In this post, I shall compare Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) and Christus Victor (CV).
Christus Victor (CV): Gustav Aulén gives a summary of CV in his classic work, Christus Victor: “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil…the victory of Christ creates a new situation, bringing their rule to an end, and setting men free from their dominion” [Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, (MacMillan, 1969), p. 20]
Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA): Martin Luther whose sympathies for CV is well known, offers a succinct description of PSA, “[Jesus Christ] became a substitute for us all, and took upon Himself our sins, that he might bear Gods terrible wrath against sin and expiate our guilt, he necessarily felt the sin of the whole world together with the entire wrath of God, and afterwards the agony of death on account of this sin” [Martin Luther, Sermons on the Passion of Christ (Rock Island, 1871), p. 29]. See related posts on PSA given below**
Following Luther’s example, Christians should welcome the diversity of models of atonement as they seek to understand the full significance of Christ’s death on the cross. This being said, I would still like to explain why Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) is foundational for other models of the atonement.
PSA focuses on the guilt of humanity because of their sin and rebellion against God which requires Jesus taking their place to bear the punishment and penalty that they deserved, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…For our sake he made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor.5:19, 21)
CV emphasizes the victimhood of humans who are taken captive by Satanic or evil cosmic forces like “principalities and powers” and “elemental spirits” that oppress humanity (Eph. 1:21, 6:12; Gal. 4:3). For CV, Christ came to earth to rescue these victims from enslavement by these forces. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15) .
In CV, Christ took our place and subjected himself to the assaults of evil forces but he was triumphant and liberated us from these powers. In PSA, God’s grace and forgiveness liberates us from fallen selves and our addiction to our sin. Sin and death shall have no dominion over us. (Rom. 6: 9, 14) We should not miss the overlaps of personal guilt, victimhood and Christ subtitutionary work shared between both models of CV and PSA.
The older advocates of CV like Luther wove together the theme of liberation from evil with acknowledgement of the guilt arising from sin which makes one liable to divine wrath and judgment. However, contemporary advocates of CV try to avoid making reference to divine judgment. For these advocates Christ’s work is substitutionary, but not penal because the teaching of divine judgment and punishment is perceived to be in conflict with modern, enlightened sensibilities (especially when what is rejected are caricatures of PSA).
However, this aversion towards PSA and its theme of penal judgment is regrettable and biblically unfounded.
First, the dominant model in Scripture is PSA. Scripture is replete with a variety of metaphors used to describe PSA: sacrifice, propitiation, redemption. Indeed, it is arguable that the Levitical sacrificial system in the OT is thoroughly based on penal substitution. Naturally, reference to CV pales in comparison to the extensive discussion of substitutionary atonement in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.
Second, PSA is the necessary prerequisite for CV. That is to say, without PSA, one is hard pressed to explain how the cross defeats sin and Satan. Greg Boyd, the contemporary guru of CV admits,
Obviously, this account [CV] leaves unanswered a number of questions we might like answered. E.g. precisely how did Calvary and the resurrection defeat the powers?…we have enough revealed to understand the broad outlines of the multifaceted wisdom of God in sending Christ to die and defeat the devil. But at the end of the day we must humbly acknowledge that our understanding is severely limited. [Gregory Boyd, Christus Victor View, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views ed. James Beilby, Paul Eddy & Thomas Schreiner (IVP, 2006) p. 37]
However, Boyd could have strengthened his “severely limited” understanding if he links CV to PSA.
A. Scripture illustrates how PSA serves as a foundation or prerequisite for CV. This is clear even in the loci classicus Pauline passage for CV (Col. 2:15) when it is read in context.
Col.2:13-14 Prerequisite (PSA) – “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Col. 2: 15 Purpose (CV) He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. [ESV Footnote: Or in it (that is, the cross)]
B. The same pattern is found in Hebrew 2: 14-18.
Heb. 2:14-15 Purpose (CV) – “through death [Christ] might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Heb. 2:17 Prerequisite (PSA) – The author immediately explains the means by which CV is achieved – “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
[Note the purpose clause v. 14 “hina dia tou thanatou katargēsē,” so that (through death he might destroy…). The aorist katargēsē (“destroy”; lit.”render powerless” ) probably indicates that Christ’s death on the cross was a single act that accomplished this purpose.
Verse 17 “Therefore he had to be made…” suggests that Jesus makes propitiation (PSA) in order to achieve CV]
Third, experienced counsellors would confirm that we cannot enjoy peace so long as we are burdened by a persistent sense of guilt and helplessness arising from of our past sins. C.S. Lewis observes, “We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin…But mere time does nothing either to the fact or the guilt of sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ.” [C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1962), p. 61]
Emil Brunner concurs, “guilt is that element in sin by which it belongs unalterably to the past, and as this unalterable element determines the present destiny of each soul, Guilt means that our past – that which can never be made good – always constitutes one element in our present situation. Therefore we can only conceive our life as a whole when we see it in this dark shadow of guilt.” [Emil Brunner, The Mediator (Luttherworth Press, 1934), p. 443]
It can be seen that CV (and also the moral influence” model of atonement) remains inadequate so long as it focuses on the work of salvation at the present while ignoring the damaging legacy of past sins. In contrast, the great merit of PSA is that it makes a genuine attempt to redress wrongs done in the past. Leon Morris writes, “It is an outstanding merit of the substitutionary view, then, that it does not gloss over the past. It recognizes it for the serious and significant thing that it is. But it affirms that Christ has taken care of our past as He has taken care of every aspect of our need. He has paid the penalty. He has wiped away the sin. He has freed us from the entail of the past.” (Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 414]
Fourth, critics of PSA suggest that CV offers a more glorious image of Jesus as the victorious conqueror compared to PSA’s portrait of a physically frail and psychologically melancholic Jesus when he subdued and overcame by death. This notion is surely mistaken. A closer look at PSA would show that it is not the case of the fury of hell or the power of death overcoming Jesus; it is rather the case that when Jesus was bearing judgment in carrying out his priestly office, he took on the powers of death. However, Jesus unfaltering action outlasted the powers of hell and death. Jesus remained in control till the end. He did not die until he voluntarily gave himself in death. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” [John 10:17-18] Hence, PSA includes a proclamation of Christ’s victory on the cross.
To conclude, CV rightly asserts Christ’s victory on the cross, but if one rejects PSA, one would be unable to explain how the cross defeats sin, death and Satan. Nor can CV explain how Christians are delivered from the tyranny of guilt, shame and paralysis of past sins. Scripture confirms that it is Jesus’ high priestly substitutionary sacrifice on the cross which provides the ground for CV. In other words, PSA as the foundational teaching of the atonement makes it possible us to believe and proclaim CV.
** Related Posts on PSA