Penal Substitution and Gospel Proclamation

Those of us who affirm that it is a truly biblical doctrine need to grapple carefully with how it should shape and inform our ministry.

The purpose of this brief article is to argue that PSA should be at the heart of our proclamation of the gospel—at the heart of our regular preaching of the word of God. There are important reasons for this both at the level of theological integrity and at the level of pastoral practicality.

 

It is one thing to accept that a doctrine is true; it is quite another for it to shape the life and ministry of the church. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is a controversial doctrine in some circles. But those of us who affirm that it is a truly biblical doctrine need to grapple carefully with how it should shape and inform our ministry.

The purpose of this brief article is to argue that PSA should be at the heart of our proclamation of the gospel—at the heart of our regular preaching of the word of God. There are important reasons for this both at the level of theological integrity and at the level of pastoral practicality.

Theological reasons for the centrality of PSA in preaching

Preaching that is biblical in the truest sense must be sensitive to the wider storyline of Scripture and properly contextualized within biblical theology, consciously shaped by certain key biblical-theological truths. Among these is the basic truth that the God of the Bible is rightly angry because of sin and will judge sin. There is little need to spend time here outlining a biblical theology of God’s justice and his holiness. This basic truth is so woven into the storyline of Scripture that we would have to willfully disregard the essential shape of salvation history to avoid it.

The Bible’s storyline is bookended with this reality and saturated with it: Genesis tells us that God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden and judged them (and the world) for sin; Revelation tells us that a day is coming when he will execute his terrible judgment on the world. The fact that human sin incurs the judgment of God is the fundamental crisis of world history as far as the Bible is concerned. Any proclamation of the gospel that does not demonstrably flow from this biblical worldview and that fails to address this crisis is inadequate on a basic theological level.

Beyond this, and integrally related to it, preaching that is shaped by the wider storyline of Scripture must centre on the cross of Christ. There is a real sense in which true Christian preaching is nothing more and nothing less than the proclamation of Christ crucified. This was, of course, Paul’s conviction and his practice, as he so clearly affirmed in 1 Corinthians: ‘but we preach Christ crucified…’ (1:23); ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (2:2).

When we consider that both God’s judicial wrath and the cross of Christ are part of the very fabric of the Bible’s storyline, then the doctrine of PSA comes into clear focus – for it is at the cross that God addresses his own just anger at sin. There are, of course, many aspects to Christ’s achievement at the cross: he defeats Satan, he liberates his people from slavery to sin, he provides cleansing from defilement, and he achieves much more besides. Sometimes these (and other) aspects of his achievement are conceived as separate models of the atonement, among which PSA is simply another model on an equal footing (if indeed PSA is accepted as valid among the models).

But such a construal is inadequate and skewed. The theological reality is that all of the problems associated with sin relate to the fact that fallen humanity sits under the judgment of God; only with the propitiation of God’s just anger at sin can the other elements of the crisis of the Fall be dealt with. So, it is more adequate to think of PSA as standing at the heart of the achievement of the cross, with victory over Satan, release from bondage, cleansing from defilement (and so on) all radiating out from that reality and depending upon it.

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