It is in concord with God’s character that the Biblical remedy for man’s spiritual malady be salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8), based upon His shed blood on the cross (Rom 3:25). Therefore, it should be of little surprise that it is with this essential foundation of the gospel that the Emergent Church takes greatest umbrage. In fact, its opponents claim that the underlying reason writers such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren expend so much energy revising the essential character of God, is to subvert the truths they despise the most: the gospel doctrines of propitiation and substitution, sometimes referred to as “penal substitution.” Although not a Biblical term, this is the doctrine that Christ, by His own choice, and in obedience to the will of the Father, was punished in the place of sinners, and in so doing has satisfied the righteousness of God (propitiation), allowing Him to righteously forgive sins (Rom 3:26; 2Cor 5:21; 1John 2:2; 4:10), upon the basis of faith (substitution).
Having disabused his readers of the true nature of God’s character, true to form, Bell sets his sights on the doctrine of the death of Christ, and with faux preponderance goes to great lengths to prove that the evangelical view that the gospel is all about salvation from personal sins is “narrow.” He takes great effort to prove that Scripture uses a number of different images and metaphors to depict what happened at the cross:
“What happened on the cross is like … a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, and an enemy being loved.”
All of these truths are Biblical, but Bell’s claim that fundamental evangelicals have revered penal substitution to the point of elevating it above all other doctrines, is to suggest that they are promoting some form of theological competition. More than that, notice the pejorative language he uses to describe this vital truth, designed of course to undermine it.
“Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However, true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.”
Nothing could be further from the truth and it should be noted that Bell is presenting this argument in such a way so as to create a “straw man fallacy,” which he can then remove with great gusto. He continues:
“Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from sin and destruction. God is the rescuer.” UK theologian Steve Chalke agrees, taking specific issue with Christ’s payment for sins, making a statement that has become iconoclastic within evangelical Christianity. “How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent His anger and wrath on His own Son? 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.”
In these two statements, Chalke and Bell are not holding back in their attack on penal substitution, but this attack is nothing new. History shows that from the point of Biblical revelation of the first century, right down to this latest attack of the 21st century, via its dramatic rediscovery during the Reformation of the 16th century, alternative theories for the purpose of the cross have been posited. But the attentive reader will note that this is a mere sideshow to two more pressing issues.
First, how should we address this allegation that evangelical Christians have made the gospel solely about propitiation and substitution, making it “small” by ignoring its “cosmic scope”?
In one respect, Bell is right to draw attention to the wider amplitude of the gospel. It is true that the gospel includes the reconciliation of all things in earth and heaven unto the Son (Col 1:20; 2Cor 5:19). It is also true that, at the cross, principalities and powers were spoiled (Col 2:15), and the power of the devil was destroyed (Heb 2:14). In addition, Scripture also attests to the delivery of creation from the bondage of corruption (Rom 8:21). But while we rightly note the vast extension of gospel truth, we should not lose sight of the fact that, initially, the greatest human need is its personal application to deal with sins. Before Paul taught the church at Rome about the redemption of creation, he first emphasized the necessity of their own redemption (Rom 3:24). After he unveiled the reconciliation of all things to the Colossians, he reminded them that they themselves had been reconciled “in the body of His flesh through death” (Col 1:21-22).
Further consideration of key Biblical gospel texts will also present the basis of our personal reconciliation and redemption as the sufferings of Christ. Peter says that Christ “suffered once for sins (propitiation), the just for the unjust (substitution), that He might bring us to God” (reconciliation) (1Peter 3:18). Paul states that our justification is by means of redemption that is found in Christ Jesus, Who God put forward to be a propitiation by the shedding of His blood through faith (substitution) (Rom 3:24-25). Simply put, the apostles draw attention to the fact that the wider application of the gospel does not precede or supersede the necessity of its personal application.
Contrary to Bell’s claims, it is evident that the weight of evidence proves that where Scripture introduces the breadth of the gospel, it is not to contradict or dilute the truth of penal substitution, but rather to emphasize that it is on this foundation that the whole gamut of gospel truth rests.
Second, how do we address the charge that penal substitution is “morally dubious,” and “a huge barrier to faith”? A true Christian would undoubtedly take issue with the Father being described as vengeful, or the Father held responsible for punishing the Son. The Bible states that God punished the Son for sin (Isa 53:10), but as we have seen, there can be no salvation without it. Chalke’s charge of “cosmic child abuse” has led some to accuse him of blasphemy. Bell seems to agree by referring to those who uphold the precept of sacrifice for sin as “primitive,” claiming that the descriptions used in Scripture are merely “images and metaphors.” Readers should rejoice with the apostle Paul, that although metaphorical language is used in the Biblical communication of the gospel, the suffering of the Son of God was very real. In Christ there was found a willing and able Savior – “the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The question might be asked: Just what is the purpose of the cross in the emergent gospel?
Victory and example only?
Despite regaling his readers with a number of supposed metaphors, he provides two historical theories in answer to this question. First, he suggests that the cross was used to win a general victory over sin, death, and destruction (Col 2:15). Bell states: “The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable.”
Second, he suggests that the death of Christ was an example of supreme love (1Peter 2:21) and therefore should be a moral influence on us, causing us to “open ourselves to Jesus living” and enter a “way of life.” As we have noted, Scripture states that, at the cross, Christ was victor over evil forces. It also states that Christ’s death is an example for us. But in both of these cases, as we have seen, neither of these is enough. Timothy Keller helpfully points out: “Jesus’ death was only a good example if it was more than an example, if it was something absolutely necessary to rescue us. And it was. Why did Jesus have to die in order to forgive us? There was a debt to be paid – God Himself paid it. There was a penalty to be borne – God Himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering.”
Bell’s assertion that penal substitution presents Jesus rescuing us from God is holed beneath the waterline. Instead, God rescues us from the penalty of our sins through Himself. Just as the cross was more than an example, it was more than a victory over evil. Rather it was the greatest act of selflessness in all of history. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2Cor 5:19).
Without propitiation, God’s righteousness is abrogated. If God’s righteousness is abrogated then He is unjust and, by extension, unholy also. Similarly, without substitution through personal faith, His grace is abrogated. Paul reminds the Romans that the gospel promises are “by faith” so that they “might be by grace” (Rom 4:16). It was the grace of God that provided the propitiation for our sins.
Alternative theories to the penal substitution are designed to do away with the offence of the cross. Let us take note of this important point: the cross is offensive. It renders useless the wisdom of man, whether it be in the form of human merit or religion, and leaves him with nothing but the grace of God. No wonder Paul states that it is both foolish and a stumbling block at the same time.
By humanizing the gospel, the Emergent Church is left with nothing but spiritual buzzwords and empty niceties. But it also lacks one other thing; the power to save. Rick Warren’s Seeker Sensitive church did away with the Lordship of Christ in order to emphasize the need to have Him as Savior. The Emergent Church does the opposite. It does away with Christ as Savior and commands us to follow His example as Lord. Both are doctrinally wrong. Without a Savior we have no Lord. Without a Lord, we have no Savior.