Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Let’s flip it on it’s head

So, there’s this thing called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (I’ll call it PSA from now on)… which is just a theological/geeky way of describing how it is that Jesus accomplished the task of reconciling people back to God.

It points back to Old Testament practices of having an “Atoning Sacrifice”, which was an animal that was killed by the Hebrew priests as a way to “atone”, or to “make amends”, for the sins of the entire people group of Israel. (NOTE: someone please chime in if I’m getting any of this wrong) So, PSA is a way to describe what Jesus did in light of this OT practice; here’s a good description of it from Wikipedia:

“It argues that Christ, by His own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.”

In my experience, PSA is typically referenced when people say that:

“Jesus died for your sins.”

The context for this statement is typically this: my personal sin has caused a divide between God and myself, because God is perfectly Holy and Just and cannot have anything sinful in His presence, and the only thing that bridges that divide is accepting that Jesus has paid the necessary price (death) for the sins that I have, am and will continue to commit.

Matt over at Running with the Lion has proposed a different way to frame the way we talk about PSA, and frankly, I think it’s FANTASTIC. Matt says this:

I am a fan of Penal Substitution when it is used in defense of a victim. When a community singles out a particular sin and decides someone needs to suffer “consequences” for it, the penal substitution metaphor is the perfect remedy.

“We shouldn’t punish him,” one can argue quite convincingly, “because Christ has already paid the price for his sin.”

This is a completely different animal than the typical usage of PSA; it really flips it on it’s head. It makes the atonement of Jesus bigger than just me, and it makes a case for how we should treat others in light of how God has treated us.

Rather than being about how mad God is about the bad things I’ve done, and who He had to kill instead of me so that He could stand being around me… the idea that Matt proposes seems to be more about how we should treat everyone around us, in light of the fact that God has already taken their (and OUR) punishment upon Himself. Thus, it’s not my place to worry about whether or not anyone “gets what they deserve” because Jesus already paid that price; for ALL of us.

I think it’s a subtle shift in how you look at PSA, but I think it could have very NON-subtle ripple effects on our ability to love those around us.

And I think that’s important, because if we don’t have love, then we really don’t have anything at all…


2 thoughts on “Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Let’s flip it on it’s head

  1. “It points back to Old Testament practices of having an “Atoning Sacrifice”, which was an animal that was killed…”

    I am actually reading through the OT right now (still in the pentateuch) and I am being challenged to understand how the God of the first 80% of the Bible is the same God as the last 20% of the Bible. How the God of the last 2,008 years is the same God as the 10,000 years before that.

    One thing I have noticed is that God designed and demanded atoning sacrifices at that time. This wasn’t a cultural peculiarity of the times… God ordained it for a purpose.

    I’ve also been reading Hebrews lately, to get some perspective… especially ch 9 and 10. Several times the OT sacrifices and instruments are described as a shadow (foreshadow) of what is to come. They were the temporary, imperfect shadow of the coming perfection in Christ. That is, Christ’s atoning death does not point back to the old way, but the old covenant, designed by God, points forward to Christ. God’s design in the OT law is to prepare the way and point to what Christ was going to ultimately accomplish on the cross.

    “Rather than being about how mad God is about the bad things I’ve done…
    … [it’s] more about how we should treat everyone around us, in light of the fact that God has already taken their (and OUR) punishment upon Himself.”

    Christ’s payment of our sins absolutely has implications for our relationships with one another, how we should love and forgive those around us. Jesus speaks about it in a parable, about a man whose debt was forgiven, but then wouldn’t forgive a debt owed him. even Paul got the idea in his letter to the Colossians, “Bear with each other… Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

    There are other implications as well, but the primary purpose of Christ’s death was to reconcile us to God. It seems some critics of the PSA theory tend to not like this idea of God needing to be appeased by blood. Perhaps it seems sadistic and immature. But it is all over the Bible, you can’t run from it. Christ’s death bought us peace with God. In Jesus’ own words, he came “to give His life a ransom for many.” Still, he hoped there might be another way. He asked that the cup might pass from him. But ultimately, he submitted to the will of His Father.

    “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

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