Monday, June 29, 2009

Did Christ die "in our place"?

In the following article Gary Williams responds to Steve Chalke's denial of Christ's penal substitution.

Dr. Williams writes:

Chalke asks some interesting questions. He is concerned that people almost universally think of ‘certain elements of the Church as judgemental, guilt inducing, bigoted and self-righteous’ (RTC, p. 1). He fears that these perceptions arise from what we believe about the cross, since how we behave inevitably stems from what we believe. If our society dismisses the cross, perhaps that is because we have misrepresented it in our lives. In particular, perhaps we have failed to grasp the wider significance of the cross. Here Chalke has social and political concerns. He wants to know what the cross means not just for individuals, but for the creation and its life as a whole: ‘Has Christ’s death on the Cross got any relevance or meaning beyond the individual eternal destiny of his followers?’ (RTC, p. 2). What, for example, does it mean for foreign policy or for the present terrorist threat? Chalke does not in so many words say that he thinks that the doctrine of penal substitution is to blame for our neglect here, but he implies it. The pieces raise a set of problems, and the only finger pointed as they unfold is aimed at penal substitution.

As he moves on, Chalke is keen to affirm ‘a clear substitutionary element’ in his understanding of the cross (RTC, p. 2). This is of course distinct from a penal substitutionary element, since it implies only that Christ did something in our place, not that he bore punishment in our place. For Chalke, this substitutionary element is part of a ‘multicoloured rather than monochrome’ theology of the cross (RTC, p. 2). That said, the ‘centre point of this biblical mosaic’ is the idea that by both his death and resurrection Jesus Christ is victor over the forces of evil and sin (RTCS, p. 2).

By contrast, Chalke introduces penal substitution: ‘a righteous God is angry with sinners and demands justice. His wrath can only be appeased through bringing about the violent death of his Son’ (RTC, p. 2). This, he says, ‘is a totally different matter’ (RTCS, p. 2).

Chalke does not here accurately state the doctrine of penal substitution. Note that he does not say that ‘some people express the doctrine like this’ or that people often mangle it when they explain it, which may be true. Rather, he explains the ‘concept’ itself (RTCS, p. 2). Perhaps he has heard this account of the doctrine or been taught it somewhere, but the inaccuracy remains, and it comes from a leader who wishes to explain how we should think about the death of Jesus and who presents himself as competent to give a potted summary of the history of the doctrine.

The problem is simple. Penal substitution, rightly understood, does not teach that ‘God […] brought about the violent death of his Son’ (RTCS, p. 2). It teaches that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit together purposed that the Son should become a man and as a man bear on the cross God’s just punishment for sin in the place of sinners. Chalke’s phrasing makes it look as if party A (God) ‘brought about’ the death of party B (his Son), with the overtone being that this was something inflicted by A on B. I do not infer unfairly: this implication emerges clearly when Chalke speaks of such a God as a ‘cosmic child abuser’ (RTCS, p. 2).
Read the entire article HERE.

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