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Four Cringe-worthy Claims about Penal Substitution

Morgan Guyton wants to hold onto the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement. I’ll leave it to my astute readers to decide whether that is a wise move. In any event, he is decidedly unhappy with some of the claims some proponents of this theory make. He summarizes four of them as:

  1. God is allergic to sin.
  2. God sees Jesus instead of us when God looks at us.
  3. Since God is infinite, God is infinitely offended by the slightest of our sins.
  4. God poured out God’s wrath on Jesus on the cross.

He attributes these claims (and “cringe-worthy” is letting them off too easily!) to the juvenilization of American evangelical Christianity. He writes,

I really think that these problems in popular penal substitution theology might be a reflection of what Christianity Today has called the “juvenilization” of American evangelical Christianity. When church becomes youth group for adults, explanations that speak on a teenage level become the norm for everybody.

When I was a teenager, the purpose of being a Christian was to avoid punishment. I expected the rules to be arbitrary and incomprehensible. So it made sense to me to accept a savior who would rescue me from the clutches of the infinitely picky and thoroughly uncompromising High School Principal of the universe. That was the salvation I received when I asked Jesus back into my heart as a 16 year old (after I had already done believer’s baptism at age 8).

But I experienced the metanoia that is true repentance when God spoke to me in 1998 through a little girl selling dolls in the square of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. He told me I could never be a tourist again. That was when I gave my life to His kingdom. That was when my heart was filled with wrath against all the ways that the world dishonors a God whose image was reflected to me through a barefoot indigenous girl. I need God’s honor to be satisfied. I need the cross not only for the sake of my personal relationship with God but because I cannot live in a world where the crucified are not resurrected. Penal substitution is an important part of the rich mystery of the cross — just not in the oversimplified, canned version that has come to predominate our juvenilized evangelical church.

(H/T: Scot McKnight)



  1. Morgan Guyton says:

    I think that absent the assurance that God’s honor has been
    satisfied, standing before Him in the perfect truth that He cannot help exuding would be eternal torture. It’s not that God is pissed off; it’s that the dissonance of His beauty and our relative ugliness is something that He must provide atonement for us to overcome.


  2. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Welcome, Morgan. This is a much more mature way of looking at the satisfaction/substitution idea. I’m definitely willing to ponder it further. Thanks for commenting!


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