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Analyzing the Atonement: Penal Substitution Theory

Well we've finally arrived. We've gotten to familiar ground. Some might even say "holy ground". For many Evangelicals, the theory of Penal Substitution is the only acceptable view on the atonement. We'll take a brief look at how this perspective has driven the wedge between the limited and unlimited atonement views.

Not Your Mother's (Anselm's) Substitution

The first thing to recognize when study the scope of atonement theories is that this view is distinctly Reformed. And I'm not using that word in the "Reformation" sense. The roots of this view are laid forth in John Calvin and watered, nurtured and pruned by the Reformed Dogmatics that followed him. This view is distinct from Luther, Wesley and most importantly Anselm. 

Anselm held to a strong perspective on the substitution method of atonement. All Protestants from that day forth have also held to the view strongly. But what Christ was a substitute for becomes an even bigger question. For Anselm is was the debt of glory due God by His creation. Jesus Christ lived a perfect life and died a death that re-paid God all the glory that was due His name. 

The Penal Theory moves the view of Christ's substitution from one of payment or punishment. Christ is our substitute for the wrath of God inflicted to fulfill all righteousness. This view was seen as a significant departure from the historical views of the atonement and is still quite offensive to the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

Penal Passages

There are quite a few passages that can be read from the Penal perspective. One can see though that this passages are often more substitution than penal. Isaiah 53:4-11 and Galatians 3:10-13 remain the strongest verses, in my opinion, that endorse the view that Christ suffered the punishment for our sins. In particular, both of these can be seen as Christ suffering the punishment inherent to the law of Moses.

Other passages like 2 Cor 5:21 1 Peter 3:18 surely give a substitution view but less of a penal view. However, if the penal view can be substantiated elsewhere, these passages are quite to affirm the thesis. Taken all together, these verses show the validity of the substitution view in the Apostolic teaching.

Penal Problems

One of the issues with the Penal Substitution Theory is the scope of the atonement. In a very practical sense, the Penal view states that every particular sin and its corresponding punishment was laid upon Jesus Christ at the cross. But could Christ take the sins and punishment for people who would not be saved? Would they not then become freed from the guilt and punishment of their sin independent of confessing Jesus as Lord?

This question and problem is difficult from every angle. Accusations fly constantly: how is the gospel valid if Jesus didn't for everyone? How is God's justice true if He is guilty of Double Jeopardy? Almost all of these problems are unique to this theory on the atonement. And I personally believe they are quietly resolved if the Evangelical world would accept multiple perspectives on the atonement.

A Penal Resolution

Many of the supposed problems with this view have been known since the beginning of the Reformation. The Lutheran church has drifted to a strong Christus Victor model while other Protestant groups have modified the Penal view in a couple other standards.

It is my opinion however to define the scope of the atonement solely in terms of the Penal view is dangerous. I understand that historically the argument of limited/unlimited has occurred in the realm of the Penal theory. That being the case, I've shown that I believe the Scriptures are limited in their speech about the Penal. I struggle with taking universal passages about Christ's atonement and apply them in a Penal fashion.

This is where an understanding of the history of the atonement is valuable. I find that there are explicit and foundational truths within most of the views that I've covered in this series. And many of these views permit a universal scope while permitting a completely limited Penal scope.

We'll take a look at some more Substitution Theories and then we'll return to this concept of blending views.

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