“The ability to be what we are and yet go on”: thoughts on penal substitutionary atonement and discipleship


August 31, 2014 by jmar198013

One of those oft-quoted proverbs that seemed to roll so easily off Jesus’ tongue is, Each tree is known by its own fruit (Luke 6.44). You don’t judge merely off what is promised; you judge off what is delivered. I want to apply this principle to penal substitutionary atonement, the dominant account in our time of how Jesus’ death is effective for our salvation. So dominant, indeed, that many conflate teaching this distinctive, and relatively recent, doctrine with proclaiming the gospel. I have previously written that this doctrine is problematic because it cannot bear the freight of discipleship. It divorces the person of Christ from the work of Christ, and attempts to separate who we are from what we do. These are both disastrous outcomes for healthy, fruitful Christian faithfulness.

In short, penal substitutionary atonement asserts that we have sinned and broken the laws of a holy and righteous God. God can’t overlook our sins, because then he would be neither righteous nor holy. Our offense is so great that we all deserve to die. But God desires to not kill everyone. What’s a righteous God to do? Penal substitutionary atonement states that God deals with this problem by letting his perfect Son be killed in our place. Now, when God looks at us, he sees not our sin, but Christ’s faithful obedience. In short, God had Jesus killed to avoid killing everyone else. The doctrine is laid out graphically below:


One of the serious objections I have to this way of construing what God is doing through Christ’s cross is that it has always seemed to me that it is less righteous to knowingly kill an innocent person than to forgive a guilty one. That being said, my primary objection to this doctrine is practical: it’s a matter of judging a tree by its fruits. Objectively speaking, how does Christ’s atoning death change anyone’s life? For it seems to me that outside of the relationship of discipleship, the death of Christ becomes an abstraction, distant from our own experience of sin and need for deliverance and redemption. Jesus offering to take my punishment for me is something that happens over my head. I’ll understand it all by-and-by perhaps, but for now, any benefit it may have is purely existential. And yet, Jesus came to save us from our sins (Matt. 1.21), not merely the future consequences of our sins. There is a definite difference. Our lives need to be reconciled–not just our afterlives.

Paul, for instance, saw that reconciled lives were the fruit of the work of Christ. Thus he wrote:

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5.17-20)

He also emphasized the relationship between the faithfulness of the crucified Christ and the faithfulness of our lives. So Rom. 1.16-17:

I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

When Paul speaks of God’s righteousness revealed from faithfulness for faith, he means that Christ’s faithful obedience provides a basis for our own. We can be redeemed in our following of Christ, tentative and faltering though it may be. The entire scope of our lives–past, present, and future–is reconciled by being drawn into Christ. This is something very different from–and superior to–what penal substitutionary atonement has to offer. The substitutionary account tends to have the practical effect of erasing our pasts, drowning them in the blood of the lamb, as it were. What Paul is talking about is more of an invitation to come with our entire selves and be reconciled. There is a profound difference.

Stanley Hauerwas offers this helpful description of what we are being invited to do when we are invited to be reconciled to God on the basis of God’s righteousness revealed through Christ’s faithfulness. It is a description that affirms that who we are cannot be rightly divorced from what we do, but also offers hope that we do not have to be imprisoned by what we have done or what has been done to us:

[T]he question What should I be? demands we live hopeful lives, as it holds out the possibility that we are never “captured” by our history, because a truer account of our self, that is, a truer narrative, can provide the means to grow so that we are not determined by past descriptions of “situations.” Our freedom comes not in choice, but through interpretation . . . [W]e seek the means to make what we have “done” and what has happened to us our own. Moral “principles” cannot do that; what is required is a narrative that gives us the ability to be what we are and yet go on. (“Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright [Durham: Duke University Press, 2001], 228-29 n.14)

The “narrative that gives us the ability to be what we are and yet go on,” that gives us freedom by allowing us to interpret our story–that’s the gospel. And it is not a story about someone else being your whipping boy. It is a story about God’s refusal to let our murdering of his Child finally determine our relationship to him. It is a story about his rejection of our rejection of him through the Cross–of his not allowing that Cross to have the final word, but undoing it in resurrection. And it is a story about God continuing to invite us through his Crucified-and-Resurrected-Child to come be reconciled to him. The Cross and Resurrection is a narrative that subverts and reinterprets all the stories we have been told, and continue to tell ourselves.

We need look no further than Paul’s own life to see how this “narrative that gives us the ability to be what we are and yet go on” works on the practical level of discipleship. When we first meet Paul in Acts 7-8, he is a young Jewish blue chipper named Saul, and was a party in the stoning of a Christian named Stephen. Stephen’s job in the Jerusalem church was to make sure that the needy were fed. After his own conversion, Paul could not resurrect Stephen’s corpse from the rockpile. But neither did he simply praise Jesus that his murderous ways had been washed in the blood. As we see Paul’s story unfold in the Acts and his letters, we find that Paul continued Stephen’s ministry by making sure that hungry disciples in Jerusalem were fed during a time of famine.

Any account of the work of Christ in the cross should bear the sort of fruit that we see exemplified in this instance of Paul’s life. If it can’t bear that freight, it needs to be discarded.



One thought on ““The ability to be what we are and yet go on”: thoughts on penal substitutionary atonement and discipleship

  1. […] done, and what has been done to us. We are afraid we can’t tell the truth about ourselves and still go on. The wounded and risen Jesus confronted the disciples with the truth about themselves. When they […]

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