The penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is central and of "first importance" to the gospel.
Occasionally one can find comments that PSA is not central to the atonement. We will find some rejecting it, others will affirm it with hesitancy and/or qualification. Consider, it is possible to argue that PSA is derivative of another motif--namely Christus Victor. Certainly, it is right to take our cue from Genesis 3:15 and see a 'redemptive historical' pattern that God has to defeat evil. In one sense, there is a difference between following the plotline of the whole story (historia salutis--history of salvation) vs. following the personal aspects (ordo salutis--order of salvation). But I would submit that Christus Victor is a product not just of the cross but of the resurrection and ascension as well. Christus Victor as a product of the atonement is narrow in scope in terms of the Biblical attention it receives.
Atonement cannot be divorced from our understand of the 'reign of God,' what the gospel srefer to as the "kingdom of God". Christ comes as the Second Adam, the 'Son of Man' who will receive a kingdom. He will defeat the enemies of the kingdom--and redeem the people of the kingdom. His cross and resurrection are central to this mission. Indeed, this hope is the climax of the history of the Old Testament. God is constantly working to reveal Himself in a giant plot line that comes to a head or a climax in the work of Christ. Christ ushers in the kingdom, works to set things right not only in all creation (since its fall in Gen 3) but also in the lives of specific people and individuals. We would whole heartedly concur with this quote from Graham Cole: "Evangelicals in my view need to do more justice to the Christus Victor theme and in so doing find that penal substitution is integral or central to it."
Given our careful qualification and commendation of the Christus Victor approach as a valid aspect of the atonement, I want to suggest that PSA is more basic and central to the cross of Christ. For this we turn to Scripture.
First consider 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
1 Corinthians 15:1-4 1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,Let's make several comments here on this passage--
(1) In the context Paul is reminding the Corinthians those issues of the gospel which are "first importance". In the larger context, we find out that the Corinthians were denying the resurrection of the dead. This is a travesty. Indeed, it is impossible to be a Christian and deny the bodily resurrection since core to Christian proclamation is the resurrection itself. In a general strategy of attacking this grave error. Paul lays out some items of "first importance" to the gospel itself.
- "Christ died for our sins"
- "He was buried"
- "He was raised on the third day"
- These things were "according to the Scriptures" --specifically in mind is the Old Testament.
(2) The central event of the gospel centers on two acts: Christ's death and Christ's resurrection. These are events that happen in the "fullness of time". For Paul these are the center of human history. In these "this present evil age" has its fate sealed. A "age to come"--the great eschatological hope of 'God's reign' has dawned. Of course, this is only a D-day, a first stage victory... an inauguration.
(3) Most important for our comments here what is of "first importance" is not merely that Christ died but that "Christ died for our sins (Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν)". On the little preposition "for" we hang a major hinge of the gospel. His death was "ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν (for our sins)". The little preposition "for" "huper, ὑπὲρ" denotes substitution--in the place of. It means on behalf of or for the sake of our sins. Why did Jesus die on a cross since the cross clearly means He was cursed by God? He took our place. The one word, ‘huper,’ points us to a concept we see throughout the New Testament: Jesus died as our substitute. The full weight of the penalty that we deserve for our sins was placed upon Jesus’ shoulders. The penalty of sin is death. The payment we deserve when we sin is condemnation by death (Rom. 6:23). Everybody sins (Rom. 3:23). God lays out how we should live in His Law and when obey it in its entirety we are under a curse (Gal. 3:10).
In this Tyndale Bulletin essay, R.E. Davis discusses the importance of prepositions, particularly the preposition huper for the atonement and the gospel:
In the light of this brief survey, it is extremely strange that many scholars are so loth to admit the substitutionary meaning into those statements in the New Testament which speak of Christ's death ὑπὲρ σοῦ, etc. There are about twenty passages in the New Testament which speak of Christ suffering or dying for us using the preposition ὑπέρ where the meaning includes ‘in the place of’ as well as ‘for the sake of’. We do not intend to mention them all, but merely to note the most important ones. (pp.84-85).He goes on to discuss key passage in 1 Peter, John's Gospel and Paul. We find further support that "huper" means in the place of or instead of in places where the atonement is not discussed but substitution is clearly in view based upon context. In writing his conclusion, he stresses the specificity we find in the use of this preposition:
In attempting to summarize what we have found, we would give the following statement: the preposition ἀντί always has the idea of equivalence, substitution or exchange present; it never has the more general meaning 'on behalf of, for the sake of'. Therefore Mark 10:45 can only mean that the life of Christ given up in death was given in exchange for the forfeited lives of the many. The preposition ὑπέρ may and often does include the stricter idea 'instead of and if the context warrants, we may so understand it.Paul therefore is telling us what is a matter of first importance to the gospel: Christ died in the place of our sins. This is nothing other than the penal substitutionary atonement. Christ died in our place taking on the condemnation that our sins deserves. This is not the sum of the gospel, indeed Paul tells us if Christ is still dead we are still in our sins. What too many of us fail to realize is that although he speaks all of 1 Cor 15 defending the bodily resurrection because of the specificity of that error in the Corinth church, the Apostle Paul gives same priority to PSA that he gives to the bodily resurrection--it is a matter nonnegotiable "first importance". Had it been this aspect of the gospel under denial in Corinth, we can imagine an equally passionate defense . Obviously, the PSA means little without the resurrection. The reverse is also true. When all is said and done: the core of the gospel can never have less than the PSA.
If we ask why ὑπέρ is used so much more frequently than ἀντί, the answer would appear to be twofold: firstly, in the New Testament period ἀντί suffered a great reduction in use; secondly, in the words of R. C. Trench: 'The prepositon ὑπέρ is the rather employed, that it may express both these meanings, and express how Christ died at once "for our sakes" . . . and "in our stead": while ἀντί would only have expressed the last of these.' In other words, while ἀντί could express the fact that Christ died in our place, it could not of itself state that this death was for our benefit and for our good, and therefore ὑπέρ, which can express both these ideas, is used. [p.90, emphasis mine]
At this point we are not merely taking about models for understanding the cross--although such language is not entirely inappropriate. What we are taking about is a truth that is at the core of "good news" that is to be proclaimed: Christ died for sins. When one puts their faith and trust in Christ's death we understand that "Christ died for our sins".
Because 1 Corinthians is clear to tell us what is "first importance" this should be enough for us. Nevertheless let us turn to one other passage.
Second, let us consider the opening of the book of Galatians 1:1-5:
Galatians 1:1-5 1 Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.
We choose this passage not arbitrarily but because in the churches of Galatia, Paul's gospel is again under assault--not over the resurrection this time but over the role of the Law and obedience in our salvation. The trouble was producing a fundamental misunderstanding of "justification by faith"--so much so that Paul could say that the church was turning away to another gospel over these issues. In outlining the true gospel, Paul must defend his apostleship because the opponents were attacking the nature of the gospel he was preaching. Only one version of the gospel could be right--and in turn only one side could be authorized by God Himself.
We see some of the same cores here in Galatians that we say in 1 Corinthians:
- The resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
- Jesus 'giving Himself for our sins'
- Our rescue from this present evil age.
The phrase "for our sins" is again "ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν"--so we should keep in mind all that we said about "huper" above. This idea is repeated in Galatians in two other places:
Galatians 2:19-20 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. 20 It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Here Paul has used an autobiographical "I" to describe what is common to all Christians. There is a participation in Christ's death. What He has done, He has done for me. We place our faith and trust in Jesus and we are "justified" (declared righteous)--this entails forgiveness and the pronouncement of being legally 'not guilty' but also a positive verdict of being legally in good standing with God (Gal. 2:16). The believer is justified "in Christ" (2:17). Of course, some were seeking to go back to God's law as a means of justification before God--as if obedience sets us right with God. Paul argues that because Christ died, and we've died with Christ--we've died to the Law (2:19). Justification is not found through the Law (2:21). We live by faith in God's Son--this is the tremendous liberty of the Christian life.
But why do we enjoy this liberty? How can I have this verdict of justification in Christ? How do I enjoy this new status before God? Christ gave Himself for me. Christ's death entails Him handing Himself over for me.
If we cannot obey the Law of God it brings a curse, not life. This curse is of course upon Israel in the history of the OT as she constantly fails to obey God. It is upon us as we fail. But Christ bears this curse.
Galatians 3:10-13 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." 12 But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"-Here again is the core of penal substitutionary atonement. Christ takes upon Himself the curse that I deserve. In arguing for our justification by faith, we see in a secondarily in the course of Paul's argument how central to Paul's gospel the PSA really is. There is no justification before God if Christ Himself does not bear the curse for us. If Christ bears the curse, there are implications as to the power and role of the Law in the Christian life over and above the role of the Law in the life of the Old Testament saint. This is not to deny the Law if God's Word or that it is applicable to us--yet it does not mandate our life in the same way. It is no longer a covenant over us but something written on our hearts by the Spirit. Pursuing these thoughts would take us too far afield. Consider as we consider Christ's death for us as both penal and substitutionary:
Colossians 2:11-14 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.Our concept of PSA can never leave behind how this gospel is applied--which is through being united to Christ. His work for us and in our place effects a union whereby what happened to Him--in His death and resurrection--works itself out as I am united to Him. I die to sin. I die to the penalty of sin. I am given new spiritual life. I become a "new creation"--In the future I receive resurrection as a final inbreaking of the effect of my union to the King.
Our argument here has been simple that PSA is central to the gospel. We continue to point out that PSA isn't the sum total of the gospel--but the gospel cannot be had with something less that the PSA. Paul tells us that Christ dying for our sins is central to the gospel: it is "first importance". When the gospel is under attack on the issue of justification by faith--Paul launches from the PSA to defend and articulate our justification by faith that comes from the work of Christ on our behalf.
With PSA there would be no dawning of the age to come. There would be no great victory in the kingdom of God. There would be no reconstituted people of God who are forgiven and free. Most importantly, on a more individual note, there would be no forgiveness of sins and justification before God.
While we should neither lose sight of the cosmic effects of the gospel nor the personal effects of the gospel--both corporately and individually--we must also be clear with boldness the it is of first importance to the Gospel that Jesus Christ died in our place as substitute to bear the penalties and condemnation we deserved for our sins.