GOSPEL (WHAT) AND THEORY (HOW)

ewf_beardTHE TWENTY-SECOND DAY OF NOVEMBER IN THE YEAR OF GRACE TWO THOUSAND AND FIFTEEN.


A gracEmail subscriber asks: “What is penal substitutionary atonement? is it the same thing as the gospel? Do you see any problems with it?

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The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” Specifically, the gospel is the good news that by the doing, dying, and rising again of Jesus of Nazareth, God has fulfilled his promises to his people Israel, and in the process he has atoned for sin, reconciled sinners to himself, defeated death, and brought about immortality. The gospel tells us WHAT God has done but it does not explain exactly HOW he did it. Theologians and other curious humans through the centuries have offered a variety of atonement theories to explain the “how.” Such theories and explanations can be helpful for illustrative purposes but we must remember that they are human theories and not the gospel itself. For example, consider the explanation about which you inquired, known as the theory of penal substitutionary atonement.

If asked to summarize the gospel, most of us would probably say something like this. We humans all have sinned. Sin offends God’s holiness. Divine justice requires that he punish it with death. But the sinless Jesus took our place and accepted our punishment which satisfied God’s holiness. As a result, God forgives our sins and gives us eternal life instead of the second death. Because this explanation involves Jesus being punished (“penal”) instead of us (“substitutionary”) to set us right with God (atonement), it is commonly called the theory of “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). But while it has some biblical support, like all human theories it is less than perfect and raises questions of its own.

For example, John 3:16-17 says that God loved the world (its people) and gave his Son to save it. God loved us before he gave his Son, not beginning at the Son’s death. He was not angry at the world until Jesus died on the cross, which suddenly satisfied his wrath and made him love us instead. And while Scripture says that Jesus “bore our sins,” “became a curse for us,” and “was made sin for us,” neither Jesus nor any biblical writer says that the Father ever was angry with his well-beloved Son. We can use various atonement theories if, as, and when they might be helpful. Even better, we can repeat in words of scripture, found throughout the New Testament, the good news of WHAT God has done through Jesus, even if we never try to explain exactly HOW he did it.