The Penal Substitutionary teaching of the Atonement (sometimes referred to as the Forensic theory of the Atonement) following Scripture, insists that Jesus Christ, consistent with the Covenant of Redemption, by His own choice, became obedient unto the sacrificial death of the Cross. In the doing of so, the Lord Christ satisfied, as a substitute, the just penal demands of God’s law against elect sinners with the consequence that the punishment that should have fallen on elect sinners is understood to have been fallen upon Christ. The whole idea is encapsulated in Peter’s phraseology that, “Christ died for sins once for all; the just for the unjust.”
The centrality of this doctrine is so important that any denial of the Forensic theory of the Atonement leaves us with a Christianity that is completely redefined. Indeed, this is so much true that those who profess Christianity yet deny the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement profess a different Christianity than those who profess Christ while affirming the penal substitutionary atonement. A different Christianity ensues when the Forensic doctrine of the atonement is deleted.
This also means that all who affirm a hypothetical universal atonement whereby Christ dies for all in theory but where the intent of the hypothetical universal atonement is limited by sovereign man confess a thoroughly different Christianity than those who submit to the Scriptures teaching of Penal substitutionary atonement where the intent of the atonement is limited by our Sovereign God.
Now, felicitous inconsistency sometimes keeps these different expressions from coming into the collision that they rightfully should be involved in but at the end of the day Christianity with a penal substitutionary atonement and Christianity without a penal substitutionary atonement are both Christianity the same way that Marxism without a Hegelian dialectic is the same as Marxism with a Hegelian dialectic.
As Dabney noted on this score,
“This issue is cardinal. As the Churches of all ages has understood the Scriptures, the whole plan of gospel redemption rests upon this substitution of Christ as its corner-stone. He who overthrows the corner-stone overthrows the building. The system which he rears without this foundation may be named Christianity by him, but it will be another building, his own handiwork, not that of God — another gospel.”
The cash value of this observation is that non Reformed churches (Holiness Churches, Lutheran Churches, Roman Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Pentecostal Churches, and assorted Free Will Baptist Churches) teach a different Christianity than Reformed Churches. People would be do well to be aware of this
In the next few paragraphs I hope to explain why this is the case. I want to zero in on the impact upon other historic Christian theological doctrines that a denial of penal substitutionary atonement necessitates.
When we examine Theology proper we note that a denial of the Forensic doctrine of the atonement calls in to question God’s distributive justice. No substitutionary atonement means that God is not just and He is not just because the penalty that sin requires is never fully leveraged. If Christ is not on the Cross bearing the just and exact penalty required due to the breaking of God’s law then God is not just in letting sin go unrequited as promised. God’s perfect holiness is also called into question. If sin is not visited with its just penalty then the character of God is seen as accommodating sin. Sin is not seen as sinful as it really is where sin is not visited with the full measure of penalty as taught in the penal substitutionary doctrine as it reflects Scripture. All of this in turn calls in to question God’s immutability. If God was a perfect being in His justice, and holiness and then transmuted into a God who was not perfect in His justice and holiness as seen in not visiting sin with its full penal consequences then God’s un-changeableness is automatically called into question.
All of this then diminishes both our estimation of the majesty of God and the sinfulness of sin. The consequences of playing with the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement results in a diminished God and a lowered conception of sin as an infinite evil, which in turn results in exalted views of man and a correspondingly higher estimation of man’s goodness and his abilities.
As we look at the connection to soteriology we again see the hollowing out of Christianity by denying the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement. When one denies that Christ paid the definite sin for a particular people, in the sense of Christ being the sin bearer, by way of imputation, for an atoned for people who were objectively justified by the finished work of Christ’s atonement one affirms a Messianic death that is uncertain and incomplete short of some necessary addition to complete that, at best, partial atonement. If it is denied that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to a particular people because of His penal satisfaction then original sin as imputed to sinners must also be denied. We know this because St. Paul teaches that one implies the other in Romans 5.
Also, as hinted at above, if the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement is denied than Justification must also likewise be denied. If Christ is not filling the laws demands for a particular people by His satisfactory death then Justification is a mirage and some other mechanism, besides Christ’s Forensic death, is the means by which we are redeemed.
Next, we would have to say that if Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement is not true then the idea of faith alone is transmuted. In historic Christianity faith operates in salvation as entirely receptive and so not contributory. If Christ’s death is not penalty bearing, satisfactory, and substitutionary then faith is required to do work that is other than receptive. Indeed, our faith itself, as a work, as opposed to Christ’s righteousness, likely becomes that which is imputed to us as the ground of our justification.
The theological doctrine of Adoption becomes perverted when the Forensic doctrine of the Atonement is denied. If it is not Christ’s satisfaction that is the ground for our Adoption then it needs be that it is our performance that becomes the ground for our Adoption into the family of God.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is made raw by a denial of Christ substitutionary death. If Christ has not paid the full and complete penalty for our sins then there is no guarantee to bank upon that our continued status as “in Christ” means anything more than our continued merit worthy performance.
If Christ’s death is not penal, but only remedial, as some suggest then the whole doctrine of eternal damnation must be rejected. This kind of thinking insists that God’s love cannot allow for punishment and, by definition, can only be remedial. Thus Christianity becomes the handmaiden for Universalism as well as a faith system that disallows even eternal perdition for Satan and his fallen minions.
We therefore see that a Christianity that denies the Penal substitutionary doctine of the Atonement yields a Christianity where God is not Holy, Just, or Immutable. It yields a Christianity where sin is not awful, and God is not big. The denial of the Forensic death of Christ — the just for the unjust — moves us from a theocentric soteriology to an anthropocentric soteriology. Without the truth of the penal substitutionary atonement we lose gracious justification, gracious adoption, and gracious perseverance of the saints. Without the truth of the forensic doctrine of the atonement we embrace Universalism.
Now, as was said at the outset, there are many who do not embrace the penal substitutionary atonement who because of felicitous contradiction end up orthodox in areas where they should not be. Still the truth is that if people were consistent with their denial of the Forensic atonement they would be practicing a Christianity that would be filled with a content different than the Christianity of the Bible.