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Christianity Today shared an article written by professor Tom McCall (a friend of mine) just as we were upon Good Friday; it had to do with the atonement and the cry of dereliction ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?’ that Jesus cried out on the cross. Kevin DeYoung, a few days following offered a response article via The Gospel Coalition. In conclusion he challenges McCall’s reading this way:

Hodge would agree with McCall’s point that Christ did not suffer exactly what sinners deserve, but would McCall agree with Hodge that Christ suffered the weight of what sinners deserved? More to the point, would he agree with Hodge’s understanding of forensic satisfaction? “The essence of the penalty of the divine law,” Hodge writes, “is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favor. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God.” For sinners this would lead to “hopeless perdition,” but for Christ it meant “a transient hiding of the Father’s face” (473). And lest this be confused with a breach of Trinitarian relations, Hodges makes clear that the “satisfaction of Christ” was a “matter of covenant between the Father and the Son” (472).

Granted, McCall is from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so he may deny all that Calvin and Hodge affirm. But at the very least, they show us a way to deny what McCall wants to deny—a crass Father versus Son Trinitarian breach—while still affirming a wrath-satisfying, God-appeasing, Father-turns-his-face-away penal substitutionary atonement. Whether this way is a better way is beyond scope of this post. But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us. (source)

DeYoung, predictably, is arguing, because he’s concerned, that McCall just might not really be on board with the classical Protestant understanding of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) after all. We see this particularly as DeYoung leaves off with this quip: “But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us.” Yet, this makes one wonder, at least it makes me wonder, does DeYoung really think that “God’s wrath” can only be understand from a forensic/juridical frame? Indeed, I’m positive this is the only way that DeYoung sees God’s wrath vis-à-vis the atoning cross-work of Christ.

But this clearly is not the only way, nor should it be construed as THE way wherein God’s wrath is most severely focused. As an Evangelical Calvinist I will contend, along with Thomas Torrance et al., that the source of God’s wrath is ultimately creational rather than juridical; that what God is most wrathful of is that his good and very good creation has been polluted by the dregs of sin to the point that God’s intended desire to fellowship with us in the ‘cool of the Garden’ was disrupted. In other words, what it means to be human was distorted to the point that its intended telos or purpose has lost orientation; that human being itself has become so sub-humanized that the only hope was for God to assume humanity, all the way down to the very heart of it all, and redeem through recreation/resurrection from that depth; to rehumanize through the recreation wrought by the resurrection of the forever God-human, Jesus Christ. This was the ultimate source of God’s wrath; that a foreigner like sin would seek to so disrupt his good and very good plan that his love fellowship with his graciously created counter-points in creation was lost. Yes, the forensic was present, but there is no forensic without the creation first—noting not only the logical but chronological and priority of the ground of ‘being’ that precedes all else.

In an attempt to detail this further let me share something I have written previously with the hopes of potentially identifying one way in which there is a greater depth, and as such, a greater wrath of God to be understood in and through the revelation of Godself in the atoning work of Jesus Christ; a work that started in the manger (temporally). You will see, I hope, how what I’ve written applies to this current discussion; and you might see further how it’s possible to think of God’s wrath with greater theological acuity than DeYoung himself seems to think. Beyond that, it identifies the type of space that I think McCall might just have been suggesting is needed in discussions like this one.

For Thomas Torrance the atonement is the contradiction of sin by which Godself inserts himself into the brokenness and fallen-ness of our humanity, through the humanity of Christ, and by so doing vanquishes sin—its death and destruction—by his very own and sui generis being as God and man in Christ. We left off in the last post referring to sin in the theology of Torrance, let me briefly touch upon that further here.

For Torrance sin isn’t simply a transactional or legal situation it is something that touches the deepest reaches of what it means to be a human being; it sub-humanizes people because it disintegrates the koinonial bond that was originally inherent to what it meant for a human to be a human created in the image of God as an image of the image who is Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). This is why for Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what was required in the atonement was that our very beings as human beings be recreated in the human being that Jesus assumed enhypostatically as the man from Nazareth. You won’t find this type of penetrative consideration in the forensic framing of atonement that you find in Federal or Covenantal theology; or for that matter, as a subset, what you find in more basic accounts of Reformed theology as we see typified in what is popularly called Five-Point-Calvinism.

Here is an example of how Torrance thinks about the depth dimension of salvation/atonement:

On the cross, the oneness of God and man in Christ is inserted into the midst of our being, into the midst of our sinful existence and history, into the midst of our guilt and death. The inserting of the oneness of God and man into the deepest depths of human existence in its awful estrangement from God, and the enactment of it in the midst of its sin and in spite of all that sin can do against it, is atonement. In a profound sense, atonement is the insertion of the union into the very being of our alienated and fallen humanity. That insertion of oneness by atonement results in koinōnia, in the church as the communion in which Christ dwells, and in which we are made partakers of the divine nature. The koinōnia thus created by the atonement and resurrection of Christ is fully actualised in our midst by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and is maintained by the power of the Spirit as the church continues in the fellowship of word and sacrament….[1]

As we have been emphasizing, for Torrance, and then us Evangelical Calvinists in his wake, salvation is an ontological occurrence; of necessity. The Apostle Paul is quite clear about the depth and reach of sin’s impact, which is why he emphasizes creational and new creational themes so frequently (cf. II Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:18ff; Col. 1:15ff; etc.). Torrance along with a part of the Christian tradition simply notes this reality in the Apostolic deposit found in the New Testament and seeks to develop the inner logic being presupposed upon by Apostles like Paul et al.

Here is one more example of how Torrance thinks salvation. Here we have an example of what Torrance calls the ‘ontological theory of the atonement,’ it is in line with what we just read from him previously:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

We see the ontological aspect noted once again, and even further we see Torrance, in step with Barth, highlighting how even the knowledge and depth of sin can really only be understood Christologically; as we understand its depths through dwelling upon the reality of what actually was required for salvation to be accomplished. We see in this quote components that we find in Patristic thinkers like Athanasius, and even Maximus the Confessor; particularly as the latter gets into proposing things along the lines of the logoi thread that is interwoven throughout the created order as its taxis or order.

These are ways into a discussion about the atonement and salvation that are lacking, typically, in the Western mode. John Calvin, though, is an exception to this rule; and we could say this is because of his hyper-Christ concentrated approach. If a thinker genuinely focuses on the deep Christologicalness we find in the New Testament it is almost an axiom that that thinker will end up pressing into union with Christ themes that look something like what we find in Torrance’s presentation. Federal theology and the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology does not have this emphasis when thinking salvation; it is framed forensically and under a legal strain, necessarily, precisely because their hermeneutical system starts with a Covenant of Works only to be succeeded by the Covenant of Grace. Some will argue that this does not give Covenant theology a necessary legal character, but I think the proof is in the pudding.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 173.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.


Here at The Evangelical Calvinist we like to emphasize God’s grace, ‘all the way down’ as it were. We see this a necessary course correction given the imbalance that has been present, in particular,  in the Western enclave of the church;  since at least the mediaeval period, and working its way through Reformation and Post Reformation Western Europe and finally to the shores of the Americas (North to be specific). I am sure, intelligent reader that you are, you know what I’m referring to; i.e. the impact, on the Protestant side (which is simply my focus here, we could also bring up the Roman Catholic roots of the Protestant past and present), that Post Reformed orthodox theology has had upon the development of what counts today as conservative evangelical theology (think, as a type The Gospel Coalition and the theology it distills for evangelical churches and pastors throughout the United States and beyond). We necessarily have been bequeathed a ‘legal’ faith which flows organically from the Covenant or Federal theology developed by the scholastics reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, because of the ‘Covenantal’ framework defined by its two primary covenants, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, Covenant theology starts its way into a God/world, God/humanity discussion from a soteriological perspective that is grounded in a relationship that is contingent upon a ‘mercantile’ or contractual understanding. And so what gets emphasized in this theology is a God who relates in a kind of “bilateral” way wherein he makes a pact (‘pactum’) with the elect where they will ostensibly live up to their end of God’s bargain by actuating the effectual faith they have been given, by God, in order to stay in good stead with God; a God who has made sure that all the ‘legal requirements’ of the broken covenant of works have been met by his sending of the Son, in Christ, fulfilling the righteous requirements of the covenant of works (i.e. the ‘law’), and thus instigating or establishing God’s covenant of grace. What happens here though is not an abandonment of a legal strain in God’s relationship between himself and humanity instead there is a reinforcement of that type of relationship; albeit it is now contingent upon Christ’s active obedience for the elect rather than on human beings without that type of grace. We could say more, but hopefully the gist has been felt.

Laudably people like Brian Zahnd have been trying to come up against this type of ‘legally strained’ theology in an attempt to emphasize God’s grace and compassion apart from the forensics of it all. Unfortunately, as is often typical when we react, some things get lost in translation. In Zahnd et al. we almost end up with a type of antinomianism wherein the ‘legal’ aspects of Scripture’s teaching (now in contrast to the Covenantal framework) are completely vanquished from the picture; I don’t think this ought to be so. That said, we want to emphasize that God is gracious, and that his relationship to humanity is based upon His creative and first Word of grace; since this is what he has revealed to be the case in his Self exegesis in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth, of all people (can you believe it?!), offers an alternative and more balanced account (juxtaposed with Zahnd’s) when it comes to thinking about God’s relationship to humanity; when it comes to thinking about how God can still be thought of as someone who still has wrath and anger towards sin; and how that gets fleshed out in a radically Christ concentrated atonement theology. George Hunsinger helps us think about this in Barth’s theology, and he alerts us, along the way, to Barth’s own words on this:

2 The saving significance of Christ’s death cannot be adequately understood, Barth proposes, if legal or juridical considerations are allowed to take precedence over those that are more merciful or compassionate. Although God’s grace never occurs without judgment, nor God’s judgment without grace, in Jesus Christ it is always God’s grace, Barth believes, that is decisive. Therefore, although the traditional themes of punishment and penalty are not eliminated from Barth’s discourse about Christ’s death, they are displaced from being central or predominant.

The decisive thing is not that he has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, and therefore the punishment which we deserve. This is true, of course. But it is true only as it derives from the decisive thing that in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in his own person he has made an end of us sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the one who took our place as sinners. In his person he has delivered up us sinners and sin itself to destruction. (IV/1, p. 253)

The uncompromising judgment of God is seen in the suffering love of the cross. Because this judgment is uncompromising, the sinner is delivered up to the death and destruction which sin inevitably deserves. Yet because this judgment is carried out in the person of Jesus Christ, very God and very man, it is borne only to be removed and borne away. “In the deliverance of sinful man and sin itself to destruction, which he accomplished when he suffered our punishment, he has on the other side blocked the source of our destruction” (IV/1, p. 254). By taking our place as sinners before God, “he has seen to it that we do not have to suffer what we ought to suffer; he has removed the accusation and condemnation and perdition which had passed upon us; he has canceled their relevance to us; he has saved us from destruction and rescued us from eternal death” (IV/1, p. 254). The cross reveals an abyss of sin allowed up by the suffering of divine love.[1]

There’s something rather profound about this; we can still speak of God’s unrelenting judgment, it’s just that it is redirected in such a way that the focus comes to be on his desire to actually save us from our own self-destruction by giving us his own Self-vitality and eternal life in and through his Self-offering in Christ. The frame is one of eternal life and death; it is no longer about God meeting some sort of Self-imposed legal conditions so that he can have a relationship with his creatures.

I find this to be a much more winsome way, much more biblically and Christ-centered way to think about a God-world relation versus the one offered by Covenant theology and its covenantal schema of works/grace. In Barth’s alternative what’s at stake is not Penal Substitutionary atonement, but instead what Torrance calls an ‘ontological theory of the atonement.’ That is, the idea that reconciliation with God, i.e. salvation, is about pressing deep into the inner reaches of humanity’s real problem in relation to God; its problem with sin, and how that has plunged humanity into sub-humanity and living in a life of non-life and das Nichtige ‘nothingness.’ We see here in Barth, as we do so often with Thomas Torrance, the influence of St. Athanasius, and even an ‘Eastern’ understanding of what salvation entails in its most Christological senses.

God is still all about judging sin; he’s still wrathful and angry about sin; he still is all about righting the wrongs, and making the crooked straight; it’s just that, contra what I would contend is an artificial way to think about the Bible and God’s relation to the world in the Federal schema, the real issue is highlighted. The real problem with humanity’s plight is elevated to the level it should be at when we think about God and salvation; viz. what it means to be human before God. All of that is dealt with by Jesus, according to Barth [and Torrance] when God freely elects to become human in Christ for us, for the world.

I realize that those who are committed to Federal or classic Covenantal theology won’t have their minds changed by this; although they should. But I hope that for those of you with an open mind that this makes sense; that what God in Christ did, and is doing is not framed by a type of legalism (as it is in Federal theology – just go read some books on its history and development), but instead is framed by God’s gracious gift of eternal life for the world in himself, in Jesus Christ. And that because of this, because of who he is in this way for us, he graciously steps into our situation, and as the Judge becomes the judged. Has he met some  sort of ad hoc legal conditions in this process; is that what he was ultimately about in reconciling the world to himself? Nein. Instead, he ‘elevated’ or exalted us to his position, by the grace of his life in the vicarious humanity of Christ, and recreated anew humanity in Jesus Christ. This is what salvation, and atonement was about; and it is out of this new eschatos humanity, Christ’s, where we participate daily in the triune life of God. This is the great salvation Paul tells Titus to be looking for; it is the one that was won in the incarnation and atonement of God in Christ.


[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 142-43.

When we separate the work of Jesus Christ from his person, or vice versa we will necessarily end up with not only a deflated expression of the Gospel, but also attendant with that, a weakened sense of ethics and holiness. It is the Chalcedonian logic to keep these two realities inseparably related—the person and work of Jesus Christ—while not failing to continually recognize that there is a distinction between the human and divine natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I just conflated two different things, but they too are related; I conflated a discussion about the two-natures/one person reality that Chalcedon sought to provide orthodox grammar for, with the idea that we should never separate the person and work and the work and person of Jesus Christ one from the other. The reason the conflation is present, I think, is by design. It’s the realization by the early church Fathers that any statement about God become man was one with deeply grounded soteriological impact. George Hunsinger, as he develops the Chalcedon logic, interacting with a pithy and elegant statement by George Herbert notes this:

“In Christ two natures met to be thy cure.” When George Herbert wrote these words, he captured the essence of Chalcedonian Christology, with all its strange complexity and simplicity, in a single elegant line. It is sometimes overlooked that the interest behind Chalcedonian Christology has always been largely soteriological. Herbert’s line, however, makes the point very well. It is the saving work of Christ—to be thy cure—which serves as the guiding intention behind the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, just as the definition of his person (following Herbert) — in Christ two natures met — serves as the crucial premise of Christ’s saving work. Change the definition of Christ’s person — make him less than fully God and fully human at the same time — and the saving cure Christ offers changes drastically as well. In other words, just as it makes no sense to have a high view of Christ’s person without an equally high view of his work, so a high view of Christ’s work — in particular, his saving death — cannot be sustained without a suitably high view of his person. The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work.[1]

Hunsinger in a following footnote comments further on the relationship between the person and work of Christ, and how, if diminished in any way, one from the other or vice versa, that diminishes one side of the equation or the other. Here, in particular, Hunsinger is offering elaboration in the last sentence we just read from him above:

This latter sentence, by the way, states a basic rule of all Christology, although as applied here it sheds light on a particular type, namely, the Chalcedonian. In any Christology, at least when internally coherent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: if w, then p; and if p, then w. Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ’s person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high conception of Christ’s saving work that Chalcedonian Christology is meant to sustain. Only a high Christology can state without equivocation, for example, that Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If Christ’s saving work consists in no more than his functioning as a spiritual teacher, a moral example, a symbol of religious experience, or even a unique bearer and transmitter of the Holy Spirit, a high or Chalcedonian view of Christ’s person is logically unnecessary. As modernist Christologies typically evidence (though not always forthrightly), such a saving figure need only be “fully human” without also being “fully God.”[2]


This discussion can be taken in a variety of ways, but I want to take it towards ethics; I actually prefer a discussion on holiness, but ethics is a related loci (at least for the Christian). I simply want to state that: insofar as Christians talk about what it means to be holy before God, and more generally how that works out in a theory of ethics, that this should never be done in abstraction from the person of Jesus Christ. I think this is a symptom of a faulty theological endeavor; i.e. to somehow think the church  could ever talk about holiness without in the same breath tying that concretely into Christology. Without the person of Jesus Christ there is no work of salvation, and without the work of salvation there is no way for Christians to participate in and from the holiness of God; and without that participation there is no way to develop a Christian ethic.

I am really trying to get past the Nashville Statement, but I think this is another reason I really really dislike it so much. It actually reflects a way of thinking that thinks about things in abstraction from Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance would say that this is because of what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy,’ or a dualistic way of conceiving of God’s person and work in Jesus Christ. I see a lack of the Chalcedonian pattern and logic funding evangelical statements like the Nashville Statement, and maybe this all flows from my years and years long critique of evangelical and classical Reformed theology in general; indeed, I’m sure it does flow from this.

To attempt to speak about being holy before God is not possible without first speaking about the person and work of God in Jesus Christ. The picture is too flat, and Christologically speaking, too adoptionistic when Christians attempt to make statements about being holy (no matter what that entails: i.e. human sexuality, race issues, age issues, socio-economic issues etc.). If we sever, even in our speech, the work of Christ from the person of Christ, on the Chalcedonian logic we inevitably diminish the person of Christ. It’s interesting that many of those, or at least some of the more prominent signers of the Nashville Statement endorse the heretical view of the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. I wonder if there is a tacit relationship between that, and the diminished Christology we see functioning in statements like the one from Nashville?

I clearly have more work to do in regard to tying many of the loose ends I’m leaving us with together, but such is a blog post. I am seriously going to make this the last post I write on the Nashville Statement.


[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 131.

[2] Ibid., 131-2 n.2.

*I stole the picture of the Chinese Jesus from Paul Metzger’s usage of it in his post.

John McGuckin describes the basic premise of Augustine’s theory of atonement, and how that has impacted the Western church ever since. We often hear this Augustinian (and now Calvinist) sentiment derided; i.e. under the charge of God the Father being a cosmic child abuser of his Son in the atoning cross-work. As McGuckin also notes, though, there were multi-valent models of augustine1atonement theories abound during the patristic period; and as he notes (rightly, I believe), this is because of the diffuse nature of Scripture’s witness itself. Here’s what McGuckin has written:

In the West the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, to appease the anger of God, remained the dominate and most vivid idea of the atonement. The idea was prevalent in the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian, and when it was restated by Augustine (in more balanced and philosophical terms) it was set to enter the Western church as the primary motif of atonement theology for centuries to come. It is conveyed in Augustine’s statement: “Since death was our punishment for sin, Christ’s death was that of sacrificial victim offered up for sins” (De Trinitate 4.12.15). Many modern patristic theorists have attempted to bring some order into the sprawling images of atonement we find in this literature, describing various “schools” or theories (physical theory, Christ the Victor, and so on). The simple fact is that the patristic writing is organically diffuse on the central mystery of Christ’s economiastic preaching. The writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them devolving in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.[1]

It is the Augustinian model itself that has so deeply funded what we see taken over in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement given development particularly in the Federal or Covenantal wing of Reformed theology. Often this is also connected to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, but really the only relationship there is the idea of satisfaction; i.e. not much material linkage, theologically.

I’m not going to comment too much on all of this, other than to say that those committed to the Augustinian theory, in the main, are going to have a difficulty appreciating the ontological theory of the atonement that we promote as evangelical Calvinists.

[1] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology(Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 39.

If you are an evangelical Christian, when it comes to thinking about what happened during the atoning work of Jesus Christ, you are most likely familiar with one understanding of that: i.e. the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. Once, I read this book by a scholar named Stephen Strehle titled: The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel. If you can get your hands on this
banner2book I would suggest it (it is an academic title so it is quite cost prohibitive), but even if you can’t, for the purposes of this post, the title itself is highly suggestive. Evangelical Christianity has a past (I hate to break the news to you!), and most of evangelical Christianity’s past (in the free church movement), at the theological/doctrinal level, comes to her through her forbears in the Protestant Reformation (and a dominant thread of that to boot). One of my mentors and former seminary professors, Dr. Ron Frost (a historical theologian and Puritan expert), had this little genealogy he would sometimes refer to in regard to tracing the ‘evangelical past’ I am referring to, he would string it out this way: Francis Turretin (and his  Elenctic Theology), Charles Hodge (an “old Princeton Seminary” professor who would teach his students Turretin’s theology and even have them translate it from Latin to English), and then the appropriation of Hodge’s ‘Turretino’ theology by subsequent conservative and evangelical theologians (even ones in the ‘free church’ evangelical movement like Ryrie, et al. when it comes to things soteriological). Now whether this genealogy is reliable, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Point remaining though, one way or the other what was emphasized for the Covenant/Federal theologians of the scholastic Reformation (or Post-Reformed orthodox) period in regard to a theory of the atonement – Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) – became the emphasis for much (if not most) of evangelical understanding of atonement theory (into the present).

Thomas F. Torrance in his posthumously published (by his nephew Robert Walker) New Lectures as Incarnation&Atonement (Vol. 1&Vol. 2) gets into things atonement and more. In his Volume 2, Atonement he even provides an index for the various ways Christian theologians have conceived of the atonement, and its various theories, respectively. In his index he covers the theory we just highlighted – PSA – among the other various theories (in a broad manner). In his coverage he introduces us to a theory that I would venture most evangelicals have never considered, because they have never heard of it (it is the theory that we as evangelical Calvinists see as the framing theory for the others, something of a centraldogma in regard to the web of atonement theories in relation). Since we have been discussing this already, why don’t I just quote Torrance’s index at length, and then on the other side we will about it a little more.

(i) The dramatic aspect of atonement

This has tended to fall into a ‘ransom to the devil theory, or at best a Christus victor concept. This theory is mostly patristic and early mediaeval, but it has its modern counterparts in certain Lutheran and Anglo-Catholic circles, not so much in Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic theology. When the dramatic aspect of the atonement narrows in this way, it has a distinct tendency towards dualism and that provokes ‘demythologisation’. It is worth noting that while historians frequently speak of this as patristic and mediaeval, in actual fact it is found only in a small part of patristic thought, in Origenism and in certain areas of monastic thought where dualism prevailed. It was not held by any of the great fathers (except by Gregory of Nyssa) and we find it again in mediaeval times, in popular and monastic thought, but it is not so evident in the theologians – it was effectively destroyed by Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux.

(ii) The cultic-forensic aspect of atonement

This has tended to fall apart into two notions:

a) a cultic notion of the atonement, without the element of justification, found mostly in liturgical texts and context. It tended to be carried forward in the thought of the west mostly in connection with the sacrifice of mass, without adequate relation to Christ himself in his saving activity. Yet this is by no means exaggerated in the great theologians. For example, of the twenty questions devoted by Thomas Aquinas to the eucharist, only one is devoted to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice. A much better concept is to be found in Anselm’s prayers and meditations.

b) a penal notion without the priestly aspect – a satisfaction conception of atonement. This derives in the west mostly from the basic thought of Tertullian – and has in it a distinct tendency toward legalism, with little notion of redemption from the law, of salvation ‘apart from law’. The development of the penal and satisfaction notions in atonement owes a great deal to the Latin language and highly Latinised concepts as we can see when we compare the western development of these notions, either in Roman or Protestant thought, with the exposition of the penal and satisfaction aspects in the thought of Cyril of Alexandria especially. It was the penal-substitution notion, together with a narrowed understanding of justification, that became dominant in the centuries of so-called Protestant Orthodoxy and today in so-called Evangelical Protestantism.

(iii) The ontological aspect of atonement

This again has tended to fall into two notions:

a) an incarnational notion, where the saving element is through knowledge and mystical union with Christ. This is evident very early in the Greek fathers, for example in Clement of Alexandria, and earlier in Ignatius of Antioch – but contrast the Epistle to Diognetus. It became one of the main strands of development through the mystical tradition, the stress being laid sometimes more on union with God through mystical vision, sometimes more on union with God through the incarnation.

b) a subjective notion of atonement, where the moral influence of the sacrifice of Christ or knowledge of what God has done for us in his love is the saving element – for example in Abelard or in Socinus. Yet this has a profound and moving development in the liturgy, for example in the Stabat Mater, or prayer of Mary at the foot of the cross – cf. here Haydn’s Stabat Mater and the immense power of contemplating the wounds of Jesus.[1]

Thank you professor Torrance!

As you can see I emboldened the section in ii where TFT reinforces what I had asserted earlier in regard to PSA and Post-Reformed Orthodoxy as well as evangelicals. And then I emboldened the part of iii where TFT highlights the type of  ontological theory that he actually endorses, and that we do as well as evangelical Calvinists.

I am pretty much at my word count for an acceptable length for a blog post (1000 words) so I will cut this one off here. Maybe next time we will reference this index and get into why I as an evangelical Calvinist believe that TFT’s (as well as Barth’s and Athanasius’) view on the ‘ontological aspect’ of the atonement ought to be emphasized in the way we think about the place of all of the theories of the atonement. Until then you can click here.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance ed., Robert T. Walker, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 56-8.

The Good News (the ‘Gospel’) is that Jesus died for everyone, which is what we are celebrating this Good Friday evening. There is something very profound that happens in the atoning work of Christ, of course! And as usual there are various readings of the implications of what Jesus did, and these readings are informed by how we first think of God. I think one of the most important premises that we can read the atonement from is that God loves us first that we might love Him (I John 4:19); and God loved us first, because He is love (I John 4:8). It is this love that was demonstrated so many years ago now at the cross. It is this love that holds all of the treachery and vicissitudes of human history together. Without this love, nothing makes sense; everything is aimlessly bounding as Jude says ‘like wandering stars’.

Holbein Dead Christ, detail

Thomas Torrance offers us some enlightening words on the significance of Christ’s death as he reflects on the theology of John Knox:

[S]everal comments on this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice may be in place. While traditional forensic language is used, the atoning sacrifice is not to be understood as fulfilled by Christ merely as man (which would imply a Nestorian Christology), but of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man who is himself God and man in one Person. This means that ‘the joyful atonement made between God and man by Christ Jesus, by his death, resurrection and ascension’, is not to be understood in any sense as the act of the man Jesus placating God the Father, but as a propitiatory sacrifice in which God himself through the death of his dear Son draws near to man and draws man near to himself. It is along these lines also that we must interpret the statement of the Scots Confession that Christ ‘suffered in body and soul to make the full satisfaction for the sins of the people’, for in the Cross God accepts the sacrifice made by Christ, whom he did not spare but delivered him up for us all, as satisfaction, thereby acknowledging his own bearing of the world’s sin guilt and judgment as the atonement. As Calvin pointed out in a very important passage, God does not love us because of what Christ has done, but it is because he first loved us that he came in Christ in order through atoning sacrifice in which God himself does not hold himself aloof but suffers in and with Christ to reconcile us to himself. Nor is there any suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of the chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: ‘not I but Christ’…. [Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, 18-9.]

As usual, there is a lot packed into a little space by Torrance. There are two things I want to focus on: 1) God initiates for us, because of who He is, Love! He does not initiate for us after He has chosen us, but He has chosen Himself, His own being as Father of the Son consummated in the communing love of the Holy Spirit; and as a result of this shape of God’s inestimable Triune self, as a result of His over-abundant life, He has showered this upon us in Christ, His Dearly beloved Son. And all of this ever before He gets to us. He chooses us not arbitrarily or in an ad hoc fashion, but instead, because of who He is in Himself. There is no abstract notion, no speculative conceiving upon ‘who’ God has chosen for Himself; He has chosen Himself in His Son who is for us by the conciliation of the Spirit. He has not chosen us based upon an utilitarian mechanism of Divine favoritism, or upon the meeting of some sort of conditional law-code; He has chosen us because He is Love, and He has embedded the trajectory of all of creation and re-creation in Love, the Father in Love with the Son. 2) And so God, because He is love, and because the greatest exemplum of this is in His Son on the cross, has hidden us in Himself, in the Yes of the Son first pronounced in contradiction as the No to sin. We have no resource in ourselves, we have no assurance to be groped for in the excesses of our humanity; He has left no room for us to shimmer around in our strength and angst. He has taken us all the way down to the grave in Himself and brought us back up in the resurrection and ascension. Our Yes comes from His Yes for us. We say Yes by the same Spirit that Jesus said Yes from, and it is through this Divine undertaking of super-abounding Love made intimate in the Son for us that we find rest; even, and especially in the death of ourselves.

So God is Love this Good Friday evening, and God’s Love is Yes for us in the vicarious humanity of Christ seated at the right hand of the Father. There is nowhere to look this evening, but in anticipation of what Saturday will bring, and Sunday morning will hatch anew. I look forward to the resurrection! amen.

Participatio is the peer reviewed online theological journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship (I had the honor of being a copy editor and assistant editor for Participatio for a couple volumes), and they just came out with their latest volume. This latest volume is actually an issue dedicated to Thomas Torrance’s brother James B. Torrance, a virtuoso theologian and churchman in his own right. I would like to encourage all of my readers to head over to their website, and give this JBT volume a read. To whet your appetite I would like to offer a quote from the Introductory essay written by James’ son, prof (Dr) Alan Torrance (he is professor of theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland). Not only do I want to offer this quote as something to pique your interest in the whole of the volume, but I also want to use the material in the quote as a bit of a springboard to talk about something that is core to what Myk Habets and I have called Evangelical Calvinism; as you all know by now, Thomas Torrance, and James Torrance (no less) have provided all kind of impetus and trajectory for the shaping of Evangelical Calvinism (in fact Myk and I stole that language from Thomas’ book Scottish Theology).

The following is a quote from Alan Torrance about an experience that his dad, James Torrance had (early on in his career) as he was asked to share the pulpit with two stalwart theologian-pastors of that day, Martin Lloyd Jones (who JBT served as youth pastor for), and James I. Packer; he found himself in a bit of a quagmire as he staunchly disagreed with his two elders on the issue of the extent of the atonement (both Jones and Packer, of course, affirm the classically held Reformed position that Jesus only died for the elect … more commonly understood in popular parlance as ‘limited atonement’). Here is what Alan Torrance writes of that experience:

Third, there was his “black day.” JB was profoundly involved in evangelical circles and he never ceased to regard himself as an evangelical. He was president of the IVF while studying philosophy in Edinburgh and went on to lead the largest mission ever organised by the Christian Union in Scotland. While in London, he worked alongside Martin Lloyd Jones as his youth pastor. All of this culminated in what he described as possibly the most influential (and distressing) experience of his theological development. He was invited to be a keynote speaker at a massive evangelical conference in London alongside James Packer and Martin Lloyd Jones. At this event, the subject of limited atonement came up — a topic that had been little discussed in post-war evangelical circles. My father found himself outnumbered on the platform when he offered an emphatic rejection of limited atonement, insisting that the God who became human loved and forgave his enemies just as he told us to love and forgive our enemies — seventy times seven, that is, unconditionally. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and those who deny Christ “reject the Lord who bought them.” What distressed him most was the fact that Martin Lloyd Jones supported limited atonement. As he once explained to me, it was this event that led him to devote most of the rest of his career to analysing the elements that had led to the emergence of a doctrine that he, like his missionary father, regarded as a heresy — one that tragically misrepresented the character of God, the integrity of the incarnation and the nature of God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. It meant that we could no longer tell people that God loved them or that Christ died for them. Indeed, ultimately, on this understanding, no-one could ever be sure, this side of the eschaton, that they were loved by God or that Christ died for them. [read the full volume here, this quote was taken from Alan Torrance’s Introductory essay to this volume]

What a significant insight into James Torrance’s life and theological development! This is one of the distinguishing factors between us (as Evangelical Calvinists) and classically (so called) Reformed proponents. We believe along with James Torrance (and Thomas) that Jesus Christ in his vicarious humanity and as the ontological ground of all of humanity in the Incarnation assumed the humanity of all people in a very particular way as the man from Nazareth. As such it is impossible for the Evangelical Calvinist to ever conceive of the idea that God only loves some people, some of his creation enough to die for them. Indeed, the logic of our position requires that God loves all of humanity as much as he loves himself, for he has chosen to not be God without us as he elected our humanity for himself in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. You see the dilemma then: if Jesus in the incarnation truly assumed humanity and serves as the ground the condition upon which all of humanity holds together (by the ‘word’ of his power see Hebrews 1), then it would be utterly impossible to even consider the idea that Jesus only died for just a few out of the mass of humanity; this would lead to the idea that there is some sort of rupture within the life of God (if in fact he truly did assume humanity in the incarnation, and he did so because of who he is as Triune love).

James Torrance is an Evangelical Calvinist par excellence; alongside, of course, his bother Thomas Torrance. I hope this insight from James’ son, Alan, helps to make clearer why he is such an important person and thinker for us Evangelical Calvinists.

Here T. F. Torrance (uber-Evangelical Calvinist) is commenting on John Knox’s understanding of the atonement. You’ll notice that the Federal grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg(*forensic*) understanding is being implicitly critiqued throughout the unfolding of the comment:

. . . Several comments on this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice may be in place. While traditional forensic language is used, the atoning sacrifice is not to be understood as fulfilled by Christ merely as man (which would imply a Nestorian Christology), but of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man who is himself God and man in one Person. This means that ‘the joyful atonement made between God and man by Christ Jesus, by his death, resurrection and ascension’, is not to be understood in any sense as the act of the man Jesus placating God the Father, but as a propitiatory sacrifice in which God himself through the death of his dear Son draws near to man and draws man near to himself. It is along these lines also that we must interpret the statement of the Scots Confession that Christ ‘suffered in body and soul to make the full satisfication for the sins of the people’, for in the Cross God accepts the sacrifice made by Christ, whom he did not spare but delievered him up for us all, as satisfication, thereby acknowledging his own bearing of the world’s sin guilt and judgment as the atonement. As Calvin pointed out in a very important passage, God does not love us because of what Christ has done, but it is because he first loved us that he came in Christ in order through atoning sacrifice in which God himself does not hold himself aloof but suffers in and with Christ to reconcile us to himself. Nor is there any suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that the perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: ‘not I but Christ’. . . . [T. F. Torrance: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 18-19]

Lots going on here, primary of which is a robust, trinitarian Doctrine of God. Indeed, I would suggest that this is the key from whence Federal and Scottish Theology (or “Evangelical Calvinism”) depart, one from the other.

One of the subsequent points of departure between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism is how the “atonement” is framed. The former frames it forensically, per the covenant of works/grace (as shaped by the ‘decree’); while the latter frames the shape of the atonement ontologically (per the one ‘covenant of grace’ as shaped within the free predeterminations in the life of God).

There is more to be said. I will try and come back later and provide more reflection, especially for those of you for whom this is new (even “strange teaching”).

The International House of Prayer-University just hosted a debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown, the debate was on differing views of the atonement. Zahnd essentially christcenteredargued against the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA, hereafter) theory, while Brown argued for it. Maybe you weren’t aware that there were differing views out there on this, or maybe instead you are well versed in this area, and were pounding your fist one way or the other as you watched this debate.

Zahnd’s basic premise is that PSA represents divine child abuse; that the Father sent the Son to die for our sins, that he tortured him on a cross, and once he got every last ounce of his wrath out of him, as he beat on his Son, at this point God was able to love the elect. Brown argued, from a biblical theological approach, that to the contrary, PSA represents the most biblical view of the atonement, and fits well with the Day of Atonement motif (cf. Lev. 16), as well as New Testament passages where Jesus is called the ‘Lamb of God’ (Jn. 1.29), or the ‘Passover’ (I Cor. 5.7). Without getting into further detail, throughout the rest of this post I will take this debate as a jumping off point, and get further into the history of the development of PSA theology, and then offer the evangelical Calvinist (not Zahnd’s, but evangelical Calvinism’s) alternative to PSA, which by the way, does not fully disavow the penal substitutionary atonement model, it just doesn’t see it as the central frame for an atonement theory.

To begin with let me provide a little history on how the PSA developed in early Protestant Reformed theology. Jan Rohls does an excellent job of developing the history of PSA theology by weaving many of the Reformed confessions and catechisms together that in fact made it central to the scholastically Reformed church. As Rohls comments on the French, Belgic, and Geneva Confession[s], and how these confessions engage with the earlier Apostles’ Creed on the theme of atonement he writes of what we call PSA theology today:

All other events of Jesus’ life are placed in functional relation to his death. With regard to the content of Christian preaching the Synodical Declaration of Berne states that “the beginning must be made with Christ’s death and resurrection” (M 37, 7). But that raises the question, “If one must begin and end with Christ’s death and resurrection, what is the purpose of the evangelists, who describe his birth and his life?” (M 37, 38–40). According to the Geneva Catechism, the Apostle’s Creed immediately proceeds to Christ’s suffering, so that the question arises, “Why do you go immediately from His birth to His death, passing over the whole history of His life?” (T 13). The Catechism’s answer to this question is revealing: “Because nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption” (ibid.). The event that constitutes the essence of redemption is Jesus’ suffering and death, insofar as they are penalties that Christ takes upon himself for us in a substitutionary way. “He dies to suffer the punishment due to us, and thus to deliver us from it” (T 14). His substitution for us lies not just in the fact that he died for us. To highlight the penal character of the death that we have earned as sinners, he was condemned to death. “Because we were guilty before the judgment of God as evil-doers, in order to represent us in person He was pleased to appear before the tribunal of an earthly judge, and to be condemned by his mouth, that we might be acquitted before the throne of the celestial Judge” (ibid.).[1]

As I listened to the first half of the aforementioned debate I did not hear any of this background context provided, which is troubling. It is troubling because in order to offer a fair critique (Zahnd), or at least a relatively thick one, the development of PSA theology needs to be given its proper layering and reasoning. As becomes apparent through Rohls’ development, what we see is that the ‘penal character’ of the atonement comes from a particular background; what Rohls’ did not develop in the section that I quoted is that the background for PSA is what Reformed theology calls Covenant or Federal Theology, in particular the Covenant of Works. Because of space constraints, I am not going to be able to develop that either; suffice it to say there is much more to the background of PSA than Zahnd alluded to. If he had delved into that a little more further his own critique of divine child abuse would have been weakened somewhat, primarily because of the covenantal nature that PSA is couched in.

Unfortunately, this post is going to run too long if I attempt to provide the evangelical Calvinist alternative to PSA and classical Covenantal theology, I will have to make this a two part post and offer that next time or so. Let me conclude this way; the evangelical Calvinist critique of PSA, in particular has more to do with its broader covenantal framework, with election, the extent of the atonement, and most pointedly with the efficacious nature, or lack thereof, of penal substitutionary atonement. Evangelical Calvinism’s basic critique goes something like this: to frame the substitution as a juridical thing, a forensic thing, a legal thing does not deal with the depth dimension, the problem that needs to really be dealt with. The penalty view deals with the symptoms and consequences of sin, it does not deal with the cause and source of sin which is the heart. So as an alternative, evangelical Calvinism riffs off of TF Torrance’s ontological theory of the atonement that finds rootage in Patristic theology.

In my view the debate that happened did not really deal with the source issues, nor with a source alternative like the ontological theory of the atonement offers. More to come. Actually if you click here you can read the evangelical Calvinist alternative.

[1] Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. Columbia Series In Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 94-5.

This is part of my ongoing attempt to make what I write accessible for the Christian public at large. The following is Thesis 14 from our edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. I will quote it in full, then follow it up with further explanation, with hopes of making it comprehensible in ways that are able to penetrate the hearts and minds of as many as will. [here is the first installment]



Thesis Fourteen. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.

While Evangelical Calvinism upholds what is essential in a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, it does not limit the atonement to juridical metaphors. Instead it prefers to see the atonement through the multifaceted New Testament perspectives, in addition to the many Old Testament antecedents, and speak of an ontological, personal, relational, and even mystical union, centered in Christ, by which any atonement model inheres.55

The language which the New Testament uses to set this out is drawn from the long history of God’s dealings in revelation and reconciliation with his covenant people Israel. That language is used in the sovereign freedom of the New Testament revelation, in the sovereign freedom of the Son of God who, as he comes into the situation prepared for him in Israel, acts both critically and creatively in fulfilment of the Old Testament patterns of understanding and worship provided within the covenant. We must seek therefore to examine that language, and through it and by means of it, seek to understand what the New Testament teaches us of the death of Christ. And yet we must pass beyond the Old Testament language to the actual person and work of Christ himself and allow his person and work as mediator to remould in our obedient understanding of him, even the language divinely prepared in the old covenant, for here it is with the new covenant in the blood of Christ that we are concerned.56

It is this embodied aspect of the atonement in Christ that becomes the centrum wherein an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement takes full shape. The imagery and liturgical activity of atonement found throughout the canon of Scripture is grounded and orientated ontologically in the cruciform life of Christ. This means that Evangelical Calvinists believe that penal-substitution is an aspect of the atonement, and a fundamental one at that; that both forensic realities are present, but that they find their nexus deeper down as Christ takes on the full weight of sin in his very being.

Torrance beautifully describes the implications of such an atonement model when he writes:

Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgement: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgement, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgement on evil simply by smiting violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.57

If the forensic/juridical components are the primary components of an atonement theory, then the concern is that atonement will not have dealt with the real reach of sin; to use the language of Scripture, the juridical/forensic, alone, does not have the capacity to deal with the “heart.” Instead, juridical/forensic themes can only provide “payment” to God for legal crimes committed against him; yet the primary issues— the cause of the symptoms—remains untouched. Evangelical Calvinists advance the ontological theory of the atonement that helps correct the imbalance left by the classic understanding.

55. See Torrance, Atonement, 99.

56. Ibid., 1.

57. Torrance, Incarnation, 150.



In a nutshell, what this all means, is that we as Evangelical Calvinists (Myk Habets and myself in particular) believe that the most popular and dominant theory of the atonement (i.e. what Jesus did for us, as classically understood, in his cross-work, paying for the penalty of our sins), which is known as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory, does not adequately capture the depths of which actually happened in the atonement of Jesus. Basically, to simply believe all that Jesus did at the cross was pay a legal debt on our behalf, would be akin to a bails-bondsman paying for a criminal to get out of jail; obviously, the criminal is now “free,” but in reality all that has happened is a legal agreement between the Law-court and the criminal has been agreed upon, that their debt has been ‘paid’ for (in the analogy, only temporarily, which is where it breaks down), and on this basis they are now free from the prison that was now holding them. Of course the problem remains, only the symptoms have been dealt with, and the criminal is still a criminal in intention and heart, they are just a “free criminal.” This is akin to what happens in the forensic PSA understanding of the atonement. Jesus is the bails-bondsman, he pays for our penalty of sin, but in reality, his payment never penetrates into the depth of our heart, which is what makes us sinners and inward focused (navel-gazers). What needs to happen, is that Jesus needs to fully enter into our situation, he needs to become fully human, and thus when he dies on the cross, what is really happening is that he is putting to death the cause of our criminality, what makes us sinners (our utterly wicked hearts Jer. 17;9 etc.). So when we say ‘the ontological theory of the atonement’ all that this is indicating is that Jesus truly enters into the depths of our humanity, and he isn’t just our purported bails-bondsman, but he actually and really (ontologically-which means ‘being’ of who we really are), becomes a real human being, representative of all human beings, and he condemns ‘sin’ in his body, as Paul says in Romans 8:3; he puts our sorry hearts of sin out of their misery, and gives us his heart of ‘flesh’ (II Cor. 3; Ez. 36) in his resurrected humanity.

So to frame the atonement as a ‘legal’ thing as its primary understanding, is problematic; because it doesn’t offer the real answer to what we really needed, only the belief that Jesus put our sinful hearts to death, deals the final death blow to our wicked hearts that is needed in order for genuine reconciliation to happen between God and humanity. And as Evangelical Calvinists, we believe this union of reconciliation has happened in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, and our mediator and high priest. And so we stand humbly before him and in him, as redeemed, recreated, and resurrected humanity, with new hearts that beat with love for the Father, given life blood through the veins of Jesus for us, and breath to these dry bones, by the Holy Spirit’s in-spiration.


Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.


“A deep brokenness requires a deeper theology.”

Philosophy of Blogging

“I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” - St. Augustine cited by John Calvin

“We must always keep in mind that the reason the Son of God came down from the hidden throne of the eternal Father and revealed heavenly doctrine was not to furnish material for seminary debates, in which the display of ingenuity might be the game, but rather so that human beings should be instructed concerning true knowledge of God and of all those things which are necessary to the pursuit of eternal salvation.” Martin Chemnitz, Loci theol. ed., 1590, Hypomnemata 9 cited by Barth, CD I/1, 82.


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