One of the most crucial parts of Christianity being debated today is this:  Why did Jesus die on the cross?  We passionately sing, “My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the Cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul!  It is well, with my soul…”  To some, this is fabulously good news, but to others (even Christians), the concept of “my sin” is offensive because it points the accusing finger of judgment at us.  We would like to come up with some other way to unite with God, rather than by dealing with our sin, which we would like to ignore.  If Jesus did not die on the cross for our personal sin, then we do not have to be continually confronted by our sinful nature.  Furthermore, by conveniently setting aside the part about “my sin” and repentance, we can now say that Jesus’ death is more inclusive.  Then we won’t feel so uncomfortable in church.  The idea that Christ absorbed the wrath of God which we deserve forces us to admit that we do indeed deserve God’s wrath.  God would be so much more likeable if he didn’t have wrath.

The teaching that Jesus died for our sins by taking the punishment that we deserve is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which has recently been criticized by some evangelicals and Mennonite Brethren theologians.  Mark Baker of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (FPBS) writes,

We believe the popular fascination with and commitment to penal substitutionary atonement has had ill effects in the life of the church in the United States and has little to offer the global church and mission by way of understanding or embodying the message of Jesus Christ” (220).

Tim Geddert, also of FPBS, writes,

But does the Bible not say over and over again, ‘Christ died for our sins,’ implying penal substitution?  The answer is that it does not” (17).

It is thought to be too violent, individualistic, irrelevant, unbiblical, not historical, and even immoral and abusive.  Their voices have been added to others’ who have called PSA a “slaughterhouse religion” (Fosdick) and “cosmic child abuse” (Chalk 182-3).  Detractors of PSA claim that it has been over-emphasized, then they place it in a  kaleidoscope of atonement images as merely one of many.  Finally, claiming that it is flawed and harmful, they disqualify it along with its accompanying doctrines.  Who cursed man with death?  Did God or Satan?  Is man first an active perpetrator or victim?  What is God’s wrath?  Is God’s wrath merely letting man experience the natural consequences of his sin, or is it more than that?  Is God’s kingdom something that unforgiven people can participate in?  Will “love win”?  Did a “God without wrath bring men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross” (Niebuhr 193)?

Jesus explained the meaning of His cross at the Last Supper when He instituted communion for Christians of all cultures and times.  “And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink it, all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins’” (English Standard Version Matt. 26:27-28).  Jesus also said, “God so loved the world … but whoever does not believe is condemned already” (Jn. 3:16-18).  In announcing the kingdom of God He cried, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17; cf. Mark 1:15).  This is offensive and seemingly unnecessary to those who don’t feel guilty or don’t want to repent.  They therefore desire to see the cross in a different light, such as “Come participate in the Kingdom of God and join Him in transformation,” or “You were enslaved by Satan, but Jesus has freed you.”  These are part of the story, but not central.  Biblically, the Kingdom of God must be entered through repentance and forgiveness of sins.  Only then can we join His kingdom work.  There is no dichotomy; one is simply a prerequisite for the other.  Jesus also gave Satan, our enemy, a terrific blow on the cross and humiliated him, but this did not forgive our rebellion, thereby lifting God’s sentence.  Both Satan and man are enemies of God.  Our amazing God has intervened relentlessly and lovingly in history to save, but ultimately He will not remove his wrath without our repentance and belief in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.  Penal Substitutionary Atonement is indispensable and supports all the other aspects of Christ’s death.

References and Bibliography

Carson, D.A.Why Is the Doctrine of Penal Substitution Again Coming Under Attack?” Theology, the World, Life, and God-Centeredness. 28 Jun. 2007. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://theocentricview.blogspot.com/2007/06/da-carson-on-penal-substitution.html>

Chalke, Steve. The Lost Message of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. Print.

Dever, Mark. “Nothing But the Blood.” Christianity Today 50:5 (2006): Web. 30 Jan.                    2012. <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/may/9.29.html>

DeYoung, Kevin, and D.A.Carson. Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Print.

Fosdick, Harry Emerson. “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” First Presbyterian Church.  New York. 1922. Web. 3 Feb. 2012. <http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5070/>

Geddert, Tim. “Thinking About the Atonement.” Christian Leader 72.6 (2009): 18. Print.

Gilley, Gary. “Atonement Wars – Part 2.”  Think on These Things 16.6 (Dec.2010/Jan.2011): Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://www.svchapel.org/resources/articles/23-doctrine/692-atonement-wars-part-2>

Green, Joel B., and Mark D. Baker Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. (Downer’s Grove, IL Intervarsity Press) 2000. Print.

Mohler, Al. “Why Do They Hate it So?  The Doctrine of Substitution.” Together for the Gospel. Louisville, KY, 2008.  Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://t4g.org/media/2010/04/why-do-they-hate-it-so-the-doctrine-of-substitution-session-vi/>

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1937. 1959. Web. 3 Feb. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._Richard_Niebuhr>

Packer, J.I. “The Logic of Penal Substitution.” The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture. 1973. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html>