by David Field

Unintended consequences can be devastating.  Sometimes, the good we attempt results, unwittingly, in an abandonment of the substance of our beliefs.  I believe this is what has happened with Brian McLaren.  On January 2, 2013 Ken Mafli at Glass House Theology posted a short interview with Mr. McLaren.  Even though it is fairly limited in scope, there were still a few things which concerned me and, I think, deserved some response.

Mafli opens the interview with a question about the history of McLaren’s deconstructed theology.  He wants to know what significant events led to McLaren’s evolution.  McLaren responds that it all began with a question someone asked him about the doctrine of penal substitution:

“How could God punish an innocent person? Doesn’t that make God unjust? How can two wrongs – human sin plus God’s unjust punishment of an innocent man – produce a right? I’m not trying to be difficult – it’s just that this sounds highly implausible and morally suspect to me.” When he left, I pulled all of my books on atonement off the shelf and dug in, trying to find a good response. I quickly realized that the answers they offered to my friend’s question didn’t satisfy me either. I wish I could say that his question prompted me to rethink my atonement theology starting that day, but it took a comment from one of my mentors a while later to really do that. He said, “If your only theory of atonement is penal substitution, you’d better do some rethinking.” That was a huge blow to me, because my entire theology centered on penal substitutionary atonement. I had been led to believe that without penal substitutionary atonement theory, Jesus was worthless and the Christian faith a waste of time. I found the very opposite to be true – my love for the gospel has grown immeasurably since discovering that the gospel is quite different from what I had been taught.

The first question which popped into my mind was “What books were on McLaren’s shelf?” The historic Christian Church has written extensively on this topic.  And I don’t think McLaren is being fair to the Church Fathers and subsequent theologians by implying that 1) There is not a good, scriptural foundation for the doctrine, and 2) The only thing occurring in the atonement is penal substitution.  I went to my bookshelf, pulled out John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, and found this quote rather quickly: “The more specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets for the atoning work of Christ are sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption."[1]  So, certainly the Reformed confession sees greater depth in the doctrine of penal substitution than McLaren is willing to give them credit for.  This is also true for other confessions of the faith as well, be they Lutheran,[2] Baptists, or whoever.  The theology is out there, one just has to have the discipline to find it.

In the end, I think McLaren’s quarrel with penal substitutionary atonement isn’t really a theological one, it’s emotional.  His argument, summed up by the question of his parishioner, is that Christ’s innocent blood shed for rebellious sinners is a moral outrage.  And from a certain perspective, he’s right.  Now before you blow a gasket, the Apostle Paul effectively says the same thing when he writes: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”[3]   Under the works-based economy into which Adam and all humanity were created, we see each person as accountable for their own sin and they must be judged accordingly.  To transfer our depth of depravity onto the pinnacle of beauty, destroy that beauty, and call that “good” seems to be more than the rational mind can bear.  But here’s the problem: What other option does a sinner have? 

Are we to assume that we can atone for our own sin? Not likely. First, we have no idea how corrupt we are.  Christ’s Sermon on the Mount makes that abundantly clear.  How can we atone for the corruption we are too corrupt to identify?  We can’t.  Also, as we sin, the consequential damage to others cannot be undone.  Like a dent in a fender, it can be covered over with putty and paint, but the bent frame will always exist below the surface.  Our sin changes people.  Lies make people cynical.  Cynical people don’t trust the people they should.  People do things they shouldn’t to gain trust.  And before we know it, the unintended consequences of our sin rocket out beyond any ability to mitigate them.  We cannot make our sin right—we can only soften its destruction.

Then can’t God forgive us without demanding a judgment? Can’t he just forgive, telling us sin doesn’t matter? If that were true, God becomes a fool.  If he chooses not to demand justice, he is no different than the middle school algebra teacher who won’t take control of the class.  The class learns nothing, and the teacher becomes a joke worthy of neither respect nor effort.  Even worse, if God can’t execute justice, then he is a powerless entity who has no place in the religion business anyway.  Further, if God won’t actively pursue justice, what gives him the right to expect that of his followers?  He becomes a hypocrite as well.  No, God is holy and demands perfection from all people.[4]

The truth of the matter is that if Christ doesn’t voluntarily take on our sin as punishment, we have no basis expecting God to do anything BUT judge us.  If we are so concerned about preserving the morality (or, more accurately, the lawfulness) of God’s justice, then the wrath of God is the only option available to us.  As sinners we have no leverage point for the love of God.  God does not save people based on good intentions, good work, good hygiene, or good whatever.  Not because God doesn’t recognize goodness, but as Jesus himself said, “No one is good but God alone.”[5]   That presents us with a big problem.  If we restrict God to working in ways which are “moral” and “lawful” and “fair” by our standards, we have no choice but to hang up our cleats and wait for the all-consuming fire.[6]

To solve this catch-22, God had to do something strange and profoundly counter intuitive.   Enter Christ—into the world.  But it was not enough for Christ just to be here and live among his people, being an example.  If that was his only purpose, then our condemnation would be complete and Christ would have to drive us away from his presence just as Adam was to drive the serpent out of the Garden.  The sinful person cannot coexist peacefully with God.[7]   Sin, at its root, is prideful rebellion.  But in spite of that, God wanted to be with a people who would not just serve him, but love him.  And love is not possible where our performance is graded at the end.  If we are always trying to show God we’re worth saving, we’re really just serving ourselves.  And that, too, will land us in Gehenna.

So, in order to allow a love-based relationship with his people, God’s just wrath had to visibly go somewhere.  In a supreme act of love, humility, and faithfulness, Christ came down and willingly bore that wrath.[8]   Why? Because He’s God and can do whatever he wants.  To paraphrase the Apostle Paul “What business does the pot (you) have in telling the potter (God) how to make a good pot?”  If Christ chose not to do this, we would be condemned to live like the child who always knows that sooner or later Dad was going to snap and beat us to pulp because we really did burn down the shed last Saturday.  Having no confidence that justice has been satisfied, we can have no assurance of grace.  Our relationship with God would be based on fear, not love.  It is the knowledge that the punishment we deserve has been absorbed into Christ’s death that is the engine of Christian love for God and neighbor.[9]  So maybe penal substitutionary atonement is pretty central to the Christian faith after all.

Lastly, to McLaren’s claim that penal substitution doesn’t “reveal the greater coherence in scripture”, I would humbly submit that from protoevangelion in Genesis,[10] to the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac,[11] to Judah’s willful offering of himself in Benjamin’s place,[12] to the institution of atonement sacrifices,[13] to the death of Samson,[14] to the prophecies of Isaiah[15]  and Daniel ,[16] right down to John the Baptist’s declaration “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”[17]  penal substitutionary atonement is the story of scripture.[18]   Like it or not, it is this true story that Christ planned and executed out of love for us.[19]  And it is the only story in which we can find confidence of salvation.

To the old Adam, grace in this context is a baffling mystery.  The author Robert Ferrar Capon writes that to the natural mind “It is, I admit, all bizarre.  And when it is not bizarre, outrageous—and if not outrageous, then vulgar.”[20]  But when we try to mitigate the negative perceptions of a doctrine which makes us uneasy by deconstructing it out of our theology, we face the unintended consequence of losing saving grace altogether.  I fear that that is the result of such a deconstruction.  As we try to placate our sense of what should and should not be morally acceptable, maybe it is wise that we let Christ be the man he wanted to be: The man who came to die in our place because after the fall, the only thing left for us to do was die anyway.

But God has something much better in store for us than our sensibilities can comprehend.  And for that, we give Him praise.

David Field

See full interview with Brian McLaren in GlassHouse Theology

[1] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955) 19.  The point here is only that if someone wants to find a deep, resonant, consistent theological view of the atonement—it’s out there.  One could take their pick from the various confessions and denominations and come up with substantively the same analysis.  So when McLaren says that nothing out there provides a satisfactory answer, he’s telling us more about himself than the theology he’s attempting to deconstruct.

[2] An excellent Lutheran resource on this topic is Gerhard O. Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

[3] I Corinthians 1:18

[4] Matthew 5:48

[5] Mark 10:18

[6] I should note that the mistake of the empowered majority of Jesus’ time was essentially the same.  Jesus came in a way which did not align with their sensibilities and that was the source of their contempt for Christ.  We should be very careful about telling God what he can and cannot do.

[7] John 1:11

[8] John 10:17-18

[9] Colossians 2:8-114

[10] Genesis 3:15

[11] Genesis 22

[12] Genesis 44:33

[13] Leviticus 16

[14] Judges 16:28-31

[15] Isaiah 53

[16] Daniel 9:26

[17] John 1:29

[18] These examples are just the ones off the top of my head.  The list isn’t intended to be exhaustive; what I wanted was to trace a thread through major points in the lives of the Patriarchs and Israel to show that God was preparing people for substitutionary sacrifice by giving them example after example of what to expect from the Messiah when he came.  A great place to start looking at this is further Edmund Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament.

[19] Galatians 2:17-21

[20] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 282.