[Note: for previous posts in this series, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here].
As will have become obvious by now, the venerable theory of penal substitution—the notion that Jesus died as humanity's (or the elect's) substitute in judgment, bearing, as our proxy, the penalty we incurred for the sins we committed—has fallen on hard times in certain theological circles. "It is immoral," some claim (more on this next time). "It is deficient," some say, because it is ethically ungenerative (see my response here). Even more shocking to those raised in traditionalist evangelical circles, some—despite the evidence I have amassed over the previous installments of this series, which is (or at least should be) common knowledge—assert that "it is unbiblical." And, if so, the detractors would have an unassailable argument.
One scholar who has made this claim is James McGrath, who writes thus:
In the NT, Jesus does not substitute for Christians. Paul says it well in 2 Corinthians. He doesn't write, "One died for all, because all should have died, but one took their place..." He writes, "One died for all, and therefore all died..." His model is participatory, not substitionary.
A model which does justice to that, which suggests that Jesus came to invite us to participate with him in seeking to conquer through love and self-sacrifice rather than power and an attempt to defeat our enemies, would potentially do justice to both Biblical and contemporary theological considerations.
The relevant text is 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, which reads as follows:
For the love of Christ controls us, since we have concluded this, that Christ died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised (NET Bible).In its context, this text contributes to a lengthy and, to us, somewhat convoluted defense of Paul's apostleship (2 Cor 1:12-7:16). His primary claim here is that his apostolic activity toward the Corinthians (5:11-13) was undertaken in response to the claim laid on his life (synechei) by the love Christ manifested in his reconciling, sin-bearing death (explicated in verses 15-21). Fundamental here is the fact that Paul attributes his sense of compulsion to a prior intellectual judgment (the aorist participle krinantas is almost certainly causal) about the theological significance of Christ's death. This theological judgment comes in two, logically connected parts.
The first conclusion drawn by the apostle is that Christ's death for "all" (hyper pantōn) logically entails (ara) the corollary that "all" died. Paul's formulation here is, to say the least, succinct to the point of being cryptic. Indeed, Margaret Thrall, in her recent ICC commentary on the letter, lists six distinct interpretations that have been offered by seasoned students of the apostle's thought. The primary clue, however, is to be found in the first clause where, by the telltale contrast between "one" and "all," Paul adapts the traditional theological formulation that Christ died "for us" (e.g., 1 Thess 5:10; Rom 5:8) or "for our sins" (1 Cor 15:3; cf. Gal 1:4) by conforming it to the distinctive Adamic Christology he had articulated to great effect earlier in his Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor 15:20-28 [esp. 21-22]), and would later expound in classic form in Romans 5:12-21.
In Paul's thought, Adam and Christ function as representative figures, whose actions had decisive consequences, both in terms of status (forensic) and behavior (existential), for the people they represented. As Adam, the head of the old creation, plunged his posterity into spiritual ruin by his disobedience, so Christ, the second Adam and representative head of the new creation, was obedient to his commission and, by his death and resurrection, secured the justified status (Rom 5:18-19) and freedom from existential bondage to sin (Rom 6:1-11) for his people. Christ, in this way of thinking, was, like Adam, an "inclusive" figure. His death was, in God's reckoning, his people's death. Likewise, his resurrection was their resurrection, and thus they share in his vindication ("justification") and the life of the new creation brought into being by that apocalyptic act. That this is Paul's idea is made explicit here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, where he writes the oft-misunderstood words: "So, then, if anyone is in Christ, (he is/there is a) new creation. What is old has passed away. Look! What is new has come." Christ's death and resurrection were eschatological—indeed, apocalyptic—events, marking the decisive irruption of the "age to come" into the middle of history, and thus determining the existence of his people, for whom the "old things," everything associated with the "present evil age," are a thing of the past. In a real sense, as the late British scholar Philip Edgcumb Hughes said so memorably in his commentary on the letter, the believer in Christ is "a microcosm of the eschatological macrocosm of the new heavens and new earth."
Paul continues in verse 15 by articulating the purpose (hina) of Christ's representative death for "all," to wit, that those who live—those who died with, and hence have, in God's reckoning, been raised with him as well—should no longer live Adamic, self-centered lives, but rather lives oriented to the service of the one who died for them and was raised to new life; hence, as Paul said in verse 14, the "control" over his life exerted by Christ's self-giving love on his behalf.
What has all this to do with penal substitution? McGrath, as we noted, says that Paul's "participatory" language precludes it. After all, the apostle says that "all died," not that "all should have died, but one took their place." Hence we should look for another theological paradigm to explain Christ's death, one "which suggests that Jesus came to invite us to participate with him in seeking to conquer through love and self-sacrifice rather than power and an attempt to defeat our enemies." But, to put it bluntly, by saying this, McGrath is being too clever by half. Yes, the model is participationist. Christ acted as his people's inclusive representative, and hence they are reckoned to have died with him when he died. But—and here's the point—Paul cites his distinctive theological perspective as a logical consequence and implication of the traditional notion that Christ died "for us." In other words, Paul was not reneging on his former advocacy of the tradition (for my discussion of 1 Corinthians 15:3 and its significance for substitutionary atonement, see here) which interpreted Christ's death in vicarious terms through the lens of Isaiah 53. That this is the case is more than evident in the present context, where the apostle claims that Christ's death was God's means of reconciling the world to himself, "not charging their trespasses to them" (2 Cor 5:19) precisely because Christ "was made sin on their behalf" (2 Cor 5:21; for my discussion of this text, which clearly enunciates penal substitution, see here).
What McGrath has done is to provide yet another example of a seasoned scholar muddying the waters with a false disjunction. In the present instance, playing off representation and substitution is contextually inappropriate, in that Paul himself explicitly argues that the former is the implicate of the latter. At a more basic level, however, one wonders how anyone could see the two notions as logically incompatible. Yes, viewed from one angle, Christ's people don't have to pay the penalty for their own sins because Christ paid that penalty for them in their stead. But, viewed from a different angle, Christ's people don't have to pay for their own sins precisely because Christ's death, which both paid sin's penalty and broke its power, is considered to be their own death. Representation—at least representation of the type envisioned by Paul—and substitution clearly are overlapping categories of meaning. To put it differently, Christ is not only our penal substitute; he is, as German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has said, our inclusive substitute as well. And it is this fact that, more than anything else, undergirds Paul's theology of the Christian life (cf. esp. Romans 6) and safeguards the ethical consequences of the cross, including those which McGrath rightly sees as necessary but oft-neglected aspects of Christian discipleship. Soli Deo Gloria!