Penal Substitution Denied: another parting of the ways?
By Mark L.R. Mullins
THE denial of core biblical doctrine is a facet of the so called emerging church. Penal Substitution is perhaps the most serious casualty of this new nihilism. Its main culprit in the UK is Steve Chalke, the founder of Faithworks and Oasis Trust and a leading light on the evangelical scene for more than two decades.
Penal substitution refers to God's just punishment against the sin of mankind that was willingly suffered by His Son in our place on the cross.
Chalke’s name has frequently been used to lend respectability to speakers and organisations here in the UK. Controversially he remains a member of the Council of Management and trustee of Spring Harvest with responsibility for its spiritual oversight. Spring Harvest has organised annual conventions and holiday camps for thousands of Christians over many years and in many ways has become synonymous with mainstream British evangelicalism. In 2007 the Word Alive annual conference, which has a distinctly conservative evangelical flavour, ceased its partnership with Spring Harvest and re-launched New Word Alive this year in North Wales. The reason for this split was UCCF and Keswick Ministries’ refusal to allow Steve Chalke to speak on either the student or all-age platforms at Word Alive because of his unorthodox views on the atonement.
In 2003 Chalke sent shock waves through the evangelical community when he published The Lost Message of Jesus which he wrote with Alan Mann. It contains the following, frankly blasphemous, phrase (in bold) at page 182:
John’s Gospel famously declares, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?
The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil for evil.
It has been suggested that Steve Chalke was not making an attack on penal substitution itself but rather on the caricature of the doctrine. However Chalke clarified his position in an article in Christianity magazine entitled Cross Purposes (September 2004, pp.44–48). Chalke makes it plain that it is the actual doctrine of penal substitution itself, not merely its caricatures, that he finds objectionable:
In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume (it’s not even as old as the pews in many of our church buildings), it is actually built on pre-Christian thought.’
In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to “child abuse—a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.” Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark “unmasking” of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology.
It will not come as a great surprise that Brian McLaren (perhaps the leading architect of the new Emerging Church) gave his endorsement to the book claiming that “the Jesus introduced by Steve … sounds like someone who can truly save us from our trouble”. Tony Campolo, no stranger to controversy himself, claimed that the book “presents the holistic theology that the church desperately needs”. More surprisingly the book receives a ringing endorsement from Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham who is mistakenly (in my view) perceived by many as a friend of evangelicalism. He claimed that “Steve Chalke’s new book is rooted in good scholarship”.
Penal Substitution is Biblical
That God sent His Son as our substitute to pay for the penalty of our sins is, I would suggest, the golden thread that runs through the Bible. It is foreshadowed by the divine provision and substitution of the ram in place of Abraham’s son, Isaac. We see the clearest picture in the Passover where the Angel of God would take every first-born son in Egypt. However the first-born sons of the Israelites were saved by the sacrifice of a lamb and the daubing of the doorposts of each house with its blood. Blood had to be shed but in the place of the blood of each first-born was the blood of a lamb.
This picture of the Passover lamb was taken up by Paul and applied to Christ in 1 Corinthians 5:7—“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”. The idea of Christ as our Passover Lamb clearly indicates that, but for Christ, we would all die. Indeed Paul explicitly states that death came into the world through sin and that all have sinned.
There are those today who doubt the doctrine of original sin but if sin was not present in every human being that came into the world we would have no miscarriages and zero infant mortality which is plainly an absurd notion because no baby, being sinless, could die. There is only one man who did not have to die and that was Christ Jesus because He was without sin. He voluntarily laid down His life that He might take it up again. The fact that Christ laid down His life willingly is also important because it demonstrates that He was working with His Father as part of the triune God—three in One. This reveals a further fallacy in Steve Chalke's accusation of cosmic child abuse which erroneously depicts the Trinity as an unequal partnership when in fact the three are One.
If death came as a result of sin then there are only two alternatives: either Christ died due to His own sin (rendering his death meaningless) or He was bearing someone else’s (and was the propitiation for our sin). The Bible is clear that Christ was without sin and so it could only have been the latter and not the former.
However the death that came into the world through sin was not merely the physical death suffered by each lamb at Passover. The Lord Jesus Himself emphasised the nature of this second death in Mark 9:43-48 where He warns us that if we do not stop sinning we will enter hell where the “worm will not die and the fire will not be quenched”. The Lord is even more explicit when He warns his disciples in Matt 10:28 not to fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather to fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. I find verses like these to be absolutely clear and cannot understand how anyone can seriously believe the Bible to say that the punishment of the wicked ends in annihilation.
It is but a short step from the eternal punishment that every man is due to the conclusion that man is under the judgment and wrath of God: in this world we are but condemned men awaiting our sentence. Ephesians 2:3 places the matter beyond dispute when Paul describes us in our fallen state as “children of wrath”.
Isaiah 53:4-6 vividly describes the Lord’s act of substitutionary sacrifice:
Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. [my emphasis]
There was never a biblical passage more explicit in demonstrating that the Lord Jesus took upon Himself the punishment that was uniquely reserved for the sin of mankind. To avoid any doubt Peter draws on this passage in 1 Peter 2:24-25 when he refers to the Lord Jesus bearing our sins in His body on the tree. He then describes us as lost sheep returning to our Shepherd. As Peter states in 1 Peter 3:18—
For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.
This verse describes the divine exchange when Christ took our place by suffering the punishment for sins that was our due. Isaiah 53:11 is helpful because it demonstrates the spiritual nature of Christ’s sacrifice: “He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied”. The film, The Passion of Christ, was mistaken to focus on the physical torments of Christ. It was not so much what Christ suffered physically that mattered as His being cut off from God and enduring the agony of spiritual separation. To that end the darkness that fell on the land during the crucifixion is significant as was Christ’s agonising cry . Finally to demonstrate that the price of man’s sin had been atoned for, at the moment when Christ died, came the remarkable tearing of the curtain from top to bottom in the Temple, signifying that the way into the Holy of Holies was now open.
Steve Chalke has fallen into the error of focusing narrowly on two verses in 1 John 4 describing God as love to the exclusion of His attributes of truth and justice which require sin to be acknowledged and punished. These are found in a full reading of John's letter and throughout the Bible. Only at the cross do we see these aspects of God's character gloriously reconciled.
Penal Substitution is Historical
Steve Chalke, and others, claim that penal substitution is a modern theory that came into being after the reformation. This is untrue. As Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach demonstrate in Pierced for Our Transgressions the doctrine of penal substitution can be traced back to Christian teachers living in the immediate aftermath of the apostles . I refer to the two earliest writers cited by the authors to demonstrate the absurdity of the claim that penal substitution is some modern construct of post-reformists.
Justin Martyr (c.100-165) was the first ancient writer to be cited. He takes us back to within a generation of the apostolic era and may well have met people who knew the apostles. His understanding of penal substitution is revealed in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew which is the account of a conversation that took place around AD130. Trypho, while accepting that the Old Testament (OT) teaches that Christ should suffer, could not accept that Christ would be crucified because the OT law teaches that anyone crucified is under a curse. Justin Martyr ends his argument with the following defence of penal substitution:
If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?
Eusebius of Caesarea lived from about AD 275-339. He became bishop of Caesarea around 314. He played an important part in the Council of Nicea in 325 and was a trusted advisor to Constantine. His belief in penal substitution is disclosed in Proof of the Gospel written between 314 and 318. He outlined the significance of Christ’s death in the following ringing endorsement of penal substitution:
And the Lamb of God … was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty he did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins, and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.
The Implications of Denying Penal Substitution
If a man does not believe in penal substitution then there are a number of alternative aspects of penal substitution that the person must necessarily reject with implications that wholly undermine the Gospel message:
- Christ’s death was not because he was carrying other people’s sin IMPLICATION: Christ must have been carrying his own sin and therefore could not have been the sinless Lamb of God;
- God’s wrath is not upon mankind IMPLICATION: Christ’s death was unnecessary;
- God’s wrath was upon mankind but it was appeased in some other way than through Christ’s death IMPLICATION: Christ’s death was in vain;
- Death is not the consequence of sin IMPLICATION: Christ’s death was nothing special since death becomes a neutral event;
- A man is no longer saved by faith in Christ since Christ did nothing for him IMPLICATION: the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone is denied.
- In summary, man’s debt of sin did not need to be visited on account of the penalty that Christ bore.
Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. In Romans 4 Paul shows how the imputation of righteousness to Abraham through his obedience to God applies to us who live with the full revelation of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. Verses 22-25 encapsulate the necessary requirements for saving faith, in these terms:
And therefore it was imputed to him (Abraham) for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.
A rejection of penal substitution necessarily means that a man has rejected the basis for saving faith. This great doctrine is encaps-ulated in verse 25 of Romans 4. Righteousness will not be imputed to a person who does not believe that Christ was delivered for our offences—it is as simple as that.
The problem with false teachers is not just the fact of their error but the effect of their error on others and the message it gives to anyone who associates with them.
Heresies are meant to produce division and Paul commends them for having the effect of revealing those teachers who are approved by God because they will stand against them (cf. 1 Cor 11:18–19). We see this most plainly with the split between Word Alive and Spring Harvest.
If we allow ourselves to continue to work with men who propagate such false teaching then we risk corrupting the flock. As Paul wrote: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6).
Obviously not all wrong teaching will have this effect. We have to guard against divisions on matters which are not central to the core Gospel and I am not sure that we have always understood this clear distinction. Paul does not define what makes a heresy but he does make clear that there are two classes of division. There is the division that should lead to accommodation (Romans 14) and for which we should strive to “maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Then there is the division that must lead to separation. A man who is a heretic must be warned and then rejected (Tit 3:10). Then there is the disobedient who, while still being treated as a brother, must nevertheless be put outside the fellowship (2 Thess 3:14-15).
It is my view that a heretic is a person who denies a core Gospel doctrine such as the divinity and sinlessness of Christ; original sin in man; the eternal punishment of the wicked and the eternal reward of the just; salvation is by faith alone in what Christ achieved—that on the Cross Christ bore the sins of mankind upon Himself and suffered the just punishment for them in our place; that He died and rose again bodily from the grave and ascended into heaven. If a person denies any part of this Gospel message then he has undermined the Gospel which is why separation must occur.
There are those who disagree with Steve Chalke but can’t see that separation is necessary. They continue to attend Spring Harvest and endorse other aspects of his ministry. We should continue to pray that Steve Chalke and others who have rejected this key biblical doctrine will yet be restored and treat their error in a spirit of meekness knowing that we too may be similarly tested. However we must not make the mistake of treating the denial of penal substitution as a secondary issue when it goes to the heart of our faith.
This article is written for CETF—and is an example of just such an issue for which we must contend earnestly for the faith which was delivered to us. We must have nothing to do with such men as Steve Chalke who is preaching another Gospel which is in fact no Gospel at all (Gal 1:7-9).
Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach for their comprehensive treatment of this debate and I highly recommend Pierced for Our Transgressions—Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution by (Inter-Varsity Press ISBN 978-1-84474-178-6).