Wednesday, February 2, 2011


The Penal Substitution theory of atonement is taught in fundamentalist and evangelical circles as 'thus saith the Lord,' and so that was the only atonement theory I was exposed to for much of my Christian life.  Penal Substitution theory argues that Jesus was punished on the cross in the place of sinnersIt is generally recognized that the Penal Substitution theory was not taught in the early church and was conceived by a man named Anselm in 1098.  Both Luther and Calvin adhered to the Penal Substitution theory of atonement, however, and it became the dominate theory in Protestant churches.  But it wasn't until I began having some questions that I discovered this widely popular theory is only one among many atonement theories.  Two other major theories worth mentioning here are the Christus Victor theory and the Moral Example theory.  A summary of the different atonement theories can be read here

Despite the strong emphasis on the cross in the Penal Substitution theory, it seems to me that adherence to this theory has left us with a cross bereft of any life-changing power and resulted in a crossless Christianity.  Oh, there is much talk about Jesus' death on the cross - but little personal application.   Basically,  Christianity as we know it today has largely become an escapist religion:  Jesus died on the cross so I don't have to do the hard work of dying to my selfish nature (a.k.a. the ego, flesh, lower nature, carnal man, the anti-christ within us).  Jesus paid it all, so I don't have to....Jesus did it all, so I don't have to...Jesus lived a holy life, so I don't have to.  As a matter of fact, all I have to do is be sure to get him to cover up anything my selfish nature is guilty of - by gettin' it "under the blood."   And, finally, when God comes back and wrath is poured out on the entire planet - Well, none of it'll touch me, because I'll be raptured out of this world before the bad stuff starts... 

We have forgotten that Jesus called us to take up our cross daily and follow him.   Much benefit can be gained from the wisdom of Thomas Merton on this subject:  

        " is essential to remember that for a Christian "the word of the Cross" is nothing
         theoretical, but a stark and existential experience of union with Christ in His death in
         order to share in His resurrection. To fully "hear" and "receive" the word of the Cross
         means much more than simple assent to the dogmatic proposition that Christ died for
         our sins. It means to be "nailed to the Cross with Christ," so that the ego-self is no
         longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in 

         us.  "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal, 2:19-20; see also Romans 8:5-17).  
         To receive the word of the Cross means the acceptance of a complete self-emptying, a
         Kenosis,  in union with the self-emptying Christ "obedient to death." (Phil. 2:5-11) It is
         essential to true Christianity that this experience of the Cross and of self-emptying be
         central in the life of the Christian so that he may fully receive the Holy Spirit and know
         (again by experience) all the riches of God in and through Christ" (John 14:16-17, 26;
         15:26-27; 16:7-15)"
Zen and the Birds of Appetite (p.55).

In the Moral Example theory, the call is to follow Jesus rather than have Jesus do it all so we don't have to. Jesus was the pattern son, who set an example that we are to follow - he showed us the way, and we are to travel that same way.  Christ suffered for us, leaving an example, that we should follow in his steps. As we do so, we become partakers in his death, burial, and resurrection.  That our 'old man' is crucified with him (Rom. 6:6) is not mere hyperbole, but must take place in like manner.  Although not physical, this death to our selfish nature is not only a very real experience, but a very painful one as well.  

Don Rogers posted an article at his Reflections blog by Steve Jones on this subject which I heartily agree with.  He said:
"Jesus’ death works a change in us so that we give up our sinful, self-absorbed life and walk in his steps. This is salvation, the life of cross-carrying discipleship….The message of the cross should always be coupled with the message of discipleship. We must take up our cross and follow Christ in a life of servanthood and love. It is common for the New Testament authors to speak of the cross, then to speak of our need to “die” to sin and self-centeredness. And that is the crucial point – the grand objective of the crucifixion. It is for our sanctification that Jesus gave his life. Paul’s declaration “I am crucified with Christ” should be ours.” You can read the entire post here.


Nick said...

This article will show why the Biblical term for "Atonement" is incompatible with Penal Substitution.

Mae said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I looked at your article, and we seem to agree that penal substitution theory lacks adequate support. If you’re interested, here is an article on the subject that I found refreshing:

Be blessed,

Don said...

Steve Jones was a heavy influence on my life early in my journey out of evangelical conservatism. I think I have most every post Steve wrote in the last five years. He, at present, has retired from blogging. He is, however, on FB. You can find him in my Friends list.

Mae said...

Thanks, Don. I know I really enjoyed reading him on your blog - so he doesn't write anything anymore? Wish he was still blogging, or at least had left his old posts up! I'll look him up on FB as you suggest.