Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross

As an evangelical who has been actively involved with the VCF-IFES movement since my varsity days in the 1970s, I am conscious of standing in the spiritual tradition of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Carl Henry and Leon Morris. The VCF (or CICCU as it was known during John Stott’s time) was formed when evangelical leaders felt disillusioned by the liberal tendencies of the major student movement at that time, the Student Christian Movement (SCM). The SCM was championing social justice while the VCF was focusing on  proclaiming and preaching the gospel based on the final and sufficient authority of the Bible. It was the CICCU-VCF’s insistence on the centrality of the atoning work of Christ on the cross that led to final separation between the two Christian movements.

John Stott narrates a fascinating account of the unsuccessful attempt to keep the two movements together. After the First World War, the SCM leaders made overtures to CICCU, hoping that a reunion would benefit from the missing devotional warmth and evangelistic thrust of the movement. Norman Grubb [the president and secretary of CICCU] recalled the meeting between the leaders of SCM and CICCU:

‘After an hour’s talk, I asked Rollo [Secretary of SCM] point-blank, “Does the SCM put the atoning blood of Jesus Christ central?” He hesitated, and then said, “Well, we acknowledge it, but not necessarily central.” Dan Dick and I then said that this settled the matter for us in the CICCU. We could never join something that did not maintain the atoning blood of Jesus as its centre; and we parted company’ [John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary Edition (IVP, 2006), p. 14].

One may describe the failure to unite the two Christian movements into one that includes both social justice and proclamation of the cross as a tragedy, but it is understandable since there can be no real union, given the fundamental theological differences. But recent developments have become even more tragic since it is not only liberals, but self-professed evangelicals who raise doubts on the penal substitution of Jesus work of atonement at the cross. Perhaps, these evangelicals are embarrassed by any talk of the wrath of God as being inconsistent with the love of God and the idea of God’s judgment that punishes sin as unacceptable in these days of spiritual inclusiveness and political correctness.

More significant spiritually, is the possibility that these evangelicals no longer feel the horror of sin and tremble in the presence of the awesome holiness of the God who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) and whose eyes are too pure to approve evil and cannot tolerate wrongdoing (Hab. 1:13). It is the thrice holy God who requires (and provides) the penal substitution of Christ’s atonement. Hence, these evangelicals compromise and marginalize the penal substitution of Christ on the cross by reducing it to merely one theory of the atonement – alongside other theories like Christus Victor Theory, Government Theory and Christ Moral Influence Theory.

It would be good for these wavering evangelicals to read the lucid judgment of John Stott on the cruciality of penal substitution seventy years after abortive meeting between the evangelicals and liberals. In chapter 7 of the book, “The Salvation of Sinners”, John Stott carefully and sympathetically examines four major images of salvation found in the New Testament taken from the shrine (propitiation), the market (redemption), the court of law (justification) and the home (reconciliation). Stott concludes:

Penal Substitution as the Essence of Various Models/Images of Atonement
We have examined four of the principal New Testament images of salvation, taken from the shrine, the market, the court of law and the home. Their pictorial nature makes it impossible to integrate them neatly with one another. Temple sacrifices and legal verdicts, the slave in the market and the child in the home all clearly belong to different worlds. Nevertheless, certain themes emerge from all four images

First, each highlights a different aspect of our human need. Propitiation underscores the wrath of God upon us, redemption our captivity to sin, justification our guilt, and reconciliation our enmity against God and alienation from him. These metaphors do not flatter us. They expose the magnitude of our need.

Second, all four images emphasize that the saving initiative was taken by God in his love. It is he who has propitiated his own wrath, redeemed us from our miserable bondage, declared us righteous in his sight and reconciled us to himself. Relevant texts leave us in no doubt about this: “God . . . loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10 AV). “God . . . has come and has redeemed his people” (Lk 1:68). “It is God who justifies” (Rom 8:33). “God . . . reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor 5:18).

Third, all four images plainly teach that God’s saving work was achieved through the bloodshedding, that is, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. With regard to the blood of Christ the texts are again unequivocal. “God presented him as a propitiatory sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Rom 3:25). “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph 1:7). “We have now been justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9). “You who once were far away have been brought near [i.e., reconciled] through the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13; cf. Col 1:20). Since Christ’s blood is a symbol of his life laid down in violent death, it is also plain in each of the four images that he died in our place as our substitute. The death of Jesus was the atoning sacrifice because of which God averted his wrath from us, the ransom price by which we have been redeemed, the condemnation of the innocent that the guilty might be justified, and the sinless One being made sin for us.

So substitution is not a “theory of the atonement.” Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the four images could stand without it. I am not of course saying that it is necessary to understand, let alone articulate, a substitutionary atonement before one can be saved. Yet the responsibility of Christian teachers, preachers and other witnesses is to seek grace to expound it with clarity and conviction. For the better people understand the glory of the divine substitution, the easier it will be for them to trust in the Substitute.

From, John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 198-199.

Next: Cross and Atonement Reading 1 – Thomas Schreiner on “Penal Substitution as the Anchor and Foundation of Other Dimensions of Atonement.”

Related Post: Denial of PSA – The Most Serious and Severe Departure from Biblical Faith in our Day?