July 17, 2016

The SBC and the Atonement

At the 2017 South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion our denom­i­na­tion affirmed a res­o­lu­tion regard­ing Penal Sub­sti­tu­tion­ary Atone­ment. A com­pact ver­sion of the res­o­lu­tion might read like this:

“Whereas in recent days numer­ous voic­es have attacked the doc­trine of penal sub­sti­tu­tion­ary atone­ment; and have pub­licly labeled penal sub­sti­tu­tion ‘evil,’ and indica­tive of ‘the Father mur­der­ing a son’; and Where­as God is per­fect in His jus­tice and love; and the denial of penal sub­sti­tu­tion­ary atone­ment in effect denies the holy and lov­ing God the exer­cise of His jus­tice, the over­flow of which in a sin­ful world is the out­pour­ing of His just ret­ribu­tive wrath; and Where­as the denial of penal sub­sti­tu­tion­ary atone­ment con­sti­tutes false teach­ing that leads the flock astray; and the Bible teach­es that “without the shed­ding of blood there is no for­give­ness” of sin; now, there­fore, be it resolved, that the mes­sen­gers to the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion reaf­firm the truth­ful­ness, effi­ca­cy, and beau­ty of the bib­li­cal doc­trine of penal sub­sti­tu­tion­ary atone­ment as the burn­ing core of the Gospel mes­sage and the only hope of a fall­en race.”

Penal Sub­sti­tu­tion­ary Atone­ment has sev­er­al facets. Each per­son is guilty of trans­gress­ing a law or com­mand­ment of God. In order to be just, God, the cos­mic judge, must pun­ish the guilty law break­er. God’s holi­ness demands that he respond appro­pri­ate­ly to the law break­er. The appro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment for a finite being who has des­e­crat­ed some­thing of infi­nite worth is the death penal­ty and eter­nal imprisonment. 

In the Old Tes­ta­ment, the idea of trans­fer­ring guilt and pun­ish­ment from one par­ty to anoth­er is estab­lished in the sac­ri­fi­cial sys­tem. The pun­ish­ment mer­it­ed by the guilty par­ty is trans­ferred to the ani­mal, which would then be slain. The sac­ri­fice is a sub­sti­tute, receiv­ing the pun­ish­ment due the guilty par­ty and dying on behalf of the trans­gres­sor. The sac­ri­fice atones for the crimes of the guilty par­ty and sat­is­fies the wrath of the judge.

The dis­po­si­tion of God towards unbe­liev­ers is one of the pri­ma­ry points on which the dis­cus­sion cen­ters. The scrip­ture teach­es that while we were yet sin­ners God loved us and died for us. Part of the stan­dard pitch in south­ern bap­tist evan­ge­lism is, “God loves you,” and “God wants to save you.” The ques­tion is, what does God want to save you from? Death and hell, the con­se­quences of your sin? His wrath and anger? Is God angry at humankind and ready to pour out his wrath, or is he lov­ing, long­ing for a rela­tion­ship? You can see the poten­tial for confusion.

I’m con­fi­dent that those who stand against penal sub­sti­tu­tion­ary atone­ment dis­dain the depic­tion of God as a cos­mic deity that is angry at us and will pour out his wrath on us unless his jus­tice and wrath is appeased by a legal trans­ac­tion, a blood sac­ri­fice, and from his own child, no less. The God of PSA is not com­men­su­rate with their idea of a lov­ing, heav­en­ly Father.

Alter­na­tive under­stand­ings of the atone­ment are akin to the Chris­tus Vic­tor mod­el or the Gov­ern­men­tal The­o­ry. Through His life, death, bur­ial and res­ur­rec­tion, Christ over­comes the pow­er of sin, over­throws Satan, breaks the chains of death and makes a path for humankind to recon­nect with God by break­ing through all of the obsta­cles that hin­der a right rela­tion­ship. Christ’s per­fect blood wash­es away our sin. The life, death and res­ur­rec­tion of Christ is restora­tive, not puni­tive and ret­ribu­tive. Christ did not become our sin and then God crushed Him, so He doesn’t have crush us. Christ’s per­fect obe­di­ence breaks through the obsta­cles that stand in the way of each of us hav­ing a right rela­tion­ship with God. We only need to place our faith in Christ to begin the restora­tion process which will cul­mi­nate ful­ly in the heaven. 

I cer­tain­ly agree that Christ dis­armed Satan and defanged death. The blood of Christ wash­es away my sin and sends it to the bot­tom of the ocean, nev­er to be remem­bered again. I also think we find PAS in the teach­ing of the Scrip­ture as well. Romans 3:21–26 appears to present a cos­mic prob­lem, God can­not declare sin­ners jus­ti­fied and remain just him­self. God can­not pass over sins. The rela­tion­al dynam­ic of the atone­ment pre­sent­ed in Romans 3 lends itself to a penal sub­sti­tu­tion­ary mod­el. Through the work of Christ, God remains just while declar­ing sin­ners right­eous through faith. Isa­iah 53:10–11 also appears to sup­port the view of PSA, “…it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offer­ing for guilt, he shall see his off­spring; he shall pro­long his days; the will of the Lord shall pro­long his days; the will of the Lord shall pros­per in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be sat­is­fied; by his knowl­edge shall the right­eous one, my ser­vant, make many to be account­ed right­eous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Regard­ing wrath, John 3:36 com­ments, “ Who­ev­er believes in the Son has eter­nal life; who­ev­er does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him,” and Romans 5:9 says, “since, there­fore, we have now been jus­ti­fied by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

Our under­stand­ing of the work of Christ will impact our preach­ing and evan­ge­lism. Con­sid­er the tracts we some­times use in evan­ge­lism. When we get to the part in which we dis­cuss human­i­ty’s “problem,” the Eter­nal Life tract uti­lizes a draw­ing of a per­son being burned by fire. On the oth­er hand, the 3 Cir­cles Life Con­ver­sion Guide, which seems to have some pop­u­lar­i­ty today, focus­es on the idea of “brokenness” as the prob­lem of the human con­di­tion. Because of the fall­en con­di­tion of man, our rela­tion­ship with God, oth­ers, and the cre­ation is bro­ken. The work of Christ ulti­mate­ly restores all relationships. 

The gospel mes­sage can sound like a mixed mes­sage regard­ing the work of Christ in the atone­ment. The Chris­t­ian world­view answers our big ques­tions, “What am I? Why am I here? What is the prob­lem? What is the solution?” The Church must do its best to com­mu­ni­cate all the dimen­sions of the work of Christ, in the full­ness of its vast and mar­velous grandeur. May our Lord enable us, by the pow­er of his Spir­it, to effec­tive­ly pro­claim the full­ness of the love of God in the work of Christ.

The SBC and the Atonement