Tag Archives: John MacArthur

Does N. T. Wright Deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement??

Aside from the question, “Who is N.T. Wright?”, the rest of the title of the post might scare you, with the phrase: “penal substitutionary atonement?” What is that all about? A brief illustration might help.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants.

A rather popular Christian worship song, “In Christ Alone,” is sung in many churches today. One of the verses goes like this, and chimes in well with the Advent season:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

A few years ago, a worship committee in a mainline denomination decided to try to change the lyrics of that highlighted line, from “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” There is nothing theologically wrong with the phrase, “the love of God was magnified,” with respect to Christ’s death on the cross. The idea of Jesus dying for others, out of God’s great love for humankind, is a well established idea in biblical thought.

The problem comes with removing the language of “the wrath of the God was satisfied.” Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, the writers of the song, refused to give the denomination permission to change the lyrics. As a result, “In Christ Alone” was dropped from that church body’s hymnal.

So, what was wrong with removing the wording, “the wrath of the God was satisfied?” Well, the concept of the wrath of God being satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross is tied to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. I can try to define this in one sentence, put backwardly: Jesus died to deal with the problem of human sin (the “atonement” part), by standing in our place (the “substitutionary” part), to take the penalty of human sin (the “penal” part), upon himself, so that His death would bear the just penalty of our sin, allowing us to be healed and to become reconciled with God. Reconciliation with God is the goal of the Gospel. Therefore, to deny penal substitutionary atonement is essentially to deny the Gospel.

For many evangelicals, them be fightin’ words: You do not mess with the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement! The problem is that my long sentence in the previous paragraph requires a whole lot of unpacking, and unfortunately, sometimes the unpacking of that sentence gives a misleading caricature of what the death of Christ is all about. Critics of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement say that this gives us a rather paganized view of God: an angry, barbaric, capricious, and blood-thirsty God. But does this criticism apply merely to the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement, or to the very doctrine itself? Are “Bible-believing” Christians Scripturally aware enough to be able to tell the difference?

Along comes N.T. Wright, a British evangelical theologian, influential among many young pastors today, well known for his work to defend the essential historicity of the Gospels, against the infamous “Jesus Seminar,” and his work to defend the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, against detractors. Wright argues that a misuse of the doctrine of the atonement, leads to a sad caricature of what Christ really accomplished by his death on the cross. This caricature paints a picture that Wright describes in the following sermon, of:

….an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song…

N.T. Wright, therefore, would have us substitute the “wrath” of God with the “love” of God, in Townsend and Getty’s now-classic worship song, as a way of moving us along in the debate over penal substitutionary atonement.

But is N.T. Wright himself rejecting merely the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement, or the full content of the doctrine itself? Some evangelicals, such as The Gospel Coalition blogger, Trevin Wax, believe that N.T. Wright is only rejecting the caricature, and not the very doctrine itself, thus affirming Wright’s orthodoxy.

Some other critics however, within evangelicalism, are convinced of the latter. For example, Southern California pastor, John MacArthur openly says that while he is not sure as to what N.T. Wright exactly affirms, he is completely sure as to what Wright denies; namely, that Wright denies penal substitutionary atonement, and therefore, Wright denies the Gospel (link to YouTube video). Whew!!

I do find it rather startling that a pastor of MacArthur’s prominence, would be so bold to denounce another bible teacher, while at the same time admitting that he does not understand what that other bible teacher is actually teaching! Nevertheless, it does raise the question: Trevin Wax wrote his defense of N.T. Wright, linked above, in 2007. Has N.T. Wright shifted his position since then? In criticizing the caricature of penal substitution, is N.T. Wright now chipping away too much at the very doctrine itself?

Perhaps the best way to resolve this dispute is to allow N.T. Wright to answer the question directly, as he did in a recent interview with Justin Brierley, the host of the Unbelievable podcast. Ultimately, it matters not what N.T. Wright thinks, nor what Trevin Wax thinks about N.T. Wright, nor what John MacArthur thinks about N.T. Wright. What matters most is what the Holy Scriptures teach. N.T. Wright gives his view in 10 minutes below, to the question: “Do you believe in penal substitution?” How would you respond to that question?

For more on why N. T. Wright both fascinates and frustrates other evangelical Christians, read this Veracity post from several years ago. As I argued in that blog post, the problem with Wright is not so much in what he affirms, but in what he denies. Perhaps in arguing for what he affirms, which we should make a concerted effort to properly understand, before jumping in too quickly to criticize, Wright makes too much out of what he denies (or he is not as clear as he could be). To get a more critical engagement with Wright, particularly on one of his most recent books, The Day the Revolution Began, consider the following two reviews: by Dane Ortlund and by Michael Horton. For the record, I have no problem singing “the wrath of God is satisfied,” as I view there to be a clear distinction between the classic doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and its caricature, as John R.W. Stott carefully explains in his masterpiece, The Cross of Christ


The Heart of the Gospel: The Death of Christ (Explained in 90 Seconds)

As Christians remember the darkness that covers Good Friday, let us prepare ourselves for the light of Christ’s Resurrection.

I am not always encouraged by how he interacts with other points of view, on non-essential doctrines, but in this 90-second video, promoting his latest book, California pastor John MacArthur draws out a key verse from Isaiah 53, to explain the heart of the Gospel, the death of Christ.  The only thing I would tweak would be to clarify that the Son of God was in complete union with the Father, such that the Father and Son fully gave together, to satisfy the requirements to deal with sin, and reconcile us to God.


Daniel’s Seventy Weeks #5

The primary traditional alternative to the more modern, dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9:24-27

A more traditional alternative to the more modern, dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9:24-27.  (Image credit: sdru.org)

If you have been following this series of blog posts (#1, #2, #3, and #4), you will know that the “Seventy Weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27 makes for a very demanding study. So, as we are getting very near to Christmas, I need to wrap this blog series up, even with all of the loose ends still out there.

Thankfully, neither your salvation, nor mine, hangs in the balance with getting Daniel 9:24-27 exactly right. For example, no central doctrine of the faith is at stake, as you ponder the mysterious meaning of Scripture phrases like “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (verse 26). But the study is well worth the effort, as it will spur you on in learning more about Biblical prophecy, just as it has done for me.

At one point in my studies, over the past two years in this passage, I ran into the following statement by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s most brilliant and popular expositors of the 20th century. Lloyd-Jones lived in an era when many Christians tended to be very dogmatic in their particular interpretation of Daniel 9. His comments on the debate over Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks” are worth savoring:

I am simply trying to put before you some of the various ideas and type of interpretation, while indicating, as anyone who is concerned to teach the Scriptures must do, the interpretation that most commends itself to my mind and to my understanding. I shall continue to repeat this because it seems to me to be the most important point I can make in connection with this whole subject. If I can somehow shake the glibness and the dogmatism that has characterised this matter I shall be most pleased, and I thank God that there are signs and indications that people are prepared to consider this matter anew. It may well betoken a period of blessing in the history of the Church.” (Great Doctrines of the Bible: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, The Church and the Last Things, page 119).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has the right perspective. We are not talking about the deity of Christ, or salvation alone through Jesus, here. OKAY??? I may hold (and you may hold) to a different interpretation of a difficult passage like Daniel 9. Hopefully, believers can discuss this matter with clarity and charity towards one another, by studying the Scriptures anew. Continue reading


Daniel’s Seventy Weeks #4

Sir Robert Anderson (1841-1918) is remembered by many Bible students today for his contribution to the interpretation of the book of Daniel. However, in the 19th century he was also known as a high ranking official at Scotland Yard, the second Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police.

Sir Robert Anderson (1841-1918) is remembered by many Bible students today for his contribution to the interpretation of the book of Daniel. However, in the 19th century he was also known as a high ranking official at Scotland Yard, the second Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police.

Daniel’s “Seventy Weeks” prophecy, as found in Daniel 9:24-27 is often regarded as the key text for understanding the prophecy perspective held by advocates of dispensationalism, as made popular by books and movies associated with Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind. Yet as we noted in a previous post in this series, this passage from Daniel plays actually a limited and somewhat obscure role in the New Testament, especially when compared to passages such as Psalm 110, which is quoted or alluded to some thirty times in the New Testament, as we sought to exposit earlier a few years ago on Veracity.

As I have been digging into the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, for nearly two years, inspired by the “astronomical” work of my friend, Ken Petzinger, I have been learning that the controversies surrounding these four verses of the Bible are fascinatingly complex. In this post, I want to lay aside some of the Bible interpretation issues aside, and focus instead on some questions of history:

So, where did the “dispensationalist” approach to Daniel 9:24-27 come from? Why is it that the prophecy of the “Seventy Weeks” has become so important in the minds of so many Christians, over the past hundred or so years?
Continue reading


Daniel’s Seventy Weeks #3

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD -- a painting by David Roberts (1796-1849).

The Roman army under Titus destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, by the year 70 AD. Does this catastrophic event in the first century offer any insight into understanding the “Seventy Weeks” prophecy found in Daniel 9:24-27?  
(a painting by David Roberts, 1796-1849).

Up to this point in this series ( post #1, post #2), we have been exploring the dispensationalist approach to the “Seventy Weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27. Let us jump into the text again, first:

“Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Daniel 9:24-27 ESV).

So, is the dispensationalist reading of this passage the best way to understand the text?

Let us explore some of the issues in this blog post. Different Bible interpreters over the years have looked at Daniel 9 in very different ways. When you examine each approach, you learn that there are some ambiguities in the text that force the interpreter to make some assumptions as to how a particular ambiguity in the text might be resolved.

So, what are these ambiguities? Have you ever heard of Hank Hanegraaff, known in radio-land as the “Bible Answer Man?” Continue reading


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