I am concerned that currently evangelical theology is not doing a very good job with the cross of Christ. Why do I say that? Because some of the most popular works on the cross of Christ are distorting, denying, or just plain ignoring the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement.
Don’t believe me? Just consider the following three reviews of (1) The Bible Project, a beautiful video graphic series by Tim Mackie that helps us read Scripture and understand the Bible; (2) The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge which won Christianity Today’s 2017 Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year; (3) The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright whose prolific pen continues to drip theology into evangelical churches.
In each of these reviews, we find much to appreciate in the works of Tim Mackie, Fleming Rutledge, and N.T. Wright, but even more we find hidden (and not so hidden) in their work a deep disinterest and even denial of the wrath of God, penal substitution, and all theological realities that make this doctrine of the atonement necessary.
Review: The Bible Project — Brilliant But Flawed by Richard Sweatman
Sweatman extols the brilliance of The Bible Project, a brilliance I share. Yet, he highlights something else—namely, the pervasive denial of propitiation in their corpus of graphic films. He writes, “So, to sum up, The Bible Project does not teach that God responds to sin with wrath and anger. The cross deals with the consequences of sin such as brokenness or impurity, but does not turn aside the wrath of God.”
Because these movies captivate the eye and do not make a sustained argument against penal substitution, it would be easy to miss this point. Accordingly, many evangelicals (myself included) have “shared,” recommended, and used Tim Mackie’s videos.
Nonetheless, Richard Sweatman has helped us to see a missing piece in their theological puzzle. And instead of being a peripheral piece, this one is at the center of who God is and what Christ has come to do. Accordingly, we must watch these videos with great discretion, which means for me that their labors remain invaluable for seeing the literary structures of Bible books. However, in their theological videos and explanation that touch on the atonement of Christ, we must be vigilant to see where they come up short.
Almost all that they affirm is right, but what they leave out is even more right—namely, the holiness of God which responds in wrath towards sin and grace towards sinners whom the Son gladly propitiates through obedient unto death on the cross in the place of the people he is redeeming.
As John Stott once put it, redemption comes from through divine satisfaction by divine substitution. Indeed, propitiation is at the heart of the gospel. Yet, as Sweatman identifies, it is not at the heart of The Bible Project—and that’s no small problem.
Getting the God of the Cross Right . . . and Very Wrong: A Response to Fleming Rutledge by Stephen Wellum
Perhaps no book better explains the necessity of penal substitution than Stephen Wellum’s Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior. In this book celebrating the Reformation doctrine of Solus Christus, Wellum outlines the logic of penal substitution as he considers the matrix of “God-law-sin relationship” (193ff.) Following the intra-systematic categories of the Bible, he explains why a holy God demands justice (e.g., “for the wages of sin is death”) and how God is both just and justifier in the death of Christ.
By contrast, another recent book on the atonement has garnered no little praise. Even The Gospel Coalition’s review by Andrew Wilson is generally positive in its response. Yet, The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge suffers from the same glaring weakness as The Bible Project. Namely, it speaks of Christ with beautiful language, but it denies the most beautiful aspect of the atonement—namely, the voluntary substitution of Christ for the sake of his people.
In one of the few critical reviews of The Crucifixion, Wellum highlights the problem. After a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter investigation of Rutledge, Wellum concludes,
What is my ultimate problem with Rutledge’s view? It is this: she does not sufficiently account for who God is in all of his perfections. Ultimately what is at stake is a God who truly is the moral standard of the universe and who will not rectify anything apart from the satisfaction of his own righteous requirements, which the triune God has done in the Son. Confidence that the horrors and injustices of this world will be fully dealt with is grounded not in a view that diminishes the demand for the full satisfaction of God’s righteous demand, but in a full satisfaction for sin either in the substitutionary work of God the Son incarnate or, for those who stand outside of Christ (and Scripture teaches there are such people, sadly) in an eternal punishment of one’s sin. In the end, God balances the books perfectly, not by letting sin go, but by bringing about its full punishment in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In at least these three areas, I find the helpful book by Fleming Rutledge wanting. She has not convinced me that she has handled well Scripture on its own terms, or that Christ as our penal substitute is not the biblical way of making sense of the glory of the cross and the victory achieved for us that results in the glorious new creation. For these reasons, it is surprising to see so many evangelicals rally behind a book that denies one of the core, biblical, and evangelical commitments, namely, penal substitutionary atonement. That demonstrates not only that our doctrine of the atonement needs work still, but that our doctrine of God remains weak and in need of correction.
Clearly, something is amiss here. How can so many evangelicals applaud this work on the cross, when all along it presents a view of God with a diminished view of his moral standards and righteous demands? I suspect the problem goes further than Rutledge’s book; it seems to be endemic of an evangelicalism that has lost the center of Christ’s work.
Last, in another lengty review of another recent book on the atonement, Peter Adam highlights many concerns with N.T. Wright’s recent book The Day the Revolution Began. Among his concerns are the way Wright makes reductionistic arguments, sets up false dichotomies, and argues against straw men (N.B. the article’s URL makes this explicit).
In particular, Adam observes the way Wright can (deceptively?) make us of traditional words, all the while redefining what they mean. Here’s what Adam says,
Wright is willing to use the traditional words associated with the atonement, namely that it is achieved by the death of a representative, who dies a substitutionary death, and suffers punishment [240,41]. He clearly claims that ‘Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole’ . However, he is at pains to point out that he uses such words in ways thoroughly distinct from traditional usage. The purpose of Christ’s death is not reconciliation with God. The effects of Christ’s death include the following:
- ‘taking on himself the scorn, malevolence, and hatred of the world’ .
- ‘self-giving love turns out to have a power of a totally different sort to that known in the world’ 
- ‘The Messiah’s death “for sins” under the right and proper curse of the law was therefore the necessary means by which victory could be won’ .
- ‘the Messiah’s crucifixion…means the creation…of a single covenantal family…’ .
- ‘The answer to human idolatry, the root of sin, is the fresh revelation of the one true God’ .
- ‘the Messiah as the place of meeting, the ultimate revelation of the divine righteousness and love’ .
All this is true: it is what is missing that matters. How did Jesus’ death achieve all this? We know it was revelation, and we know its results. But what did it do?
Wright claims that God did not punish Jesus, but punished sin in Jesus. ‘Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punishes Sin in the flesh of Jesus’ . ‘Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin [in the flesh of the Messiah], and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned’ . Yet if Christ died ‘under the right and proper curse of the law’ , then he died under God’s curse. I know that Paul does not use the phrase ‘cursed by God’ in Galatians 3:13, but whose curse is it? It is God who sends curses to his covenant people in the big Biblical narrative [Deuteronomy 27,28]. To say that Christ ‘bore sin’, and was ‘made sin’ [1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21] is to say that he suffered the consequences of sin. That sin was our sin: he was our substitute. And the most significant problem with sin is that it brings death, which is the judgement of God, and expresses the breakdown of our relationship with God. Christ suffered as our penal substitute.
Adam puts his finger on some major concerns with Wright’s atonement theology, and evangelicals who care deeply about the gospel and the cross of Christ should take notice.
Three Common Threads: N.T. Wright, Theology (Im)Proper, and A Missing Priest
In the end what does these three reviews tell us? Three things, at least.
1. All of them explicitly or implicitly are responding to the Atonement Theology of N.T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul.
Significantly, Adam is directly confronting Wright, and Rutledge and Mackie are both dependent on him. Wellum highlights that in his review, as does Sweatman—at least, inasmuch as he points to Adam’s review.
Personally, I have often heard the ghost of Tom Wright lurking behind the The Bible Project videos. I’ve brushed it aside, because the videos are not espousing his views directly and much of Wright’s scholarship is helpful, especially on the big picture items in Biblical Theology. However, Wright’s views of justification, propitiation, and the cross of Christ are deficient, and any resource dependent on his atonement theology will go astray from biblical orthodoxy, as Sweatman, Wellum, and Adam show.
2. All of these reviews identify the fundamental problem as one related to Theology Proper.
When God’s holiness is removed from the center of the moral universe—not to mention the biblical storyline—the cross bends towards a man-centered solution to the plights of human injustice. Yet, this is not the main problem Scripture addresses (see Romans 3:21–26).
As these three reviews helpfully summarize, the greatest problem is the righteous wrath of God standing over sinful humanity. If this is a matter of debate, we need to go back to the Scriptures and see what problem the New Testament is solving. And on that topic works like Wellum’s Christ Alone, Stott’s The Cross of Christ, and Smeaton’s two volumes on Christ’s cross are far better than anything published by Rutledge or Wright.
3. All of these reviews remind us of the importance of the priesthood for rightly understanding how a holy God might be propitiated.
In the New Testament, Jesus comes as a prophet, priest, and king. Yet, today the priesthood of Christ is category and concept often overlooked and misunderstood (to paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell). For instance, N.T. Wright in his massive tome, Jesus and the Victory of God, pays careful attention to Christ as Prophet and King, but makes very little of Christ’s priesthood. The result for him and for others who overlook the priestly work of Christ is that the nature of Christ’s ministry, especially his atonement, is carried along by other non-sacrificial metaphors and concepts. In short, we can’t understand propitiation if we neglect the priesthood of Christ.
Yet, because Christ is a priest, he is the one who makes a sacrifice to propitiate the wrath of God, just as the priests in the Old Testament did. Of course, this assertion raises questions—exegetical, theological, and otherwise—but at present most who are engaging in the discussion about the atonement are not sufficiently considering Christ’s priestly work. And as a result, evangelicals are too quick to dismiss the blood of Christ, because they don’t understand the priestly logic of his atonement.
What Are We To Do?
If we are going to ground our understanding of the atonement in the way Scripture presents it, we must as Wellum states return to a right understanding of who God is, what his law demands, and what sin requires for justification. Likewise, we must see how God graciously established a temple, priest, and sacrificial system to atone for sin in the Old Testament. From there we can begin to understand the propositions of the New Testament and what Christ has come to do.
At present, too much popular support has been given to atonement theories which ignore or deny penal substitution. This is a result, in part, because penal substitution has been caricatured and dismissed (on the basis of such caricatures). It is also, probably, a result of errant views of justice that are not derived from Scripture, but various extra-textual philosophies that are imposed on the text. But it may also be a result of assuming that evangelicals are the ones who have the atonement right.
From these three reviews, however, that’s a faulty assumption. Rather, we need to be the ones who again are unswervingly cruciform in our theology, and I am thankful for these three faithful reviews which help us to discern what the content of the cross-centeredness should be.
So, block out an hour, read these reviews and give thanks to God for the Son who gladly submitted himself to his Father’s will and died in the place of his people. In bearing the curse in our place, Christ extinguished God’s wrath, which is not just a theory created by modern fundamentalists. This is at the very center of who God is and how he has revealed himself in Scripture, which again shows why this is such an important debate.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds