For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
One of the most deeply engrained theological beliefs within Protestant circles, particular within evangelicalism, is the belief that Jesus Christ’s death is an atonement for our sins by taking on our punishment as a substitute so that we evade punishment. Penal substitution, and the other variations, all work from a basic undergirding assumption: that sin must be punished, so for a person to be able to righteously avoid punishment for their sins, someone must take the punishment in their place.
I have a few problems with this picture of atonement, however. While many criticize this picture of atonement as some sort of “divine child abuse,” I think such criticisms are needlessly hyperbolic and something of a straw man. My criticisms can be boiled down to concerns about the picture being portrayed about forgiveness, how God is portrayed as relating to humanity in their sin, and the lack of clear Scriptural attestation to substitution as the “mechanism” of atonement.
For the first two criticism of penal substitution and other similar atonement theories, I will summarize relatively briefly. Firstly, if God’s forgiveness of sins can only be offered by punishment, how does this inform our own acts of forgiveness? Can we forgive wrongs done to us by others only be displacing our anger onto others who did not do us wrong? Must there be punishment for wrongs that have been committed to us, especially if there is visible, genuine repentance on the part of the wrongdoer? While disciplining people for their wrongs to (a) help them learn from their wrongs and (b) prevent them from causing such harms in the future may certainly be meritted, punishment is concerned about inflicting pain and suffering. The more we worship God with the idea that God is out to punish sin, even if this punishment becomes displaced, the more we reinforce within ourselves a picture of “justice” that is fundamentally punitive in nature. As much as we are predisposed to take vengeance in the first place, this picture of punishment and forgiveness can only serve to form a vindictive nature towards those deemed to be wrong-doers and sinners.
Secondly, such a picture of God’s response to sinners is not consistent with the Scriptures. Certainly, there are portions of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, that speak of God’s judgment and wrath against human wickedness. However, nowhere do we get the picture that God is sitting up in the heavens just waiting to punish every human being for their sin. The portrayal of wrath in the Bible is most so circumstantial, particularly with the prophetic denunciations, against people who were engaging in idolatry and grievous injustice. The Biblical warnings of God’s wrath are not intended to be universalized to every person, as if God is just a half-step away from smiting us for our sins. Instead, the Scriptures regularly portray God as merciful to sinners, seeking to lead them in a different way. God is not quick to anger (Exodus 34.6), will forgive the sins of the wicked when they repent (Ezekiel 18.21-22), and even gives sun and rain to the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5.45).
However, the greatest criticism I have of penal substitution is that there is no passage in the Bible that explicitly and unambiguously teaches it. The persuasive power the idea has over many people is how it seems like a good explanation of both the crucifixion and various passages that address atonement, plus it serves as to enable our own coping for any anxieties we might have for our sins. However, a good explanation does not itself determine the truth, as the human mind is literally able to conjure up multiple reasonable explanations for various phenomena, but with more information and greater inspection, it is determined that most seemingly good explanations are actually false. This is what happens in science all the time. Similarly with theology. A good-sounding explanation does not itself make something true. Upon closer readings of various passages, there are good reasons to think that penal substitution is actually ruled out, not supported.
Many attempts to legitimate penal substitution start from the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Yet, we should all be wary of trying to derive metaphysics from prophetic speech, as the prophets were not metaphysicians speaking about hidden realms, but they were speaking God’s word in regards to the future reality that would become manifest. As such, it is best to see passages like Isaiah 53.5 not as metaphysical statements about the mechanism of the atonement of Christ, but rather as a description of what happens to people in relation to the crucified Christ. People are disciplined by His cross such that we become healed and whole.
However, the one New Testament passage that is response more than any other passage for support penal substitution in Romans 5.9-10. At first blush, there are parts of the passage that would seem to be consistent with penal substitution’s portrayal of God. In v. 10, it speaks of us being enemies, implicitly with God. Douglas Moo observes in his commentary that this is not just about human hostility towards God, but also God’s hostility towards humanity:
Paul makes explicit the hostile relationship implicit in the language of reconciliation: it was “while we were enemies” that we were reconciled to God. Paul may mean by this simply that we, rebellious sinners, are hostile toward God—violating his laws, putting other gods in his place.97 But, as Paul has repeatedly affirmed in this letter (cf. 1:18; 3:25), God is also “hostile” toward us—our sins have justly incurred his wrath, which stands as a sentence over us (1:19–32), to be climactically carried out on the day of judgment (2:5). Probably, then, the “enmity” to which Paul refers here includes God’s hostility toward human beings as well as human beings’ hostility toward God.98 Outside of Christ, people are in a situation of “enmity” with God; and in reconciliation, it is that status, or relationship, that changes: we go from being God’s “enemies” to being his “children” (cf. Rom. 8:14–17).1
In this case, the wrath of God spoken of in vs. 9 is taken to describe God’s universal judgment towards all humanity prior to coming to Christ. Justification, then, is taken to be the act of God to forgive one of their sins in the atonement of Jesus so that they will not face God’s wrath.
However, it should be remarked that such a reading is not necessary. If the “we” of v. 10 is simply describing human’s own way of responding to God, then we have no direct suggestion that God is angry and going to put all humanity through wrath prior to coming to Christ. In fact, that Paul speaks of God’s love towards sinners in the immediate context (Romans 5.8) suggests the exact opposite of the portrayal of God that penal substitution gives. God is not angry with all humanity; He is not seeking to judge all of them for their sins. God’s heart for humanity, even within their sins, is love.
To be sure, judgment is a future possibility for all of humanity. Yet, as Romans 1.19-32 suggests, God’s wrath and punishment is not an on-off switch that a person’s single sin turns on. Rather, God’s judgment comes against people who persistently refuse to acknowledge the truth, but continues to deny it to the point that they become characterized as full of sin in Romans 1.29-32. The problem of human sin, and idolatry, isn’t that it condemns us in the eyes of God; the problem with human sin is that it can lead us down a pathway towards wickedness and injustice if we do not repent and turn back to God;.
The implication of this reading is that God is seeking to turn people from their sins so that they do not go down the pathway of judgment. God is not put to punish people for any and every sin, but to turn them from their sin so that they don’t lose themselves to grosser idolatry and injustice. God’s love for sinners is not a love mixed with wrath, but it is a love that is trying to call people away from the pathway that would take them towards God’s wrath. If people were to continue in their sin, they would go beyond simply not recognizing the truth, but they would live in obedience and service to wickedness that God will judge. (Romans 2.8) As Romans 2.3-5 speaks, God’s kindness is intended to lead people to repentance so that they will avoid living a life that will be worthy of God’s wrath and judgment.
It is this picture of love that helps us to understand the atonement in Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is an act of God’s love. Throughout Romans, Paul connects the death of Christ with human death to and freedom from sin (See notably Romans 6.1-14). That is to say that Paul’s statement that God’s kindness leads people to repentance in Romans 2.4 is an explanation for the atonement of Christ: the cross is to direct and lead people to repentance. The cross is not where God’s punishment comes as a substitute for our own punishment, but it is where a new humanity emerges that becomes slaves to God rather than sin (Romans 6.17) because Jesus has rendered the power of sin in the flesh powerless (Romans 8.3-4). The cross is where true repentance is made possible and fruitful, allowing us to discern God’s good will by imitating the cross through becoming living sacrifices (Romans 12.1-2).
Paul does speak of being justified by the blood of Christ in Romans 5.9. If the cross is where repentance is made fruitful, then justification may be understood as God’s recognition of the new life in the person. Thus, justification is not describing a state of sinless perfection, but rather the reversal of the trajectory of sin described in Romans 1.18-32 with a trajectory of righteousness. Those who trust that God raised Jesus from the dead are set on a new trajectory in their own life, where they don’t run deeper into sin but rather deeper into righteousness. When we sin, God’s kindness to us through cross of Jesus Christ brings forth our renewed repentance that is effective, leading us deeper and deeper into a holy life. Because God recognizes that we are on a trajectory of righteousness through faith, we can be confident that we are not going to face God’s wrath that comes against those whose lives brought to fruition the trajectory of wickedness.
In other words, the cross of Jesus Christ opens up a new way of life, where we learn to let go of the way we have learned to live as humans (Romans 5.6; ὁ παλαιὸς ἡμῶν ἄνθρωπος is better rendered “our old humanity” than “our old self” as many translations take it). While the sin of Adam lead to the proliferation of sin in humanity, the grace of Jesus Christ in the cross leads many people to a new humanity formed in righteousness (Romans 5.12-21).
In conclusion, the cross of Jesus Christ is an atonement because it is God’s own response to human sin that can lead us to seek His righteousness. The atonement comes not through taking away punishment that God was going to deliver us, but by giving us a way to escape the condemnation of Adam that would other leave us susceptible to the downward trajectory of sin, leading to wickedness.
In summary, Romans 5.9-10 is better understood to describe the way that the cross of Jesus leads us away from a pathway where we resist God and His will and instead are set on a new path where we discover and live out God’s will through the Spirit so that we can be confident that we will not fall into the deeper rationalizations into further sin that those who will receive God’s wrath fall into. Thus, the idea of atonement should be considered the effectual divine act that brings about repentance, sanctification, and transformation. The cross is where God’s kind love beckons us towards and empowers us for repentance, towards a death to sin, so that we can then experience the newness of the justified life through the resurrection.