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Penal- substitutionary Atonement is Wrong

Today we will be looking to answer the question, why did Jesus have to die? Theologically this is called the doctrine of the atonement. We’ll be looking to find out just how Jesus’ death reconciled us with God the Father. Now those of you who are theologically minded may be saying, why bother? All Christians pretty much believe the same thing. The almost universal answer to the question of why Jesus had to die goes something like this: God the Father had decreed that the penalty for sin is death. When Adam and Eve sinned they brought sin and death into the human race. Because God is holy, sin cannot be in His presence, so sin separates us from Him. Because God is perfectly just, He cannot simply forgive sin, sin has to be paid for, so for us to be reconciled to Him some man was needed to live a perfect life so that he could become a suitable sacrifice for mankind. So Jesus became a man, lived a perfect life, and offered Himself as a sacrifice to God, for mankind. God the Father then had Jesus put on the cross and poured out the wrath that was intended for us onto his Son. So Jesus died to pay our penalty and take the wrath of God that was intended for us, he took it on Himself. This view of the atonement is called the Penal - Substitution Theory. Penal, meaning He paid our penalty, and substitution, meaning He became our substitute, by taking our place on that cross. This theory is based on the necessary satisfaction of God’s perfect justice. Now to this point, most of you are probably saying that this sounds pretty accurate BUT is this why Jesus came and had to die, because God the Father, who is perfectly just, had to pour out his wrath on somebody to satisfy His justice because mankind had sinned? I do not believe that that is true and today I’m going to attempt to show you why.

To begin, the Bible says that God is love and that He is full of mercy. I must ask the question, where is love and mercy seen in this view of the atonement? In this view sin must be paid for, by death, no mercy, no exceptions. And wrath must be poured out on somebody, even if it’s on an innocent person, namely Jesus. All to satisfy God’s perfect justice. Love and mercy are nowhere to be seen with this type of justice. The Bible does say that God is a God of justice, but how just is it to punish an innocent person? And there are many other questions. If the penalty for sin is merely death, why did Jesus have to suffer probably the most gruesome, agonizing death that a human has ever experienced? Couldn’t He have lived a perfect life and then died reasonably? Why did God feel the need to brutalize Him unmercifully?

Now the Bible also says that when Jesus walked the earth that He was the perfect representation of who God is. Jesus said over and over again, “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” Did Jesus condemn sinners like the God in this view of the atonement does, demanding payment for their sins, letting them know that He couldn’t forgive them unless their sin was paid for? Or, did He consistently show mercy and forgive them? He consistently showed mercy and forgave them. But if this is the case then how can the Bible make the claim that He was the exact imprint of the God depicted in this Penal - Substitution Theory? They are not alike at all if this theory is true. Today we’re going to look at another view of the atonement. Now you probably didn’t even know that there was another one, but we’re going to take a look at another view which I have come to believe is true and which more accurately fit’s the character of God and also more accurately fit’s the Biblical text and then I will expose the fatal flaw which destroys the entire foundation that the Penal - Substitution Theory is built on.

To begin, I’m going to start with another question: Have Christians always believed the Penal - Substitution Theory? The answer to this is, No. For the first 1000 years after Christ died another theory was almost universally believed. The Penal - Substitution Theory wasn’t actually formularized until 1097 AD. Now I, myself, was shocked when I first learned this because I would never even have thought that another belief had ever existed, but for the first 1000 years Christians had a very different answer to the question, why did Jesus have to die. Throughout the centuries this other view has been known as the “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement. Now to simplify things and to distinguish this belief from the other in this discussion I will be referring to it as the “Love Prevails” theory. The “Love Prevails” theory, as we will see, is a lot more comprehensive than the Penal - Substitution Theory, or “Perfect Justice” Theory, as I will now call that for the balance of this discussion. The Perfect Justice Theory, as we’ve gone over, is almost exclusively focused on Christ’s death. Jesus came to die and pay the penalty for our sins and it pretty much ends there. As we will see, the Love Prevails Theory focuses on Christ’s entire human existence; his birth, his living example and teachings, his death, his resurrection, and even the follow-up work of God’s Spirit in believers lives.

Now, regarding the motivation behind Christ’s death, the Perfect Justice Theory pinpoints the reason as payment to God for our sins, that this was necessary to satisfy God’s perfect justice. The Love Theory depicts Christ’s death as a ransom payment made to the evil forces that had captured and enslaved mankind. The evil forces being sin, death, and the devil with the motivation being God’s loving of mankind so much that He sent His Son to rescue us from the clutches of these evil forces. So what is the actual focus of Christ’s death, a satisfaction of God’s perfect justice or the supreme example of God’s radical love for mankind? This is the primary question that needs to be answered. First, let’s take a closer look at the Love Prevails Theory that was almost universally believed for the first 1000 years of Christianity to get our answer and then we will look at the fatal flaw in the now almost universally believed Perfect Justice Theory.

The “Christus Victor” or Love Prevails Theory, once again, is centered around the sacrificial love of Christ which propelled Him to victory over the evil forces that had enslaved mankind. The evil forces that had enslaved mankind was first and foremost, the devil (Satan), then sin, and then death. In the beginning man was created to have dominion over the earth, with God being the overseer, but man’s obedience to Satan’s advice in the Garden put Satan in control of man and of the earth. This is why Satan could rightfully offer Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world in Luke 4:5-6. It is also why Jesus referred to Satan as the prince of this world, (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) it is why Paul called him “the god of this world” (2Cor. 4:4) and it is why John could say that “the whole world is under the power of the evil one.” (1John 5:19) So Jesus’ first order of business in His first coming was to defeat and destroy the devil so that mankind could be removed from his grip. Now the Bible spells this out very clearly. 1John 3:8b tells us, “ For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” and the writer to the Hebrews tells us the same thing in Hebrews 2:14, he writes, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself (Jesus) likewise shared in the same that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil.” So the Bible confirms that Jesus’ main order of business was to destroy the works of the devil. Please notice also, that there is no mention here of Jesus coming to satisfy God’s wrath and perfect justice. You will not find that clearly spelled out in scripture anywhere.

Now man because of the Fall has also been saddled with a sin issue. When Adam fell because of sin he introduced the knowledge of evil and the reality of evil into the human race. He also lost fellowship and his connection with God and because of these factors all men make the choice to sin and go their own way. The Bible is clear on this next point also, Jesus came “to take away our sins.” (1John 3:5) Jesus’ second order of business was to defeat sin and remove it as an obstacle to man being reconciled to God. Jesus came as a man, albeit a man with a restored connection with God by being born of the Holy Spirit through the virgin birth (hence, the incredible importance of the virgin birth) and, as a man, he was able to resist all of Satan’s temptations and live His life without ever sinning. He did this out of love for His Father and out of love for His fellow man. So, as the second Adam, for He had the same advantages as Adam had, he conquered sin also and created a new lineage of man who can now live apart from sin and in fellowship with God. Hence, the dire need for us to be born again or, born from above, into the line of Jesus Christ.

Finally, Jesus came to defeat death. The Bible says that the wages, or consequences, of sin is death. (Rom. 6:23)Death is a cessation of life. There is no hope in death. Because of each man’s sin, all consequently must die. As we saw earlier, Satan had been given the power over death (Heb. 2:14) because as he entices one to sin, death is the natural result. To continue his domination over the human race Satan needed to get Jesus to sin and consequently die. When he failed to get Jesus to sin, he decided to have Jesus brutally killed in hopes that he could hold Him in death. Jesus, though, as a man without sin, rightfully did not have to die and by the power of God was resurrected back to life, ultimately defeating death, and defeating Satan. He thereby removed death’s power and sting and won the ultimate victory for mankind. Hence, the Christus Victor motif. But remember, Christ chose to die, and God offered Him up to die, not because the wrath of God and the perfect justice of God had to be satisfied but because of their intense love for us. Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”, John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life”, and finally in John 15:13 Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.“ This is why I call this the “Love Prevails Theory”. We can be reconciled to God because of God’s and His Son’s incredible love for us. Man now has the opportunity to be reconciled to God the Father by being born again by God’s Holy Spirit and placed into the lineage of Christ, by being washed clean from all of their past sins because of the shed blood of Christ, and by walking as Jesus walked, apart from sin, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We also have been transferred from Satan’s power and domain into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. (Col. 1:13)

This was the other reason why Jesus was sent into the world, to proclaim the Good News about the coming kingdom of God. (Luke 4:43) Man, being reconciled back to God the Father will now rule and reign with the Lord Jesus Christ when He returns again to set up his kingdom. We have rightfully won back the reins from Satan because of Jesus, the man’s, victory over him. This was what Jesus’ teachings and earthly life were all centered around. Jesus came announcing the coming kingdom, He came modeling the coming kingdom, and He came explaining how we are to live in His coming kingdom because Satan’s reign was going to be coming to an end. Jesus, as we see, did not only come to die, but everything He did and still does, from birth to resurrection has a definite purpose. He reconciled us back to God, made us at one with God again, by defeating sin, by defeating death, and by destroying mankind’s ultimate enemy, the devil and now He lives in our hearts helping us to live holy, so we do not fall into the devil‘s clutches again. When Jesus died and rose again, Satan’s doom was sealed. When Jesus returns again, He will set up the kingdom of God, in all its reality, and mankind will be rightly restored to his original purpose in God’s plan. This is what the early Christians believed for the first 1000 years after the life of Christ. It is an incredible story of love. It is the ultimate example of love. We now love God because clearly He first loved us. So that’s a brief summary of the beautiful Christus Victor or Love Prevails Theory.

But what about the universally believed Penal- Substitution or Perfect Justice Theory? Over and over again the Bible does call God a God of justice. Can God forgive human beings without a penalty being paid? The Perfect Justice Theory says “No”. This forms the entire basis for the need of Christ’s death. But Jesus forgave people without payment, over and over again and he expects us to do the same. Now there are a couple of other very important questions that need to be answered. Is God a forgiving God at all if a payment must always be made first? Jesus demonstrated and, once again, expects us to offer unconditional forgiveness. Why the contradiction? Also, how can God be a God of mercy if He demands that every wrong be paid for? Where is there room for any type of mercy in this form of “perfect“ justice? I’ll answer that, there isn’t any.

But as I said before, the Bible does call God a God of justice and this attribute of God is what the “Perfect Justice Theory is based on. But what does the Bible mean when it speaks of justice? Let’s take a look at what this word “justice” means. Some common definitions that are in the dictionary are: reward or penalty as deserved; the use of authority to uphold and enforce what is right; the administration of law. To sum up, man’s primary picture and defining of justice is one of imprisoning or penalizing those who have done wrong and this is what the Perfect Justice Theory is based on. But is this God’s complete view of justice? When the Bible calls God a God of justice is this the type of justice that it is referring to? Let’s look at a couple of passages so that we can get a better definition of what Biblical justice actually is. In Zechariah chapter 7 verse 9 we read, “Thus says the Lord of hosts; execute true justice, (so here’s God almighty’s definition of true justice, so let‘s listen up)- show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.” That’s God’s definition of true justice. Let’s look at a couple more. In Jeremiah 21:12 it says, “Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.” Here justice is concerned with freeing one who has been robbed. It is not so much concerned with the oppressor as it is with the delivering or freeing of the one who had been oppressed. And one more here in Isaiah 30:18, it says, “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice.” Here justice is defined as the Lord being gracious and merciful to you. These three passages help to give us some insight into what true Biblical justice looks like. Man’s view of justice, once again, is to penalize or imprison wrongdoers. God’s view of justice is to show mercy to the weak, the oppressed, and the poor and to actually deliver or release these people from their prisons. God’s true justice is the exact opposite of man’s justice. Man imprisons, God shows mercy and releases. This type of justice is completely compatible with His love and mercy and it actually flows from it instead of standing in contradiction to it. This is the fatal flaw in the Penal - Substitution or Perfect Justice Theory. This theory is totally based on man’s view of justice, and it discounts the primary Biblical view of justice. God’s perfect justice is showing love and mercy.

Now you may ask, what is the significance of all this? Well, the character of Almighty God is at stake. The Perfect Justice Theory depicts a God who is consumed with wrath, who is blood thirsty, and who punishes the innocent. This God decreed that sin had to be paid for by death and that his wrath must be satisfied, so he sent his innocent, sinless son, had him put on a cross and brutalized him unmercifully. Then we are expected to believe that this God is a God of love and a God of equitable justice.

In contrast, the Love Theory depicts a God who is consumed with love for mankind, who is full of mercy and willing to do anything to free us from the evil forces that had taken us captive, so He sent His only begotten Son to heroically offer his life to save us from these evil forces. Satan then unmercifully had Jesus brutalized and crucified but was ultimately defeated when God powerfully rose Jesus from the dead.

Is all this significant? I certainly believe so. Satan has used this Penal- Substitution view of the atonement to try to mangle and destroy the true character of our loving, merciful God. Now please don’t get me wrong, God is loving and merciful as we’ve clearly seen but He is also holy and will execute final punishment on those who have spurned all attempts at being reconciled to Him. There is a day coming soon when God will pour out wrath on those who love evil and who have rejected Him over and over again. But, He is so longsuffering in love, as we have seen for 2000 years now, He is longsuffering because He truly desires that NO ONE would perish but that all would come to repentance. (2Pet. 3:9). Have you done that? God is suffering long with you. He loves you immensely, as we have seen, and doesn’t want you to perish. Have you come to repentance? Have you turned from your sins and from going your own way? Give your life to Jesus Christ today. He has done so much for you and he is offering you eternal life if you will begin following him today. Will you do that? I’ll be praying that you will.

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