What Is Left of Biblical Christianity When Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Eliminated?

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.

A Few Words On Hillary, E-Mail Servers, & The God State

Today, the FBI Director, James Comey, made it clear that his department would not indict, because they could not indict, Hillary Clinton for her Email server crimes whereby she compromised State security. After Attorney General Lorretta Lynch last week made known that she would follow the FBI’s advice this means that once again, a Clinton walks away from something that if a non-Clinton had perpetrated they’d  be held culpable. Witness Gen. David Petraeus’ conviction for essentially the same crimes for which Hillary will not be indicted.

I am not interested in spending any time in the entrails of Comey’s decision. Suffice it to understand that he doubtless knows that Clinton enemies have a habit of disappearing when about to slap the Clinton mafiosi family.  What I am interested in doing is bringing out a theological point in connection to this event that I doubt you’ll read anywhere else.

This event where Hillary skates above the law once again proves that one way to locate the God in any given social order is to locate the person or institution which can not be held responsible. One characteristic of being god or a god figure is the fact that there is no one to whom you can be held responsible to for anything that you do.

This is true of the God of the Bible, the only true God. God is not answerable to anyone. This is where Arminians make their error by constantly trying to make God answerable to themselves. God is not answerable to anyone save Himself and He is under no compulsion to actually provide answers for His actions. One of the perks of being God is that you are not answerable to the non-gods. This was demonstrated in the account in the book of Job. When you read the book of Job you see that Job has all kinds of questions about God’s actions. You also see that Job never gets an answer to any of those questions demanding that God be accountable to Job. What Job gets from God, in terms of answers, is basically, I’m God and I owe you no answers.

This is how it should be between the Creator and the creature. God is not responsible to the creature and owes no answer to the creature about anything He does.

And this is exactly how the Federal Leviathan is acting in this Hillary affair. The State is God and Hillary, as the likely soon incarnation of the State, is not answerable to anyone. She could commit cold-blooded murder on FOX News as broadcast across the world and she would not be held responsible, because the God or god concept of any social order by definition can not be held responsible. So, when we see Hillary not being indicted for what she is clearly guilty of it is merely another case proving whereby the State takes itself as being the God of the social order and so not responsible to any law to which mere mortals are responsible.

This demonstrates that we live in a social order where Rex Lex applies to the State and its key minions. Rex Lex means that the King is above the law, or that the King is not responsible to the Law. The same is true for a God, of course. Hillary, as a minion of the God State, and likely soon to be the incarnation of the State as President,  is above the law.

This, in turn, clearly demonstrates that we do not live in a nation ruled by law but rather we live in a nation ruled by men. Which, of course, means that law is applicable only depending upon how well you are or are not connected to people who can make the ramifications of the law go away for those who know them.

The next implication of this is, that since we do not live by the rule of law but by the rule of men, we are no longer responsible to the law. Now, we may still obey what is called the law because we can be hurt by the rule of men who decide to apply the law haphazardly but if the law is not uniformly applied to all men then no men are responsible to a law that has lost all its legitimacy because it is not really law as seen in the fact that it is indiscriminately applied.

Let us be clear here. This kind of action whereby the God-State escapes being held responsible by the law, communicates again that the Government we live under no longer is legitimate. We are living under a illegal Government. As such we owe this illegitimate State no obedience. We still might render obedience up for several reasons, but we do not owe a illegitimate State obedience.

Another couple of points before summing up. Those who are servants of the one true God go out of their way to expose the false gods walking upon the earth. There was a time when Christian clergy would not be silent in the face to an action by the God State where, as in this case, it would seek up to take up the prerogatives of God walking on the earth. For example, when Herod had his brother’s wife that was an act that implied his thinking of being above the law and John the Baptist as God’s man let him have. How many clergy across America will inveigh against the State as false god this Sunday?

Finally, this once again points to the fact that Theocracy is an inescapable category.  All States reflect and descend from some God or god concept. Sometimes, as in this case, the State is its own God concept.

So, today,

1) We learn once again that the State see’s itself as God walking on the earth. As God it cannot be held responsible for its actions. Gods, by definition, are not responsible to anyone.

2.) We learn that the modern State, like Kings of old, are above the law.

3.) We learn that the current State is a illegitimate as well as immoral god. As such the citizenry owes it no obedience.

Christians who cannot see this are involved in State-olatry regardless whatever intentions they may have.

Thumbnail Sketch of the Governmental Theory of the Atonement

For a great many Evangelicals, the Cross of Christ is not an objective, vicarious substitution but a public declaration of divine justice designed to stimulate sinners to choose to follow God. This is called the Governmental theory of the Atonement. In this theory the Father punishes the Son on the Cross NOT as a substitute paying for the designated penalty of a designated elect. Rather the Father is using the Son’s death as a cosmic public demonstration to all sinners everywhere at all times that justice for sin and disobedience has been paid in the abstract. Not for any one concrete individual or any concrete group (Church) but only in the abstract.

Now, that God has made this public declaration of abstract justice “whosoever” is welcome to return to God if they will. Preaching thus becomes a explanation of why Christ was such a victim of the Father and how feeling sorry for Christ should be a motivator for their repentance. This is where the pitiful sentimental pietistic Preaching comes from that so often happens in our pulpits today. God is not commanding all men everywhere to repent. Instead, Jesus is “softly and tenderly calling, calling for you and for me.”

Note in all this man remains sovereign in his salvation. God has provided an abstract justice but it is up to man to decide whether or not he’ll feel sorry enough for poor poor Jesus hanging on the Cross, punished by the Father, to actually choose him to be the sinners savior.

Of course this model still suffers from implicit Universalism. If the Father really has punished sin in the abstract then even the sin of unbelief in what the Father has done has already been punished in Christ and so the unbeliever in Christ is already saved since justice for sin, unbelief and disobedience has been demonstrated.

Foundation of Successful Epistemology

“Since God is the controller of all things, it is for him to determine whether or not we gain knowledge and under what conditions.”

John Frame
A History of Western Philosophy and Theology — pg. 30

The triune God is the one who gives meaning to all things. He is the one in whom meaning finds meaning. God’s transcendence is the necessary context against which everything as text becomes understandable. To be cast apart from God then is to be cast apart from meaningful meaning in favor of autonomous meaningless meaning. Only in Christ can true meaning be restored to otherwise meaningless man. Without God in Christ as the context wherein all else as text finds meaning we are left trying to understand the world it terms of the world or in terms of our own finite minds.

God, in Christ, furnishes the only criteria by which we can discover true truth since in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Christianity is the sine qua non for epistemological success.

The Inevitability Of Monism With A God Who Is Not Trinitarian

The denial by Jews and Muslims of God’s Trinitarian nature leaves them with a Transcendent yet impersonal God. They retain a “outsided-ness” in their theology but that” outsided-ness” is a Transcendent abstraction that cannot come in contact with humanity and as such all man has left is a humanistic monism and so man must live with a functional outsidelessness.

If they try to cure this lack of existential outsidelessness that occurs with their Transcendent yet impersonal God by making God dependent upon the creature for His actualization unto a personal being then God ceases to be God as he is dependent upon man for His reality.

Rabbinic scholar Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) rightly critiqued Islam for seeing God as ‘unqualified Omnipotence,’ who can never be the ‘Father of mankind,’ and thus is radically impersonal. (See Heschel, ‘The Prophets,’ [New York: Harper, 1962,] pg. 292, 311.) Yet post-biblical Judaism cannot escape Herschel’s critique entirely. The medieval rabbi Maimonides, for example, also confessed an “absolutely transcendent God who is independent of humanity.” (See Reuven Kimelmen, “The Theology of Abraham Heschel,” First Things (Dec. 2009). On the other hand, Kimelmen notes that Heschel commits the opposite error to that of Maimonides (and Islam), namely that of making God dependent on man in a covenantal relationship that both God and man need in order to be who they are. Heschel adopts the rabbinical concept that it is a human witness that in some sense makes God real (Kimelmen, “The Theology of Abraham Heschel”). Once more, God is dependent upon humanity. This is the classic dilemma of a monotheism without the Trinity. Because Heschel does not believe God to be Triune, God depends on man to be personal and therefore cannot be “Wholly Other,” in relation to Creation.

So, it seems, if you are a strict Monotheist you can have a Transcendent God that must be impersonal because He can not have contact with man or you can have a Transcendent God who is only personal because of His dependence upon man. The problem here though is that a God who is dependent upon man in any shape, manner, or form, for His being is neither truly transcendent nor truly God.

It should be said here that this is not only the problem of the Muslim and the Jew, it is also the problem of the neo-orthodox who have so emphasized God’s Transcendence that it is only by a completely subjective encounter with God whereby God can find a subjective status of the personal.

Parts of this Inspired, Parts Paraphrased, and Parts Quoted from
Peter Jones — The Other Worldview — pg. 199-200 (footnote — 27)