd appreciate it... and it would stop Sam Norton harassing me for 'buying into' penal substitution if I could understand this better. :)

best wishes,

Tess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick said...

Yes, it is a "lonely" spot to be in as a Protestant...but I strongly believe the tides are turning and is going to be a tidal wave in a few years. The presumptive reading of PSub into the Bible (esp Sacrifices) simply wont be able to continue as more and more folks object.

As everyone here agrees, the problem is that people have read it as PSub for so long, they never imagined other wise.


If you want a look at how to read passages like 1 Pet 2:24, you will be amazed at how they actually point directly away from Psub!
Check out this article I wrote where I examine all the major "Psub" proof texts:

And just for kicks, many insist the Greek term "for" in contexts of "die for" entails Psub...but 1 John 3:16 (the other John 3:16 ;-) uses "for" TWICE...and in parallel...calling Christians to "die for" eachother. This is impossible if Psub is what that means. Rather, it can only mean "on behalf of," which in no way entails Psub.

Joe Haward said...

Hi Tess

There are texts which could be read through the PS lens, but they do not need to be. Indeed, I would want to argue that they never should be because none of them actually point to a theology of penalty. I think penalty is absent from the OT and NT.

There is only one text in all of Scripture that could possibly be read as PS, 'the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.' Isaiah 53:5b. But a better translation of the Hebrew than punishment would be chastisement, and chastisement is a different notion altogether.

For Christ to bear sin, or become sin for us does not mean penalty. For Christ to bear our sins on the cross is for Christ to experience the weight of the consequence of sin so that we do not have to; death. Death is the consequence of sin, not penalty.

The Cross and God's Justice is about cleansing and restoring not retribution and penalty. The Cross is about Christ achieving on our behalf that which we have never done, i.e. loving God with all that we are.

Sin has contaminated all of creation and broken our relationship with God. Jesus restores those relationships through the cross and deals with the contamination and consequences of sin. This is very different to a notion of penalty. This whole concept of restoration, reconciliation and cleansing should make us marvel more than ever! We should die because of the consequences of sin but through Christ we live!

Also, PS leads to limited atonement.
If Christ is punished for our sins then either;
1. He is punished for all of the sins of all of the people meaning there is no room for hell because God would be unjust for punishing people twice for the same sins (universalism).
2. He is punished for all of the sins of some of the people which means some are created for hell (limited atonement).
3. He is punished for some of the sins of all of the people, meaning no-one is saved.

Does this extra essay help?!?


Nick said...


Now that you've mentioned Isaiah 53, you'll probably be interested in this analysis of the chapter.

Tess said...

Hi Joe,

Yes your essay does help. In fact I realise now that I never looked at the evidence for PS before but rather just assumed it as part and parcel of propitiation. Clearly they are not the same thing and I'm glad to be able to drop PS. Thankyou. It was actually your subsequent post to this one that drove home the point, because it revealed that one can have a 'high view' of the cross without accepting PS. If you hadn't written it, I probably would have assumed you were 'just' a liberal trying to downplay sin and the need for a redeemer.

The link to limited atonement is not something I'd considered either. Limited atonement is a deeply unpleasant idea of a doctrine that I'd sort of submitted to with gritted teeth. However, if you replace in your 3 alternatives "is punished for" with "atoned for", don't we end up with the same problem? Why not?

thanks again!

Joe Haward said...

Hey again Tess - You are giving me a theological workout!! :0) It is good!

It is how we understand the language of atonement.

Christ coming to atone for our sins is, in other words, to make us 'at one' with God, and how that reconciliation happens is where the debate comes in. Was it punishment or some other way? And I have been arguing, it is not punishment that makes us 'at one'. The Cross is like a prism with so many facets, but I would want to say penalty is not one of those facets.

So to say 'atoned for' does not leave us with the same problem because it is a general understanding rather than a specific theology of what happens at the Cross. So Christ's death atones for the sins of ALL, so it is universalistic, yet can be rejected, so is not the same as universalism. C.S Lewis said that there will be two types of people who stand before God. Those who say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.' This implies rejecting God is our choice not God's and is a rebuttal to limited atonement.

I'm sure some would still see me as a 'liberal' or 'unorthodox' (which someone did say to me this year!), but I would want to argue that a proper wrestling with scripture leads away from PS to a more orthodox, theologically sound and historically sound place (in terms of the early church fathers theology of the Cross).

Hope this helps again?!

Blessings Tess!

Tess said...

Hi Joe,

Sorry for the 'workout' :)

I do see what you mean about 'atonement' not being a mechanical transaction (Him receiving the eternal punishment due my sins) but something more based in the relationship between God the Father and His spotless Son.

I would have thought though that 'limited atonement' was a direct (and ruthlessly) logical consequence of the idea of 'irresistible grace', rather than of PS. In other words, if some of us are 'elect' with no choice in the matter, then the atonement (and/or PS) must be limited to being only for those God chooses, but if we *can* refuse it, then the atonement can be seen as being for the whole world...

But I totally agree with you (now) that 'scripture leads away from PS'. I was quite hurt a few months back when Sam gently chided me for having 'bought into' PS, but he was spot on. For me, the anger of God towards sin and the need for PS were inextricably linked - lose the one and you have to deny the other. But now I see that this is not the case! And in fact when one takes away the unjustifiable PS, a far more beautiful thing is uncovered - that Jesus can be a Mediator and Advocate for us with the Father because He is the spotless Lamb! Alleluia!

You've done a wonderful thing for me in writing these posts. You have no idea how grateful I am to you and to God for them, and to His Spirit for opening my eyes to see.

may He bless you in all the ministry that you do,

Joe Haward said...

Thank you Tess and God bless you too in all that God calls you to be for Him.

Diana Lovegrove said...

Hi Joe

I have been reading and rereading this post, the comments and your later post on the cross, trying (unsuccessfully!) to get to grips with the difference between what you are saying and how that differs from my understanding of penal substitution!

This issue of penalty is an interesting one. I'm trying to think of it in terms of my little boy and when he does something naughty and I "punish" him as a result. The reason for that "punishment" is to show him the consequences of his wrong action and to bring about restoration. I am not punishing him just because I am some tyrant who wants to show him who is the boss.

Is my understanding of "punishment" here similar to your understanding of "atonement"?

Or am I missing something?

God bless

Joe Haward said...

Hi Diana

Sorry about the wait on the reply, but I've been a tad busy enjoying my new daughter!!

Ok, so with penal substitution the issue is that we deserve to be punished for our sins. God is angry with us because of our sin and the only way to appease Him is for punishment to take place. The penalty for sin is punishment. So Christ takes our punishment and receives the penalty of death that we deserved. It is seen that God MUST punish sin because of His holiness. If He doesn't punish sin then He isn't holy. Punishment is based upon God's holiness and law; you break the rules you need to be punished, and because everyone has broken the rules everyone needs to be punished. Punishment is seen as retributive penalty. And I have a massive problem with this. If God wants to forgive us He can simply forgive us, He doesn't need a mechanism to forgive us with. God is not subject to some higher law that demands to be adhered to. God is God and there is nothing greater than Him. God is holy because He is God, not because of the Law. God has always been holy. Before ANYTHING existed, God was holy. To be holy means to be set apart, but when nothing existed God was still holy. So God's holiness is not dependent on anything other than Himself. So God will always be holy and does not need to punish sin to be holy.

With your example, punishment is about a set of 'rules' that have been broken and so punishment happens to restore order. Punishment happens because of the rules. I don't doubt for one second your parental skills(!), but I don't think this is what happens at the Cross.

I don't believe Jesus is punished. I believe punishment is absent from the cross. I believe justice happens at the cross where the contamination of sin has been dealt with.

I believe Jesus died for the sins of the world and all the consequences of sin. Death came through sin and Jesus' death and resurrection brings life. Jesus is the cure to our 'sin-sickness'. I believe the cross is about 're-orientating' us back to God. We don't love God or know where He is, and Jesus restore us and re-orientates us back to God. It is about relationship not rules.

Does this help?

Hope you're well.

Diana Lovegrove said...

Hi Joe

Many thanks for the reply, and many congratulations to you on the birth of your daughter! I hope all is going well for you and your family, and that uninterrupted sleep returns soon for all of you :)

I think I'm starting to see the issue now. Slightly differently to you however! For me, the issue is becoming not so much whether I think I deserved to be punished for my sins (I think I still believe that) but whether the Father poured out His Wrath on His Son on the cross. This is where I am starting to wonder if I have misunderstood all these years. And I have to say I am no longer convinced that the Bible teaches this.

It does certainly seem the Bible teaches that the death of Jesus was an atonement for our sin, and turned the Father's Wrath away. Is that the same as the Father pouring out His Wrath on His Son? I think not, now. Rather, didn't the Father say about His Son "This is my Son, whom I love, with Him I am well pleased"? This Son is the Perfect, Sinless, Spotless Lamb of God. Perfect in obedience to the will of the Father. Didn't He accomplish a great work on the cross, rather than suffering wrath and abandonment? Which is where I probably disagree with you - I think in your post on the cross you say you believe Jesus WAS abandoned. (I would see his cry of forsakenness as identifying with Psalm 22 as opposed to ACTUALLY being forsaken).

Anyway, thank you for making me think things through! It is eye-opening to see how beliefs we often take for granted aren't explicitly taught but rather assumed and "caught" from songs etc.

God bless you and your family and your new daughter!

Joe Haward said...

Thank you Diana.

I agree with you that the Father did not pour out his wrath on the Son. I think that is entirely unbiblical and is in fact a pagan notion of sacrifice.

I still think Jesus was abandoned rather than merely identifying with Psalm 22. Without doubt Psalm 22 can be read in light of Christ, but I think we should take Jesus' cry of dereliction seriously and hear it on its own, without the backdrop of anything else.

Thank you for another theological workout! Keeps me in shape!

God bless you too.