Archive for the ‘Julian of Norwich’ Tag


Posted 31/5/07

Penal Substitution: The doctrine that God sent His sinless Son, Jesus Christ, to die in our place on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, thus enabling us redemption by His blood, and access to eternal life. As classically stated by St Augustine – ‘Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that he might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment’.

Sound familiar? Well the church has been built upon this, and the gospel loves to make mention of it, eg 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. However, recently the doctrine has been under general attack. I’m not wading in, as everyone involved is cleverer than me I’m sure. However, not everyone has half term to read about it all as I do, so I thought I’d summarise the state of play as I see it, along with the main protagonists…

Steve Chalke, everyone’s favourite cuddly TV evangelist and a former member of my parents’ church youth group, pretty much started this round of arguments in late 2003 when he coined the term ‘cosmic child abuse’ to describe a caricatured version of penal substitution – a situation in which an angry God pours his wrath upon the head of His only son in order to be satisfied. He naturally then rejects such a notion, instead choosing to focus on the idea that God is Love. In Chalke’s view, the cross was a ‘lightning rod’ for the evil things of the world (eg sin and suffering) – Jesus taking to Himself all that had gone wrong in his role as ‘Love’ and so sparing us (One might ask why these things then still exist, but still).  This is referred to by Chalke’s apologist Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham as ‘a form of ‘penal substitution’ in itself, as Jesus is taking upon Himself the force of sin so we don’t have to (and then presumably defeating it by resurrection). However, where the ‘penal’ comes in is something of a mystery, as Chalke is very keen to distance himself from any idea of punishment – either merited or handed out by God. That would be the opposite of Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies’ after all… (perhaps sin is the punishment because Adam brought it into the world as a result of his wrong act?) Elsewhere in his book, Chalke explains away evidence of a wrathful God in the Old Testament (he had to, having stated that anger goes against the character of God) – showing Him merely to be operating, whilst disapproving, within the parameters of human history in violent times – a concept that presumably views God as lacking the control to better influence these events in the first place. Scrutiny of Scripture makes this hard to reconcile with the likes of Exodus 22:24; ‘My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.’. Personally speaking however, my primary challenge to Chalke, and that of others greater than me, would be concerning his disregard of Trinitarian equality – if Christ is God, and equal with God, then surely ‘child abuse’ is a patronising as well as heretical term. God is effectively taking the punishment upon Himself – thus the righteous wrath of a God who can’t abide sin is appeased whilst demonstrating that very ‘love’ Chalke is rightly fond of.

Moving on then, to the events of this year – on the one hand we have the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, taking Chalke’s argument to perhaps its logical conclusion. 

 He takes this loving God and ditches penal substitution altogether. In John’s view, Jesus suffers primarily to show that he understands all the bad times we go through. Rather than attempt to explain away, a la Chalke, the wrathful behaviour of the OT, John instead mocks the Bible, claiming the early writers (including Moses we must presume) were simplistic and misguided in their view of God’s judgement, whilst the Psalmist ‘needed to get out more’. Now there is no sin, in my view at least, in getting things wrong in all good conscience (by way of example, I would now discredit plenty of my predestination article above, without feeling any need to repent). However, I think Jeffrey John is the one guy I’ll mention guilty of truly errant behaviour (albeit perhaps in the noble aim of attracting people to Christ). He takes Luke 13 (”Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you no!”) as his decisive proof that Jesus has no interest in punishing sin accordingly, whilst all the time hiding the fact that the very next verse demolishes his entire argument: ‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish’.

In the other corner, we have the chaps from Oak Hill College, where my own pastor Perks trained, along with most (I think) of the Co-Mission leaders. Three of their number (Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffrey and Andrew Sach) have written a large and well-endorsed rebuttal of Chalke’s viewpoint, and a staunch defence of penal substitution as it has traditionally been taught, entitled ‘Pierced for Our Transgressions’. They have written a systematic work, taking biblical evidence from across the Scriptures and early church doctrine illustrating the fact that, as Isaiah 53 (from whence the title of their book comes) makes clear, ‘the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’. (Incidentally, isn’t it awesome to think that that entire passage accurately describing the character and works of Christ was written 700 years before his birth. Try running that one past a God who doesn’t pre-ordain…).

Claiming for himself the middle ground of late has been Bishop Tom Wright.


He has written a lengthy and fascinating essay (must be – I read it all!) soundly rejecting both John and the Oak Hill team. The former is a brilliant demolition that leaves little argument, but the latter left me confused. After all, it is just so ill-matching to the first part of the article. Anyone reading the article will feel they know most of what Jeffrey John has said, but would know almost nothing of the content of ‘Pierced for Our Trangressions’. He doesn’t engage with the texts and argument, but instead repeatedly shouts something equating to ‘why aren’t you listening to me??’. You see, Bishop Tom has espoused a passionately held theory that understanding of the cross must be in the context of his preferred biblical narrative, focused around God’s relationship with Israel and the Abrahamic covenant. He renders any comprehension of the cross outside of this as ‘profoundly unbiblical’, preferring to see Jesus’ death as the fulfillment of an Old Testament Jewish storyline. In fact, in criticising Ovey, Jeffrey and Sach, he says very little about penal substitution at all. For the record, Wright sees immense significance in Isaiah 53 but places it in a context lent by Romans 3-8. I read that passage this morning and it’s a brilliant and dynamic essay in itself, with huge amounts to say about sin, the salvation of Gentilles, the inadequacy of living by Jewish law alone and, indeed, on atonement by Jesus’ blood. However, whilst it does nothing at all in my eyes to discredit the idea of penal substitution, Wright sees a distinction in the fact God punished ‘sin in the flesh’ of Jesus, and not Jesus Himself. This apparently clears Him of ‘cosmic child-abuse’ and takes away the personal element of punishment.


Wright is clearly a friend of Steve Chalke, the one character in his essay apparently beyond all reproach, and no friend of Oak Hill. ‘Steve’ is the only one referred to in first name terms and given complete benefit of the doubt as Wright assures us Chalke has told him he believes entirely in penal substitution. Unfortunately, just to complete this circle, Chalke himself has undermined such a statement by repeatedly slating the doctrine since the publishing of his book. For example, ‘The extraordinary thing is that supporters of penal substitution tend to hold it as a ‘God-given truth’. However, this supposed orthodoxy is no orthodoxy at all . . .’


In my humble opinion, all this furore, over a doctrine taken as a given for so many years, is part of a creeping desire for a political correctness that will make the church more accessible to those outside it in the 21st Century. ‘God is Love’ is a new and all-encompassing motto that can similarly be applied to those seeking to welcome homosexuality into the church, those wanting to suppose that different paths lead to one God, or to those ‘open theists’ looking to emphasise human free will and decision-making at the expense of divine predestination and foreknowledge (Read ‘No Other God’ by John Frame – it’s great). Each presents its message according to soundbite generalisations and little close biblical support. I have some sympathy with all these – if I was trying to make Christianity accessible to my non-Christian friends, I might want to phase out elements such as wrath, punishment, Hell, predestination and sin. However, the Bible is truth and is, as such, unalterable. God is indeed Love but he is also Justice and Righteousness – as Frame maintains, no one asset can be placed above the others as He is all of them perfectly. Left to our own devices, no-one will turn to God. Those in whom the Spirit moves will hear and respond, those whose hearts remained hardened will turn away. God’s election decides which are which. Our place is to set an example and to give people the Gospel message, and thus the opportunity to respond. By watering it down or presenting falsehoods, we do no-one any favours.


Penal substitution is not ‘cosmic child abuse’ but the means by which we are saved, and the greatest example of God’s love for us. Without it, God’s people would still be bound by the law, in all its inadequacy, and so would be experiencing only a shadow of the Kingdom. We, as Gentiles, would be in with little chance. As Perks has stated, we should believe in penal substitution and should rejoice in it too. Back in the 14th Century, Julian of Norwich stated that ‘love and wrath are two opposites’. She was wrong.