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How can it be just that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty?

How can it be just that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty?

Many Christians stumble over the apparent injustice of the idea that God would punish the innocent Christ in place of guilty sinners. It appears to be an affront to God’s justice. After all, we would never accept as just a human judge who punished the victim of abuse in place of the victimizer.

There’s more than one way to answer this question, but in this post, I want to explore the one given by Joshua McNall in The Mosaic of Atonement. He refers to this problem as “penal nontransference,” that is, the problem of transferring penalty from a guilty to an innocent party. He heightens the tension by showing that not only does this go against human conceptions of justice, but the justice God reveals in passages likes Proverbs 17:15: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—both are detestable to the Lord.”

Models of Atonement

To understand McNall’s answer we must understand the overall structure of his book. He shows that four atonement models can be made to harmonize without elevating one over the others. Each model of atonement forms a piece of a mosaic and together they give us a full picture of how Jesus’ death brings us salvation. Those four models are:

  1. Recapitulation – The feet and logical foundation of the atonement
  2. Penal substitution – The beating heart that gives life to the rest.
  3. Christus Victor – The head and purpose
  4. Moral Influence – The hands, one beckoning us to come to God, one restraining us from evil.

In this essay, we will show how McNall’s view of recapitulation solves a dilemma (penal nontransference) inherent in certain forms of the doctrine of penal substitution.

Defining terms

We must begin by defining some terms.

Recapitulation is the view the Jesus saves humanity by walking the same path as humanity but succeeding where humanity failed. The first Adam plunged humanity into sin and death through rebellion. The last Adam fully submitted himself to the Father and so God raised Him, and those who are “in” him through faith. I’ll expand on recapitulation later.

Penal substitution posits that Jesus saves humanity by experiencing God’s judgment for us. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus took our sin upon his body, and that sin was punished in his body on the cross.

As already noted, the problem of penal substitution is whether such an arrangement could be just. McNall wants us to see how recapitulation can give us the logical framework to answer that objection.

Recapitulation expanded

Recapitulation can be viewed from multiple angles. From the perspective of biblical history, we can see the parallels between Adam and Christ. Both were of a “virgin birth.” Both were tempted by the Devil, though only Jesus prevailed. Adam sinned by eating from a tree. Jesus redeemed by dying on a tree. Paul refers to Jesus as the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Jesus also “recapitulates” Israel’s story. He was exiled to Egypt. He was tempted in the wilderness. He was baptized in the Jordan. He called to himself 12 disciples, which mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. Like Israel, he was called to be a light to the nations. Whereas Israel failed in its mission, Jesus succeeded by completely trusting the Father.

From a theological angle, we might say that Jesus’ recapitulation of humanity’s story allows him to be the new “head” of humanity. Theologians refer to this by the term “federalism” (nothing to do with its usage in American politics.)

McNall, following Irenaeus, believes that Adam, in being formed in the image of God, was formed in the image of Christ. He gets this from passages such as Colossians 1:15 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 which describe Christ as the “visible image of the invisible God” and “the exact likeness of God.” Since Christ is eternally existent, it would follow then, that Adam would be made in the image of Christ, who is the image of God. This means that Christ is the “pattern” of the whole human race. He simultaneously forms both the root and the branch of Adam, in the same sort of way that as the Messiah he forms both the root and branch of David (Revelation 22:16Isaiah 11).

Since he is the source of all humanity, all humanity can be said to subsist in him, not in a pantheistic sort of way, but in a mystical way, nonetheless. As the head, he can act on behalf of all humanity. The analogy of David and Goliath may help. David acted on behalf of all Israel by defeating Goliath, so all Israel won the battle that day. He acted in place of Israel as its representative and all Israel experienced the victory. Had he lost (by failing to trust God), all Israel would have experienced loss.

Likewise, under the representation/headship of Adam, all humanity experienced defeat. “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” (Romans 5:12). Where, however, one man’s sin brought death to everyone, Jesus’s obedience brings life to everyone (Romans 5:15-191 Corinthians 15:22). Adam’s sin, at the root of humanity, poisoned the rest of the tree. But there is another root, deeper than Adam, who can bring healing to all.

In a memorable passage, McNall describes Jesus as “re-heading” humanity. When Adam sinned, humanity lost its appointed head. It was “decapitated.” Christ came as the new and rightful head, to act on behalf of humanity and bring it back to life.

Is McNall alone?   

McNall bolsters his views by showing how past theologians have drawn on the recapitulative tradition:

John Calvin: “[O]ur Lord came forth as true man and took the person and name of Adam… in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father.” Christ, therefore, “abolished sin” not merely by penal substitution but “by the whole course of his obedience.”

John Owen: “There is no contemplation of the glory of Christ that ought more to affect the hearts of them that do believe with delight and joy than this, of the recapitulation of all things in him.”

T.F. Torrence: “He came, then not only as the creator of our race, but as the head of our race, for in him the whole race consists (Col 1:15-20). It was thus that Christ, true God took upon himself our flesh and he became true man, and as such made atonement.”

Is McNall’s view universalistic? 

If you have followed the argument carefully you might observe that it could lead to universalism, the idea that all are eventually saved. If Christ, as the root and head of all humanity, acts on behalf of all humanity, then his righteous act should apply to all and thus all should be saved.

Against such a view, McNall reminds us of the language of faith in Scripture. While there is a sense in which Christ can carry with him all of humanity, only those who believe receive the benefits of his act. He can therefore re-head humanity, reconciling all things to himself, but only the church is truly described as his body. All are made in the image of God, but only believers are being formed into the image of his Son. We must move, by faith, from the (non)headship of Adam to the (true)headship of Christ to receive the benefits of his atoning work.

Returning to the problem of penal nontransference

From a Western individualistic perspective, we are primed to see three distinct “individuals” at work in the courtroom scene that is penal substitution. You have an angry judge (God) who punishes the innocent party (Jesus) in place of the guilty party (me). The Biblical record challenges our individualistic presuppositions in two ways. First, in a Trinitarian sense, while the Father and the Son are two persons, they are, with the Spirit, one substance. In this way, God himself can be seen as taking the penalty for humanity’s rebellion.

Second, from the perspective of recapitulation, not only are the Father and the Son bound up together but so are Christ and the whole human race. “All humanity is bound up with the moral actions of a single human (whether Adam or Christ) and this singular person, therefore, acts as a federal head, on behalf of others.” Indeed, because Christ is the root and head of humanity, “Christ’s life and our lives share a mysterious but real connection.” (See Col 1:15-20).

How does this solve the problem of penal nontransference? Since all humanity is bound up with the Messiah (Acts 17:28Colossians 1:16, 17) God’s judgment displayed on the cross was a judgment against all humanity. His judgment was substitutionary because only Jesus experienced the full wrath of God in his flesh, but humanity’s sin was the true object of God’s judgment. McNall says it like this: “The cross involves the judgment of the sin of the entire human race in the body of one person who really does (somehow) contain us all.” Again, “Christ may bear the judgment of our sin because he does, in some sense, bear us.”

Imagine a runner in a marathon. That runner, before completing a race, sees another runner collapsed on the road. The runner picks up his fallen companion and hoists him up on his back and finishes the race. Both runners can be said to have finished the race, though the work (and suffering) of one substituted for the work of the other. When Adam sin, humanity collapsed on the road. But Jesus, in his recapitulation, carries us with him to the cross and the resurrection.

The idea that we are bound up with Christ gives new light to verses like 2 Corinthians 5:14: “Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life”, Galatians 2:20 “My old self has been crucified with Christ” and 1 John 2:2 “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.”

Back to McNall’s original thesis

Recapitulation, then, forms the foundation of the atonement. That does not make it the most important aspect of atonement. All work together to form the body. But, it does provide a certain logic on which the others rely: “By reliving, retelling, and reconstructing the human story as the true Adam and true Israel, Jesus may be understood to bear the penalty for sin, secure the victory over evil, and set forth a loving example for us to follow.”