Penal Substitutionary Atonement a Lie? Part 3

[1756 words = 7 minute read]

Last week, I ended my post with a plethora of biblical texts refuting Ericksen’s statement that penal substitutionary atonement is a lie. Ericksen’s diminutive perspective of God’s holiness demonstrates he doesn’t understand the depravity of man and the deserved wrath stored up for him because of sin.

I continue on.

He writes,

“The whole premise of penal substitutionary atonement is a lie. God didn’t respond to Adam and Eve by mimicking them. God didn’t turn from them. In fact, God went in search for them. “Where are you?” God asked Adam and Eve. That’s the truth of the Adam and Eve story, it’s the truth of the biblical story, and it’s our truth. When we abandon God, God doesn’t abandon us. God doesn’t respond with wrathful anger. Rather, God responds with grace and compassion that seeks to be in relationship with us.”

Ericksen is right on this point. Though Adam and Eve disobeyed God, incurring death for their sin, God came for them and extended grace to them in the shedding of the blood of another animal to cover their sin. We see before a theology of the atonement is fully developed an exchange being made. While God spared their lives at this moment, God told them that they would surely die if they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and they most definitely will, returning to the dust that they came from (Genesis 3:19).

But he spared them.

After God made “garments of skin and clothed them” (3:21), “he drove out the man” (v.24), cleansing the temple-garden and closing it off from sin and death in placing the cherubim and a flaming sword as guards at the east end of it.

God did not respond with the wrathful anger they deserved; if he did, there would be no Christ, the one to come in whom God fully manifests his nature and character in—demonstrating wrath and love through. So, while we see God’s demonstration of grace, his wrath still has to come. A just judge cannot let lawlessness go unpunished. If God overlooked the sins of mankind, he would not be righteous; he would be unjust and a liar (Ps. 9:8).

Adam’s sin brought death into the world (Romans 5:12), and “the judgment following one trespass [Adam’s sin] brought condemnation” (5:16). So while Adam’s sin brought condemnation, Paul tells us that God in his divine forbearance “passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). Beginning with Adam and Eve, his provision through sacrificial substitution allowed them to live for a while, along with God’s covenant people, Israel. But it did not remove man from his deserved condemnation, reconciling man and God. But in Christ, God put forward a propitiation that demonstrates his righteousness, so that he might be just and the justifier” (Romans 3:24, italics mine), by exacting justice for the sins of the world but also showing his love and mercy in reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18).

The Bible makes it clear—“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36, italics mine). God’s wrath remains on those who have transgressed the law. Christ or no Christ, God’s wrath remains. Paul says to the Ephesians, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world . . . carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:1-3).

Just because the wicked are still living, it doesn’t mean their just condemnation through God’s wrath won’t be displayed. God will respond with wrathful anger; he already did for those who are his in Christ’s first coming and will do so for the children of Satan at Christ’s second coming.

Ericksen continues, quoting from a . . . Rabbi?

As the great 20th century Rabbi Abraham Heschel explained, the primary point is not our search for God, but rather God’s search for us.

“All of human history as described in the Bible,” wrote Heschel, “may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of [humans].” 

Now, I will have to give him credit here because Heschel shares a glorious truth of the Christian faith: God entering into his own creation coming to man through Christ to restore what was lost. However, I just find it ironic (and sad) that he is quoting a Rabbi who, while making this profound point, ultimately misses it.

Ericksen writes,

“For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s search for humanity. In this particular human being we see that atonement has nothing to do with God’s pent up wrath or violence, but everything to do with the truth of God’s grace and forgiveness. The Gospel of John tells us, “’The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.'”

Yes, Christ is the ultimate revelation of God’s search for humanity, but Ericksen doesn’t demonstrate how what Christ did was not part of God’s wrath. The grace given is that Christ comes to bear our penalty taking the wrath of God for us. Galatians 3:13 says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law becoming a curse for us.”

What is grace? It is getting something we don’t deserve. Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many, paying the debt we could never repay.

I think Colossians 2:13-14 most succinctly captures this legal exchange:

“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, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

Why do you think we have the earthly example of the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system? (Read Hebrews 9-10)

Why is Christ referred to as the spotless Lamb (John 1:29)?

Peter speaks of “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19), which finds its origin in Exodus 12:5, in God’s instruction to Israel regarding Passover, “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old.”

Ericksen writes,

“In each Gospel we discover that God didn’t need the cross in order to forgive. The truth of God’s “grace upon grace” is that God forgives sinners, tax collectors, and cowardly disciples, in other words, everyone, before Jesus even went to the cross. God has never atoned for sins through wrathful violence. God doesn’t respond to us mimetically. When we abandon God, God doesn’t abandon us. Jesus is the particular revelation of what the Bible generally reveals — God makes atonement, God became at-one with us, not through wrathful violence, but through nonviolent love and forgiveness. It was human wrath that hung Jesus on a cross, not God’s. How does God respond to our wrath? As John wrote, with “grace upon grace.” Jesus revealed that grace as he hung on the cross and prayed, “’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'”

God did not need the cross to forgive? One needs to look at the statements in the Gospels Jesus makes regarding his purpose and reason for coming (Matthew 16:21; 20:18-19, 22, 28; Mark 8:31; 10:33-34, 45; Luke 11:42; 22:22, 37, 46; John 6:38; 10:17; 12:27) to see the cross was not just needed, it was planned to be used to show his glory. So, whatever God purposes is needed.

Another key element that Ericksen fails to see is what the cup represents that Christ is to drink. In the Old Testament, the cup normally signifies God’s judgment in the outpouring of his wrath (Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15, 16). This means intense suffering for those who drink of it. Christ demonstrated great fear in the moments prior to his crucifixion where he prayed to the Father, asking to not drink this cup (Matthew 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). He was fearful because it was one thing that the Son never experienced: the wrath and separation from his Father as only those under judgment experience.

In those six hours on the cross the Father abandoned the Son (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

His abandonment led to our adoption.

And then Ericksen uses wrath in a way I have never seen in theological discussion; he says, “It was human wrath that hung Jesus on a cross.” Where in the Bible do we see human wrath? What we do see is that our sin is what hung him up on the cross.

Ericksen concludes saying that we don’t need to feel guilty if we find ourselves abandoning God; God doesn’t respond to human sin with wrathful anger. Now, that is true for those in Christ, for nothing can separate them from his love (Romans 8:38-39). But God responds with wrath, judgment, and fury to those who are still enemies (Romans 2:8; cf. 5:10)

I am not sure if Ericksen assumed that the woman was a Christian who strayed from the faith. I wasn’t there but from what he said about her upbringing and experience in church, I assume that she is not a Christian; rather, she is one coming to the end of her life, feeling guilt wrought about by the Spirit, opening her eyes to the condemnation she is under. She should feel anxious and fearful. Christ says, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

Ericksen’s experience tells him that when he “channels God’s nonviolent and nonjudgmental love,” anxiety and fear go away. And that is what manifested in this lady’s demeanor.

Now, maybe he shared more than what he wrote about in his experience, which led to a further discussion about the gospel.

But, maybe his unbiblical understanding of God’s holiness, the atonement, wrath, and judgment only affirmed her in her sin.

There was no discussion here of repentance and faith in Christ for what he did on the cross to save sinners. If she truly saw how amazing it is that God saves wretches, then I would think her fear and anxiety would turn into weeping.

If Ericksen shifted the conversation toward the gospel of Jesus Christ, in which those elements were mentioned, which demonstrated the work of conversion by the Holy Spirit, then amen!

But if demonstrating “God’s nonviolent and nonjudgmental love” only made her feel justified in her own deeds, then that is a pity. Her blood is on his hands.


—Romans 11:36


The Grace of God: More than Just a Pardon

If there could be one word that Christians find most comforting when meditating on who God is and what he has done for us through Christ, it is the word Grace. When I hear the word grace, I (and probably most Christians) immediately think of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So what does this text mean? Most pointedly it means that our salvation is not based on the merits of what we do but on the basis of God’s unmerited favor toward us. He, by his mercy and grace, gives us faith to believe in Christ.

Now, while we can see that God gives us grace, are we to think of grace merely as a divine pardon? Is it an act of benevolence on God’s part in granting forgiveness to lost sinners, or when God gives us grace, is it something that actually empowers the believer to do something, to think and act differently?

We will read a few humble words from the apostle Paul, which will be our foundational text to start from as we search the Scriptures to understand what this grace is.

In chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reminds them of the gospel—the one he preached to them, forming the foundation of the faith by which they have been saved through. The message of the gospel he received is: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (vv. 3-4). After listing all those whom Christ revealed himself to, he lastly mentions himself—the one “least of all the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (v.8).

Paul is deeply humbled that the Lord revealed himself to one who “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13). Paul speaks of God’s elective purposes in having set him apart for this calling as an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). For the sake of the gospel and the church, Paul “had far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor. 11:23) than any of the others. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (v.10).

Paul persevered not merely by his own will or strength but by the grace of God that was with him. So what is this grace that was with Paul? By Paul’s words we see that grace, though a noun, seems to have an element of enablement, even action, to it. We see in this text that grace accompanies Paul, enabling him to work for the Lord. He says, “it was not I, but the grace of God.” Lets look at some other texts to help elaborate on what we see in this passage.

In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul begins the letter with an exaltation of Christ, demonstrating his preeminence and supremacy over all things, reminding them of what they once were, where they are now, and how they are to remain in him. Paul then expresses his joy though having suffered for their sake but understanding what God has called him to do: to “present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). And “For this,” he says, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:29, emphasis added). Notice Paul does not refer to his own energy; rather, he is speaking of God’s energy that God powerfully works within Paul. So, what does that mean?

The Greek word for energy here is ἐνέργεια (energeia), and in this context it refers to a functioning power. We can see this in some other translations: The NET Bible says, “according to his power that powerfully works in me”; HCSB says, “striving with His strength that works powerfully in me”; and the LEB says, “striving according to his working which is at work powerfully in me.”

Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians in 2:12-13 to continue in their obedience I believe provides more clarity to understand what this grace is. He tells them “to workout out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure” (emphasis added). Here we see that it is God who works in the believer—God’s grace is God himself.

I think Ephesians 3:14-20 clearly supports this understanding, demonstrating the clearest definition of grace:

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

So, when Paul says, “not I, but the grace of God,” it is really God working through him to accomplish his purposes of making Christ known to every tribe, tongue, and nation. It is the action of God to complete the work that he has begun in you (Philippians 1:6).

Though our study here is not exhaustive, the few passages we have looked at I believe demonstrate that grace is what flows through us from the indwelling of the Triune God in our hearts. Grace is what we have now that we are in Christ, which is renewing our minds, guiding our path, strengthening our faith, and pressing us “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Grace is more than a pardon; it is the power to overcome sin and grow in holiness; it is the power to endure suffering for the sake of the gospel; it is the power that grows our hearts in greater affection toward Christ and others; it is what opens our hearts and minds to see who God truly is in Christ. And ultimately, it enables us to glorify God in all that we do. Grace is the power of God; it is the Spirit of God; it is the Son of God, all working in us to fulfill his purposes.

—Romans 11:36



Who Can Say, “I Have Made My Heart Pure; I Am Clean from My Sin”?

In the ninth chapter of the book of Hebrews, the author glances back to the old covenant that has become “obsolete” (8:13), detailing for us the earthly elements that pertained to this covenant. God was to dwell in Israel’s mist and needed a sanctuary fit for him (Exodus 25:8). So, he gave Moses specific instructions, a “pattern,” (25:9) for the construction of the Tabernacle. Here, God “will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by [his] glory” (29:43). The Tabernacle was devised of two sections. In the first section the priests, men of Israel set apart for the LORD, prepared offerings for him using fashioned instruments according to the pattern he specified. The lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence were regularly used for worship (Hebrews 9:2). The second section was behind a curtain and was called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant, containing the golden urn, Aaron’s staff, and the tablets of the covenant (9:4). It was in this Most Holy Place where the high priest would enter one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, bringing blood to offer for himself and the unintentional sins of the people (9:7).

However, “According to this arrangement,” the author of Hebrews writes, “gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:9-10). These strict rituals were carried out with fear and reverence for they served a holy God. However, as we see in this arrangement, these offerings and sacrifices could not perfect the conscience of the worshipper. The worshipper could only purify the flesh, the outside of the cup as Jesus says, so he could remain as part of the people of God. And that is why this old system of things is obsolete. That is why Proverbs 20:9 is a truism; at least in the old covenant.

When I read of this, I am reminded of those I know who are extremely religious, diligent in their rituals, working hard to be righteous, only to remain in their sins. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Roman Catholics, and others alike, are all works-righteous religious systems. Those belonging to these cults place a great emphasis on what they must do to remain in the “earthly place of holiness” (to quote Hebrews 9:1). The Mormons have their temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Catholics have the Vatican, and the JWs have their main headquarters in Bethel, New York. These “earthly places of holiness” are nothing more than wood and nails, all perishable, all obsolete. Worshipers of these religions aim at what they can do to earn favor in God’s sight but how can anyone of them say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9). All of those who are working hard take to make themselves righteous can only scrub the outside with the works they do. And ultimately, they labor carrying their own burdens, never finding rest.

As the author of Hebrews tells us, all of the offerings, incense burning, and blood spilling do nothing for the soul and mind. All of the good works and religious diligence and law keeping don’t purify the mind or change the heart. The author speaks of a new, better covenant. The new covenant, the one ushered in by Jesus Christ, makes this old one obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). The new covenant supersedes the earthly one, for the blood of bulls and goats can only purify the flesh (9:13); whereas, the blood of Christ purifies the “conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (9:14, italics mine). Because of the atonement, of Christ’s pure and holy offering to the Father, we have been brought into fellowship with God, no longer separated from him by the curtain (ultimately our sin and our darkened consciences) of the Tabernacle as it was in the old. We have the living Spirit of God to worship in (John 4:24). His blood, unlike the blood of the old covenant, purifies our conscience from dead works to serve him.

The priests of Israel—their works were dead; the high priest of Israel—his works were dead. The Mormon missionary—his works are dead; The Jehovah’s Witness—his bible studies and door-to-door proselytizing works are dead; The Roman Catholic priest or parishioner—his sacramental works, his praying to saints, his high-church ritualistic works are dead. But he who is in Christ; he who has received the grace of God through the blood of his Son, his works are alive because he is now alive in Christ Jesus. Because of what Christ has done, we can say that our hearts have been made pure and our consciences have been cleaned. We are new creations in Christ Jesus, created to walk in the good works he prepared beforehand for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). Praise be to God!

Romans 11:36