More from Packer on the Atonement

J.I. Packer has re-entered the atonement debate with an article written for UCCF, and published in full by Reformation21. Martin Downes quotes extensively from it; thanks to Justin Taylor for the tip.

UPDATE: No surprise that Adrian Warnock was also quick to post the full text of this article, on his blog which is now at this new location. Adrian’s post also includes an article by Richard Cunningham, which I will comment on separately.

Packer presents the same view of the atonement as in his 1973 lecture, which I discussed at length here; indeed, Packer quotes from this lecture and reaffirms what he wrote then.

Here are some quotes from the new article outlining his position:

It was with his own will and his own love mirroring the Father’s, therefore, that [Jesus] took the place of human sinners exposed to divine judgment and laid down his life as a sacrifice for them, entering fully into the state and experience of death that was due to them.

He, the holy Son of God in sinless human flesh, has endured what Calvin called ‘the pains of a condemned and lost person’ so that we, trusting him as our Saviour and Lord, might receive pardon for the past and a new life in him and with him for the present and future. …

Penal substitution, therefore, will not be focused properly till it is recognized that God’s redemptive love must not be conceived – misconceived, rather – as somehow triumphing and displacing God’s retributive justice, as if the Creator-Judge simply decided to let bygones be bygones. … But if, by faith, we look back to Calvary from where we now are, what we see is the list of our own unpaid debts of obedience to God, for which Christ paid the penalty in our place.

So far so good. I am happy to affirm penal substitution as described here. But I do have my doubts about Packer’s main point in conclusion:

I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, one way or another, Luther’s primary question: ‘How may a weak, perverse and guilty sinner find a gracious God?’; nor can it be denied that real Christianity only really starts when that discovery is made.

This seems to me an unbalanced picture. Apart from Christ humans have many problems which separate them from the life of God, and that they are sinners is only one of them. To Luther and to many others this was the central issue in their lives, and so penal substitutionary atonement is the most relevant model of the atonement for them. Others, as I wrote here and here, have other felt needs, and so for them other models of the atonement are more relevant. It is wrong to insist, in a way which the Bible never does, that just one human need and one model of the atonement must always have priority over all the others.

And now for this quote from Packer’s article which both Reformation21 and Taylor highlight:

smartypants notions like ‘divine child abuse’, as a comment on the cross, are supremely silly, and as irrelevant and wrong as they could possibly be.

In response I would say that this comment is as irrelevant and wrong as it could possibly be. (In fact it looks very out of place in this article, the only use in it of any kind of colloquialisms, and looks like an editorial addition perhaps based on verbal comments from Packer.) Packer’s view of the atonement as

planned by the holy Three in their eternal solidarity of mutual love

is of course nothing at all like child abuse. This is the true and glorious teaching of penal substitutionary atonement which I share with Packer. What has rightly been condemned as child abuse is the quite different idea, the distortion of this truth into the damnable lie, preached by some who claim to be “Reformed” but in fact are “Conformed” to the teachings of paganism, that the wrathful Father punished and killed his unwilling Son.

So let us turn away from errors like this to embrace the true and compelling teaching of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement, that Jesus Christ willingly gave up his life to take away the punishment due to us for our sins, so that we can be forgiven and saved from the wrath to come, to live eternal life starting now.

0 thoughts on “More from Packer on the Atonement

  1. “What has rightly been condemned as child abuse is the quite different idea, the distortion of this truth into the damnable lie, preached by some who claim to be “Reformed” but in fact are “Conformed” to the teachings of paganism, that the wrathful Father punished and killed his unwilling Son.”

    Can you just qualify your use of the word ‘unwilling’ in this sentence Peter? I’m not aware of anyone having preached such a thing. Cheers!

  2. I’m with Si. Are you seriously suggesting that C.J. Mahaney claims that the Father killed his unwilling Son and that he is therefore pagan rather than Reformed? I very much doubt that.

    The NT record is very clear that God delivered up his Son to be killed (Rom 8:32) and that the Son of God delivered himself up (Gal 2:20). I’m not sure why you need to see these as mutually exclusive or why you think the second means the first is not true. (Both verses, I believe, use the same word used elsewhere for Judas and the Jewish leaders delivering him up to be killed.)

  3. Si and Jeremy are right to question my use of “unwilling” about the role of Jesus in the atonement. A more accurate way of putting this would be that some people appear to teach that the initiative in Jesus’ death was entirely that of God the Father, and acknowledge no role of the Son in making that decision. If pushed, very likely they would accept that the Son was willing and took some part in the decision. But if they were to deny this, their position would clearly be to identify the death of Jesus with pagan child sacrifice, clearly condemned in the Old Testament.

    What is Mahaney’s position on this? I don’t exactly know. But what I do know is that in the short quote from him which I reported last year he repeatedly stated that the Father killed the Son, in terms which leave no room for the Son having any part in this. If anyone can point me to anything Mahaney has written giving a different position, please let me know.

    Only today Adrian reminded us of a quote from John Stott which he had previously posted:

    We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners.

    Mahaney ignores this advice by presenting Christ as only the object in his death and God the Father as the sole subject.

    Adrian noted early in this discussion of the atonement that whether Stott is correct here is the key issue, and today he has brought up this point again. It is indeed the key issue!

    Adrian originally quoted Stott as part of a quote from an interesting article by Mark Meynell which I don’t think I have read before today. Here are some extracts from section IV of that article, on the Trinity:

    Those who would challenge penal substitution often do so on the grounds that the doctrine both fails to do justice to and even in fact distorts classic Trinitarian belief. It is this assumption that presumably lies behind the infamous charge that it is cosmic child abuse. That is an outrageous thing to say, of course, but it is not hard to see why it is said. For at first sight, penal substitution is altogether objectionable and barbaric. After all, where is the difference between this and the violence of ancient pagan rituals? …

    However, the charge of child abuse, while outrageous, is also hugely ironic – it is a rejection of a
    conservative distortion of penal substitution perhaps, but one that is distorted because it is not
    Trinitarian enough
    ! It is precisely because of a fully-orbed doctrine of the Trinity that penal
    substitution to bring about both expiation and more importantly propitiation, ceases to be unjust and

    Meynell continues his argument by looking at the role of the three persons of the Trinity in the atonement, and finishes his section with the Stott quote.

    I would suggest that Mahaney’s presentation of PSA is wrong for the reasons Meynell presents, because it is not Trinitarian enough and so akin to barbaric pagan child sacrifice.

    Before this comment gets too long, I will finish with a quote from NT Wright, his italics:

    there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others.

  4. Mahaney justifies his language in Isaiah 53:

    “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” [Isa 53:10, TNIV]

    I don’t know how anyone can read that and deny that it’s saying that God does the crushing an the causing of his suffering. It’s perfectly compatible with that that the Son himself is fully in agreement with this, but you’d never get that out of Isaiah 53. If it’s immoral for Mahaney to speak only of one of these truths at a time, why isn’t it equally immoral for Isaiah to have done so?

    In the Challies summary I linked to above, he mentions that Mahaney does mention that on one level it is we who killed Jesus, so he’s not treating that the Father’s killing of Jesus as if it’s the only explanation or cause of his death. I’m sure he’d expand that to include all the other ones I mentioned in my comment above, but he didn’t happen to mention all of them in that particular instance.

    On the issue of cosmic child abuse, you’re leaving out one thing. When Chalke used that expression, he may well have been dealing with a view that most of us realize is a caricature of penal substitution. That’s how Wright defended it, and that’s how you’ve defended it. The problem with this interpretation is that he doesn’t frame it that way. He simply calls the view penal substitution and acts as if he’s criticized the view in general. That’s not how you go about shooting down a caricature. It’s how you misrepresent the actual view by setting up a straw version of it to shoot down.

    Wright is correct to say that (if he meant that) he is freed from the heresy charge. However, Wright is wrong to think that it frees him from every charge that can be leveled against him, in particular the charge of misrepresenting penal substitution in a pretty awful way.

    As Carson says, that kind of use of the “cosmic child abuse” slogan “conjures up a wretched picture of a vengeful God taking it out on his Son, who had no choice in the matter. Instead of invoking the Triune God of the Bible, this image implicitly pictures interactions between two separable Gods, the Father and the Son. But this is a painful caricature of what the Bible actually says. In fact, I do not know of any serious treatment of the doctrine of penal substitution, undertaken by orthodox believers, that does not carefully avoid falling into such traps.”

  5. Jeremy, this is not the place to do a detailed exegetical study of Isaiah 53:10. Suffice it to say that “crush” does not mean “punish” or “kill”, and that the Hebrew text (see the TNIV footnote) does not say “the LORD makes” but “you make”. The exact meaning of this verse is far from clear. Meanwhile verses 4 (“he took up”) and 7 make it clear that the Servant was not an unwilling victim. But Mahaney misses out this aspect completely. For him, in this article, the Servant is entirely passive. More or less the only verbs he is the subject of are “suffer” and “die”. This is a non-Trinitarian and essentially pagan concept of child sacrifice.

    As for Chalke, please give me a reference for where “He simply calls the view penal substitution and acts as if he’s criticized the view in general.” This is certainly not in Chalke and Mann’s book.

    I was writing about the Carson article as you commented and quoted it. See my new post about it. It seems to me that Carson has completely misunderstood the position Chalke and Mann were taking, which is entirely in agreement with him in dismissing a caricature of true PSA.

  6. The Servant in the passage is passive. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t endorse what was going on. That’s my point. It may be consistent with Mahaney to say all the things you’re attributing to him (at least consistent with the one quote you give). But that doesn’t mean what he says implies what you attribute to him. It surely doesn’t. That’s why I consider it a severe misrepresentation.

    For my assertions about Chalke, see his “Redeeming the Cross“. In it, he makes it quite clear that the “cosmic child abuse” statement was against the doctrine of penal substitution, that he does not accept the penal substitution doctrine because it is not just unbiblical but contrary to the Bible, and that the view that he was criticizing (the one Wright calls a caricature) was held by John Calvin and Charles Hodge. I don’t know how you can get around it. If you affirm Wright’s statement that the view he was criticizing is a caricature of penal substition, then he is calling a caricature by that name and attributing the caricature to such stalwarts as Calvin and Hodge, the very people Wright seems to want to deny holding such a view.

  7. Hi Peter,

    Your statement: ‘So let us turn away from errors like this to embrace the true and compelling teaching of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement, that Jesus Christ willingly gave up his life to take away the punishment due to us for our sins, so that we can be forgiven and saved from the wrath to come, to live eternal life starting now.’ – is one that I would be able to endorse, if it were not for that little word of contention ‘penal’.

    ‘Penal’ implies punishment – and Jesus was punished, but not by God.

    J.I. Packer: ‘But if, by faith, we look back to Calvary from where we now are, what we see is the list of our own unpaid debts of obedience to God, for which Christ paid the penalty in our place.’ In this, Packer has recognized that our debts are those of obedience. Unfortunately, he then falls into the trap of asserting that ‘death’ is what God demands to settle the debts so that we can be free. No. ‘Death’ is the penalty for those who remain as sinners and do not believe or respond to the Gospel call to turn to Christ in faith. What we owe is what we need to have paid on our behalf. What we owe is obedience – this Jesus paid fully and completely when He gave His life for us at the cross. He is THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. He paid the debt of righteousness for all who are called and chosen.

    Norman McIlwain.

  8. Thank you, Jeremy. If you can give me any evidence that Mahaney teaches a properly balanced Trinitarian version of PSA, I would be glad to read it.

    The link you gave is broken (maybe only temporarily as Adrian’s site is being moved), but the Chalke article you refer to is here. Thank you for reminding me of it.

    Note what Chalke says in favour of substitutionary atonement:

    a robust theology of the cross is multicoloured rather than monochrome. More than that, I am sure that this spectrum includes a clear substitutionary element along with a number of others … It is important to recognise, however, that no single theory can capture the breadth and profundity of the cross.

    This, I hope, is not controversial.

    Chalke goes on to describe first the general idea of PSA as “substantially formed by John Calvin’s legal mind” and then “The model as it is understood and taught today [which] rests largely on the work … Charles Hodge.” He summarises Hodge’s version, not Calvin’s, as:

    a righteous God is angry with sinners and demands justice. His wrath can only be appeased through bringing about the violent death of his Son.

    And this is the version of the doctrine of PSA which Chalke goes on to describe as

    tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’

    It is clear that what he is rejecting is the version of PSA which he ascribes, whether accurately or not, to Hodge. He is not referring to other versions such as Calvin’s original formulation. Nor, I am sure, would he so describe Packer’s version of PSA which is quite different.

    But Hodge’s description of PSA, as summarised by Chalke, seems similar to Mahaney’s. The Son is simply a passive and innocent victim, of what can only be described as a grossly immoral act. There is none of Packer’s “planned by the holy Three in their eternal solidarity of mutual love”, no Trinity, no mutual love or love for humanity, only violent wrath and injustice perpetrated under a pretext of justice.

    Now Carson claims that what Chalke describes as the accepted version of PSA is in fact a “painful caricature” of the real doctrine. I wish this were true. It is certainly a caricature of the nuanced teaching of Packer, Stott and Carson himself. But, sadly, there are still circulating from teachers like Mahaney popular presentations of the atonement which at first sight sound just like the caricature. And these are the presentations which are getting the rave reviews.

    It is telling that Packer’s new article, all except for the incongruous sentence about “smartypants notions like ‘divine child abuse’” which I suspect was added to provide a balance, is fundamentally a plea to avoid propagating this caricature. He insists that

    It is impossible to focus the atonement properly until the biblical mode of Trinitarian and incarnational thought about Jesus Christ is embraced.

    And this is precisely what is lacking in the distorted presentations which, in very different ways, Chalke, Packer and I agree in rejecting.

  9. Norman, I understand your concerns with the word “penal”. I note that Chalke also avoids endorsing this word. I suppose it depends exactly how this word is used. I would hold that we deserve punishment for our sins. Certainly we cannot pay the debt for or atone for our past sins by future obedience; that is Pelagian justification by works which the church long ago rightly rejected. It is clear from the Bible that in some way Jesus’ death took away our liability to punishment for our sins, or to put it another way Jesus took our penalty and satisfied the divine demand for punishment. In that sense I accept “penal” as a description of the atonement. What I don’t accept, and I don’t see in Packer’s formulation either, is the idea that Jesus was actually punished in our place. No other party punished Jesus; rather, he of his own free will, by being obedient where we were disobedient, paid the penalty on the cross which was due to us for our sins. Hallelujah!

  10. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Cunningham: God does forgive

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