The mission of the church is not to win the world’s admiration.
Many of today’s best-known evangelical strategists and the leading practitioners of “missional” methodology seem not to grasp that simple point. They constantly encourage young evangelicals to “engage the culture” and defer to the rules of political correctness. When they translate that counsel into concrete, practical plans of action, it often turns out to mean little more than trying to stay in step with fashion—as if being perceived as cool were the key to effective ministry.
Sermon series based on the latest movies or pop culture themes are now commonplace in modern evangelicalism. Indeed, judging from what gets the most publicity and promotion in evangelical circles, it seems shallow homilies dealing with cultural artifacts vastly outnumber serious sermons featuring biblical exposition. Churches that base their ministries on whatever is trendy argue that they are “redeeming” and “engaging” the culture when instead, they are actually absorbing its fashions and values.
You won’t find anything like that in Paul’s exhortations to young ministers. On the contrary, Paul candidly acknowledges that the gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23, ESV). Indeed, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, emphasis added). Therefore, he says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Word of the Cross
What, precisely, is “the word of the cross”? How did Christ’s death make atonement for sin? Bad theologians for generations have assaulted the correct answer to that question. Several competing “theories of the atonement” have been proposed.
For the record, I despise the weak word theory in this connection, because the Bible presents the doctrine of atonement in terms that are anything but optional or conjectural. The imagery of atonement in Scripture is both vivid and violent. “One may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood” (Hebrews 9:22). The New Testament repeatedly tells us that all the bloody pageantry of those Old Testament animal sacrifices symbolized and foreshadowed the work of Christ on the cross. “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but [Jesus], having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11–12). “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold . . . but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Peter 1:18–19).
Those texts (and others like them) are clear: Christ’s death purchased atonement for His people’s sins. But the connotations of blood atonement are grossly offensive to the genteel sensitivities of those who fancy themselves more refined than Scripture. (It is the same squeamish attitude that causes “progressive” minds to shudder at the term propitiation.) Several writers and theologians have therefore proposed spurious theories of the atonement. Most of them deliberately attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, the offense of the cross. All of them offer some kind of false alternative to the truth that Christ’s death was an offering to God meant to satisfy and placate His righteous anger against sin.
The Heresies About the Cross
What are these aberrant theories? There’s the moral influence theory—the belief that Christ’s death was merely an example of personal sacrifice and self-giving love, and not at all the payment of a redemption price. This is the view most theological liberals hold. For reasons that should be obvious, their perspective on the atonement inevitably breeds works-oriented religion. If Christ’s work is merely a model to follow, and not a substitutionary sacrifice, salvation must somehow be earned through one’s own effort.
The ransom theory (a belief that was common in the post-apostolic era in the first century) is the notion that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan for the souls of the faithful. There’s no biblical warrant for such a view, of course. It was originally based on a misunderstanding of the biblical term ransom, which simply means “redemption price.” But this view fails to take into account all of the biblical data. Scripture makes abundantly clear that Christ’s death on the cross was “an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, emphasis added; cf. Heb. 9:14).
The governmental theory was proposed by Hugo Grotius, a Dutch legal expert from the early seventeenth century. He said the cross was not a ransom at all; it was merely a vivid symbolic display of God’s wrath against sin—and therefore it stands as a public vindication of God’s moral government. Grotius’s view was adopted by American revivalist Charles Finney. It was shared by other leading New England theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has been brought back into the limelight recently by a certain class of radical Arminians. They typically favor this view because it does away with the idea that Christ died as anyone’s substitute—a truth they consider unjust (even though Scripture stresses the fact that Christ voluntarily took that role).
Another opinion that has steadily been gaining popularity for the past quarter century is the Christus victor theory. This idea is favored by many new-model theologians (including most of the architects of the now-failed Emerging Church movement). In their view, Christ’s death and resurrection signified nothing more than His triumph over all the foes of fallen humanity, including sin, death, the devil, and especially the law of God. They want to scale down the significance of Christ’s atoning work to a very narrow spectrum of what He actually accomplished. It is certainly true enough that Christ “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us,” and “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:14–15). But the theme of victory over the enemies of the human race simply doesn’t do full justice to everything the Bible says about the cross. It’s a man-centered and severely truncated view of the atonement.
Those who adopt the Christus victor theory favor triumphal language, and they eschew biblical terms like sacrifice for sin or propitiation. Most who hold this view would emphatically deny that Christ offered Himself to God on the cross. At the end of the day, this is just another unbiblical view that pretends to exalt and ennoble the love of God by overturning and eliminating the law’s demand for justice.
The Truth About the Atonement
All those theories attempt to sidestep the biblical principle of propitiation. Most of them do it on purpose, because they are rooted in a skewed view of divine love. People are drawn to these views by a common false assumption—namely, that God’s mercy is fundamentally incompatible with His justice. They believe God will forego the demands of justice in order to forgive. They conclude that divine righteousness needs no satisfaction; God will simply set aside His own righteousness and erase whatever debt is owed to His justice for sin. Given those faulty presuppositions, the death of Christ must then be explained in terms that avoid any suggestion of retributive justice.
The doctrine of penal substitution is the only view that incorporates the full range of biblical principles regarding atonement for sin. Penal substitution may sound like an arcane technical term, but it is actually quite simple. The word penal denotes punishment—a penalty that is inflicted because an offense has been committed. Substitution speaks of a replacement or a proxy. Penal substitutionary atonement is therefore a straightforward exchange wherein one person bears the penalty someone else deserves. Christ’s death on the cross was a penal substitution. He bore the guilt and punishment for His people’s sins.
This is not a theory. It is the plain teaching of Scripture. In virtually every text where the New Testament writers mention the relevance of Christ’s death, they prominently feature the language of substitutionary atonement. “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He “was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). He “gave Himself for our sins” (Galatians 1:4). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7). Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28). He “bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). Christ “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2). “He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). All the New Testament writers agree on this: Christ was our sinless substitute, and He died to pay the penalty for our sins.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul)