The Current Downgrade in the Doctrine of the Atonement

© David H. Linden
Action International Ministries
Alberta Reformation Fellowship

Prepared for Grace Ministerial Academy
Quezon City, Metro Manila, The Philippines

I have been invited to lecture on the crucial topic of the atonement. The English word "crucial" comes from crux meaning cross. The word means of "supreme importance." It is interesting that the language I speak takes a word related to the cross of Christ to signify that something is very important. Sadly, today the language is closer to how crucial the cross is than so much of the evangelical church.

The Bibleís teaching on the cross is the core of the gospel. Many in North America say that peripheries do not matter; only core truths are ones we should contend for. This has been said so often, it is clear that what does not matter is theology itself. I know this because now that truth about the cross fades, there is very little outcry. Those who spoke so loyally of allegiance to the core are not very alarmed while the gospel slowly slips away.

We must pay more careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? Hebrews 2:1-3a.

The gospel is fading in our consciousness and understanding. It is ordinary and commonplace. It is our assumed treasure (we would all sat that!) but it is still the object of our neglect. When I say the gospel slipping, Hebrews corrects me to state the issue more sharply, that it is we who are slipping not the gospel. The gospel is the dock to which we must be tied. The dock is not floating away from us; we are drifting away from it. There is only one place to drift when we stray from the sacrifice of Christ, and that is into hell itself. Such is the warning of Hebrews. We are presented with this great salvation that must not be ignored, as in Hebrews 2, OR it is the consuming fire when the Lord will judge His people, as in Hebrews 10. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, Hebrews 10:31. Yet the gospel is that Christ by the grace of God fell into the hands of God for us. On the cross He faced the consuming fire our sins earned for Him.

Evangelical publishers sometimes present such precious truth these days as wrong, distorted and harmful to us as you shall see especially in the related papers I bring with me.

Before I show how this doctrine is fading away or being downgraded, I will make my own confession of the doctrine I hold as the gospel.

My Brief Statement on the Atonement

The atonement is the sacrificial offering the Lord Jesus Christ made on the cross of Calvary. The only Mediator between God and man offered Himself to His Father, Who had sent Him to stand in for His people. The only way of salvation for sinful man is this provision God has made. Only Christ by His atoning work brings reconciliation between God and man. In that sacrifice Christ took our guilt on Himself, without committing sin, and underwent the wrath of God due us, when He made full payment for our sin in human flesh. By laying down His life, He bore for us the penalty our sin deserved, a penalty we would endure by ourselves were it not for Christís mediation.

His death was substitutionary and vicarious. In no other way than in human death could the justice of God be exercised against human sin. In no other object could it be endured than by a human representative. No other Person could bear such a load than God the Son.

Christís redeeming ransom secures for us remission of sins and all the blessing of God. God was reconciled by Christís perfect sacrifice, a propitiation that fully satisfied divine justice. Thus sin is removed from the believing sinnerís record; sin no longer has mastery over us; and at His appearing, sin will be removed from our experience entirely. His blood is effective to secure the salvation of all God sent Him to save. His sacrifice is over, finished, unrepeatable and successful, having accomplished His mission without human assistance. No one else can or needs to atone for sin; all attempts to do so are a rejection of Christ and His sacrifice.

The atonement is central to worship and song; to preaching, baptism and the Lordís Supper; to mission, ministry and ethics. It is fatal to reject it and a great sin to neglect what is supreme to God and the only basis of our approach to Him. In the cross, the Father and Son glorified each other, and in it we glorify both.

This saving mercy God owes to no man, yet offers to all in the gospel. He freely forgives all who will believe in His promise of salvation and trust in the Savior sent to secure it for them, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Evidence of the Downgrade:

  1. There is a common failure to communicate gospel content in churches and organizations whose stated purpose and reason for existence is to communicate the very gospel they neglect. Rarely do I read of the substance of the gospel in ANY promotional publication. Belief and expression are simply not in harmony. Rarely do I hear the gospel in sermons when I visit churches around North America. Every other related concern gets all the attention. This is the problem of neglect.

  2. The role of a Mediator is often missing. People now pray as if we have the right in ourselves to Godís presence. We just speak to God as if He were one of us. We forget our sin and that we could not stand for one moment in the presence of the Lord without being consumed. The only way to approach God is through our Mediator. We have one right of access, and it was acquired for us by the blood of Christ. Cross neglect has led to a familiarity in prayer where it is not expressed why we have the right to draw near. Yet no believer on earth could even survive a scene where the Holy God and a sinful man come face to face. God has interposed a Mediator, not as a nicety but as a necessity. He, Christ our Mediator has already borne the sin that separates, and brought Godís reconciliation for us. It is His sacrifice that opens the curtain into the Most Holy Place, Hebrews 10: 19-22. Access is a blood-purchased right. What I have said in this paragraph is something that never crosses the minds of many. If we had worship services with as much awe of Godís holiness as there is for the rest of His splendor, we would pray better and see the cross in focus too. Worship these days is characterized more by the upbeat tone than the cross. It ends in mediocrity.

  3. Close to the previous point, I observe that the gospel itself is distorted. It is presented in sermons less and less as what God has done so sinners under His wrath and curse may be right with Him Who is holy. By a horrible neglect of the problem, the gospel is presented more in terms of how God is yearning to have a relationship with us so He can be our friend. God is not lonely, nor in any kind of need. When the problem of sin gets passing attention, fellowship replaces forgiveness. Propitiation and justification are foremost to bringing a restored communion with God. Today people skip over the foundation and try to have the benefits apart from the foundation. We cannot know God as He is if we avoid or neglect the real wonder, that God the Son was forsaken by God for us on the cross. We cannot be filled with wonder if we are missing the wonder of the cross.

    This problem of distortion is not merely theological. It fits our cultural appetites too much. My American friends see this trend and call this new approach and emphasis the "warm fuzzies." All we have to do is "go with the flow", and we will have a Buddy god rather than the Holy God Who thundered on Sinai and paid for our law breaking on Calvary. Many well-meaning pastors merely mimic the ways of the "big successful churches." They speak what is smooth and more acceptable to their audience, but they have to neglect their Bibles to do this.
  4. At one time Christians were noted among even unbelievers for having the Lordís Supper as a highlight in their worship services. (I do think it was so central as to be a regular weekly occurrence.) The Lordís Table is hardly a major draw today; we do not see the need for it, though it was designed by God as one of only two major means to bring us repeatedly to the cross as the place where God meets man. We seem to think we can meet Him on our own terms in services of our own design. The Word should bring the atonement to our ears. For our eyes, the visible use of bread and wine in the Lordís Supper will also bring us to the cross. The church in North America depreciates preaching in favor of counseling, and the sacraments in favor of drama and everything else that is new.

  5. So far, I have spoken to the atmosphere in which the cross recedes in our hearts. There is more. There is also the frontal attack. The gospel is consciously argued against. Such reasoning is found in Systematic Theology texts[1], and numerous supposedly evangelical publications. Propitiation is denied. Justification as the forensic doctrine it is, is explicitly denied. (And there is no other kind of justification.) Protestants are returning to Rome if not to the Pope. They merely return to a theology that is of the Romish kind when justification turns into a dynamic of salvation experience, rather than a changed status based entirely on the perfect obedience of Christ, to which we contribute nothing but the sin for which He died. With this doctrinal slippage is the concerted effort to get rid of penal substitution[2]. This effort is energetic and spreading. This not a matter of neglect any more, as serious as that is; it is deliberate. The end of this road is apostasy, a way that many are now paving so others can get there more quickly.

  6. A last evidence of the downgrade is the lack of outrage at the loss of our crown jewels. There is a greater sense of loss when a popular television program ends than there is over of the cross work of Christ slipping away. Maybe when the decay advances, we will cry to God to save his church. In its long history, it has always lived with apostasy a mere generation away. Today the church sleeps, Romans 13:11.

General Features of the Intellectual Downgrade and Rejection of Penal Substitution.

Here I will provide some of my observations as to the way truth is handled.

In another day, it would not have been very convincing to seek to remove an explanation of the cross without providing a replacement. One basis of the current attack on penal substitution is that it represents itself as the one and only right doctrine of the atonement. (Please see the next paragraph too.) It is an error simply by claiming to be right for all times and cultures, so there is no need for them to repeat this "error" by suggesting one alternative. Some presentations suited to the metaphors and aspirations of a culture are praised, but no one doctrine is proposed as a replacement of penal substitution. Since theology is supposed to be flexible, in their thinking, proponents of flexible doctrine will not propose one timeless proposition. This makes the position of rejecters of penal substitution more difficult to analyze; their positions are so fluid. I am sure a person could search an entire book like Green and Bakerís and end up uncertain as to what they say the atonement is supposed to mean. If a view is not unified and coherent, it is vague. This is part of the current scholarly atmosphere. In North America, if you say you are right and that there is one explanation, to many you are wrong before your view is even opened. I say that if an alternative to penal substitution were put out, and its proponents would stand firmly on it and defend it, they would have a very difficult time. It would be easier to take that view to the Bible and see how it fits, if only they would provide it. Fog has always been difficult to slice.

A related matter is that holders of penal substitution do not suppress other related aspects of the atonement as we are accused of doing. (No example is given of this that I can remember.) It is a distortion of our position for others to claim we have one model only when there are many metaphors in the Bible. I am distributing a chapter of Robert L. Reymondís systematic theology text on the cross work of Christ. In it propitiation and sacrifice are joined with redemption, reconciliation, and the defeat of Satan. In fact Reymond does not make the penal aspect the overarching theme of Christís work, but rather His obedience.[3] The Biblical themes and terms are manifold. Adhering to penal substitution does not equate to a suppression of all other aspects and metaphors of atonement teaching, but neither does it disconnect the penal side of the cross from them.

If you say you are right, or have the truth, this provokes a charged emotional response. Being right in current evangelical circles is just the sin of pride. It is wrong to be right. It means that we think someoneís view is wrong, and expressing such a thought it is unkind and unChristian. The atmosphere of acceptance to a wide range of opinions as all valid, impugns any doctrinal assertion that dares to differ with other assertions. Often assertions of doctrine are looked upon as personal attacks on those who differ, even when they were not. We will be accused of a failure to live in peace when this sin of strife is true only some of the time. (We must be aware of our own sin in the heat of disagreement.) Specific doctrinal articulation is also painted as a threat to unity. I reply that unity must rest on a sound faith. Emotional unity lacking a foundation in truth, shuns doctrinal unity. The path to scorn today is to commit an act of doctrinal correction, even though it is a required aspect of Christian ministry, 2 Tim. 3:16, 17. Notice that correcting is actually a "good work" in Paulís mind. 2 Tim. 4:2 has a string of five imperatives in a row! One is the command to correct. See also 1Tim. 4:6, 15,16.

A major feature of the current distress is the orthodoxy of supernatural events linked to an unorthodox theological explanation. The death and resurrection of Christ are accepted as historical fact. To deny this right now as I write, is to be considered out of the evangelical circle. The events for now are safe, but only the events are safe. The meaning of the events is the focus of the downgrade. That Christ died and rose is in; that sin was imputed to Him and so He died to pay for sins is in dispute. Jesus died and rose, but the "why He did so" is dying in many minds. If the supernatural were denied, people would see the evil quickly. But to deny the explanation involves dealing with concepts, and that is where we are so weak today. Furthermore, to assert one correct interpretation as eternal truth is to move against the stream. Those who knock a view that claims to be correct and then suggest other "relevant" ways to look at the atonement, have the pragmatic cultural advantage in North America. They do not have the Bible in their favor, but they can win on hermeneutical grounds, if they read the Bible as they please, looking for a doctrine that they think has a better effect on people. Exegetical considerations will not matter and the gospel will be gone.

Penal substitution is presented as a view that does not make sense to a lot of people. Thus it cannot help them and they need better models. (I hope my readers remember I am constantly presenting error in this section.). It seems not to occur to the deniers that there is mystery in theology, things sometimes called "the deep things of God", 1 Cor. 2:10. Or that the ignorance may be due to the dullness of the hearer, Hebrews 5:11-14. The problem of misunderstanding has been the case in every age. It is not a reason to reject truth; it is an excuse.

The reasoning is generally from arguments not exegesis. How very often the arguments against the atonement are merely allusions to the Bibleís statements. Scripture texts and references are given but not opened and presented as "Here is what it is saying." Often it is, "Yes that is what it says, but for these outside reasons it has to mean this!" These writers are frequently weaving background themes to settle interpretations rather than presenting the actual words of the texts.[4] This results in patchwork theology arbitrarily fitting selected pieces together at the preference of the writer. The exceptions to this observation do not change the fact that the argumentation is usually not exegetical. Any of us choosing to say something important would be dismayed to have carefully chosen words set aside for meanings not found in what we were saying at all. Godís words were carefully chosen knowing the needs of all times and circumstances. A failure in exegesis is a vacuum; with what will the vacuum be filled? But that is the next issue.

Foreign meanings often are imported to dictate the clear intent to the text. See my discussion of sacrifice in my review part 2 of The Scandal of the Cross. The Mosaic law was only a shadow of the good things coming in the priestly ministry of Christ, Hebrews 8:2,5; 10:1. Those OT sacrifices and ceremonies were a means the Holy Spirit was using as "an illustration for the present time," Heb. 9:8,9. The sacrifices of the law were divinely instituted and official, explicitly "constructed" on a heavenly pattern. In the book just mentioned, the authors dismiss the Mosaic law for help in understanding Christís sacrifice and turn to pagan and apocryphal sources instead.[5] They look in all the wrong places. Their method ensures error. Clearly, the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura is also in decline today. The departure is not just at a point of doctrine but from the fount of doctrine.

Their arguments are already refuted! Some rejecters of penal substitution do not recognize in their writings that strong refutations of their positions may already be in circulation. There should be some response to this. Green and Baker give Leon Morris slight and insignificant mention in one footnote. Yet Morrisís detailed exegetical work gives a powerful answer to their position. Green and Baker still put out arguments already refuted. They owe some reply. To make matters worse, many arguments come from persons who do not profess an evangelical faith at all. Old arguments spawned by opponents of the faith outside the church, now find a lodging within. The apostle said this sort of thing would happen, Acts 20:29,30.

Specific Theological Features of the Downgrade

The Godward aspect of the atonement is diminished as in Grenz or removed as in Green and Baker.

The priest faced God for the people he represented. The atonement cannot be presented just as God doing something for us. It was God doing something for God and Godís glory, so that He may do something for man. In full consistency with our self-centered culture, theologians now pursue a reduced doctrine of the atonement focused on what it does for us. It has become manward!

Sin is truncated to sinfulness, and the reality of sins as specific transgressions is deliberately underemphasized.

If sin is treated simply as a condition that needs changing rather than an offense that needs forgiveness, then it is far easier to treat the atonement as a work of transforming man. But in order to take this approach it is necessary to reduce manís guilt. Sin can then be a kind of illness not a life of offenses. Dealing with a record of offenses might tend in our minds to an offended God, and that could prompt us to believe in justice being executed and that would lead back to a truly Biblical atonement, penal substitution.

The holiness of God does not require that justice be exercised in retaliation for sin. God only forgives; He does no repay. He has no wrath only love.

The problem then becomes why there was a death of Christ at all. His death is meaningless. To fashion a god of our liking and design is to create an idol. We have come to this already. If the idols were made of wood or metal, and we could see people bowing before them in church, we might be alarmed! But by creating a god different from the One in Scripture, we are just as guilty of idol worship.

There never has been a consensus on the atonement.

That means the Reformation is not the heritage of these evangelicals. The doctrine of the trinity has early solid catholic support. But J. I. Packer argues wisely that the church has always believed in substitution in some sense. If so, and I do agree, then the assertion of no consensus is partly wrong. Saying there is no consensus, allows for modern innovation and avoids past confessional influence and standards. The ancient creed does say, "He descended into hell," a statement penal to the core.

Error by nature spreads from one doctrine to another.

Denying propitiation, i.e. that Christ satisfied the wrath of God that fell on Him on the cross, is now accompanied by denying that the wrath of God falls on anyone! The very judgment of God is in jeopardy! The "Christian" suggestion that sin has its own consequences, which God passively allows to fall on those determined enough to endure them, is just a form of theistic Buddhism, not Christianity. The Bible says, "Those who hate him, he [God] will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him" Deut.7:10. Denying wrath at the cross is a theological cancer that spreads to other areas of truth. "A little leaven leavens the lump." To deny wrath and now to deny it everywhere, is to say of the Lord who shall judge the living and the dead that on the Judgment Day, that He will merely show up to see what will happen.

The meaning of "ransom" is being changed.

For example: "ransom" in and out of the Bible, in languages old and recent, means to free by the payment of a price. It is a two-sided word, containing a cause and effect. In the sentence, "He shot the wall," the idea of "shot" has two aspects, the firing of the gun and the impact on the wall. But in firing a gun, there is no effect if there is no cause. Shot the wall refers both to gunfire and the impact. To deny that Jesus paid a ransom, and yet to retain that by ransom He set free or liberated sinners, is to slice the word ransom into two parts that are inseparable. Some want an atonement without any payment, a manward atonement without Christ meeting an obligation to God. Here again the Godward side is the battleground. A Ransom that does not pay is simply not a ransom at all.

Features Related to a View of Scripture

To the lack of exegesis above and the replacement of Biblical truth with foreign meanings for Biblical terms, I add the following related to Scripture.

Theology according to Stanley Grenz has three sources: the Scriptures, the church through the ages and the present culture. The Bible is the major controlling source, but the culture sets the questions for theology. Grenz may miss that he has a doctrine of God currently suffering the pain of human sin, drawn from Japanese and German theologians reflecting on the last world war. Grenz and Olson provide no Biblical evidence.[6] The source for the new doctrine was the consensus of current thinkers.

The doctrine is not only false -- the transcendent God cannot suffer anything let alone the consequences of His sinful creatures.[7] Has God cursed Himself? -- the doctrine removes attention from that past unrepeatable moment when a divine Person did suffer the pain of sin, but only in the time of His humiliation, which ended with the resurrection. In no case in this error, do the proponents suggest that the Lord Jesus or the Father suffer sin in the place of others, rather it is suffering with sinners. I wonder if they shall add that God suffers with people in hell. This could lead on to even more wild conclusions. The root of this problem is a failure to have Scripture alone stand as the controlling and only source of our knowledge of the character of God. When the culture is a source for theology, we have a defective view of Scripture.

Biblical imagery and metaphor is considered not relevant in every time and circumstance. This again raises serious questions about the wisdom of God and the adequacy or sufficiency of His revelation. The eternal word is turned into a revelation that somehow fails actually to reveal in every age on a crucial matter. Stanley Grenz and Roger E. Olson[8] warn that though going to the Bible first is helpful, it nevertheless poses "one grave danger": we might overlook our culture. We might become irrelevant and not address peopleís real questions. They give as an example that "Few people today are asking, ĎWhere can I find a perfect sacrifice for sins?í" Therefore in their minds, John 1:29 is likely not to be relevant!!

These men are leading us in a wrong direction. Guilt is a problem for every sinner, unless he has seared his conscience beyond all feeling, Eph. 5:18,19. Godís metaphor of "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," John 1:29, IS timeless. It is suited with a little explanation (from Scripture itself) to every age, every need, and every man. The Spirit of God had that preserved for us for our preaching. Our message cannot be relevant without telling where the sinner can find the perfect sacrifice for sins. They say (p. 111) that our Lord repeatedly tailored His message. He said He gave just what His Father gave him to say.

Touch it and leave it. It is not enough to touch on a verse and then not deal with it. Green and Baker when they finally seem to settle on Romans 3:25, 26, fail to quote any part of it at all. After touching the reference to the passage, they simply leave it telling us what it means. The Scripture was used in this case as a diving board to their arguments; they never return to the verse they refer to.

At times non-Christian and non-canonical material have as much influence, or more! on the question of the atonement as the Word of God has. See my reviews of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross.

And here I must cease this barely adequate treatment of how the gospel itself is slipping away from us, with causes ranging from criminal neglect to criminal intent in the rejection of the meaning of the death of our Lord. But God will protect His eternal truth. It is safe. What is being lost is not the gospel, but the person who ceases to believe it. God has made a testimony of His Son. He made His soul an offering for sin. Whoever does not agree with that just does not believe God.


1. Stanley Grenz In Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994) asserts the gospel; our Lordís sacrifice covers our sin, p. 462. He will even say that He bore our iniquities and became our substitute, p. 460. Yet Grenz does not hold to a propitiation that placates Godís wrath. He says, "Christís work is directed toward human sin, not Godís wrath." Then on the same page: "Christís work, therefore, is primarily directed toward human sin and not Godís wrath," p. 452. Grenz denies that Adamís sin was imputed to the rest of the human race, pp. 264-266. "We conclude, then, that Romans 5:12-21, like Ephesians 2:3, does not clearly and unequivocally declare that all persons inherit guilt directly because of Adamís sin. The Biblical case for original guilt is not strong, " p. 266. But in Created for Community, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) Grenz says, "Christís death turns aside Godís righteous disposition against us," p. 145. I hope this means he has changed his position from his earlier book. Return

2. Grenz, op cit. ties the penal conception to the demise of the feudal system, p. 450. Return

3. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) pp. 629-631 Return

4. See my two reviews of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, IVPress for examples Return

5. In the review part one, I point out that these two authors also turn to the apostasy of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple for insight into whether sacrifice is needed!! Return

6. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVPress, 1996). They assert the suffering of God as the result of reflection in light of contemporary experiences. I did not know we could learn from our experience whether the Transcendent God suffers. Yet "this new idea of God came from the pen of ÖKazoh Kitamori Ö to suggest that the best Christian way to conceive of God in the light of both the New Testament and modern experiences is as a suffering God. The idea caught on rapidlyÖ Other picked up on the idea, and it soon became an accepted part of Christian thinking about God across a broad spectrum of churches and types of theologiesÖ thus we have one example of progress in theologyÖ In a matter of a few decades a small handful of theologians convinced most Christians that Godís suffering is gospel truth." Pp. 65,66 Return

7. Bob Pierce said, "Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God" p. 147 in an Oct 2000 ad of World Vision in the Canadian edition of The Readersí Digest. Mr. Pierce was not speaking of the sufferings of Christ in His human flesh but the current sufferings of God in heaven. Note that this sells well in a secular magazine. Return

8. Ibid. p.110. Return