The Atonement: The Penal-Substitutionary View – by Charlie Handren

Charlie Handren is a TCT Network Pastor and the Regional Leader for the Twin Cities. ┬áThis post originally occurred on his blog: Born of the Word. ┬áThis article is in a series called “The Atonement” in which Charlie looks at and assesses four different views of the atonement.

The Atonement: The Penal-Substitutionary View

This evening I continued reading Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement. Specifically, I read the essay on and responses to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

Simply put, this view argues that the central meaning of the atonement is that it served to pay the penalty due for our sins. It is substitutionary because Christ stood as a “substitute” in our place, the infinitely innocent lamb for thoroughly guilty sinners; it is penal because his sacrifice satisfied the legal debt owed by sinners for their sin.

Here’s how Schreiner defines it: “I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested” (68).

In defense of this view, Schreiner begins by discussing the nature and depth of sin, then moves on to muse on the holiness of God and his just and necessary response to our sin, followed by an explanation of how the sacrifice of Christ met the demands of God’s holiness and also expressed his mercy and steadfast love.

To be honest, I thought Schreiner’s essay was a good attempt at an explanation and defense of this view, but I found it lacking at several points. The parameters of this particular book kept him from exploring several key areas, which he himself admits more than once. So I extend grace to him. But I found myself longing for him to say more about the nature of covenant relationship and the corallary relational nature of sin. He admitted that sin is more than simply breaking God’s laws, but then the “more” he offers is that it is a rejection of his lordship. This is indeed true, but it’s more than a rejection of lordship–it’s a rejection of the Lord. It’s a violation of the being of God. Like an adulterous spouse violates the being of his or her mate, sinners violate the being of God. They destroy the relationship. They break the covenant.

I am persuaded that the penal substitutionary view is indeed central to the meaning of the atonement, but I must admit that I hear, and feel, certain criticisms of it, especially the criticism that it is too detached, too legalistic (in the sense of legally-oriented), and does not allow for the profound relational nature of God as expressed in his covenants. But, as an adherent of this view, I am persuaded that the biblical truths expressed in it can be expressed in such a way as to make allowances for the relational nature of God, sin, the atonement, reconciliation, etc.

I have so much more to say about this, but it’s late and I’m wiped out! So goodnight and God bless! Whatever you think about the atonement, I pray that you will (1) found your thoughts in the actual words of God’s Word and keep yourself from the temptation of relying too much on the philosophies and words of men and women, and (2) get down on your face and praise God for what he has done in Christ!

By Charlie Handren


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