The Nature of the Atonement: Is it Necessary? Is it Fair?

This post will respond to two criticisms of the penal substituion view of the atonement. (Note: you can see part 1 which introduces this series here, part 2 which explains the first two views of the atonement here, part 3 which explains the second two views of the atonement here, or part 4 which demonstrates the biblical validity of penal substituion here)

Though scripture makes it clear that penal substitution is the primary motif of the atonement, many people either object to its centrality or object to its necessity altogether. There are four primary objections to this model: to the concept of the necessity of the atonement, to the concept of substitution, to the concept of propitiation, and to the concept of imputation. If penal substitution is the proper understanding of the atonement, then it must adequately address these objections.

First, is the atonement necessary? In other words, why couldn’t God just simply forgive us without it? God has given each of us the ability to forgive one another without any need for retribution. Would He give to us an ability that He Himself didn’t have? This objection was leveled by Socinus who argued that atonement wasn’t necessary since it functioned as nothing more than setting an example of sacrificial dedication to God.

This objection hinges on an emphasis of God’s love. If God truly loves us, then He ought to be able to forgive us in a way that doesn’t involve the cruelty of the cross. Recent feminist material has rightly recognized that, if the atonement wasn’t necessary, then sending Christ to die on the cross amounts to nothing more than cosmic child abuse.

Is the atonement necessary? The Bible affirms that indeed the atonement is essential. At the root of this objection is the idea that God didn’t need to use the atonement as the means of our forgiveness. However, this train of thought ignores the guilt of sin which results from the violation of the law in such a way that it eliminates any standard of right and wrong. Eliminating the necessity of the cross launches the Cosmos into moral relativism.

More importantly, Hebrews 9:22 confirms that “without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” Perfect and final forgiveness cannot be achieved without the blood shed in the perfect and final sacrifice of the atonement. The idea that God can simply still forgive while leaving sins unpunished makes a mockery of His holiness. All of these factors confirm the necessity of the atonement.

Second, is the atonement fair? In other words, isn’t it an injustice for God to substitute His blameless Son for sinful man? It seems contradictory that God would bring about a satisfaction of His justice in such an unjust manner.

We recognize how unreasonable this idea is based on a potential courtroom situation described by Millard Erickson: “suppose that a judge, upon finding a defendant guilty, proceeds to punish not the defendant, but an innocent party. Would this not be improper?” According to this objection, the substitutionary component of the atonement establishes an unfair situation that compromises the integrity of God’s justice.

The validity of this objection depends on whether Christ’s substitution was forced or voluntary. The gospels confirm that Jesus not only promotes that voluntarily laying down our lives as a substitute is a great display of love (John 15:13) but also declares that Christ’s decision to voluntarily lay down His life as a substitute is the greatest display of love (John 10:17-18).

Furthermore, John Stott points out that the atonement is voluntarily carried out by both the Father and the Son, “…for both God and Christ were subjects, not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners. Whatever happened on the cross in terms of ‘Godforsakenness’ was voluntarily accepted by both in the same holy love which made the atonement necessary.” The atonement is indeed fair because it is voluntary.

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