Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Living Christ

The glorification of the Son of God
is the glorification of the human race,
for the glory of God is the glory of man,
and that glory is love!
~ George MacDonald

Good Friday—on this day Christians around the globe contemplate the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Why did Jesus die? What was its purpose? What did it accomplish? Many Protestants, particularly within the Reformed and evangel­ical traditions, have a ready answer—penal substitutionary atonement. On the cross God the Son bore the wrath of the Holy Trinity against sin. Given that I have been away from the Protestant literature on this topic for a couple of decades, I’m hesitant to offer a sum­mary of the position. Instead I quote the respected evangelical J. I. Packer:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.1

This succinct statement captures the gist of penal atonement. All the benefits of salvation flow from Christ’s substitutionary act. The wrath of God has been poured out upon the Lamb once offered. Justice has been done, and the way is now open for “forgiveness, adoption and glory.” Packer concludes his lecture with this amplified statement:

1) God, in [James] Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

Packer eschews the crude pagan account of an angry deity who needs to be placated and mollified. The atonement of Christ is propelled by the eternal love of the Father and the Son for humanity. But God is also just. Our sins deserve his condemnation. The divine wrath must be appeased before humanity’s salvation can be achieved. Solution: the Son becomes Man and on the cross offers “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfac­tion, for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer).

This story of divine sacrifice speaks to our conscience. Yet questions continue to nag:

  1. What is this penalty and debt that must be paid before our salvation can be effected?
  2. How does Jesus’ death redirect the “destructive divine wrath”?
  3. Why couldn’t God just forgive outright and skip the horror of crucifixion?

George MacDonald was raised in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and reacted violently against it at an early age. In his novel Robert Falconer, which may reflect the Scotsman’s own youthful wrestling with the Reformed faith, we find a fascinating conversation between Robert and his grandmother:

“And we have no right to say we know God save in the face of Christ Jesus. Whatever is not like Christ is not like God.”

“But, laddie, he came to satisfy God’s justice by suffering the punishment due to our sins; to turn aside his wrath and curse; to reconcile him to us. So he couldn’t be altogether like God.”

“He did nothing of the kind, grannie. It’s all a lie that. He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children; by making them see that God was just; by sending them weeping home to fall at his feet, and grip his knees and say, ‘Father, you’re in the right.’ He came to lift the weight of the sins that God had cursed off the shoulders of them that did them, by making them turn against them, and be for God and not for sin. And there isn’t a word of reconciling God to us in all the Testament, for there was no need of that: it was us that he needed to be reconciled to him. And so he bore our sins and carried our sorrows; for those sins coming out in the multitudes—ay and in his own disciples as well, caused him no end of grief of mind and pain of body, as everyone knows. It wasn’t his own sins, for he had none, but ours, that caused him suffering; and he took them away—they’re vanishing even now from the earth, though it doesn’t look like it in Ragfair or Petticoat-lane. And for our sorrows—they just made him weep. His righteousness just annihilates our guilt, for it’s a great gulf that swallows up and destroys it. And so he gave his life as a ransom for us: and he is the life of the world. He took our sins upon him, for he came into the middle of them and took them up—by no sleight of hand, by no quibbling of the lawyers, about imputing his righteousness to us, and such like, which is not to be found in the Bible at all, though I don’t say that there’s no possible meaning in the phrase, but he took them away; and here am I, grannie, growing out of my sins in consequence, and there are you, grannie, growing out of yours in consequence, and having nearly done with them altogether by this time.” (Part 3, chap. 5)

In the gospel God has revealed himself as Love. He loves, and has loved, to the nth degree. The Father has never needed to be reconciled to humanity. He is not the problem—we are. We are the ones who have alienated ourselves from our Creator. We are the ones who need to repent and be reborn in the Spirit. We are the ones who need to hear the gospel and partake of our Savior’s Body and Blood. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconcil­iation” (2 Cor 5:19). MacDonald repudiates the claim that Jesus vicariously endures the retribution due to our sin. The divine justice is restora­tive, not punitive. When God chastises, he intends to persuade the sinner of the futility of sin: “Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement.” There is, therefore, no penalty that must first be paid before God can forgive and save; and it would make no difference to MacDonald’s position if we were to specify, with Packer, that God has gra­ciously provided his own suffering as the propitiation of his wrath. The love of the Father is his justice. As Robert tells his grannie: “He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children.”

MacDonald elaborates on his rejection of penal substitutionary atonement in his sermon “Justice”:

Their system is briefly this: God is bound to punish sin, and to punish it to the uttermost. His justice requires that sin be punished. But he loves man, and does not want to punish him if he can help it. Jesus Christ says, ‘I will take his punishment upon me.’ God accepts his offer, and lets man go unpunished—upon a condition. His justice is more than satisfied by the punishment of an infinite being instead of a world of worthless creatures. The suffering of Jesus is of greater value than that of all the generations, through endless ages, because he is infinite, pure, perfect in love and truth, being God’s own everlasting son. God’s condition with man is, that he believe in Christ’s atonement thus explained. A man must say, ‘I have sinned, and deserve to be tortured to all eternity. But Christ has paid my debts, by being punished instead of me. Therefore he is my Saviour. I am now bound by gratitude to him to turn away from evil.’

I do not know if Packer would accept MacDonald’s formulation of penal substitutionary atonement—I imagine he might object to the use of the word “torture”—but I do not doubt that he is accurately describing the doctrine as it was popularly taught. As MacDonald remarks: “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject; the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.” What else was the crucifixion, what else is eternal perdition, but torture? Here the “destructive divine wrath” is displayed in all of its fury.

MacDonald does not object to punishment per se, if it is directed to the sinner’s repen­tance. But he rejects the claim that the divine justice requires suffering as satisfaction: “Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin.” It cannot atone for wickedness, for it neither recompenses the victim nor transforms the wrongdoer (cf. “Righteousness“). To inflict retribution is to exact vengeance, nothing more, nothing less; but as the Scotsman memorably states: “The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.”

Penal substitutionary atonement, though, goes yet further: it asserts that the suffering of an innocent—and specifically, of the innocent and holy Son—can substitute for the deserved suffering of the wicked:

If there be no satisfaction to justice in the mere punishment of the wrong-doer, what shall we say of the notion of satisfying justice by causing one to suffer who is not the wrong-doer? And what, moreover, shall we say to the notion that, just because he is not the person who deserves to be punished, but is absolutely innocent, his suffering gives perfect satisfaction to the perfect justice? That the injustice be done with the consent of the person maltreated makes no difference: it makes it even worse, seeing, as they say, that justice requires the punishment of the sinner, and here is one far more than innocent. They have shifted their ground; it is no more punishment, but mere suffering the law requires! The thing gets worse and worse. I declare my utter and absolute repudiation of the idea in any form whatever. Rather than believe in a justice—that is, a God—to whose righteousness, abstract or concrete, it could be any satisfaction for the wrong-doing of a man that a man who did no wrong should suffer, I would be driven from among men, and dwell with the wild beasts that have not reason enough to be unreason­able. What! God, the father of Jesus Christ, like that! His justice contented with direst injustice! The anger of him who will nowise clear the guilty, appeased by the suffering of the innocent! Very God forbid!

One hears in these passionate words MacDonald’s indignation and outrage. Instead of believing in the sheer forgiveness of the Father, theologians have invented a legal mecha­nism—“a piece of spiritual charlantry” and “grotesquely deformed absurdity”—that permits God to forgive:

Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his father-heart, for that they found impossible. They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing, as an offset to their sin; they could not believe in clear forgiveness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified; so they invented for its justifica­tion a horrible injustice, involving all that was bad in sacrifice, even human sacrifice. They invented a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God. He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father. What satisfac­tion was needed he made himself in what he did to cause them to turn from evil and go back to him. The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit.

Atonement for MacDonald begins with the unconditional love of God and terminates in the concrete reconciliation of sinners. Love and justice are one.

But, some object, MacDonald has compromised the finished work of the cross. Evangelical faith cleaves to the announcement that the Crucified has accomplished our atonement once and for all; otherwise assurance would be impossible. In his sermon “The Truth in Jesus,” MacDonald rejoins that there is a crucial difference between believing in a theory of atonement and believing in the living Christ:

To make my meaning clearer,—some of you say we must trust in the finished work of Christ; or again, our faith must be in the merits of Christ—in the atonement he has made—in the blood he has shed: all these statements are a simple repudiation of the living Lord, in whom we are told to believe, who, by his presence with and in us, and our obedience to him, lifts us out of darkness into light, leads us from the kingdom of Satan into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. No manner or amount of belief about him is the faith of the New Testament. . . . What I insist upon is, that a man’s faith shall be in the living, loving, ruling, helping Christ, devoted to us as much as ever he was, and with all the powers of the Godhead for the salvation of his brethren.

Faith is not a matter of assenting to a doctrine about what Christ achieved for us in the past. Faith is trusting in the glorified Savior who is present to us now, who speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, who indwells our hearts and pours out his Spirit, who establishes us “in absolute oneness with God and all divine modes of being, oneness with every phase of right and harmony” (“Life”). Atonement is not truly finished until sinners have been brought to perfect unity with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Though MacDonald does not frequently address the resurrection of Jesus, clearly all of his preaching and teaching presupposes it. Easter lies at the heart of his faith, not as a doctrine but as spirited relationship. MacDonald demonstrates little interest in doctrine. He knows how easily it can become a substitute for and obstacle to faith—hence his focus on obedi­ence. Why obedience? Because it is the key to personal union with our Creator: “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation” (“Truth in Jesus”). Did MacDonald believe in the atonement? There can be only one answer: he believed in nothing but atonement! “With all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind,” he confesses, “I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God” (“Justice”).

The Crucified lives!

(16 April 2019; rev.)


[1] J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture (1973).

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1 Response to Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Living Christ

  1. Tim Tracy says:

    I think your piece is pretty close Al – to answer your question from the MacDonald website. I’d like to note, however, that those quoted extracts from his Unspokens don’t really answer the “why” question, to me at least, unless one wants to construct some sort of obedience-type analog – that is, MacDonald is consistently crystal clear that the only atonement God cares about is the one we make, whether here or later, which of course is absolutely consistent with the very words of Jesus himself on several occasions (there’s no divine forgiveness unless we forgive first) – an analog that to obey Christ is to do just that and perhaps the quality of obedience which may be required to do what he says is of the quality that leads to death. That said, the closet answer to your “why” question that I have seen in MacDonald’ works – and I have by no means read them all – is in his Unspoken The Eloi, which as aside I think Hart would say that that sermon is too anthropomorphic for him.


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