Author: Kevin George
This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!
PSA leads to very weak Christians
For those believers who are of weak faith, or who struggle with sinful habits, the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) teaching often leads to multiple errors in their lives because it leads to flawed thinking. These are very serious errors that have ruined lives, not just for eternity, but right now. This is not to say that every person who believes in PSA has these problems, as there are many godly people who believe in PSA, and are unaware of or choose to ignore its implications and live godly lives due to their love for God.
The PSA teaching is comforting for those who are struggling with sin, as well as those who are deliberately giving themselves over to sin. PSA claims that the entire sin of world history, past, present and future, has already been “paid for” in about three hours of suffering on the cross. This makes sin to be more trivial than what we had initially thought it was – and we can also take comfort in the idea that God got the payment He wanted, and now God is said to be loving and accepting of sinners, even while they are continuing to live in sin. But the Bible shows that this error provides a false comfort.
Under PSA, not only did God get full payment and satisfaction, but we have also been credited with the righteousness of Jesus, so we have righteousness to spare! This is what Martin Luther called, “The Blessed Exchange.” God is permanently pleased with us, so if we just give Him an occasional wink, a nod, or a mention, He must be really tickled. But even if we don’t do anything, and just live as we please, we can rest in the satisfaction that there will be no consequence for our sin, as God is pleased with us no matter what we do because the works of Jesus Christ are additional credits on our account. PSA assures us that we can be saved from condemnation from sin while still engaging in continual sin. Genuine obedience and crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires is negated, contrary to the plain teaching of scripture:
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Galatians 5:24 ESV
“Do you not know that when you offer yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey, whether you are slaves to sin leading to death, or to obedience leading to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you once were slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were committed. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” Romans 6:16-18 ESV
“And having been made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” Hebrews 5:9 ESV
According to PSA, God cannot condemn us because of Christ’s work on the cross, so there is no genuine need to have purity of heart or to cease the vile sins of the flesh, and no required release from the corrupting influence and effect of sin. Because of this teaching, Christianity becomes shallow. Not only is sin trivialized, but the motivation to take God and the Bible seriously is also denigrated. Since the preacher’s PSA doctrine sounds good enough and is assumed to be true, there is no compelling reason or motivation for sinners to really read the Bible to check if this teaching is true. This is partly why masses of Christians are woefully ignorant of very basic Bible teachings. For many, the Bible is just a resource for religious quotes used for love, comfort, hope, and assurance. PSA makes all the Bible warnings of God’s judgment against sin to become irrelevant.
PSA makes holiness optional, claiming Jesus was holy for us, so we do not have to be holy. We can love the world and live like the world and think we bask in God’s grace at the same time. Furthermore, those who are motivated by their love of God to live holy lives are often frowned upon as being too holy, since living holy is not really necessary. This false doctrine comforts the sinner who refuses to stop his sin. However, in the Bible we read:
“…We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 1 John 3:2-3
PSA promotes atheism and abandonment of the Christian faith
A serious evaluation of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) doctrine has led many nominal Christians, and even dedicated Christians, to become skeptical of their beliefs. First it leads to doubts about their faith, then to abandonment of their faith, and at times to outright hostility toward their former faith. At a fundamental level, PSA attacks the very character of God in direct opposition to God’s own words and God’s own standards of justice and mercy. Even humans are capable of a more fair and logical system of justice, mercy, and forgiveness than this wrong idea of being unable to forgive until someone dies as a substitute. In short, PSA has caused multitudes of thinking people to reject and abandon Christianity, and multitudes more to never give it a serious consideration to begin with. When someone outside of Christianity takes a hard look at the Christian God through the lens of PSA, He may be seen as a monster, not much different than the worst, most infamous humans who ever lived. Of course they are mistaken, but if they are only given this one-sided explanation purported to be biblical Christianity, it is not surprising that the Christian God is rejected.
PSA can lead to bad social justice
An often neglected effect of the PSA doctrine is what happens if we believe that God is as described according to this view in which, before the cross, God is said to demand infinite justice above all else, as an absolute and primary character trait. There can be no genuine forgiveness, and no genuine mercy (fully disregarding that He has explicitly stated otherwise in scripture) until this “infinite justice” demand has been resolved. This view says that a price must be paid, as if true forgiveness or mercy would somehow be an injustice. This infinite justice requires a retribution, a vengeance, equal to or greater than the sins committed. Reconciliation is not possible until full payment has been made. This is the God of PSA.
Granted, many PSA believers have never thought of their doctrine very deeply and never followed it to its logical conclusions and implications. Many, like this author, were born into families and churches that had PSA as an established claim and just did not think of its many implications. However, there are some who do accept PSA knowing and embracing all its implications and ramifications.
In short, if the God of the PSA view is the true God, and we are to model Him in our thinking and our actions, we would live ugly lives in an ugly society. When offended we must act with perpetual anger, wrath, and never grant forgiveness or mercy until justice has been done. Whether the offender pays or not is not what ultimately matters, as long as someone, somewhere, pays for the offense. Only then can forgiveness and mercy be granted (even though this view violates the very definition of those words). This manner of thinking and behaving would destroy all relationships in our lives, and entire societies. Revenge would become normal and acceptable; there would be retribution with no end, massacres, and all kinds of unspeakable evil and atrocities. Nobody would wish to live in a world like this, yet that is precisely what the PSA claims the God of the Bible would have us to be like, if we were to follow His example of refusing to forgive until full satisfaction has been made.
Thankfully, common sense tends to prevail and very few people apply PSA to this degree. But the logical foundation is there and available for use for those who believe in this model. Thankfully, the God of the Bible is not like this!
PSA leads to other bad doctrines
Not only can the PSA lead to weak Christians and at times bad social applications, but it also is the basis for other errant doctrines with their own set of sad consequences.
PSA disregards or distorts the covenantal basis of God’s relationship with us, exchanging this covenant for a legal framework and a legal status. The blood of Christ is actually a reference to a blood covenant (see Chapter 6). Any legal ramification was secondary. God is more interested in maintaining a healthy relationship, which makes legal arguments irrelevant. But when God’s dealings are put primarily into legal frames of thought, God becomes a cold, calculating Judge who is unmerciful and exacting in His accounts with mankind. This is the kind of God that the primary proponents of PSA believed in (Martin Luther and John Calvin, both schooled in law).
As an example of covenants, contrasted with law, we can consider the covenant of marriage. A healthy marriage is based on a healthy relationship that is established on a covenant (whether formalized at a wedding or implied by society and behavior). As long as the relationship is healthy, there is no need for a legal framework to regulate the marriage. Yes, there are moments of struggle within relationships, but if the relationship is solid there will be no need for law. Law only becomes necessary when the relationship is broken beyond remedy, and then the laws of divorce begin to take effect. In a similar vein, God’s covenant establishes a healthy relationship; His laws are for those who are not interested in maintaining or restoring this relationship.
Repentance is ignored
The PSA model has a hard time with the word “repentance”. The word itself simply means “to turn”, which in a sin versus righteousness context is to turn away from going against God to following God, turning from following sin to following a holy life. These Bible passages define repentance for us:
“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:32 ESV
“Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.” ACTS 3:19 ESV
“Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” Acts 8:22 ESV
“Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.” 2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV
The PSA proponent, however, must claim that Jesus paid for all our sin, past, present, and future, and believers have even been credited with additional righteousness! There is therefore no obligation or mandate to turn from sin and do right. Repentance from sin is either optional or it may be considered a “work”, and no salvific works are allowed (as they define “works”) under the PSA model. Repentance must therefore be redefined as “repentance from unbelief” or some other idea that does not include turning from sin. For example, the verse of John 3:18 may be given as an “only believe” proof text, ignoring the obvious context given in verses 19-21, which is about repentance from sin:
“18 Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
19 And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.” John 3:18-21 ESV
“…They should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Acts 26:20
Salvation is largely about a person seeking to be reconciled with God, and therefore must include a cessation of that which offends God. No relationship is genuine if it is rife with continual deliberate offenses, like a man who persists in engaging in continuous adultery while at the same time claiming to be reconciled with his wife. That is a mockery, just as engaging in sin while claiming to be in good standing with God.
PSA redefines and trivializes repentance, essentially making it irrelevant. But in the Bible, as in real life, repentance always comes before forgiveness, and is required in the process of reconciliation.
Another tactic to skirt around genuine repentance is to frame salvation as a legal arrangement instead of being relational. In this instance salvation is considered a legal position, a status, a label, a classification, an identification, a stamp or a seal which is granted upon exercising a belief (mentally, or intellectually) that Jesus has paid for all their sins. Repentance from sin would still be a good thing to do out of gratitude and respect, but it becomes entirely optional due to this unbreakable legal status that has been granted irrelevant of any genuine repentance.
PSA teaching typically includes what is called “imputed righteousness”. Martin Luther called this “the blessed exchange”, where God exchanged our unrighteousness for the righteousness of Jesus, and God no longer can see our sin. So, not only is our heavenly “ledger” deleted of all records of sin, but we have additional credit as well. This doctrinal claim is nowhere stated in the Bible and must be inferred due to the implications of PSA. This claim of imputed righteousness is part of what makes Christians to be weak and worldly, and leads to false claims of being a Christian, even with no actual relationship with God. This imputed righteousness allows people to think that they are righteous before God, when in fact they are engaging in blatant unrighteousness. With this fake righteousness God is mocked and Christianity is made to be foolish.
“Little children, let no one deceive you: The one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Christ is righteous.” 1 John 3:6 ESV
“Since you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth so that you have a genuine love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from a pure heart. For you have been born again…” 1 Peter 1:22-23 ESV
Since PSA claims that all sins have already been paid for, there can be no real final judgment, no ultimate consequences. Instead, the final judgment is projected to just be a formality where we get few or more rewards for the good that we have done, but no loss due to sin, no matter how gross our sins may be. There is no future negative consequence for sin under the PSA model, only peace and love. No wonder Christianity is so full of shameful behavior – the conscience has been seared into denying that sin is evil and there are no eternal consequences.
Since PSA teaches that Jesus has paid for all sins, past, present and future, this payment must be applied to either only a few people, the saved ones, or else the other option is what is called Universalism – that all people will be forgiven. This is based on verses like:
“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2
Universalism is not common among PSA proponents, but there are passages like the above verse that at normal face value can be used to make this claim, or have to be explained away if Universalism is denied.
PSA Doctrine supersedes Jesus
Due to PSA teaching, many clear statements of Jesus regarding our required behavior and obedience are ignored due to the claim that they no longer apply because they were stated before the cross. But Jesus warned us,
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” John 5:28-29 ESV
“Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.” Mark 13:31
“The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” John 12:48 ESV
“Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’” Matthew 7:23 ESV
PSA makes evangelizing more difficult
Nearly all unevangelized people are aware of their sin and that someday they will need to deal with God. It is taken for granted that if they were to get “religion”, meaning submit to God, they would have to turn from their sinful behavior. These people need to know that God is offering to forgive them and take them back if they repent and turn back to Him. However, if they are told, according to the PSA model, that Jesus has already paid for all their sin, there is no obligation to stop the sin, all they have to do is believe that “Jesus paid it all” for them; they will have not only have forgiveness, but even extra “righteousness” added to their account. Upon hearing this they will either act in disbelief (that’s too good to be true or it doesn’t make sense), or they will say that it sounds like a good deal. They can just blab a prayer claiming to believe that Jesus paid it all, and then continue on in their unrighteousness with the added comfort that Jesus has cleaned the heavenly ledger balance for them, so God does not have any problems with them. They will always be in good standing. Granted, not all who come to believe in Christ go to these extremes and live ungodly, but PSA sets the logical framework to make an ungodly life more comfortable, it helps to ease the conscience.
In evangelism, PSA neuters genuine personal reconciliation with God. Belief in the PSA teaching is a substitute for genuine repentance, holy living, and reconciliation. PSA is a comfort to the unbelieving, unregenerate person who wants to have just a little religion, enough to soothe the conscience, but not really be reconciled to a holy God.
The PSA doctrine, for those who give it much thought, leads some to insult the God of the Bible as being evil, and for others it becomes a stumbling block in their battle against sin and living a godly, holy life. It can lead to bad reasoning, bad conclusions, destroyed lives and relationships, and sad eternal consequences.