Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Stamps on the subject of Christ’s atonement for our sin.
Topics of conversation include:
- A definition and explanation of penal-substitutionary atonement
- Where we see evidence and foreshadowing of the atonement in the Old Testament
- The importance of understanding the term propitiation
- Some of the other metaphors and symbols the New Testament uses to speak of Christ’s sacrifice
- Resources for better understanding the atonement
Dr. Luke Stamps is associate professor of Christian Studies at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. He holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:19):
The three most significant days in human history revolve around Passover weekend, almost 2000 years ago. Jews were packed into Jerusalem to celebrate when God had rescued his people out of Egypt. By painting their doorposts with the blood of the slain Lamb, the angel of death would pass over their homes. But if there was no blood, the firstborn of that house was killed. But this Passover was different. Jesus of Nazareth was condemned to death outside the city for claiming to be God. He was beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross to die. This time God’s firstborn would die for sin, so that he might pass over his judgment for those who put the blood of the Lamb of God on their lives. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Three days later, he rose from the grave, conquering death, and demonstrating his divinity.
Brian Arnold (01:01):
Jesus’s death and resurrection are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Well, to help us understand more about why Jesus had to die, we have with us, Dr. Luke Stamps. Dr. Stamps is the associate professor of Christian Studies at Anderson University in South Carolina, where he specializes in systematic theology. He’s an avid writer and Twitterer, and he’s well-worth the follow if you happen to be in the Twittersphere. So Dr. Stamps, welcome to the podcast.
Luke Stamps (01:25):
Thanks for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:26):
So we always ask one big question, and today that question is—why did Jesus have to die? And I think to maybe set the stage for that, we could ask the question of—why the God-man, why the incarnation, and how does that relate to the death of Jesus?
Luke Stamps (01:42):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And even the way you frame it sort of picks up on one of the classic treatments of this doctrine, in the history of Christian thought, by Saint Anselm, a medieval theologian who wrote a book with that very title, Why God Became Man. And I think, you know, in many ways, it’s difficult to improve upon the kinds of answers that Saint Anselm gives in that treatment. Of course, as he’s looking back to the Scriptures, preeminently, that teach us about the incarnation and the atoning death of Jesus, but there’s a logic to the incarnation that’s tied to the atonement. So why did God become a human being in the first place? Most fundamentally…there are other reasons we could give beside, but most fundamentally, the reason that the Scriptures give us that God became a man, is to provide atonement through his life, death and resurrection.
Luke Stamps (02:43):
And to frame it as the God-man picks up on both sides of the person of Christ. The traditional Christian teaching related to the incarnation is that he, Jesus, is a single person with two natures—the nature of God and the nature of man, of humanity. And that both of those natures were essential to his work of atonement, that they were sort of job requirements, so to speak. If someone is going to provide atonement for sin, then they have to be both God and man. That’s the logic that Anselm gives to us, because only God can repair the breach, this infinite dishonor that our sin has done to God’s glory. And to put it in a slightly different metaphor, that the infinite penalty that our sins deserve because of God’s holiness and justice.
Luke Stamps (03:37):
So only God can pay a penalty like that. An infinite penalty. This unbridgeable gulf between God and humanity. Only God can bridge that gulf. But on the other hand, at the same time, only one who is truly human, one who is descended from Adam, who is taken from the same stock as the rest of us, can be a fit representative and substitute for those who had fallen in Adam. The way the book of Hebrews puts this is that he had to become like his brothers in every respect, in order to provide atonement for sin. And so, it’s both components of his person that are really essential job requirements for the work that Christ accomplishes in his atoning death.
Brian Arnold (04:25):
You mentioned the logic of it, and that is so very true. I love the…even the internal consistency of the Christian message, of how all the Bible fits together around the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. But the infinite beauty of it as well—of God becoming man, and that God himself would die in order to rescue humanity from their sin. So I want to say this too, before we get launching too far in—the way that theologians talk about the death of Christ, we can talk about the extent of the atonement that is—did Jesus die for everyone? This is one of the most contentious places of Christian doctrine, I would say. If Jesus’s death was universally applied, or if Jesus died for the elect, but we’re not going to be handling that part of it today. I want to talk more about the nature of the atonement, and that is—why did Jesus come to die? One of the primary ways evangelical theologians have talked about the death of Christ is what we call penal substitutionary atonement. So I was wondering if you could, for us, Dr. Stamps, kind of unpack all of that theological jargon of penal, substitution, and atonement? Kind of those three words?
Luke Stamps (05:37):
Yeah. That’s a great question. I guess let me kind of begin reverse, with the more general term atonement. That’s the way that theologians have typically chosen to talk about the work of Christ. It’s actually a kind of mashup English word. I used to think this was sort of like a hokey preacher’s illustration, but it’s actually true that the word comes from the two words—at and one. To make the two at-one. So it’s at-one-ment. That’s kind of the etymology of the word. But the concept that that word is picking up, is what the New Testament calls reconciliation, right? That God and humanity have been alienated because of human sin, human rebellion against God. But then also God’s righteous wrath and judgment against human beings.
Luke Stamps (06:31):
So there’s this enmity between God and man. And the atonement, this beautiful—as you put it—this beautiful story, this beautiful doctrine, of how God is the one who bridges that gap and brings reconciliation in Jesus Christ. And then from there, that general theme, which lies at the very heart of the Christian gospel, that theme of atonement, has been understood in a variety of ways in the history of Christian thought. There’s not…there hasn’t been just one theory or one model of the atonement. But the theory or model that most of us are familiar with, as evangelical Christians anyway, the one that is especially associated with the Protestant tradition…although there are precedents for it before the Protestant Reformation. And obviously, most fundamentally, we would say it’s taught in Scripture. But the penal substitutionary model, or theory, of the atonement, to pick up then on the other two words—it’s penal, in that it has to do with a penalty.
Luke Stamps (07:32):
We use that word, like when we talk about the penal code. It’s a legal word, a forensic word. It has to do with law, judgment, courtroom, scenario. So it’s penal, in that the death of Jesus is somehow paying a penalty. It’s somehow repairing this debt, this legal debt that we owed. And then it’s substitutionary in that Jesus, the Son of God, places himself in our stead on our behalf. So that he dies, and his death allows us to live. So it’s this exchange—this glorious exchange that many theologians have talked about over the years. And so it’s that kind of combination of a legal, forensic, penalty category with this idea of substitution that together constitutes what most evangelical Christians have affirmed as being taught in the New Testament.
Brian Arnold (08:33):
So let’s think about the whole canon, even. So if penal substitutionary atonement is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and I hope those listening—if you’re a follower of Christ—that your heart is just rejoicing at what Dr. Stamps is saying here. That we have been made reconciled to God, whose legal demands were against us, through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. Folks, that is the glory of the gospel. And do you see this across the entire biblical canon? So maybe even in the Old Testament, as it leads up into the New Testament?
Luke Stamps (09:10):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the most fundamental things about being a follower of Jesus Christ is that we want to strive to read the Bible the way that Jesus did. And the way that Jesus read the Bible was in light of himself. I mean, this is what he tells the Pharisees in the New Testament—”You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have life, but it is these, I tell you, that testify about me.” And so when we…anything that we’re seeing described in the New Testament, we can go back then to the Old Testament, sort of reading backwards, as one scholar put it. It’s going back now to the Old Testament, and we can see, already present in the Old Testament stories, these various types, and shadows, and foreshadowings—these prefigurations of what were eventually to come in Jesus Christ.
Luke Stamps (09:59):
And this is one of the most obvious examples of what we call biblical typology. Where you have these figures in the Old Testament that were pointing forward to something greater to come. So if you just go back to a book that, well, even many Christians avoid, the book of Leviticus. To our own discredit, we avoid this rich book, because if we really want to understand the atoning death of Christ, you have to understand that against the background of these Old Testament sacrifices. So if you just begin with Leviticus one, the way that the burnt offering is described there, where the person who had sinned would bring an animal to the tabernacle, present it to the priest, the person would then lay his hands on the head of the sacrifice, sort of symbolically demonstrating that his guilt is now being transferred to the animal.
Luke Stamps (10:51):
And then he would slaughter the animal, and its blood would be spread on the altar. And then it would be offered as a whole burnt offering. And the book of Leviticus says that the aroma would arise to God as a “pleasing aroma.” In other words, that God is satisfied. God is accepting this sacrifice on behalf of the one who had sinned, the one who bore the guilt. And that’s just a beautiful picture right there of really the heart of what’s going on in a doctrine of the atonement. That there’s this transferral of guilt to the sacrifice, that sacrifice dies in the place of the sinner, and God is satisfied. God…his justice is now satisfied because of that sacrifice. There are many other examples we could give from the Old Testament as well, these various types that show up, whether it’s the ram caught in the thicket whenever Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac, or whether it’s the Day of Atonement that’s described later in Leviticus. But in all of these ways, these Old Testament sacrifices are giving us these kinds of pointers toward the greater sacrifice that was to come.
Brian Arnold (12:02):
Yeah. Let me just mention a book for those who might want to dig a little bit deeper on the book of Leviticus. Which you, I think rightly, have pointed out is probably one of the most neglected books for Christians to read. And the book is titled, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, by L. Michael Morales. And he even locates kind of the centerpiece of the Torah, of the Pentateuch, those first five books of your Bible, in the Day of Atonement in Leviticus, as being one of those central kind of themes. Because one of the key aspects that we’re kind of hitting on is the wrath of God—that God must, because of his justice, have wrath against sin. But it’s God who wants to satiate his wrath through substitution.
Luke Stamps (12:53):
Brian Arnold (12:54):
So I think that’s a beautiful kind of foreshadowing that we see in the Old Testament. And then you get John proclaiming in the New Testament, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” as he sees Jesus coming—kind of to signal for people who did know their Old Testaments really well, that finally, God’s final solution is here, and it’s the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Lamb.
Luke Stamps (13:18):
Yeah. And that idea of satisfaction, you know, there’s kind of…another one of these words we sort of just overlook in the Bible, but it shows up in some of our contemporary translations—propitiation. That’s just another way of describing this theme, that God’s…his justice is satisfied. Very different than pagan propitiation, where, you know, people would try to appease the gods. The gods were seen as sort of capricious deities that had to be appeased so that they, the people, could receive blessing on their harvest, or whatever. Very different than that pagan idea of propitiation, is this biblical idea—where God is the one who actually takes the initiative. God is the one who provides the means of satisfaction. And then, and certainly that’s true in the Old Testament, but preeminently, that’s true when God comes himself, right? I mean, again, based on our understanding of the incarnation, God is not sending someone else, some third party. But God is coming himself in the person of the Son. God, the Son, Jesus Christ. And he’s the one who’s making this satisfaction, this propitiation on our behalf.
Brian Arnold (14:25):
And I’m thankful that you brought up that word. It’s a word that a lot of people might be tempted to skip over. I believe it occurs four times in the New Testament. It is so critical to understand that word for understanding the gospel, of that sacrifice of Christ for the satisfaction of God’s wrath. Dr. Stamps, where might somebody go in the New Testament to really kind of see this theme of substitutionary atonement, propitiation for sins?
Luke Stamps (14:54):
Yeah, I mean, I think Romans 3 is one of those classic texts that sort of gets at the logic of the incarnation, the atonement, of the gospel. Especially Romans 3:23 and following, we’re all, you know, a lot of us are very familiar with Romans 3:23. But if you just sort of keep reading through the text, Paul is simply sort of showing this is why the death of Christ was necessary, because God had passed over the sins that were committed in the Old Testament, in the sense that he was forgiving those Old Testament saints, even though the animal sacrifices weren’t providing a final atonement. So there is this need for God to demonstrate his justice in the present time. And that’s one of those places where the word propitiation shows up—that what’s happening in the atonement is God demonstrating that he takes sin seriously, with utmost seriousness.
Luke Stamps (15:45):
And his just demands must be met. But because Jesus dies as the satisfaction for sin, God can be both just and the one who justifies sinners who believe in Christ by faith. So Romans 3 is one good place. And another place where this word shows up is in 1 John, a couple of different times in John’s first epistle. And I especially love the verse where John says, “In this is love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and gave us his Son to be a propitiation for our sins.” To be this atoning sacrifice, this one who would satisfy God’s just demands.
Brian Arnold (16:29):
I think that those passages are some of the most glorious ones, I think, in the entire Bible, to really get a picture of what God has done for us in Christ. One thing…I see penal substitutionary atonement as really, in many ways, the cornerstone or the foundational piece of atonement theory. But sometimes I think evangelicals don’t see kind of the beauty of other ways that the New Testament speaks of Christ’s sacrifice. Because I think they feel like if they acknowledge any of those, they’ll lose penal substitution, instead of recognizing that the Bible does speak of Christ’s atoning death in other ways. So what are some of those other ways that the New Testament does talk about that, and how can we find those helpful?
Luke Stamps (17:18):
Yeah, so the New Testament is rich with metaphors that describe what’s going on in the death of Jesus Christ, these sort of rich symbols and descriptions of what’s going on. We’ve talked about some of those picking up on this Old Testament imagery. There are others as well, that feed into the sort of other theories or models of the atonement. Christ’s death is spoken of as a ransom, as a redemption, which is a kind of almost financial metaphor, right? So there’s this payment that’s made, and then also picking up on the language of redeeming from slavery. So there’s an Exodus theme there. So redemption or ransom, that’s one theme that we find in the New Testament. Also, Christ as the victor—so-called Christus Victor—this idea that Christ is the one who defeats the principalities and powers, the demonic forces that held sway over us.
Luke Stamps (18:16):
That’s taught in a number of places in the New Testament, Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:14-15—this idea that there’s this cosmic dimension to what’s going on in the death of Christ. It’s not just this legal transaction that’s taking place, but Christ is also in that legal transaction. Christ is gaining a victory over the demonic principalities and powers. And so, yeah, there’s a lot more in the New Testament than just penal substitution. I would see penal substitution as sort of at the heart, or the core, but there are these other metaphors, these other themes that emerge around it. Even the idea that Christ’s death is an example for us. I mean, certainly Christ’s death is more than just an example for us, but that’s also taught in the New Testament as well. That Christ left us an example, that we should follow in his steps, and so on. And so, yeah, there’s…we have a sort of embarrassment of riches when we think about what the Bible gives to us in terms of these different understandings of the death of Christ.
Brian Arnold (19:15):
Just all beautiful facets of the diamond, that is, like you said—this is the core, it’s the heart of biblical theology, is Jesus Christ incarnate, dying for sinners. Well, so what are some resources you might point people to? And maybe on a couple of different levels—somebody who’s just new to Christianity and has heard this conversation, wants to know more about Jesus’s death, all the way up to maybe some of your favorite more scholarly books on this?
Luke Stamps (19:44):
Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. One of the places I often point students to, especially on these issues, where there may be some controversy or debate about things…some of our evangelical publishing houses that produce really well done views or perspectives books—I think sometimes those can kind of get a bad rap, but I think they actually are very helpful in sort of laying out here what different scholars, committed to the Bible, believe about these various issues. And so, I believe Zondervan has done one on the different models of the atonement. If I recall correctly, Thomas Schreiner, who’s a mutual friend of ours, and one of our former professors, wrote the chapter on penal substitution—defending, you know, the penal substitution, not as the only theme, but as the central theme.
Luke Stamps (20:36):
Another one that I always point people to, it had such a big influence on my life whenever I was in college and first read it, is The Cross of Christ, by John Stott. Which is just…you know, John Stott was a pastor, a longtime pastor in London, a beloved evangelical theologian and preacher. But this is just kind of a classic treatment of the doctrine of the atonement, defending a penal substitutionary view. And the line that comes out of that book that I always quote on this, is that what’s happening in the death of Christ, as Stott puts it, is “self-satisfaction through self-substitution.” Which I think just really captures, in a very pithy way, what we believe—or ought to believe—about the death of Christ. That, again, it’s God himself coming in Jesus Christ to satisfy his own wrath and justice, in our place, and on our behalf.
Luke Stamps (21:30):
And then another classic treatment of it, thinking about just kind of classic, 20th century treatments of it—J. I. Packer, another beloved evangelical theologian of the 20th century. J. I. Packer wrote an article, I believe in the 1960s. It appeared in the Tyndale bulletin, called What Did the Cross Achieve? on the logic of penal substitution, which I think is still a very helpful treatment of the doctrine that corrects some of the caricatures of the doctrine of penal substitution. Caricatures that are sometimes, you know, suggested by opponents of penal substitution. But actually, sometimes, sadly, caricatures that are sort of the fault of those who espouse penal substitution. People who sort of don’t quite understand exactly what they’re saying when they talk about the death of Christ being a penal substitution. And I think Packer there very helpfully lays out what it is that we’re saying, and what we’re not.
Brian Arnold (22:28):
I think those are all really helpful resources. I would echo all of those, and highlight like you did, particularly John Stott’s Cross of Christ. Transformational kind of book, still as relevant as the day it was written. So, Dr. Stamps, thank you so much. There’s been so much rich content in this discussion, pointing people to that centerpiece of the gospel.
Luke Stamps (22:54):
Well, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
Brian Arnold (22:56):
So Paul tells us in the New Testament that the greatest demonstration of God’s love is the atonement. In Romans 5:8 he says, “But God demonstrates his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God, in the flesh, died for sinners. The blood of the Lamb covers us by faith and saves us from the wrath of God. And that makes God infinitely worthy of our worship and devotion. Dr. Stamps—again, thank you so much for joining us.
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