I often receive questions from students and ministers about the atonement. Here's an edited version of one such email:
"I’m still fuzzy on atonement... [especially concerning] how atonement should be communicated to unbelievers... [I recently heard a preacher] go over substitutionary atonement as what we should be sharing with people to get them saved. Then, after his explanation of that, they had folks from [the church] parade up with signs that they would flip over (eg. Side A-sinner/Side B-saved; side a-broken, side b-whole; side a-living for myself, side b-living for God; side a-cancer, side b-healed.) It was really moving. I know that atonement is at least substitutionary in that Jesus does something for us that we can’t do ourselves. [This preacher] was more particularly talking about Jesus taking the punishment from God that we deserved—that God is able to forgive us because of Jesus taking the fall for us on the cross. As I watched, though, I had a hard time seeing the connect between God’s ability to forgive us because of Jesus’ taking our penalty and some of the life changes that were on the cards. And I wonder why God can’t forgive because of his mercy and not need someone to take the penalty... Ok, John. Tell me what to believe ;-)."
Here's how I responded:
Yeah, its kind of inherently fuzzy, so don't feel bad about that. Although I can't tell you what to believe, I can share some thoughts that may be helpful.
The first is to make a distinction between substitution and penal substitution.
Substitution is the genus: the notion that Jesus takes on something of ours and gives us something of his. The fathers called this the "wondrous exchange," and it permeates the pages of the New Testament. Any account of reconciliation that undermines this pattern is inadequate.
Penal substitution is a species of substitutionary thinking, whereby the penal (forensic/judicial) metaphor is the dominant motif for collecting, ordering, and presenting the substitutionary pattern of exchange. Satisfaction (honor) and Sacrificial (blood, covenant) are additional species of substitutionary thinking, each of which may or may not be easily compatible with the penal motif. All of these motifs appear in scripture, and it is a matter of reasoned judgment of how to employ them. See the introduction to my paper "The Priest Sacrificed in Our Place" for some reflections on relating these species of substitutionary thinking.
The practical pay-off of this distinction is that while you search for more adequate, relevant, and/or illuminating motifs to describe the atonement, be careful to keep the logic of substitution in the background and be open to the breadth of metaphorical explanation it permits. If the judicial metaphor doesn't do it for you, that doesn't mean you should drop substitutionary thinking altogether. Regarding the image of the people with the posters, you can see how that expresses a kind of substitution, provided you believe these changes were wrought by Christ and he in some sense bore the negative side (and bore it away!). The logic of substitution is not restricted to what happened "there and then"; it also characterizes what happens "here and now" on the basis of what happened there and then. In more technical terms, substitutionary thinking provides an arc of continuity between the atonement and justification. Both are substitutionary exchanges, one achieved by Christ in his life, death and resurrection, the other worked out in us by the Spirit of Christ in our particular life-histories.
As for the matter of whether God "needs" the cross to forgive, there is much speculation on the matter, but I am inclined to think in terms of what God has done and infer his character from that, rather than than the other way around. In other words, God became man to die and rise for us, so apparently God can do such things. The cross is the manner and mode of establishing his covenant, which in a principled, speculative sense he doesn't "need" to do, but he did do it, so it must be the way. I trust God's judgment on this account. This is probably not a satisfying answer, but I suspect that going down the speculative road of what God must do or what other options he had will be even less satisfying (we have no information on this; we only known what God has done and must reason from there). The common presentation of the atonement as some kind of "bind" or "problem" in which God is caught and solves with the incarnation and cross is misleading at best, and perhaps has pernicious results. I prefer to just narrate what God has done for us and call people to a life of joyfully obedient witness to such a Lord.
Are these distinctions and implications helpful?
Do they make the atonement more or less fuzzy?
What additional insights have helped you speak intelligibly of the atonement?