Penal Substitutionary Atonement

“The concern over the ascendancy and dominance of penal substitutionary atonement in many sectors of Christianity is… that the salvation experience is being reduced to the handful of metaphors that govern penal substitutionary thinking. The worry is that an over-reliance on the penal substitutionary metaphors is leading to a loss of complexity and nuance within the Christian community. More, there is a worry that the entailments of the regulating metaphors behind penal substitutionary atonement are being pushed too far, that the ‘logic’ of these metaphors is being taken too literally, creating confused and thin understandings of sin and grace.

What are some of the concerns regarding the penal substitutionary metaphors? Some of this debate is theological and exegetical, often centering upon Paul and the proper understanding of his doctrine of justification. Specifically, some suggest that the penal substitutionary metaphors, read too literally, create a problematic view of God: that God is inherently a God of retributive justice who can only be ‘satisfied’ with blood sacrifice. A more missional worry is that the metaphors behind penal substitutionary atonement reduce salvation to a binary status: Justified versus Condemned versus Impure. The concern is that when salvation reduces avoiding the judgment of God (Jesus accepting our ‘death sentence’) and accepting Christ’s righteousness as our own (being ‘washed’ and made ‘holy’ for the presence of God), we can ignore the biblical teachings that suggest that salvation is communal, cosmic in scope, and is an ongoing developmental process. These understandings of atonement – that salvation is active communal engagement that participates in God’s cosmic mission to restore all things – are vital to efforts aimed at motivating spiritual formation and missional living. As many have noted, by ignoring the communal, cosmic, and developmental facets of salvation, penal substitutionary atonement becomes individualistic and pietistic. The central concern of penal substitutionary atonement is standing ‘washed’ and ‘justified’ before God. No doubt there is an individual aspect to salvation – every metaphor has a bit of the truth – but restricting our view to the legal and purity metaphors blinds us to the fact that atonement has developmental, social, political, and ecological implications.”

– Richard Beck; Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality

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