Nothing To Be Ashamed Of: Penal Substitutionary Atonement In Honor-Shame Cultures
We, the authors, were born, raised, born again, and currently live and serve in what may be appropriately labeled as honor-shame cultures. The prevailing view among many theologians and missiologists concerning our cultural context is that presenting Christ’s atonement in terms of penal substitution is ineffective at best, and is a distortion of the gospel at worst. [i] The categories of law, guilt, punishment, and retributive justice that are intrinsic to penal substitutionary atonement allegedly stem from Western, individualistic cultures and are consequently foreign to Eastern, collectivistic cultures that are steeped in categories of honor and shame. Therefore, it is claimed that what Christ accomplished on the cross must be reframed in the cultural categories of shame, honor, and social credit in order to effectively present the gospel in such cultures.
As pastors in an honor-shame context, we respectfully disagree with such approaches. In fact, we maintain that penal substitution offers a helpful corrective to those living in an honor-shame culture, and helps them rightly understand their status before God and what God has done for sinners in Jesus Christ.
WHAT IS AN HONOR-SHAME CULTURE AND HOW DO PROPONENTS OF HONOR-SHAME CATEGORIES REFRAME THE ATONEMENT?
Honor-shame cultures are collectivistic cultures that prize societal approval and relational harmony. Violating community expectations draws “shame” and disgrace, while conforming to social mores advances one’s reputation or “honor” in the community. Many have attempted to contextualize the gospel message and reframe the meaning of the cross to better fit this framework. Some such attempts have been balanced and cautious, while others have been seriously problematic. [ii]
In general, the atonement is reframed as follows: (1) Through their sin, people have broken their relationship with God; (2) their sin thus results in shame and disgrace; (3) through his death, Jesus takes on our shame and restores our honor; (4) we must respond by being loyal to Jesus and entering God’s family; (5) thus, though we were once shamed and outcast, God through Christ raises us into eternal honor. [iii] Typically muted in such models are notions of guilt incurred through violating God’s law, God’s wrath expressed in retributive justice for law-breaking, and God’s provision of our Lord Jesus Christ as a righteous, wrath-absorbing substitute through whom we receive forgiveness of sins and a righteous standing before him.
Are these re-interpretations of the atonement faithful to the Scriptures? We contend that they are not. In fact, we believe that these reconstructions empty the cross of its power (1 Cor. 1:17). We present our argument on three fronts, followed by some reflections on how we think the atonement should be presented in cultures like ours.
THREE REASONS TO AVOID THE HONOR-SHAME RE-INTERPRETATION OF THE ATONEMENT
(1) Biblical Categories Must Take Priority over Cultural Ones
First, in all articulations of the atonement, indeed in all theology, biblical categories must take precedence over cultural ones. We must read the Bible on its own terms and in its own categories and framework. [iv] We are not free to impose extrabiblical worldviews on Scripture in order to reshape its message in ways that better fits our context. The cross does not come to us as a raw and uninterpreted event, giving us the license to infuse it with new meaning in encounters with new cultural contexts. Rather, the inner-biblical and apostolic interpretation of the atonement is penal and substitutionary. Penal substitution is, in John Stott’s words, “the heart of the atonement itself.” [v] It is the “center of the atonement,” the “linchpin” without which one cannot make sense of the other images that the NT authors use to describe the atonement: redemption, sacrifice, victory, reconciliation, justification, etc. [vi]
Furthermore, the categories that form the basis for penal substitutionary atonement do not arise from an “Enlightenment worldview” or from the interpretive biases of a Western judicial framework. [vii] Rather, the categories of law, guilt, retributive justice, and righteousness are inscripturated, biblical categories that are woven into the warp and woof of the biblical storyline and developed across the covenants of redemptive-history in the biblical canon.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebel against God’s Lordship by violating his command, rendering them guilty before the divine Judge. Adam’s trespass results in condemnation for all his posterity (Rom 5:12–21). Throughout the OT, we see the judicial categories of guilt and righteousness developed through the Mosaic covenant and Law, the Levitical sacrificial system, and finally through the promise of a righteous Servant who would offer himself to bear the guilt of his people and declare them righteous (Isa 53:11). This framework forms the backdrop to the NT interpretation of Christ’s atonement as a work of penal substitution.
2. Honor and Shame in the Bible
But wait! Wasn’t the Bible written in an honor-shame culture? And isn’t Scripture replete with honor and shame? Yes, indeed. And the categories of “honor” and “shame” can be fruitful when rightly understood and rightly applied from within their biblical framework. Scripture’s framework of honor and shame, however, is not simply equivalent to any given culture’s understanding.
In most cultures, “honor” and ”shame” are linked to the observation of community ideals and one’s social standing in the community. Cultures treat them as community-centered—they’re largely “horizontal” in nature, referring to one’s relational standing in the community.
We must remember that culture is the construct of fallen human beings. Every culture has been affected by the Fall and expresses our sin and rebellion against God. Our disobedience to God has broken our relationship with our Maker and has brought death into the world. In our fallen nature, we seek to assert our autonomy from God’s Lordship. We think and do according to what’s right in our own eyes. We are born into this world as sinners by nature and co-habitate with other sinners to form habits, customs, and traditions that are a result of what we think is right. In short, fallen human cultures define “honor” and “shame” as they see fit, while the writers of the Old and New Testaments would call such definitions shameful (Ps. 119:80, 2 Thess. 3:14). [viii]
Shame is the human experience of dishonor and alienation from God (and one another) that results from sin, specifically, because we stand objectively guilty, under the sentence of condemnation due to dishonoring of God and violating his commands. Those who live in sin and rebellion will face eschatological shame—they will stand condemned in the final judgment and experience God’s eschatological wrath. While a culturally defined notion of “shame” can be experientially confusing and misplaced, the biblical notion of shame results from objective guilt. The shame of Genesis 3:10 follows the disobedience and condemnation that results from Genesis 3:6. [ix]
In the gospel, Jesus, God the Son incarnate, bears the guilt and shame of all those who have dishonored God and are deserving of eternal punishment and shame. He stood in the place of his people as a substitute to reconcile sinners to God; to credit the honor of his righteous life as a gift of grace through faith to those who recognize that they stand ashamed before a holy Trinitarian community. Jesus bore the penalty of our guilt by suffering under God’s righteous wrath. The only one who perfectly honored his Father and is worthy of infinite honor was stripped naked, beaten, mocked and put to open “shame” in his earthly community. But he despised that “shame” and endured the cross looking forward to the highest honor that would be bestowed upon him (Heb. 12:2).
While the world thought Jesus was being put to “shame,” he was in fact putting the world to shame (Col. 2:15, 1 Cor. 1:18–20). The good news of the gospel is that all who turn from their sins and put their trust in Jesus will be saved: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11). Those who trust in him therefore stand justified before God in the present, share the hope of eschatological glory and honor in God’s heavenly kingdom, and are rescued from eschatological shame and punishment (Rom. 5:1–11). We see here that “honor” and “shame” as biblical categories are inextricably tied to the judicial categories of guilt and righteousness. The answer to “honor” and “shame” cultures is not to jettison the biblical model of penal substitution in favor of something novel, but to define shame and honor as the Bible defines them and then to present the atoning work of Jesus in its complete biblical framework.
3. Cultures are not that simple.
And finally, those who advocate re-interpreting the atonement for “honor-shame” cultures frequently argue that penal substitution is a product of a “Western” guilt and innocence framework and thus will not work in “Eastern” honor and shame cultures. Such a bifurcation of cultures is reductionistic and simplistic. For instance, Islamic cultures are often touted as being group-oriented and steeped in honor and shame and thus devoid of categories of guilt, retributive justice, and absolute standards. [x] These evaluations of Islamic culture, however, overlook the Sharia law, the religious judicial framework that governs Islamic society and is manifestly a system of guilt and righteousness.
Similarly, the claim that notions of honor and shame are alien to ”Western” cultures is also overstated. Even a cursory study of social mores in English Victorian society or the antebellum US South reveals a different picture. For a more contemporary example of the West’s honor and shame dynamic, consider the phenomenon of Internet shaming and social media. Consider also the complex sub-cultures within larger communities. To be a high school student in America today is to live within an “honor-shame” culture.
One must also take into account that culture is always changing with time and for different reasons. What one might assume to be a distinctly Asian custom may have been a distinctly Western habit in a bygone era. It’s true that the categories of guilt and righteousness have always been more dominant in Western society, but perhaps these are the result of the Bible’s long influence in these cultures!
HOW DO WE SHARE THE GOSPEL IN AN HONOR SHAME CULTURE?
In our context—or for that matter, in any context—evangelism involves helping people see their objective standing of guilt and condemnation before God for their failure to honor him and for their transgression of his law. We appeal to the innate knowledge of all human beings that they have failed to glorify their Creator, that they have broken his commands, and that they are therefore subject to his righteous wrath and the sentence of eternal punishment (Rom 1:18–32). We use words like “shame” and “honor” the same way the Bible does. We then point to God’s love and grace in sending his own Son to redeem sinners. Jesus Christ acts as our representative and substitute, bearing our guilt and absorbing God’s wrath on the cross.
All those who repent and trust in Christ and his finished work are declared righteous in God’s sight and are free from eschatological punishment and shame. We then appeal to our friends to disregard the “shame” and “disgrace” that they will face in their community for confessing Christ, and remind them that if anyone suffers as a Christian, they are not to be ashamed but to glorify God in that name (1 Pet. 4:16). We also encourage them that as members together in a new, blood-washed community, we will bear their sorrows and mistreatment with them (Heb. 13:3, 1 Cor. 12:26, Rom. 12:15). And as we do so, we will exhort one another that it is more important to honor God than to receive honor from men.
HOLDING FAST TO SCRIPTURE’S INTERPRETATION OF THE CROSS
The cross simply does not lend itself to a multiplicity of interpretations, nor are we free as interpreters to create an “Indian theology of the cross,” a “Muslim theology of Jesus’ death,” or a “Japanese understanding of atonement.” As heralds of Christ crucified, our task is first to work from the biblical data to understand the inscripturated meaning of Jesus’ death and then to confront the categories of any given culture with the structures and categories of the Bible. We must re-orient our hearers’ worldview and categories to Scripture. We must not adjust the message of the cross to conform to a cultural framework. To do so is to pervert and distort the gospel of Christ.
Reconstructing the gospel into cultural categories in the name of “contextualization” is an affront to the design of divine offensiveness. The message of penal substitutionary atonement is supernaturally designed to be scandalous to some cultures and foolishness to others covering the entire spectrum of fallen humanity (1 Cor. 1:23). The gospel turns every cultural category on its head and in the process creates new ones, thus creating a new culture among the citizens of a heavenly country.
Editor's note: A response to recent criticisms of this article can be found here.
[i] This charge against penal substitution is leveled, for instance, by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker,Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000); Jayson Georges, “Jesus’ Death for Muslims,” [online]. Available from:http://honorshame.com/jesus-death-for-muslims/ ; Juliet November, Honor/Shame Cultures: A Beginner’s Guide to Cross-Cultural Missions (Independently Published: 2017), 143–48.
[ii] An example of an egregiously problematic and disturbing treatment of atonement in honor-shame categories is Green and Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, 192–209. Interestingly, many proponents of honor-shame categories for atonement today cite and appeal to Green and Baker’s work, which has exercised massive influence. Green and Baker’s project as a whole aims to show that the death of Christ can be interpreted in a variety of ways, a kaleidoscope of images with no one image occupying the center. Green and Baker mishandle the biblical data and ultimately rip the atoning work of Jesus out of its biblical and theological context, and re-invent it with meaning foreign to Scripture. For a compelling and devastating response to Green and Baker, see Stephen J. Wellum, “Preaching Christ Crucified Today: Recovering the True Scandal of the Cross” in Ministry of Grace: Essays in Honor of John G. Reisinger, ed. Steve West (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2007): 107–144. For an example of a somewhat careful and more balanced approach to using honor-shame categories, although not without problems, see Jackson Wu, Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2012).
[iii] See November, Honor/Shame Cultures, 146.
[iv] We are indebted to Stephen Wellum for this crucial hermeneutical principle.
[v] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 203.
[vi] Roger R. Nicole, “Postscript on Penal Substitution,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Roger Nicole , ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 45–47. For a persuasive presentation of penal substitution as central to the cross-work of Christ, see also Stephen J. Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 157–248.
[vii] As claimed, for instance, Jayson Georges, “Jesus’ Death for Muslims.”
[viii] For instance, there is nothing honorable about an “honor-killing.” Such societal definitions of honor and shame are unbiblical and profoundly evil.
[ix] Pastorally speaking, guilt and shame are rightly stitched together, for instance, when a victim of sexual violence, who feels great shame, is shepherded towards understanding that they did nothing wrong and hence have nothing to be ashamed of.
[x] Georges, “Jesus’ Death for Muslims.”