JesusOnCrossMake no mistake about this a serious debate about the nature of God’s wrath, and the doctrine of penal satisfaction, is extremely important for many conservative Protestants.  Some of this heat, so I believe, is a carry-over from the earlier battles of fundamentalism with theological liberals who wanted to have a God who loved all and accepted all into his redeemed family.

The recent attempt by the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to change the words of a popular modern hymn (“the wrath of God was satisfied” was to be changed to “the love of God was magnified”) touched off a new debate about defining the atonement in terms of God’s wrath and Jesus’ death as the sacrifice that appeases his wrath. (Some Catholic theologians agree but their position is more encompassing of other ideas and distinctly more nuanced. The Orthodox, as I’ve briefly indicated, take a different view.)

images-2Al Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provided USA Today some context to his concerns when he said this doctrine matters deeply to Southern Baptists because it was connected to the conservative resurgence in the SBC in the 1980s and 1990s. Mohler maintains that the doubts some had about this understanding of the atonement were linked with their rejection of inerrancy, the doctrine that ostensibly divided America’s largest Protestant denomination. Mohler believes the fresh memories of these debates were fueled by this new debate. I have to completely agree with him on this point.

Dr. Jay Phelan, senior professor of theological studies at North Park University (Evangelical Covenant Church) in Chicago, says too much emphasis on wrath leads to bad theology. Phelan believes that Al Mohler, and similar critics, are motivated by church politics as well as theology. He blames this on what he calls “neo-Calvinism.” He says this emphasis stresses God’s anger over sin. In Phelan’s own words, “You have all the neo-Calvinists who see any move away from strict satisfaction theory, as the straight road to liberal hell” (Quoted by Smietana in USA Today/Religion News Service).

images-3Jay Phelan believes this view of Jesus’ death is too limited. At the risk of alienating some conservative brothers, many of whom already hold my views in some measure of contempt, I have to agree with Dr. Phelan. I believe in substitutionary atonement. I believe all Christian creeds and confessions do as well. But Christians have had different views on the precise way in which Jesus’ death was a ransom paid on our behalf. I am persuaded that all of these theories make valid points. What I am not convinced of is that one theory alone is primary or final.

I’ll take up this subject of the atonement in more depth next week but for now I end on this point – all Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins. This belief unites us in the one faith, under the one Lord, and in the one holy, catholic church. But what does his death mean? How did it reconcile, atone, or “make us one” with God? This is what atonement means, after all – “at-one-ment” – to be in the state or context of being one with God again. Jesus death was necessary to repair our broken condition before a holy God. Through his death alone mankind is reconciled to God. Jesus himself is clear about this when he says twice that he came “to give his life a ransom for man” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). The Scripture is clear about this and I believe it is also clear that a payment was involved in his death. Who received this payment and why? What does it assure? I believe, with my friend James P. Danaher, “These questions are not clearly answered in Scripture, and so there have been a variety of theories concerning atonement and the nature of the payment” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear. (Ligouri Publications, 2006, 95, italics are mine).

The bottom line, at least for missional-ecumenism, should be clear – if the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has not defined this debate clearly, in a once for all manner, then we modern Protestants should be careful not to force a view of the atonement on others that further divides the church into various warring parties surrounding one particular view that we prefer. My problem is not with having the debate, especially if it leads to a serious dialogue about the nature of the sacrifice of Jesus. My problem is with how we are conducting this debate and how we condemn people and views that are well within the parameters of Christian orthodoxy.

Next Week: Historical Views of the Atonement, Forgiveness and God’s Relationship with Human Persons


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  1. Joe Schafer September 6, 2013 at 7:55 am - Reply

    I fully agree with what you have posted. The Bible convinced me that you are right, Specifically: If “the gospel” equals penal substitution, then why is there no clear presentation of penal substitution in the apostles’ gospel preaching in Acts? Were they not preaching the gospel? Penal substitution is a fine teaching, as long as we understand that it is a metaphor, and every metaphor has limitations.

  2. Rick Schnetz September 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    In John’s second paragraph he states:
    “…(Some Catholic theologians agree but their position is more encompassing of other ideas and distinctly more nuanced…)”

    For example, here’s a talk by Catholic theologian James Alison, who presents an ‘anthropological’ view (ala René Girard):
    “Some Thoughts on the Atonement”
    Regarding the substitutionary theory of atonement, Alison says:…the principle problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, and atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy.
    …we do not realize how much our dwelling in theory complicates our lives. That in fact having atonement as a theory means that it is an idea that can be grasped – and once it is grasped, one has got it – whereas a liturgy is something that happens at you.
    …if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement….What is difficult for us is not grasping the theory, but starting to try and imagine the love that is behind that. Why on earth should someone bother to do that for us? That’s St Paul’s issue. “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Rom 8:31-32) St Paul is struggling to find language about the divine generosity. That is the really difficult thing for us to imagine.

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