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Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution   The Lost Message of Jesus

We are still in Chapter 2 of Piper’s Future of Justification. The end of this chapter features a section on the penal-substitutionary model of the atonement. 

Piper praises Wright for his clarity and strong stance on the doctrine (47). He quotes Wright at length on the atonement, specifically how Jesus is both a propitiation of God’s wrath and an expiation of our sins.

Piper then turns to Wright’s endorsement of Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus – a book which builds on Wright’s theology, but which seems to deny penal substitution. Piper provides an excursus in which Wright lays out his reasoning for endorsing Chalke’s book.

I am weary of the furor over Steve Chalke for several reasons. First, I think it is pointless for Wright to continue to stretch the doctrine of penal substitution to fit Chalke’s view. The more I read Chalke, the more I am convinced that he does not believe in the doctrine. I understand that Wright sees Chalke as a friend and does not want to hold him to a standard of precision one would expect of a theologian. But I feel that Wright could maintain his personal affinity for Chalke and still articulate clearly his different position on the subject.

Another reason I have grown tired of this controversy is the “guilt-by-association” tendencies of the conservative crowd. Now that Chalke has gone on record denying penal substitution, anyone and everyone who likes Chalke personally, has endorsed Chalke publicly, or has read Chalke privately is viewed with suspicion. Do you like Steve Chalke? Okay… you must be a sell-out!

(I have been the target of this kind of guilt-by-association myself. “Trevin reads N.T. Wright, so he must believe in the new perspective and thus he has abandoned the gospel.” “Trevin reads Scot McKnight, so we know that Trevin must be a closet Arminian who is really an ‘Emerging Church’ guy posing as a Reformed conservative who studies at Southern Seminary.” And on and on.)

The last reason I am weary of the whole Chalke-Wright controversy is because I believe Wright has a major blind spot and I am afraid he is too much in the thick of the discussion to see it. He has criticized Pierced for our Transgressions ruthlessly for the book’s neglect of the Gospel material. I believe that this criticism is legitimate.

But why can’t Wright give the authors of Pierced for out Transgressions the benefit of the doubt the way he does Chalke? Especially since Wright’s view of penal substitution seems much closer to the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions than Steve Chalke’s view!

Piper is as perplexed as I am regarding Wright’s endorsement of Chalke and his critique of Pierced for our Transgressions. On the one hand, Wright’s view of penal substitution is unequivocal. (I have written extensively of Wright’s view of penal substitution here.) On the other hand, his endorsements and critiques don’t line up.

Next, we look at Piper’s critique of Wright’s definition of “righteousness.”

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog


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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 6: Penal Substitution”

  1. Jared says:

    But I feel that Wright could maintain his personal affinity for Chalke and still articulate clearly his different position on the subject.

    He absolutely could. As he does with Marcus Borg.

    Trevin, thanks for your succinct yet thorough reviews of these books/issues. Very helpful.

  2. Trevin:

    This is an edifying discussion and I’m glad you’re engaging in it. I’ve also started to tackle Piper’s book in my own blog, though from a slightly different perspective than your’s. I’d be honored by your feedback. Like I said, I think this is an immensely necessary conversation, and thank you for helping give it the attention it deserves.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian

  3. PamBG says:

    He has criticized Pierced for our Transgressions ruthlessly for the book’s neglect of the Gospel material. I believe that this criticism is legitimate…But why can’t Wright give the authors of Pierced for out Transgressions the benefit of the doubt the way he does Chalke?

    Personally, I think that PSA wholesale ignores the Gospels.

    From my point of view, PSA promotes an image of soteriology that I think is opposite of what I read in the Gospel narratives. PSA promotes God/Christ as the powerful white knight who rides into human history and proceeds to kill all the bad guys. In other words, PSA promotes an image of Messiah and salvation that is exactly what the Jewish people in Jesus’ time wanted from their Messiah. The kind of salvation that Jesus repeatedly said they were not going to get.

    PSA keeps repeating the mantra that the bad guys must die or God is not just. This is it’s major failing. In my opinion, the Gospels, a good deal of Christian history and Chalke’s book promotes what might be labelled as an anabaptist reading of the Gospels. The idea that both Martin Luther King and Mathama Ghandi ‘got': that only an outbreak of peace can overcome violence. PSA doesn’t get that when you murder the murders, you become a murderer yourself.

    A long way of saying that one can’t hold a strong form of PSA and a Gospel soteriology simultaneously. I feel fairly certain – others may disagree – that Wright gets this perfectly well. I’ve always been amused that he as been such a darling of very conservative conservatives. I think the latter have been blinded by his Jesus-seminar work and they have not understood his absolute commitment to following scripture where it leads rather than hanging on to hard-core conservative evangelical tradition.

    I suspect that you will disagree with almost everything I’ve said, but I think it’s perfectly understandable why Wright can’t endorse PFOT.

  4. You have done what I would have liked to have done on my blog, namely, post extensive critical interaction with John Piper’s The Future of Justification. You have done a wonderful job. I commend you for it and for your even-handed critiques.

    Blessings!

  5. trevinwax says:

    Thanks, A.B. for the feedback. I’m glad the series has been helpful to you.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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