Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Critique of a Critique (Part 5)
[UPDATE 9/30: A conversation with my brother-in-law on Facebook concerning this post is (I hope) helping me to clarify some statements that may have been ill-communicated below. Readers who have "friended" me on Facebook are encouraged to view that conversation.]
In Green & Baker's fourth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of penal substitutionary atonement, they argue against the idea that a substitute must pay the penalty for a sinner in order for that sinner to experience the benefits of atonement. To this end, Green & Baker utilize Robin Collins’ illustration of how Collins claims the story of the Prodigal Son must be changed if penal substitutionary atonement is true:
When the son returns and recognizes the error of his ways, Collins has the Father respond, “I cannot simply forgive you… it would be against the moral order of the entire universe… Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath– my avenging justice– must be placated.”
The above illustration assumes that no penalty is paid for the son’s sin in the parable, and that the Father in the parable “simply forgive[s]” the son. (As if true forgiveness for great offenses– like those committed by the son– is a ever a ‘simple’ matter.)
It is true that penal substitution (or any other particular model of the atonement) is not explicit in this parable. As John MacArthur notes in his great book on the parable, A Tale of Two Sons:
Notice that Jesus did not mention anything about the actual means of atonement in the parable of the prodigal son. That, after all, wasn’t the point of the story. But our Lord did nevertheless directly confront the heart of the Pharisees’ error, which was their insistence that all sinners need to perform certain works to atone for their own sin– and thus earn the forgiveness and favor of God. (123)
Through careful analysis of this parable, MacArthur also demonstrates that a kind of substitution was, in fact, made. The Father in this parable runs to the returning Prodigal, which would have been considered extremely undignified in his culture; the Father embraces and kisses the Prodigal, thus taking on himself the uncleanness (physical and ceremonial) that the Prodigal had from living with swine; the Father, in a culture that demanded a man seek restitution from those who had wronged him, freely forgave the Prodigal. In all of the actions just mentioned, the Father took shame upon himself– shame that the Prodigal alone deserved– while granting the Prodigal forgiveness. Also, remember, that the Father suffered loss from the Prodigal when the Father had to pay out the Prodigal’s inheritance before its time, but the Prodigal did not have to go on suffering the poverty he incurred due to wasting away his inheritance– rather, he is restored into the family with full rights and privileges.
So the idea that the Father forgives the Prodigal without suffering on behalf of the Prodigal is ludicrous. Robin Collins is no more accurate in his reading of Jesus’ parable than Green & Baker are in their reading of Hodges’ Theology.
Labels: Reformation Theology