Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Doesn’t Make Me Gag: It’s Good News


Long after D.A. Carson’s lauded book against gagging God came out, but shortly before “Gagging” became the third rail of Christian Twitterdom there came a thread concerning gagging of a different kind:



Rev. Eric Atcheson is the Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) Longview Washington, and a Twitter friend.  While Rev. Atcheson and I have never had the opportunity (I hope we shall one fine day, Lord willing) to sit down over coffee and talk about what we believe, it is clear from reading his tweets and blogs that at times the two of us come at issues from distinctly different theological understandings. I respect and affirm Rev. Atcheson’s calling as a Pastor within the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) and go to him when I am looking for a “mainline” point of view.

After asking Rev. Atcheson what fashion of atonement he did hold to, he was gracious enough to answer via Twitter.  He later wrote a blog detailing some of his critiques of what he termed the “Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory”.  I am grateful that Rev. Atcheson tagged me on Twitter in order to let me read and more fully understand his stance. Whereas Rev. Atcheson is an all around jolly good fellow, which no one can deny: he even gave me permission to respond to his blog, which I will attempt to do so in this article.

The central argument Rev. Atcheson advances is that grace that is paid for is not grace at all.  I will endeavor with my meager faculties to show otherwise.

The reason my initial response to Rev. Atcheson’s less than favorable opinion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement was, “I hope my tweets don’t make you gag too much, Pastor.” is because I not only love the doctrine, but I doubly love talking about it!

Far from making me “gag”, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is intricately intertwined with the person of Christ, and He and He alone is the cornerstone of all I have.

That which will blind you in your darkness and leave you with a lingering, incomprehensible afterglow for eternity is that The Penal Substitutionary Atonement describes, from the Bible, how Love & Holiness need not annihilate one another.  For God the Father is not an accountant in the sky committing divine child abuse on kindly but naive Jesus of Nazareth (nice guys finish last, the nicest guy finishes on a Roman cross? Not at all).  Dare I type, clickity clack, that Psalm 85:10’s “Righteousness and peace have kissed each other” is evident in every member of the Trinity during the Atonement? I do. None in the Godhead compromises His Holy yet Merciful character. While The Lord Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), He nonetheless reminds us that He is made of sterner stuff,

“No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.  This commandment I received from My Father.” ~ John 10:18 (NASB)

The intense beauty of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is that it is not centered upon what I choose.  Rather, Atonement is centered on God the Father giving, and The Lord Jesus Christ choosing to be punished for my sin so that I might have life everlasting.

2nd Corinthians 5:21 (NASB) eloquently paints this picture for us,

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” 

The resplendence of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is that it does not require God the Father to compromise His Holiness in order to show kindness to people like me.  Jesus paid with His life because He loves the sinner as well as Holiness.

God the Father is by no means a troglodyte, for it is out of the best kind of love that He makes the sacrifice He did not take from Abraham.

There were 3 statements Rev. Atcheson wrote that may produce more light if coupled with a response from an advocate of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

 1.)  Rev. Atcheson asks, “Herein lies the rub: if forgiveness is made possible by appeasement or satisfaction or repayment, then what need is there for grace?”
Advocates of Penal Substitutionary Atonement believe that grace is found in the truth the sinless Lord Of All That Is would mortify Himself to be the savior of sinful humanity, rather than absconding at any point during the Incarnation.  This truth is replete with grace.

2.)  Rev. Atcheson asserts: “We are left, then with one of two options: that Jesus’s death represents the debt being paid in full, and so forgiveness of the debt is no longer necessary–eliminating the need for grace.  The other option is that Jesus’s death does NOT pay the debt in full, which creates all sorts of problems if you believe that Jesus was divine.  If God’s own infinite divine substance is not enough to appease God, what possibly could be?  And if this God can never be appeased, then why bother worshiping Him?  We might as well all stay home on Sunday mornings and do the crossword–it’ll have the same net effect on this God.”

Once again, advocates of Penal Substitutionary Atonement would say that Jesus paying the debt in full is grace. Secondly,  I believe there is a disconnect concerning the purpose of the meeting of the Church expressed in this clause. Unless one believes they are offering up the body and blood of Christ as atonement for that week’s sin during any given Sunday: Sunday mornings are not so much about effecting God as they are about not neglecting Apostolic teaching, prayer, fellowship and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42).


3.)  Rev. Atcheson: “Instead, the Crucifixion represents God taking that contract and feeding it to the shredder: He tears up the contract that demands compensation for our transgressions, and He decides to err on the side of forgiveness, offering grace to all those who choose to accept it by following the example and teachings of the Son we had just killed.”

Theologians whom are convicted that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is taught in Scripture would liken the Atonement more to a mortgage burning party than walking away from a mortgage.  In regard to “following the example and teaching of the Son we had just killed:

The good Reverend John Stott writes in “Why I Am A Christian” p.49-50,

“With Jesus, however, it is the other way around. His teaching and example were indeed incomparable, but from the beginning his followers laid their emphasis on his death. Take his three greatest apostles, Paul, Peter and John

* Paul: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

* Peter: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18).

* John: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).”


Lastly, but preeminently, the notion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement does not make me “gag” because it is all over Scripture, from the exodus, to the scapegoat, to the Cross.

Colossians 1:19-22 (ESV)

“For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him…”



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