Orthodox Problems with Penal Substitution

by Alexander Renault

Reconsidering Tulipfrom his book “Reconsidering Tulip”

The penal substitution view was completely absent from the church for over 1,000 years. It was only in the 11th century that Anselm of Canterbury began to introduce the groundwork for this kind of theology to the West. Nor was it fully developed into the doctrine we now know as penal substitution until the 16th-century Reformers came along. To this day it has never been accepted in the east (nor has it ever been fully accepted by the Roman Catholics).

1. Penal substitution compromises the deity of Christ and puts a rift in the Trinity

If Christ died for, and is our solution to, our sins against god the Father, then what about our sins against Christ? He’s just as god as the Father is. or our sins against the Holy Spirit? With penal substitution, God is pitted against God, either dividing God (and thus destroying the Trinity) or saying that Christ isn’t fully god.

2. With penal substitution, God is bound by necessity

If god’s justice demands that He punish sin, then there is a higher force than God—necessity—which determines what God can and cannot do. Calvinists will be quick to argue,

“No, justice is an aspect of God’s nature. There is no necessity laid on Him from outside His nature.”

The problem, though, is that if I do “A” then God must do “B.” If I sin, God must punish. He does not have the freedom to do otherwise. Thus God’s actions are bound and controlled by some- thing outside of Himself, i.e. my actions. This becomes even more confusing if we add in the Calvinistic notion that God foreordained my sinful actions in the first place, thus forcing Him to respond to them. Furthermore, it is often argued by the Reformed that God is sovereign and doesn’t have to save anyone if He chooses not to. On the other hand, He does have to punish sin. So God has to punish sin, but He doesn’t have to save sinners. It’s very interesting that justice (or at least what the Reformed see as justice) becomes the defining characteristic of God rather than love. Justice forces God to respond to our actions, but love does not.

3. Penal substitution misunderstands the Old Testament sacrifices

The Old Testament sacrificial system was not a picture of penal substitution. God was not pouring out His wrath on the animals in place of the Israelites. He didn’t vent His righteous judgment on the animals, sending them to hell in place of the Israelites. On the contrary, they were killed honorably and as painlessly as possible. Their life (i.e. their blood) was offered to God as a sweet smelling aroma. The resulting meat was good and holy—not just worthless carrion fit for dogs and vultures. Such is also the case with Christ’s sacrifice: it is a holy offering of blood to the Father, not a means whereby God can vent His wrath.

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4. Penal substitution misunderstands the word “justice”

A quick perusal of the psalms and prophets will reveal that the word “justice” is usually coupled with “mercy.” Justice really means to show kindness and deliverance to the oppressed, and to right the wrongs done to them. True justice is destroying our oppressors—sin, death, and Satan—not punishing us for the sins to which we are in bondage.

5. Penal substitution misunderstands the word “propitiation”

Propitiation should not be thought of in the classical pagan sense, as if our god were some angry deity who needed appeasing and could only be satisfied through a penal sacrifice. It’s really quite different. Propitiation (Greek hilasterion) is also translated “mercy seat.” The mercy seat covered the ark of the covenant, which contained a copy of the ten commandments—the law. While the law cried out against us and demanded perfection and showed us our shortcomings, the mercy seat covered those demands and our failure to live up to them. Was the mercy seat punished for our sins? of course not. Likewise, Christ’s blood was not the punishment demanded by justice, but rather the ultimate mercy seat, covering and forgiving our sins. This is why “propitiation” is sometimes more accurately translated as “expiation” in some versions of the Bible. (“expiation” implies the removal of our sins, while “propitiation” implies appeasing an angry deity.)

6. With penal substitution, God does not show unconditional love

With penal substitution, god Himself does not show the unconditional love that He commands us to show one another. There is a big condition attached: god must have an “outlet” to vent His wrath. His “self-giving” love is only made possible by His “self- satisfying” justice.

7. With penal substitution, God does not truly forgive

With penal substitution, the debt is not really forgiven; it’s just transferred. But we are commanded to forgive as God forgave us. If my brother offends me, should I demand justice and vent my wrath on someone else? Should I beat myself up? No, obviously we are to simply let it go and graciously accept the offense.

8. With penal substitution, God changes

According to penal substitution, God is angry with us because of our sins. But once He expresses His wrath in His Son, He is no longer angry with us. Now He loves us as He loves His own Son. In other words, He changes. First He’s angry with us, then He changes His mind and decides to love us. But how can this be if God is love? How can a God who is infinite, self-giving love ever vary in His degree of love towards us? Besides, not only is God love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), but He’s also unchanging (Mal 3:6) and doesn’t change His mind (Num 23:19).

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9. Penal substitution makes the resurrection unnecessary

According to penal substitution, salvation is made possible only by a legal exchange. We are counted “just” and “forgiven” only because god’s wrath has been poured out on Christ instead. Since hell is said to be a punishment for sins, and since our sins have already been punished in Christ, we are free to go to heaven. The resurrection then becomes simply a nice bonus, nothing more than a “proof” that Christ is divine.

10. Penal substitution makes the incarnation unnecessary

Was it Christ’s physical suffering or spiritual suffering which atoned for our sins (according to penal substitution)? If physical, then anyone who has suffered physically more than Christ (and there have been plenty in the history of our race), is exempt from hell, since they already paid for their own sins. If it was Christ’s spiritual suffering that counts, then He didn’t need to be incarnate. (After all, the demons will be punished without needing bodies.) The incarnation becomes just an “add-on” to help us out a little more.

11. One person cannot be punished for another

Contra penal substitution, the Bible tells us that one person can- not be punished for another. each one shall die for his own sins:

In those days they shall say no more:

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

But every one shall die for his own iniquity. (Jer 31:29-30) Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deut 24:16) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek 18:20)

12. Penal substitution makes death a punishment rather than a result

God said,

“In the day you eat the fruit, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17).

He did not say “I will kill you” but rather “you will die.” To walk away from God (i.e. to sin) is by definition, death. death is the realm of “Not God.” likewise, if I pull the plug on my own life support system, the result is death. No one else is killing me. If I jump off the roof, after being warned by my mother not to, and I end up breaking my leg, does that mean that my mother broke my leg? No, that was simply the result of my own choice. Christ gave Himself up to death. If death is an active punishment from God, then Christ was punished by His Father (per penal substitution). But if death is the result of sin, then it is an outside enemy, and not God’s own wrath.

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13. Penal substitution undermines union with Christ

If death is a punishment for sin rather than a result of sin (continuing with the last point), then it makes little sense to speak of being united with Christ. St. Paul says that we were united together in the likeness of His death (Rom 6:5). He also says

“I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20).

If death is a punishment, then St. Paul is saying

“Christ and I have been punished together.”

But again, why would two people be punished for one person’s sins? Perhaps it makes more sense to say that Christ, in union with our humanity, experienced the consequence of death, and through His death, defeated death for all of us. Besides, if we really believe that Christ defeated death, then we certainly can’t say that death is a punishment sent from god, or else we’d be forced to say that Christ defeated something that god willed for us. But Christ and His Father are not at war with each other. on the other hand, I will certainly confess that there is a substitution as well. Christ experienced the consequence of sin (i.e. death), as a substitute for us, so that we don’t have to experience the ultimate consequence sin (i.e. eternal death). But note that Christ is taking on the consequence of sin in our place, rather than the punishment for sin in our place.

14. Penal substitution was absent from the entire Church (both east and west) for at least 1,000 years

To quote from the Theogeek blogsite,

“If the apostles taught penal substitution as a central part of their gospel, then it seems almost entirely inconceivable that the generations that came after them and spoke the same language had, worldwide, managed to universally forget the major and central part of the gospel and replace it with something else entirely.”

So what was Christ’s death for, if not to satisfy God’s  justice? The purpose of Christ’s atonement was to defeat death and forgive us of our sins. It was the presenting of Christ’s blood, His humanity, to the Father to restore the unity that we had broken. It was a sweet-smelling aroma, a sacrifice acceptable to God.

The depth and purpose of His sacrifice is far beyond the scope of this little book, but one thing is for sure: it was not about punishment. And when punishment is taken out of the equation, things look much different. We can no longer say that Christ was punished in place of John but not in place of, say, Judas. But we can say that Christ defeated death for both John and Judas, both of whom will be resurrected regardless of their acceptance or rejection of Christ…

HT: Orthodox Christian Faith

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