Covenantal Versus Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The debates about penal substitutionary atonement continue, but over the years we've seen a shift in the debate.

As I read the emerging consensus, the notion of "substitutionary" atonement is increasingly, if begrudgingly, recognized as an important part of the biblical understanding regarding the death of Jesus. In some very important way, Jesus' death is a substitute for us. The bible seems clear on this point.

The debate swirls now mostly around the word "penal." Is the substitution of Jesus best framed in terms of crime and punishment, Jesus taking the punishment of our crimes? More specifically, the issues increasingly focus upon if the "wrath of God" is being "satisfied" in meting out punishment.

All that to say, there seems to be an emerging consensus in the debate that Jesus does act as a substitute on the cross--something happens to him so that it won't happen to me and/or he does work for me that I am unable to do for myself--but continuing debate about if Jesus is absorbing the wrath and punishment of God.

I've just finished reading the book of Deuteronomy, and it put me in mind of a post I wrote in 2012 as a way to thread the needle in the atonement debates. In that post I coined the phrase "covenantal substitutionary atonement."

You'll recall that Israel's problem at the end of the Old Testament were the Deuteronomic curses, which culminated in Israel's punishment/exile. It seems clear in Paul--to the  degree that Paul is ever clear--that these curses ("the Law") remain a problem. On the cross, as Israel's king and representative, Jesus substitutes himself for Israel, bearing the curses and breaking the Deuteronomic impasse once and for all.

Phrased in the imagination of the book of Hebrews, Jesus is a Deuteronomic sacrifice so final and huge that the curses are permanently set to the side. On the cross a sort of permanent gateway was forged through the Deuteronomic curses into the Presence of God and the land of Deuteronomic promise and blessing.

In Jesus, the exile of Israel finally and fully comes to an end, allowing the Abrahamic promise of blessing to break forth for all the nations.

What I've just described isn't new. What's new is the phrase "covenantal substitutionary atonement" to highlight a contrast with penal substitutionary atonement, a way of keeping the important notion of substitution while replacing the penal with a covenantal framework

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