Answering 4 Common Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement
In his classic book, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 2006), John Stott famously wrote: “At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology” (159). I couldn’t agree more, yet it’s crucial to remember that a true Christology is also dependent on a correct theology proper. Thus, it’s more precise to say: “At the root of every caricature of the cross is a distorted doctrine of God.” If we get God wrong, we will never grasp the problem of sin, and its glorious solution in Christ and his cross. In fact, all common objections to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) are ultimately rooted in sub-biblical ideas regarding the triune God of Scripture.
WHO IS THE TRIUNE GOD?
In brief, the God of the Bible is the triune Creator-covenant Lord. As triune, the Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally shared fully and equally the one, identical divine nature in perfect love and communication (John 1:1; 17:5). Also, in every divine action such as creation, revelation, and redemption, the divine persons act inseparably according to their eternal person-relations. There is never a divine action that is not triune, including our redemption in Christ and his cross. Furthermore, as the triune Creator, God is independent and self-sufficient, not merely in his existence and knowledge, but also as the moral standard of the universe. Unlike creatures, God’s moral character and justice is grounded in himself.
In Scripture, God’s independence or aseity is closely associated with his holiness (Exo. 3:6–6; 19:23–25; Lev. 11:44; 19:1; Isa. 6:1-5; 57:15; Heb. 12:28; 1 John 1:5). God in his self-sufficiency and moral perfection is the ultimate criterion of rightness and justice which entails that the triune God of holy love is the law, and as such, he always acts consistently with himself.
For this reason, sin before this God is serious. God in his holiness is “too pure to behold evil” and unable to tolerate wrong (Hab. 1:12-13; cf. Isa 1:4–20; 35:8; 59:1–2). This is why, given who God is, he cannot tolerate sin; he must act in holy justice. God remains true to himself, and as such, our sin separates us from him (Isa 59:1–2). As the righteous God, he upholds his own holiness and acts against every violation of it, which also results in divine wrath, i.e., his holy reaction to evil (Rom 1:18–32; 2:8–16). God’s wrath, unlike his holiness, is not an internal perfection; rather it is a function of his holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath, but there is always holiness. But where the holy God confronts his creatures in their rebellion, there must be wrath. To dilute God’s wrath is to diminish God’s holiness and self-sufficiency along with the exercise of his holiness in justice.
No doubt, alongside God’s holiness is his love, and Scripture never pits one against the other. Yet for God to forgive us of our sins, he must satisfy his own righteous demand, which is what he has done in Christ’s cross. The supreme display of God’s love is the Father giving his own Son as our propitiation, which turns back his own wrath against us and satisfies the demands of justice on our behalf (1 John 2:1–2; 4:8–10; cf. Rom 5:8). In the cross, we see the greatest demonstration of God’s holy-justice and love. It’s where he remains just and the justifier of those who have faith in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21–26).
With this basic sketch of who God is in place, we can now think through four common objections to PSA, which at their heart, all have some distorted view of God.
1. Why can’t God just forgive us?
First, why can’t God simply forgive sin? After all, we are called to forgive people without demanding payment for sin (Matt 5:38–48). Why can’t God do the same? Why does Christ have to pay for all of our sins in order for God to forgive us?
The answer is, God cannot simply forgive because of who he is as the moral standard of the universe. All of God’s attributes are essential to him, including his holiness, righteousness, and justice. In regard to his justice, God is not like a human judge, who adjudicates a law external to him; instead, God is the law. Our sin is not against an abstract principle or impersonal law, but it’s always against God who is holy and just (Ps. 51:4).
So for God to forgive us, he must do so by remaining true to himself. That is why our forgiveness is only possible if the full satisfaction of his moral demand is met. For God to declare sinners justified before him, our Lord Jesus must perfectly obey all of God’s moral demands for us and fully pay for our sin in his substitutionary death (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:21).
For those who stumble over this explanation, think of the alternative. Ultimately, everyone who denies PSA thinks that God can forgive our sins without the full satisfaction of his justice. But to make sense of this, one must deny that God’s holiness and justice are essential to him. However, if this is so, then how is God the moral standard of the universe?
Or, appeal is often made to God’s love being greater than his other perfections such as his justice, as if God can forgive us without the full satisfaction of his justice. But this will not do either. God has all of his attributes essentially and inseparably. In forgiving us of our sins, God’s love is not opposed to his justice; instead the very demonstration of God’s love is that in Christ and his cross, God’s own righteous demand is met (1 John 2:2; 4:8–10). These other views pull apart in God what cannot be pulled apart, effectively making his love unjust and his justice unloving. They thereby change God’s very nature.
Our triune God is a God of grace and justice, and in our justification, he remains true to himself. God remains the loving, just, and holy one; no sin is overlooked or condoned. Instead, our sin is paid for in full either in Christ or in final judgment when all sin, evil, and death will be destroyed. It is only PSA that allows us to affirm these biblical truths in all their beauty and glory.
2. Isn’t penal substitution a Western idea?
Second, doesn’t PSA depend on Western ideas of retributive justice? Isn’t justice in the Bible more restorative than retributive?
This common objection to PSA has at least two problems. First, it fails to recognize how much Scripture has affected “Western” ideas of justice. No doubt, our society has secularized Christian thought over the years, but the idea that retributive justice is only “Western” is simply false. Second, it assumes that those who defend PSA deny any restorative sense to justice, which is also false. But in thinking about justice in Scripture, we must also get the proverbial “horse before the cart.” Let me explain.
In Scripture, it is legitimate to think of “justice” and “righteousness” in relation to God’s “covenant faithfulness” or “God making all things right”—hence a restorative sense. After all, God’s righteousness does refer to his saving activity (Pss. 31:1; 36:10; 71:2; Isa. 45:8; 46:13; 51:4–8) defined by covenant relationships. Righteousness is often associated with God’s faithfulness tied to his covenant promises. God will execute justice for his people and act to save them.
However, since God is holy and just, for him “to make all things right,” he must also punish what is wrong. God is righteous in all his ways (Ps 145:17) because he is the standard of what is right. As the righteous Judge, God punishes sin and holds people accountable for their actions (Ex. 34:6–7; Pss. 9:5–6, 15-20; 94:7–9; Prov 24:12; Rom 1:18–3:20). In fact, final judgment is a reality because God does not allow sin to go unpunished, which is ultimately good news! So, God’s justice is restorative but only because God is just and punishes evil and sin.
What is the alternative to viewing God’s justice as retributive? Ultimately, it’s some kind of “moral naturalism,” namely that God creates the world in such a way that sin is dealt with as a natural consequence, or that God upholds the “moral governing” of the universe in some way. But note: this “natural” consequence occurs without any judicial act on the part of God, hence a downplaying of a retributive sense of justice or that God’s wrath is directed against sin. But this view ultimately undercuts the warrant for objective morality grounded in God’s own nature, which has horrendous implications.
Thankfully, the triune God the Bible does not let sin go unpunished; the Judge of all the earth always does what is right (Gen 18:25).
3. Is penal substitution a form of “divine child abuse”?
Third, isn’t PSA essentially an act of divine child abuse? Although this is a common objection to PSA, it assumes such a distorted Christology and theology proper, it’s hard to know where to begin in responding to it. Let me offer three points.
First, it ignores the entire context of the Gospels. When it comes to the cross, Jesus was not a child but an adult, indeed the divine Son who willingly and gladly chose to die for us (Mark 8:31; John 15:13; 18:11).
Second, it assumes that Jesus is a third-party individual and not the beloved Son of the Father. As God the Son incarnate, Jesus is no mere child or even a mere human. He is the Lord of Glory, and as Lord, he is not a helpless victim. Instead, Jesus is one with the Father and Spirit, loved by the Father, who deliberately chose to do the Father’s will unto death, and who is sovereign in all of his acts (John 10:14–18; Phil. 2:8).
Third, it assumes a false view of trinitarian relations. As God the Son, Jesus lived and died in unbroken unity with the Father and Spirit. Again, Jesus is not some third party acting independently of the other two divine persons. There are not three parties at the cross (God, Jesus, and us) but two (the triune God and us). The cross demonstrates the Father’s love by the gift of his Son (John 3:16; Rom 5:8). The triune God takes on himself his own righteous demand (Rom 3:25–26). The charge that PSA involves divine child abuse is simply false and a failure to grasp even a basic understanding of the triune God of Scripture.
4. Isn’t transferring guilt to an innocent victim unjust?
Fourth, isn’t it unjust of God to transfer our guilt to an innocent victim? This last common objection involves at least three problems.
First, it assumes a human court analogy. No doubt, in human courts, judges adjudicate laws external to them and cannot transfer the sin of a guilty person to an innocent one. Yet, in this case, God as the Judge is the law, and he is the person we have sinned against. He has every right to pronounce our guilt or justification in relation to whether our sin has been paid for or not.
Second, it fails to grasp that the one who has taken our place, obeyed all of God’s righteous demands for us, and paid for our sin isGod himself in Christ. For sinners to be declared just in Christ, who is the Son incarnate—the very person we have sinned against and whose moral demand is against us—is hardly an unjust transfer of guilt!
Third, the objection also fails to grasp how in God’s eternal plan (Ps. 139:16; Eph. 1:4, 11; 1 Pet. 1:20), the Son is appointed as the Mediator of his people, and how in his incarnation and new covenant work for us, Jesus chose to become qualified to represent us and to act as our representative and substitute. As the Son, in his humanity, he stood in our place, rendered our human obedience, and took his own righteous demand on himself for us.
There is certainly nothing immoral or unjust here, but only the glory of our triune God in the face of Christ, and the wonder of the truth of the gospel! The divine Son has every right to take our place for it is against him that we have sinned and we owe him everything. The divine Son, along with the entire triune God, is the offended party, and he has the right to demand satisfaction from us. By choosing to become our Redeemer in his life and death, our Lord Jesus gloriously, graciously, and justly accomplished our eternal salvation.
I end where I began: At the root of every caricature of PSA is a distorted doctrine of God. If we are to grasp the Bible’s presentation of the cross, we must first grasp who our triune God is. It is only by first gazing on him, in all of his glory, self-sufficiency, love, holiness, and justice, that we will begin to grasp the nature of our problem, and its only solution in Christ our penal substitute and new covenant head. Theology truly matters and distorted views of God will always lead to distorted views of the cross and ultimately of the gospel.