Penal Substitution and Social Transformation
1. Penal Substitution Under Attack
Among the accusations levelled against the doctrine of penal substitution is that it is a moral dead-end; to put it crudely, that it provides no reason for people to be good. In particular, it is alleged that it provides no basis for social and political transformation. Although this accusation is not made in the book that ignited the recent controversy, Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s The Lost Message of Jesus, in Redeeming the Cross Chalke writes:
“Has Christ’s death on the Cross got any relevance or meaning beyond the individual eternal destiny of his followers? What does it mean, if anything, for the wider affairs of our communities; the UK’s foreign policy; the war on terrorism; trade justice; people trafficking; the hopes, ambitions and fears of countless millions of people? Can it offer us any direction as we think about the global challenges humanity faces at the beginning of the 21st century? What was the cosmic reason for Jesus death? And what are the implications today for us as individuals, as the Church and society as a whole?”
These are fair questions; and the accusation is made more explicit by those who have come to Chalke’s support, and by those who might be termed fellow-travellers. Thus it has been reported that, at an Evangelical Alliance symposium on the controversy, Professor Joel Green asserted that penal substitution is “individualistic, mechanistic, and undermines calls for Christians to live holy lives”, and that it “cuts the nerve to social action”. In a paper given at the same symposium, Stuart Murray Williams claims that “Penal substitution seems to endorse the use of violence... Penal substitution seems to offer little comfort or hope to victims of oppression and injustice”. According to Joel Green and Mark Baker,
“Proponents of this theory often leave little room for the importance of ethical comportment... this particular way of portraying the significance of Jesus’ death has had little voice in how we relate to one another in and outside of the church or in larger, social-ethical issues. That a central tenet of our faith might have nothing to say about racial reconciliation, for example, or issues of wealth and poverty, or our relationship to the cosmos, is itself a startling reality”.
Likewise the Mennonite scholar J. Denny Weaver writes of “satisfaction images” of the atonement:
“These solutions picture the relationship between God and humankind in terms of a legal construct. The point about ethics is that these atonement images that lay a legal framework say nothing about ethics. Satisfaction atonement in its several forms features an essential separation of salvation and ethics. The atonement image changes the sinner's legal status before God but says nothing about a transformed life. As we will see in the following chapters on black theology, some theologians even argue that atonement formulas devoid of ethics actually contribute to sinful living since they provide a means to maintain a proper legal status before God without speaking about transformed life under the rule of God”.
Both Chalke and Weaver propose to replace penal substitution by a Christus Victor theory of the atonement, whereby Christ overcame the powers of evil on the cross. In Weaver’s case, this means shifting the emphasis of Christ’s saving work from the cross to the resurrection; indeed Weaver believes that the cross was a mistake on God’s part, but that God was fortunately able to bring good out of it by raising Christ from the dead! The cross and resurrection together are then seen as providing both a basis and an incentive for personal, social, and political action and transformation; in particular the practice of “inclusivity” and of gandhian non-violent resistance to injustice.
Without penal substitution, significant personal, social, and political transformation is impossible.
In this essay I will argue that these criticisms of the doctrine of penal substitution are mistaken. Without the penal, substitutionary, propitiatory death of Christ for our sins, significant personal, social, and political transformation is impossible. This essay does not try to show how penal substitution might provide a basis for actual ethical values, or vindicate the doctrine from the charge that it justifies and promotes violence. It does seek to show that penal substitution enables personal, social, and political transformation, and gives a better basis for it than the Christus Victor theory, in the form that the latter normally takes.
The rest of section one outlines the connection between penal substitution and justification by faith, to show what is at stake in the controversy, and to show that a defence of one is a defence of the other. Section two then takes us to the Bible, to show that the cause of social and political evil is corrupt desire, and that this corruption is a punishment from God.
Section three focuses on Romans 6 to show that believers are transformed through union with Christ by faith, and that this idea is important for the Reformers who defended both justification by faith and penal substitution. Section 4 then focuses further on Romans 6:7, arguing that the usual translation of this verse is incorrect, and that when translated correctly and read in context, it can be seen that justification and penal substitution make possible the transformation of the believer’s life by freeing us from guilt and punishment, and thus social and political transformation. Section 5 then outlines some of my concerns regarding the rejection of penal substitution.
Penal Substitution and Justification by Faith
The doctrine of penal substitution and the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone have been intimately linked throughout history; the former provides the basis for the latter, a link that goes back to Romans 3:21-26. Therefore it comes as no surprise that, although they did not invent it, penal substitution is especially prominent in the writings of the Reformers. Without penal substitution, justification by faith has no basis; without justification by faith, penal substitution is unnecessary. If we lose one, then we lose the other.
This reminds us of what is at stake in the current debate over the doctrine of the cross: the sola gratia, sola fide of the Reformation (and once these are lost, solus Christus starts to look distinctly insecure!). Rejecting penal substitution is not simply a matter of theological readjustment; it is a replacement of one religion with another, and one form of piety with another. It is hard to see how those who advocate such a radical departure from the Reformation can be called “evangelical” without stretching the word so far that it becomes useless.
Green and Baker see the link between the two doctrines very clearly:
“It is not surprising, then, that this particular way of construing the significance of the cross also supports our treasured individualistic soteriology... our understanding of salvation has been dominated historically by the doctrine of justification by faith. Irrespective of the celebrated history and significance of the doctrine of “justification by faith”, not least in the Protestant tradition, for many contemporary Christians, this doctrine has an individualistic orientation and bias that is not only comforting, but is instinctive, natural. Justification by faith, as traditionally understood, refers to a legal transaction: the manifestly guilty person stands before the divine judge for sentencing and hears the verdict, “Not guilty!” Penal substitutionary atonement provides a workable foundation for this soteriology, making this atonement theory all the more palatable or inviting... If Jesus has deflected onto himself the anger of God, if on this basis we have been made the objects of a legal (penal) transaction whereby we are declared “not guilty”, what basis for moral behaviour remains? Apart from allowing my name to be moved to the correct side of God’s legal ledger, what significance has the cross of Christ for faith and life, according to this view?”.
Likewise, one of Weaver’s chief criticisms of “satisfaction images” is that the recipient of salvation is “passive”. Weaver does not believe that anyone can earn God’s favour. However, he does propose a Semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation, in which one is graciously invited to share the salvation made possible by the defeat of evil powers at the resurrection. In this scheme, the work of Christ has made it possible for a believer to save herself. Not only that, one then becomes part of Christ’s saving work. Christians contribute to salvation by fighting injustice. Despite his assertion that “we do not save”, Weaver’s words seem to imply that Christians become saviours themselves:
“By giving their lives in faithfulness to the Lamb, they demonstrate faith in the victory of the Lamb, and thereby participate in and extend that victory”, (emphasis added).
“Jesus depicted in narrative Christus Victor is no passive victim. He is an active participant in confronting evil. Salvation happens when or because Jesus carried out his mission to make the reign of God visible. His saving life shows how the reign of God confronts evil, and is thus our model for confronting injustice. While we do not save, we participate in salvation and in Jesus’ saving work when we join the reign of God and live the way Jesus lived” (emphasis added).
For Chalke as well, it would seem that we save ourselves. In his construction the chief value of the cross (combined with the resurrection) is declarative: it authenticates Jesus’ message and it shows how much God loves us. But it is not clear that the cross actually does anything for us. Chalke’s summary of the “gospel” he would tell to children (which very deliberately excludes any mention of sin) instead suggests that we save ourselves by responding to God’s invitation:
- Jesus explained that God loves them unconditionally
- God longs for them to be part of his plan for creation.
- Jesus teaches that no-one can keep them from this destiny except their own decision.
- Jesus death and his resurrection from the dead prove that he was telling the truth so we can trust him”.
Behind the attack on penal substitution then is a fundamental objection to the idea that salvation is by grace alone. None of the writers quoted can be called Pelagian, in the sense of believing that salvation is not by grace. But none of them see salvation as entirely a gift, in the reception of which the recipient is passive. At the core of this debate is an attack on Luther’s idea of a “passive righteousness” imputed to the sinner when he has done absolutely nothing to warrant it.
As we have seen, Weaver criticizes “satisfaction images” because they make salvation purely a matter of a legal relationship, and say nothing about ethics or a transformed life. For critics of penal substitution and justification by faith, such a righteousness provides no basis or incentive for living a good life, and in particular for participating in social and political transformation. Instead it appears to support the sinful status quo by offering a salvation that is purely forensic. The attack on penal substitution is thus an attack on justification conceived of as a purely forensic act, that does not intrinsically involve, and is not based on, any transformation of the believer.
These objections should sound distinctly familiar. For a start, they should remind us of the attacks that were made on Jesus because he ate with “sinners” without requiring them to change first. These included tax-collectors, who had made a lot of money out of oppressing the poor. Jesus’ “inclusiveness” is the major theme of The Lost Message of Jesus, but Chalke misses its implication: Paul’s message of justification by faith originates with the teaching and practice of Jesus.
These objections should sound distinctly familiar... they are essentially what Paul deals with in Romans 6.
Also, these criticisms are essentially what Paul deals with in Romans 6:1-19. Up to this point in Romans Paul has expounded the complete gratuitousness of justification, as a gift received by faith; and faith itself has been excluded from being seen as meritorious work by 4:1-12. Moreover, justification by faith has been grounded in Christ’s propitiatory death in 3:25-26. Justification is, according to Paul, a free gift that results from Christ’s righteous act - his death on the cross. Indeed, the more sin increased, the more grace increased (Romans 5:15-21)!
The obvious objection to this is that not only does it give no disincentive to sin (all threat of judgement is removed from sinners), it actually provides an incentive to sin - the more one sins, the more one will receive God’s grace! Paul himself raises this objection by means of the questions in 6:1 and 6:15: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?... What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” These are objections which might come from a pious Jew or gentile “God-fearer” attempting to refute Paul by a reductio ad absurdum.
Paul’s answer to each question is an emphatic me genoito - “certainly not!”. He then shows how justification by faith, and thus penal substitution, leads to a transformed, ethical life that fulfils God’s Law. Much of the rest of this essay will be spent showing how Romans 6 provides the basis for social and political transformation.
Why social evils exist
First we must ask why social and political evils such as poverty, injustice, war, oppression, and so on exist. The biblical answer is that they are an expression of perverted, misdirected, and uncontrolled personal desires. James sees desire (epithumia) as the mother of sin:
“each person is tempted when he is lured an enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions (hedonon) are at war within you? You desire (epithumeite) and do not have...” (James 4:1-2).
For Paul, sin works through the desires of the body (Romans 6:12 - the NIV is incorrect to add “evil” here). It produces “all kinds of covetousness” (Romans 7:8). Non-believers, under the control of the devil, are characterised as living in “the passions of our flesh” (en tais epithumiais tes sarkos, Ephesians 2:3), and the old self is corrupt through “deceitful desires”. Peter likewise warns his readers against their former “passions” (epithumiais, NIV “desires”, 1 Peter 1:14, 2:11, 4:2-3). John sees the world that is opposed to God as characterised by “desires” (epithumia, 1 John 2:16-17).
These disordered desires find expression in the large-scale, social and political evils that Chalke and others are rightly concerned about. One very obvious example of how disordered desire is at the root of social and political evils is the desire for money, and the luxurious lifestyle that it can buy. According to 1 Timothy 6:10 the love of money is “the root of all evil”. Political solutions alone, such as the introduction of fairer trade relations between the West and the rest of the world, will not eliminate global poverty. The majority of those who live in Europe and North America will have to accept lower incomes and a reduced standard of living. Until then, there is a danger that campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 and Live8, good and right as they are, are a sop to people's consciences that prevents then from facing their own responsibility for the situation.
One reason why it is so difficult to introduce fairer relations between the West and the rest, is that Western countries are democracies, where election promises are almost always focused on increased economic prosperity.
At the root of poverty is the desire for money and luxury on the part of both the west, and also of the rulers of many nations in the poorer parts of the world. Indeed, one reason why it is so difficult to introduce fairer relations between the West and the rest, is that Western countries are democracies whose leaders depend on the votes of the majority, and whose election promises are almost always focused on increased economic prosperity. If a politician suggested that his country accept a decreased GDP so they can help the poor, he would simply not be elected.
Greed for wealth is also a major cause of ecological damage: the USA has refused to ratify the Kyoto accords on the grounds that it would damage their economy. Again, to truly reverse ecological damage, the West would have to drastically reduce their demand for luxury goods, so that they could reduce their energy consumption; this would require a major change in the desires of the majority.
There are other, less obvious, examples of how disordered desire is the cause of social and political evil. Most people desire peace. This is a good desire: the Sabbath rest was the purpose of creation, God repeatedly promises his people shalom (which in the Old Testament includes economic prosperity), and Hebrews 4 reminds us that the Sabbath rest remains for God’s people.
However, peace was lost at the fall, when humanity was put under the curse of toil and frustration, and discord was introduced into human relationships (Genesis 3). Thus, human beings now look for the peace for which they were made, in the wrong ways. Peace and security can be bought with money, fuelling the desire for it. It may be that most people in the west do not desire a particularly extravagant lifestyle; but they do desire peace in the sense of a life free from worry and care. This prevents us from being open to the needs of others; it makes us turn our homes into fortresses, denying the hospitality commanded by Jesus (Luke 14:1-14).
Another desire is that for transcendence. Again, this is a desire for something good. Human beings were made in God’s image, made to be like him, and to rule over creation for him. However, this transcendence was lost at the fall, when creation became resistant to humanity’s rule. We lost it because we desired a false transcendence: we tried to be independent of God’s rule. We now look for transcendence through the desire for freedom and the desire for power. This in fact is a desire to be like God. We were created for this; but the desire has become perverted. Deep down, even those who deny God’s existence recognise that there can only be one God, and that he cannot tolerate any rivals. This means that others inevitably become a threat to our desire for a (false) transcendence, leading to hatred of others and conflict.
It is this situation that the Bible describes as “slavery”. Without Christ we are “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17-20), “slaves to various passions and desires” (Titus 3:3). This is what systematic theology has traditionally called “total depravity”. The opponents of penal substitution tend not to like this doctrine; but it is the only adequate and realistic explanation for the social evils that they are so concerned about. Moreover, it is taught by Jesus, who himself said that “he who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). This is clearly seen in is teaching on purity in Mark 7:15-23. As Paul Zahl writes, “For Jesus the inward is not good. It is an abscess”. Again Paul’s doctrine of total depravity, the inability of the will to choose the good, has its roots in the teaching of Jesus.
This is an aspect of Jesus message that remains lost in The Lost Message of Jesus. According to Chalke, human beings are basically good, so that when Jesus refused to retaliate during the crucifixion “he was calling on something in human nature, something that caused his enemies hatred of him to decrease and their respect for him to increase”.
If this was what Jesus was doing (and Chalke quotes no scriptures in support), it was an utter failure: Caiaphas’ opinion of Jesus was no higher after Calvary than before. Jesus may have “soaked up all the forces of hate, rejection, pain and alienation all around him”, but, given that 2,000 years later people still hate and kill each other just as much, it is hard to see what the point was. This would certainly be the opinion of a Jew watching the Romans destroy Jerusalem in AD 70, or being herded into the gas chambers in 1944.
The opponents of penal substitution are then correct to look to some form of Christus Victor theory as a necessary part of the doctrine of the cross. Humanity does need to be freed from hostile forces. However, it is not just the oppressed that need to be liberated; the oppressors need it too. In addition, as we shall see, without penal substitution, Christus Victor cannot stand.
The cause of corruption
It is important that we trace the reasons that the Bible gives for this slavery. For if we do so, we see that we are not simply innocent victims of forces beyond our control. Our corruption is a punishment for disobedience to God. This is clear from Genesis 3. As we have seen, the frustration of our desires is a part of the curse imposed there. Frustration and corruption are not simply a natural result of disobeying God; God notes the possibility that Adam might eat from the tree of life, and live for ever (Genesis 3:22). The curse of death has to be directly imposed by God as a deliberate penal sanction.
The link between sin and slavery to disordered desire is explicit in Romans 1:18-32. Humanity has deliberately refused to know and honour God, and instead turned to idols. So as a punishment for the fundamental sin of idolatry, God has handed them over to hostile powers - to the “lusts of their hearts” (1:24), to dishonourable passions” (1:26), and to a “debased mind” (1:28).
Three things must be noted here. First, this slavery to corruption is not simply a natural result of rejecting God. God has handed over humanity in a deliberate act. Second, a form of “poetic justice” is involved: humanity has dishonoured God, so God dishonours them. Third, human beings are still regarded as culpable for what they do, even though it is a result of God’s abandoning them to evil desires. This is clear from 1:28-32.
Thus slavery to sin, to disordered desires, is a penal servitude. The punishment for sin is sin. Sin is like a gaoler or prison warder who only has power over someone because they are guilty and under the sentence of the law.
Human beings need transformation: this is a necessary part of salvation. But we need transformation because of our forensic situation before God. We are guilty in his sight, and under punishment. We must not play off the forensic and transformative aspects of salvation against each other; we must hold the two together for, as we shall see, the latter is dependent on the former.
3. Romans 6 & freedom from sin
No longer slaves to sin
In Romans 6, Paul turns begins to deal with the transformative aspects of salvation. His thesis is that the power of sin over believers has been broken, so that it no longer determines their attitudes and behaviour. Believers are no longer under the dominion of sin (6:14); they are no longer its slaves and have been set free from it (6:17-18). Thus Paul can encourage his readers not to let sin reign over in bodies, so that they obey their bodies “passions” (6:12). They no longer have to obey the perverted desires that, as we have seen, lead to social and political evils (amongst others. Instead they are able to obey God - to “present themselves as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification”.
Paul has thus answered the taunting question in 6:1. The grace that abounds towards sinners is the grace that transforms them and leads them away from sin. To deliberately carry on sinning is a refusal of this grace. The gracious free gift of God is eternal life (6:23), the resurrection life of obedience and devotion to God already lived by Jesus (6:9-10). This is the inalienable birthright of the believer. In the present, believers may begin to live the transformed life which one day will be theirs in all its fullness.
Paul is clearly under no illusion that Christians will be perfect and sinless. But he does expect to see the beginnings, the first fruit, of a transformed life in believers (Romans 8:23). This much is fairly clear. What is not always appreciated is that in Romans 6 the transformative aspect of salvation is based on the forensic.
Union with Christ
Paul begins his argument in Romans 6:2 by saying that believers have “died to sin”. By this I take him to mean that they have decisively and permanently broken with sin; there can hardly be a more permanent and decisive break with the past than death. In v3-4, he then makes clear that this death took place at baptism (from one perspective at least).
Most commentators recognise that Paul is talking about adult baptism, that this stands for the whole of Christian conversion, and that it cannot be considered apart from faith. Why Paul chooses to talk about baptism rather than simply talking of faith, is less clear. I think it is because baptism was an act of public identification with Christ, in which the recipient clearly and openly put his past behind him. From baptism onwards, the Christian was a public follower of Christ; it might mean a breach with the family, as it often still does when someone from a Muslim or Jewish background is baptised. Paul thus uses baptism to show that the faith that justifies involves a transformation in the believers loyalties and allegiances. Thus the attitude expressed in the questions in verses 1 and 15 is unthinkable for the believer.
The believer is baptised “into” (eis) Christ (6:3). This means that baptism as an act of public identification with Christ unites the believer to Christ; elsewhere in Paul this is the function of faith, demonstrating the close link between faith and baptism. More specifically, it unites believers with Christ’s death - those baptised into Christ Jesus are baptised into his death (6:3), and have been united with his death (v5). Thus Paul can say that believers have been buried with, crucified with, and died with Christ.
Union with Christ was a vitally important concept for the Reformers, and especially for John Calvin. Calvin saw two benefits flowing to the believer from union with Christ. The first was the forensic: justification. For the Reformers, penal substitution and justification by faith alone could never be something “abstract” and impersonal; they could not happen outside of a deeply personal relationship with Christ.
The Reformers did not see see the effects of the cross as purely forensic, although they championed penal substitution.
The second was the transformative: regeneration, the gradual restoration of the ruined image of God in man. According to Calvin “both things happen to us by participation in Christ”. Commenting on Romans 6:5, he says that:
“our ingrafting signifies not only our conformity to the example of Christ, but also the secret union (arcanum coniunctionem) by which we grow together with Him, in such a way that He revives us by His Spirit, and transfers His power to us”.
Therefore, although Calvin and the other Reformers championed against Rome the fact that justification is a purely forensic act, they did not see salvation as purely forensic; because they did not reduce salvation to justification. Neither did they see the effects of the cross as purely forensic, although they championed penal substitution. Calvin writes:
“The second effect of Christ’s death upon us is this: by our participation in it, his death mortifies our earthly members so that they may no longer perform their functions; and it kills the old man in us that he may not flourish and bear fruit... Paul not only exhorts us to exhibit an example of Christ’s death, but declares that there inheres in it an efficacy which ought to be manifest in all Christians, unless they intend to render his death useless and unfruitful. Therefore, in Christ’s death and burial a twofold blessing is set forth for us to enjoy: liberation from the death to which we have been bound, and mortification of our flesh”.
This shows that much criticism of the Reformation tradition on penal substitution is criticism of a caricature. Weaver accuses penal substitution of leading to a concept of salvation that is purely forensic, and which says nothing about ethics or a transformed life. This accusation is utterly untrue, and can only be made by reading statements about justification and the cross out of context.
However, it is true that the Reformers do not always show how the two effects of Christ’s death are linked, and how the forensic and transformative aspects of salvation are related. It is true to say that the Reformers do not ground the transformative aspects of salvation as firmly as they could, and thus that some of the questions raised by Chalke, Weaver, and others are fair ones. This deficiency takes us back to Romans 6, to examine the link made by Paul. We begin with Romans 6:7.
Romans 6:7 reads “For one who has died has been set free from sin”. The verb translated “set free” is the perfect passive of dikaioo, which everywhere else in Paul is translated “justify”. Almost all the English translations that I have been able to check translate it as some variation upon “set free” in Romans 6:7. This is because Protestant commentators have traditionally seen a shift from justification in chapters 1-5 to “sanctification” in chapters 6-8; from release from the penalty of sin in 1-5 to release from the power of sin in 6-8.
I argue here that this translation is misleading, that the Vulgate and Tyndale were on the right lines in translating dedikaiotai as “iustificatus est” and “is justified”, and that the best translation is “has been justified from sin”.
Although somewhat unusual amongst Protestant commentators, this interpretation is powerfully argued by Robert Haldane in his 1839 commentary, and by John Murray and John Stott. It has recently been defended by Peter Jensen. N.T Wright also supports this translation, although he has a different understanding of justification from the previous commentators.
In his Romans commentary, Thomas Schreiner argued that dedikaiotai “is not merely forensic in v7... The use of the verb in this context, however, suggests that righteousness is more than forensic for Paul”. Instead he believed that here the word also referred to sanctification, to being made righteous. However, in Paul Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Schreiner changes his mind and argues for the interpretation given here.
I believe that the evidence against the traditional view (found in Calvin for instance) and for the Haldane-Murray-Stott-Jensen reading is overwhelming. For a start, in every other case where Paul uses the verb dikaioo, it is normally translated “justify”, in the sense of “declare righteous”. This creates an extremely strong presumption in favour of translating it to mean “declare righteous” in Romans 6:7; we would need very strong lexical and contextual evidence to translate it otherwise, and such evidence is not forthcoming.
Secondly, a few verses later when Paul wishes to speak of having been set free from slavery to sin, he uses the verb eleutheroo in v18. If he had wished to speak clearly about being set free in v7, then surely he could have used eleutheroo, especially as dikaioo in this context creates confusion; there seems to be no reason for its use.
Third, the lexical evidence is against “set free” as part of the semantic range of dikaioo. Liddell & Scott do not list it as a possible meaning, and Louw-Nida lists Romans 6:7 as the only place in the New Testament where it has this meaning. BAGD (1957) lists Acts 13:38 as a possible example where dikaioo is followed by apo plus a genitive noun, as in Romans 6:7. However, in this case a forensic reading seems to make equally good sense, if not better.
BAGD also lists Psalm 72:13 LXX, Sirach 26:29, and Testament of Simeon 6:1, where the passive of dikaioo is followed by apo tes hamartias, as it is in Romans 6:7. However in both Psalm 72 and Sirach a forensic reading makes perfectly good sense. In Psalm 72 it translates a verb of purification, and in Sirach 26:29, although the idea of being free from sin’s corruption would fit the context, it is not demanded by it; the NRSV translation reads “innocent”. English versions of Simeon 6:1 have “exonerated” or “acquitted” or “clear” from sin; again, the forensic interpretation makes sense.
Therefore, to translate dedikaiotai in Romans 6:7 as “having been set free” is completely arbitrary. The only possible reason for it would be if “having been justified” made no sense in context, and “having been set free” made very good sense. This was indeed Schreiner’s reasoning in his Romans commentary: that the context was “power over sin” . However, the forensic interpretation makes very good sense in context, and enables us to see how being freed from the penalty of sin also releases us from the power of sin.
Romans 6:7 in context
Romans 6:7 is linked to verse 6 by the word gar, “for”. Therefore, v7 gives the basis for v6. In v6 Paul says that our “old self” has been crucified with Christ, so that the body dominated and used by sin (“the body of sin”) might be done away with or destroyed. The result of this is that believers are no longer enslaved to sin, that is they are no longer controlled by the sinful desires which, as we have seen, are the cause of social evils.
Then, if the traditional interpretation of v7 is correct, it simply restates v6 in rather confusing and unclear terms (Schreiner admits in his commentary that it is hard to see the logic of the argument). However, if the interpretation of v7 that I have offered is correct, it gives the grounds of Paul’s statement in v6: the believer who has been crucified with Christ has been freed from the power of sin because a person who has died (with Christ) has been justified from sin - that is, freed from its penalty. This is Schreiner’s argument in Paul:
“the verbal form dikaioo is almost invariably forensic. Understanding the verb forensically here still yields good sense. Those who are declared to be in the right before God are free from the penalty of sin on the basis of Christ’s death. Paul is arguing that the forensic work of Christ is the basis of God’s transforming work, but it does not follow from this that the forensic and transforming work are the same thing. What this does indicate is that Christ’s forensic work is not separated from a changed life, but is the basis for such a change”.
This also enables us to understand the idea of dying or being crucified with Christ in forensic terms, as a way of talking about penal substitution. From one perspective, the believer died at baptism; but from another she died when Christ died on the cross, because his death was her death in the sight of God. The cross was the place where the old self was judged and received the death penalty it deserved. Because Christ is the believer’s representative and substitute, his death counts as her death. The believer who is united to Christ by faith is counted as dead by God: that is, she is counted as already having received the punishment for her sins. Thus, having been freed from the penalty of sin, she may be justified - declared righteous.
This reading is confirmed by 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. Here Paul speaks in substitutionary terms of Christ dying on behalf of all (huper panton, v15), and of reconciliation between God and believers being effected by the “great exchange” that took place on the cross, resulting in righteousness for Christians (v21). But first v14 he writes that “one has died for all, therefore all have died”. The result of Christ’s act of dying as a substitute for all believers is that the beneficiaries of his death are considered to have died. Here dying with Christ is surely seen in forensic terms, and Christ’s death on behalf of all is spoken of as the death of all. The result of this in v15 is that the beneficiaries are able to lead a transformed life that is radically other-centred.
In Romans 6, Paul pursues the logic of union with Christ. Christ not only died, he was raised from the dead. If believers have been united to Christ so that his death becomes theirs, then it is reasonable to expect that they will be raised too (v4-5). The hina in 6:4 shows that this new life was the goal of their death with Christ. The risen life of Christ is a life lived “for” God (v10) - in service to him, and in communion with him. Believers must consider themselves as already having begun this resurrection life; they must live as what they one day will be.
Thus the assurance of salvation that comes from Christ’s death and the free gift of justification, far from encouraging complacency, encourages the believer to live a life that is not selfish, but centred on someone else: God. On this basis, Paul can exhort his readers to live as people who have been freed from sin (Romans 6:18-23). As Murray comments: “This judicial aspect from which deliverance from the power of sin is to be viewed needs to be appreciated. It shows that the forensic is present not only in justification but also in that which lies at the basis of sanctification”.
The logical background to this understanding of Christ’s death should be clear from our discussion of Romans 1. Slavery to sin is the punishment for the most fundamental of all sins, rejection of God. Therefore, if a believer is freed from the penalty of sin, he is freed from its power, and is able to live a transformed life. In Romans 6, Paul convincingly answers the objection raised in v1. Far from encouraging someone to sin, the grace that God freely gives, without regard to who someone is, or what they have done, far from encouraging someone to sin, transforms their life so that they can live for God.
Paul demonstrates that through forensic justification, through grace alone, by faith alone, believers are free from the enslaving power of sin. And the basis of this is their death in the death of Christ, their penal substitute. Hence Paul can declare against expectations in Romans 6:14 that sin will not rule over believers because they are under, not the law, but grace.
We can see Paul’s reasoning that the forensic aspect of salvation is the basis of the transformative aspect worked out in several other passages. In Romans 7:14-25, Paul depicts the slavery to sin produced by the law (it does not matter for our purposes whether he is speaking of his pre- or post-Christian experience). In v25 he thanks God for the deliverance from slavery brought by Christ, and then says “There is therefore now know condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). The “therefore” (ara) ties 8:1 to 7:25; it is freedom from judicial condemnation that brings about deliverance from slavery to sin.
In Romans 8:3-4 it is the condemnation of sin at Christ’s death that leads to a transformed life in the Spirit. In Galatians 2:17-21 Paul deals with the charge that belief in justification by faith makes Christ a promoter of sin, and shows that Paul is a law-breaker. He answers by saying that he has been crucified with Christ, or alternatively that Christ has died for him. The result of his freedom from the Law’s condemnation is that he lives “to” God. His life is no longer focused on himself. Indeed, the life of faith is so radically other-centred, that Paul can say that he no longer lives, but that Christ lives in him.
In Colossians 2:13-15, Paul depicts Christ’s death as his victory over demonic powers (v15); this is the Christus Victor theme so beloved of opponents of penal substitution. But in v14, Paul expresses the effect of the cross in forensic terms, whether we take it to be refering simply to a record of debts, or as a reference to the Law. It clearly has a condemnatory function as it “stands against us”. Its cancellation led to the “forgiveness of sins”.
The “principalities and powers” only have power over someone whilst their sins are unforgiven and they are under God’s condemnation. Christus Victor is based on penal substitution.
Thus Christ defeated the demonic powers by cancelling our condemnation and making it possible for God to forgive our sins. The logic of this is that the “principalities and powers” only have power over someone whilst their sins are unforgiven and they are under God’s condemnation. Christus Victor is based on penal substitution leading to forgiveness.
Finally, Titus 2:11-14 brings us back to where we started, to the sinful passions and desires that cause social evils. We might expect freedom from these to come from the Law, from spiritual disciplines, or fear of punishment. But according to Paul it is grace that teaches us to renounce them, and lead self-controlled the lives. This grace was given in Christ death, which had the effect of purifying people; given the background of the Old Testament sacrifices, I would suggest that this doesn’t itself speak of transformation, but of sinners being cleansed, forgiven and made acceptable to God. This grace leads Christians to be confident of their salvation, confident of the future, and thus to lead godly lives.
Calvin wisely remarked that no-one can repent and lead a life of obedience to God unless they believe that God is propitious towards them. For they will secretly resent and hate God for being holy, and thus their good works will not spring from love, and will not glorify God. Critics of penal substitution clearly wish to see Christians living transformed lives, lives of love and service to God and their neighbour. My fear is that they have sawn away the branch they are sitting on. For they can give people nothing that will calm their conscience before God, except vague assurances that love is God’s primary attribute, assurances that have little biblical basis. I fear that rejection of penal substitution will lead to a generation of Christians who are wracked by guilt that they aren’t doing more to save the world, and I fear that their efforts to solve social and political problems will be motivated by duty, not by love.
However, if someone truly understands penal substitution, if they are confident on this basis that they are justified, that their sins are forgiven, and that they will spend eternity with God, then are free to say “no” to the misdirected desire that characterises the homo incurvatus in se, the one who is curled up around his own nothingness, and cannot see the needs of others.
They can be content to go without wealth and luxury, because they are confident that one day they will inherit the earth. They can be content to lead lives of sexual purity, because they know that abstinence will be more than compensated for in the joys of the new Jerusalem, and that Christ, the bridegroom of the church will satisfy their need for relationship. Their desire for peace has been satisfied through the work of Christ (Romans 5:1), and will be satisfied in the Sabbath rest that God will give his people. Their desire for transcendence is satisfied by being freed from slavery to sin, and will be satisfied by the dominion that God will give then over the renewed earth (Romans 8:20-22). Once these desires are transformed, a person is free to live for others.
I fear that rejection of penal substitution will lead to a generation of Christians who are wracked by guilt that they aren’t doing more to save the world.
We can also see that penal substitution is not simply one of a smorgasbord of atonement theories from which one may choose the model one finds the most appealing, taking Christus Victor if one finds that emotionally more satisfying. The Bible does not give us such an option. Penal substitution is the basis of Christus Victor and the basis of a transformed life. Without it, the whole Biblical teaching on Christ’s work and its effects falls apart.
Social and political evils are caused by our slavery to disordered desires. This slavery is a punishment for our rejection of God; and the only way for us to be freed from it is through Christ’s propitiatory death in which he took the punishment we deserve in our place. Without penal substitution, we are still enslaved to our sinful desires, and unless our desires can be transformed, there is no hope of political and social transformation.