An offensive salvation

In an earlier post, I mentioned that there had been an attempt to link Evangelical Theology to the causes of violence and abuse. This stemmed from the allegations emerging about John Smyth but some commentators have linked this to the wider Public School system.[1]

My response can be summed up as:

  1. People experience violence and abuse in many different contexts.  This includes people who have been through the secular comprehensive system. Therefore, to attribute the primary cause of this abuse to a theology that is not common to all of these contexts shows faulty logic.[2]
  2. That it has been Evangelical Theology that has enabled so many victims of violence to find the strength and hope to survive and even to forgive.
  3. That at the same time, we should consider that theology is not just about doctrinal statements but is something that is lived out. Therefore, we should pay close attention to the cultures that we create.  These can both reveal a faulty doctrine and also distort our view of doctrine.  However, my argument was that if our culture has gone wrong, then we need a deeper Evangelical theology rather than less.

The crux of the matter

Giles Fraser has now written a follow up article in the Guardian confirming that his issue is with our understanding of The Atonement:

“That, of course, is what the evangelicals are most afraid of: people making a connection between their theology and John Smyth’s beating of the children in his care. Yet the connection is obvious – and at the very core of the evangelical story: that God the father violently punishes his son for the salvation of the human race.”[3]

Oddly, to prove his point, he quotes from two places. First of all, he quotes William Sewell, the founder of Radley School:

“To cane the senior prefect was rather like caning the king. ‘Risley,’ I said, ‘take off your gown.’ And without the slightest hesitation he took off his gown. ‘Would you rather cane me, sir, as I stand, or shall I kneel down?’ (I am giving the exact words, for I have never forgotten that moment.) ‘Kneel down, Risley,’ I said. I think that when I made that boy get up from his knees, and he put his arms round my neck, was the most exquisite moment of enjoyment I ever had.”[4]

As Fraser says, this is “creepy and weird.”[5] Weirder still, Sewell was not an Evangelical Christian but belonged to the High Church wing and was influenced by the Oxford Movement or Tractarians which later developed into Anglo-Catholicism.[6] In other words, if Sewell was getting a punishment beating method from his theology then it was not from Evangelical Theology.

Secondly, he quotes from Isaiah 53:5 “He was whipped so we could be healed.” Note that the fuller quote from Isaiah 53:5 -6 is

“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;     it was our sorrows[a] that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,     a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion,     crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole.     He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.     We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him     the sins of us all”

Now, that’s exactly the point I made in the previous article.  The connection between violence and the Cross is a connection that the Bible itself makes.  The connection between our sin and Jesus’ death and the very idea that Jesus takes our place as a substitute is not something Evangelicals have made up and certainly not something concocted in a Public School. Nor are we dealing with one isolated verse. To just give a few examples:

“He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.” (Romans 4:5)

“I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said.” (1 Corinthians 15:3)

“So also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

And back in Isaiah 53:10, some words that a little while we had an in depth look at when thinking about worship.[7]

“But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants.”

Now, as I mentioned before, others have taken time to write at length on the subject of the atonement in general and specifically on Penal Substitution.  I would strongly recommend that you have a look at the following books and articles

Jim Packer, What did the Cross Achieve, The Logic of Penal substitution (available at

Jeffrey, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions (Nottingham: IVP, 2007)

John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Leicester: IVP 1986)

You see, this is one of those things that isn’t going to go away because the idea that we need someone to come as our substitute and die in our place on a Cross, bearing our curse is something that has been causing offense to religious people since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.

The Storyline of death and life

What I want to do at this stage is something very simple. I want to give you a feel for how this precious doctrine fits into the big picture of Biblical Theology, how it is central to our understanding of human plight and how it magnifies the glorious truth of the Resurrection.

First of all, it starts back in Genesis. God makes a good creation and places humanity in the paradise garden of Eden with a role to tend and guard it.  There are two trees there, one brings death, the other life.  This is a choice for people all the way through history and it’s the choice put to the Israelites on the edge of the land before they enter.[8] Adam and Eve choose death.  Death is seen in their exile from the Garden an exile seen replayed throughout the history of Israel so that some talk about the Death and Resurrection of Israel (in fact one of my Conservative Evangelical OT tutors suggested that in Luke 24 when Jesus begins with Moses he is showing them that in their own history it’s about death and resurrection – similar to another running theme of creation-decreation-recreation[9]).

So, what if we step straight into the New Testament at the point of the Resurrection. That imagery of death tells me that I need to go to the Resurrection not as an after-thought but as being right there as the answer, the solution. Jesus’s resurrection as the first born/first fruits tells me that the problem of death is dealt with.

But why is it that Jesus resurrection is the way that death is defeated?  Well I can’t avoid the point that death has come -says Paul through sin. It’s the problem of sin that causes death.  This takes us back to Genesis 2 “If you eat…you will surely die.”  I’m also there in Isaiah 53 – Jesus is the one pierced for my iniquities and I’m at the Lord’s supper as he tells the disciples that his body is given for them.

What is more, the clue has been there for the people of Israel all the way through. They are given commandments that they fail to keep and so each year, they are to bring a lamb for sacrifice. The lamb in effect takes their place. There’s a similar image offered with the scapegoat being sent into exile (a form of death) outside of the camp. John the Baptist and John, the author of Revelation tell us that Jesus is “The Lamb.” He is the one who takes our place. He offers his life as a perfect and willing sacrifice.

Penal Substitution is not just about Jesus doing something in our place. It takes us to a great exchange. The exchange is as follows:

He becomes sin so that we can be righteous

He dies so that we can know life.

And that’s why we come back to the Resurrection again and again. Jesus’s resurrection tells us that the problem of death is dealt with. Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates the New Creation. It tells us that evil, Satan, suffering and death do not have the last word. We die with him and are raised with him (Romans 6:1-2).

Why this is important

I want to suggest the following reasons why this is important

  1. The actual doctrine of Penal Substitution is a far cry from this so-called doctrine of a vengeful God who is just taking his revenge. This whole story is about the Good God who loves us and when we rebel against him bringing death, steps in to give us life. It’s about the God who does not punish us as we deserve but shows compassion and mercy.
  2. The doctrine is offensive because it disagrees with us. Why has there been so much objection to it, especially in recent years? The answer is that we don’t want to be told that we are sinners, that we have done wrong. We don’t want to think that we deserve punishment. Yet, that’s the message.  I didn’t get what I deserved. I got grace. This is humbling. And that’s the challenge that Mike Ovey, one of the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions used to lay out to his students and that stays with me to this day. “Will you let God disagree with you?”
  3. Peter tells us that because Christ suffered for us, we too can suffer, even unjustly. Remember, it isn’t that you have got to suffer, it’s not that we do this to pay for our sin and make atonement. It’s that we can.  This doctrine may be offensive to those who enjoy the privileges of liberal western prosperity and peace but it is precious good news to those who suffer tyranny and injustice.
  4. Because it is about death and resurrection, it offers hope.  I remember one of the first Easters we had at Bearwood and I spoke on the title “Does Death have the final word.” The answer is a resounding “no.” Christ has defeated death by taking away its power to condemn.  This has been the good news that has been so precious for those who have had to face terminal illness and death in our congregation.


Once again, one of the most precious truths of the Gospel is under attack. However, what is seen as offensive to religious people and foolish to the liberal elite is the power of God for those who are being saved.


[2] In fact, we could equally conclude that the problem is with a schools system itself as the Home Schooling movement do, except that violence happens outside of schools too.




[6] This is something that Fraswr is forced to acknowledge on his twitter feed. in response to


[8] Robson, Honey from the Rock, 77. NB this is also a little taster for our coming series on The Doctrine of Creation!

[9] James Robson, Honey from the Rock (IVP), 73. Nb. Robson cites Joseph Blenkinsopp, Creation, Uncreation, Re-Creation: A discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11 (London: T& T Clark), 2011. See also Jeffrey, Ovey, Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions, 100-148