N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement

N.T. Wright’s Sweet-Sour Cuisine Reading N.T. Wright (NTW) is like eating delicious Sichuan cuisine – a unique blend of sweet and sour flavors enhanced by hot and spicy pepper that only a master chef could produce. We begin by savoring the sweet flavors. First, NTW provides a skillfully crafted narrative of the history of God’s … Continue reading “N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement”

N.T. Wright’s Sweet-Sour Cuisine
Reading N.T. Wright (NTW) is like eating delicious Sichuan cuisine – a unique blend of sweet and sour flavors enhanced by hot and spicy pepper that only a master chef could produce. We begin by savoring the sweet flavors.

First, NTW provides a skillfully crafted narrative of the history of God’s salvation from Adam, through the tragic history of Israel until the coming of the messiah. NTW suggests that Adam in Genesis and Israel in biblical history were entrusted with a “covenant of vocation” to be image bearers of God’s glory on earth. The failure of the first Adam brought the Fall. Israel was to resume this mission as the new Adam to reverse the consequences of the Fall by her obedience to the Torah. Instead, Israel’s apostasy resulted in the exile. NTW emphasizes that the mission of the messiah and the cross must be anchored in this tragic history. NTW’s vision of the “covenant of vocation” emphasizes that God’s redemption involves the restoration of creation is an important corrective of some forms of popular Christianity which narrowly view salvation as saving souls which NTW denigrates as a platonized, paganized version of escaping from fallen earth to go to heaven.

Second, NTW emphasizes that Christians need to go beyond viewing sin as a catalogue of violation of moral laws to discern its underlying root, which is idolatry when humans turned away and God and submit to the authority of the destructive principalities and powers of darkness. Reformed theologians would agree wholeheartedly with NTW one of the major impetuses of the Reformation was its war against idolatry. This ongoing Reformed critique of idolatry is evident in the writings of contemporary Reformed sociologists-theologians like Bob Goudswaard and Greg Beale.

We shall cautiously try out the sour flavors:
First, while NTW forcefully critiques the caricatures of biblical salvation in popular Christianity, he himself caricatures the Reformation theology as works-contract, if only because it provides him a convenient foil to expound his “covenant of vocation”. Anyone familiar with Reformed theology would be struck by its grand vision of salvation founded on the priestly office of Christ, with Adam being commissioned to upkeep creation as the temple of God. This commission is not a works-contact, but a blessing which originates from the overflowing love of the Trinity expressed in a covenant of redemption (pactum salutis). [J.V. Fekso, The Trinity and Covenant of Redemption (Mentor, 2016)]

Second, while there is some truth in his criticism of ‘platonic’ salvation in popular Christian eschatology, nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the Bible does make a distinction between heaven and earth – Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19) – including references to the intermediate existence between death and final resurrection of the believer (Eph. 1:23; 2 Cor.5: 1-10; Rev.7:13-17).


N.T. Wright’s Understanding of Substitutionary Atonement
For the limited purpose of this internet post, I shall focus on the main course in NTW’s menu, which is his view of substitutionary atonement and forgiveness of sin.

There has been confusion about NTW’s view ever since he attempted to exonerate Steve Chalke, when Chalke infamously likened penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) as “cosmic child abuse” by assuring us that Chalke does believe in PSA. NTW defended Chalke as teaching that “on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one [emphasis added].” [https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/the-cross-and-the-caricatures/]

Despite NTW rallying to his defence, Chalke repeats his rejection of PSA.

Though the sheer bluntness of my imagery shocked some, I contend that, in truth, it represents nothing more than a stark unmasking of what I understand to be the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind the popular theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Thus, whilst having great respect for many of those who hold what, I readily concede, is currently regarded as orthodoxy within modern evangelicalism, I will attempt to set out through this essay why I believe it to be biblically, culturally, and pastorally deficient and even dangerous”…I leave my friend N.T. to his attempt to redefine penal substitution as something, as he admits, very different to that which is current is in the minds of both the church and society. (The Atonement Debate ed. Derek Tidball (Zondervan, 2008), pp. 34-35).

Chalke also expresses his perplexity as to why NTW still calls his view “penal substitution,” when NTW rejected the defence of the classical view of penal substitution mounted in the book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution ed. Steve Jeffery and Michael Ovey (Crossway, 2007) as “deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.”

Chalke’s clarity may be contrasted with the confusion of NTW’s supporters who insist that NTW upholds the teaching of penal substitution. Perhaps, the reason for the supporters’ confusion is because NTW seems to be equivocating in his writings. For example, NTW explains the phrase, “he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3) in his Romans commentary (New Interpreter’s Bible),

No clearer statement is found in Paul, or indeed anywhere else in all early Christian literature, of the early Christian belief that what happened on the cross was the judicial punishment of sin. Taken in conjunction with 8:1 and the whole argument of the passage, not to mention the partial parallels in 2 Cor 5:21 and Gal 3:13, it is clear that Paul intends to say that in Jesus’ death the damnation that sin deserved was meted out fully and finally, so that sinners over whose heads that condemnation had hung might be liberated from this threat once and for all. [NIB, 10: 574-575]

Naturally, readers are puzzled when they try to reconcile NTW’s Romans comment with his criticism of the PSA defended by Pierced for Our Transgressions. However, it is telling that while NTW speaks of “substitution”, “substitutionary death”, “representative and substitutionary death”, or “representative substitution” he does not apply the phrase “penal substitution” to his position.


It is therefore helpful that NTW has finally given a clearer statement of his position on PSA in his latest book, The Day the Revolution Began (SPCK, 2016). [I am using the SPCK publication which has different pagination from the HarperOne publication] The view in this book overrides his earlier statements, “The heart of the present book is, however, substantially new, and represents a development and in some cases a significant revision of positions I have taken previously, for instance, in my commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreters Bible, vol. 10 [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002]).” [DRB 418].

We should read the following passages bearing in mind NTW’s assertion that there are different forms of PSA. NTW gives a distinctive description of Jesus death as “representative substitution” since Jesus secures forgiveness of sin and end of exile for Israel by standing in their place:

It comes about because the one will stand in for the many. It comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole. It comes about because from the beginning Jesus was redefining the nature of the kingdom with regard to radical self-giving and self-denial, and it looks as though that was never simply an ethical demand but, at its heart, a personal vocation. It comes about because throughout his public career Jesus was redefining power itself, and his violent death was the ultimate demonstration-in-practice of that redefinition. [211-212]

NTW offers an elaborate commentary on Jesus’ death in Romans 7:14-20:

Israel’s long “enslavement,” the “continuing exile” of Daniel 9 and many other texts, was not just a long, dreary process of waiting. It was the time in which the strange power called “Sin,” the dark force unleashed by human idolatry, was doing its worst precisely in the people of God. God’s people were captive, enslaved, to Babylon and its successors and to the dark powers that stood behind them. What God was doing through the Torah, in Israel, was to gather “Sin” together into one place, so that it could then be condemned. If anywhere in the whole New Testament teaches an explicit doctrine of “penal substitution,” this is it—but it falls within the narrative not of a “works contract,” not of an angry God determined to punish someone, not of “going to heaven,” but of God’s vocational covenant with Israel and through Israel, the vocation that focused on the Messiah himself and then opened out at last into a genuinely human existence: [286].

Here is a point that must be noted most carefully. Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself…

The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not…But this substitution finds its true meaning not within the normal “works contract,” but within the God-and-Israel narrative, the vocational narrative, the story in accordance with the Bible. Once we rescue this substitution from its pagan captivity, it can resume its rightful place at the heart of the Jewish and then the messianic narrative, the story through which—in 8:4 as elsewhere—humans are rescued not so they can “go to heaven,” but so that “the right and proper verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us, as we live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.” Humans are rescued in order to be “glorified,” that is, so that they may resume the genuine human existence, bearing the divine image, reflecting God’s wisdom and love into the world…That is why, second, the result is not that sinners are free to “go to heaven,” but that they are free for the true human vocation, the royal priesthood in all its variations.  [287-290]


NTW’s Theory is Not Classical Penal Substitutionary Atonement
Some caution is in order. It is clear that NTW’s representative-substitutionary atonement is not about Jesus setting right the sinner’s relationship with God by bearing God’s punishment of the sins of the sinner, but a deliverance of Israel by letting Sin (capital ‘S’) direct its full destructive force on Jesus. In the process Sin is “punished” and its power destroyed. Note that sin is here viewed as an impersonal force or power that prevents humans from enjoying life. On the cross, God condemned this impersonal force so that he could then give us life. As NTW insists, it is “Sin” (capital S) and not Jesus who is punished on the cross.

NTW gives us a illuminating example of how our view of sin influences our view of atonement. We may contrast NTW’s emphasis on Sin as an alien power that overcomes and enslaves with the Westminster Confession of Faith which acknowledges sin as a personal, voluntary act of rebellion which brings guilt and the consequent wrath of God: “Every sin, both original and actual, transgresses the righteous law of God, and brings guilt on the sinner. Every sinner is consequently subjected to the wrath of God, the curse of the law, and death, with all the resultant miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal. (WCF 6.6) Since according to NTW, sin is an impersonal force, or for that matter, a personified force, rather than a rebellious act against the holy God, then cross is the mechanism to neutralize the power of Sin rather than the occasion where the holy God judges the sins of rebellious sinners (as in the case of the classical penal substitution of atonement). NTW is consistent when he repeats frequently in the book (18X) that the atonement is not about opening a way to go to heaven in the manner of platonized and pagan eschatology.

What then does NTW mean when he suggests “forgiveness of sin” as a consequence of the representative-substitutionary death of Jesus? Given below are a two examples from the book:

Through this new thing not only would Israel itself be rescued from the “death” of exile, the inevitable result of idolatry and sin, but the nations of the world would somehow be brought into the new creation the creator God was planning. And one of the central, vital ways of expressing this entire hope—rescue from exile, the rebuilding of the Temple, the return of YHWH himself—was to speak of the “forgiveness of sins.” Exile was the result of sin. As many biblical writers insisted (one thinks, for a start, of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the Psalms), if exile was to be undone, sin would have to be forgiven. [114]

At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the “image,” is the ultimate embodiment (or “incarnation”) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world not simply through human wrongdoing, the breaking of moral codes, but through the human failure to be image-bearers, to worship the Creator and reflect his wise stewardship into the world (and, to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but this is not the focus). And the reason his death had this effect was that, as the representative and substitute in the senses we shall explore in due course, he achieved the “forgiveness of sins” in the sense long promised by Israel’s prophets. Once we step away from Platonizing, moralizing, and paganizing schemes of thought and back into the world of Israel’s scriptures (“The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible”), this all makes sense, though it is a different kind of sense from what many Christians imagine. [148]

The forgiveness of sin puts an end of the exile for Israel and liberation of believers for the restoration of creation. To be sure, NTW gives his usual caveats:

That last phrase should allay any puzzled suspicions that might have been arising over the last page or two, suspicions that the phrase “forgiveness of sins” was now being used in a purely technical sense (to mean simply “end of exile”) without any reference to actual wicked deeds. Far from it. This is not an either/or. My point is rather that in the early preaching—and it is very interesting that Luke, writing (we assume) at least a generation or more after the events, does not attempt here to inject any more developed “atonement theology” into the picture—we find the goal of God’s rescue operation so firmly and explicitly anchored in the biblical narrative and prophecies…The goal is not for people “to go to heaven when they die.”…The purpose of forgiving sin, there as elsewhere, is to enable people to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world, already now, completely in the age to come. [154-155]

Still, it cannot be denied that NTW uses traditional terms, only to give them non-traditional meanings. That is to say, regardless of his use of similar terms, NTW rejects the classical PSA. Given NTW’s distinctive view of sin and ‘forgiveness’, he has no need for a penal substitution of atonement even though he describes the death of the Christ as “representative-substitution”. Indeed, his description of the significance of the cross bears all the hallmarks of the Christus Victor theory of ‘atonement’. This being the case, NTW’s understanding of the cross is open to the same criticism that is directed to the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. D.A. Carson’s gives a forceful criticism of the Christus Victor theme in his review of NTW’s book Evil and the Justice of God (IVP, 2006):

More broadly, one of the reasons, I think, why Wright prefers the Christus Victor theme, elevating it to controlling status, lies in his narrow reading of the Old Testament story. If his understanding of sin included not only sustained reflection on the nature of the structures of evil but on the nature of idolatry (a major Old Testament theme) and how offensive such idolatry is to God, and how central the theme of the wrath of God is to the plot line itself, then it might be clearer how central the penal emphases of the atonement are among New Testament writers. At the end of the day, the central notion of sin in Wright’s thought is that it is somehow anarchic rebellion against shalom, and the triumph at the end is the restoration of shalom. What is lost is the intensely personal dimension of sin: it is rebellion against God, and he is regularly portrayed as the most offended party (cf. Ps 51!). One does not want to ignore the corporate, not to say cosmic, dimensions of sin; certainly one must not downplay the controlling importance of the goal of a new heaven and a new earth. But to lose the profound sense in which sin is personally against God is to lose something important in the storyline itself. Ironically, it is to trivialize sin (although this is certainly not Wright’s intent); ultimately, it is to misunderstand the cross.

To put the matter another way: When the biblical writers say that Christ’s death saves us, from what does it save us? We could say it saves us from death, from the consequences of our sin, from our lostness, but centrally it saves us from the wrath to come. Death, the consequences of our sin, and lostness are nothing other than preliminary manifestations of the wrath of God. It is of course true that the Bible depicts God as working to rescue his people from sin. Yet it is no less true that the most central consequence of sin from which they must be rescued is the wrath of God: it is impossible to read the Old Testament narrative without tripping over this theme in countless chapters. This dynamic tension lies at the heart of what the New Testament writers insist that the cross achieves, and Wright misses it almost entirely. [Carson’s review of N.T. Wright “Evil and the Justice of God” in Review of Biblical Literature 2007]

**Final comment on NTW’s methodology:
NTW rightly insists that the Christian doctrine of atonement must be rooted in biblical history. As such, his project of situating the story of sin, atonement and forgiveness in the history of Israel is laudable. However, one may critique NTW for not going back far enough in his reading of salvation history, back to Adam’s sin of rebellion in Genesis 1-3. Admittedly, he makes some references to Adam in the “covenant of vocation”, but insofar as his reading of Adam is subsumed under Israel’s tragic history his emphasis on sin is on one’s failure to keep one’s vocation rather than active rebellion against God. Not surprisingly, NTW’s emphasis on forgiveness of sin is the end of exile and a corresponding charge to liberate the earth from destructive forces.  In contrast, I suggest that we should be reading the tragic history of Israel in the light of the Fall of Adam, as this would give a better understanding of the more fundamental problem of sin, the necessity of PSA (in the classical sense), and the initiative of divine love in the provision of PSA for the reconciliation of God and man .

Next Post: Supplementary Reading on PSA #1 – Thomas Schreiner on Penal Substitution as the Heart and Soul of Atonement

Related Post: N. T. Wright Reconsiders the Meaning of Jesus’s Death: An Appreciative but Critical Review

5 thoughts on “N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. Hello Dr. Ng Kam Weng,

    Thank you for your post on this subject. I have never read NT Wright myself, but have always been interested in his views which come into contention with the reformed faith. I have a few question regarding a few things talked about in this post;

    1. Sin not being a impersonal force, but actual transgression of God’s law, this results in the penal substitution being the actual taking of God’s wrath for sin in the place of His people. Would you say that the narrative model used by NT Wright ought to be completely abandoned? Or, should it be improved upon?

    2. Would you say the cross is only reconciliation between God and sinful man? Or, is there more that was brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus (beyond personal reconciliation)?


  2. Hi Matthew,

    I agree in principle with NTW that theology should be anchored in biblical history and history of salvation. Notice I deliberate go beyond using just a generic “narrative’ model to emphasize “biblical history” which is both a record of God’s mighty acts in history, and revealed interpretation through his prophets and apostles? Naturally, this salvation history is not a list of abstract theological propositions (which NTW loves to criticize), but a divine narrative fleshed out in the primeval history of Genesis, the history of Israel, the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic ministry in the early church.

    My problem with NTW is his tendency to rule out the theological implication/interpretation that was first given in embryonic form by the apostles, and more fully developed later in as creeds and doctrines etc. as NTW charges the latter for being abstract. However, following NTW strictly would mean not only that we cannot refer to penal substitution, imputation of righteousness, the hope of going to heaven (all these three are dismissed by NTW because he asserts that the Bible makes no direct reference to them). One wonders whether NTW here is writing like a Biblicist! On the terms set by NTW, we should also be barred from confessing the Trinity, or the perfect union of the fully God and fully man in the Incarnation. Of course, it is safe to assume that NTW would not be so methodologically consistent at to be willing to rule out belief in the Trinity.

    Put in more familiar terminology of Reformed theology – In teaching the history of redemption we must uphold both (1) historia salutis whch explains the unfolding events of God’s historical work of bringing salvation to the world which climaxed in Jesus Christ and (2) ordo salutis which explains the order of the application of the benefits of redemption to an individual. We begin with historia salutis (hence my agreement with NTW on theological grounding in biblical narrative/history), but we must move on to the ordor salutis (to describe how redemption is applied historically and effectively in the salvation of the one who is being saved). NTW’s model does not give an adequate account of the ordor salutis.

    Finally, I pointed out last paragraph in my post that NTW’s narrative does not go far back enough – which would require drawing out fully the significance of the creation and fall of Adam. But even then, to stop the narrative at Adam would be to reduce history of salvation only to positive, human history.[On this matter I find convenient allies in NT scholars who criticize NTW for not giving due recognition to the ‘apocalyptic’ dimension of Paul’s gospel. More seriously, the narrative model of NTW fails to take into account the biblical self-testimony that the history of redemption is not an ad hoc response to an unexpected contingency of history – the Fall of man, but has its origins in the decree of God when he chose us “before the foundations of the world” (Eph.1:3). Hence, the Reformed teaching of pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) – pretemporal, intratrinitarian agreement between the Father and Son in which the Father promises to redeem an elect people.

    Regarding the second question: I fully agree with NTW that we should never separate the cross from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further agree that the work of Christ goes beyond just personal reconciliation – it includes the restoration of fallen earth as a ‘temple’ for God’s presence/dwelling, the creation of new heaven and new earth. Indeed, redemption being eternal and individual-cosmic, involves the whole Trinity – with the Father in the (pactum salutis), the Son’s death on the cross and resurrection and the Holy Spirit in applying redemption (ordo salutis) on the individual and cosmos.

    I focus on penal substitution atoment (PSA)in this post as a response to the critique of NTW who subsumes the representative-substitution model (RSA) under the Christus Victor model (note it is RSA and not PSA for NTW). In reality, I am willing to grant that the various models of atonement contain some truths, but only if these models are grounded in the foundational truth of PSA – more of this in my next post with supplementary reading.

    This brief discussion highlights why there is no biblical theology (narrative or not) without systematic theology, and there is no systematic theology without biblical theology. Divine revelation is unfolded in historical narrative, but divine truth is not restricted or reduced to historical narrative.

    1. Thank you for answering my questions so quickly!

      I have one last question, but if you feel it is Steering away from the main post’s topic too much, please refrain from answering.

      Would you consider the imputation by union model as deficient? By this I mean, that our righteousness is Christ Himself. I have heard that this gets rid of the forensic aspect of imputation. If you agree, how so?

  3. i personally find C.S. Lewis’ view of the theories of atonement helpful. in Mere Christianity, he writes:

    “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work… Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are.”

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