Identifying and Resisting Satan’s Attack | Part 3 of 5
The Satanic Attack on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)
In part one of this series, we saw the Bible’s emphasis on the importance of watching out for false teaching. This false teaching takes the place of genuine biblical instruction and gives license for people to sin.
In part two, we saw how Satan used crafty rhetoric to undermine Adam and Eve’s trust in God. We also saw how some teachers within Christianity follow Satan's pattern as they deceive the church.
Today, we will examine those who use Satan’s strategy to undermine one of the most central doctrines of the Bible: penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Penal substitutionary atonement is the doctrine that Jesus suffered God’s punishment for sin instead of us so that we could be reconciled to God through him.
This doctrine is fundamental to our Christian faith because it lies at the heart of the gospel, as presented in the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah wrote, “Yet he himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains; but we in turn regarded him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished him for the iniquity of us all.” (53:4-6)
That final phrase sums up the passage: “the Lord has punished him for the iniquity of us all.” Since God must punish sin with death (Ez 18:4), our salvation is secured only by a substitute dying in our place. Even Leviticus pictured this in the way sacrifices were to be offered, “He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.” (Lev 1:4)
In the New Testament, Jesus initially pointed to his own death as the fulfillment of this prophecy, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28) Jesus referred to his death as a ransom because it made the payment to God for the sins of the people in order to redeem them from sin’s curse.
That same truth was repeated by the apostles:
Peter: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)
Paul: “God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.” (Rom 3:25)
John: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one. He himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)
Each apostle stated that Jesus suffered the penalty for sin in order to reconcile people to God through faith in Christ.
Yet, like Satan in the garden, some false teachers want to undermine the church’s confidence in this biblical doctrine. And as we examine their claims, we will see that, just like Satan, these men attempt to instill skepticism in readers’ minds by exaggerating the doctrine.
One of the most vocal opponents of Jesus’ penal substitutionary atonement is Brian McLaren. McLaren’s own website describes him as, “an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for ‘a new kind of Christianity’ – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good.”
It is no mistake that McLaren presents himself as an advocate for a new kind of Christianity. In reality, there is no other form of Christianity than the one Christ and his apostles established. But McLaren wasn't satisfied with the original; he saw room for improvement on what Jesus designed. McLaren became well known during the Emergent movement of the late 90s and early 2000s, when authors and pastors were all exploring how to make Christianity cool again. Since then, he has dedicated his career to reconstructing Christianity to fit in with the modern world.
One of McLaren's most notable attacks on PSA came in his 2003 book, The Story We Find Ourselves In. He wrote, “For starters, if God wants to forgive us, why doesn’t he just do it? How does punishing an innocent person make things better? That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?” (102)
This statement invites our skepticism by caricaturing the very idea of Jesus’ atoning death as an injustice, “That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation.”
But why does it matter how a doctrine “sounds” to us? Does McLaren want Christians to evaluate the Bible’s teaching based on what sounds good or what is biblical? Rather than testing doctrine by Scripture alone, McLaren wants readers to be skeptical of any doctrine, regardless of biblical support, that doesn’t appeal to human sensibility.
His above statement also includes an exaggeration, "It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?”
To suggest that Jesus’ death was anything like child abuse ignores at least two fundamental differences between Jesus’ death and child abuse.
First, Jesus knowingly and willingly went to the cross. Child abuse is neither something the child understands nor wills. Yet before and after the crucifixion, Jesus is clear many times that he must suffer (Luke 9:22, 13:2,17:25, 22:15, 24:26, 24:46). In fact, right before his death, he was explicit about why he needed to suffer, “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) Jesus sought to fulfill his New Covenant promise of forgiveness of sins through suffering God's penalty for sin: death and separation from his Father.
Second, when the Father punished Christ for our sins, there was nothing gratuitous or excessive in his punishment like what we would see with child abuse. Jesus confirmed this when, immediately prior to his death, he said “It is finished” (John 19:3). That statement meant sin's debt has been paid and Christ's redemption had been accomplished. Then he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit” (Luke 23:46). He immediately died after that. But even in his agony, Jesus understood and communicated that the payment had been made, it ended with his death, and he trusted his Father with his life at the end of his suffering.
Jesus' death wasn't anything like child abuse. The Son was willing and the Father was just in punishing.
And here's the most important thing McLaren misses: it was all done in love for us.
Someone has to pay for our sins. Will you suffer for yours or will you accept Jesus' payment instead? The world doesn't like that truth. It never will. But we can't re-package it to appeal to unbelievers without removing the core truths of God's holiness, our sin, and our need for a substitute, Jesus Christ.
Instead of repackaging the truth, I encourage you to pray for your unbelieving friends and family. Ask God to give you opportunity to communicate the message of forgiveness through Jesus' death for sins and his victorious resurrection from the dead. Ask God to send his Spirit to them to awaken them to the truth. And then be faithful to speak the truth when he brings that opportunity to you.