There’s a controversy astir in the evangelical world nowadays about one of the fundamental beliefs of my own denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It’s not the Sabbath or the investigative judgment. It’s not even the state of the dead. It’s fundamental belief number nine which lays out the basis for what most evangelicals hold to be penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Here is an excerpt on it from Seventh-day Adventists Believe:
Christ’s Death a Necessity. For a loving God to maintain His justice and righteousness, the atoning death of Jesus Christ became “a moral and legal necessity.” God’s “justice requires that sin
“Christ’s perfect righteousness adequately satisfied divine justice, and God is willing to accept Christ’s self-sacrifice in place of man’s death.”
You may have noticed that we don’t use the term, penal substitutionary atonement. One reason is the need to qualify the term. Like the Trinity, PSA can mean different things to different people depending on their perspective of doctrines like death, hell and what Christ actually experienced on Calvary. The basic teaching, as we understand it, is that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross takes the place of the punishment we ought to suffer for our sins. As a result, God’s justice is satisfied, and forgiveness and reconciliation is extended to all mankind (Isaiah 53:3-12; Romans 3:20-26; Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 179, 180; 221).
So, back to the controversy. In June 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted:
“RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13-14, 2017, reaffirm the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race.”
And here’s the explanation for why SBC did this:
“WHEREAS, in recent days numerous voices from the Protestant world have boldly attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement; and WHEREAS, these voices have publicly labeled penal substitution ‘monstrous,’ ‘evil,’ ‘a terrible doctrine,’ and indicative of ‘the Father murdering a son.'”2
So, there you have it. Some Christians are telling other Christians that what they believe about salvation is monstrous and evil.
“Christ bore the penalty of sin, the stroke of divine justice, that human beings might not be left to perish.…”
Following that resolution, Christianity Today ran two articles in 2018, one pro-penal substitution and one dismissing it as a crude product of medieval times. The latter article argued that while PSA was at the forefront of the Reformation, it wasn’t part of the early church fathers’ teaching.
This has led to the idea that PSA was late to the gospel table (which has been disproved by a number of early church documents). The Reformers were actually rediscovering truths lost through the Dark Ages. They were rediscovering not only what the early church fathers believed, but what the Bible itself teaches.
The Bible, the early church fathers, and the Reformers taught that Jesus gave His life to reveal God’s mercy and satisfy God’s justice, so that God could forgive our transgressions without sacrificing His character of love (justice and mercy). According to Exodus 20 and 34, God’s character of love includes exercising punishment against the wicked, an attribute of His character that He restrains for generations in order for mankind to repent. This forbearance of God’s justice is accomplished by God in the person of the Son, who takes the guilt and wrath of His own just punishment instead of exercising it against sinners. This was done from the foundation of the world and culminated in the cross where God incarnate was forsaken by God the Father (Revelation 13:8; Psalm 22:1). Justice, one key attribute of God’s love and therefore of His character, requires that sin be punished. Therefore, as Ellen White explains, “Christ bore the penalty of sin, the stroke of divine justice, that human beings might not be left to perish. He bore in His body the sentence pronounced against sinners. This is the science of salvation, which can safely be searched into, and which it is profitable to strive to understand” (Ellen White, The Upward Look, p. 196). God gave His only begotten Son to suffer a most shameful death upon the cross, that sinners might be pardoned.
The sins of every man were punished in Christ, placed on the innocent Sin Bearer as though His own. Praise God for such a wonderful Savior!
Some of these conversations about PSA have been taking place within our own church. At this point, the foundational teaching of penal substitutionary atonement, though qualified by our unique understanding of death and hell, remains one of our fundamental beliefs. We can be thankful for a loving God who is both merciful and just. Amen.
- General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005, Seventh-day Adventists Believe, p. 111.