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Problems with Calvinism’s Penal Substitution Atonement

We have all heard it said that Jesus took God’s wrath in our place on the cross (see Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?). This is something I had been taught my whole life by my father. As I grew older and studied on my own I learned that this view of atonement, called Penal Substitution, was not taught in the early Church and is actually a very late addition to Christianity made popular by the 16th century reformer John Calvin.

According to Calvin, our sins were imputed to Jesus as He took the wrath of God in our place on the cross.  In turn his righteousness is imputed to us based on our faith.  To many Christians I am sure this sounds completely legitimate;  however, I have listed below several reasons why this theory of atonement is not only problematic but also Biblically inaccurate.

Problem #1 – Calvin’s view of the atonement is based on the heathen version of sacrifice and was not taught in the early Church:

When my husband and I began studying Christianity in depth, it seemed odd that the earliest Christians had a whole different view of the atonement. To the early Church fathers, Jesus’ death was never written of in terms of appeasing an angry deity, but rather in terms of love and reconciliation. Some of the early Church fathers used different wording for the atonement: ransom, recapitulation, or as a moral influence for us to follow. But the idea that Jesus was punished by God for our sins is not found in their writings. It is found however in ancient paganism. Father James Bernstein explains this better than we could:

As I researched the subject, I discovered an essential aspect of the sacrificial system described in the Old Testament: the outer act of sacrifice should reflect the inner state of the offerer seeking personal reconciliation with God. The goal of the sacrifice was to gain interior cleansing and change of heart, not to change God. This contrasts with the pagan view, in which the efficacy of the sacrifice is not at all dependent on the state of the individual offering it. Its purpose is not to change the state of the offerer, but to appease and change the deity… [the pagan] goal has a materialistic and utilitarian motivation; its goal is not to gain interior change, healing or love, but instead to gain control over other people and objects.

When Orthodox read a verse like ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3), it is understood to mean that Christ died for us – to heal us, to change us, to make us more godlike – not that He died instead of us. The ultimate purpose of His death is to change us, not to avert the wrath of God. – Father James Bernstein, Antiochian Orthodox Church

Problem # 2 – Calvin’s view is legalistic and binds God to the Law:

Resulting from this atonement theory, Calvin’s theology depended heavily on legalism as well.  I am sure this appealed to Calvin since he was a lawyer by profession. Calvin’s theology bound God to His own Laws that were in reality created for man. The fact is the Law was given to the Israelites after the creation of the golden calf.  God, prior to this act, never mentioned sacrifices for atonement. These observances were given for man’s needs and benefit, not for God’s. And the purpose was to wean the Israelites from the ways of the heathen,  not further them into heathen practices:

Justin Martyr:

…until Moses, under whom your nation appeared unrighteous and ungrateful to God, making a calf in the wilderness: wherefore God, accommodating Himself to that nation, enjoined them also to offer sacrifices, as if to His name, in order that you might not serve idols.

Irenaeus:

For God at the first, indeed, warning them by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning He had implanted in mankind, that by means of the Decalogue (which, if any one does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them….But when they turned themselves to make a calf, and had gone back in their minds to Egypt, desiring to be slaves instead of freemen, they were placed for the future in a state of servitude suited to their wish, which did not indeed cut them off from God, but subjected them to the yoke of bondage.

God would not be subject to the yoke of bondage that He placed the Israelites under after the creation of the golden calf. Furthermore, the sacrifices were not sacrificial victims to appease God but rather to appease man’s desire to sacrifice and wean man from this heathen practice. Ancient Jewish writings hold the same view as that of the Church fathers:

A king had a stupid son who was in the habit of eating all sorts of abominations when absent from his father’s table. The king ordered that his son should be indulged in his fancy at his–the king’s, own–table, considering this the best means of weaning his son of his objectionable habit. Thus the Israelites, when in Egypt, got into the habit of offering sacrifices to the Egyptian gods; they were therefore commanded to bring the sacrifices which they used to offer to demons (Levit. 17. 7) unto the Tabernacle of the Lord. -Levit. Rabba 22

If God allowed man to sacrifice solely for the needs of man, then God must have been capable and willing to forgive without a sacrificial victim.  And this is in fact what the Bible tells us about God:

Psalm 51:16-17:  16 For if You desired sacrifice, I would have given it; You will not take pleasure in whole burnt offerings. 17 Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and humbled heart God will not despise.

Hebrews 10:4: For it is not possible for [the] blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Hebrews 10:11: And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which are never able to take away sins.

Clearly God forgave without sacrifice as the sacrifices could not take away sins. Therefore, God could not possibly be bound to His own Law since these Laws had a carnal purpose and God is not a carnal being like us. The only purpose of the sacrifices otherwise was to foreshadow Christ. However, this does not mean Jesus’ death should be seen as a sacrificial victim that was used to appease God.

Problem #3 – Calvin’s theology goes against the Bible and alters our view of salvation:

The Bible tells us that Jesus’ death was for us and it was a sacrifice, however, the Bible never once says that Jesus’ death was legalistic or similar to the heathen forms of sacrifice. Nor does the Bible ever state that Jesus took wrath in our place. Instead the Bible teaches what the early Church believed about Jesus’ death; that it reconciles us to God and is something we must participate in to receive the benefit of:

14 For the love of Christ compels us, having concluded this: that if One died for all, then all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live should live no longer for themselves, but for the [One] who died for them and rose again. 16 Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know [Him thus] no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, all things have become new. And by his ministry of reconciliation, to reconcile others also in Christ to God  18 And all things are of God, who reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and who gave to us the ministry of this reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14-18)

Clearly, Paul did not view Jesus’ death as a propitiation of God’s wrath. Instead, Paul speaks of reconciliation and sharing in the death of Jesus: “one died for all, then all died.”   In fact, Jesus saw His purpose as something we must participate in as well in order to receive the reconciling effects:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever desires to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of Me shall find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

The word “follow” is found in the New Testament many times. It is most often used in terms of following evil, the world and your own desires as opposed to following God’s moral commandments, Jesus and the instructions of the Apostles. Following is an action we must choose to take. We participate with Jesus in his life, death and resurrection and this is what will lead us to salvation:

But because you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice, so that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy. (1 Peter 4:13)

21 You were called to this, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example so that you should follow in his steps. 22 Yet he did not sin, “neither was deceit found in his mouth” 23 and when he was cursed, he did not curse back. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to the one who judges righteously. 24 In his body, he bore in himself our sins on the tree, so that having died to sins, we might live to righteousness; and “by his wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:21-24)

In Calvin’s atonement theory, God is not “one who judges righteously.” Our sins are completely wiped away by Jesus taking on our punishment. Our sins were imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us. In turn we are eternally secure no matter what we do. However, this is a false justice which gives us an alien righteousness. Furthermore, we know that God would not punish another in our place and call it justice. That simply does not make sense and completely corrupts God’s character. In fact, Ezekiel 18 tells us that due to God’s righteousness, He will not punish the innocent for the wicked. The full context of this whole chapter should be read and is too large to post here, however, in verse 25 it reads:

20 But the soul that sins shall die; and the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, nor shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the iniquity of the transgressor shall be upon him … 25 Yet you have said, The way of the Lord is not straight. Hear now, all the house of Israel: will not My way be straight? Is your way straight? (Ezekiel 18:20, 25)

Note: The word for straight is translated in other versions as just, equal, right. Or for not straight as unjust, unequal, etc. In Ezekiel 18:25, after stating clearly in verse 20 that the innocent cannot die in place of the wicked and each person is judged according to their own deeds, it ends with God being just, fair, equal, or righteous. Therefore, punishing Jesus in our place for our sins would be against God’s word and His being; that He is just, fair, equal, or righteous.

Romans 3:25 and 1 John both seem to state that Jesus was a propitiation for our sins. Most people are familiar with the King James Version translation of Romans 3:25:

Romans 3:25: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (KJV)

However, the correct translation in Romans 3:25 should read expiation for the underlying Greek word hilasterion:

3:25 For God set him before the world, to be, by the shedding of his blood, a means of reconciliation through faith. And this God did to prove his righteousness, and because, in his forbearance, he had passed over the sins that men had previously committed; (20th Cent. NT)

3:25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; (RSV)

1 John 2:2 uses the Greek word hilasmos, or propitiation: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the whole world.”

The context coupled with other verses from the Bible shows us what is meant by John’s words—expiation or reconciliation. It is clearly not implying the propitiation of an angry deity. Expiation is something that brings us at-one with God (at-one-ment).  Jesus’ death was to bring us to God; to full knowledge and realization of Him and His love for us. Through Christ alone we can be saved, however, we must die with Christ and follow Him.

Problem #4 – Calvin’s view alters the purpose of Jesus’ death for us and twists it to be for God instead:

The Book of Hebrews explains Jesus’ death as an expiation rather than the pagan version of propitiation as found in paganistic Calvinism, and it does so in the context of participation. Not only this but the recipient of the atonement is shown to be us, rather than God:

14 Since the children have shared in [the same] flesh and blood, he likewise shared the same [human nature], so that through death he might bring to nothing the one who had the power of death—the devil—15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to life-long slavery. 16 Certainly, Jesus did not take on the [nature of] angels, but [that of] Abraham’s seed. 17 For this reason, he had to be made like his brethren in all things, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, {able} to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Moreover, since he himself suffered and was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Paul shows us that Jesus’ sacrifice was participatory in nature. Only one who shared in our humanity, but was sinless, could be resurrected, thus defeating the grave and Satan’s hold on us through fear of death.  This is how Jesus died in our place. The sin of Adam had altered humanity, sentencing man to death. But Jesus, the New Adam, broke that sentence. We are no longer slaves to death. We are free if we share in Jesus’ nature, follow him, and die to this world.

In opposition to this, the pagan view of sacrifice as taught by Calvin, reverses Jesus’ death. Instead of Satan being defeated, God is dealt with. He becomes the source and need for Jesus’ sacrifice for us. God is propitiated, therefore, His attitude towards us is changed and He can forgive us. But what about any change in us?

If Jesus’ death propitiated God, this reduces the magnitude of our sin. We are not the problem or our sins, but rather God was the problem the whole time. He needed to receive justice, expel His wrath and violently punish another for our sins. Again, what kind of justice is that? As Scottish Minister George MacDonald put it, God is not Molech and it is not justice to label Him as such:

They say first, God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it; then they say he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, attributes his righteousness to the sinner, and so continues just. Was there ever such a confusion, such an inversion of right and wrong! Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous; neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not Justice. Be sure that the thing that God gives, the righteousness that is of God, is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me. Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to be made a righteous man, one that will no more sin. -George MacDonald from Unspoken Sermons, vol. 3, “Righteousness”

If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice by faith alone and then go on about our business, even sinning without any true attempts to change, what benefit for us is that? We are still slaves to sin. It makes much more sense that we are to cooperate with God; our will with His. And Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is an example of that cooperation as well as the promise of Eternal Life. We could not attain Eternal Life on our own. We were bound to the grave as slaves to sin and Satan:

Remember my Good News: Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, of the seed of David. 9 Because of this I suffer tribulations to the point of being in chains as a criminal. However, God’s word is not chained! 10 Therefore, I endure all things for the sake of the elect, so that they may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. 11 This saying is sure: For if we died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he also will deny us. 13 If we are faithless, he remains faithful; He cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:8-13)

Conclusion

The Christian life is a life to be lived with Christ, not in words only. Calvin’s paganistic view of the atonement is far too problematic and cannot be reconciled with the Bible or the early Church writers. Christ died for us and we are to die with Him. If we choose to take the easy road, believe that He paid for our sins and no wrath remains if we remain engulfed in sin, we may be in for quiet a surprise when the final judgement comes.

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