Q&R with Brad Jersak: If not penal substitution…?

Question:

If there is no penal substitution, which I want to believe, how do I deal with passages such as Isaiah 53 or 1 Thessalonians 1:10? I have a hard time reading so much of the Scripture in any other way.

I always wonder how any less educated, less theologically trained person can read these scriptures in any other way (even if he was never taught them in this way)? Could that person come to any other conclusion? And if not, would the most obvious interpretation not be also the one God wanted us to get? I have struggled with my faith over these issues for so long, and I just don’t seem to be able to “exorcise” the penal substitution idea when reading the Bible.

Response:

First, let’s consider that ‘penal substitution’ was a theory of the atonement composed just 500 years ago. Its proponents did not learn it from the Scriptures or from the church prior to the 15th or 16th century.​ Rather, they brought their theory TO the text and interpreted and translated the Scriptures with that lens. One might, therefore, ask how Christ-followers thought of the Cross and how they interpreted and translated the same texts. 

Their understanding of the Cros was not about divine wrath being satisfied through the violent torture of an innocent lamb–that’s surely what the pagan religions all had in common. Rather, it was a definitive revelation of God as self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love and a decisive victory over Satan, sin and death. These reflections come directly from the Scriptures as they understood them. 

How then, do we understand texts like Isaiah 53 or 1 Thess 1:10? Such Scriptures cannot be understood simplistically, but any thoughtful person who is willing to learn from others (we all need to) might see how they work. Let’s look at them:

1. Isaiah 53 is a strange case because the clearest sense of the first part of the chapter actually directly predicts the error of penal substitution. The author says in verses 3-4:

  • He was despised and rejected by mankind,
  •     a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
  • Like one from whom people hide their faces
  •     he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
  • Surely he took up our pain​        ​
  • and bore our suffering,
  • yet we considered him punished by God,​        ​
  • stricken by him, and afflicted.

Isaiah is saying that the pain and suffering and affliction and rejection he bore was inflicted by who? By mankind. By people. By WE. We did that. We killed him. We made him suffer. 

And then he immediately says YET… WE thought God was punishing him. WE thought God was striking him. The YET indicates that WE were wrong. God didn’t cause this. We did. 

But as the book of Acts says again and again in sermon after sermon, even while WE rejected, framed, and murdered Jesus Christ, God is well able to turn our wickedness on its head, he consents to his own death, transforming it into the very occasion where his forgiveness extends, not only to his murderers but to all of humanity for all time.

The preachers in Acts consistently that WE killed Christ, but that God in Christ forgave us, and in forgiving us, reconciled us to himself, and verified this by raising Christ to life. Punchline: Jesus is Lord. Return, be rescued, be refreshed!  

Sadly, by bringing the wrong assumption to the very chapter that tells us we are making the wrong assumption, the peddlers of penal substitution also began to mistranslate the text. And this is where we acknowledge our need for experts in language… or at least allow them to point out what we can see for ourselves. One example:

Penal substitution loves to translate verse 10: “It pleased the Lord to bruise him” (KJV) or “It was the Lord’s will to crush him.” Well, that makes sense if you assume penal substitution. But it also makes no sense to Jesus own assessment in John 16:32-

“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

Or recall Paul’s vision in 2 Cor. 5:19, where he says “God was IN Christ, reconciling the world to himself [how? by forgiving us], NOT counting our sins against us.” ​

So to begin with, if Isaiah says one thing and Jesus says the opposite, we ALWAYS listen to Jesus, because he is the Word of God and has the last word on what God says about himself. But instead of just disregarding Isaiah, why not double-check ​various Bible translations to see if any of them align better with Christ’s own words. How, for example, would an English translation of the apostles’ primary Bible (the LXX or Septuagint) render verse 10?

Surprise! It does NOT say that the Lord is pleased or willed to crush or bruise Christ. 

Rather, it says, “The Lord will to CLEANSE [or heal, or purge] him of the beating/wound”! So despite the way we beat and wounded the Lord, God wishes to cleanse or heal the suffering Servant of the beating we gave him, and he does so through the resurrection.

For more details on this, see this post:https://www.ptm.org/gospel-before-translation-pt-1-3-brad-jersak

The Bible is a rich book and meant for normal people. But it’s also a book we read thoughtfully, and requires study, and approach together. But happily, you don’t need a degree in theology to simply compare Scriptures or compare translations as I have above. Often, the main barrier is actually some assumption we’ve inherited that needs to be set aside. In this case, the assumption that God is primarily wrath rather than love and that the Father and Son, with the Spirit, are one indivisible God. 

As for 1 Thessalonians 1:10, it doesn’t actually speak to penal substitution at all. It tells us that Christ is our deliverer. And that he will deliver us from the coming wrath.

Now if we were to assume (wrongly) that Jesus is NOT God or that Jesus and his Father are not ONE God, then maybe we could imagine the loving Son needing to save us from the angry Father. But the verse doesn’t actually say that. Our deliverance is not from God but from wrath. And what is wrath? Wrath describes the wages that sin itself doles out.

As Paul said in Romans 6:23, “The wages of SIN is death, BUT the free gift of GOD is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

A careful reading shows that wages here are set against gift, and sin is set against God. This is how Paul thinks. God sees how sin extracts a terrible price from our lives, so God in Christ comes to deliver us … freeing us from sin’s scourge, from wrath, from death. 

So what is “the wrath that is to come”? Bondage to sin and its deathly consequences. And how does God-in-Christ deliver us? By freely forgiving our sin and conquering death. Where sin punished us, God pardons us. Where there was a penalty intrinsic to sin, now there is jubilee freedom in Christ. 

What I hope you noticed was my repeated use of some very basic Christian assumptions:

  • That God is love. God is not wrath.
  • That Father and Son are one. Whatever they do, they do, by the Spirit,  as One God.
  • That God was in Christ, freely forgiving us of sin and setting us free from death. 

I would close by saying that these simple truths are something we can teach any child. It was penal substitution that convoluted and confused the beauty of the gospel with an incoherent mechanism rooted in some imaginary, immoral need for violent vengeance. Such a conception of God is nothing more than a projection of our human addiction to violence against the offending other. That’s our deal, not God’s. And I’m so sorry that you, like me, passed through such ugly conditioning. It truly does need to be cleansed from our hearts. And I offer my apologies as one who once taught it myself.   ​ ​

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