The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Is Penal Substitution a dangerous doctrine?

Does penal substituion downplay the importance of a heart change, really loving, and create a false sense of security? (I hope I’ve got this under the right topic, since it does have to do with what many think was the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross.)

This was a conversation on facebook I had with my former youth pastor, just recently. I was explaining to him that my experience has been that it’s difficult to gauge the heart and it’s often been the people I’ve thought are not followers of Christ, because they aren’t regular church attenders, smoke, etc., that really love and are the ones with real faith. For example, the case worker in my office that uses bad language, but really goes out of her way to help people get services, working well into her lunch every day, the smoker that treats clients with constant kindness, the non-church going friend that tells me how God put it in her heart to feed the homeless, share her tacos, during her lunch and my own sister, having difficulty with the church, but loving her enemies.And it’s been the Christians, often times, that I’ve watched sit around talking about how they would never find themselves in need of welfare. This was my pastor’s response to me about my believing that the heart is what God cares about: (He believes in penal substitution)

Just thought I’d share and see what you all have to think about this. :stuck_out_tongue: I’m sure I asked way too many questions. And maybe I didn’t accurately portray his view? But, it did feel as if he was downplaying the importance of love in support of penal substitution being what really matters, something I’m sure he would not want to do, right?

Hi Amy,

Any concept of God’s grace might “downplay the importance of a heart change.” The apostle Paul warned about that. And perhaps your pastor might lean in that direction. Also, after a quick read, perhaps that pastor might have been concerned that some people might argue that such good people outside of a church would be an excuse not only to follow their good behavior but also follow them by neglecting to go to a good church.

Good point James, about any concept of grace downplaying the importance of a heart change. But then, have we not misunderstood what grace is for, if we think God looks over our remaining carnal - as this pastor does? I will have to look at the passage of Paul’s where he warns that, of course, we would not reason to sin more so grace abounds all the more.

It’s my impression that the last thing these people do is attribute their ability to love to themselves. The reason it seems they really love is because they are humble, unlike what I could see in many of the Christians. It’s almost as if the church is pumping out haughty, arrogant sons of guns, that somehow think they are better because they’ve got the right ideas, but their hearts remain unchanged. Can they find a church that believes God really loves the whole world, is committed to their reconciliation as much as they are? I know my sister feels that there’s nothing but a bunch of Pharisees, that they think they have the right sacrifice, while mercy (love) takes a backseat. She still forces herself to go at times, just because she longs for some kind of fellowship. Then she goes and gets reminded why it is that she couldn’t stomach it in the first place.

I’ve been wanting to bring this up, but it’s kind of like the elephant in the room. Parry talks as if we should all just fit, comfortably enough, into the regular evangelical church. In contrast, though, Talbott seems to have gone in the opposite direction, seeming to have experienced church in much the same way as my sister. He has stated, I think, that his church, what he gets the most out of, is nature. Perhaps it’s true that, as we love, we aren’t a good fit for the church if their truth is not based in love?

It saddens me because, people like her, that could learn what love is like from watching believers feels like she gets more out of reading Tolle.

What does it mean then that we receive the gift of righteousness, many will be made righteous, and grace will reign through righteousness? Is it, in this context, referring to an imputed righteousness?

This passage certainly seems to talk like the purpose of grace is that we become dead to self, actually die to sin, as if it were possible. Which, I’ll admit ,it feels impossible that sin should not get the better of me. :confused: But, if Christ does away with the law it doesn’t seem like he does away with the law to love.

Amy, I’m sorry that you’re having trouble finding a loving Christian community. I’m aware that many evangelical churches don’t focus enough on love. However, on my part, I’ve found numerous evangelical churches (in my case, many within the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement) that strongly focus on genuine love. I pray that you can find a church strong in the Spirit of God, the word of God, and love. Perhaps extreme forms of penal substitution hinder love. But I find great freedom and healing in understanding that Christ died as both an example and to take the punishment for my sins. Also, I believe that everybody will eventually accept Christ’s gift of salvation.:slight_smile:

Thanks James.I think it can be really difficult to find a Christian community that values love more than the importance of believing like they do. I am thankful for the genuine care my former youth pastor has shown me despite our differences. I wish there was more of a tolerance in churches to be able to discuss our differences as we really wrestle with what it is the cross does for us and seek to serve God. I am thankful for you and others on this board!

I can’t believe I didn’t see this topic earlier! I’ve also been struggling understanding Penal Substitution. It seems to be an eye-for-an-eye approach, rather than letting God forgive & heal, but maybe I’m not understanding it right :confused:

I don’t know that I want to get into a discussion over whether penal-sub is a dangerous doctrine. And I think we should keep in mind there are a significant number of universalists here on the forum who accept penal sub (and even became universalists thereby!!)

My main observation is, first, from the standpoint of coherent trinitarian theism, penal sub (as typically understood) involves a schism between the Persons. Either this points to the need of a revision (or disaffirmation) of the penal sub theory, or points to a revision (or disaffirmation) of ortho-trin.

Second, from the standpoint of exegetics, penal sub theory typically involves reading some key New Testament terms grammatically backwards from how they are actually presented in the text. Grammatically reversing the meaning of the text does not seem to me the best evidence of having achieved a coherent exegetical theology. :wink:

Third, from the standpoint of Jewish culture, penal sub theory typically involves ignoring or reversing the meaning of the throne of God as being the “seat of propitiation”: a meaning still demonstrably affirmed by the NT authors in their doctrinal teaching.

And fourth, from the standpoint of the common world culture, penal sub theory typically involves affirming the standard expectation of world religions that God (and/or the gods) does not intrinsically care about us, but has to be cajoled somehow into smiling on us, leaning toward us, loving us, saving us. It is not we who need atoning to God, in common world theologies, but God Who needs atoning to us. Penal sub agrees with this–but does so over-against the actual NT testimony on the topic, which is very surprisingly different.

I think this radical and unexpected difference is the main reason why most exegetes (not even counting the laymen being taught) think the texts really say what the common religious expectation is. It just looks so freakishly weird for God to be “propitiating” us! mind… blown… no, no, that couldn’t be what it means, it has to mean the other way around, someone needs to propitiate God for us… yes, that makes much more common sense… God couldn’t really love sinners that much…

Enjoyed reading your thoughts Jason. I am amazed that it seems like we’ve ever so slightly twisted the text so that it means the exact opposite, but is still good news. I think this is why no one questions PSA. When I’ve tried to bring it up and question whehter we should view God like this it’s everyone’s good news that God will not longer punish them for their sins. It’s the crux of their belief and very difficult to persuade them that the focus of those being reconciled is us, not God. I feel like it’s just another area where reformers, I think it was them but maybe I’m wrong, slid in some dark theology. I can’t explain it as well as you, but it’s a strong hunch. I struggle with wanting to blow the whole lid off the thing, but then it feels awful like this is their good news and I’m ruining it.

Recently I was considering the parable of the prodigal son. This is, I’m sure a characicature (Auggy tells me), but I envisioned the son coming down the road toward his father’s house and the father saying, “Wait a minute, I’m not ready to receive him yet I’ve got to go kill something out back first.” And then the older brother saying, “Good job Dad. What he did was really wrong and now you’ve created real justice, can forgive, because you spilt some blood out back.” It seems crazy! All the father is concerned with is getting his son back. The one concerned with whether it seems fair, or is just, is the older brother. When we try to make God’s actions seem fair, not real grace, then maybe we are acting like the older brother? Am I off my rocker here?

:laughing: You may well be off your rocker Amy, but on this particular point I am sure you are perfectly rational and correct! Apart from the elder brother, the classic biblical example of this is Jonah:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?” Jonah 3.10-4.4 (NIV)

When we are angry at the idea of God’s grace being given too freely to others we are walking on thin ice!

When I read back all my typos I thought I was definitely off my rocker! :laughing:

Thanks for reaffirming, Andrew, that maybe, at least on this point, I’m not off my rocker. :smiley: I was reminded, too, recently that the Jews expected a messiah that would use violence to get control. Even Peter was not happy that they would take his Lord so he used violence to swipe off the guard’s ear. Jesus is advocating another, non-violent, way. I was reminded that God doesn’t favor the eye for an eye approach. Nothing about God taking his wrath out on Jesus seems right to me anymore. It’s just not the God I know. It’s not His way.

I like the Jonah example too, btw.

I’ll clarify that I’ve never been in church environment that focused of the Reformed view of penal substitution, while I’m typically in churches with a view of substitutionary atonement that includes healing in the atonement. Also, I see God setting up a system of justice more for our sake than his sake, which might or might not put me in (out of?) the penal substitution camp. Anyway, I see the Bible in various places teaching that Christ died to take the penalty that I deserve for my sins, which is central to my view of substitutionary atonement. I also see the Bible teaching that God is sometimes wrathful, which relates to his justice, more for our sake than his sake.

I also have trouble following the arguments against penal substitution in this forum, and what might be suggestions that God is never wrathful. There could be various reasons for this. Perhaps, (1) I’ve a deep bias that I cannot see through; (2) I don’t really hold to Penal Substitution, but I feel that people are trying to refute my view when they are actually refuting a view that isn’t mine; (3) There is some other reason or all of 1, 2, and 3.

Does anybody that knows a little about my views have any ideas about this?


I’m not exactly sure what your view is, but I’d guess there’s some #2 and 3 going on. Maybe it will help if I describe PSA as I grew up understanding it. It goes something like this:

God, because He is holy and just, is required to punish sin. The just punishment for sin is an “eternal life” sentence to separation from God in hell. God loves people and doesn’t want them to suffer this punishment, so He sent Jesus to earth to save us from the punishment we deserve (both because of inherited sin nature and personal sin choices). He saves us by willingly taking our punishment upon himself–that is to say, God punishes Christ for our sins. He discharges His obligation to punish us for our sin, by punishing Christ instead, thus making it possible for Him to forgive us.

How does that compare to your view?

Extending the holiness idea, I’ve also been told that God absolutely cannot even tolerate the sight of sin, so the only way for Him to come anywhere near us is by a big blood sacrifice to cleanse us (e.g. similar to requirements in OT before entering holy temple).

I would agree that God is holy, can’t sin and really doesn’t like sin, however, I’d say He doesn’t get overwhelmed by it, which is why:

  1. He can sustain everything, which is direct interaction with sin.
  2. He can touch it (without becoming unclean) and suffer from it, in Jesus.

Jim, I hear what you say about God being wrathful. But is God’s wrath ever really directed against people? Even when bible writers or characters think this is true, are they correct? (I realise I’m scating on thin ice when I say that :wink: )

On the contrary, isn’t God’s wrath against evil, sin, death, corruption, sickness etc? I have Ephesians 6.12 in mind:-

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (NRSV).

Also, if Jesus is the exact image of God, doesn’t this fact in itself show that God’s justice is never retributive, always restorative?

I agree that there is a substitutionary facet to atonement of course, but which passages do you have in mind as affirming that Jesus “died to take the penalty that I deserved for my sins”? Didn’t Jesus pay an unjust ransom rather than a just penalty?

Jim, I believe there must be something about the cross that is substitutionary (though not penal), but can’t get my head around it. I know it’s about grace. Since I don’t know exactly what you believe it’s hard to know how I may be misrepresenting your view. I would agree with all the above people in the way they described PSA. The difficulty I have is that God took his wrath out on Jesus. I don’t see this way of putting wrath on the innocent the way God works or what is necessary so that he can forgive. I see it as necessary that he would condone Jesus suffering for our sake that we might be healed, not by retribution, but by grace. I realize the semantics are all very difficult.

I enjoyed reading this most recent article here… … stice.html
This article of Derek’s has been even more thought provoking, for me, than the rest.

Now this is a gospel I feel like myself, and others, can finally rally behind - a God that truly has grace and really forgives. PSA seems very incoherent. How is it that God has grace and really forgives if first he has to take out wrath on Jesus? As a EU I know you, Jim, believe in God’s unconditional love. Others really don’t, that think God’s promises are only for some that can, in their own aiblity, come to some intellectual assent about PSA.

It was interesting to read Derek say in another post about what church he attends that you can’t find one that believes everything perfectly, that he strives for one that exalts grace. I suppose some churches that believe PSA rely heavily on grace, that we needed the violent atonement to be forgiven. What is confusing to me is, that it’s at this point, that Derek says they’ve missed the whole enchilada by not recognizing that God is not for retribution, but restorative justice. Go figure? No wonder I’m confused. :confused: So, I’m still asking myself the same question I started with…how dangerous is this PSA in terms of how we embrace what grace really is, if embracing grace is what really matters.

Going to Big Bear for a couple of days. See ya all when we get back. :stuck_out_tongue:

I see from the comments that there is a tendency for some to completely reject that the Bible teaches that God’s justice is in any way retributive, while I see the Bible teaching that God’s justice is both retributive and corrective. I cannot accept the extreme views that God’s justice is only corrective or only retributive. And if the view that God’s justice is only corrective is at the heart of rejecting that the Son voluntarily accepted punishment planned by the triune God and turned over for execution by evil forces, then I reject such an extreme view that appears to exclude important teachings from the Bible.

Does anybody here who rejects any concept of the Son voluntarily accepting punishment planned by the triune God also accept that God’s justice is both retributive and corrective? Or does everybody who rejects that the Son voluntarily accepting punishment planned by the triune God also propose that God’s justice is only corrective with no component of retribution?

I apologize that for “now” I’m not going to take the time develop a defense that the Bible teaches that God’s justice is both retributive and corrective, but I want to focus on how rejection of any concept of divine retributive justice impacts rejection of any concept of penal substitution.

I’ll also note that I agree with Alex that God can tolerate, interact, and touch sinful people, but I don’t see that implying that the Son never accepted punishment on our behalf. Also. I reject harsher points of Reformed penal substitution such as teaching that every sin justly condemns every sinner to everlasting torment with no chance of liberation. I also reject any concept of the Father always wanting to condemn us but the Son always prevents that.

A few years ago Christian circles were buzzing because of “that heretic” Steve Chalke. Whenever someone tells me to avoid a particular preacher, or not read a book, I usually end up buying it and hearing what the person has to say. Steve Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Jesus was really good concerning penal substitution (Chapter 10 is the controversial chapter, but the rest of the book puts it into context). It made me realise that Jesus’ mission was so much more than the common views. Read the book, don’t let me spoil it for you!

That said, after reading this discussion, I have a few observations/comments:

  1. Yes, Christ is a major factor. But we should not forget Matt 25:34-45 and James 2:24. It’s not just about “faith in Christ” but also about what we do. I firmly believe it’s about our heart attitude – out motives. Also
    1 John 2:10: Whoever loves his brother lives in the light…
    In fact, a lot of 1 John talks about love. If our actions do not communicate a message of love to others, does God really look down on us and say, “Yes, (s)he’s got it right because (s)he’s got faith in me”? I think God wants us to love others because of our love for him. I wonder if “faith alone” is actually a false sense of security?

  2. I, too, think that a lot of churches are much like the Pharisees. The people are very nice and loving, but I find a lot of the structure (ie, leadership) to be exercising control over the congregation: things must be done their way, with their theology and with their say so. No church is perfect, so I don’t think that should be the sole reason for leaving a church. I think we should set an example. It’s got me into trouble before, and no doubt will again. But I don’t fear the church leadership, so I stand firm. And it’s tough.

  3. Concerning penal substitution, I’ll confess that I’ve not read much on the issue, but here’s a thought (and stop me if I’m wrong)… Jesus died for our sins. Combining this with Eph 6:12 (the battle is not with flesh and blood, etc), perhaps the cross is not so much about making sure we are acceptable before God (which promotes the notion of a wrathful, condemning God), but more about a battle between God and sin. It was the sin of humanity that put Jesus there: people wanting to have their own way, killing off what is truly good. Jesus accepts and fights sin. Sin leads him to death, but he shows victory (complete domination) over sin and death by coming back to life.

I think the truth is that God really does love us – it’s not that we are detestable before him because of sin (which I’ve heard preached many a time). By defeating sin, there is now a doorway into a perfect world.

  1. Concerning the prodigal son:

That’s fantastic!

ditto. I take out the “penal”, and I have trouble wrapping my head around the “substitutionary”

To me, the “penal” maligns God’s character. It makes him resemble an abusive father who punishes Jesus to vent his wrath. People imitate their god so you get people flamethrowing “in Jesus’ name”.

As for substitutionary, some of my thoughts are: Jesus was the perfect Lamb without spot or blemish. Satan fathered (corrupted) flesh in mankind in the Garden of Eden.

The second Adam came in the “likeness of sinful flesh,” to put to death the flesh that had come between man and Himself, to reverse the decision of Adam and its far reaching consequences. In crucifying flesh then being buried and raised to life by the Spirit, Jesus made a way for mankind to have restored intimacy with God, to partake of the Tree of Life, to enter the Holy of Holies, to sup with Him (Rev 3:20).

I don’t know if PSA contributes to it or not? But I have observed a complacency in those who embrace it, that they have a “get out of wrath free” card. I think they are wrong. I still have that Adamic choice each and every day. My flesh NEEDS to be put to death, I NEED to be crucified with Christ. Submitting to DEATH is not a BAD thing. Submitting to DEATH is a NECESSARY thing.

Interesting thoughts from Greg Boyd. First three threads on this page.