Isaiah 53 teaches us that Christ would live a sinless life, bear the guilt of humanity on His shoulders, and die as a substitute for sinners in their place. The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment, and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.[1]

Steve Chalke a member of the Evangelical Alliance popularized the view that penal substitution is a form of “cosmic child abuse”[2] Mr. Chalke is increasingly popular in the Emergent Church discussion and was promoted by Emergent Village leader Mr. McLaren in The Story We Find Ourselves In, where he takes Mr. Chalke’s view and puts it in narrative form.[3]

Mr. Kunkle said of McLaren’s book, “Taken alone, this is worrisome. Coupled with McLaren’s endorsement of Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus, this is cause for concern. But add to these the following account from McLaren’s book, More Ready Than You Realize, and his views on the cross are a serious concern.”[4]

The conversation the Emergent Village is having relates to how to make disciples. When a conversation with good intentions turns south toward opinion that discussion as it relates to making disciples is no longer relevant. In Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church: Five Perspectives, Pastor Mark Driscoll, of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, gives the Reformed position on the atonement.

Mr. Pagitt one of the leaders of the Emergent Village responded to Mark by saying, “Mark places great emphasis on Christianity’s explanation of God’s effort to save sinners. He says, “I will explore what is arguably most distinctive about Christianity, namely the nature of God’s revelation, the nature of God, and the means by which God has chosen to save some sinners.” So, for Mark, that serves as the unifying concept of his perspective, and as he wrote, he built into and from that presupposition. I find God’s hopes, dreams and plans for the world to include the eradication and freedom for humankind through Jesus, but those are not the primary points of the Gospel. I think much of our difference comes from the fact that in many ways we are telling different stories of Christianity. We seem to be calling for different starting and ending points.”[5]

Penal substitution is clearly taught in Isaiah 53, so the charge that penal substitution is a form of “cosmic child abuse” cannot be sustained in light of the text of Isaiah 53. The Bible is the message of how God redeems people from sin. From Genesis to Revelation; God is at work in people’s lives both visibly and invisibly to get them to understand His gift of salvation. The Gospel is the message of the Bible which means the claim of Pagitt that “much of our difference comes from the fact that in many ways we are telling different stories of Christianity”[6] is not biblical but appeals to his discomfort with Driscoll’s Reformed theology. Furthermore, Pagitt demonstrates his ignorance of the Gospel message by stating that “we seem to be calling for different starting and ending points.” There is only one beginning point for Christianity, and that is Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (1st Corinthians 15:1-8).

The claim that there is different starting points for Christianity other than what is clearly defined in Scripture cannot be sustained by Scripture but is quite obviously a dismissive statement from Mr. Pagitt. Mr. Pagitt’s argument stems from the classical liberal position which makes justification into a feeling rather than a fact.

The Bible is clear that justification is a fact based on the actual death and resurrection of Christ. The argument from the Emergent Church fails because it dismisses Christ and the Bible which records the story of Jesus and the foundation upon which Christianity is built upon- Jesus Christ! Paul (Romans 1-3) teaches that man is depraved and cannot on his own be saved. Chapters 4-5 of Romans make it clear that one is not justified on the basis of works but on the merits of Christ. The argument the Emergent Village makes cannot be sustained biblically, theologically or logically because it fails to deal with the actual text of Scripture.

Dr. John Piper responds to Chalke’s claim by saying, “With one cynical stroke of the pen, the triumph of God’s love over God’s wrath in the death of his beloved Son is blasphemed, while other church leaders write glowing blurbs on the flaps of his book. But God is not mocked. His word stands firm and clear and merciful to those who will embrace it.”[7] And if he can learn these theories on the atonement by reading history, cannot he (McLaren) at least attempt to read the Bible and try to discern the extent to which they are taught or sanctioned by Scripture?[8]

Mr. Chalke’s and the Emergent Village’s denial of penal substitution is a denial of Christianity itself. The Bible makes it clear how believers are justified, and as will be shown further, any view that opposes justification by faith, and or penal substitution opposes the Gospel that God gave people through His Word.

Justification by faith is under attack by liberals who make justification into a feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered to be the “father of liberal theology”. He believed that our Christology begins neither in Christ’s humanity nor his divinity, but rather both his humanity and divinity are derived from the irreducible fact of the believer’s consciousness of salvation. He would say that our understanding of this vital doctrine began with our personal experience. In doing so he placed our understanding of Christ solely on our conscious of redemption through him.[9]

The reducing of the justification to a feeling is the liberal position on justification, which denies the person and work of Christ. Scripture soundly declares that our justification is grounded in who Christ is. Christ came to die for sinners in their place for there sin, and it is through His death, and resurrection that people may hear the Gospel, and be saved. The issue liberal theology has raised regarding justification is not an issue that evangelicals can dismiss or ignore. The rejection of justification by faith is a rejection of what Christ did for sinners. The rejection of the doctrine of penal substitution is a rejection of the Gospel itself. God saves sinners from sin through His death and resurrection. Mankind does not deserve to be saved but God who is rich in mercy came in the person of His Son- Jesus Christ to die for sin. From Genesis to Revelation, the Lord is trying to get people to understand how He is holy. Christ came to deal with the problem of sin. The Bible is not silent on the issue of justification but loudly proclaims that Christians have a Christ whose death, and resurrection secured their salvation.

Popular culture dismisses the truthfulness of Christianity through an appeal to fairness. Who exactly defines fairness man or God? Popular culture charges God with being evil for sending sinners to hell but this argument fails at a fundamental level because it fails to deal with reality. The reality is humans sin; a fact that is attested not only in the news everyday, but in criminal courts throughout the world. The truth is that humans are uncomfortable with a Holy God who can Judge them for sin.

Postmodernists believe that they are “gods” and are offended when exclusive claims on their lifestyle or beliefs are imposed upon them. The postmodern concept of “truth” fails because it fails to deal with reality, and says that “salvation” is available to all when Christ is the only One who can offer salvation, because He is the One who died for sin, and rose again. The Gospel is still good news worth believing because it alone can give hope to sinners who otherwise would burn in Hell forever. Christ is the only One who can justify because He is the only One who can offer salvation.


[1] Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Illinois, Crossway, 2007), 21.
[2] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003], pp. 182-183.
[3] Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 101.
[4] Brett Kunkle. “Essential Concerns Regarding The Emerging Church”, November 2006, accessed April 29, 2009.

[5] 7 Karen Ward, John Burke, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Mark Driscoll, General Editor Robert Webber, Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspective (Michigan, Zondervan,, 2007), 41.

[7] John Piper. “The Supremacy of Christ and Joy in a Postmodern World”, October 2006, accessed April 29, 2009.
[8] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 167-168.

[9] Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 238.


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