This blog gains its name from the book Steele's Answers published in 1912. It began as an effort to blog through that book, posting each of the Questions and Answers in the book in the order in which they appeared. I began the project on Dec. 10, 2011. I completed it on July 11, 2015. Along the way, I began to also post snippets from Dr. Steele's other writings — and from some other holiness writers of his times.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On The Penal Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement

The [penal satisfaction] theory [of the atonement] for three hundred years widely prevailed in both branches of orthodoxy — Calvinism and Arminianism — although it logically belongs to that branch which teaches an unconditional election and a particular or limited atonement.

It is grounded upon the necessity of satisfying that moral attribute of God called exact, or distributive, justice, defined by Webster as that "which gives every man his exact deserts." This principle of essential justice, or eternal right, demands punishment for violated law. If the sinner is exempted from penalty, it must be inflicted upon some substitute who is personally not worthy of punishment; otherwise, if himself guilty, he could not be a substitute for the guilty. He must suffer for his own sins.

Now there are several reasons why I have never been able to preach this theory of the atonement.

1. It is not exact justice to punish the innocent. "The soul that sinneth it shall die," says distributive justice.

2. Guilt is personal and not transferable.

3. It leaves no room for a literal and true pardon of sin, as Dr. Hodge concedes. Pardon, being a gracious remission of deserved penalty, cannot be required after the penalty has been fully endured by the substitute. Sin having been thoroughly expiated, there can be only a nominal, not a real, forgiveness. There is no longer any penalty due to sin, and of course there is none to remit. I cannot indorse a theory which reduces the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith to a mere sham.

4. The punishment of innocence is repugnant to man's moral intuitions, variously called ethical axioms, first truths, necessary beliefs, self-evident truths. No system can endure or can be true which collides with these ultimate truths, defined by Joseph Cook as "the mode of action of Omnipotence." If it is said that while it is wrong for man knowingly to punish innocence, it may be right in God, this is denied by the fact that man is in the image of God and is a subject of moral government only because there is between him and God a common standard of right to which both may appeal. Moreover, the assertion that moral qualities in man may be entirely different in kind from the moral attributes of God makes Him an unknown and an unknowable being, thus strengthening the foundations of the prevalent agnosticism which is a blight upon modem Christendom. Every agnostic on earth will thank you for saying that justice in God may be a totally different thing from justice in man.

5. Our next objection to the theory that the atonement is a penal satisfaction paid to distributive justice is that, if it is universal in extent, the inevitable, logical outcome is Universalism. For if the sins of all men were punished in Jesus Christ, no man can be justly punished, either in this world or in the world to come, for sins already expiated by suffering their penalty. I lay no foundations for the delusive doctrine of the final salvation of all men.

6. Wherever it is taught that God punished His Son on the cross there have always been some who indulge in the rhetorical statement that "Christ on Calvary was the greatest sinner in the universe" –– language which I have heard within thirty years. Within that time I have heard an English Wesleyan doctor of divinity in public prayer represent the Father as "hurling the hottest thunderbolts of His wrath down upon the head of His devoted Son in punishment for the sins of mankind."

Such statements give occasion to the liberalists to caricature the orthodox doctrine of the atonement, making the Father the embodiment of unsparing distributive justice, a relentless Shylock demanding his pound of flesh; and the Son, the incarnation of mercy and love, appeasing His personal wrath and making Him willing to be compassionate.

— from "The Atonement" Half-Hours with St. John.