Saturday, 15 March 2008

Isaiah 53 and Penal Satisfaction View of the Atonement

The Penal Satisfaction View of the Atonement, briefly, is the understanding that the purpose of Jesus' death was to satisfy the wrath of God against sin. God is absolutely holy, and his holy nature requires the sin be punished. Because God is just, he must punish sin. Thus, because God loved the world so much, he sent his Son Jesus to die and bear the punishment as a substitute for our sins. God poured out his wrath upon Jesus (instead of us) when Jesus died on the cross, so that whoever might believe on him would be united with him in his death so that the believer's sin debt would be paid.

This position is not universally accepted. Some Wesleyan theologians and Eastern Orthodox strongly oppose this. Isa 53, however, is very clear on this subject.

Here are the points one must touch when looking at Isa 53.
  1. the Servant was wounded for our transgressions
  2. the Servant was inflicted with the stripes of whips for our healing
  3. the Servant had the iniquities of us all laid upon him
  4. the Servant was but put to death for the transgression of the people "to whom the stroke was due,"
  5. Yahweh was pleased to bruise the Servant
  6. Yahweh put the Servant to grief
  7. the Servant's soul was offered as a sin offering
  8. Yahweh will see the travail of the Servant's soul and be satisfied
  9. the Servant will bear their iniquities
  10. the Servant bore the sins of many

In sum, God wounded, bruised, whipped, grieved, and put Jesus to death as a sin offering for our transgressions, and thereby was "satisfied." If this isn't penal satisfaction, then I don't know how else the prophet or the Apostles could make it clearer.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Greetings! I think it depends a bit on how one defines or uses the word "penal". I am a little hesitant to use this word because for some it seems to imply that God had to be conditioned into forgiveness. This was the concern of James Torrance (brother of Thomas Torrance) who taught me Systematics II. It was the Father's love that sent the Son to the cross. Also, James Torrance was concerned to avoid the use of the word penal because that implied a legal approach to the scriptures and thus led to the reductionistic tendency of scholastic Calvinism to reduce theology to a legal, formal and thus impersonal kind of approach. So long as we can communicate that "penal" does not imply a conditioning of the Father and so long as we avoid reducing the atonement to a legal, formal and impersonal kind of atonement, then I am OK with the word. Is this the concern of certain Weslayan and Orthodox thinkers that you mentioned? - Mike Cheek

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks Mike for your thoughts on this. I would share something of your concerns, but would be driven to embrace the concept by other concerns.

By penal, I mean that God's own holy nature would prevent an arbitrary outpouring of forgiveness. This assumes that God is the righteous universal judge who requires that all things be done according to righteousness and justice. As such, he cannot simply confer pardons and allow sinners to go unpunished. Thus, God's own nature requires penal satisfaction. I fear, however, that some may think that this indeed does "imply a legal a conditioning of the Father."

I do use human metaphors from our legal procedures, but let me hasten to add that Paul also uses some legal terminology, and that Rome was famous for its highly sense of cultured legality.

However, I don't think that the roots of penal satisfaction arise out of Rome, but out of an Israelite context. I don't think I'm imposing a Roman or European legal system onto Isa 53. I think Old Testament sacrifices exemplified 1) substitutionary atonement, and 2) the punishment of sin. Thus, penal satisfaction arises most naturally out of the Old Testament sacrificial system.

There is a tendency in much of Calvinism to reduce the atonement to something of a mathematical/ quantificational enterprise, as if the amount of atonement in Christ's suffering had a credit limit according to the exact number of sins and sinners he predestined to pay for. I would eschew this, preferring to think that Jesus suffered the same for one soul as he did for all of humanity.

I think the Orthodox have a problem with Penal Satisfaction because they don't like the concept of God's punitive wrath being poured out on his Son.

I think some Wesleyans have a problem with penal satisfaction because they have been influenced by the Arminian Puritan John Goodwin and by the 19th century Wesleyan theologian who argued that penal satisfaction necessarily results either in universal salvation or in limited atonement.

I would argue against this on the basis of Union with Christ.

adam brown said...
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James said...

In preparing for a sermon on the priesthood of Christ (from the book of Hebrews), I quickly googled "penal satisfaction" (an unfortunate appelation - I prefer punitive satisfaction, for obvious, if crass, reasons) and stumbled upon your blog.

I heartily concur with your assessment from Isaiah 53 (and the numerous NT allusions to this text) in unpacking the meaning of the cross. However, I would tend to agree with Goodwin that such a view seems to demand either universalism (an efficacious atonement for the entire race) or limited atonement (efficacious for redemption only for the elect). I'm curious to hear how the doctrine of union with Christ (a reformed favorite) frees one from this 'dilemma'. Please know my interest in geniune, and not polemical. I myself am a Calvinistic Baptist. I suppose, though, like Spurgeon, I see the Calvinistic soteriology as simply Augustinian, which in turn I understand to be faithful to the Pauline/NT soteriology.

Having said that, I tend to agree with D.A. Carson, and other Calvinists, that the atonement is universal in sufficiency, but specific in its efficacy. For from the cross, as I understand the NT, all the blessings of salvation flow - even the gift of faith and repentance. That is, Christ not only offers salvation, but absolutely secured it by his triumphant work at Calvary. That is, the cross effects not only propitation, but our union, which entails all the blessings that attend our redemption.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks, James for the thoughtful comment.

No one, regardless of theological bent, benefits from the atonement unless he or she is united with Christ through faith.

Jesus shed his blood for everyone, but no one benefits unless he is united with Christ. This is good theology. It does not lead to universalism, and it is the sure way out of limited atonement.