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Defending the subsitutionary theory of the atonement

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There is arguably no other teaching more central to the Christian faith than the atonement of Jesus Christ. Why did Jesus have to die? What did it accomplish? What does the New Testament tell us? There are numerous nuanced views of the atonement that Christians have held to throughout history, but the most cherished one among evangelical Christians is the one known as the “Penal substitutionary” view of the atonement.

1. Defining what penal substitutionary atonement means

The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement teaches that Christ vicariously was punished for the sins of humanity on the cross, suffering as if he was guilty of their sins due to God having “imputed” those sins to Christ.

For evangelicals, this is not a peripheral issue. Consider this quote from The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration, which says:

“We affirm that the atonement of Christ by which, in his obedience, he offered a perfect sacrifice, propitiating the Father by paying for our sins and satisfying divine justice on our behalf according to God’s eternal plan, is an essential element of the Gospel. We deny that any view of the atonement that rejects the substitutionary satisfaction of divine justice, accomplished vicariously for believers, is compatible with the teaching of the Gospel.”

2. Roman Catholic objections to this view

One of the primary objections to this teaching is that if Christ, on the cross, suffered our eternal penalty for sin, this would have involved a separation from the Father. Such would separate the Son from the Father in his essence, leaving the two no longer consubstantial, basically devolving back into Arianism.

Do evangelicals who heartily hold to this theory of the atonement have to commit a logical inconsistency in order to avoid Arianism? No. If one believes that the Son experienced separation from the Father while suffering from the cross, it doesn’t logically follow at all that this would in some sense deny the inherent unity that he has, in his Being, with the Father. Christ cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” indicating, if nothing else, that he was at the very least experiencing the human emotion of being cut off from his Father.

What if, in order for us to be saved, Christ had to be cut off from the Father and suffer the eternal penalty of our sins? Is the Trinity so composed that such an undertaking would have been impossible, even for God himself? Such seems to be the suggestion of the opponents.

The agony of the cross for Christ was not primarily the physical pain of crucifixion, but the spiritual weight of bearing the sins of the world. In fact, John Calvin interpreted the phrase of the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended to hell” to not mean anything Christ experienced after death, but rather what he experienced on the cross itself. If Christ, in a sense, experienced hell itself for us on Calvary, it must follow that his intimacy with the Father was, in some unexplainable sense, interrupted. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Christ at any point ceased to be the divine Son of God, eternally co-existing with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

3. Connecting how evangelicals understand justification and the atonement

Roman Catholicism's objection to Christ's separation from the Father, at least as it expressed by some individuals within the Catholic Church, seems intricately linked to its objection to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Protestants historically have held that our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross; this is how they understand Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21 which says Christ "became sin" for us. Consequently, in a mystical sense, the Father had to turn away from the Son, not because he no longer loved him, but because he couldn't in any way fellowship with what Christ, on the cross, was representing—namely, the sin of the world. It is because Protestants believe that our sin was imputed to Christ that they believe the corollary—that Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers.

Presbyterians sometimes speak of this as the "Divine exchange". Christ gets our sins credited to his account on the cross, while we get his righteousness credited to our account. It is this righteousness imputed to us without any merit of our own that is the basis of our justification. It seems difficult to maintain A. that Christ suffered God's wrath on our behalf while denying B. that, whatever else experiencing God's wrath means, it means a sense of rejection/abandonment by God.

In an effort to safeguard the unity of the Trinity, Protestants sometimes also object to the notion that Christ was separated from the Father on the cross, but in this writer's mind denying this means denying that Christ really experienced God's wrath on our behalf. This, in turn, means denying that our sins were credited to Christ, which means denying that Christ's righteousness is credited to us, which means denying justification by faith alone. Break one link in the chain, and the entire chain collapses.

4. Conclusion

The biggest problem with opposing views is that if Christ on the cross didn’t suffer our eternal penalty for sin—penal substitutionary atonement—what then did he do? And what then does Paul mean when he says that God made him who knew no sin to “be sin” for us? How is it possible to explain Biblical words such as “propitiation” without going along with the penal substitutionary view (“propitiate” being defined as “to appease wrath”)?

We mustn't say that the eternal penalty that we deserve due to our sins simply gets cancelled without getting paid. If Christ didn’t suffer our eternal penalty on the cross, then that penalty still needs to be served (which would point to us needing to serve it ourselves).

As far as the atonement goes, this writer tends to agree with C.S. Lewis who emphasized that it was the atonement itself, not any theories we devise to explain it, which saves us. That being said, some theories are more accurate than others, and the penal substitutionary view certainly seems to be the most Biblical on the market.

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