A review, part 1, of

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross

Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts
Joel B. Green & Mark D. Baker, InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, © 2000
Reviewed by David H. Linden
Action International Ministries
Alberta Reformation Fellowship

This particular partial review is limited to a couple of very important paragraphs in this 232-page book. I intend further review later of more of this book. Since I am devoting so much attention to such a brief segment of this book, I will quote the specific part in full. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross repeatedly seeks to refute a view of the atonement that it recognizes has been dominant in recent Protestant thinking – penal substitution. This section of the book seeks to dislodge the support given to penal substitution from the standpoint of sacrifice.

Moreover, not all, nor even most, sacrifices, whether in the Old Testament or in Second Temple Judaism, were "for sins", nor was a sacrifice the exclusive way to deal with sin… And the prophetic tradition repeatedly accentuates contrition and acts of justice over against the cult of sacrificial practices (e.g., Is 1:10-20). [Emphasis mine]
However one reads the significance of sacrifice in the Jewish temple in Judaism in the first century, then two points are clear. First,[1] animal sacrifices were not the only means by which right relations with God might be restored or maintained—a reality that comes into sharp focus in the vitality of Judaism following the demise of the temple in A.D. 70. If it is true that selected passages in Israel’s Scriptures had already criticized and in some cases abandoned the sacrificial system, it may well be that Israel found in its own history the capacity to survive and thrive with no literal altar of sacrifice at all. Forgiveness grounded in penitential prayer, repentance and acts of charity, would, in developing rabbinic Judaism, not only replace the now-razed altar, but actually render the sacrificial altar obsolete. But this innovation, however extraordinary it might at first appear, was presaged in the psalmic and prophetic tradition of Israel’s Scriptures and such expressions of Second Temple Judaism as the Jewish sect at Qumran. (Pp.48, 49; related footnotes on Qumran and a Greek dictionary are not included here) [All emphases are mine.]

Here, in their words, is the doctrine of penal satisfaction they reject:

According to this theory, humanity has in its sin, turned away from God and so merits divine punishment. Jesus in his death on the cross, died in the place of (as a substitution for) sinful humanity at God’s behest, and in doing so he took upon himself the punishment humanity ought to have suffered. p. 90
They [some pastors in Panama who held this view] explained that God would like to be in relationship with humans and dwell together with us forever in heaven, but human sin does not allow for this since God is holy and cannot associate with anyone corrupted by sin. It is impossible for humans to achieve the sinless perfection necessary, and because God is just, he must punish us for our sin. God, however, provides a solution. God the Father sends his Son, to earth to suffer the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Since Jesus has paid the penalty for us, God can regard us as not guilty. If we believe that we are sinners deserving of hell, but that Jesus died in our place, then we can be in relationship with God and go to heaven. p. 140
Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe on him. p. 141

Green & Baker say that this doctrine of "penal substitution" is based on a "mistaken concept of God’s wrath as retributive punishment" (147). They approve of an author who considers this theory of the atonement to be that "perpetuates evil" (173). They find the gospel, as just stated in the quotations above, "both deficient and disturbing" (92), one "hopelessly implicated in destructive and dehumanizing images and practices" (180). They promote the criticism that penal substitution is "tritheistic" (181) promoting a "divine child-abuse model of the atonement" (181). And of course, people who hold such views are more likely to be abusive in their relationships in the home. After all penal substitution is a doctrine that is "a reflection of an authoritative punitive God and a source of victimization" (194). Green & Baker commend the view of another author who "argues that the cross is the revelation of God’s love,[2] not the propitiation of God’s anger" (163). Propitiation to them is "the thinking of a detached, rational, angry God driven by a moral compulsion to be justified in holiness." (163) I cannot devote more space in this review to their strong rejection of Jesus taking our place as our substitute under the wrath of God because of our sin. They wholeheartedly reject such an explanation for the cross.

My response to their teaching on pp. 48,49

1) Did the prophets speak against sacrifices?

No, they did not; G/B are wrong. What the prophets did do was speak against the corruption of the sacrifices God required in the law, some of which were given to teach us how sin can be forgiven. G/B are right that not all sacrifices were "for sin", but some were. God did not command through Moses ceremonies He later turned "against" though later prophets. In fact, Hezekiah who lived in Isaiah’s day restored burnt offerings at the sanctuary. It was a great evil that they had neglected these sacrifices in the temple; turning their faces away from sacrifices was turning their backs on the Lord, and His fierce anger fell on them for doing so. See, please, 2 Chronicles 29:3-11, where all this is very clear.

In Isaiah 1:10-20 (their text of choice for their argument; they make no mention of 2 Chron. 29.) God spoke through Isaiah against "meaningless offerings", not offerings; against "your evil assemblies", "your appointed feasts", not feasts and assemblies as He had appointed. Jerusalem’s temple worship had so deteriorated that offerings were made with "hands full of [murderous] blood." This is what the prophets held in contempt, the people’s sinful worship, not the divinely appointed sacrifices. The prophets had not been authorized by God to contradict what He said earlier and reaffirmed even in Isaiah’s time.

In Psalm 51 David’s contrition is clearly part of his repentance. The psalm states correctly, of course, that God would not be satisfied with burnt offerings without a contrite heart. Yet David combines with such a heart, the righteous sacrifices and burnt offerings that would delight God! (vs. 19).

Thus the prophets do not, note, do not set contrition against atoning blood sacrifice as being the exclusive way to deal with sin. No prophet of God ever set contrition over against sacrifices for sin at all. And so neither should we. The kind of backdrop G & B are painting to weaken the Biblical connection between Christ’s atonement and the long history of required animal sacrifice related to forgiveness of sin, must be denied them. They have mishandled Isaiah 1 and have not given their readers relevant passages that teach the opposite of their argument.

2) Are there other means by which a right relationship with God might be restored?

No, there is no other way. "Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin." Heb. 9:22.[3] If animal sacrifices are "not the only means by which" a right relationship with God can be established for sinners, then what is? Green and Baker suggest other means. Note that they say forgiveness may be grounded in something other than sacrifice!! (Grounded is a way of saying, "based upon".)[4] They offer three things as the new ground of acceptance by God: penitential prayer, repentance and acts of charity.

This entire book is centered on explaining atonement and refuting the common view of it. No one should miss that the authors have just argued that a relationship with God can be established even without any atonement at all, unless our acts of charity are atoning. Their view now embraces a non-atoning atonement. They even speak like the Roman Catholic gospel prior to the Reformation – your penitential prayers (penance) can win you the favor of God. If one does not need sacrifice at all, one does not need the sacrifice of Christ either. Prayers and good works can do it. The gospel is gone. They discard the view that Christ alone in a unique ministry, representing His people, stood in for us under the judgment of God and by His blood atoned for us, satisfying God’s justice by His substitutionary death. Either Christ has endured God’s justice for us on the cross or we must do so for ourselves in hell. But this penal doctrine Joel Green and Mark Baker strongly dislike. They have another one, and they even say it is clear. And now look at what they have – the sinner’s good works, or "acts of charity" as a ground of forgiveness. Is this a clear case that sacrifice is not the ground of reconciliation? They must suppose a holy God will accept what Paul called "rubbish" in Philippians 3:8. They shamelessly replace what Christ has done for us with what we can do for ourselves. Imagine our repentance replacing sacrifice. In the real gospel of grace, forgiveness is not grounded in our best prayers, repentance or acts! Two theologians should have noticed that their book has gone over the edge into a works righteousness. At least one of them should have caught on.

3) Can we look to Judaism after it lost its temple for proof that blood sacrifice is not the ground of a right relation with God?

After the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, all sacrifices ceased on Jewish altars. Green and Baker argue that Judaism got along just fine without sacrifices. Are we to suppose from this that sacrifice is therefore not central to a right relationship with God? Some things in this book have surprised me, but arguing whether sacrifice is needed from the religion and experience of apostate Judaism is a major surprise. The argument is so simple and pathetic. It is, that after the temple was destroyed the Jews thrived without sacrifices, so we should bring this "insight" to our understanding of the atonement of Christ.

They miss why sacrifices became obsolete. The real reason is that God sent One and prepared for Him a body to sacrifice, which could and did remove sin, (Hebrews 10). Only for this reason were the blood sacrifices of dumb animals obsolete. But G/B ascribe the obsolescence to the vitality of the religious life of unbelievers. Shame on them! The two teachers seem to miss that Christ foretold the destruction of temple as a judgment of God. Israel had rejected Christ and His offering. They kept their ceremonies and refused the Lamb of God. As a result they did not receive forgiveness, lost their Savior, their ceremonies, the temple altar and their city as well. They declined Him as their great high priest, and so without the only offering acceptable to God, they remained under condemnation and eventually the raging fire that consumes the enemies of God, Hebrews 10:27. They still had their hypocritical acts of charity, but they had rejected Christ. Speaking to them when they could not hear Him, the Lord said, "If you … had only known what would bring you peace – but now it is hid from your eyes," Luke 41-44. From these apostates who did not know what would bring peace, Green and Baker will learn and present as assured wisdom that a sacrifice is not really essential to a right relation with God. This is an amazing piece of writing for InterVarsity Press to publish, a work at this point oblivious to the history explained in Scripture, to God’s judgment and the damnation of those who rejected Christ’s sacrifice. In rejecting a sound view of the atonement, Green and Baker have embraced apostates as models! Paul yearned for the salvation of his countryman, yet was painfully aware they were closing ranks against Christ. He describes their religious passion in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. I cannot think of a more inappropriate source for Green and Baker to turn to for help on whether a sacrifice is necessary than those who missed the real Sacrifice and thus the Savior, while they held on to empty ceremonial shadows meant to lead them to the One they refused.

Keep in mind the real position of these two theology professors. My review is of two pages in their book, but they have packed a lot of error into them. They have argued against sacrifice for sins being essential to our understanding of the cross. They reject the teaching that the Father in love provided for us a divine human Savior, Who, on the cross, would willingly and obediently take upon Himself for us the wrath our sins merited for Him, that we might have the blessing He merited for us. For Green and Baker, this gospel understanding so stated is not merely a weak interpretation where theirs is an improvement. They consider penal substitution an evil we should repent and get rid of ! "That atonement theology might be placed in the service of abusive behavior … is a scandal that calls for repentance and repudiation" (92).

It is now clear how very deep and crucial this matter is. I say we live in a time when the atonement is fading in the evangelical church. And the evangelical church will be one no longer, if it follows the way of Professors Green and Baker.

For a good presentation of sacrifice and penal substitution I suggest:

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) Chap. 17 The Character of the Cross Work of Christ.

J. I. Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998) chap. 8 "What Did the Cross Achieve?" Chap. 9 Sacrifice and Satisfaction.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downer’s Grove: IV Press, 1973) chap.15 "The Wrath of God"; chap. 18 "The Heart of the Gospel".

Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) Chap. 8 The Cross in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Leon Morris The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.).

John R. W. Stott The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IV Press, 1986).

Part 2 of this review is related to pp. 102-106, especially of the Green/Baker handling of a Sacrifice of Obedience in Hebrews 10:5-10.


1. The second appears later. It asserts that "most sacrifices… had nothing to do with sinful activity consciously committed or with its consequences." p. 49. Return

2. How well and differently J. I. Packer speaks to this: "… Christ’s death only reveals God’s love if it accomplished something which we needed, which we could not do for ourselves, and which Christ could not do without dying." Celebrating the Saving Work of God, p. 103 (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998) Since He really loved us, Christ propitiated the Father, turning God’s rejection of us into acceptance. Return

3. The authors refer to this verse in two other contexts, other than this one, pp. 83 & 105. They admit that Hebrews does say these words, adding, "Importantly though, this author [i.e. the author of Hebrews] has not set for himself the task of defending or explicating the sacrificial system of Israel. Quite the contrary, he uses Israel’s categories to show how Israel’s past has been superceded by the work of Christ." p.105, emphasis mine. I reply to them that one of the chief things that Hebrews does is show how the sacrifices for sins are parallel to Christ’s work, yet ineffective to remove sin from the conscience and surpassed by Him. Israel’s sacrifices were established by God so needed no defense. It is quite a strange reading of Hebrews to say the writer did not explicate the worship and obsolete sacrifices he spent so much of his epistle analyzing!! Return

4. It is basic evangelical doctrine that Christ’s work alone is the ground of forgiveness and that faith (of which repentance is a part) is the sole means, and never our works in any form. We must also remember concerning the animal sacrifices that though forgiveness was granted in conjunction with them, they were never the real ground of that forgiveness. The ground has always been Christ. Return