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The Victim and the Rebel or Why We Need Christus Victor and Penal Substitution

Categories: The Atonement

IThirst006[1]Failure to appreciate the paradoxical (and unapologetically so) nature of Scripture and the all-too-human-tendency to band-wagon and carry things to their “necessary” logical conclusions (let’s call this “rationalization”) lead to unbalanced doctrinal and theological systems. Perhaps nowhere is this sort of thing more apparent than the setting of Christus Victor (that in Jesus’ death God destroys the power of evil, sin, and death over humans and the creation) against Penal Substitution (where God in Christ suffers the punishment for sin and rebellion); or as some tend to put it a “loving” and a “forgiving” God vis-à-vis a God “who needs to punish in order to forgive.”
Now, the rejection of Penal Substitution (in whatever form) is usually accompanied by the claim that it is a late articulation by Anslem who basically articulated the crucifixion within the conceptual framework of the feudal lord system and therefore should be rejected (though such a claim is open to a the charge of genetic fallacy). Now this true as it goes, but it doesn’t therefore mean we should reject all forms of this doctrine. There is plenty of divine punishment throughout Scripture, not least Romans 2:6-11, that to simply use Anselm’s particular model to reject any idea that Jesus suffers the wrath of God as punishment for our sins deeply problematic and unsustainable exegetically.
However, there is a correlate anthropological issue that is integrated with these two views of the atonement that mirror the discussion. The under playing of human guilt in favor of the very Scriptural notion that we are also victims of forces—Sin, Satan, death, etc.—greater than us; perhaps, and this is just a hunch, many of us grew tired of the over-emphasis of our guilt before an “angry God” that we wildly swung the pendulum in the opposite direction entirely in favor of the line of atonement that stressed our needing rescue and God’s accomplishment of that rescue in his own the death on the cross?
But should we not rather hold the two together paradoxically?
Namely, that we are both the victims of a force more powerful than us and yet we nevertheless are the responsible and willing participants in sin and evil. And that Calvary astonishingly deals with both sides of this human predicament: our helplessness and our guilt. Graham A. Cole said it well in his God the Peacemaker when he concluded:
We human beings are paradoxes: capable of both greatness and unspeakable evil. This is unsurprising if the biblical story is believed. We remain images of God (the glory) structurally and functionally—albeit damaged though we are. Yet we are sinners (the garbage). Any account that does not reckon with the paradox is flawed. We are not devils, even though we can act like them. Christians ought not to be misanthropes. But we are not moral innocents either…[1]
The choice between these theologies, let alone their antithesis, then, is a false one. Penal and what we might call divine conquest themes are, in fact, often interwoven in Scripture (e.g. Col. 2:9-15; Rom. 5:6-11; Rom. 8:1-4) and address two angels of the human condition before God. On Colossians 2 N.T. Wright adds:
In particular, the ‘handwriting that stood over against us’ has nothing more to say. This refers to the Jewish law, the law of Moses, which prevented Gentiles from getting in to God’s people, and condemned Jews for breaking its commands. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, Paul declares, this written code was nailed there with him. Now it has nothing more to say to those who belong to Jesus. ‘There is therefore no condemnation’, as Paul says in Romans 8, ‘for those who belong to King Jesus.’ He’s forgiven you all the sins and offences that might have counted against you. In dying with him you have come out from under them all, and from all the condemnation they might have pulled down on your head.[2]
Ironically, then, it precisely the legal or forensic guilt humans bear that the powers (both Caiaphas and Satan and Caesar) use to place God in a quasi-divine-predicament; think here of Zechariah 3:1-5 where the Accuser stands before God condemning Joshua the high priest before the heavenly court. Thus, if we are to have anything like a full orbed account of the human problem (and its divine answer) we must hold together the fact(s) that humanity is propelled and dominated by a force greater than itself,  that we are also willing accomplices in our actions great and small despite our weakness, and that the same forces, including God’s own judgment, are there to hold us all in the doc worthy and helpless before the divine judgment seat.
Enter the cross of Jesus of Nazareth…
The atoning cross, you see, deals with all of these integrated and paradoxical human issues. God had always intended to come in the person of Christ (this makes God act prior to the cross and thus makes the God not the object of atonement but its own satisfier) to both gain victory over the forces of sin and death in his own person and at the same time undergo his own verdict and judgment against guilty sinners; thus, disarming any legal/forensic claims made by God’s enemies. The bloody and awful death of Jesus—God with us—is God’s unexpected and yet foretold answer to all that ails us helpless-rebels and we should not take it upon ourselves to lessen the scope of the cross one jot or tittle, but rather do our best to not  separate what God has himself joined together in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

[1] Graham A. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), pg. 66.
[2] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,2004), pg. 171.


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