Does Denying Penal Substitutionary Atonement Maximize the Love of God?

Some think that denying the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement maximizes the love of God.

Now, what is the doctrine of penal substitution and why should you care?

It is the doctrine that Jesus Christ bore the punishment (hence the word penal) that sinners deserved at the cross.  To put it another way, it is the doctrine that states that at the cross Jesus absorbed the righteous wrath of God (penal) in the place of (substitution) sinful men and women.  Often the doctrine of imputation follows, that is, at the cross Jesus took the wrath that sinners deserved even though he did nothing to deserve it and simultaneously that sinners are credited (or imputed) with the righteousness of Jesus even though they did nothing to deserve it.  Therefore, as a result of the cross, Jesus was treated by God at the cross as a sinner even though he lived a perfect life, and sinners who trust Jesus are treated just as righteous before God as Jesus even though they are sinful.

Let’s be more succinct and personal: at the cross Jesus takes my sin and the punishment my sin deserves upon himself, and I get Jesus’ righteousness.

Critics of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (called PSA from here on out) think that God would never punish his Son.  God is love.  He would not do such a thing.  How could he?  Not even a good earthly father would such a thing let alone a loving deity, right?  Some even chalk it up to “divine child abuse” saying that if God did such a thing he would be an abusive Father.  In this case, so the logic goes, punishment = abuse, and, therefore, punishment is unloving and God would never act in such a way because he is love.  Love never abuses.

Obviously, this is a serious charge.  Because it assumes that those who do affirm PSA make God out to be an abuser.  It places all who affirm PSA in the angry-and-mean God camp and those who deny PSA in the good-and-loving God camp.

Let’s be clear, there is no doubt that if there was something in any doctrine of the atoning work of Jesus that was against love it would severely contradict the character of God and his gospel shown in verses like John 3:16 and 1 John 4:8, which demonstrate the breathtaking love of God.  The love of God is essential to the character of God and the gospel of God.


Are the assumptions of those who disregard and even mock PSA true?  If God punishes Jesus in my place is that abusive?  Is it unloving?  Does it detract from Bible verses that emphasize the stunning love of God for the world?  Does it entail a false view of how God saves sinners?


In fact, PSA is an essential Gospel truth.  Notice I said essential.  It is not a peripheral doctrine like whether every believer should speak in tongues or whether you can sit down and have a cold one with your friends?  It’s about the atoning work of Jesus.  It’s about how sinners get right with God.  It’s about God’s love and what he has accomplished in his love for a sinful world.  Few things could be closer to the heart of how God saves sinners.

No doubt, the atonement should not be reduced to PSA alone, but it cannot be denied.  To deny PSA actually ends up minimizing God’s love for a sinful world instead of maximizing it, and compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ—how God saves sinners like you and me—itself.

Let’s let preacher Martyn Lloyd Jones unpack my previous statement,

“It is therefore, quite fitting to say that no-one really begins to understand the love of God and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who does not believe the substitutionary and penal doctrine of the Atonement.  Think it out.  Where do you see the love of God, if God’s Son is simply suffering the cruelty and all that men are doing to Him, in a useless manner?  What is the point of it?  If it achieves nothing, if it is not substitutionary, if it is not penal, if He is not really dealing with sins, it is useless suffering.  It is pointless, it is sheer cruelty, there is no love there.  Oh, the tragedy, that men should think that they are exalting the love of God in that way, whereas in reality they are evacuating it of its real essence and of its endless and eternal profundities!  Here is where you see the love of God, that ‘God spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all’!  He did not spare Him anything; He poured upon Him the vials of His wrath against sin.  He did not spare Him anything.  And it was for us, and because of His love for us!  Not what men did to Him, but what God did to Him as the Judge of the world, the righteous Judge eternal, the Holy Father—that is the supreme issue in the ‘death of the cross’!   And the Son gave Himself willingly, there was no compulsion.  He set His face steadfastly.  His one desire was to do His Father’s will and thus to bring about our salvation.  And it is only as you see Him as the innocent Victim, the Substitute, who has voluntarily put Himself in our place to receive our punishment, that you even begin to understand and to measure the eternal love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  And the Apostle Paul confirms all that we read elsewhere in Scripture—‘as Christ also hath loved us and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.’”  “The Atoning Work of Christ”, Darkness and Light, An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17, 310-311.

The Goodness & Wrath of God

Is God good all the time or is God angry all the time?  There is no doubt that both the goodness of God and the anger of God are clear in Scripture.  How is it that God can be kind and wrathful at the same time?   William G. T. Shedd sheds some light on this in the following quote in the light of the cross of Jesus (the language is a little archaic so read it twice!):

In all that is said, consequently, respecting the wrath of God, in Christian theology, it is of the utmost importance to keep in view the fact that this wrath is compatible with benevolence and compassion.  This is the infinite difference in kind between divine and human anger.  At the very moment when God is displeased, he is capable of devising kind things for the object of his displeasure: “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  And at the very instant when guilty man is conscious that divine wrath is resting upon him, he may address his supplication for a blessing to the very being who is angry with his sin and may pray: “from your wrath, good Lord, deliver me.”  And the great and ample warrant and encouragement for men to do this is found in the sacrifice of the Son of God.  For in and by this atoning oblation, divine compassion conciliates divine wrath against sin.  In the death of the God-man, “righteousness and peace, justice and mercy, kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10).  The mercy vicariously satisfies the justice; divine compassion in the sinner’s stead receives upon itself the stroke the stroke of divine wrath; God the Father smites God the Son, in the transgressor’s place: “Awake, O sword, against the man that is my fellow says the Lord of hosts” ( Zech. 13:7).  Dogmatic Theology, 706.

Grace Is One-Way Love

Paul F. M. Zahl writes the following wonderful explanation of grace:

What is grace?  Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return.  Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you.  Grace is being loved when you are unlovable.  It is being loved when you are the opposite of loveable….

Let’s go a little further.  Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved.  It has everything and only to do with the lover.  Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures.  It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called ‘gifts’ (whatever they may be).  It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold….Grace is one-way love.  Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, 36.

God’s grace can never be earned, which means God’s love can never be earned.  You don’t have to do something for God to get him to do something for you.  Love and grace have already come at you from God before you ever sought after him.  God’s grace in the person of Jesus means God has already done something for the world.

God so loved the world that he gave his Son.  God already gave.  God’s one-way love has come.  His name is Jesus.

Now, you, receive him.

Pornography Stats

Got the following image of pornography statistics from Craig Gross of via Twitter.  As you look at this think of the following dramatic words from Jesus:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”  Matt. 5:29

Coffee Headaches & Aching for God

I quit coffee, at least for a season.  It’s amazing what that wonderful dark stimulant will do when you stop drinking it “cold turkey”–give you a headache!

The withdrawals are mostly over for me.  This is now my 5th day without it or much of any caffeine for that matter.

Yesterday it struck me how suddenly my physical longing for coffee came upon me.  It wasn’t just the headache that reminded me that I needed coffee, but it was the desire for the taste of the four-shot Americano with cream in mouth.  What really put this in perspective was when I opened my Bible to Psalm 63:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,

My soul thirsts for you;

My flesh faints for you,

As in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (NRSV)

It struck me that when I virtually ignore God for a day, neglecting prayer, the Scriptures, and reminding myself of the Gospel, I barely miss him, but when I miss coffee for one day I feel its physical effects almost immediately.  The craving for coffee is there almost instantaneously after I wake up, and after a few hours headache sets in.

This is not the same with God.  At least for me.

Sure I get that feeling of “bummer I missed ‘devotions’ today”, but not this God-ache that the Psalmist is talking about.  He describes this ache not just in a spiritual sense (“My soul thirsts for you”), but in a bodily one (“My flesh faints for you”).   How I need the angst of the Psalmist for the living God more in my life.

He’s parched unless he meets with God.  He’s physically weary and spiritually thirsty for Jesus.  Notice the personal language—“you are my God”.  Time with God, according to the Psalmist, is not a check off of the list of duties done for the day.  He desires to possess God and to be with Him.

He is in a desert wilderness without any water.  He needs water and he desires water to survive.  And what he’s really saying is that life is utterly empty without God.  Desires aren’t all that desirable and needs aren’t all that necessary without the living God.  Without God life is living in a barren wilderness without water.  God is the true Desire and great Need of the human heart.

I always need God, and I always need to desire God, at least I know that intellectually, but sometimes both of those are missing experientially.  Not so with this Psalmist he knows his need and feels his desire for God.

Caffeine headaches are here ultimately to remind me not that I need a strong cup of coffee, but that I need God.  The desire for the taste of a warm coffee with cream exists to say that the desire for God is much more satisfying.

No need to toot your own horn on what you’ve given up for God.  That isn’t the point, nor is it my point here.  I’m not trying to get you to quit coffee.  Most likely you’ll see me sipping it again soon.  After all, bailing on coffee or anything else could just be “false humility” (Colossians 2:23) and a substitute for the gospel.   The gospel is not about “don’t” it’s about “done”—what Jesus has done for you.

The point is that every piece of life is meant to be done for the glory of God and to remind you that He is glorious—much more so than a cup of coffee.  When you forsake whatever it is for a season sometimes you learn that the ache for _____ was never meant to be filled with _____ but was meant to be filled with God.

Coffee headaches are meant to make you ache for God.