During WWII a number of prisoners were suffering horribly from malnutrition and disease in a POW camp in the pacific. The prisoners wanted to escape, not merely for freedom from capture, but to find adequate food and respite. The punishment for trying to escape was to be mercilessly flogged in front of the whole camp.
One man tried to escape for want of food but was captured in the process. However, he was so malnourished and ill that a flogging would surely kill him. Knowing this, the chaplain of the camp made a request to the camp commandant that he be flogged in the prisoner’s place. The Japanese commandant was bemused and curious of this western altruism and so gave permission.
The POWs were assembled to the centre of the camp, two Japanese guards stripped the Chaplain, tied him to a post with his hands above his head, and then proceeded to flog him. The prisoner who originally tried to escape was made to watch. He looked on as soldiers flogged the Chaplain, they flayed his flesh without reserve or mercy, they flogged up when he screamed in pain, they flogged him when collapsed, and they flogged him even when he lost consciousness. The Chaplain’s body was bruised and blooded nearly beyond recognition. The prisoner who tried to escape could only gaze in pity and the man who had saved in his life. He returned to his barracks and that night he wrote in his diary: “In watching that poor man suffering only now to I understand what the Scripture means when it says of Christ he himself bore our sins in his body upon the tree [1 Pet 2.24].”
I find myself committed to penal substitution in light of Scripture, and I find myself moved by penal substitution in light of the grace that undergirds it.
One of my favourite verses concerning the atonement is 1 Pet 2.24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
But what is so amazing here is that the penal substitution model and the moral example theory go hand in hand together! Christ bore (anenegken, lit. carried away) our sins for the purpose that (Gk. hina) we might die to sin and live unto righteousness!
In my mind Scripture teaches the penal substitution model, moral example theory, and the cosmic victory view. Do we have any grounds to say that one story or one particular “version” of the atonement is more central than the others? Is an elevation of penal substitution over the other biblical models due to (a) misreading Paul who is more variegated on the atonement; or (b) even if penal substitution is Paul’s atonement-metaphor-of-choice, does it somehow privilege the Pauline corpus over the rest of the scriptural testimony?
I believe in and love penal substitution. I believe it is central, but whether or not it is the “centre” I leave as an open question.
My favourite writings on penal substitution include:
J.I. Packer, “What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution”.
Simon Gathercole’s article in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology in 2004 [I do not have the details on hand at the moment].
D.A. Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26,” in The Glory of the Atonement
Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, eds. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (IVP).
John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1986).
I. Howard Marshall, The Work of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994).
Although everyone should be getting ready for Scot McKnight’s book on the atonement which will present a rich blend biblical imagery concerning the saving significance and the saving power of Christ’s death! After seeing a sneek-peak of a draft, I anticipate that it will be challenging, edifying and controversial.