15 November 2008

Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement

Sealed My Pardon With His BloodAs the year comes to an end, I am scrambling to finish up some of the various projects I started this year and meant to finish much earlier. This particular reading project began in late spring or early summer: In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement by J. I. Packer and Mark Dever.

The individual chapters of the book have appeared as articles, chapters, or introductions elsewhere. J. Ligon Duncan added an annotated bibliography to Dever and Packer's foreward, introduction and conclusion; all of which are new.

The book primarily seeks to defend the veracity and centrality of penal substitution in the gospel message. And the authors also seek to point out some of the implications of substitution for the question of the extent of the atonement.

The first point is becoming more controversial than it has been in the recent past. Indeed, the flood of recent works on the atonement that explicitly reject penal substitution is undoubtedly one of the reasons these essays have been republished. Two insights from the book are helpful here: (1) Penal substitution is not to be understood as the only motif of the atonement, but it is the central motif anchoring all the others (Dever, pp. 109–110; Packer, p. 73). (2) Penal substitution is not an exhaustive explanation of the grand transaction that resulted in the salvation of everyone who trusts Jesus. An exhaustive explanation is as impossible as an exhaustive explanation of the Trinity, the incarnation, or any other act or attribute of God. The end of theological rigor—in this arena as much as the rest—is humble worship not arrogant rationalism (Packer, pp. 57–58).

The second point, namely that penal substitution implies particular redemption, seems never to have been uncontroversial. The argument follows this train: if Christ suffers a sinner’s penalty in his place (penal substitution), then that sinner cannot in turn suffer that same penalty (Packer, p. 91). Therefore, if a sinner suffers the penalty on his own, then Christ could not suffer the penalty in his place. Of course, many would argue that it’s not that simple, and that’s why there are such things as four-point Calvinists. Nevertheless, the argument deserves some thought.

The book was delicious and nourishing. I think it brings together some of the best material Packer has produced over his prodigious career. I’m glad I stuck with it to the end—better late than never.


Luther's Stein said...


What did you think of Dever's claim that Penal Substitution "anchors all others"? I heard him claim last year [either @ TEDS or @ T4G] that he believes the atonement IS penal substitution, and the other themes elucidate other aspects of what happen in Penal Substitution. Does he make that same argument here? Would you agree with him that the atonement is Penal Substitution at root with expansive themes elucidating it or would you go the route of other that no one metaphor IS the atonement, but each is a metaphor unpacking it?

Pittsley said...

I was summarizing a few sentences from those pages, specifically, "I don't doubt that we have more to learn from Christ's death than simply the fact that he died as a substitute for us, bearing our grief and carrying our sorrows.... Rather than pitting these theories against one another, could they be evaluated together...? Still, when we give attention and authority to all parts of the New Testament canon, substitution becomes the center and focus of the Bible's witness to the meaning of Christ's death" (p. 109). At the end of that last paragraph, he quotes Bloesch favorably when he says, "Evangelical theology...does not claim that this theory does justice to all aspects of Christ's atoning work" (p. 110). He doesn't appear to be making the atonement and penal substitution identical here; perhaps what he said on that occasion was an intentional oversimplification for rhetorical effect.

But I agree with him that it is central. Packer says the same too. Penal substitution is the engine that drives the train.