We Need the Substitutionary Atonement

Not too long ago someone told me in an off-hand manner that the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention should have never happened.

 The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

I tend to agree, but for different reasons. I’ve heard the Conservative Resurgence objected to based on it being divisive. Inasmuch as it was divisive (and for some it certainly was just a power play), it is a shame that the split happened.

However, most of the people I’ve heard object to the Conservative Resurgence do so because they don’t think that the doctrines in question were worth dividing over. Typically, these are individuals who are sympathetic with revising gender roles in the church and who want to undermine belief in the reliability of Scripture.

Those two issues were certainly the most discussed issues during the controversy in the SBC, which has become known as the Conservative Resurgence. In reality, though, they were simply the tip of the iceberg for a deeper theological debate. There were legitimate heresies that were being tolerated in the seminaries and churches of the SBC and the denomination needed to be called back to doctrinal faithfulness.

One of the major outcomes of the Conservative Resurgence was the formation of another association of Baptist churches. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) formed to support those churches who disagreed with the SBC on key doctrinal disputes. The CBF became a home for theological liberals and moderates.

The moderates were those who were willing to tolerate the erosion of traditional Christian doctrines, as long as they didn’t go too far. At least, that was the general idea. In truth, many moderates ended up tolerating outright theological liberalism, which eats at orthodoxy and the essentials of Christianity like a canker.

A Recent Example

A case in point is a recent opinion article by a Kentucky-based CBF pastor, who is a regular contributor to Baptist News Global, a partner organization to the CBF. The author, Chuck Queen, argues against the substitutionary atonement:

Popular Baptist preachers and evangelists over the years have emphasized trust in Jesus’ substitutionary death as essential for salvation. It is such a staple in many Baptist churches that pastors, even though they don’t believe it themselves, refuse to touch it.

He goes on:

Many Christians believe this to be the gospel truth. To deny this truth is to deny Christ. But this theory of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death is seriously flawed. The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?

His argument against the substitutionary atonement is actually a portion of a known heresy called Socinianism. It has huge theological and Christological problems. Sam Storms has helpfully posted a summary of this doctrine previously, in which he notes that the Socinian rejection of the substitutionary atonement requires a rejection of the essential justice of God. That is, Socinians must reject the idea that God must be just; instead he can simply ignore sin. Here is Socinus in his own words:

“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).

The Problem of Justice

The CBF pastor contends that God does not have to be consistent in his justice in order to be just. He argues,

If God is sovereign, as advocates of substitutionary atonement contend, then God is the source of all justice. God is not subject to some sort of cosmic principle of justice outside of God’s own nature. If God chooses to simply forgive sin the way a loving parent would forgive sin, without requiring some sort of pay off or sacrifice, there is no one to tell God that God is violating the demands of justice. God sets the standards of justice.

This sounds good to some, but what Queen has essentially done is simply picked one of the two wrong choices in the Euthyphro Dilemma. He is right to note that moral justice is not an absolute imposed on God, but he is 100% wrong to assert that God simply makes up what is just. This is a huge theological problem.

If God can simply change the rules at any point, then your sin today could be tomorrow’s self-sacrifice. There are many within the ranks of the sexual revolution that hope this is true: they hope that earlier condemnations of sexual immorality have been revised by God to say that more sex is good as long as it is “loving.” Or, they might hope that despite the clear prohibition of killing innocents as a private individual in the Ten Commandments, it is now a good thing to commit an abortion. This would be convenient.

The proper answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is “none of the above.” God isn’t bound by a moral law that existed prior to him. Neither can the moral law—and the just application of that law—change. Instead, the moral law is a reflection of God’s character. There is a reason that many times during the giving of the law, God commands the Israelites, “Be holy as I am holy.” (e.g., Leviticus 11:44) Since God does not change (cf. James 1:17), the moral law that reflects his character does not change.

But apart from the logical problems that Queen faces in trying to create a God that changes, he has many scriptural problems. The most obvious is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In contrast, let us compare Queen’s comments:

Jesus didn’t have to die in order to make atonement to God for sin.


Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed.

Paul claims that the atonement is of first importance. Queen claims that the real issues is that “the sacrificial images employed by Paul and other New Testament writers carry a lot of baggage.”

This should not be overlooked. Queen is arguing that Paul got the core of Christianity wrong and that he has misled the vast majority of Christians since his time. 

In other words, what Queen is saying is that Scripture is wrong. He is also saying that orthodox Christianity for millennia have been wrong.  And they are wrong not about something that resides on the edge of Christian conviction, but the very heart of the message of Christianity.

Queen is arguing that the definition of the gospel—that Christ died for our sins—is wrong.

This is why I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence. We may spend time fighting about politics, but at least we can all agree on the gospel. As for Queen, we should pray that he repents and places his faith in Christ for the propitiation of his sins. I'm not sure what he places his hope in otherwise.

No Legitimate Support is Offered

The strongest part of Queen’s defense is that he has struck first and anticipated the logical response of orthodox Christians. He anticipates that those of us foolish enough to accept Scripture and traditional Christian doctrines will argue that the atonement that is at the center of the gospel is at the center of the gospel. By anticipating the argument, he is inoculating some of his readers against the response. But careful readers won’t fall for his trap.

Queen never explains why his capricious, ever changing god is consistent with the God of the Bible. Instead, he simply asserts that “the God of Jesus, however, does not need to be propitiated.”

He also inserts an ahistorical fact with no evidence that the so-called Constantinian shift pushed substitutionary language to the forefront of the Church’s discussions of God. This is a theory in search of support, which Queen can’t provide because it doesn’t exist.

The reason the Eucharist has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the beginning is because it remembers the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. It isn’t just a nice way to remember a nice guy that died because of injustice. If that were the case, there are a lot of Christian martyrs we should remember with meals.

Similarly, baptism, when properly performed, recalls the significance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

It’s almost as if Jesus Christ himself and the authors of the New Testament anticipated the false gospel Queen and others like him present. In fact, they did.

Instead of making an argument, Queen makes some assertions based on a twisted, anemic idea of a false god that provides no justice. He makes no effort to deal with significant texts of Scripture, like the letter to the Hebrews, which makes it clear that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” and that Christ is the sacrifice that enabled our sins to be forgiven. (Heb 9:15-28)


The cross is absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of our sins. If you lose the substitutionary atonement, you lose the gospel. There are certainly other aspects and significances of the atonement, but if we miss Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, then we’ve missed a central truth of Christianity. I'm thankful for the SBC where, despite our warts, we aren't arguing about gospel basics.

As we celebrate Christ’s death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection, ponder the truth of the substitutionary atonement. It is bloody and horrid. It’s meant to be. He took our place. We deserved that fate. However, it’s also joyful, because God used Christ’s sacrifice to make a way for our redemption.

Hallelujah, what a savior.