Saturday, April 26, 2008

T4G Reflections - Substitutionary Atonement

I've been thinking more about Al Mohler's lecture last week at T4G and its implications. The subject of his message was "Why Do They Hate It So?", referring to the objections and opposition that many have to the doctrine of Christ's penal substitutionary atonement. Mohler's message was probably the toughest to absorb of the whole conference, since it was really more of a seminary lecture than a sermon, and was extremely full of content as most of Mohler's messages are. It was also the last session of a long day. Most of the people I was with had a hard time understanding and processing what was being said. I did as well, but at least was able to track with the main points. So I've gone back now a few times and listened again to the lecture, trying to glean as much from it as possible. Here's a few thoughts as I've done so.

First, Mohler made it clear that the focus was not on those in the unbelieving world who would despise the bloody cross of Christ, but rather on those who would claim to be Christians. He outlined the long history of opposition to the doctrine, going back to Socinus and his followers who as a result of their denial of the Trinity also denied the atonement of Christ. He noted how this doctrine of penal substitution was in the middle of the battle in the late 19th-early 20th century of liberal vs. fundamentalist theologians. And he also touched on the more contemporary objectors to the doctrine, including such writers as Clark Pinnock, Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren. The latter emergent authors have referred to penal substitutionary atonement as "divine child abuse" and reject it on this basis. The perspective Mohler gave showed that while this central doctrine of Christian theology and faith has always been controversial among some, it is even more so in our day as postmodern thought systems make their way into evangelicalism.

It should go without saying to any Biblical Christian that the doctrine of Christ's penal substitutionary atonement is a core and non-negotiable component of the Gospel, and of the entire Christian faith. God's word is clear that "without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." (Hebrews 9:22). There can be no remission of our sin apart from a bloody sacrifice, who Christ Himself was. As stated in 1 Peter 2:24, "...He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed." This deals with the penal aspect of the atonement, that being the payment of the penalty that God's justice demands for sin. And also it presents the substitutionary aspect of Christ's death as well, referring to Christ bearing our sins on the cross. One of my favorite passages indicating this is 2 Corinthians 5:21, which states that "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Over and over we see this doctrine of penal substitution presented in the Bible. It was foreshadowed in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, and is explicitly stated repeatedly in the New Testament. It is stated by Jesus Himself in Mark 10:45 when He says that He came " give His life a ransom for many." It would seem that to deny the truth of this doctrine would require applying some corrupted kind of hermeneutic to the plain statements of Scripture. And of course, that's exactly the case.

What I found most interesting about Mohler's lecture was the response to these things by many of my brothers and sisters in Christ who I had travelled with and listened to this with. It was pretty obvious that most of them had never heard of these objections to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement before. One of my friends sitting next to me, when Mohler was quoting Clark Pinnock, asked me, "Do some people actually believe this stuff?" In discussing as a group later, that was the consensus of most others as well. Now, I'm not a Biblical scholar or theologian, but I have read and heard enough of these objections to at least be familiar with the subject. But I saw this as a wake-up call to those in the church who may have very sound and Biblical views and doctrines, and may teach and preach them, but be virtually unaware of the battle for sound theology in the church at large. If we are to contend for the faith, we not only have to know what that faith is, we also have to be able to identify those who are trying to redefine it and what their arguments are. The battles for Christian truth and orthodoxy have always and ever will be fought within the ranks of the self-identified Christian community. I care not that the unbelieving world and scholars and the like have no understanding of or use for the central doctrines of Christian faith. Why should we expect them to? They are unregenerate, dead in their sin and unable to rightly comprehend any spiritual truth. What I am passionate about, however, is the defense of the Gospel against attacks from those who would wear the label of Christian but who deny or corrupt the very central doctrines that define Christian truth and belief. And in our postmodern age of suspicion toward truth claims and rejection of absolutes, this defense is needed more than ever before. And unfortunately, much of the church is less equipped to deal with it than ever before. Or, as I observed with my friends, well equipped but oblivious to the attacks. Either way, the truth is not well defended.

My charge, to myself and to you, is the same as Paul gave to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:14. We must "Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you."

1 comment:

donsands said...

Amen to this post.

It's a battle of sheep against wolves in sheeps clothing. But the Good Shepherd will raise up under shepherds to protect the sheep. And the sheep themselves should be able to speak the truth in love, and resist these wolves, and pray for these wolves to be converted.

Paul says in Romans 16 to "watch out" for these divisive people, and "avoid" them.
Paul tells us wolves will come, and even among ourselves they will come in Acts 20.

The Church does need to be better equipped. May the Lord make us hungry, and then feed us, so that we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.