BY RON ROPER
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Perhaps the most widespread account propagated in recent centuries concerning the meaning of the climactic events surrounding the last days of Jesus of Nazareth has lately been exposed as a corruption of earliest doctrine. We have been fed a line. A fresh and candid look at the original documents reveals a radically different rationale behind the story.
The original written reports about the unusual origins and public career of Jesus — birth, teaching, miracles, trial, execution, resurrection, and ascension to Heaven — during the era of ancient Israel’s imperial Roman occupation, contain their own interpretation of this extraordinary course of events. These four ‘Gospels’ of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John build upon the prophetic foundation laid by the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. ‘The Gospel’ was understood as the ‘good news’ that God had finally fulfilled His ancient covenanted promise of a Savior to Israel, and thence to all other nations as well. Accordingly, these unique historic events and their implications ought now to be proclaimed to the whole world. Luke further elaborated the original interpretation in The Acts of the Apostles — his recounting of key incidents and apostolic speeches over the next three decades or so. The remaining documents developed the apostolic interpretation through occasional letters (‘epistles’), a theological treatise (‘Hebrews’), and a prophetic vision (‘The Revelation’). All these writings expounded the “new covenant” that Jesus the Messiah founded, so were eventually collected into what became called the “New Testament.”
First, the bad news
What many of us have traditionally been catechized and taught about the meaning of the final climactic events of Jesus’ life on earth, ought to be held suspect as misinformation, and in that sense, ‘bad’ news. More specifically, the explanation we have been led to believe about the theological meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection appears to be a severe declension from apostolic doctrine. Let’s consider the matter more closely.
We’ve been told that when Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate in 30 A.D., he simultaneously came under God’s condemnation. He suffered God’s wrath in order to both demonstrate God’s holiness and hatred of sin before human eyes and also pay God our debt for sins. Out of love, Christ identified with sinners by actually being ‘made sin’, substituting himself at the cross in the place of sinners who, by their sinful conduct, properly deserved God’s wrath. In this way, he satisfied God’s law and justice, thereby propitiating or appeasing God’s wrath.
By suffering vicariously and dying in the place of sinners, even experiencing the eternal torments of hell, Jesus paid the eternal penalty they deserved. This satisfied God’s justice so that He could then be righteous in showing grace to forgive sinners of their transgressions. Also, He imputes Christ’s own personal righteousness to them so as to count them legally righteous in God’s eyes, even though they are actually still sinful. Being hereby justified, they are given the right to eternal life. Thus Jesus paid God the ransom price of his shed blood to redeem sinners from the latter’s righteous indignation against wrongdoing.
However, it is insisted, Christ could not have paid for all sins, or all sinners would necessarily be saved. And since we know that all are not saved, Christ could only have suffered, and thereby atoned, for a limited number of sinners — the elect, who had been, by an eternal, sovereign, gracious divine decree, particularly predestined for salvation. All others have been reprobated, or passed by, and must suffer the divine wrath of eternal conscious torment on account of their own sins. So although the redemption is sufficient for all mankind, it is efficient or effective only for the elect.
Furthermore, because human beings are dead in sins, or totally depraved, it is impossible for them even to believe the Gospel unless they additionally receive the gift of faith. No human act can be a condition of salvation, not even the act of faith. God bestows faith as a gift exclusively on those whom He previously selected from eternity, by His sovereign grace, for salvation. This gracious choice is unconditional and cannot be revoked or altered by human beings. Therefore, whenever God’s efficacious call to faith comes to them, they cannot resist, for God’s grace is invincible. They are at that moment regenerated by the Holy Spirit, which only then enables them to believe. All other sinners will necessarily resist the Gospel, to their own eternal damnation, yet for the glory of God. If Christ had suffered for their sins, too, God could not exact eternal punishment from them or He would be subjecting them to double jeopardy, exacting the same payment from them that He had already received from Christ, which would be unjust.
In a nutshell, there’s the disinformation, the bad news that has been passed off as good news for nearly half a millennium. Yet unless we clearly grasp the inner logic of the apostolic original, the above corrupt departure will retain its credibility to many minds. So instead of analyzing it piecemeal first, I offer the following retelling of the basic New Testament position in order to provide some holistic leverage against it. Thereafter, I will highlight the differences more particularly, in several ways.
Now for the good news
When Jesus was condemned to the cross in A.D. 30, he was experiencing the bruising of his heel of Gen. 3:15 — the fury and wrath of “the Great Dragon . . . the ancient serpent called ‘Adversary’ and ‘Satan’” of Rev. 12:9-17. Israel’s Messiah, unlike any human being before him, was under the grace of God nonstop — a status he came to earth to confer on others. In fact, especially when he was under severest opposition from his murderous foes, reeling from the cup of diabolical affliction, God was decidedly on his side and would, by an ideally timely maneuver, lift him up, victorious over all enemies, with extraordinary rewards.
However, a perfectly just and holy person — one qualified to receive sovereignty and authority — poses a distinct threat to political establishments of earth. Self-interest and self-survival drive these regimes. Their liquidation of potential opposition becomes simply a cost of doing business — the business of graft, bribery, misappropriation, even trafficking in human lives — while devoted to the worship of mammon.
Predictably, then, after Jesus finished his celestial assignment of testifying on earth to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from Heaven about immortal life, so help him God, the establishment summarily convicted him for plotting to overthrow both sacred and civil establishments. They could hardly have been more correct, in spite of themselves! And God did help him, not only with miraculous powers and narrow escapes, but also by entitling him to become the ultimate escape artist.
Besides, the power of love, Christ’s strategy for cosmic subversion, needed some ultimate proof so that people could really believe it. Accordingly, the plot to dispatch Jesus ran afoul of the incomparably more potent, life-making truth that he dared to submit to the test of falsification — a life-and-death toss for the daring challenger. He surrendered to his enemies and allowed them to inflict torment and even shed his blood. However, in consideration of his flawless loyalty to God, he ipso facto invoked his Father to do him justice and save him out of his fatal fait accompli, ex post facto and pronto! This would prove him correct. Thus his trainees would have fresh courage to strike out yet further along his Way of worldwide conquest.
Jesus’ lifelong faithful obedience to God’s desire rendered him wrath-proof, and ultimately invincible even in death. This is how his innocent blood, unjustly shed, would become the active ingredient for giving protective cover to believing sinners, after God’s resurrecting power justly and peaceably avenged the cross. Alive again, he would qualify to rule as the promised Messiah of Israel, and much, much more.
It worked, too! Jesus, having suffered death, even the official, public, disgraceful, excruciating, and certain death on a cross, although absolutely innocent of any sin whatsoever, shot back to life on the third day, just as he had predicted many times, without the dubious aid of any human contrivance or needless fanfare. Why? Simply because it was right! This climactic sin of his cross — the ancient sin-offerings prophetically depicted this sin-to-end-all-sins — was immediately redressed by the justice of God in the judicial decree to raise him immortal from his abject death to the pinnacle of glory! Being thus justified by his faithfulness so as to win superabundant life, he was authorized by God to relay it as a sheer gift to whoever would simply believe he was who he claimed to be — the Messiah, the Son of God.
The short-term payoff: sinners who believe may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit seeks to convey the very justness of God’s Kingdom to earth, cleansing believing hearts from all sin and making them holy and fit for divine service in this world, in preparation for the next. Long-term, they benefit by inheriting an allotment within that peaceful Kingdom: a personal abode, for which the Holy Spirit is the down payment in kind.
The power to believe this Good News resides in the very news report itself, which is designedly the power of God for human salvation. The story of God’s exalting Jesus through wrongful crucifixion to rightful resurrection, and beyond, vibrates with divine magnetic energy to induce the spark of faith in the human breast. It is accompanied by corroborating eyewitness testimony and crowned with the added inner witness of God’s Holy Spirit, plus confirming signs and miracles. Yet this Benefits Package can still be spurned by any human being by virtue of God’s primal gift of inherent self-determination. God’s own image and likeness is reflected in this capacity for mastery, control, and authority over one’s environment, including oneself. This gift is irrevocable and unregretted on God’s part, effaceable only by death.
What’s the difference?
A. The logic of “penal satisfaction”
- The Atonement must be limited, otherwise Christ’s satisfaction would entail excessive penal suffering of God’s wrath. Therefore Christ died only for a select number of sinners, not for all.
- Election to salvation must be unconditional, otherwise some of Christ’s penal suffering would have no redemptive effect or payoff, so would be pointless. But if unconditional, then God must predestine those chosen without consideration of any choice they themselves might make to believe or not, which might jeopardize its certainty.
- Human depravity from sin must be so total that human beings cannot even believe the Gospel, otherwise God would not get all the credit for giving faith purely as a gift without any human disposition, decision, etc. Christ’s sufferings must have purchased even that gift of faith. If people, to the contrary, have the inherent power to believe or not believe — to receive salvation or not receive it — then they are capable of resisting the power of God. This would be an intolerable affront to God’s sovereign will.
- God must therefore be sovereign, that is, none can resist his decisions. He foreknows all things because he predestines all things. Hence God’s grace is likewise irresistible or invincible so that all whom God elects actually end up saved, otherwise God’s economy would collapse, bankrupt. God’s grace is sovereign.
- The pre-chosen saints must persevere in the gift of faith and the enjoyment of God’s grace, otherwise God’s economy of salvation is fatally destabilized, and He reveals incompetence. If any whom He predestined to salvation were able to fall away, that would indict God’s wisdom as fruitless and His power as feckless. God would lose face. It would ill befit His glory, making Him look like a fool in the eyes of the universe.
- All non-chosen people remain under God’s wrath, which is consummated when they pay the eternal debt of their own sins by eternal conscious punishment in hell. It follows that Christ could not have suffered the pains of hell on their behalf, otherwise that suffering would have overshot its goal and hence be foolishly uneconomical and unproductive, which is unbefitting. To the contrary, God maintains a strict balance of payments so that his economy of salvation is preserved.
In this “penal satisfaction” model, the Savior must necessarily play the role of a “substitute” who suffers God’s wrath in the place of sinners; he cannot be experiencing God’s justice on his own behalf because justice is exclusively penal, and he did not deserve that on his own account, being sinless. This is why penal satisfaction is often equated with “penal substitution.”
However, if in those climactic salvation events of Christ’s career God was in reality enacting or ‘satisfying’ a rewarding or restorative justice, instead of a penal justice, then substitution, in the proper sense of the word, was not present or necessary in the event. In fact, the idea only confuses the issue and misleads our thinking about Christ’s mediation. We might better speak of “premial inclusion” (via baptism) rather than “penal substitution.”
B. The logic of “premial inclusion”
Premial justice exposes the preceding novel system of salvation as guilty of fiction in the first degree.
First of all, God brought salvation to earth by doing justice directly to one man, Jesus. Thereupon, God channeled Christ’s own just deserts to believing sinners through him. The justice due him was extraordinary in God’s reckoning because of his faithful obedience under the most severe trials of faith. His sinless perfection alone qualified him to win the prize of the Kingdom from God.
Moreover, God’s graciousness to Jesus was super-compensatory and thus capable of extending to every individual in the whole world, without exception. There is no limit to the Atonement in extent, application, or operation. Whoever wants protective cover from their sins can have it simply by faith in Christ and baptism for remission of sins. Thereupon, they obtain the gift of the Holy Spirit.
God makes this superabundant graciousness available to whoever trusts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, without favoritism, exception, or exclusion, yet it is not irresistible or invincible. Grace can be resisted by any creature fortunate enough to have been made in the image of God. In fact, God’s graciousness can be resisted as easily as His Holy Spirit can . . . but not without similar harmful consequences.
Human depravity is by no means total, nor is any living human being declared in Scripture to be “dead in sin” except by a guilty mistranslation. The capacity to believe is an inherent human faculty that remains intact and only awaits sufficient testimony or other proof for its persuasion.
God designed the Gospel with inherent power of persuasion. For good measure, He threw in credible human testimonies plus miraculous corroboration by the Holy Spirit to induce sturdy faith.
God chooses to save all who choose to concur with the solid but non-coercive proof that the Holy Spirit has collected between the covers of the Bible. Yet if we subsequently unchoose God, He remains free to unchoose us, as well, yet without discomfiture or disgrace to Himself, although not without sorrow. In the final analysis, God leaves our own choice up to us. Thus He honors His own likeness reflected in our good created structure.
God predestines no one to salvation or to damnation. Much rather, He destines everyone who believes His story about the cross and resurrection of Jesus to become His own beloved children. He further bequeaths them, as His daughters and sons, an inheritance in His impending Kingdom. That delightful future is their destiny if they stay faithful, otherwise that destiny is aborted and, sadly, they get redestined to termination in the Lake of Fire. Whoever persists in faith to the end of their present life will be saved for agelong life.
Protestant insecurities about salvation were triggered and aggravated by its punitive image of God. Get rid of that and the relationship normalizes. Then we can return to authentic, rugged early Christian teaching (which, however, does not resemble the usual mediating variations of “eternal security” — by comparison, sadly threadbare eternal security blankets).
The phrase ‘sovereignty of God’ never occurs in Scripture. This idea is a Trojan horse that has smuggled a horde of deterministic evils into Christian theology and practice. The Lord Jesus Christ was given sovereignty, authority, and more, as tangible fruits of his successful obedience. It is this true Sovereign who declares, “Let him who is thirsting come. Let him who wills take the water of life freely” Rev. 22:17.
The back story about the differences
As you can see, the good news and the bad news are worlds apart in vocabulary, concept, and ambience. It may be helpful to provide some account of the historic background to the emergence of the latter.
The approach to salvation that I have dubbed ‘bad news’ will be broadly recognizable as Calvinism. Its famous principal points all turn on a single bipolar axis — that of woodenly commercial economic metaphors in combination with exclusively penal ideas of justice. This pivotal doctrine is commonly known as “penal satisfaction” or “penal substitution” and was assembled in its classic form by the genius of John Calvin (1509-64). He was an ardent devotee of Aurelius Augustine (354-430), and all too often emulated him at his worst, when he was echoing the gnostic theology of his Manichaean pre-conversion training — impulses that surfaced like shingles under the stress of his famous controversy with Pelagius (c. 354-418).
Calvin’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is daunting, not to be underestimated in its persuasive impact, despite its irresolvable contradictions and repugnant effects. That said, I would argue that, generally speaking, all those elements by which Calvinism distinguishes itself from other streams of Christian soteriology are flatly false and harmful.
The main distinctives, usually summarized as “the Five Points of Calvinism,” were distilled at the Synod of Dordt in 1618-19 as the official response to the five criticisms articulated by the Remonstrants, whose most able champion had been James Arminius (1560-1609). The heart of these distinctives is the notion that Jesus paid for or “satisfied” (in its secondary, economic sense) the debt of human sins by suffering the wrath of God that they deserved. Every one of the Five Points flows directly and rigidly from this single compound error. However, both of its elements — that Jesus paid the debt of sins, and that he suffered the condemnation and wrath of God — are foreign to the Bible and were foisted onto it unnaturally. Nevertheless, their compound penal-economic logic is so seemingly rigorous that it has overshadowed and suppressed the actual New Testament system for explaining salvation. Mounting human traditions had over the centuries already obscured its central thesis. The Lord explicitly warned of such dangers from accumulating traditions.
The New Testament assumes the Old Testament position that God’s justice is two-fold, both penal (punishing) and ‘premial’ (rewarding; adapted from Latin by Anglican pastor and theologian John Balguy in An Essay on Redemption, London, 1741), each executed toward appropriate objects in God’s pedagogical wisdom and timing. Accordingly, His justice both punishes evil (penal) and rewards good (premial), as circumstances may require. God’s punitive wrath is revealed in destructive judgments, after long patience, with those who stay resistant to doing what is right. His restorative graciousness is manifested toward those who stay upright, and more so in the face of extreme provocation.
Historically, and most tragically, the doctrine of the Atonement fell prey to attempts to explain its operation as dependent on God’s penal justice. Such an idea was reinforced by linking it with economic metaphors concerning discharge of debts, satisfaction of obligations, fulfillment of conditions, payment of reparations, and so forth. These comported well with prevalent theories of criminal law (Calvin was trained in law).
At an earlier milestone, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) had explained the Atonement in terms of the feudal metaphors of his own day concerning repaying infractions of honor. He thereupon elaborated his famous theory of “vicarious satisfaction,” whereby Christ, being sinless, repaid God by his undeserved death for the debt that sinners owed instead. His excess sufferings were said to be supererogatory (exceeding his own needs) and vicarious (for the sake of sinners, who did need them). Thus Christ satisfied the human debt vicariously, in place of sinners. This Anselmian economy of salvation was itself far removed from that of the New Testament, but it was not yet “penal satisfaction/substitution.” Worse was to come.
When these economic concepts of medieval civil law were transposed into the context of criminal law contemporary with Calvin, their character was altered in the direction of much greater severity. Anselm had articulated such a penal option clearly enough, yet he as clearly repudiated it. Calvin, however, by deliberately transferring the debtor from a civil to a criminal court, rendered him liable to the death penalty under divine wrath as the only sufficient satisfaction for sin. So the work of Christ was interpreted as paying that death penalty in order to repay God for human sins. And since Christ did not deserve to pay that penalty on his own sinless behalf, his suffering was said to be substitutionary (subject to the punishment that others deserve, in exchange for their release from the penalty).
In accordance with such a system, however, this payment needed to be economized in a rational manner so as to eliminate waste, which would reflect badly on the wisdom of God. Did Christ pay only for the sins of those who would eventually be saved, or did he pay on behalf of every sinner, regardless of their eventual destiny? So long as penal justice and commercial economics alone provide the leading analogies, they perforce catapult Calvinism into this dilemma and its consequences, from which there is no real escape.
The post-Reformation morphs of Calvinism by Calvin’s epigones, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), William Perkins (1558-1602), William Ames (1576-1633), John Owen (1616-83), Francis Turretin (1623-87), et al, were even more consistently wrong than he was, especially concerning the limits of the Atonement and whether or not the wrath of God could actually be said to have fallen on His beloved Son. Here, Calvin, at least, mightily equivocated and was not completely overwhelmed by the undertow of his own penal satisfaction theory. Not so his zealous “followers” of later generations, right down to the present. Toward serious objectors to his contradictory reasoning, Calvin would simply have launched his customary withering vituperations and public censure. Toward those who dared more insistently, he would have commenced proceedings to prosecute and banish, if not execute. Subsequent generations of Calvinists likewise used civil authority to make their creedal opinions official, disestablish opposition, and persecute dissidents. The turmoil has never fully abated, either within the ranks or outside, so influential has been this penal payment paradigm.
Penal satisfaction atonement logic creates dilemmas that can never be surmounted or harmonized with Scripture. Every option fails. Most were played out within a century after Calvin’s death by such worthy scholars as Arminius, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Moses Amyraldus (1596-1664), Richard Baxter (1615-91), and eventually John Wesley (1703-91). But that’s another story. Only to say that none of them, nor any of their followers, ever overcame the internal dilemmas of the fundamental theory of atonement that, ironically, they all, in principle, agreed on.
By a further irony, only Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) — the key scholar they one and all anathematized — had it right that penal satisfaction was misconceived from the start and should be jettisoned. However, even he, whose powerful arguments literally kept theological students busy for centuries performing vain exercises in refutation (collected in massive volumes by their professors), although never successfully vanquished, yet did not achieve the needed breakthrough to the high ground of premial justice. Thus his atonement theory was scarcely more valid than theirs, although it could legitimately boast often worthier ethical fruits in significant spheres of life, with its more endearing image of God (unitarian though it was) and more imitable image of Christ (merely humanitarian though it seems to have been).
During the intervening centuries, numerous theologians and Protestant leaders exerted further strenuous efforts somehow to ameliorate the severity of Calvinism. Consequently, many people now label themselves, for example, “two-point” or “three-point” Calvinists. This is because they still adhere to penal satisfaction, the continuous font of all five points (plus a few others). It is impossible, in principle, to cast off the incubus of any of these points for long without dismantling penal satisfaction first, otherwise the same old points, or at least their ghosts, will forever return to haunt. Thus dissenters may claim disagreements with Calvin or later Calvinism, after a fashion, holding out against the “points” they dispute. Yet for their part, Calvinists often respond by claiming to be “more consistent.” And they actually are, but more consistently wrong. The partial objectors are less consistently wrong.
So pick your poison or, in a more salutary vein, prepare to reevaluate penal satisfaction/substitution root and branch, including the sum of its prickly points. This vagrant TULIP will not wither by simply plucking its petals; its bulb must be eradicated . . . or abandoned like tares to grow up amid the grain, awaiting the angels of judgment to sort out.
All these classic and mediating positions alike remain enmeshed in mutual conflict and needless animosities. The time is long overdue to get reconciled by returning to the native, integral rationale of God’s positive, rewarding justice — ‘the rest of the Story’ proclaimed by Christ’s apostles so variously yet unitarily. Only restorative justice can bring lasting peace to the perennial ‘atonement wars’ that still smolder. Only premial justice can put the ‘good’ back in the Good News.
I conclude with queries: Is “penal substitution” inerrant, or is the Bible? Then what about “The Five Points of Calvinism”?
(May 6, 9, 12, 16-17, 19, 21, 24, 27-30, June 1-6, 10-13, 15-17, 25, 29, July 7, 10-11, 14, 21-22, 2013, Aug. 15-16, 2014)
© 2013, Ronald Lee Roper