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Packer and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

July 3, 2007

By now, J. I. Packer’s response article concerning attacks on the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is being read and flowing through the internet. I wanted to give a few reflections on the weight of this response:

  • The Nature of This Response – In my opinion, Packer is not arguing for the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, but pleading for it. I don’t mean in a weak and unsophisticated, begging manner, but in a contemporary ‘Puritan’ way. He pleads to our affections. Packers writes, “As I grow old, I want to tell everyone who will listen: ‘I am so thankful for the penal substitutionary death of Christ. No hope without it.’ That is where I come from now as I attempt this brief vindication of the best part of the best news that the world has ever heard.” Sure, Packer makes his arguments throughout his article, but they are not new; he has used them before. And he uses Scripture, but only as proof texts -the age ol’ atonement passages. But again, I don’t think he is arguing for it, he simple is speaking to the conscience of “everyone who will listen.” He writes further:

In recent years, great strides in biblical theology and contemporary canonical exegesis have brought new precision to our grasp of the Bible’s overall story of how God’s plan to bless Israel, and through Israel the world, came to its climax in and through Christ. But I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, one way or another, Luther’s primary question: ‘How may a weak, perverse and guilty sinner find a gracious God?’; nor can it be denied that real Christianity only really starts when that discovery is made. And to the extent that modern developments, by filling our horizon with the great meta-narrative, distract us from pursuing Luther’s question in personal terms, they hinder as well as help in our appreciation of the gospel.

  • The Nature of His Predecessors – The tradition Packer has resided in does not allow him to see beyond the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. He has a high view of the glory of Christ, a precise view of the wretchedness of our sin, a sober awareness of the wrath of God against our sin, and the conviction of the need to “find a gracious God.” These characteristics simply demand for a substitutionary atonement. This is the nature of his reformed tradition. He writes:

It is impossible to focus the atonement properly until the biblical mode of Trinitarian and incarnational thought about Jesus Christ is embraced. The Trinitarian principle is that the three distinct persons within the divine unity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always work inseparably together, as in creation, so in providence and in every aspect of the work of redemption.

This is an obvious allusion to the arguments found in chapters 3, 4, and 5 of Owen’s Death of Death. The argument for and against substitutionary atonement is not new to Packer, but timeless. He sees his predecessors of the tradition in which he belongs as still relevant and strong. He pleads with us to listen to “such a testimony of witnesses.”

I can’t help but think that Packer calls us to draw lines. For Packer, I believe, Substitutionary Atonement is too important to the Good News of Jesus Christ to let bygones be bygones. In concluding his response he writes, “A lawyer, having completed his argument, may declare that here he rests his case. I, having surveyed the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ afresh, now reaffirm that here I rest my hope. So, I believe, will all truly faithful believers.” Packer has stood up and made bold remarks and accusations. We should pay attention.

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