It is a charge often brought against those who hold to penal substitution that we miss the dynamic presentation of the atoning work of Christ through Scriptures. In other words, if you hold to penal substitution, you miss the many ways that the Bible speaks about the atonement.
I’ve had some opportunity lately to think through the atonement, and I believe that this charge is patently untrue. As one who holds firmly to the notion that penal substitution is at the root of all benefits that come to us through the cross of Christ (biblically and historically), I still am able to see that the picture of Jesus’ cross-work is not monolithic.
In an effort to flesh this out, and show that this charge is incorrect, here is a super-brief examination of six facets of the biblical presentation of the atonement aside from penal substitution.
The storyline of Scripture is replete with examples of sacrifice, not all of which carry notions of penal substitution. The concept of Christ as “the Sacrifice of God” picks up on these sacrifices and proclaims Jesus to be the ultimate antitype. Examples would include Noah’s post-flood sacrifice, the averted sacrifice of Isaac, the various prescribed sacrifices in the Old Testament law, and many others. Christ as the antitype of the sacrifice theme in the Old Testament is picked up clearly by John the Baptist, who proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36; all Scripture quotations from the esv). This theme is developed most prominently in the book of Hebrews, particularly in chapters 5-9. In chapter 9, Christ is seen to be the antitype of all the “bulls and goats” as he accomplishes salvation as a sacrifice for his people, in the eternal holy place (vv. 11-27). As Hebrews 9:26 sums up, Christ came “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Redemption is another theme which runs through storyline of salvation-history. God’s people are, at various points, seen to be slaves or captives who must have their freedom purchased at a price. So, the Israelites needed to be redeemed from slavery in Egypt, then the laws for the redemption of individual slaves are established through the Torah, and then finally, when Judah is in exile in Babylon, God must accomplish her redemption to bring her home. This theme is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, through whose work we see that the redemption price must ultimately be paid to God, not to any human oppressor. It is God who is offended by our sin, and therefore, the price of redemption must be paid to him. Hebrews 9 draws out the fulfilment of this theme, saying that the “blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (v. 14) is what has secured our “eternal redemption” (v. 12). Through his death, Christ has inaugurated the new covenant, in which his people may receive the “promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them” from their transgressions (v. 15). The basic idea of redemption is that the world is in bondage to sin and Satan (1 John 5:19), but Christ came to offer his life as a redemptive ransom (Mark 10:45).
Interestingly, Romans 3:24-25 links the redemption accomplished in Christ with the propitiatory nature of his sacrifice. Propitiation carries the notion of God’s righteous wrath against sin being fully borne out on another. In the context of Romans 3, then, as Paul has said (vv. 5-6), God is indeed righteous to inflict wrath on us and the condemnation of all is justly deserved (vv. 8, 19, 23). In fact, it was for the very purpose of displaying his righteousness that God showed himself to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly when he put forward Christ Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood” (vv. 25-26). God’s propitiation of his wrath against sin and sinners in the atoning death of Christ Jesus, then, is intrinsically tied up with the display of his justice and righteousness, as he declares the guilty innocent; the wrath they deserved was justly poured out on the substitute. Hebrews 2:17 declares that Jesus’ had to be entirely human in every respect so that he could justly become the propitiation for the sins of humans. 1 John 4:10 also states that the love of God is shown in this: that Christ was sent to become the propitiation for our sins.
There are three aspects to reconciliation. First, there must be a present relationship of estrangement / alienation / hostility between persons. Second, an intervention must be made to remove the basis of the estrangement. The third stage is a renewed relationship of peace, love, and acceptance between those formerly estranged persons. The biblical doctrine of reconciliation begins with the understanding that we have sinned against God, and that he is the alienated party. That is why Paul can plead with sinners to be reconciled with God (2 Cor 5:20). The reconciliation that takes place is accomplished by God, in Christ, who initiates reconciliation, even though he was the offended party (2 Cor 5:18-19).
- Christus Victor
The doctrine of Christus Victor states that Christ’s work (death—resurrection—ascension) indicates that he has taken on death, sin, and Satan, and has emerged from the battle as a victorious conqueror. It is based on texts such as Colossians 2:15 and Hebrews 2:14-15, which state that Christ has destroyed the one who has the power of death and delivered all those who through fear of death were subject to slavery; he has disarmed the rulers and authorities and triumphed over them. While the doctrine of Christus Victor is often pitted against the doctrine of penal substitution, it is actually a result of Christ’s penal substitutionary work, and the two doctrines must be held aright in view of each other.
- Christus Exemplus
Similarly, the doctrine of Christus Exemplus is sound only when kept in perspective by a right understanding of the justifying and propitiating work that Christ accomplished on the cross. This doctrine teaches that Christ, in his suffering, became a perfect model for us of how we are to live and to suffer, entrusting ourselves to God. This is based on passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Peter 2:18-25. We are to follow Christ and become like him in his sufferings, taking up our cross daily; but we must bear in mind that the primary intent of Christ’s cross-work was first and foremost to propitiate God’s wrath, accomplishing salvation, and then derivatively it serves as an example for us.