Repentance and Atonement: Making Substitution Work

In debates about penal substitutionary atonement, one of the occasional charges against the doctrine is that it fails to serve justice. Guilt, some argue, is not transferable. If an innocent man takes the punishment for someone who actually committed a crime, it isn’t justice. The criminal hasn’t paid his due. That the innocent man has suffered, even with the intent of substitution, doesn’t actually absolve the criminal. What good has it really done if an innocent man is now dead and the criminal is still a criminal who will never have to account for his actions? C. S. Lewis, in fact, made this point in Mere Christianity in explaining why he once found PSA to be absurd.
A common reply to this objection is to cast the legal metaphor in financial terms. While it may not be as clear why, say, if I take a beating for your crime, you should be free, it is very clear that if I pay the fine for your crime, then the fine is paid. You then owe nothing. And there is some biblical support for this. The guilt of sin is occasionally cast in terms of a debt owed to God (e.g. Matt. 6:12, 18:21-35). However, with the possible exception of Colossians 2:14, the Bible doesn’t seem to much favor financial metaphors for the atonement. In any case, it is not clear how well this really works, as financial penalties are usually understood only in terms of compensating before men and not translating directly into moral value.
So, a while back, I was reading through Zacharius Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, and I stumbled on a section on this exact topic, answering the objection that it is unjust for the innocent to take the penalty of the guilty:

We reply to the major proposition, that the innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty, 1. Unless he willingly offer himself in the room, and stead of the guilty. 2. Unless he who thus voluntarily suffers, be able to make a sufficient ransom. 3. That he may be able to recover himself from these sufferings, and not perish under them. 4. That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend. 5. And that he be of the same nature with those for whom satisfaction is made.

Ursinus here gives five conditions necessary for an innocent man to satisfy justice for someone else. Many of these are straightforward and intuitive. He must make a voluntary choice, have the ability to satisfy the due punishment, be able to recover from any suffering endured (a topic worth looking into another time), and have the same nature as the offending party. This is all common sense. And then there is point #4, “That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend.”
This concept is what struck me. One of the conditions Ursinus specifies for the just efficacy of the atonement is that the innocent party, in this case, Christ, is able to stop the criminal from continuing to be a criminal. In other words, the guilt is still there unless the substitute lead the criminal to repent.
This idea, I think, is stunning because we get it. While PSA in the abstract can often feel counterintuitive, we understand this at a gut level. We see this in our art, in the stories we tell about villains who become heroes and jerks who turn a new leaf. Imagine in a story where a good man dies for the sake of a bad man, and the bad man changes. No one will continually insist that the bad man should suffer for his former crimes. Things have changed. Because a good man suffered what he deserved, he came to repentance. He is, in a sense, a new man, and the old man’s guilt is gone.
This, interestingly, creates some kind of connection between PSA and what I described of Lewis’ own explanation of the atonement, along with the views of John McLeod Campbell and the old moral influence theory of the atonement. Jesus is able to stop us from offending again. This itself is something He has done by dying for us. So His death for us really does serve justice. When He unites us to Him and we repent of our sins, there is legitimately no more condemnation. We were buried with Him through baptism into His death, the old man has passed away, and we are dead to sin. He who has died has finished with sin. Christ has died for us, and He has changed us. We are new people, free from the debts of our old selves.
Interestingly, this also connects to debates over limited atonement. One way some early Reformers distinguished between the sufficiency and efficiency of the atonement was this: the atonement includes within itself the purchase of repentance for the elect, but not for the reprobate. In one sense, the atonement can be said to cleanse the sins of the whole world. However, it also includes an element designed specifically to guarantee that the elect repent and receive the benefit. How this works is beside the point. What’s interesting is taking this notion together with Ursinus’ criterion for a just substitution. However it works that Jesus’ death brings about repentance in the elect, the fact that the reprobate don’t repent makes Christ’s death useless to them. Their guilt remains, because this vital fourth criterion for a just substitution doesn’t apply to them. Christ does not bring them to repent. They are still their old selves. They still must die, as their old selves have not died in Christ.

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3 Thoughts to “Repentance and Atonement: Making Substitution Work

  1. Reminds me of the new covenant texts like Ezekiel 26:25-27 where atonement brings about renewed obedience.
    Yet didn’t the reformers tacitly reject the idea that believers can no longer sin? A man is a sinner and a saint—and not merely a sinner in his previous unbelieving life?

    1. Yes, they did strongly affirm the ongoing reality of sin in the lives of believers, but I think they made two moves that make still tie into the use of this criteria. The first is that, at least for some of them, like Luther in particular, the basic sin that needs to be repented of is unbelief/distrust toward God. So for the believer, unless he apostatizes, he does indeed repent of this and does not return to his own ways. (And of course, for the Reformed, the tradition largely discounted the possibility that this faith in genuine form could ever end, and for the Lutherans, the tradition allowed that faith could truly end, but also in that case apostates would still be condemned.)
      The second move is eschatological. Since the believer who has died or been confronted by the final return of Christ has now finished with sin, and is fully sanctified, then when God comes to rule the final judgment, He finds them truly repentant from all former sins. Moreover, this end reality was often understood to be present in some sense already.

      1. the basic sin that needs to be repented of is unbelief/distrust toward God. So for the believer, unless he apostatizes, he does indeed repent of this and does not return to his own ways.

        That makes sense. I think of David who was a man after God’s own heart despite sinning. He was always obedient in repentance and humility before the Lord.What do you think it means when certain Biblical heroes are designated as “blameless” before God?
        I’d also appreciate your thoughts on how 4 Maccabees conceptualizes the martyr’s atonement for the nation if you ever get a chance/that interests you (4 Macc 1:21-22, 6:27-29, 17:21-22).

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