Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday Thought: Penal Substitution

I spent a number of years in the Australian Defence Force and learned this illustration from an Army Chaplain.

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.

6 comments:

Steven Harris said...

Could you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by penal substitution?

Most descriptions of it that I come across sound like the one that Stott explicitly refutes in his book (the notion that the Father punishes in the Son - it's in chapter 6 somewhere) - I think that the term 'penal' becomes slightly ambiguous and different people use it different ways, some of which I strongly disagree with.

Thanks - and hope the chicken pox is feeling a little less itchy :)

thunderbeard said...

thanks for the story and your thoughts on penal substitution. it is edifying and especially so on this good friday.

Scot McKnight said...

Michael,
The most important features of penal substitution that need to be remedied are:

bipolarizing God's persons
bipolarizing God's attributes

creating a dualism wherein God is outside the humans he punishes.

I saw some hope in the end of McCormack's piece in the IVP volume on atonement.

When these elements can be placed in proper relation to the biblical evidence, we can speak of a biblical understanding and a solid theological view. Until then we'll do with inconsistencies in God, between Father and Son, and between an Infinite God and a created order that is entirely within that Infinity.

Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for providing a springboard for my own post here. I’d been meaning to address penal substitution within the wider context of atonement theories in general.

CJW said...

Sorry Mike, I know that this is the shibboleth of evangelical orthodoxy, but I still struggle with it. 'Jesus-is-my-whipping-boy' doesn't sit well with me. Jesus overcame the power of death and sin by exhausting it sits better.
In any case I'm about to preach a similar sermon to your 'resurrection means mission' (in Logan Baptist Church!) next week. Except I plagirised my outline from the Newsboys at AGMF: Christ has died (salvation is what God did for us), Christ is risen (salvation is what God does in us), Christ will come again (salvation is what God does through us).

danielbradley said...

"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." Great comment Mike! I shall quote you in a sermon one day:)