Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor

Understanding the Cross from the perspective of grace rather than legalism
[ intro |
part one | part two |part three ]



As a Christian I had always understood the cross on a heart level - I understood deep down in my guts that the cross screamed out how much God loved me. It was something beautiful that spoke of how valued I was in the eyes of God as expressed in the simple and profound statement "Jesus died for me". Moreover, I experienced in the depths of who I am the power of the cross working in my life - the love of God opened up to me, bringing life into the dark and broken places. Yet while I knew this saving power and reality of the cross as an experiential reality in my life, at the same time I didn't understand in my head how it worked. I was unable to communicate to others the radical love that I saw and experienced there at the foot of the cross, and found myself dissatisfied with the legalistic explanations I heard. Why did God need the cross to save us? How does it make anything better? These were the questions I asked myself.


For many with a hurtful understanding of Christianity this is vitally important. For them the cross is something terrible. It shows them a cruel God who accuses and condemns us for something we cannot help and then murders his own son to appease this bloodlust. They do not see love in the cross; they see something cruel, they see a God who frightens them. How can they open their hearts to the one who is Life, who is Love, with this hurtful and false image of God blocking them? Understanding how the cross shows us the radical love of God is crucial here because it affects how we can trust and open our lives to God's love. In this paper I would like to communicate what I see in the cross, so we can come to a fuller deeper understanding of its beauty and radicality. So those with a hurtful understanding of the cross can replace it with a life-giving understanding, and as we understand better with our heads, we can worship God better in our lives.


Why did God need the cross to save us? How does it make anything better? These were the questions I asked myself.

This hurtful image of God is largely based on a way of understanding the cross that is known as "Vicarious Atonement", "Penal Substitution", or "Satisfaction-Doctrine". Satisfaction-Doctrine is the most wide spread view of the cross. In fact it is so common that many people think this is the only view of the cross, or that this is simply "what the Bible teaches". Indeed, one can find passages that seem to support this view. One finds the words "atonement" or "sacrifice" and assumes that they are to be understood in the context of the Satisfaction-Doctrine. Instinctively we take this view we have been taught and project it onto the biblical passages rather then letting Scripture speak for itself in its own context. I would like to show this is simply not "what the Bible teaches" but is far more something rooted in man-made doctrines heavily influenced by western Medieval philosophy. There are better ways to understand the cross that fit with who we know Jesus to be in the inward experience of our relationship with God and with the witness of Scripture. So in

Part One we will be looking at Satisfaction-Doctrine and what is wrong with it. In
Part Two we will take an in-depth look at the biblical concepts of the temple, sacrifice and the law in order to understand them in their biblical context. Finally in
Part Three we will explore some alternate ways to understand the cross, endeavoring to recover the radical life-giving witness of the early church and scriptures.

A note on the Scriptural references: Because this paper deals with our understanding of Scripture and challenges the traditionally held position and doctrines, I have made an effort to give biblical references where appropriate. This is not done as a "proof text" but rather to allow the reader to investigate further on their own. Each reference unless explicitly quoted contains a link to the full text. In my experience the people who most benefit from this are people with a negative experience of Christianity who find the message of grace attractive, but claim that seeing God from a perspective of grace is "not biblical". So these references are there to encourage the reader to challenge what they have been taught and to investigate on their own what Scripture really does say.

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