Penal Substitution v “Christus Victor”

I am no scholar but when I found the web site – “A Rebel God” a few years ago, written by Derek Flood, I recognised material that seemed to hold a lot of truth.  Last year I found the following article written by Tess.  She told me that what she had written was really only a summary of Derek’s material – so that she could try and get her head around it. I sense this is a good starting point.
I originally loaded this material before reorganising the blog.  Jim’s comment was made at that time.

Many Christians believe in the doctrine of Penal Substitution – that we broke God’s law (which we’re told is  impossible to keep anyway), so God took his wrath out on his Son because his standards of perfection mean that he must have blood for law-breaking before he can forgive, and also because humans are so despicably wicked that they deserve the worst possible punishment there is.   So God poured his anger out on Jesus instead of us, thereby fulfilling the necessary legal requirements.

This view seems to be based on reason rather than revelation – it says that Jesus came to earth basically to die, to act as a sinless and perfect death-sacrifice so God can be appeased and therefore forgive the rest of us. In other words, that God demands a payment for transgression, and there is no forgiveness without the Cross.

But the early church did not have a clear doctrine of the Cross.  This view came about in around 1000AD through St Anselm of Canterbury, during a time when reason and logic were seen as more valuable than relational matters of the heart, and judicial systems were highly valued.  It sees God primarily as a court-room judge, who must judge sin and administer punishment – everything is interpreted through the law, salvation included.  Salvation is basically about forgiveness of guilt – forgiveness of our wrongdoing – dealing with sin on a superficial level.  It also focuses on Christ’s death rather than the Resurrection, and to a large extent ignores the actual life he lived.

The notion of sacrifice to appease the gods is not Hebrew, but pagan.  The pagans would offer sacrifices to appease their gods to stop them being in a bad temper and doing horrible things to them.  But from a Jewish perspective sacrifices were for the people, for their cleansing, and their communion with God. Penal Substitution basically sees the sacrifice of Christ from a pagan view – as a requirement by God to spare the rest of us.  It is based on a medieval – not a Biblical – view of justice, when rationalistic theories and judicial systems were valued, and relational issues considered weak and ‘feminine’.

People who are not sure what they believe sometimes suggest that God must be really cruel and sadistic, a bloodthirsty tyrant, and they want nothing to do with him.  Teaching this doctrine does not draw them near to his heart.  Those who are aware of God’s love, somehow know that the cross is way more than this, it is about the heart of God.

The early church saw the Cross in terms of “Christus Victor” – Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil.  It also viewed Christ’s whole life, death and resurrection as the sacrifice he paid as a ransom to free the captives from bondage.

The Penal Substitution view starts with a legal view through justification, then shifts to a relational one with sanctification.   A better way would be to view the entirety through a relational framework – where justification means being brought out of darkness and into light, which is God’s family.  This means not erroneously being declared innocent but instead declared loved by God, and justified and sanctified through his Love.

A little bit of background first

The biblical view of justice is rooted in compassion and mercy.  It is more about putting things right than seeking payback or revenge. While man’s view of justice is about putting people in prison, God’s is about liberation – freeing the captives from prison, the spirit of the Exodus, the Jewish storyA legal acquittal alone cannot heal a broken and hardened heart; only Love can do that.  Someone paying for your wrongdoing does nothing to transform the heart but is merely a legal transaction.

 The Law and Love
Since the Penal Substitution view of the Cross interprets everything through the law (including salvation), love is viewed with some suspicion.  However God says we cannot come through the law but only through faith.  Our reconciliation with him is in relational terms, not legal ones.  All laws must submit to Love.  Love needs to govern over all principles and rules.

The Apostle Paul described the law as good.  It came into being at a time of great violence and was provided as a protection, to prevent excesses in retribution (an eye for an eye only) and limit the damage of man’s sinful violent condition.  It was a tutor to lead man into relationship with God.  However it became an end in itself – leading to a spirit of legalism and self-righteousness.  Hence Paul referred to it as the ministry of death.  The problem was not the law itself, but the spirit of legalism.

Paul claimed to have kept the law faultlessly, yet described himself as the greatest of sinners.  Compare this to Jesus who technically broke the law many times so that he could love, yet was considered without sin.  In fact it was in breaking the law that he remained sinless.  He only did what he saw his Father doing. His sinlessness came from loving perfectly, rather than keeping the law faultlessly.  He healed on the Sabbath, touched the unclean many times and made himself a friend of sinners, and forgave people outside of the Temple system.  In doing so he earned the severest of penalties from the authorities which was crucifixion.

 The Temple System and sacrifices
The Temple was meant to reflect heaven, but in Jesus’ time it had become exceedingly corrupt.  The Sadducees (who collaborated with the Romans) had a monopoly on forgiveness; only those who could afford to bring a sacrifice could be ‘forgiven’ – hence Jesus and his whip and overturning of tables. Under this system the poor became outcasts and untouchables – they were shut out.  But Jesus forgave people freely (before he went to the Cross) thereby overriding the system. Once grace came their monopoly was subverted.

The true Jewish perspective of sacrifice was not to appease an angry god, but to cleanse man and draw him near to God.  The root word for korban (sacrifice) is karev, which means ‘to draw close’.  It was reconciliation, in a relational and not a ‘legal’ sense, an act of communion.  God did not require it in order to love or forgive.  God’s idea of true sacrifice can be found in Isaiah 1 – make yourselves clean, learn to do right; to seek justice, to defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless,  and plead the case of the widow.  There is no room for oppression in that system.

Jesus’ life purpose
Jesus’ ministry was about bringing in the Kingdom of God. His purpose was not to fulfil a legal system. It was to model love – to show us what it looks like, to show us the Father. He loved the poor and the outcast and the untouchable. He knew this would lead to his death – so in effect he loved to the point of death. He did not give a pat formula for salvation but ministered to people as the Father showed him their condition. To the oppressors he was stern, to the sick he gave healing, and to the guilty he gave pardon, etc.

God did not require his death in order to forgive or to be able to look at us, but the Cross was no accident, and God used it to bring about Life, to raise him, to show that love and life are stronger than death. His death is seen more in terms of a ransom – a payment not to God but to satan who has taken man hostage, to free the captives from their adversary – the accuser.
The rebel tyrant is first appeased and then conquered, and made subject to Christ.

God’s Kingdom is upside-down from man’s. It is where the least is the greatest, where there is strength in weakness. On the Cross, God becomes small, naked, weak and made bare. He becomes a God that is no longer a threat to us, but who identifies with us. He does not need the Cross. We do, in order to grasp love and forgiveness, to be able to feel we can draw close to him, unashamed. He does not need it to be reconciled to us. Man needed it to be reconciled to Life. We can receive atonement (at-one-ment) through Christ’s blood. Whatever ails us (not the same for everyone) is put to death on the cross with him. The Cross is strength in the guise of weakness. Death could not hold him.

In Penal Substitution the focus is on Christ’s death, but in Christus Victor it is on the Resurrection, but also reconciles all three elements: his life, death and resurrection as the sacrifice. In the Resurrection, death was overcome, and Love emerges as Victor. Our hope becomes about liberation in every area of life, as we learn to see ourselves as God does, not as worthless and powerless, but as his own. Sin is nothing more than a case of broken identity. We need liberation from the distorted twisted image of authority, from the accusing mindsets and corrupted religion that keep us from Life – and to be brought back into real and true relationship. This enables us to love radically as he did, in the face of oppression, and that is to participate in his sufferings.

The victory of the Cross is that it is sown in weakness, and raised in power. As he is raised so are we raised with him. All things are put under the lordship of Christ.

The sacrifice of Christ also brings redemption – the idea of something considered condemned and worthless being made valuable again. The poor and wretched are shown their value and worth as Christ comes to them and ministers to them. It is about a life crushed being healed and made whole. [It is SOZO].

So how does all this help to liberate us? It exposes the religious system, confronts it head-on. It confronts injustice and corruption. Jesus used weapons they did not expect – not of beating down their oppressors, the Romans, with violence, but using the weapon of Love. He changed the rules – telling them to love their enemies; in essence to overcome evil with good. He brought in an upside-down system – dying to live, losing to win and turning the other cheek, refusing to take up the enemy’s weapons. This is how God conquers evil – with acts of Love. His acts of Love were all about liberation – forgiving those crushed with guilt, healing the afflicted, delivering those oppressed by satan, drawing the oppressors to repentance, and accepting the rejected. His life was a rescue mission, not a legal payment. It was not just about forgiving us, but about breaking the power of evil and dominion over us. This is a theology of the heart – the heart of God. God on the Cross – the embodiment of strength in weakness and victory in surrender.

Another aside – this fits in with other reading I’ve done, which says the early church saw Christ’s message as one of “sweetness and light” and was focussed on the Resurrection not the crucifixion. It includes this quote (from Ruskin): “Not a cross as a symbol in the Catacombs. The earliest certain Latin cross is on the tomb of the Empress Galla Placidia, A.D. 451. No picture of the crucifixion till the Ninth Century, nor any portable crucifix till long after. To the early Christians Christ was living, the one agonized hour was lost in the thought of his glory and triumph. The fall of theology and Christian thought dates from the error of dwelling upon his death instead of his life.”

How much better is that, than ‘Jesus had to die for you, because you’re really wicked’? A lot, as far as I am concerned.


3 Responses to Penal Substitution v “Christus Victor”

  1. Jim Reitman says:


    I can see why you liked this article. There is indeed a lot of confusion over the biblical notion of substitutionary atonement, and ransom is indeed a good lens through which to view it. The notion of ransom is intrinsic to Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. Please forgive the length of my response; I’m sure I could have trimmed it up, but on proofreading it, I was at a loss as to how to do that and still maintain clarity.

    While I largely agree with the main thrust of her article, there are some potential misconceptions sewn into the logic of her argument. For one, the “ransom-to-Satan” theory does not do justice to the biblical telos of the ransom provided by God on the cross. As I argue in my initial reply to the Oct 18 modification of your original post on this blog, the ransom provided by Christ’s “one righteous act” was occasioned by sin in some form or fashion. Whether one believes in a literal Adam and Eve or not, there is a symmetry in Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21—it does not mention Satan at all but rather death that needs to be satisfied by the ransom in order for humanity to fulfill their God-given telos. This death was in some way a direct consequence of the “truth” that—whether symbolically or literally—all sinned in Adam (5:12-13). So as she correctly points out, humanity had to be ransomed in order to be liberated—not from Satan but from death, which includes not only physical death but also the spiritual death that comes from slavery to sin (7:24-25) and prevents us from fulfilling our created telos.

    A related point regards the purpose of the Law. The author is fine as far as she goes, but Romans 5:12-21 also makes it clear that God intended to give the Law so that sin might increase or abound—a figure that clearly refers to humanity’s need to be held accountable for the sin that has already contaminated them in Adam (5:12, 14, 20a). The Law serves the purpose of enlightening the conscience and thereby making us aware of how our sin resists God’s purpose for humanity, so that we would be all the more motivated to accept the free gift of Christ’s ransom to free us from its consequences (“liberate” us, as she correctly states). Paul’s argument is transparently predicated on the metaphorical depiction in Gen 3:1-14 of the enlightening of human conscience as an “opening of their eyes” to sin the moment they partook of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (the figural depiction of the Law in context of the narrative). Hence, the Law causes sin to “increase” in the sense that personal sin is imputed to our account beyond the “sin of Adam” when we “sin according to the likeness of Adam” (5:14)—with our eyes wide open. Hence at this point, there IS a legal or imputational component to the “satisfaction” provided by the ransom—we are all acquitted of Adam’s sin (5:18b).

    A final point—really the key to the entire discussion—has to do with the umbrella concept that governs how we are to view the notion of justice: What is the righteousness of God? The “largest” picture of the righteousness of God is related to the OT concepts of shabbatt and shalôm (or consummated peace with God and image-bearing wholeness). How can this be restored? Here it is helpful to note the relationship between the righteousness of God and the wrath of God in Romans 1:16-18 that is the key to Paul’s “gospel of God” (1:1). God’s redemptive purposes in delivering man from sin have to do primarily with restoring His originally-intended shabbatt and shalôm. But the presence of ungodliness and unrighteousness in His image-bearers results in death rather than shabbatt and shalôm. Hence, the wrath of God serves the purpose of both presently and ultimately purging sin from His image-bearers so that they might fully reveal His righteousness before a world that longs to be restored to its originally intended “Sabbath-rest” and “wholeness” (Rom 8:19-22). Hence, wrath is absolutely essential to ultimately revealing the righteousness of God—our created telos fulfilled by Christ in us; that is the true sense of Christus Victor that she begins to catch with her notion of liberation. The Law gives us the backdrop against which we can measure whether humanity has succeeded in “imaging” His righteousness or not. When we thus see how we don’t succeed—feeling the “just” wrath of God as “collateral damage” from the unrighteousness that contaminates us (1:18)—it redemptively drives us to receive grace in Christ’s substitute death (ransom) and resurrection life, so that we may presently and ultimately be restored as image-bearers who “reign in righteousness” and thus glorify God before the world (5:17b, 21b; 8:16-25).

  2. rantz72 says:

    I loved the following; “God’s redemptive purposes in delivering man from sin have to do primarily with restoring His originally-intended shabbatt and shalôm. But the presence of ungodliness and unrighteousness in His image-bearers results in death rather than shabbatt and shalôm. Hence, the wrath of God serves the purpose of both presently and ultimately purging sin from His image-bearers so that they might fully reveal His righteousness before a world that longs to be restored to its originally intended “Sabbath-rest” and “wholeness” (Rom 8:19-22). Hence, wrath is absolutely essential to ultimately revealing the righteousness of God—our created telos fulfilled by Christ in us; that is the true sense of Christus Victor that she begins to catch with her notion of liberation.”

  3. Daniel says:

    So, if blood is not required to be forgiven, what does the fraze “justified by his blood” mean? Also if penal substituition focused too much on Christ’s death, what did Paul mean when he said he was determined only to preach “Christ crucified”? I’m not saying I belong to either camp, but I just don’t want to see the blood and death of Christ underemphasized.

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