The Nature of the Atonement: Is it Contradictory? Is it Reciprocal?

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, part 4 which demonstrates the biblical validity of penal substituion here, or part 5 which deals with the first two criticisms of penal substitution here)

Third, is the atonement contradictory? In other words, how can the three persons of the Trinity be eternally in right relationship with each other as the Son diffuses the wrath of the Father? Is there some type of internal conflict created on the cross that unsettles the doctrine of the Trinity?

At the heart of these questions is the issue of propitiation. If the satisfaction of God’s wrath is seen as a component of the atonement, then it seems that this would destabilize the intricacies of the Trinity by confusing God’s love and compromising God’s holiness.

The atonement is not contradictory—rather than detract from God’s love, it demonstrates it. As John Murray puts it, “It is one thing to say that the wrathful God is made loving. That would be entirely false. It is another thing to say the wrathful God is loving. That is profoundly true.”

The cross does not represent the confusion of God’s holiness and love. Instead, it represents the crossroads of God’s holiness and love. The Father’s divine love leads Him to send the Son as a voluntary propitiation for our sins to satisfy divine wrath in a way that does not confuse but conforms to the relationships and roles within the Trinity.

Fourth, is the atonement reciprocal? In other words, even if Christ can bear our sin on the cross, can we bear His righteousness? There are dual aspects to this issue—can the standing of anyone be transferred to another person? And if so, can the standing of Christ be transferred to another person?

This objection rightly recognizes that salvation does not come merely through Christ taking on our sins but comes also as a result of us receiving His righteousness. If this imputation is not possible, then it creates a problem with the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

Contrary to this objection, the Bible clearly teaches that the cross achieves reciprocal imputation (2 Corinthians 5:21)—Christ takes on our sin and we take on His righteousness. We die to sin and are made alive to Christ (Romans 6:3-4) through the union made possible on the cross.

As Millard Erickson points out, “Thus, the imputation of His righteousness is not so much a matter of transferring something from one person to another as it is a matter of bringing the two together so that they hold all things in common.” Our union with Christ confirms that the atonement is reciprocal.

Penal substitution is the central motif of the atonement established in scripture. It is the aspect by which all other themes of the atonement are shaped. In other words, the Christus Victor, Moral Influence, and Governmental theories are dependent on (and therefore, subordinate to) penal substitution. Tom Schreiner provides a helpful summary of the significance of penal substitution:

The fundamental character of penal substitution is supported by at least three strands of evidence:

1. The emphasis on human sin and guilt in scripture

2. The theme that God judges retributively sinners who disobey him and flout his law

3. The central texts in both the New Testament and the Old Testament that emphasize that sacrifice is necessary for the forgiveness of sins.”

In the final analysis, penal substitution is primary because of the way it permeates the teachings of the Bible. Penal substitution is central because of its consistency with the character of Christ. Penal substitution is essential because of the way it exalts the glory of God. Without the cross, there is no Christianity; and without penal substitution, there is no atonement.

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