Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus"
(2 Timothy 1:13, NASB)
Why I Am Interested In Penal Substitution Theory
When I was a teenager, after hearing a sermon about the death of Jesus and how it satisfies the penalty of sin (a substitutionary sacrifice), I found myself thinking that it didn't add up. I was just a teenager, and didn't know the scriptures very well, but I couldn't grasp how a physical death could actually satisfy the requirement of eternal spiritual death in hell. So I asked the preacher that question. He pondered over it for a moment, at first puzzled as to why I would even question such thing and how I could conceive of such a question. Then he tried to find the words to reason it out for me, but he couldn't. His final answer was, "because God said it is good enough." That answer never set well with me, as I am an inquisitive person, and I was sure the proper answer was in the Bible even if this particular preacher didn't know where to find it. Nevertheless, I put it in the back of my mind. Over the course of many years, I have preached several sermons and given several short talks in which I advocated substitutionary atonement and the beauty of it, because this was what all our brethren were preaching and writing in everything I read. I cannot deny that there are many soul-stirring illustrations based on substitution. (But shame on me for parroting instead of thinking!)
One day I got a copy of brother Tom Roberts' book "Neo-Calvinism in the Church of Christ." Brother Roberts and the other writers made excellent points about how the terminology and concepts of Calvinism were appearing in our preaching. I began looking for hints of such things in everything I read...Truth magazine articles, commentaries, FC Lectures, study guides, and I began to recognize it as well.
One thing I noticed was that practically all the preachers who wrote about sacrifice, or commented on the death of Jesus, or expounded on Hebrews, taught that Jesus' sacrifice was substitutionary. They all said it, but none of them ever provided a scripture that actually said "substitute" or "vicarious" or "in place of" or "instead of" in the immediate context of Jesus' death. It was as if everyone just assumed it was true, needed no further explanation or scripture to prove it, and that nobody needed to question it. The Florida College lectures last year, on the death of Jesus, even had several lessons that espoused the doctrine, but still without a Bible verse that actually used "substitute" or a synonym thereof. Some made references to Isaiah 53 and the other "proof texts" that seem to imply substitution. But still the actual words just weren't there.
Seeing how we are so diligent to condemn other doctrines that can't be clearly found in actual words in the Bible, like instrumental music and the sinner's prayer and institutionalism, I figured it would be prudent of me to dig deeper into the concept of substitutionary sacrifice. (Particularly relevant in this case is our adamant defense of the preposition "eis" in Acts 2:38. Prepositions are important!) Alas, all the books I had in my admittedly small library, and all the articles I could find online, only faintly addressed it, and none that I found were against it. Yet none could definitively prove it either. I began to wonder where the idea came from.
A few years ago, my father gave me three books by brother Maurice Barnett: "Scheme of Redemption, Vol 1: The Person of Christ; Vol 2: Reconciliation; Vol. 3: By What Authority?" I don't think my father had yet read them, but since he knew brother Barnett was a member of the church, he thought I might enjoy them and get something out of them. The reason he gave me those books was because we had talked about the nature of Christ as Deity in the flesh, and brother Barnett's first book addressed that topic. I also was looking for additional reading material on authority, and brother Barnett's third book in the series addresses that. So my dad got me all three books, not knowing that the second book actually repudiated penal substitution atonement.
Seeing how the question had been planted in my mind years ago, I was absolutely delighted to find that someone had written in great detail about substitutionary sacrifice! And not only had he written in detail about it, but he also reached the same conclusions I had already reached in my studies! This ignited in me a fire to dig deeper still. So I began searching all theories on atonement, and found that there are many. I found Calvin's view of course, and traced it back to Anselm's satisfaction theory. I acquired "The Early Church Fathers" volumes and tried to find what writers of the second and third centuries said about Christ's death. (Brother Barnett's book on Reconciliation is a thorough, scholarly, in-depth examination of atonement and repudiation of penal substitution theory.)
In my studies, I read about Origen and Gregory of Nyssa (classical ransom theory), Pelagius and Augustine's debate, Calvin and Arminius, Abelard's Moral Influence theory, Grotius' Governmental theory (embraced today by Methodists and Nazarenes), and more. I dug into the different ways different denominations view atonement, and found that some zealous Methodists have gone to great lengths in writing to refute substitution. Of course I'm not Methodist, but their arguments on this topic made sense and were Bible-based. I even found that Barton W. Stone refuted Alexander Campbell over penal substitution, which Campbell embraced. Of course it does not matter what any man or denomination thinks...what matters is what is actually written in the Bible. This history lesson, however, taught me how such doctrines have evolved from earlier doctrines, with each new iteration seeming to be one step further from the truth of what is actually written.
Armed with this knowledge of history, I took another look through more recent things written by our brethren. I began to get the impression that a lot of writers believed in substitution, and taught it because they believed it, but that they weren't quite sure why they believed it. I began to think that maybe these writers just had not thought it through, and that if they would think about it, they would see what I recognized as obvious flaws in the concept that were inconsistent with the Bible. So I began asking questions. I found where preachers had posted sermons online on that topic. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read sermons by church of Christ preachers, some of whom I knew either personally or by reputation, and saw that they were teaching that Jesus actually went to hell.
But substitution concept is much bigger than a simple vicarious sacrifice. In fact, if substitution alone was completely independent of all the other doctrines that support it, I might have never even noticed it or bothered about it. But as it is, I found that substitution is inextricably attached to penal satisfaction theory, forsaken theory, imputation theory, and of course Calvinism. This topic has pretty much consumed me more than any other Bible topic for the past 4 years.
I was living in Warner Robins, Georgia, where I met brother Bryan Garlock, and I probably met brother Bob Myhan though I don't specifically recall it. During that period, I authored an article "Did God Forsake Jesus On The Cross" which was printed in the Nov 2012 Truth Magazine, my first step in the long process of dismantling substitutionary atonement theory, piece by piece. A couple of days after it posted, brother Ron Halbrook contacted me and asked permission to distribute it, which I gladly gave. Later I found out that brother Doy Moyer had written something very similar to my piece. Later I presented a sermon there in Warner Robins to the Westside church of Christ, and I think I preached it to the Bonaire church of Christ as well, showing that denominational atonement theories all have flaws, and that the one thing we can trust for our salvation is the blood of Christ. This aroused no small amount of discussion. After I had moved out of Georgia, brother Garlock contacted me to participate in an "Answering Religious Error" Facebook discussion on the topic, and to ask if I could help in debate if it occurs.
I have meditated and researched long and deep on this topic. I have written enough to publish a book, though most of it is for my own use and not for publication as I mainly wrote to sort out my thoughts and dissect the doctrines. I'm not saying this makes me an expert on the matter, I just want you to know that I take this subject very seriously, that I am not playing games with words, and that I am not pursuing a personal agenda, but only pursuing the defense of the actual words written in the Bible. And I am confident that in your heart you have the same goal. The purpose of this section of the website is to show that penal substitution theory is unscriptural and a false doctrine. Below you will find several articles on atonement.
Perhaps the most significant is a written exchange I had with brother Allan Turner (http://allanturner.com/) in 2014. Brother Turner is an evangelist who defends penal substitution theory. Our paths crossed when some other brethren (Answering Religious Error) posted a powerpoint article that challenged the validity of penal substitution theory. After several comments on the matter were posted on the associated facebook page, I made a few comments as well. Brother Turner challenged me to defend my position against substitution theory, and I obliged him. So below you will find links to my first document, his response to it, and then my rebuttal to his response (he declined to provide a further response but granted permission for me to post it all here after he opted not to post it on his own web site.) Furthermore you will some more specific topical studies of doctrines linked to penal substitution theory. It is my hope to shed the light of God's truth on false doctrines, to call Bible things by Bible names and teach what the Bible teaches using the words the Bible uses. I welcome any questions, comments, or even challenges you may have for me on this topic. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.