Does Penal Substitution make the rest of Jesus’ life meaningless?

There’s been a long running accusation against Evangelicals that goes something like this.

1. The focus on Jesus dying in our place so we can be forgiven and go to heaven makes the rest of Jesus’ ministry pointless. It means his life was just a build up to the real event – The Cross.

2. Christians who believe that Jesus died to take the penalty so they can have eternal life have very little interest in what happens in this life. They are purely interested in what happens after death. This also means that they have little motivation to change. They might as well do what they want now because they are saved by grace.

These are some of the arguments that Steve Chalke has been making in his series of 95 videos. Although Steve claims that this is an attempt to stand in the tradition of the Reformation, a modern day equivalent of Luther nailing his protest to the Church door, it is more of a ” Counter Reformation” as he seeks to overturn the very things rediscovered and restored during the Reformation.

Additionally, most of what he claims is, unsurprisingly, not new. In fact, some of his challenges mimic the very challenges that the New Testament writers had to respond to. The other day, I suggested on Twitter that Chalke was attacking a straw man. He had created his own version of what his opponents believe in order to easily demolish it. One of his allies quickly jumped in. Didn’t Paul create statement in Romans? For example, in Romans 6, he talks about those who say grace means we can keep on sinning so that grace will increase. Did anyone actually believe that, or was Paul setting up a hypothetical argument raised by a pretend interlocotur.

Well, it is possible that Paul did set up a hypothetical argument in order to respond to what some people might be thinking, but that’s very different from creating a weaker version of your real opponents actual arguments. It may also be the case that Paul was responding to some actual believers who had misunderstood his teaching and thought that grace meant you could live as you please. We do know from Revelation that some were pushing things that way, this is known as “antinomianism”. However, it is also possible, and I think more likely that the argument is a straw man but not one of Paul’s making. Rather, the strawman would have been created by his opponents wanting to show how foolish Paul’s position was, didn’t it mean abandoning the Law? Hadn’t Paul already abandoned so much of the Law already including circumcision, food laws and feast days? In this case, the strawman was intended to show up Paul’s position as ridiculous. Paul’s response then is to show that the strawman is ridiculous because it doesn’t even reflect his theology.

Whether or not, there were opponents trying to use that type of strawman argument, we know that it has been one used through history. For example, this was the controversy between the heretic Pelagius and Augustine. Similarly, it was one of the central objections to the Reformation.

It’s therefore helpful to look at how Paul responds to the argument. His point is very simple. We don’t go on sinning because the Gospel meant that our old life died with Christ and we are raised to new life with Christ, as represented by baptism. We are a new creation. Sin reflects the fact that outside of Christ we are slaves and debtors to Satan. We owe that old life nothing.

Here we begin to see that Penal Substituion is just one part of the doctrine of salvation and was never meant to be viewed in isolation. It needs to be heard in conjunction with what is known as “faith union”.

Faith union is best illustrated by an example Luther used. He compared the events of the Gospel to marriage. A husband and wife become one so that they both inherit each other’s possessions and each other’s debts and obligations. However this is not a union of equals. Christ brings the riches of heaven into the union, grace, forgiveness, peace, joy, hope. We bring the filthy rags of our sin. We bring our debt.

The penal substitution part of things means that Jesus takes upon himself the debt of our sin. Of course, this means that the debt is paid off. So, what happens the other way? Well, we receive his righteousness. This is sometimes referred to as Imputed Righteousness. In Romans 4- 8, Paul is showing that we are justified, we have right standing before God and this justification is received by faith, a grace gift from God. It is not something we can earn.

The image is also used of being clothed in Christ’s righteousness. In Philippians 3, Paul describes it as ” a righteousness not my own.”

The reformers talked about imputed righteousness meaning that Jesus has been obedient on our behalf. What did they mean by this? Well, some of them said it was just his “passive obedience” in other words, that Jesus by being obedient in willingly dying acts on our behalf. Others said ” No, it is his active obedience too.” In other words, it is about his whole life. Jesus was obedient in coming as the incarnate Son and in living a sinless life. I  agree with this approach. It reminds me that the primary reason I have broken God’s law is that I have not loved him with my whole heart or my neighbour as myself. Christ’s perfect obedience is his love for his father and for his neighbours, even his enemies. Justification is not just that I am forgiven, that Jesus bears the guilt so it is ” just as if I’d never sinned.” It is as Mike Ovey put it ” Just as if I’d kept God’s Law perfectly.” It is just as if I had always loved him with my whole heart, it is just as if I had always loved my neighbour.  Incidently, Ovey’s view was that the original controversy with Steve Chalke about the atonement  came about as much because people didn’t get Faith Union and Justification as because they didn’t get penal substitution.

So, if faith union means that Christ’s active obedience is applied to us, then we begin to see why the whole of Christ’s life matters. Incidently, I don’t think I have experienced a church context where people didn’t care about reading, teaching and learning from the Gospels ( just another false caricature of Evangelicals I guess). What we probably need to do better at is learning from John’s Gospel and letters as well as early  church theologians such as Athanasius how closely and necessary the incarnation and atonement are linked.

It also means, as Paul shows that there is no excuse to continue with sin. Salvation is not a gift grabbed at a distance but something I only receive and benefit from in relation ship to Christ, less the birthday present image and more, the everything that comes with the marriage.  My life is in Christ  and with Christ, this  means that we share the same values and priorities. Because we worship the Triune God, being united to Christ means that I know the Father too. It also means that I receive the Holy Spirit and so I receive the power to live a holy life too.

It might be helpful here to look specifically at how Evangelical Christians who believe in Penal Substitution handle the question of ongoing sin. In “Unreached” Tim Chester looks at reaching and discipling people on our council estates. He notes that there are challenging questions when people are living messy lives. Not everything changes at once, so when do you baptise? When do you discipline?  He argues that whilst we do not look for perfection and we expect ongoing struggle and relapses that the Gospel does call people to count the cost. Here’s what he has to say with quotes from two pastors working in urban/deprived contexts.

“The evangelistic pitch of Jesus was: ‘Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33). The person who responds to this call may continue to fall into sin many times but the fundamental orientation of their lives will have changed. Andy Mason says ‘I indeitify something in someone’s life and say, ‘If you become a Christian, that’s got to change.’ By picking one thing, I’m going after their hear. ‘If it comes down to your will versus Jesus’ will, who will win. Sai Hankey says, ‘ You need to show people that they cannot say, ‘I’ll give Jesus my heart, but I wan tto carry on doing this.’ That’s not giving your heart to Jesus. Jesus died for your sin. To want to carry on in sin is to continue doing that for which Christ died.’”[1]

This leads on to the next point, that if I share my life with Christ, be necessity I want to learn how to be like him and how to be his image bearer. How do I do that? Well belief that Jesus’s death was first and foremost substituion doesnt mean that it wasn’t  also doing all the other things people describe as being models of the atonement. It did lead to victory over evil, it was a demonstration of perfect love and it was an example. In fact in 2 Peter 2 we see penal Substituion language describing the Cross used to show that we have an example to follow when we are persecuted, wrongly accused and unjustly punished.

So the whole Gospel story of Christ’s life matters because we are interested in his example, It’s also because we want to know all about him, to love him and worship him. We have been saved from sin but we have also been saved for him. This growth is called “sanctification” and 1 John 3:1-2 shows that we seek to grow in this exactly because we have the hope of life after death in Christ’s presence.

[1] Chester, Unreached, 129.