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Penal Substitution: A doctrine disliked

From a lecture for PGP Training Course, June 2009, The Centrality of the Cross.

JI PACKER - ‘propitiation… is central’ (Knowing God). The NIV uses the phrase “sacrifice of atonement” four times, with a footnote: “Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin” which offers a definition of what is meant. The ESV uses the technical term propitiation.

Garry Williams: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit together purposed that the Son should become a man and as a man bear on the cross God's just punishment for sin in the place of sinners.”
We need to be careful about how we describe this.

Steve Chalke says:  “[Father] brought about the violent death of his Son” leading to an infamous allegation that mention of Punishment leaves Jesus as the victim of “cosmic child abuse”.  John Stott:  “We must never make Christ the object of the Father's punishment or the Father the object of Christ's persuasion, for both [the Father] and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners”. Garry Williams: “The difference between Chalke's caricature and Stott's careful statement is Trinitarian: Father and Son act together, not as two separate agents with their own plans” (ibid)

Which doctrines flow from propitiation?
- Hebrews 2:17 - Incarnation. No propitiation, why the incarnation?
- 1 John 2:1-2 - Intercession of Christ for us. No propitiation, no mediator.
- 1 John 4:8-10 - The love of God. No propitiation, no love.
Some translations have Expiation (cleanse) instead of Propitation.
The cross is for expiation, we are cleansed (1 John 1:7, Heb 10:22) because wrath is averted.

The idea of God becoming abundantly and permanently favourable towards us at the cross is questioned generation after generation. Why?

1. We don’t like what it says about God: If the cross is necessary for him to become favourable, then we’re “sinners in the hands of an angry God”…
Do we really want a God who looks at sin and says a divine ‘whatever’?

2. We don’t like what it says about God and us: If he becomes favourable, he wasn’t before…
Steve Chalke asks in Redeeming the Cross: “And if God needed a sacrifice to placate his anger, how could Jesus forgive sins before his sacrifice had been made?" Which is precisely the issue in Romans 3:21-25. God forgiving people was the great scandal that only the cross could answer! We think the OT is problematic because God kills people, the real OT issue is that he saves without showing how that can be possible.

Emptying the cross of its meaning leads to a man-centred Christianity instead of God-centred Christianity. Saving our blushes and raising our status. Trampling on human hearts (Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism)

I can entirely see why this view of the cross is unpalatable. As I pondered the centrality of this doctrine I feel the battle in my heart, my pride and my comfort would rather not believe this. There is a battle for my heart, moment by moment to hold this central, to stay with the gospel from start to end.

“By this… may judge whether you are Christians in deed and in truth, or such in name only... a nominal Christian is content with proving the way of salvation by a crucified Redeemer. But the true Christian loves it, delights in it, glories in it, and shudders at the very thought of glorying in anything else.” (Charles Simeon, cited from John Piper’s biography of Simeon)

Who would want to make much of the cross? Who would want to revel in Jesus bearing wrath in our place to secure favour for us? Only those who die with Christ at the cross, only those who know a particular work of the Holy Spirit, hardly something to expect to find often? But don't you want it!


  1. I made a blog post a while ago about propitiation from a Bible translation perspective:


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