The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has been at the center of a recent theological controversy here in Ontario. Throughout church history, Christians have rightly understood this doctrine to be central to Christ’s cross-work. Since the 19th century, however, in conjunction with the rise of liberalism, this doctrine has periodically found itself in the theological crosshairs of liberal scholars and pastors. Consequently, over the past two centuries, faithful ministers of the gospel have had to defend this doctrine and argue for its centrality to the Christian faith. Men such as Charles Spurgeon, Martin Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, John Stott, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Albert Mohler have all argued that penal substitution is central to the Christian gospel and to deny it is to deny the gospel. My pastor is in agreement with them and has similarly argued that a denial of penal substitution is a denial of the very gospel itself. Opponents of penal substitution don’t like that assertion. They usually respond by explaining that penal substitution is just one theory of the atonement and that there are other theories that Christians can choose from. Although we may have differing beliefs on what Christ accomplished for us on the cross, we still believe the same gospel…or so they say.
There are several problems with that argument. My pastor has written about some of them here and here. For the purposes of this blog, I want to focus in on the double standard exhibited by many opponents of penal substitution. The double standard is as follows: (1) when opponents of PSA are on the offensive, they argue that the God of PSA is a different deity than the ‘god’ they believe in whereas (2) when they’re on the defensive, they argue that we all believe the same gospel even though our understanding of the atonement differs. They want to have it both ways. They want to paint proponents of PSA as those who believe in a different deity but they don’t want to live with the implications of such an assertion.
I have heard opponents of penal substitution regularly use terms like “monster”, “barbaric”, “blood-thirsty”, “child-abusing”, “vampire”, and even “a pagan deity” when referring to the God of PSA. This kind of rhetoric is not only offensive and blasphemous, it also intentionally implies a belief in a different deity. According to critics of PSA that portray God in these terms, we believe in different gods. This begs the question: If we worship different gods, then don’t we also believe different gospels? You cannot believe in different gods and yet ascribe to the same gospel. Opponents of PSA that use this kind of rhetoric can’t have it both ways.
In the book, Pierced For Our Transgressions, the authors pick up on this inconsistency:
It seems that opponents of penal substitution are agreed on the magnitude of the issue. They contend that penal substitution is an unbiblical view of the cross without support in the historic church. They claim that penal substitution undermines the doctrine of the Trinity, without which Christianity would not be Christianity at all. More than that, they insist that penal substitution portrays God as an unjust tyrant, a vindictive child abuser, and a hypocrite who pays no regard to Jesus’ foundational teaching about love…
These charges are extremely serious. We cannot pretend that critics of penal substitution are raising a minor point of dispute: they are accusing us of propagating a theological novelty, imposing our twisted modern world views on God’s holy word, unwittingly encouraging and justifying sadistic acts of violence, and worshipping a malevolent, hypocritical deity who bears no resemblance whatsoever to the loving God of the Bible. Disagreements over penal substitution are fundamental; they cannot be ignored…If those who impugn penal substitution refuse to reconsider their position, there comes a time when we have no alternative but to part company. For the critics are right in this: differences over penal substitution ultimately lead us to worship a different God and to believe a different gospel.
Thus, the doctrine of penal substitution is a dividing line. It’s not a dividing line between Reformed Christians and Anabaptist Christians. It’s not a dividing line between Calvinists and Arminians. It’s a dividing line between the true gospel and a false gospel. Critics of penal substitution can’t claim the God of PSA is a “pagan deity” and then act surprised when proponents of PSA conclude we believe different gospels. That’s a double standard. If we believe in different gods, then we believe different gospels.
 Jeffrey, Ovey, & Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions, p216-217.