Letters to Paul, V: the heart of the Atonement...

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(Tim: Building on his series on Jonathan Edwards and the Atonement, here's another series--numbers one, two, three, four, and five--by our American African correspondent, David Wegener. But first, a note from David on the purpose of this series.)

Paul is a Zambian Christian leader, a graduate of the school where I teach. I’ve taken him as representative of one of my students so I can have a face to look at in my mind as I write these letters.

Often my students puzzle over what they hear coming from the church in the west. Much of their background has led them to accept without question what comes from western Christians. "After all, they brought us the gospel and keep coming back and helping us." My exhortation to Paul is the one given by his namesake: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21).

Letters to Paul (V): The Heart of the Atonement

Dear Paul: When lecturers teach on the atonement, they often start by talking about various theories of the atonement that have come up in the history of the church. The Christus victor (Christ the Victor) theory talks of how our Lord defeated Satan by His work on the cross. The moral influence theory talks of how Christ was an example for us to follow. The penal substitutionary theory talks of how Christ took our penalty and bore it; He took our place and bore our punishment.

Today, the Christus victor view is “popular”. It lets us talk way over our head about the powers of darkness and corporate evil and the sins of warfare and elitism and consumerism and on and on, as if we even know what we’re talking about. The moral influence theory is also popular. When we see what Christ has done, doesn’t it kindle within you a flame to be like Him? Doesn’t it make you want to ask, “What would Jesus do”? Doesn’t it make you want to be a better person?

As you might guess, the penal substitutionary view is not very popular. In fact, it is despised, even by professing Christians. I’m afraid I can’t call this view a “theory.” It’s a reality. It is not something a Christian can accept or reject. It is not one “model” among many. It is the heart of the atonement. It is the heart of the gospel. It is the heart of our salvation. Take it away and the other ways the Bible speaks about the death of Christ crumble to the ground.

If Christ is our example, why is that the case? Is it not because He suffered in the place of others? “Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet 2:21). Christ is our example precisely because He voluntarily took our place, bearing the punishment for wrongs He did not commit. You can’t believe in the moral influence aspect of the atonement without a prior belief in penal substitution.

If Christ defeated the devil, how did He do that? Wasn’t it by bearing our sins and God’s wrath? “The Son of God appeared for this purpose that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8). The first of Satan’s works was to tempt man into sin. Remove penal substitution and things fall apart. You can’t believe in Christ the Victor over the devil without a prior belief in penal substitution.

Jonathan Edwards would say, if you miss the substitutionary atonement, then you miss the substitute. If you miss the satisfaction of God’s justice, then you miss the defeat of the adversary. If you miss the penalty borne by Christ, then you miss His selfless example. These things stand and fall together. The doctrine of penal substitution is the heart of the atonement.

Yours with thankfulness for a violent atonement, Rev Wegener