Why We Need to Move Away from Substitutionary Atonement


The last couple of months I’ve visited a few churches and been struck by how central the idea that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins is in their worship. It’s there in the songs they sing, in the prayers they pray, in the words of the worship leader, and inevitably makes an appearance in the sermon preached. It is the central and defining message.

Yet, as I’ve argued in an earlier post, it’s not, to my reading, the way the New Testament articulates the good news. And it matters. Substitionary, penal atonement makes sin, guilt and retribution the central themes of faith. It gives us an anthropology that focuses on what’s wrong with us, which issues in language declaring we are unlovable (but phew, God who is love, loves us despite our unloveliness), culpable (you struggle to find any sense that our problem might be the power of sin, or the systems in which we live), incapable (but we can do things in Christ’s strength, whatever that means – I have never been able to figure that one out) and is so firmly fixed on the individual – Christ died to save sinners – that the collective is easily ignored.

Substitutionary, penal atonement gives us a God who can only effect the salvation of sinners through an act of violent retribution. Holiness, understood as an implacable opposition to sin, becomes the central characteristic of God and retribution becomes the central theme in God’s dealing with humankind, opening up visions of a hard God who punishes unconfessed sin and an eternity in which the bulk of humankind suffer the most bitter torments for eternity.

But what if we made resurrection the centre of the gospel? What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?

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9 Comments on "Why We Need to Move Away from Substitutionary Atonement"

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Andy Coller
Hey Scott, I understand what you’re trying to say. The importance of the resurrection is well pointed out by Paul in 1 Cor 15. But I still get stuck on 2 Cor 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might have the righteousness of God” and Heb 9:11f which shows Christ as our Day of Atonement lamb when he entered the Holy of Holies with his own blood and Jesus as our Passover lamb. Subsitutionary Atonement, like all human endeavours to neatly package theology, doesn’t answer all the questions… Read more »
John McKinnon

Andy (and Scott), have a read of Darrin Balousek’s “Atonement, Justice and Peace”. An extremely comprehensive analysis of penal substitutionary atonement and presents alternatives. Darrin is coming to Aus next May/June and will be speaking in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

Phil Zylstra
The main issue I have with penal substitution is that its foundation is a concept of justice that Jesus explicitly rejected. Moses’ often repeated logic was eye for eye, tooth for tooth and life for life; do not show mercy. Justice on this foundation means that sin must be punished; that it is fundamentally unjust not to punish. This is the conundrum leading to the “balance” God has to keep between love and justice: He wants to love sinners but justice demands that he punish them so he takes out the punishment on Jesus and voila: love and justice are… Read more »

Hi Philip,
Yep, I agree that penal substitution is fundamentally at odds with the restorative/liberative model of justice we find in Jesus. So I find the penal model unconvincing.

But even if we were to accept the penal model, it has become an absolutising narrative in a way that it is not in the NT even on a penal reading.

Ian Packer
Thanks for the provocations, Scott (though I realise you’re not just provoking, but genuinely believe and advocate this). I agree with you that the resurrection needs to be restored to a more central place along with ‘messianic’ themes and the kingdom of God. I think ‘substitution’ needs to be rethought in a more nuanced way – e.g. substitution is a moment within a broader notion of representation (Oliver O’Donovan). But ‘substitution’ remains an aspect of Christ’s achievement on our behalf. Nonetheless, the haphazard deployment of metaphors of payment and punishment in our worship is extremely troubling. And many of the… Read more »
nerida cuddy
Thanks for these thoughts Scott, and you others… I remember my little nephew, after obviously far too much of a “cross-focused” Sunday School diet, asking why we would pray to Jesus – because he’s dead! I loved studying about all the different views on the atonement, and realising that there were different views, with all their implications… And you are right, Scott, the implications of our focus are far-reaching, and influence us so deeply on a daily level (my nephew’s observation is just one example!). I have a lot of thoughts on this, but here’s a little sample: The cross… Read more »
Theodore A. Jones

“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 Forget substitutionary atonement, penal atonement etc. Salvation is dependent upon the faith of obeying that law Paul is referencing and he is not referencing the Sinai code.


Struth! what if I gave my life to Jesus then immediately dropped dead?

By Scott


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