The Spiritual Charlatanry of Substitutionary Penal Atonement and Imputational Righteousness

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 substitutionary atonement for humanity’s diso­bedience. Our sins are imputed to Christ Jesus, so that his righteousness might be imputed to sinners. In the words of the Westminster Confession:

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an ever­lasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him. (8.5)

Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth: not by infus­ing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (11.1)

This story of divine sacrifice speaks to our conscience. Do not our sins deserve divine punishment? 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”? How does it “purchase” reconciliation with the Father?
  3. How is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ not a legal fiction?
  4. Why couldn’t God just forgive outright and skip the horror of crucifixion?

George MacDonald was raised in the dual doctrines of penal substitutionary atonement and forensic imputation and reacted violently against both at an early age. In his novel Robert Falconer, which may reflect the Scot’s own youthful wrestling with Reformed doctrine, 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)

MacDonald passionately believes that in the gospel, God has revealed himself as absolute and unconditional Love. He loves, has loved and will forever love 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 are enslaved to egoism and sin. 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. We are the ones who need to be made righteous. 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 and destructiveness 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. God has no wrath that needs to be sacrificially propitiated.2 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 MacDonald is accurately describing the doctrine as it was taught in 19th century Scotland. “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject,” he remarks; “the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.”

MacDonald does not object to divine 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. 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 concocted a legal mecha­nism—“a piece of spiritual charlatanry” 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 and forgiveness of God and terminates in the concrete reconciliation and transformation of sinners. Love and justice are one. Hence the irrelevancy of penal atonement and forensic imputation: God’s absolute love for sinners nullifies both. No substitutionary exchange and pretense is necessary.

Consider the words of Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (5:21). MacDonald interprets the verse plainly: “He gave him to be treated like a sinner, killed and cast out of his own vineyard by his husbandmen, that we might in him be made righteous like God.” But the Reformed proponents of imputational righteousness intro­duce an “as if” into the verse: “he made him to be treated as if he were a sinner, that we might be treated as if we were righteous.” MacDonald has no truck with such tendentious exegesis:

That is just what Paul does mean,’ insist not a few. ‘He means that Jesus was treated by God as if he were a sinner, our sins being imputed to him, in order that we might be treated as if we were righteous, his righteousness being imputed to us.’

That is, that, by a sort of legal fiction, Jesus was treated as what he was not, in order that we might be treated as what we are not. This is the best device, according to the prevailing theology, that the God of truth, the God of mercy, whose glory is that he is just to men by forgiving their sins, could fall upon for saving his creatures! . . .

I now protest against this so-called doctrine, counting it the rightful prey of the foolishest wind in the limbo of vanities, whither I would gladly do my best to send it. It is a mean, nauseous invention, false, and productive of falsehood. Say it is a figure, I answer it is not only a false figure but an embodiment of untruth; say it expresses a reality, and I say it teaches the worst of lies; say there is a shadow of truth in it, and I answer it may be so, but there is no truth touched in it that could not be taught infinitely better without it. It is the meagre misshapen offspring of the legalism of a poverty-stricken mechanical fancy, unlighted by a gleam of divine imagination. No one who knows his New Testament will dare to say that the figure is once used in it. (Righteousness)

MacDonald’s judgment is harsh, but is it undeserved?

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 abiding with and obeying 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 and living 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 his preaching presupposes it. Easter lies at the heart of his faith, not as a doctrine but as an existential relationship in the Spirit with the living Christ. MacDonald demonstrates little interest in doctrine. He knows how easily it can become a substitute for and obstacle to genuine faith—hence his focus on obedi­ence. Why obedience? Because it is the key, he believes, to personal union with our Creator: “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation.” It is this doing that distinguishes mere propositional assent and a living faith—what the Apostle Paul described as “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). It is through our obedience to Jesus, by taking up our cross and following him, that we are shaped according to his righteousness and conjoined with his Father in heart and mind:

Well do I know it is faith that saves us—but not faith in any work of God—it is faith in God himself. If I did not believe God as good as the tenderest human heart, the fairest, the purest, the most unselfish human heart could imagine him, yea, an infinitude better, higher than we as the heavens are higher than the earth—believe it, not as a proposition, or even as a thing I was convinced of, but with the responsive condition and being of my whole nature; if I did not feel every fibre of heart and brain and body safe with him because he is the Father who made me that I am—I would not be saved, for this faith is salvation; it is God and the man one. God and man together, the vital energy flowing unchecked from the creator into his creature—that is the salvation of the creature. But the poorest faith in the living God, the God revealed in Christ Jesus, if it be vital, true, that is obedient, is the beginning of the way to know him, and to know him is eternal life. (“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).

[2] “There is no Wrath that stands between God and us, but what is awakened in the dark Fire of our own fallen Nature; and to quench this Wrath, and not his own, God gave his only begotten Son to be made Man. God has no more Wrath in himself now, than he had before the Creation, when he had only himself to love. The precious Blood of his Son was not poured out to pacify himself (who in himself had no Nature towards man but Love), but it was poured out, to quench the Wrath, and Fire of the feverish Soul, and kindle in it a Birth of Light, and Love.” William Law, The Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration (1739), §110.

(Return to first article)

This entry was posted in Bible, George MacDonald and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Spiritual Charlatanry of Substitutionary Penal Atonement and Imputational Righteousness

  1. Amen!! Our God lives and reigns forever, and Christ has secured victory for us in His glorious death and resurrection. We are not to be cringing, fearful servants as St. Paul says, but children of God, the greatest Father anyone could ask for.

    It pains me when I see those in the Reformed tradition bemoan their lack of assurance that God loves them or Jesus died for them. They are so consumed with the penal substitutionary view that they now have a warped sense of election, and God’s love takes a back seat to it. I myself am recovering from such condemnation, and it’s quite possibly the darkest place a person can be spiritually.


  2. Should the title read “Spiritual Charlatanry“?


  3. Matthew Porter-Valbracht says:

    Leaving aside the theological issues, from a logical perspective there is a huge issue with the idea of Jesus suffering in our place. The wages of sin is death. And Jesus died, he accepted the punishment for sin even though he was innocent of it. But… we still die. He didn’t suffer instead of us, but rather with us. Which is of course what George MacDonald was saying.


  4. Garreth says:

    When it comes to the crucifixion the only party who is looking for appeasement is clearly humans being, and likewise it is humans who demand the crucifixion not God, afterall the Gospel attest that the crucifixion brings both Pilate and Herod closer together, simply because there common victim had been put to death, maybe from a PSA perspection the holy trinity should be father, Pilate and Herod, rather than father, son, holy spirit. 😱


Comments are closed.