Athanasius as Evangelist: Where Penal Substitution Goes Wrong, and Medical Substitution Succeeds | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry


The Problem of Evil:  An Evangelist of Modern Evangelicalism

In a thoughtful and witty presentation called The Problem of Evil, prominent evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias offers his answer to the most vexing questions of our age, and, indeed, of all time.  How could God be good, in a world where there is evil?  Especially gross human evil?

One of the best known Christian apologists today, Zacharias takes the following approach:  If there is no such thing as evil, objectively, then actions like Hitler’s genocide have no moral repugnance, inherently.  Genocide, murder, and the like may be offensive to our sensibilities, but that is all it is:  our opinion.  Unsettled by this moral ambiguity, human beings tend to explore whether there is, in fact, an objective basis for distinguishing good versus evil.  If there is good and evil, then this points to a lawgiver higher than humanity.  So the human complaint that there is evil, objectively, does not undermine the argument for God’s existence.  Quite to the contrary, according to Zacharias, our own human objection to actions that we call evil points to God’s existence.

I find this argument necessary, but not sufficient, for a Christian apologist and evangelist.  Because if Zacharias rests his argument on human beings having an intuitive sense of evil and good, then that very same intuition will resist the God for which Zacharias argues.  Why?  Because Zacharias’ Southern Baptist background, and funding source, requires penal substitutionary atonement:  the view that Jesus died to absorb the punishment which would satisfy a supposed attribute of God known as retributive justice.  And this divine retributive justice requires God to infinitely punish any transgression against his law, because God is an infinite being whose retributive justice is infinitely offended at any and all human disobedience.

Penal Substitution Makes All Immoral Actions Equivalent

At least some people would raise an eyebrow at the claim that God wants to infinitely punish every human being for whatever infraction they have committed, however small or great.  Stealing paper from the office becomes as worthy of infinite divine punishment as the genocide of Jews during World War II.  This way of grouping people as sinners, categorically, has the effect of leveling the playing field among all people in a moral sense, which is arguably a positive because it makes some intuitive sense.

But it also has the effect of leveling the playing field among all moral actions.  The obvious question can be raised:  Is stealing paper as morally reprehensible and punishable as genocide?  Surely, advocates of penal substitutionary atonement argue that God does differentiate between those actions.  But because the consequences are identical in category and magnitude, the argument lacks persuasive power.  This is one puzzling downstream effect of portraying God within penal substitutionary atonement theology.  It is a corollary consequence that many people find rather odd.

Penal Substitution Makes God Complicit With Human Evil

The other, deeper problem, however, is that penal substitutionary atonement makes the Christian God complicit with human evil.  This complicity occurs through the logic of how God satisfies His own retributive justice.  If Jesus absorbed some amount of divine wrath at the cross, as penal substitution asserts he did, we must ask the question, ‘How much divine wrath?  How much is left over for people in hell?’  If Jesus took God’s entire wrath against humanity at the cross, and then God poured out more wrath on the unrepentant in hell, would this not be a double accounting problem?

On the other hand, we must also avoid the problem lurking at the other end of the spectrum:  If Jesus took all of God’s wrath at the cross, then there would be no wrath leftover for unbelievers, so there could be no hell.  Since most evangelicals believe Scripture teaches that there is a hell, and at least the very serious possibility that there will be people in it, Jesus could not have taken all of God’s wrath.  According to this logic of avoiding a double accounting problem, Jesus did not actually die for all people, but only for those God elected or predestined.  This is the idea of ‘limited atonement,’ which limits the scope of God’s love and brings into question verses like Ezekiel 18:23, 32 – 33; 1 John 2:2; 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:3 – 4; 4:10; and Titus 2:11.

This is a broader problem that others besides Zacharias confront.  For example, here is well-respected evangelical scholar J.I. Packer, in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, arguing that penal substitution necessarily means limited atonement, which means God only determined to save, through Jesus Christ, some people, and not all, from His own punitive wrath:

‘[John] Owen shows with great cogency that the three classes of texts alleged to prove that Christ died for persons who will not be saved (those saying that he died for ‘the world,’ for ‘all,’ and those thought to envisage the perishing of those for whom he died), cannot on sound principles of exegesis be held to teach any such thing; and, further, that the theological inferences by which universal redemption is supposed to be established are really quite fallacious…So far from magnifying the love and grace of God, this claim dishonors both it and him, for it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of ‘saving’ grace, so-called (‘saving’ is really a misnomer on this view), into a monumental divine failure.  Also, so far from magnifying the merit and worth of Christ’s death, it cheapens it, for it makes Christ die in vain.  Lastly, so far from affording faith additional encouragement, it destroys the scriptural ground of assurance altogether, for it denies that the knowledge that Christ died for me (or did or does anything else for me) is a sufficient ground for inferring my eternal salvation; my salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself…You cannot have it both ways:  an atonement of universal extent is a depreciated atonement.’[1]

Packer recognizes that limited atonement is the inseparable – and for some, the unwanted – companion to penal substitution.  The tight link between penal substitution and limited atonement exists to ensure that Christ’s death was effective for procuring the forensic salvation of some, lest Jesus be said to have died for no one in particular and theoretically none.  Hence, advocates of limited atonement like J.I. Packer prefer to call their conviction ‘definite atonement.’  Packer wishes to avoid the double accounting problem.

Consequently, if you believe in penal substitutionary atonement, you make God vulnerable to the charge of complicity with human evil.  In the high federal Calvinist understanding, that charge is the most serious.  As I mentioned in the first part of my analysis of Athanasius as evangelist, the high federal Calvinist understanding is that God caused the fall in Genesis 3 and actively causes people’s sin.  Yet somehow God is not guilty of sin Himself.  But does that make sense?  Or is it simply asserted, and reasserted?

Another important question is whether God acts to undo the corruption of sin within each and every person.  For how can God be the moral lawgiver for humanity when He is not acting to undo all human evil?  Is it not evil to be passive in the face of human evil?  Zacharias avoids this question.

Also, how can God claim to be good when the center of Christian faith – the death of His Son on the cross – is the way God satisfied His own anger?  Was the most important item on God’s agenda to pour out His anger somewhere, somehow, rather than to fix the problem within us?

Where Our Moral Intuition Leads

We are all familiar with other people who are two-faced.  Plenty of people hide their evil, selfish, and manipulative face from public view.  Perhaps if we’re honest enough, we recognize it in ourselves, too.  So people suspect that Christian evangelists and apologists are defending a being who is partially evil, much like ourselves, but with a lot more power.  They think Christians are bad salespeople, presenting only what is attractive, and hiding behind our backs what is detestable and repugnant about the deity we offer.  People do not want to believe in a God who is only partially good, because the other ‘part’ of such a God would be necessarily evil.

Perhaps the people to whom Zacharias appeals wonder if there is a God good enough to love every single person in the same way, who wants to undo all human evil, who is not complicit with human evil in the slightest, who can therefore be the source of human morality, and who determines the appropriate fate of evil without becoming evil himself.

Unfortunately, Zacharias’ commitment to penal substitutionary atonement limits what he can say about God’s goodness in the face of human evil.  I agree with him when he says that human beings have an intuitive, pre-rational sense that good and evil are objective realities larger than us.  I also agree with him that this intuition points to a divine lawgiver.  So far so good.

But then we stand at a fork in the road.

  • If you believe Jesus is primarily God’s way of welcoming people into the next world rather than repairing this world, then God cares more about the next world than about this one.
  • If you believe God shows favoritism based on the high federal Calvinist definition of special ‘election,’ then you will not be able to say that God loves everyone equally.
  • If you believe God needs human evil to exist so he could reveal his ‘retributive justice,’ then you will have to concede that God is complicit with human evil.
  • If you believe God has determined to undo human evil in some people and not all, then you will have to concede that God is only a lawgiver by brute force and threat, and not by moral example and inspiration.

Can penal substitution win people to Jesus by a moral vision of God?  I cannot see how.

The intuition that Zacharias appeals to therefore weighs against the argument he presents.  Therefore, his presentation comes across as logically clever, but not compelling.  It stops short.  Then it changes the subject.

Another Paradigm:  Athanasius as Evangelist

Athanasius of Alexandria, however, did not have these problems.  Athanasius is not unique in early church history, but among Protestants, he is probably the most well known spokesperson for the early church.  This courageous fourth century defender of the Nicene Creed and the orthodox expression of the Trinity, who was the first to explicitly give an account of the New Testament as the collection of twenty-seven documents we now receive,[2] did not believe in penal substitution.  Athanasius did not hold to the view that God was acting to satisfy a problem within Himself.  He acted, rather, to undo the corruption of sin within each and every human being.  He believed in what I have nicknamed ‘medical substitution.’  I’ll quote from Athanasius below to show what I mean.

Athanasius’ Vision:  God’s Renewal of Creation

The essay called On the Incarnation / De Incarnatione is Athanasius’ most famous work.  A brief word about the introduction.  After mentioning his first volume, Against the Heathen / Contra Gentes, Athanasius returns to his audience, Macarius, to explain why the Word of God became incarnate in a human body, to ‘the seeming low estate of the Word.’  Even though both Jews and Greeks laugh, scorn, and mock Christian faith on this point, it is the very essence of the saving message of Christ (1.1 – 3).  Athanasius returns to summarize in a different form the Christian understanding of creation and the character of God (1.4).  What he called ‘the healing of creation’ in Contra Gentes, he calls ‘the renewal of creation’ in On the Incarnation / De Incarnatione.  He signals to his reader that God’s action and self-revelation in Jesus Christ is for the healing and renewal of creation, not the satisfaction of some divine attribute as ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’ or ‘retributive justice.’  Athanasius also signals that the scope of God’s renewal is creation in its entirety, not in part.

The Central Problem:  Human Self-Corruption

After a brief introduction, Athanasius reminds us of the plight of humanity, and the motivation of the Son of God to become flesh as Jesus of Nazareth (6.7 – 10).  The plight of humanity is the corruption of our very nature.  The motivation of God was love for humanity, pure and simple.  And that love flowed out of God’s sheer goodness to restore what was corrupted:

‘7. So, as the rational creatures were wasting and such works in course of ruin, what was God in His goodness to do? Suffer corruption to prevail against them and death to hold them fast? And where were the profit of their having been made, to begin with? For better were they not made, than once made, left to neglect and ruin. 8. For neglect reveals weakness, and not goodness on God’s part— if, that is, He allows His own work to be ruined when once He had made it— more so than if He had never made man at all. 9. For if He had not made them, none could impute weakness; but once He had made them, and created them out of nothing, it were most monstrous for the work to be ruined, and that before the eyes of the Maker. 10. It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God’s goodness.’[3]

God’s goodness and love for humanity requires that God act on behalf of His corrupted creation.  Athanasius’ logic is of no use to anyone who wanted to argue that God desires to save only some human beings, and not all.  For God to not act in a saving way towards each of His creations would be ‘neglect,’ in Athanasius’ view.  And neglect would be, quite simply, ‘weakness, and not goodness on God’s part.’  No notion of limited atonement is possible in Athanasius’ mind.  Limited atonement would make God cease to be wholly good.

The Problem is Not Simply Any Wrongdoing

In keeping with his vision of God being determined to renew the creation, Athanasius considers whether our repentance might have been enough:

‘4. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.  No, repentance could not meet the case.  What – or rather Who – was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required?  Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing?’[4]

This passage is very significant because Athanasius does two things.  First, Athanasius asks us to imagine Adam and Eve making a small mistake or committing a small offense against God, each other, or their future children – a raised voice, an inappropriate gesture, an unthankful or wasteful attitude, a fearful self-defense, etc.  And he says that if they had done this, ‘repentance would have been well enough,’ because God would have easily forgiven them that.

But wouldn’t God have seethed with wrath, even in ‘a case of a trespass only’?  Not in the mind of Athanasius.  In a day and age where Anselm’s honor-satisfaction theory[5] and Calvin’s retributive-justice-satisfaction theory (i.e. penal substitution theory) have so colored our view of God that we fear that any small offense against God might call forth infinite, unlimited anger from Him, it is startling to find Athanasius casually dismissing it as beneath God.

Many have simply not known what to do about this statement other than say that Athanasius must have been wrong.  American Protestant evangelical Donald Fairbairn, a scholar of patristics and a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is an example of many Protestants who are shocked at Athanasius’ casual declaration.[6]  Authors Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, in their effort to defend penal substitution, try to project penal substitution and divine retributive justice back onto Athanasius, but not surprisingly, they sidestep this passage altogether.[7]  One suspects that they do so because it would completely ruin their attempt to enlist Athanasius into the penal substitution camp.

Sin is Fundamentally Self-Harm, Not Merely an Offense to God

Right away, we can see that medical substitutionary atonement escapes the legal paradigm of punitive retribution.

Penal substitution advocates often say that the strength of their view is that it takes sin seriously and makes sense of biblical language about God’s wrath and forgiveness.  But in reality, medical substitution takes sin and accountability more seriously than penal substitution.

Why?  In penal substitution, you can have the petulant child problem.  The petulant child is the child who steals cookies and gladly accepts the consequences.  Most parents will recognize this problem:  There comes a point in a child’s life when giving time-outs, taking away privileges, and even controlled spanking does not remove the smirk on that child’s face.

Similarly, a person can say, ‘I’m going to sin against God, and I will gladly accept the consequences.’  In penal substitution, God ‘satisfies’ Himself by pouring out wrath infinitely upon the person, because supposedly the offense to His retributive justice is infinite.  The more the Christian evangelist worries about the petulant child problem, the hotter the evangelist will have to portray hell.  The more menacing the Christian will have to portray God.  The only way to overcome the petulant child problem is by insisting that God’s wrath in hell will surely wipe the smirk off the sinner’s face.

Does God Accept Anything Less Than Our Growth?

Fundamentally, though, the problem in penal substitution is the very claim that God will accept your suffering as a compensation prize.  Instead of you fulfilling the growth to which He called you, God will accept your suffering instead.  His very ‘satisfaction’ apparently depends on it.

However, in medical substitutionary atonement, God will never, ever accept our suffering in the place of our character development and growth.  Sin is rooted in God originally fashioning us ‘in His image’ (Gen.1:26 – 28).  God regards us as His artistic masterpieces.  The corruption of the fall damaged, tarnished, and stained the image of God in us.  So the fall was not like children messing up a neat living room, or damaging a valuable painting, or stealing from a stash of cookies.  Why not?  Because God does not love ‘His order’ or ‘His laws’ or ‘His prerogatives’ more than us.  God loved and loves us.  And we defaced ourselves.  We harmed ourselves.  We injured and crippled ourselves.  And we turned aside from the path of relational and character growth to which God called us.

On a human level, this refusal to accept suffering as compensation for another’s growth makes much more sense.  If one of my children were to watch pornography, I would not be ‘satisfied’ by venting on that child, or taking away screen time privileges.  I would only be pleased if that child then fought for mental and emotional purity (with God’s partnership) and undid the neural damage that watching pornography does to the brain.  I would also require that my child learn sympathy for human trafficking victims, given that the porn industry heavily overlaps with the sex trafficking industry.  Or, if child #1 hurt or offended child #2, I would not be ‘satisfied’ by merely expressing my anger on child #1.  I would only be pleased when child #1 works with me to repair the harm done to child #2, and grows emotionally to care less for selfish glee and more for the well-being of the other.

Whatever the situation, I would only be pleased by my child participating with me in the complete repentance and repair that the situation called for.  In other words, there is no ‘retributive justice’ in me that needs to be ‘satisfied.’  Because I would never merely accept suffering in exchange for disobedience.  I would only accept repentance, restoration, and repair.  I would only accept the character development and growth that I originally wanted.

Likewise, in the framework of medical substitution, God desires our full health and well-being as His image-bearers, created to grow in the likeness of His character, goodness, and love.  Which means that He detests the corruption of sin that is now part of our human nature because of the Fall.  He is revolted by whatever ways we have allowed that corruption to spread within ourselves.  Because He truly loves us.

Note that I am deliberately not using the penal substitutionary word ‘satisfied.’  For when is infinite love ever ‘satisfied’?  God, in His infinite love and goodness, desires us to experience Him infinitely.  As George MacDonald once said, as repeated by C.S. Lewis, ‘God is easily pleased, but hard to satisfy.’[8]

God Accepts Nothing Less Than Partnership and Cleansed Human Nature

The only ‘currency’ God accepts – so to speak – is the currency of cleansed human nature, healed with His partnership.  This is why God commanded the Israelites to ‘circumcise your hearts’ (Dt.10:16; Jer.4:4).  It was a summary statement of the growth He called for under the Sinai commandments and covenant.  The Sinai covenant was not a framework of laws in the mode of a Western (Latin) meritocracy.  It was a ‘spiritual health regimen’ meant to be taken in a fundamentally medical framework, like how we can cultivate ‘virtues’ in a framework of ‘virtue ethics.’  The problem was this:  Israel as a whole, and no single Israelite, could ‘do all this and live’ under the Sinai covenant (Rom.7:7 – 25; Gal.3:10 – 12).  No one could press God’s commandments deeply enough onto the tablet of the heart (Prov.1:23; 2:10; 3:3; 6:21; 7:3), despite wearing them on their clothes or hanging it on their doorposts (Dt.6:1 – 9).  No one could completely eradicate the script of sin (Jer.17:1 – 10), so God had to rewrite the script on the human heart (Dt.30:6; Jer.31:31 – 34; Ezk.11:18; 36:26 – 36) by doing it as Jesus of Nazareth.  Now Jesus shares his new humanity with us by his Spirit, so we can participate ‘in him.’  He shares his resurrection victory over sin with us, because ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor.15:17).

T.F. Torrance, a Scottish Reformed theologian and scholar of Athanasius, says of Jesus:

‘He came, rather, to penetrate into the innermost existence of Israel in such a way as to gather up its religious and historical dialogue with God into himself, to make its partnership and its conflict with God his own, precisely as they moved to their climax with the Incarnation, and thus in and through Israel to strike at the very root of evil in the enmity of the human heart to God.  He came to grapple with evil, therefore, at the very point where under the unrelenting pressure of the self-giving presence and love of God to mankind it was forced to uncover itself in the crucifixion of the incarnate Son of God, and then to deal with it decisively in atoning sacrifice.’[9]

Jesus is our medical substitute, not our penal substitute.  He accomplished the demanding medical treatment none of us could finish.  He did this through his fully-partnered-with-the-Spirit-and-obedient-to-the-Father life.  He carried this commitment through to his sin-sickness-conquering death.  This led to his resurrection in power in a God-purified, glorified-in-divine-light human nature.  Why did he do all this?  Because God is such a good physician that He became a patient like one of us, to acquire the disease of sin but perfect the antibodies of sin-resistance in His own human nature, so He could share Himself with us by His Spirit.

Medical Substitution Makes the Choice About Human Nature, Not Human Behavior

I will explore both Scripture and Athanasius in coming posts.  But suffice to say that medical substitution avoids the problems I highlighted at the start of this post.  Penal substitution makes all immoral actions equivalent.  God makes stealing paper morally equivalent to murder.  In medical substitution, that is not true, because the repentance, restoration, and repair required afterwards are totally different.

In fact, the central issue of atonement is not even a legal one.  It is ontological and medical.  Every action of ours has an impact on our own human nature.  Jesus said that what comes out of us can further pollute us (Mt.15:18 – 20; Mk.7:21 – 23), so we are never as unclean as we could be.  The bottom line issue God places before us, however, is whether we want Jesus to undo all the corruption of sin in us.

Medical Substitution Means Unlimited Atonement, But in a Personal and Medical Framework

Penal substitution treats the wrath of God as an entire ‘category’ of divine emotion, so to speak, which is exhausted or semi-exhausted upon Jesus at his death.  As noted above, most scholars and Christian thinkers who anchor themselves in this conviction and then reason it out consistently land in the limited atonement camp.  A few go the opposite direction and try to argue that Jesus exhausted all of God’s wrath, so God will have no wrath left over for anyone, so there will be no real hell, and maybe not a real reason to do evangelism in this lifetime.  People imprisoned in the legal (often called a forensic or juridical) paradigm – especially Protestant evangelicals – vacillate between these two options.

Medical substitution, however, avoids this problem completely.  Medical substitution does not read Jesus’ death from within a legal framework.  So the wrath of God was not poured out upon the person of Jesus, by the Father in particular or by God generally, as it is in penal substitution, which introduces thorny questions about how much divine wrath did he absorb, and how intense was his pain, and how does human free will interact with this event, and did this divide the Trinity, and so on.

Instead, the wrath of God was poured out within the person of Jesus, by the person of Jesus, with the help of the Father and the Spirit in a united Trinity, upon the corruption of sin within his human nature (Rom.8:3; 6:6).  In and through Jesus, God produced a truly circumcised heart so Jesus would be the true Israelite, fulfilling the Sinai covenant (Rom.2:28 – 29; Col.2:12).  So there is no limit from God’s side to how many people can personally trust Jesus and benefit from his new humanity.  Jesus is an endless source of salvation (Heb.5:9), salvation from human evil itself.  When God forgives us in and through Jesus and by the Spirit, it is because when we come to Jesus in faith, we are apologizing for the damage we have done to ourselves, and encouraged in others, and admitting that we have needed help from Adam and Eve onward.

Medical Substitution Reveals That God Stands Against All Human Evil

Nor does God become complicit with human evil, in medical substitutionary atonement.  God is 100% good.  He calls for human partnership and growth in goodness at all times because of His goodness.  He never needed humanity to fall into sin in order to show some supposed ‘attribute’ of retributive justice, because in God that ‘attribute’ does not exist.

Despite the fall and our ongoing sin, God remains committed to our good and growth in goodness, which is only found in proper relationship with Him.  He has come in the person of His Son Jesus out of love for us, to oppose human evil at its source – that is in human nature – and provide a personal foundation in Jesus for drawing our human nature into even deeper union with Himself.  Meanwhile, He continues to work in our consciences to call each and every human being to Jesus.

What about hell?  God is, symbolically, a refining fire, burning away that which should not exist in us (Mal.3:1 – 3; Isa.1:24 – 31; Mt.3:13 – 17; Lk.3:15 – 17; Acts 2:3).  Although people can experience His ‘fire’ as unfair torment if they conclude to Jesus’ face that they would rather stay addicted to sin and corrupted by sin’s disease, God is nevertheless good and loving.  His ‘fire’ is still intended for our highest good, based on the fact that our human nature is meant to be refined like glass or precious metal is (Rev.21:18, 21).  Athanasius and the rest of the united church read the biblical texts this way for over a thousand years, and the Eastern Orthodox still do, uniformly; Catholics do on paper; and more and more Protestants do as well as they recover the reasoning process of the early church.  That is an understanding of hell I can get fully behind, and fully explain, without hesitation or embarrassment.  Click here for resources.

Medical Substitution Means God is 100% Good and Loving

The God proclaimed by Athanasius and the early church is a God who is 100% good and loving.  He is not holding goodness back from anyone.  He is a moral lawgiver but not by making His love for His law higher than His love for us.  He wins people to His goodness and love by His own example.  We can contemplate Him and see no darkness or shadow of turning at all (Jas.1:17).

Imagine if there were a group of Christian evangelists learning from Athanasius as evangelist.  We could draw upon people’s moral intuition that there is indeed good and evil.  But we can go further.  We could challenge anyone who wishes to locate evil in circumstances or society by locating it squarely within human nature, and then ask anyone to give their understanding of how human nature might be healed.  We could ask anyone and everyone to introduce us to a God who is good enough and loving enough that He wants to heal human nature in every single person.  Jesus reveals a God who wants to undo all human evil, involving our full participation and growth.  And we can ask anyone to proclaim a God as good as the God revealed by Jesus as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is love and goodness by nature.

If you are interested in learning together, join us on this journey. A virtual hangout on Sat Dec 9th is focused on Restorative vs. Retributive Justice in Scripture, with three practical applications:  1) mass incarceration and a Christian restorative justice response; 2) evangelism as more non-Christians recognize that we need a relational (not individualistic) vision, but they wonder what can serve as a foundation; and 3) the pastoral use of the doctrine of justification. Click here to see the Facebook group, Practitioners of Healing Atonement and Restorative Justice:




[1] J.I. Packer, ‘An Introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ’, reprinted in J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 2007), p.126.  See also R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2nd edition, 2000) for another example of a theologian who explains the verses above as referring to ‘limited atonement.’

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, Letter #39 3 – 5

[3] Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 6:7 – 10

[4] Ibid 7.4

[5] Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption, Volume One: The Incarnation (Chesterton, Indiana: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2015), ch.2 gives a compelling criticism of Anselm from an Orthodox perspective.

[6] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.163

[7] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions:  Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p169 – 173

[8] Quoted by C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing, 1952), p.172

[9] T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), p.31

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Daniel says:

    Although I agree with some of your objections to penal substitutiom, I also sê a problem with your alternative:

    None of us have fully reversed sin in our lives. Even the best Christians fail. Therefore without some kind of positional righteousness, how can any of us have true assurance?

    The bible says that the moment Abraham believed God’s promise of a son in his old age, it was reckoned (accounted, imputed) to him as righteousness. It wasn’t until over a decade later that Abraham “proved” his faith with his works, and not without moral failing in between.


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thanks Daniel, for reading and engaging here. It seems like the immediate premise behind your question is that the condition for us feeling ‘assurance’ from God is that we must be sinless. But that’s not how the topic is addressed in the New Testament, at least as far as I can tell. In 2 Peter 1:4 – 10, Romans 8:9 – 17 and maybe 5:1 – 5; 1 John 1:5 – 10, John 15:1 – 8, the condition for feeling ‘assurance’ is some fruitbearing – participation in the life of Jesus by the Spirit, which would include confession, direction of spiritual growth, etc. Sinlessness is not the condition for it, as attested to by John’s reminder about confession (1 Jn.1:9 – 10), and the simple fact that the apostles had to write letters at all, to correct or further encourage those particular Christians.

      Moreover, the story of Abraham itself confirms that imperfect but earnest trust and fruitbearing is sufficient grounds for assurance. Abraham had shown evidence of trust and fruitfulness by the point of Genesis 15. God had made a promise to Abraham to bring forth life from him (Gen.12:1 – 3). Abraham was probably inclined to think that only he, and not Sarah per se, was the recipient of the promise. But they learned that God wanted to preserve their marriage, protect them, and bless others (Gen.12:4 – 13:4), making them a new version of Adam and Eve, looking for God to renew His creational blessing including fruitbearing in a garden land. By implicitly pledging themselves to each other afresh, Abraham and Sarah undid an aspect of the sin of Adam and Eve – the accusation and antagonism between them (Gen.3:8 – 12). Also, Abraham trusted God’s word when he acted to rescue Lot and others, honoring the principle that ‘we are brothers’ (Gen.13:8), which was a reversal of the sin of Cain towards Abel in brotherhood. So we already see significant moments in the narrative of Abraham and Sarah that would indicate that Abraham at least was beginning to trust God to bring forth life from him, and live accordingly. In fact, the Genesis narrative is portraying Abraham and Sarah as an attempt at being a ‘new humanity’ of sorts (version 3, since Noah and his wife were Adam and Eve version 2), including the fact that Abraham set up an altar for worship on a mountain (Gen.12:8; 13:4), which re-enacted Adam and Eve meeting God on a mountain, since Eden was a mountain (Ezk.28:13 – 14). So by the time Abraham trusted God to produce an heir from his own body, and renounced his cultural prerogative as a father to name his own heir, Abraham has borne fruit based on trust in God’s word. Yes, that faith needed to be further clarified, and Sarah’s faith needed to be developed as well, as the Hagar story shows, but the Genesis story shows that God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is His response to Abraham’s imperfect yet really lived trust and faith. Righteousness and assurance are not dependent on sinlessness.

      Perhaps there are larger premises behind your question. Such as: Is the Hebraic concept of ‘covenantal righteousness’ identical/equivalent to the Greco-Roman forensic concept of ‘merit’ and ‘demerit’? I believe they are not identical or equivalent. Also, the question: Is God’s forgiveness and acceptance of us based on a mechanism of ‘satisfaction,’ especially in response to ‘demerit’? Here again, I would argue not.


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