Packer on the Atonement

Adrian Warnock has drawn my attention to Dr Jim Packer’s important 1973 lecture What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution. Reading this has helped me to clarify some of my own thinking on this matter, and how and why I disagree with many modern “Reformed” presentations of the Atonement.

Dr Packer is a theologian for whom I have great respect. This respect was somewhat dented by the controversy last year on Better Bibles Blog about several matters, especially his uncritical support for the Statement of Concern about the TNIV Bible. Nevertheless, despite some disagreements with him, I have respected Packer since I read his classic Knowing God in the 1970’s, not long after he gave the lecture which I discuss here.

Here are some extracts from Packer’s lecture with my own comments:

Reformed scholastics … [were] using the Socinian technique of arguing a priori about God as if he were a man — to be precise, a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century monarch. … [I]n trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game, Reformed theologians were conceding the Socinian assumption that every aspect of God’s work of reconciliation will be exhaustively explicable in terms of a natural theology of divine government, drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought. Thus, in their zeal to show themselves rational, they became rationalistic.

The presentations of the Atonement which I find hard to accept tend to be those which continue to present God too much in terms of a human monarch.

[B]y faith we know that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

Indeed! So I tend to seriously question any presentation of the Atonement which has God opposed to Christ or punishing him.

[T]he highest wisdom of the theological theorist, even when working under divine inspiration as Paul did, is to recognise that he is, as it were, gazing into the sun, whose very brightness makes it impossible for him fully to see it; so that at the end of the day he has to admit that God has much more to him than theories can ever contain, and to humble himself in adoration before the one whom he can never fully analyse. … One thing that Christians know by faith is that they know only in part.

But so often modern Reformed theologians write as if they fully understand the Atonement, and anyone who does not completely share their understanding is completely wrong.

If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remain a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably.


Already, however, the discussion has produced one firm result of major importance — the recognition that the verbal units of Christian speech are ‘models’, comparable to the thought-models of modern physics. [Footnote: The pioneer in stating this was Ian T. Ramsey …]

Well, I said something similar in about 1976, but Ramsey had said it before me.

Must our understanding of how biblical models function be as limited or as loose as Ramsey’s is? Not necessarily. Recognition that the biblical witness to God has the logic of models — not isolated, incidentally, but linked together, and qualifying each other in sizeable units of meaning — is compatible with all the views taken in the modern hermeneutical debate.

In other words, while Ramsey’s understanding of models did not include biblical inspiration, there is no real incompatibility here: the Bible can and should be understood as presenting the truth about God through models.

After this introductory material Packer moves on in stages towards his goal of discussing penal substitution, which he calls

a Christian theological model, based on biblical exegesis, formed to focus a particular awareness of what Jesus did at Calvary to bring us to God. …

Stage one is to declare Christ’s death substitutionary.

Packer notes that some writers reject “substitutionary”, but accept the near synonyms “vicarious” and “representative”.

It is, of course, no secret why people shy off this word. It is because they equate, and know that others equate, substitution in Christology with penal substitution.

It seems to me that both Adrian Warnock and Al Mohler whom he quotes make this equation without realising that Packer does not. Packer accepts penal substitution, but makes it clear that

only certain versions of it [the substitutionary atonement view] represent his substitution as penal.

Packer then discusses three main views or “types of account” of the Atonement. Although he doesn’t name them, the first is essentially the moral influence model, the second is “Christus Victor”, and the third is a generic description of the death of Christ as expiation and/or propitiation. While the third of these is most explicitly substitutionary, Packer points out that the second also has substitutionary elements.

It is a pity that books on the atonement so often take it for granted that accounts of the cross which have appeared as rivals in historical debate must be treated as intrinsically exclusive. This is always arbitrary, and sometimes quite perverse.

Packer moves on to

bring in the word ‘penal’ to characterize the substitution we have in view. To add this ‘qualifier’, as Ramsey would call it, is to anchor the model of substitution (not exclusively, but regulatively) within the world of moral law, guilty conscience, and retributive justice. Thus is forged a conceptual instrument for conveying the thought that God remits our sins and accepts our persons into favour not because of any amends we have attempted, but because the penalty which was our due was diverted on to Christ.

This is where I start to have reservations about Packer’s approach. The word “penal” seems to bring us back to the world of 16th century monarchs and the kind of justice they disposed. Now Packer admits that

penal substitution sometimes has been, and still sometimes is, asserted in ways which merit the favourite adjective of its critics — ‘crude’.

More than 30 years later these “crude” assertions continue, not least in the blogosphere. Packer backs this up with a quote from Leon Morris of all people:

‘upholders of the penal theory have sometimes so stressed the thought that Christ bore our penalty that they have found room for nothing else. …’

After noting some other inadequacies in common presentations of the penal substitution, Packer moves on to expound his own view. He analyses “Substitution and Retribution”, and concludes by explaining

what job the word ‘penal’ does in our model. It is there, not to prompt theoretical puzzlement about the transferring of guilt, but to articulate the insight of believers who, as they look at Calvary in the light of the New Testament, are constrained to say, ‘Jesus was bearing the judgment I deserved (and deserve), the penalty for my sins, the punishment due to me’ — ‘he loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). How it was possible for him to bear their penalty they do not claim to know, any more than they know how it was possible for him to be made man; but that he bore it is the certainty on which all their hopes rest.

But Packer notes

the rationalistic criticism that guilt is not transferable and the substitution described, if real, would be immoral

– a criticism which I would make myself. Packer’s response to this is that as the “last Adam”

Christ has taken us with him into his death and through his death into his resurrection. … We who believe have died — painlessly and invisibly, we might say — in solidarity with him because he died, painfully and publicly, in substitution for us.

This is interesting but I am not sure that it solves the moral problem. If in Christ each of us has in some sense really died, would that not mean that we have died for our own sin? So there is no substitution; all that Christ has done is make our death painless and invisible, immediately followed by resurrection to new life in him. Now that might be a possible model of the Atonement, but it is not penal substitution! But if our death in Christ is not real, how does that solve the problem that transfer of guilt is immoral?

Packer’s answer to such criticisms is to point out quite correctly that the details of all of this are a mystery:

As regards the atonement, the appropriate response to the Socinian critique starts by laying down that all our understanding of the cross comes from attending to the biblical witnesses and learning to hear and echo what they say about it; speculative rationalism breeds only misunderstanding, nothing more.

Very true, but then what is left of the concept of “penal”? It seems to have started with speculative rationalism about the Atonement, and surely should be laid aside with it.

Packer goes on to discuss other objections, such as:

The penal substitution model has been criticised for depicting a kind Son placating a fierce Father in order to make him love man, which he did not do before. The criticism is, however, inept, for penal substitution is a Trinitarian model, for which the motivational unity of Father and Son is axiomatic.

Indeed, there was no division in the Trinity, none of the Father turning against the Son and punishing him unjustly, no “the Father killed the Son”. Packer never uses that kind of language. But he does note that

the penal substitution model adds … a further dimension of truly unimaginable distress … This is the dimension indicated by Denney — ‘that in that dark hour He had to realise to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race.’

I suppose I can accept this: Jesus suffered the full horror of the punishment which was due to us. But did he do so involuntarily, because the Father had turned against him to punish him? Surely not, and Packer doesn’t say this. No, surely Jesus suffered voluntarily, chose to take this on himself. And in some way which we can never fully understand this was acceptable as a satisfaction for all humanity’s sins.

Packer continues:

Jonathan Edwards expressed the thought with tender and noble empathy: ‘God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of his dreadful wrath. This made all the sufferings of Christ the more terrible to him, because they were from the hand of his Father, whom he infinitely loved, and whose infinite love he had had eternal experience of. Besides, it was an effect of God’s wrath that he forsook Christ. …’

I have some trouble going all the way with Packer here. But I note that “God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him” is not the same thing as God actually being angry with him. But did God really forsake Christ? Clearly the dying Jesus felt that he had been forsaken, felt within himself the fate of lost humanity. But how could it have been real, how could there have been a schism in the heart of the Trinity? After all, as Packer quoted earlier,

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

So I end up with not too much to quarrel with in Packer’s final summary of his position:

(1) God, in Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

I’m not sure about points (6) and (7), but that’s a separate issue. I can accept with great gratitude that “The penalty due to me for my sins … was paid for me by Jesus Christ” without knowing exactly how he paid it. The Atonement dealt with the penalty for sins, and Jesus died as a substitute, so perhaps that merits the collocation “penal substitution”. My real problem comes only when specific and apparently immoral mechanisms for this are asserted as the only possible ones.

So, I find Packer’s presentation of the penal substitution model of the Atonement more or less acceptable. It clearly avoids most of the crudities which have led me to criticise others’ presentations of this. Indeed it is so different from those other presentations that I wonder if it really justifies the same name or use of the word “penal”. This description of substitutionary atonement complements the other models of the Atonement to give a rounded biblical account of how God saved us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And on that basis I have little reason to quarrel with Packer.

0 thoughts on “Packer on the Atonement

  1. Wow, Peter, great post and a great walk-through of the issues.

    I found myself really thinking, toward the end, how even though I don’t know what sins I have yet to commit, I should take great care not to be responsible for piling on to the suffering that Christ paid for me. If anything, it’s a good reminder.

    Reminds me of a story about someone who was trying to quit cussing. For a while, he made a deal to pay a dollar to his friend every time he cussed, but it was having no real effect. Then his friend stopped him one day and said, no, I’ll pay the fine from now on.

    Somehow that made all the difference. It was fine to pay the (minor) penalty when one paid it for his own transgression. But when another had to pay, it really heightened sensitivity to the liberty to sin.




  2. Indeed it is so different from those other presentations that I wonder if it really justifies the same name or use of the word “penal”.

    I’m wondering this too, but I don’t consider myself a great expert on PSA as I don’t have any grounding in Calvinism at all.

    This is a very subtle and nuanced presentation of PSA. I’m particularly impressed by his explicit rejection of retributive violence. Retributive violence is one of my biggest objections to PSA and it seems to be the aspect of PSA that popular expressions of it hold to be most dear.

    I am still left wondering why we need to have PSA at all, though?

  3. Indeed, Rich. The more we understand what Jesus has done for us, the more careful we should be not to sin. But the issue of sins committed by Christians is a tricky one, and one which would certainly cause difficulties with the alternative model of the atonement which I tentatively put forward, that each believer died for their own sins when we became a Christian and was immediately resurrected.

    Pam, I think your conclusions here are very similar to mine. Someone like Packer clearly doesn’t want to openly reject PSA, because from the reaction to Steve Chalke etc we have seen what happens to anyone who does. But the model Packer puts forward is not really PSA as normally understood. However, like you I make no claim to be an expert in this. My post should be consider more an example of thinking aloud.

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  5. John, a good question. I would not really want to suggest that Packer wanted to reject PSA but was afraid of the response. But in fact the version of PSA which he put forward, without any concept that God is punishing Christ, is so different from the version of PSA put forward for example by Owen and Hodge that it is hardly recognisably the same doctrine. I think Packer would have done better to give a different name, without “penal”, to his teaching, but I can also see why he was reluctant to drop the word “penal”. See also the comments on different versions of PSA in my latest post.

    Daniel, I think I agree with you, but I wonder if we need a “new perspective” on Paul, or just a proper understanding of the old one.

  6. Peter,

    On what do you base your comment that “Someone like Packer clearly doesn’t want to openly reject PSA, because from the reaction to Steve Chalke etc we have seen what happens to anyone who does”?

  7. Of course, a highly systematized theory of penal substitution because of its very nature need not even speak of resurrection. Jesus’ death is my salvation. His resurrection is merely… nice.
    But in the words (roughly) of St. Paul ‘if Christ is not raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sin’. Why does Paul think the resurrection matters so much for us to be ‘saved from our sin’ if he espouses strict PSA? Methinks the ‘new perspective’ has many things to teach us…
    My two cents.

  8. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Steve Chalke, Spring Harvest, UCCF and the Atonement

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