Penal Substitution: Nothing But The Blood

For over 130 years, many orthodox Christians have sang and are singing Robert Lowry’s (1826 –1899) treasured hymn with joy, delight and awesome conviction that the Old and the New Testaments testify that “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” can wash away our sin, make us whole again, white as snow, and our sin atone. “Naught of good that [we] have done”. Nothing but the blood of Jesus is Christians’ hope and peace. This is all their righteousness. “Glory! Glory! This [they] sing—Nothing but the blood of Jesus, All [their] praise for this [they] bring”.

The story is changing. The blood of Jesus shed for our sin, in our place as God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness is nothing than “a footnote to a gospel that is much richer, grander, and more alive, a gospel that calls you to become a disciple and to disciple others, in authentic community, for the good of the world”(McLaren 2003: 215)

The notion of God so loved the fallen world (John 3:16) that He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all (Rom. 8:32), a demonstration of His own love for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8) Christ died for us, so that by the grace of God, Jesus suffered and tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9) and we, thus, might live through him (1 John 4:9) since his atoning sacrifice (1 John 4:10) has freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev. 1:5) is sadistic and masochistic and in fact a form of cosmic child abuse, we are told.

In Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, misrepresented penal substitution, I believe, as “God takes on the role of the sadist inflicting punishment, while Jesus, in his role as masochist, readily embraces suffering” (Green & Baker 2000: 30). They contented that “It will not do, therefore, to characterize the atonement as God‘s punishment falling on Christ” (ibid 113)

A Baptist minister, Steve Chalke, lines with Green and Baker, as he expounded:

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.’(Chalke 2003: 182-3)

Is it true that Christ Jesus representing us as he lived, dead and rose again to bore our penalty by his blood a form of cosmic child abuse? What is Old and New Testaments understanding of Christ atoning work? I believe it is in the context of redemptive history as told in the Old and New Testaments that we can begin to understand the notion of Christ Jesus’ death.

Puzzling that N. T. Wright endorsed Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus, he correctly warned us that it is “to easy to belittle [the interpretation of Jesus’ death]”. Wright agrees that each model has its point to make. “But important though” is the model of Jesus “’representing’ his people, and through them the whole world” since it is “not only in the gospels but in Paul and elsewhere, it will scarcely carry all the weight required”. He explained,

There is too, third [first being exemplary, second representing], a massive sense in which Jesus’ death is penal. Jesus has announced God’s imminent judgment on his rebel people, a judgment that would consist of devastation at the hands of Rome. He then goes ahead of his people to take precisely that judgment, literally, physically and historically upon himself, ‘ Not only in theological truth, but in historic fact, the one bore the sins of the many’ This is both penal and substitutionary, but it is far bigger and less open to objection than some other expressions of that theory. Once you put it together with the previous model (Jesus as Messiah representing Israel and hence the world), you draw the sting of the main objections that have been advanced against it. (Wright 2011: 181)

I believe Wright is very correct. In the next article, I will begin with Passover Lamb of Exodus 12, sacrificial system of Leviticus 14 – 16, and the suffering Servant of Isaiah 52- 53 to show that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” (Hebrews 9:22 ), “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Matt 20:28 ESV emp. added) and that “Christ Jesus’ blood of the covenant,[…] is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”(26:28 ESV).

Question: Why did N. T. Wright, who defended superbly penal substitution model in his works, endorsed Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus which rejects this model?

Next: Penal Substation: The Lamb and the Suffering Servant

Previous: Penal Substitution: In My Place He Stood


McLaren, Brian (2003). “The Method, the Message, and the Ongoing Story” in The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Leonard I. Sweet, Andy Crouch, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian D. McLaren, Erwin Raphael McManus, Michael S. Horton.

Green, Joel B. & Baker, Mark D. (2000). Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity.

Chalke, Steve (2003). The Lost Message of Jesus: Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Wright, Tom (2011). Simply Jesus: Who he was, what he did, why it matters. HarperCollins Publishers.

Bloody photograph is from Dexter.

11 thoughts on “Penal Substitution: Nothing But The Blood

  1. Mr McLaren, Green and Baker seem to be drinking from the same cool-aid. Moral relativism the new flavor of the week of modernism where moral truths are dependent on personal preferences of individuals. If ever one of these deep thinkers should meet a manifested demon in a Christian (omg,Christians can’t have demons) try telling them to leave cause Jesus loves them. It is the blood of Christ that speaks to them loud and clear.

    And by the way the demons know spiritually if you believe the blood cleanses. Prayson great series.

    • Thank you so much. You are very right. The more we are unaware of how grotesque our sins are because we form a god who is cool with sin, the more blood of Jesus seems senseless.

      Remove the fear of judgment ““Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?(Gen 3:1b) and “You will not surely die” (v4b) and we will surely disobeying God. 🙂

      There is no place for a Holy God the God who angels cannot directly look, and cover their feet singing “Holy Holy Holy”. The God of wrath seems to have taken a vacation 😦 as a result, there is no fear of God.

      Thank you so much Kairos

  2. Your question about Wright gets to the puzzle about him: he is often thoroughly orthodox and then perplexing at odds what else he has said. I once had lunch with a NT scholar of note (I don’t have permission to use his name) who explained that “Tom” likes to hear himself talk and that like Luther he starts speaking and does not carefully consider his words.

    There was a series of lecturers by DA Carson on the new perspective in which he recounts some personal history with Wright which helps put NT into some perspective. The lectures where also the best three hour summary of the new perspective I ever heard.

  3. I am also confused about N.T. Wright’s position because in recent works he seems to promote the “New Perspective on Paul” which downplays the doctrine of justification in soteriology, especially in substitutionary atonement. Could you possibly speak to this at some point?
    I appreciate your insights!

  4. I believe that because Jesus was holy He was worthy to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in Him. Because His life was holy, His blood was holy also, making Him the perfect sacrifice for our sins. ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’ (Leviticus 17:11) The holy blood that was in Jesus was poured out for you and me to make atonement for our sins so that we could have a new relationship with God. God calls this new relationship “The New Covenant”. It is the blood of Jesus that seals this new covenant that God made with people.

    The death of Christ was more than a sad display of a good man dying a needless death. It was more than the execution of an innocent man. It was more than God saying “I love you this much.” Though the death of Christ was most certainly a display of the love of God, we do not see the true meaning of it if we do not see that this display of love was rooted in the appeasement of God’s wrath. It was the payment of a price. Justice demands that sin be punished and sin was punished at the expense of the life of Jesus Christ. The punishment was for the “wages” of sinners like you and me. And it was poured out on Jesus in full force and without any restraint. This was a punishment that was more brutal than any crucifixion. It was the pure and undiluted wrath of God and it was completely exhausted on the Son of God Himself.
    I also feel the sacrifice was the intent of God as we read,

    So why did Jesus die? Read Romans 5 for the answer. Sin entered the world through Adam, but through the death of Christ salvation is possible for all who believe (see also John 3).

    “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (JOH 3:14-16)

    Our text reveals that our blessed Saviour gave Himself, and God gave His Son (see the emphasis the comes on that word that), “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Our central motive and the theme on which we want to center is to see His purpose. The words “That whosoever believeth,” is the entire theme of this message.

    God the Father, in His love, gave His Son to suffer, bleed, and die. He gave His Son as a propitiation for our sins. We want to see the condescension of God in giving His Son. “That whosoever believeth…should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Notice in verse 15, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Why? “That whosoever believeth in him….” Do you see the emphasis on “That whosoever believeth?” Do you see that the Father has put reconciliation in place? “That whosoever believeth…should not perish.”

    The negative implication of our text we find in our Saviour’s words in MARK 16:16. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” See why it is so important that we believe, because those who believe not shall be damned. All of this preparation for our salvation was made “That whosoever believeth…should not perish but have eternal life.”

    If your interested, more about Why Did Jesus Have To Die? can be found at my blog


  5. Respectable theologians such as Keith Ward and J S Bezzant have shown that the theory of substitutionary
    atonement is based on an interpretation of the crucifixion that puts legalism before divine love. As such it is
    misleading and, worse, amounts to ascribing to God such human negativities as a cosmic desire for revenge, demands for death as repayment by one form of the divine from another, and so on. This crude misunderstanding is based, not on God’s love, but on medieval ideas about extreme power and extreme powerlessness. Geoffrey Lampe put his finger on the real meaning of the death of Jesus when he wrote that “Hell is separation from God; but God does not decree any such separation, nor does he make a hell and thrust men into it. Hell is made by man, and only man can consign himself to it. So, too, the death of Christ was inflicted as a punishment, not by God but by sinners in the attempt to justify themselves, to secure their own righteousness and hence, though without realizing it consciously, to reject God to the uppermost; in fact to kill him with every accompaniment of contempt and hatred.” (G W H Lampe in Soundings: essays concerning Christian understanding; ed A R Vidler. CUP, 1966 p189). That seems to me right.

    • Thank so much for your input Johnian.

      I believe in light of Jesus’ teaching of Hell “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” in Mark, Matthew and Luke, Lambe is sadly not right.[Good questions you could ask to examine the Biblical rightness is does Lambe draw his view from Scriptures and is his view faithful to the Bible?]

      Johnian, if Scriptures presented God as only love, then I believe I would probably agree with Ward and Bezzant. But God is Holy Holy Holy, righteous and just who condemned sinners and will pour His Holy wrath in full strength to all who are not in His Son.

      Last months I finished reading 5 books of Moses in a role which helped me understand that our God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

      I will try to answer the objections of Ward and Bezzant as we go through this series.

      Thank you so much Johnian.


  6. The horror of the cross brings our sinfulness into focus. We are blinded by familiarity and do not see our sinfulness/shortcomings as being ‘that bad’ and as a result, think that crucifixion is too extreme. I know that I do not see my shortcomings the way that God does (which is the way they truly are) and am deeply grateful for His mercy and His love.

    I am looking forward to your thoughts on redemption. The only way to understand the cross is in this context.

    • Very true. When we understand the grand contextual story of redemptive history, then we indeed understand and rejoice at the Cross because “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”(1 Cor. 1:18 cf v.23-24 Rom. 1:16)

      Be blessed.

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