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.
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.