By Dr. Orrel Steincamp, republished with permission

It was Palm Sunday in our local church. The focus of the whole service was the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The pastor proceeded to verbally paint a picture of the holy week in Jerusalem. This included the agony in Gethsemane, the political and religious intrigue regarding the interaction between the Jewish authorities and the Roman government. Finally he gave a description of the crucifixion focusing on the crucifixion technique as it applied to the victim. If a picture is worth a 1000 words this pastor was painting a graphic picture with words. Especially the crucifixion event itself was so well done that I could almost hear the crowd crying out “give us “Barabbas” and I could almost feel the struggle of Jesus on the cross as he tried to get His breath. I knew the historical resources the pastor used that provided the palate he used to paint this spellbinding picture. And even though I have not seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” still I felt I was there “when they crucified my Lord.” Then the pastor abruptly pivoted toward his conclusion and appeal. He gave only a passing nod to Jesus death for our sins and providing eternal life. He launched into his application. Here are his actual words: “He died for you so you could approach Him today with whatever it is that is weighing you down. Maybe it is a relationship that is not right at home or school or work. Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Maybe your kids are breaking your heart. Maybe you are disappointed in yourself. You can’t get over the hump, or some behavior in your life. You are lonely, sick or grieving. The cross is where God’s best meets man’s worst as we see the cross with fresh eyes.”

I have no idea what view this pastor holds regarding the atonement. It really doesn’t fit any of the historical views. Maybe we could dub it the “life application atonement.” This type of appeal becomes more significant in the current environment, for now there is an open and frontal attack on the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice and substitutionary death to pay the penalty for our sins Within evangelicalism, with its plethora of odd and often heretical teachings, we now have, if not a full fledged war, at least major skirmishes breaking out regarding the meaning of the death of Christ. There are many major voices identified and accepted as fellow evangelicals, who are chiming in to challenge and target the Penal Substitutionary Atonement, hereafter PSA.

Mark Driscoll comments on a blog; “a war is brewing over this issue. This is the issue we must be willing to fight over. If we lose this (PSA) we lose the Gospel. If you deny this (PSA) you have essentially lost the Christian faith… As my subsititute he endured what I deserve in order to give me what I don’t deserve.”

But Driscoll represents a small minority of voices rising to challenge this attack on the atonement. Many church leaders are apparently just too distracted in their seeker-sensitive endeavors to even be aware. Or worse yet this issue is not seen as sufficiently important. Admittedly, there have and always will be differences of opinions about certain peripheral aspects of theology such as the time and manner of second coming, or baptism etc. etc. But PSA has until recently been the default setting for evangelicals of all descriptions. Understandably, the liberal/modernistic church has for decades since the turn of the century rejected PSA by dubbing it a “slaughter house” religion. (Harry Emerson Fosdick). But this new “Atonement War” is now openly being prosecuted among evangelicals in a version of an evangelical on evangelical conflict.

The two precipitating factors were two books written by evangel icals, one published in the UK and the other in the U~A. In a recent book “The Lost Message of Jesus” Steve Chalke, a widely known evangelical in Britain chose to express his opposition to PSA. Actually it was Chalke’s inflammatory statement that PSA was a form of “cosmic child abuse, which caused concern and open controversy among other evangelicals in Britain. In the USA Joel Green and Mark D. Baker recently authored “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross.” published by InterVarsity Press. Green and Baker’s thesis is that the NT displays a rich array of interpretations of the cross. Some called their view the “kaleidoscope atonement.” Their burden is to show that there has been a monopoly on the view of the atonement (PSA) and that there are actually many other biblical metaphors that enable us to communicate the cross in fresh ways to our postmodern culture. Green and Baker are not content to place PSA in the mix of cross metaphors. They are suggesting that PSA is based on a mistaken concept of God’s wrath. They see PSA as “promoting a ‘divisive child abuse model of the atonement.” P.181. Green is a professor at Fuller Seminary and Baker is at Biblical Seminary. These Authors and a growing list of evangelicals who endorse them, represent voices of dissent from a long strain of mainline evangelicals. They assert that PSA is unbecoming of a God of love and not an adequate expression of the biblical view.

Those attacking PSA cleverly begin their assault on PSA by emphasizing that there is a variety of views in the scriptures of the atonement. As we will see shortly there are other truths regarding the cross taught in scripture. But these critics then go on to call for the rejection of PSA and want to eliminate PSA altogether. Most challengers suggest that PSA is repulsive making God into a psychopath or a cosmic child abuser. Some of the challengers employ the metaphor of a bouquet of roses with a lull bouquet of atonement stories, with differing colors and differing fragrances that can appeal to a wider range of individuals But, they press for the plucking out and discarding the PSA rose altogether. They are bent on purging PSA from the church.

Perhaps here we need to define PSA more specifically. Tom Schreiner gives the following definition:

“The Father because of His love for human beings, sent his Son, (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisly his justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that at the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested… I am not claiming that it (PSA) is the only truth about the atonement taught in the scriptures, nor am I claiming that PSA is emphasized in every piece of literature, or that every author clearly articulates PSA. But I am saying that PSA functions as the anchor and foundation for the other dimensions of the atonement.” (Web… Between Two Worlds).

“Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a ‘substitution’ in that he was a substitute for us when he died. This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelicals theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment for the penalty for sin. This PSA view is sometimes called the vicarious atonement A vicar is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another. Christ’s death was therefore ‘vicarious’ because he stood in our place and represented us. As our representative he took the penalty that we deserve.” (Grudem, Bible Doctrine, p.254).

Indeed, as Dr. Schreiner states, PSA is not the only teaching in scripture regarding Jesus death. There are truly other aspects to Jesus’ death. But the atoning death of Jesus stands alone in that it is the centerpiece of reconciling sinners to our holy and heavenly Father. There are two views of the atonement that are found in Scripture. The difficulty is that they emphasized and PSA is denied.

The Moral Influence theory

This view of the atonement limits Christ’s death to a radical example of Christ’s love that influences sinners morally, but does not pay any price on their behalf. God’s justice demands no payment for sin. First Peter 2:21 is the primary text for this view. “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example.” But just a few verses later (v.24) Peter refers to the subsitutionary aspect of the cross, “He Himself bore our sins in his body on a tree…” Even in this primary passage regarding the moral influence of Christ’s death, it can’t stand alone without the central message of substitution

Christus Victor

This view attempts to limit Christ’s cross work to the defeating of the powers of evil. Indeed, Col. 2:15 assets; “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Indeed Christ’s death defeated the powers of darkness. But directly preceding this statement in V.14 Paul points to the substitionary aspect of the cross by stating: “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  Here as in other contexts, PSA stand in the central place.

These two views (Christus Victor and the Moral example) are indeed presented in scripture. But they can’t stand alone. These views are only complementary to the sacrificial death of Christ. Someone in my reading referred to the various presentations of the cross as a choir in which all the biblical references to the cross are like a harmonious choir. I would like to adjust this illustration and suggest that the sacrificial death of Christ is the soloist and the other biblical references to the cross are like background singers that enhance the voice of the soloist.

The Governmental Theory

This view states that there is no actual payment of sin at the cross. Rather the cross was a public display of how God is grieved at our sin and that his government is based on law. In this view this public display of the suffering of Jesus is intended to cause people to feel sorry for their sin and repent. This view has no reference point in scripture.

The Ransom to Satan Theory

This theory was first put forward by Origen in the post-apostolic era. This view suggested that Satan was tricked into accepting Christ’s death in exchange for the souls of sinners, not realizing that Christ would rise from the dead. Origen based this on a misunderstanding of Mark 1:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6. There has been a revival of this view in recent years by various Word-Faith teachers, especially Kenneth Copeland. They teach that Christ purchased a ransom for sinners by literally suffering in hell after his death on the cross. Christ suffered in Hell in order to render a payment to Satan. (Phil Johnson). They also teach that Jesus became a sinner in hell and after becoming a ransom he was tormented by Satan after which Jesus in hell was “born-again.” By this view Copeland can assert that Jesus did not pay for our sins on the cross. Jesus, the one who became a sinner in hell after his suffering there, was born-again by the father and then was raised to life on the third day. Jesus, while still in hell became the first born-again sinner. The application point among Word-Fathers is that as Jesus was born-again, the “first born among brethren,” so also every born-again believer becomes a son of God with the same power and authority as Christ. But the whole theory is flawed because Jesus became a sacrifice to God. Satan has no rights in God’s redemptive scheme.

Paula White, a divorced Word-Faith TV personality, recently added a bizarre dimension to what Jesus did on the cross. In her new book “The Seven Places Jesus Shed His Blood”, she proceeds to refer to the 7 wounds of Jesus and shamelessly asserts that for example; “Jesus’ hands were pierced for your total dominion.” She states: “If you want dominion, and want to break the spirit of poverty, sickness, disease, generation curses, God really did this for you on Calvary.” Larry Hutch, on the TV show with her, then asserts “Jesus is not the only begotten son of God. He is not. I am also a son of God for he is the firstborn of many.” This “ransom to Satan” theory and the governmental theory have no reference points in scripture other than crude and obvious misinterpretation.

Concluding Remarks

“In summary Christ died in stead of us (substitution) as a sacrifice that took away the guilt of our sins (expiation), the wrath of God (propitiation), God’s alienation from us (reconciliation), and delivered us from our captivity to the curse of the law, the penalty of sin, and the pollution of sin, (redemption)… The objectors to PSA openly dismiss the view that Christ alone, in a unique ministry, representing His people, stood in for us under the judgment of God, and by His blood atoned for us, satisfying God’s justice by his substitutionary death. Either Christ has endured God’s justice for us on the cross or we must do so for ourselves in hell… They must assume God will accept what Paul calls ‘rubbish’ in Phil. 3:8. They shamelessly replace what Christ has done for us with what we can do for ourselves. (David Linden)

“The bottom line is this. God does not dismiss his wrath against sin and sinners by a wave of his hand. Mercy is no magical wand that causes the holiness and justice of God to disappear. Either Jesus Christ is my substitute, has endured and suffered in himself and thereby satisfied the wrath of God I deserved, or I must do so forever in Hell.” (Sam Storms).

“…There was but one way to bring about the desired salvation which would be in harmony with God’s character, the law of God, the nature of sin and the needs of man. This one way was by the substitutionary blood atonement of the incarnate Son of God.” (Robert A. Morey, Studies in the Atonement, p.9)

The original appears here.

Plumbline Ministries, 74425 Co. Rd. 21, Renville, MN 56284

Further reading