Wonder-Working Pow’r

Part two in a series on Atonement. Read part one here: When Jesus Died.

This week: a primer on penal substitutionary atonement.


I’ve recently been reading a book, Problems with Atonement. Some might say, “Problems? What problems? Is there a problem?” Or even: “There isn’t a problem.”

The traditional view is that humanity has a problem: sin, and God solves it: Jesus dies on the cross. It’s a concept many  of us learned in Sunday school, and perhaps haven’t thought much about since.  In other words, because we grew up with it – it is harder for us to see why there might be any sort of problem(s).

So let’s sketch out the usual, or at least traditionally evangelical, view:

1) Humanity is sinful (this is a state we  are born into,vis-à-vis Adam and Eve). It is not simply that we sin, but that our essence is sinful.

2) This sinfulness cuts us off from God.

3) God made provisional ways for people to  approach him in the ancient world of the Hebrews through the sacrificial  system, particularly  the ‘day  of atonement’.

4) But this didn’t change  the heart issue: only whether people could at some level approach God through mediators (the priestly system and  sacrifices).

5) Jesus arrives and God’s final plan for redemption is revealed: Jesus’  death is seen as the final and ultimate sacrifice, bridging  the gap between humanity  and God for all  time. Earlier  attempts are now seen as foreshadowings or  ‘types’ that were all along pointing to Jesus.  This includes both sacrificial language and language of  temple, priesthood, and even Passover.

The idea is simply  this: humanity is so sinful, and God so holy, that rectification or cleansing must occur for us to approach God.

A closely related point is that God requires sacrifice to appease his anger over sin.

All of these points seem to be in  play in the Old Testament cultic (read: *priestly*) system, and get transferred over to Jesus in the New Testament.  (I prefer to use Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels and Paul instead of ‘Old’ and ‘New’, but will occasionally use OT and NT to help us see how those terms even came to be used – and why ultimately it may be better to avoid them).

This is a comforting view for many: God love us so much that he sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  In other words, because God knew we could never cross the gap, he crossed it for us. (No pun intended).

Bloody Good Music

There are plenty  of songs  that celebrate this view:

There is Power in the Blood
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.


There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.


Nothing But the Blood

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.


Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

And there are plenty of others (feel free to remind us of some others in the comments).

This view we have been describing here has a technical name: penal substitutionary atonementPenal in that there was a penalty to be paid for justice to be done. Substitutionary in that Christ took the place of humanity by paying the penalty. And the word atonement itself means that this has happened: someone ‘atoned for’ or ‘covered over’ our sins.

This is what a person will generally mean when he says, “Jesus died for me.”

A similar definition is given in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.

I  wanted to give this view a basic representation before beginning to get to some of the potential problems inherent in such a framework as mentioned at the outset.

A few  more questions to leave you with:

  • Does this view resonate with you? Why? Why not?
  • What texts  support this view? Are there others that undermine it? What view(s) did the earliest Christians hold?
  • Do you think Jesus had this view of his own role in God’s larger plan? Did Jesus more or less come to earth just to die?
  • Is it moral to punish one person so that others escape such punishment?
  • Is God ‘purchasing’ salvation in this framework? If so, from whom?
  • If God had planned such a complete and total way to enact forgiveness, why wait so long?
  • Why does God need someone to be punished for sin? Why can’t he just forgive straight out?
  • If God created humanity capable of committing sin, then placed them in a situation in which such sin was likely, is it moral or just to expection perfection, and then hold out eternal conscious torment as the appropriate sentence?

Next time we’ll get into some of the background of the Hebrew sacrificial system, how it is presented (and develops) in the text, how it compares to contemporary Ancient Near Eastern cultic approaches, and how this language is re-appropriated by some of the New Testament authors.

Read Part 3 here: A Soothing Aroma.


5 thoughts on “Wonder-Working Pow’r

  1. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13


  2. Your five-point sketch of the penal substitutionary view is nice and tidy, then at the very end of your post, in fact the very last bullet that you list under “a few more questions to leave you with”, you ask “is it moral or just to expect (sp) perfection, and then hold out eternal conscious torment as the appropriate sentence? “. Where did this come from? Where is eternal conscious torment mentioned anywhere in your five-point sketch? Point #2 of your outline merely says that this sinfulness cuts us off from God. The suggestion is that we are merely estranged, separated from a full relationship. In fact, your very next point indicates that God made provisional ways for people to approach him. Yet you end this post with the usual bait-and-switch tactic common to fundamental and evangelical doctrine…”Oh, by the way, did I forget to mention that when I said that our sinfulness cuts us off from God what I really meant to say is that God intends to toss you into eternal conscious torment?” Isn’t that a significant component that deserves a little more than a postscript? Your post is another example of how the traditional view has been so thoroughly brainwashed into Christians that the idea of God tossing human beings into endless torment is little more than an afterthought.


    1. Hi Robert–
      Thanks for your comments. You’re right, I should have included the eternal separation/hell in the five point sketch – it wasn’t a complete sketch, by any means. I suppose I guessed people understood what the sin/separation means in the typical evangelical approach: hell. No bait and switch intended. I think the whole framework is fraught with difficulties (as I’ll get into in upcoming posts), and hell as eternal conscious torment being one of the big ones. It’s hardly an afterthought, it’s a huge part of the conversation. Again, this was just a sketch meant to introduce penal substitutionary atonement and open it up to wider conversation. I’m not giving the final word by any means, and I’m grateful for your comments as well as others, so thanks! And stay tuned!


  3. When I was a child, I sang these hymns (and loved them). I don’t think I ever understood the whole idea of “the blood.” Today, I have a completely different thought on the subject of “original” sin, and I believe it is closer to the truth than the former way.


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