Penal Substitution & Universalism


I’m sympathetic to Bobx3 and others’ difficulties with “redemptive violence.” And though it seems that the cross as “penal substitution” could nicely support universalism, if it paid the “penalty’” for all (‘unlimited’ atonement), I fear that its’ assumption that God needs violent retribution done to Jesus at the cross in order to forgive, actually reinforces the ungracious view of God that hinders many from trusting in One whose love would never stop pursuing God’s beloved offspring. So I’m offering 2 pages on why I find P.S. unbiblical, and would welcome any critiques of my rationales.

2 pg Penal Substitution.doc (38.5 KB)

An Inferred Argument for Penal Substitution
Is Penal Substitution a dangerous doctrine?

Dang, you’ve been busy recently… :open_mouth: :open_mouth: :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

I don’t have all my ref works here at the house, but my initial estimate is “no disagreements at all”. In fact, I would consider these notes prime material for an evangelistic sermon.

(Okay, my memory says there was one thing back up there I partially disagreed with, but I can’t remember now what it was… time for an evening nap, obviously… and I don’t recall that fixing it would obviate the point. I’ll try to remember tomorrow what it was. Nothing major.)

Very very very well done! {bow!}


Hi Bob, Thanks for sharing this. First, the motivation of this paper seems off base to me. We need to study the Bible to see if it teaches that Christ died to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins. And if it does, then we don’t change that teaching because we fear some people might interpret this mean that God is an ungracious God. Second, I need to see how you interpret various verses to see how your teaching stands up to the Bible. For example, how do you interpret Isaiah 53:5:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:5 TNIV)


I take the paper to be a report of results of such study. Although as you noted, it should ideally address apparently countervailing information. For sake of topical concentration, though, that might be better as the focus of a subsequent presentation.


Wow Bobx1 (who, by the way, is Bobx2??? How is it I’ve missed him? :question: ) that is a really fine summary of the problems with the Penal Substitution model of the Atonement. Before UR became my favorite theological topic, this one – the Atonement – was. 2 of my favorite books on this topic, and the severe limitations of the PS model, are:

– “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” by Joel B Green and Mark D Baker
– “The NONVIOLENT Atonement” by J Denny Weaver

I would be surprised if you told me you had not read them, but if you have not, I’d love to know what your favorite books are which lead you to your views on PS.

Now on the face of it, your essay/summary was on the flaws of the PS system – yet your topic thread title is “Penal Substitution & Universalism”… leaving me unclear on how you see these two ideas interrelating. I’m most curious about this. You admit upfront that a strictly Penal Sub theology really does lend itself to a belief in UR – that is, that penalty WAS paid for ALL. Yet you eschew PS and still find yourself to be a UR believer. Early on I was sure I could use my UR understandings and theology to obliterate (in a nice Christian way of course! :laughing: ) the theology of PS (which I am quite convinced is grossly inadequate to convey the full meaning of the Cross). Now, I’m not so confident. And it seems that it is in fact possible to hold both beliefs at the same time. (Jim seems as if he might be such a one, but I’m not sure. Often Jim’s comments/questions are too cryptic and brief for me to be sure. Any help here Jim??)

Anyway, it seems to me that, if PS is true, it is still quite possible to most reasonably also believe in eventual UR if one taps into the ideas of God’s Total and complete victory; death being the last casualty of sin; and the idea that not to accept God’s gift of salvation is insanity – and God simply will restore sanity (and thus not violate freedom) and sane minds will, obviously and almost by definition, choose salvation. So, ironically I suppose, my embrace of UR has actually softened my animosity and disdain for the theologies of PS.

My last comment/question though goes to Jim who said:

The reason this comment seems odd to me is that, at the same time, it implies that one can come to the bible with a completely open mind and no preconceived ideas – while also having presumptions like needing to determine if X (X being penal Sub) is valid. So that confuses me. But more centrally, perhaps you (Jim, or anyone else here) can help me discern the meaning of something Talbott said (or, oh my, was it GM? :blush: :blush: I’ve searched in vain for the specific reference…) (I can’t really ask Tom about it on his section because, well, I’ve already asked more than my share of questions over there anyway.)

It was a strange sort of admission I thought at the time I read it; the idea being that maybe in fact the bible writer really wasn’t “intending” to write in favor of UR, and may not have even believed in the idea of UR, yet his writings upheld the idea of UR. (Anyone recall that passage??) That seems an astonishing thing to ponder – doesn’t it?? Using a bible writer as support for a belief the writer himself did not hold!

So if this kind of dynamic is allowed, of course one could then also say that while the writer really did believe X himself (X being here Penal Sub) his understanding was in fact more limited than mine and it is now clear that I can use his words to actually go beyond PS. Or something like that. While that kind of bible interpretation is obviously vulnerable to abuse, I think it’s crucial to also remember that there really are transitions to greater understandings, (ie “Moses said – but I say…”) and growth implies taking what we know and moving to what we don’t know – and so on.

TotalVictory (Bobx3)


Hi Bobx3,

I’ll try to answer some of your questions. First, my Christian faith is centered on my loving relationship with God and belief in the original deity of Jesus, his atoning death, his resurrection, the divine authority of the written word of God, and salvation by faith through grace. And from these flows my secondary beliefs that include Universalism. I’m unsure if I hold to all of the classical points of Penal Substitution (PS), but I have no doubt that Christ died to take the punishment for the sins of all humanity, which I believe is clearly taught in the Bible. And I agree that there is more to the death of Christ than PS such as the example of sacrifice that all followers of Christ need to follow. And I find no conflict at all between divine punishment and a redemptive end to all punishment.

I hope that I wasn’t too short for you in this, and I made no attempt to be cryptic.: ) And I’ll try to clarify anything that is unclear.


In regards to your question about an open mind, I want to add that God intends for us to progress in our understanding of the Bible. We can approach the Bible with an open mind while we build upon what we learned from God in the past. And this can get difficult because there are complex teachings in the Bible that sometimes takes many years to understand. (If you have more questions about this, which is tangent to PS, then this part will need to be spun off into a different topic.)


Thanks Jim:

I had assumed that you believed/would say approximately that; best to ask though than assume. So thanks. Of course those words/convictions of yours might also be held by others – who hold very different visions of what the words actually mean. How often I’ve driven by a random church, read on their outside “bulletin board” that, unlike those “other” churches, THEY are bible based… Yeah right; does any church advertise being NON Bible based??? You see the dilemma.

But when you say this:

questions are immediately – and legitimately – raised. I seriously doubt that there is any real legitimacy to the idea that act X “deserves” punishment Y. Just because it’s written somewhere as “law”. The $150 fine for driving 85 mph in a 55 mph zone is very random and arbitrary and created by us as a community to alter behaviors… So we then move to the notion that punishment has a goal; that goal being change of a person so that he becomes a person who acts appropriately NOT because he will be punished if he doesn’t, but because he now has that “law” on his heart. He internalizes the intent and purpose of the meaning of that arbitrary penalty and so doesn’t do it any more. So if the person learns the lesson, apart from the law, the purpose of the law is still accomplished – and it is not necessary to fulfill some free-floating obligation to law. Or something like that.

It’s not like there are a bunch of penalties lying around that need to be “paid” by someone to a brutal and rigid creditor. The idea of punishment as discipline in order to effect change in rebellious minds then emerges. And nobody understands the idea of punishment as teaching tool better than do Universal Reconciliationists. (Did I just coin a new term??) I mean what is hell if not that place where lessons of reality and truth are to be taught and finally learned which were ignored in this life?? It’s certainly not a place where some kind of free floating debt is paid… Just to make sure the books are balanced or something…

However, if one is able to grant this idea (I think most here are – with certain of their own caveats…) the notion of Christ taking the punishment immediately begins to become absurd; why would Christ need to take my discipline – that great teaching tool – since He obviously does not need to be “taught” anything; nor does He need to be “disciplined”. It is on this very point that Penal Sub Forensic model adherents go wrong I think. Here, Romans 8:23 is grossly distorted and misunderstood it seems to me; death for sin is not a penalty levied by God, but is instead a natural consequence and effect of our actions and attitudes. I love the way Goodspeed puts it: SIN pays it’s wage – that wage is death. (But the GIFT OF GOD is eternal life!!) So God is in the business of giving gifts – not of seeing that penalties are met out.

Thus the entire model of penalty payment is merely (I say merely, though that does not exclude “powerfully”) a metaphor to aid and assist understanding. Sin HAS serious consequences; the Cross demonstrates those in spades. But there are many other metaphors as well; like adoption, and restoration of relationship, and so on. Problem seems to be that once Penal Substitution gets in the door, it immediately tends to dominate the scene, and drown out all the other wonderful images ALSO on prominent display in the NT.

But I must say that it is very hard to read the bible and take away an image of a God who is appeased by the death of an innocent; that seems rather diabolical and quite remote from the very Christ Himself who said if you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father…

Now I’ve been around long enough to realize that some very saintly folks hold the Penal Sub imagery very dearly – and it in no way conveys to them a God who demands the taste of blood to be appeased.

Lastly, it’s quite interesting to note that to agree that Christ died “for” my sins can mean many different things. For many PS proponents, that simply means He paid my penalty. But the word “for” has so much more nuance:

–in support of or in favor of
–affecting, with regard to, or in respect of
–on behalf of or to the benefit of
–having (the thing mentioned) as a purpose or function
–having (the thing mentioned) as a reason or cause
–having (the place mentioned) as a destination
–representing (the thing mentioned)
–in place of or in exchange for (something)

So yes, Jesus died for us, just as He lived for us and was resurrected for us and even now acts for us via the Spirit (how this works I got little clue). It was ALL done “for” the purpose of winning the creation back to trust. The entirety of the salvation process revolves totally around the person of Christ then – which I think we all agree is the central biblical truth. We just vary on the details….

Thanks Jim,

TotalVictory (Bobx3)


Hi Bob3x, I appreciate your search into this.

I want to clarify that to answer your first question, there are many churches and Christians who imply that they don’t believe that all of the teachings taught in the Bible are correct. Many people suggest that they feel no obligation to balance all of the teachings in the Bible. Regardless of political leanings, this is called “liberal theology” or a “liberal interpretation of scripture”. And some “liberal Christians” believe in the Trinity while they reject some teachings in the Bible. I don’t support this view in the least while I also learn various things from liberal Christians. For example, one liberal Christian minister believed in the basics of the gospel and oversaw chaplain visitations at two nursing homes. I preached at those nursing homes and that liberal minister became a mentor to me. He particularly helped me avoid getting caught off guard by some of the stories told me by some of the patients who had dementia.

I also want to clarify that I don’t know all of the reasons why God designed sacrificial systems for the forgiveness of sins. I suppose that God could have handled the forgiveness of sins another way, but I see from the Bible that God decided to forgive sins through substitutionary atonement. I don’t boggle my mind to think of how things might have happened in an alternative universe, but I embrace what I know has happened in this universe.


I will briefly mention, passing through, that somewhere back in my 1038 comments (most likely in the thread about whether UR can undermine the notion of God’s violence–which I’ll be getting back to sometime before the winter arrives, I hope :mrgreen: ), but also in other places, too, so far as I recall…

{inhale} (sorry, long sentence)

…I noted my belief that God, on the cross, is acting not only in consolidation with victims of sin, but also in consolidation with sinners. He doesn’t inflict a punishment from on high, but suffers along with the ones who are being punished. The spanking hurts Him even more than it hurts them.

The atonement, or (as the phrase originally meant in English when it was coined) the at-one-ment, isn’t especially substitutionary. But it is participatory.

I think much of this, though, can be better understood, once we understand better what is entailed in God creating Nature at all. (And even, I would say, once we understand better what is entailed in God’s own self-existent action at all–not the same thing as creation of Nature, yet one is related to the other and can only proceed subsidary to the other higher action.)

That would take several hundred pages of working out implications and stuff, however. :laughing: :sunglasses: (Which makes it hard for me to explain, in any brief way, what I am talking about. Sorry. I know it sounds vague.)


It really does fascinate me that the sacrificial system is so easily seen as supporting Penal Substitution models; though on the superficial face of it I guess it’s sort of logical if one presupposes such a thing in the first place. Sin --> kill Lamb --> sin resolved/forgiven --> repeat as often as necessary. But at some point, maybe after your whole flock of sheep/lambs has been seriously depleted, you begin to think “HEY!! Maybe if I could somehow stop sinning I wouldn’t keep having to spill all this blood!” At SOME point then it should dawn that Hey – if I can somehow shut down this sin factory, get at the very root cause of sin, maybe that’d be better than all these slit lamb throats and rivers of lamb blood. Which of course points directly AWAY from the ideas of Penal Substitution and toward inner transformation and healing.

While some might insist that it is only mushy sentimentalism that causes one to deny that the sacrificial system proves the truth of Penal Substitution, one quickly is lead to wonder at God’s frequent rejection of the sacrifices being offered. Sacrifice must mean something else then; and this seems to be precisely what God wanted folks to ponder and can readily be seen by all the times God says things like “I’d rather have mercy than sacrifice” and “the smoke of your sacrifices are an annoying stench in my nostrils” (but God! you asked for those sacrifices – didn’t You?) and then of course we have stunningly insightful words like Psalms 51. In fact, Jeremiah 7:22-23 even has God saying this!!!

So the idea that an act is to represent far far more than the mere action itself is seen when, for another example, God says He wants His people to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts. Circumcision is to represent an attitude of the heart already present!

On the face of it then God certainly doesn’t seem interested in populating heaven with pardoned criminals; they must also be transformed; changed; healed – which mere Payment of Penalty simply can’t accomplish. That seems common sense – but also has good biblical support I think.

Thus it’s quite possible to build to the idea that maybe the intent of sacrifice was more a recognition and acceptance of the truth that God always WAS and IS a forgiving God – that our act of offering a sacrifice is not causing Him to be so. While no language expert, I’ve read (on Jewish sites) that one meaning of the Hebrew word for sacrifice is to draw near, or come close. Thus sacrifice signified intent and desire on the part of the sinner to return to closeness to God. (God always being close to us and having no need to “move” as-it-were)

The sacrificial system can then be thought of as being designed to encourage thought and reflection; the act of sacrifice served to recognize and personalize a forgiveness already in place and in effect and freely extended! This idea is really not so very different from the idea that unless we are willing to forgive, God cannot forgive us. To be willing to extend to others that which God extends to us IS to embrace the entire philosophy and intent of forgiveness; that of paving the way for change and transformation and healing. Understanding that God holds nothing against us, we in turn show we too will hold nothing against OUR brother – so that we may also experience reconciliation with him.

It seems to me God has the double problem of:
A) getting us to see the seriousness of our condition and plight – while at the same time
B) realizing that our plight need not be seen as a barrier to reconciliation and oneness with Him.

— So maybe sacrifice serves to underline sin’s seriousness, even while teaching that sin is NOT an impossible barrier to God since God Himself provides a way for us to demonstrate our repentance and remorse. (Recall there WAS no sacrifice available for INTENTIONAL sin)

It seems to me as if the horrible distortion of paganism is the notion that we can effect God into this attitude of forgiveness towards us. There was a “cost” to show us this was NOT the way of God; and on the Cross, that cost WAS “paid” (if such language must be used). If anything, the cost is being paid to US – so that WE might be won back to confidence and trust again.

If one takes away from the concept of Penal Substitution the fact that God is willing to do ANYTHING to effect our reconciliation back to Oneness with Him, (which brings us right to UR) then that is a good thing right?!!

That’s approximately how I’m seeing it these days…




All of the examples of God rejecting biblical sacrifices involved disobedience. God has no interest in sacrifices from people who willfully disobey God. God has always been more interest in obedience than sacrifice. In the case of Jeremiah 7:22-23 that you point out, this isn’t teaching that God never instituted a sacrificial system for various sins while the Israelites journeyed in the dessert, but this is one of many passages where God teaches that sacrificial offerings without obedience is bad.

David’s case is interesting because their was no Mosaic sacrifice for adultery. The only then biblical option would have been for the Israelites to gather around their anointed King and Bathsheba to stone them to death. I agree that this and other cases of forgiveness in the Old Testament went beyond the Mosaic sacrificial system. Another interesting example is that God appeared to Abram before he made a sacrifice. Likewise, you can say that these are examples of forgiveness without sacrificial system in place. (By the way, some of the sins in sin offerings and guilt offerings went beyond unintentional sins.) And perhaps you can speculate that God could have made a plan for justice and redemption that didn’t involve substitutionary punishment as taught in Isaiah 53 and many verses in the New Testament, but God made his decision before he created the universe.

And I completely agree with you that God wants believers to progress toward moral perfection instead of endlessly appealing to substitutionary punishment. Even hardcore believers in every point of PS would agree with that.

I want to make sure that I understand your view. Are you saying that Christ didn’t die to take the penalty for our sins or are you saying that he did die to take the penalty our sins while he could have done it another way?


Hey… that sounds familiar. To give over completely to God? Didn’t I just a minute ago read someone mentioning a similar concept in regard to whole destruction–and then restoration?

:mrgreen: :sunglasses: :mrgreen:


Hi Jim:

This seems a curious thing to say; you’re not suggesting here that we are to categorize sins into obedient ones and disobedient one are you?? Are not all sins disobedience to the Law? If sin is disobedience, that would suggest a category of obedient disobedience – which I don’t think is your intent at all. I think maybe you’re conflating an attitude of remorse and sorrow with obedience… The point must be that sacrifice alone is meaningless; sacrifice as mere act is empty. But further, I get the strong sense that contrition, repentance, broken spirits, embrace of justice, obedience are far and away preferable to sacrifice; not just in addition to sacrifice. Mercy over and against sacrifice. (I’m hearing that you don’t share that sense.)

But as an aside, isn’t it also a huge problem for penal substitution (as well as for the sacrificial system) that there remains this large (maybe very large) category of sins for which there IS no solution; which implies that we first must somehow acquire an attitude of repentance and remorse and only THEN can we participate in God’s reconciliation. But this runs counter to the idea that Jesus gave His life before any such change – that is, while we were yet sinners! This all simply suggests to me that the idea of Penal Substitution simply can’t bear all the theological weight many seem to think it does. That is, it is one metaphor among many.

Now your suggestion that

is, I assume, derived from the idea that Jesus was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. But I’m still not entirely sure that sacrifice was God’s idea all along. For example, there is no record of God telling Cain and Abel to offer their sacrifices. We must go to Hebrews to learn that what rendered Abel’s sacrifice “better” (ie more acceptable?) was not the fact that it was a lamb (indeed grain offerings were very acceptable in the system under certain circumstances later on) or that it was carried out as commanded, but simply that it was offered in faith.

I am quite open to the idea that sacrifice was something already commonplace in that time and was already deeply ingrained behavior in the surrounding cultures and religions which predated the Hebrews but with which they were very familiar. God, recognizing this ingrained association of sacrifice with worship and connection with deity, wisely co-opted the practice for His own purposes. His intent then was to take an existing system which, in it’s pagan distortions had the sacrifice appeasing angered deities and altering that deities attitudes, and transform it into a system which, when properly understood in God’s new paradigm was instead teaching tool into HIs values of self-giving love, not conditional, coaxed forgiveness.

In a similar vein, the “pattern” of the tabernacle God commanded them to build (rectangle divided into one third most holy place and 2 thirds holy place etc) was already in widespread existence in the surrounding cultures. It was therefore easily recognized as a serious place of worship. Now I happen to see this as extraordinarily gracious of God to use what they were already familiar with, to make them comfortable perhaps, but transforming it to teach what HE wanted to reveal – which was markedly counter to the prevailing views held of angry gods whose attitudes could be effected into acceptance of the human supplicant.

When John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, says “Behold! the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29) the reflex is to assume this must mean via Penal Substitution – as if the only way to “take” sin “away” is via this “sin transfer” mechanism…

However, to my mind anyway, this simply cannot be for (at least) 2 reasons; reasons insurmountable for Penal Substitution models and therefore demanding a complete reevaluation of the events and relational dynamics interpreted as “Penal Substitution”.

First, sin is simply, and obviously, not a “thing” which can be passed around. Yet Penal Sub depends upon this transferability aspect of sin, which I think is quite mistaken. As Bobx1 noted, Eze 18:20 explicitly makes this clear; the soul who sins will die – the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. So not only is penal sub disallowed, so too is transfer of Christ’s righteousness to us not allowed. Do we also use that imagery? Sure; but it works only as metaphor.

Second, no legal system recognizes one taking another’s penalty; except maybe in civil law where I may, for example pay your speeding ticket. It is legal fiction to suggest that criminal punishment can legitimately and legally be borne by another. This simply cannot be literally true; so the intent of such language must be to compel a search for deeper meanings.

John the Baptist’s exclamation then would be more true if Jesus “takes away” the entire problem of sin and rebellion by the full revelation of the Cross which necessarily includes healing/transforming us so we don’t sin anymore. I’m not quite sure why so many have difficulty seeing Penal Substitution as simply a useful, but limited metaphor but that’s the way it is I guess. We have little problem with seeing as metaphor all the others in use; ransom from slavery (Mk 10:45), battleground triumph-over-evil images, commercial dealings (again, ransom), relational imagery like adoption and reconciliation, in addition to court of law images. None of these metaphors stand by themselves and all need each other for the full meaning to be realized.

In addition, this act of sacrifice had many other applications – not just dealing with sin. Sacrifice was to accompany thanksgiving, communion with God, worship, and feasting. In addition it seems the idea of “sin offerings” also covered things relating more to ritual purification (like, say, from menstruation – which can hardly be considered a “sin”.) This strongly suggests to me that associating sacrifice with Penal Substitution severely restricts and diminishes it’s intended purpose and meaning.

So I’m not sure I can even answer your question Jim :confused: :confused:

given that I don’t see as literal the whole “payment of penalty” premise. Both these questions are based on the premise that my penalty needs to be paid and/or that’s what Jesus did on the cross. (Though it does interest me that many of those who insist on it being literal are unwilling to answer the literal questions of who the penalty is paid to.) So yes; Jesus death on the Cross is the central and crucial and necessary and saving event (literal history) in history – it’s just that to my mind mere payment of penalty doesn’t come close to accomplishing all that.

Rambling on too long Jim.
Blessings and an early Happy Fathers day to all us fathers out there!!!


PS – still wondering what Bobx1 thinks is the association between Penal Sub and Universalism… Also, John 1:29 really can be seen as a wonderful text illustration Universal Reconciliation – though that could work for a Penal Sub believer as well.


I’ve been camping with Auggy, but appreciate all the comments and discussion!

Jason, Thanks for your generous encouragement. Some of our past dialogue on the Trinity was beyond my comprehension, but I find most of your insights parallel and stimulative to mine. We both see ‘salvation’ involving gracious deliverance from sin.

Bobx3, Thanks, I knew you’d resonate (I see Roofus-Robert as Bobx2)! I also resonate with your thoughts on sacrifices. Yes, I’ve read Green with profit and some of Weaver. Also helpful: The Atonement Debate (papers from London Evangelical Symposium on the Theology of Atonement-pro & con); Stricken By God? (Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ; edited by Brad Jersak & includes a piece by N. T. Wright); IVP’s The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views; Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross by David Brondos (a Lutheran N.T. prof in Mexico).

(footnote: I think MacDonald cites Talbott on 2 Thes. 1:9, that Paul’s “destruction” for opponents may not consciously have in mind their eventual salvation; but he does think Paul holds to universalism in Rom. 5, Col. 1, etc. Thus, that he would be convinced by Talbott that his ‘payback’ words are not inconsistent with that end. On P.S., I’d prefer to argue that the apostles, though diverse in their terminology, did not believe in it.)

Yes, I think P.S. folk can affirm UR (with the logic you outline to Jim and I)! Yet, I find it unbiblical, problematic, and unnecessary for UR. My followup paper intends to develop the alternative you wonder about.

But, to oversimplify, I’ve already implied that the cross aims to transform our sinfulness, but is not a ‘transaction’ that secures God’s gracious love. Rather, it’s a demonstration of the redemptive love that God already has by nature. Thus, we’d expect that God need never require sheer retribution, nor even must make his gracious love contingent on our acceptance of the cross’s provision. Rather, we’d expect that his unfailing love and power is free to pursue us in our resistance, albeit sometimes in the form of ‘severe mercies’ (as you detail to Jim), until God achieves the genuine restoration of the sinner’s life that God rightly seeks. I.E., nothing impedes God from a UR outcome. My case for Universalism under “Essays” amplifies on this.

More to follow on Jim’s stimulating questions.

Grace be with you all,



Thanks for your reflections! I agree the issue is “studying what the Bible teaches,” and that changing that out of fear of misinterpretation is fallacious motivation. (I do follow George MacDonald and Talbott in thinking that if a belief troubles our moral conscience-esp. one informed by Jesus’ teaching, that is proper motivation to review that interpretation.)

I also agree that to evaluate my “teaching,” you would need to see how I interpret texts that P.S. uses. Indeed, this paper is my preface to a study of how Isaiah, Luke, and Paul address God’s approach to salvation and atonement. Only there did I intend to examine such texts and exposit an alternative “teaching.”

My introduction’s focus is to raise questions about whether P.S. is compatible with major Bible themes. For my bias is that (1) it wars against them. (2) We all come to texts with preconceptions, and folk like me who have had this interpretation ingrained tend to find it even in texts which do not teach it. Thus (3), we may not be motivated to take a fresh look at what the Bible says, without a prior sense that P.S. is Biblically problematic.

You rightly cite my need to follow with an exposition of all relevant texts, and an alternative interpretation. And I gratefully realize that you are the only one who has offered significant challenges. But, in effect, my preface is simply calling challengers to show how ‘substitutionary punishment’ accords with the many text I have cited.

You say that what is clear is that “Christ died to take the punishment…” I assume you mean, as in P.S., to suffer the penalty for all sins so that we can be exempt from such a consequence. As I examine wider texts, it would help to know which texts you think most clearly declare this.

I perceive that the apostles’ usual summary of the Gospels’ fuller crucifixion narrative is that Jesus died "for us," or “for our sins” (quite parallel to Isaiah 53’s language). As Bobx3 suggests, this cryptic phrase allows debate about what mechanism it signifies, and what “punishment” Jesus endured. Clearly, he experiences the punishment (the ‘capital’ kind)given to evil-doers, the sort that befits true sinners like me. And his embrace of such a punishing injustice was according to his Father’s will and plan(cf. Isa. 53:10a, 6b, 8d), and this leads to peace and restoration for us. But how? Where are we told that this was God’s punishment, that it is a substitute for righteousness in the truly wicked, or that exercising punishment itself directly frees God to cancel sin’s consequences?

You cited the obvious text which deserves much reflection. Isaiah 53:5,8 cite the Suffering Servant’s redemptive punishment for those who sinned against him. My perception is that Israel’s sins bring this punishment. Thus, vs. 4’s interpretation, “we considered him punished by God, stricken by Him,” is precisely what Isaiah is refuting. For the context is that they wrongly despised the servant, assuming that his suffering must be God’s punishment based on his sinfulness, when the opposite was true.

Like Jesus, he suffered punishment as a result of God’s sheep, who all sinfully reject his faithful message and way (5:1,3,6,8a). What makes his suffering redemptive, is that he willingly absorbed the unjust punishment they brought on him. Like Jesus, his God-like love “intercedes” for his killers (53:12c), “because they know not what they do”(Lk. 23:34)!

Isaiah’s amazement is that God’s powerful “arm” to restore Israel should now be “revealed” in a humilated servant whose “offering” (10) appalls us, yet is able to show mercy to enemies who crush him (52:14f; 53:1-3). I find that the Bible sees such a painful (and participatory–thanks Jason) demonstration of grace offers Good News that has divine power to produce salvation in hardened sinners like us. God is pleased by what such love, accompanied by the Spirit’s power, is able to achieve in we who are his beloved.

But is it necessary to perceive that God is the One who needed to be satisfied or changed by the infliction of such violence? I am jealous against proclaiming God as if God is the one who needs to be repaired, reconciled, or transformed. Doesn’t it seem that our assurance rests more solidly on One whose gracious nature will never change?



Hi Bob,

I see nothing in the general concept of substitutionary atonement that suggests that God needs to be repaired, reconciled, or transformed.


Hi Jim!

Thanks for your reaction. I suspect that even the incarnation implies a sort of “substitutionary” role, as Jesus takes on our sort of plight, including death. And I’m glad that my sense of the “penal” version of this is not recognizable to you.

Still, my inartful words, such as “transforming God,” indicate my impression that P.S. emphasizes that inflicting punishment upon Jesus is about directly “changing” God and His wrathful disposition toward sinners. Do you see it that way, and if so, can you desribe how you perceive that it does that?

I find that we neglect what appears to be the N.T. emphasis, that the cross’s purpose is to change our life and stance toward God. I appreciate that you also want to affirm this. In the sense that God’s wrath is a fitting response of holy love toward our rebellion, and the cross changes our disposition, then I can see that it is essential and can be said to remove His wrath. Is that P.S., or do you see it as meeting a requirement that God has to transfer and execute a ‘justice’ that ‘satisfies’ Him, without necessarily depending on our own transformation? Or does this sound like I’m making a semantic distinction that appears for you to be a caricature or to have no substance?


Hi Bob,

First I want to clarify that my view is more along the lines of Moral Government instead of PS. After I started to discussing this with you, I reviewed major concepts of atonement such as Ransom, Satisfaction, Penal Substitution and Moral Government. I have sympathy toward aspects of all those views. And I saw that PS is primarily a Calvinist doctrine while many Arminians work with Moral Government.

Here are general ideas about atonement that goes across the boards with various evangelical colleagues of mine that include Calvinists and Arminians. Across the boards, my colleagues past and present believe that God gives (imputes) righteousness to new believers and new believers begin a life that includes progressive sanctification. The progressive sanctification should result in ongoing transformation. God’s nature and love never changes. We change and reconcile with God.

I believe the Bible teaches that human decisions influence how God gives out rewards and punishments. And I’m unashamedly Arminian with this.

I’m still unsure where we might be having trouble with semantics in our conversation. Are you also implying that you oppose teaching that neglects the importance of progressive sanctification, which should result in an ongoing transformation?



Thanks for the clarifications! I agree that God’s dealings with us appear correlated with our “human decisions” (though I sense that God’s grace gets the decisive credit when we really get things right). But I’m afraid that I’m unfamiliar with “Moral Government” atonement. Are there historical or present writers associated with it?

Yes! I see P.S. diminishing the importance of “progressive sanctification,” though everyone would say they’re for transformation. I’ve perceived that P.S. (by Calvinists or Arminians) emphasizes that Jesus suffers (and perhaps pays a “ransom”) to provide “satisfaction” for God’s wrath and justice. This enables God to then be just in “imputing” Christ’s righteousness to our account. I take it that you’re not so sure about the satisfaction concept, but affirm “imputation.”

But if God “gives righteousness” to us (Christ’s perfection imputed to our account?), would there be less incentive toward the “progressive sanctification” that we both support? I am so flaky as to even be unsure about the imputation interpretation. I see that God provides enormous forgiveness, grace and enablement, but it seems that the real and practical righteousness that this produces in us remains a pivotal concern for how he deals with us.


Hi Aug and Bob teamwork:)

Any aspect of God’s grace can be distorted, which can include both imputed righteousness and Universalism.

Imputed righteousness is directly related to justification by faith. New believers are instantaneously justified before God because of a miraculous work of regeneration. Underemphasizing this ends up with a works driven system such as Roman Catholocism or Eastern Orthodoxy. And overemphasizing this can end up with “antinomianism”, which teaches salvation by faith alone to the extreme that believers can live immorally with no repentance. I strongly believe that we need to avoid both extremes.

I’ve heard various growing Christians emphasize justification by faith to the point that it sounds like antinomianism while they appear fearful of teaching a works-based system. They’re not making excuse for their own sins, but are trying to defend God’s role in justification.

I like the Wikipedia article, I’m not thrilled with any formal modern writings about it, but I like the general concepts that are described in this article.