Friday, April 27, 2007

Penal Substitution and Propitiation

I wonders if part of the current debate (see my earlier post Wright on Penal Substitution) is because there is a failure to distinguish between "penal substitution" and "propitiation". They are related but they are not the same thing. What is more, how is God's wrath to be understood?

We can define Penal Substitution (PS) as the view that God punishes Jesus for our sins by putting him in our place on the cross. No definition of PS that I know of (e.g. Robert Latham, Leon Morris, or John Stott) mentions wrath as far as I can remember. PS means that God prosecutes his contention against our sin by handing over Jesus to the cross to die in our stead. I think PS is taught in Rom. 8.1-3 and implied in Rom. 3.25, 1 Cor. 5.7, Gal. 3.13 and 1 Tim. 2.6. If Dan Wallace is right (GGBB, 383-89) then there may be some grounds for seeing a semantic overlap between the prepositions hyper "for" and anti "in place of", e.g. "Jesus died hyper [for/in place of] us" or in order to deal with our sins. But it is one thing to say that Jesus satisfied the justice of God, and it is another thing to say that he satisfies the wrath of God - they are not the same. I would also concur with St. Leon of Morris that hilasterion means "propitiation". The meaning is that Jesus' death appeases and satisfies God's wrath. What is more, in Romans the verdict of condemnation against human wickedness occassioned by God's wrath in 1.18-32 is identical to the verdict executed in Christ's death in Rom. 3.21-26 - so there is a connection between atonement, justice, and wrath. But how? Well, when that verdict is executed then God's wrath is propitiated.

What is God's wrath for that matter? I don't think it is the inevitable and impersonal exercise of God's justice in a moral universe (C.H. Dodd) nor can it be described as God's action as a "vengeful Father" (I think that is what Stephen Chalke is objecting too). The best definition of wrath is that it is the response of God's holiness towards evil, it is the display of God's righteous indignation towards human depravity (F.F. Bruce, Romans). It is neither impersonal nor spiteful. About a year ago I read a horrid story of a 4 year old girl who was beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend and the couple put her body in a suitcase through it in the River Ness. When I read that story I felt wrath, a righteous anger. It wasn't spiteful, it was not disproportionate, but my anger against such an horrendous crime was appropriate to me as a Father and and a law-abiding citizen - that action demanded punishment and I wanted to see that punishment meted out fully and finally. On the cross, God does not extract "revenge" against the Jesus, rather he executes his wrath (righteous indignation) against sin in the body of the sinless Son.

For those in want of further eading, let me recommend the following:

Carson, D.A. ‘Atonement in Romans 3:21-26.’ In The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives, eds. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 119-39.

Gathercole, Simon. ‘The Cross and Substitutionary Atonement.’ SBET 21 (2003): 152-63.

McGowan, A.T.B. ‘The Atonement as Penal Substitution.’ In Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. A.T.B. McGowan (Leicester, England: IVP, 2006), 183-210.

McKnight, Scot. A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon, forthcoming 2007).


David Shedden said...

Thanks for this Michael. I am perplexed by the current debate. You nicely summarise that the relevant biblical evidence demands some kind of PS view of atonement. But even from a dogmatic or theological view, I want people who argue against PS to tell me straight what they think death is from that perspective. Can death be anything other than God's curse and judgment on sin and sinners? And, if so, how can Christ's death be anything different without being a different kind of death?

Denny Burk said...

Dear Mike,

You wrote: "What is God's wrath for that matter? . . . nor can it be described as God's action as a 'vengeful Father.'"

I would say that this is precisely the problem with Wright's essay. Chalke and Wright object to the "vengeful Father" motif, yet God's "vengeance" is a prominent theme in scripture (Deut 32:35 LXX; Luke 18:7-8; Rom 12:19; 2 Thess 1:8; Heb 10:30). Vengeance is not an extra-biblical or "sub-biblical" idea. It comes straight out the scriptures.

In Romans 12:19, God's "vengeance" (ekdikesis) is none other than the expression of His wrath: "Never take your own vengeance, beloved, but leave room for the wrath [of God], for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." God's wrath is the response of God's holiness towards evil. His vengeance is God's "retaliation" (see BDAG) for against sin.

So in Romans 12:19, vengeance and wrath are very closely related, and both are responses of God's holiness to sin. "Vengeance" (retaliation) grows out of God's "wrath" (hatred, anger) against sin. The former flows directly out of the latter, as it were.

That is why I think that Wright's rejection of the "vengeful Father" motif is problematic.


Michael F. Bird said...


I see where you are coming from but I get the feeling that you are kinda reducing PS to the "vengeful Father" motif which is simply not what Scripture teaches in relation to Christ's death. When God's justice is satisfied then his wrath is propitiated. Nowhere in the NT does it say that God the Father gets "revenge" on the Son. I am not denying that vengeance belongs to God. But God's vengeance is not a disproportionate payback which can be connoted by the term "vengeance", it is rather the display of his punitive justice. That punitive justice itself is related to God's intent to establish righteousness through-out all of creation and thus takes on a positive sense (see Mark Seifrid on that one). While God's vengeance and wrath may conceptually overlap in the sense of both referring to God's punitive justice, they are not strictly identitical. The proof of that, as I said, was that nowhere (to my knowledge) are the words vengeance or revenge used of Jesus' death. That's not because I'm a clauset Wright-loving-Chalke-admirer, it is simply the grammar of Scripture. So say "yes" to "wrath" but "no" to "vengeance".

Denny Burk said...

Dear Mike,

A couple of responses:

1. You said that I am "reducing PS to the 'vengeful Father' motif." That is not my intent. I have said more than once elsewhere (I can't remember if it was here, my blog, or somewhere else) that there certainly is more to PS than the "vengeful Father" motif, but that PS is certainly not LESS than the "vengeful Father" motif. What I see from Chalke (perhaps from Wright in the Fulcrum essay) is that they are eschewing notions of God's wrath/vengeance.

2. I have never said (nor do proponents of PS say) that God's wrath amounts to a "disproportionate payback." God's retaliation is just and commensurate with the offense against His holiness. Disproportionate payback simply has nothing to do with PS. God's retaliation is always just (Romans 12:19). If anyone thinks that English word "vengeance" implies disproportionality and not just recompense, then I'm open to suggestions for new way of referring to God's just retaliation against sin (ekdikesis).

3. I don't think that God's vengeance equals His wrath. Yes they are related concepts, but not identical. I think vengeance (ekdikesis) refers to God's retaliatory judgments on sin. Wrath (orge) can refer either to God's indignation towards sin (e.g. Rom 12:19, John 3:36) or to the judgments flowing from that indignation (Rom 5:9; Col 3:6). So, yes, I agree that they are related concepts, though not identical. I never intended to say that they were identical. I'm sorry if I wasn't clear on that point.

4. I don't feel comfortable saying "yes" to wrath but "no" to vengeance when texts like Romans 12:19 tells me that the one entails the other. In Romans 12:19, we are commanded not to retaliate (ekdikeo) but to leave room for God's wrath (orge). The quotation from Deuteronomy shows that Paul thinks "leaving room for the wrath of God" means leaving room for God's just retaliation (ekdikesis).


Denny Burk said...

I guess that was more than a "couple." :)

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for making the distinction between penal substitution and propitiation.

But I fail to see where penal substitution, as defined by you as "God punishes Jesus for our sins by putting him in our place on the cross", is taught in the verses you quote. Romans 8:3 states that God condemned sin in the flesh, presumably of Jesus, but not that he punished Jesus. 3:25 is about propitiation, not PS, on your definitions. 1 Corinthians 5:7 is about sacrifice, not punishment, and the original Passover lamb was nothing to do with punishment. 1 Timothy 2:6 is the language of paying the price to set a slave free, so nothing to do with punishment. Galatians 3:13 is perhaps closest with its language about the curse of the law which implies punishment, but note that Jesus becomes cursed not because of our sins but because he was hanged on a tree.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Sorry to break in on this discussion, but I don't have email for Michael or Joel. Guys, I just nominated this blog for the Thinking Blogger Award. Enjoy:

Norman said...

Thank you, Michael, for your recent article. I would like to leave a comment concerning the term you refer to: 'hilasterion'. More precisely, this word relates to the cover over the ark:

Jesus was set forth as the 'propitiation' (Rom.3:25, Greek: hilasterion—Gk. Septuagint word for the cover over the ark). This word is translated 'atonement cover' in the NIV wherever it is used in the O.T. to describe the covering over the ark, as it is also used in Hebrews 9:5.  The word is translated 'mercy seat' in the NKJ version of the Bible. From above this cover, described in detail in Exodus 25:17-22, between the cherubim, Yahweh spoke to Moses: 'Now when Moses went into the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him' (Num.7:89, NKJ). This was the cover that was sprinkled with the blood of atonement just once every year, on the Day of Atonement. It was placed in the innermost part of the sanctuary, behind the veil, in the 'holy of holies'. Jesus, therefore, sprinkled with His own blood, is conveyed as the One in whom and by whom propitiation for us is made possible. The cover was placed above the receptacle of the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of the moral Law given by God to Moses, Aaron's rod and a golden pot of manna (Heb.9:4). This covenant and the Law of the Ten Commandments is what man has violated. 'All have sinned [Jew and Gentile alike] and fall short of the glory of God' (Rom.3:23, NKJ). 'There is none righteous, no, not one' (Rom.3:10, NKJ). Man's unrighteousness is the cause of his separation from God (Isa.59:2, NKJ) and the reason for mankind's need of a Saviour and Advocate: 'Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world' (1 John 2:1-2, NKJ).

Jesus was the Word of God made flesh (John 1v14). He embodied the righteousness of the commandments that were written on the tablets of stone placed within the ark. Aaron's rod that budded and bore fruit (Num.17:8), symbolic in one sense of resurrection and new life, placed within the ark, foretold of the Holy One who would say of Himself: 'I am the resurrection and the life' (John 11:25). Jesus is the prophesied Branch of righteousness (Jer.23:5; 33:15), with justice and righteousness as His sceptre (Ps.45:6; Heb.1:8). He is also 'the true bread from heaven,' as Jesus said: 'Moses did not give you the bread from heaven [cf. 'manna', Ex.16:31-33], but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world' (John 6:32-33, NKJ). Jesus was and is the Holy One of God (John 6:69, NIV; Acts 2:27) upon whom the authority of God rested and rests, symbolized by the mercy seat over the ark. ‘All authority has been given Me in heaven and on earth.’ Jesus said (Matt.28:18, NKJ). As prophesied in the book of Isaiah: ’... the government will be upon His shoulder’ (Isa.9:6, NKJ).

In a spiritual sense, therefore, the ark of God foreshadowed and typified Christ.  When He gave His life as an atonement, His blood poured down over the true Mercy Seat of God's Ark—Himself (Rom.3:25), who is the embodiment of the heavenly bread of God's Word and Law, and who is the resurrection and the life. He did not do away with the Law, but fulfilled the Law through His own truly righteous life that He poured out in death—thus annulling and bringing to an end the Old Covenant with the physical nation of Israel; while, at the same time, ratifying the New Covenant by His blood with spiritual Israel (Rom.7:1-4; Mat.26:28; 2 Cor.3: 4-9).


Norman McIlwain

Norman said...

Did Jesus suffer the wrath of God?

Occasionally, one hears the claim that the cup of communion symbolizes not just the blood of Christ but also the cup of God's wrath—of which, it is said, Jesus drank on our behalf when He suffered and died. The verse: 'Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; ...'(Luke 22:42, NKJ) is often used as though offering support for this notion—but wrongly so. It is necessary to study the biblical application of such figurative terms and the context in which they are used.

In both the Old and New Testaments, 'cup' is employed in metaphorical expressions, such as: 'cup of consolation' (Jer.16:7, NKJ); 'cup of salvation' (Ps.116:13); 'cup of blessing' (1 Cor.10:16); 'my cup overflows' (Ps.23:5), etc.. Most often, the metaphor refers to suffering, e.g.: 'the cup of ruin and desolation' (Ezek.23:33, NIV); 'the cup of trembling … the cup of My fury' (Is.51:22, NKJ); 'the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath' (Rev.16:19, NKJ). The 'cup of the Lord' (1 Cor.10:21; 11:27, NKJ), however, spoken of by Paul, refers not to the cup of God's wrath, but to the 'cup of blessing' used in Holy Communion (1 Cor.10:16, NKJ). 'The cup of demons'
(1 Cor.10:21) is the opposite phrase—denoting the ceremonial food or drink of false religion. One cannot expect to receive the blessings of the Lord, imparted through Holy Communion, if one is also partaking of elements presented in the counterfeit worship of devils (1 Cor.10:20-22).

For what reasons and upon what persons was the wrath of God poured out on Israel and Judah in Old Testament times? Was it not poured out for reasons of national apostasy upon the incorrigibly wicked who refused to repent? God sent His servants, but few listened and took heed of their warnings. Jeremiah wrote: 'Why has this people slidden back, Jerusalem, in a perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit, they refuse to return. I listened and heard, but they do not speak aright. No man repented of his wickedness, saying, "What have I done?" Everyone turned to his own course, as the horse rushes into the battle' (Jer.8:5-6, NKJ). See also, for example: Jer.44:2-6.

It is the revelation of Scripture that the 'cup of God's wrath' represents God's judgement upon the incorrigibly wicked who refuse to turn from their evil ways. This cup of His fury is not poured out or given to those who are willing to repent. Indeed, the repentant are promised life: 'For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!' (Ezek.18:32). It is theologically incorrect, therefore, to claim that Jesus drank the cup of God's wrath on our behalf when He suffered and died. Jesus died to save all who are willing to repent—not those who refuse to repent, for whom the cup of His wrath is justly reserved. The cup of suffering that He drank was not the outpouring of God's anger, but was the witness He had to endure for our sakes, in order to fulfil all that was written. Only those who elect to follow the way of evil and refuse correction suffer the wrath of God. This will be the fate of the wicked at the end of the age: 'We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. The nations were angry; and your wrath has come' (Rev.11:17, NIV).

Any comments?

Again, blessings!

Norman McIlwain

Norman said...

‘Can death be anything other than God's curse and judgment on sin and sinners? And, if so, how can Christ's death be anything different without being a different kind of death?’
(Quote: David Sheddon)

Dear David, I hope to answer you:

The judgement upon Adam assigned all mankind, at most, to a limited number of years on earth in which to live out an existence. We age and, whether or not by old age, eventually die. Perhaps Enoch and Elijah may be regarded as exceptions, for the scriptures indicate that they were ‘taken up’ (Heb.11:5; 2 Kings 2:11-12). Moreover, at the coming of our Lord, there will be those who will ‘be changed’ to take on ‘incorruption’ (1 Cor.15:51-52; 1 Thess.4:17). Not all will die – and death, for the faithful, must be regarded as a form of ‘sleep’ (1 Thess.4:15; Mat.22:32): The body dies, but the spirit lives.

Did Jesus die to save us from bodily death? - Obviously not. The judgement that was upon Adam’s flesh is still in force. No one is immune from physical death. However, when speaking of death, we need to distinguish between the different states of death – physical and spiritual. Unrepentant sinners may be regarded as spiritually dead already, as once were the faithful in Christ: ‘You He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph.2:1, NKJ). Remember our Lord’s words: ‘Let the dead bury their own dead’ (Mat.8:22, NKJ).

However, Jesus, being born of the Holy Spirit, was spiritually alive from the beginning. We are told that Jesus, ‘who knew no sin’ (2 Cor.5:21) lived ‘without sin’ (Heb.4:15). Our High Priest was ‘separate from sinners’ (Heb.7:26), though He came in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom.8:3). This is our faith – and this is how He died – as the Lamb of God, without spot or blemish (1 Pet.1:19). As symbolized by the unleavened bread of communion, He gave His life in purity, without sin – as the Anointed Son of God – Immanuel, God with us.

For these reasons, the One who died on the cross was different – and so was His death; because the One who died was truly righteous, without sin. Jesus is the only one who made a pure and perfect sacrifice of His life—when He died for our sakes on the cross. This was the debt He paid on our behalf. It was not the penalty of death, He paid the debt of righteousness—the gift to God of a righteous life, which is our due. Christ's righteousness is our covering if we are united in Him. The Father accepts us along with His Son. He has paid our due offering that we may be covered by His life and judged righteous. 'There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus' (Rom.8:1, NKJ). His righteous life is imputed to us who look to Him in the oneness of the Spirit. It is Jesus who is 'THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS' (Jer.23:6).

When Adam sinned, mankind was judged sinful and appointed to die. Was God wrong in His judgement? Certainly not, we are sinful. God, of course, judged correctly. Spiritually, we all answer for our own sins (see Ezek.18) and should seek the forgiveness of God. In Christ, we are set free.

Justice is not upheld by punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty. You don't need a law degree to see that. It is common sense.

Peace be with you!

Norman McIlwain

(Should anyone wish to correspond privately or enquire further, my email can be found – spam protected – at my website:

Michael F. Bird said...

I have no gripe with God's vengeance ala Rom. 12.9. But why is an orthodox view of PS judged on the basis of whether I use the word "vengeance" or not? Is it not sufficient to say that Jesus endures God's wrath. Ekdikesis is not used in relation to Jesus' death on the cross. I feel like your logic is: (1) Wrath = Vengeance. (2) Jesus endures God's wrath. (3) Therefore, the Father gets revenge in Jesus. (4) Anyone who fails to concur with these inferences is slippery or ambiguous on PS. I just don't see it that way. I hope I'm not reading too much in your view. But I don't feel obligated to use the word "vengeance" in relation to Jesus' death because the NT itself doesn't. Am I being pedantic? Darn right, on atonement theology we should be! As such, I interpret Jesus' death in terms of God's punitive and judicial judgment against sin and evil because I am led so by the terms and context found.

Michael W.
Thanks for the nomination! You give pacifist Baptists a good name!!

You follow the language closely and that is an admirable characteristic. Bravo!! But I still think that judicial punishment is implied in Rom. 8.3, hilasterion, and Gal. 3.13. Wright says as much about Rom. 8.3.

Thanks for your posts. You might want to try being a little briefer buddy :-)

Norman said...

Hi Michael,

Sorry, I was trying to be brief - honest! I will try harder.

For a long time, I also could only interpret our Lord's death in the way you describe. However, I think it can be more a case of accepting the doctrine of Penal Substitution - not because it is either logical or just - but because we believe this doctrine to be the teaching of Scripture.

Now, after many years of study as a Bible believing Christian, I
see the atonement in a different light. In brief, so can you!


Norman McIlwain

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