July 17, 2016
The SBC and the Atonement
At the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention our denomination affirmed a resolution regarding Penal Substitutionary Atonement. A compact version of the resolution might read like this:
“Whereas in recent days numerous voices have attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement; and have publicly labeled penal substitution ‘evil,’ and indicative of ‘the Father murdering a son’; and Whereas God is perfect in His justice and love; and the denial of penal substitutionary atonement in effect denies the holy and loving God the exercise of His justice, the overflow of which in a sinful world is the outpouring of His just retributive wrath; and Whereas the denial of penal substitutionary atonement constitutes false teaching that leads the flock astray; and the Bible teaches that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” of sin; now, therefore, be it resolved, that the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirm the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race.”
Penal Substitutionary Atonement has several facets. Each person is guilty of transgressing a law or commandment of God. In order to be just, God, the cosmic judge, must punish the guilty law breaker. God’s holiness demands that he respond appropriately to the law breaker. The appropriate punishment for a finite being who has desecrated something of infinite worth is the death penalty and eternal imprisonment.
In the Old Testament, the idea of transferring guilt and punishment from one party to another is established in the sacrificial system. The punishment merited by the guilty party is transferred to the animal, which would then be slain. The sacrifice is a substitute, receiving the punishment due the guilty party and dying on behalf of the transgressor. The sacrifice atones for the crimes of the guilty party and satisfies the wrath of the judge.
The disposition of God towards unbelievers is one of the primary points on which the discussion centers. The scripture teaches that while we were yet sinners God loved us and died for us. Part of the standard pitch in southern baptist evangelism is, “God loves you,” and “God wants to save you.” The question is, what does God want to save you from? Death and hell, the consequences of your sin? His wrath and anger? Is God angry at humankind and ready to pour out his wrath, or is he loving, longing for a relationship? You can see the potential for confusion.
I’m confident that those who stand against penal substitutionary atonement disdain the depiction of God as a cosmic deity that is angry at us and will pour out his wrath on us unless his justice and wrath is appeased by a legal transaction, a blood sacrifice, and from his own child, no less. The God of PSA is not commensurate with their idea of a loving, heavenly Father.
Alternative understandings of the atonement are akin to the Christus Victor model or the Governmental Theory. Through His life, death, burial and resurrection, Christ overcomes the power of sin, overthrows Satan, breaks the chains of death and makes a path for humankind to reconnect with God by breaking through all of the obstacles that hinder a right relationship. Christ’s perfect blood washes away our sin. The life, death and resurrection of Christ is restorative, not punitive and retributive. Christ did not become our sin and then God crushed Him, so He doesn’t have crush us. Christ’s perfect obedience breaks through the obstacles that stand in the way of each of us having a right relationship with God. We only need to place our faith in Christ to begin the restoration process which will culminate fully in the heaven.
I certainly agree that Christ disarmed Satan and defanged death. The blood of Christ washes away my sin and sends it to the bottom of the ocean, never to be remembered again. I also think we find PAS in the teaching of the Scripture as well. Romans 3:21–26 appears to present a cosmic problem, God cannot declare sinners justified and remain just himself. God cannot pass over sins. The relational dynamic of the atonement presented in Romans 3 lends itself to a penal substitutionary model. Through the work of Christ, God remains just while declaring sinners righteous through faith. Isaiah 53:10–11 also appears to support the view of PSA, “…it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Regarding wrath, John 3:36 comments, “ Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him,” and Romans 5:9 says, “since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
Our understanding of the work of Christ will impact our preaching and evangelism. Consider the tracts we sometimes use in evangelism. When we get to the part in which we discuss humanity’s “problem,” the Eternal Life tract utilizes a drawing of a person being burned by fire. On the other hand, the 3 Circles Life Conversion Guide, which seems to have some popularity today, focuses on the idea of “brokenness” as the problem of the human condition. Because of the fallen condition of man, our relationship with God, others, and the creation is broken. The work of Christ ultimately restores all relationships.
The gospel message can sound like a mixed message regarding the work of Christ in the atonement. The Christian worldview answers our big questions, “What am I? Why am I here? What is the problem? What is the solution?” The Church must do its best to communicate all the dimensions of the work of Christ, in the fullness of its vast and marvelous grandeur. May our Lord enable us, by the power of his Spirit, to effectively proclaim the fullness of the love of God in the work of Christ.