I have written before the “penal” part of the PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) model. In summary, I believe the “penal” part to be a misnomer. Its forensic focus merely obfuscates the ontological realities of the world that needs a lot of TLC from the one universal body of believers. The only sensible thing that can be expressed in a penal language is that sins bear their own penalty. One special case that I should mention is theocratic Israel under Mosaic law. Since those guys were quite obtuse in getting the message from God, God have them a legal system which was meant to model some aspects of sin and sins’ consequences through their judicial system. But the express purpose of that legal system was meant to draw Israel’s attention to the reality of the world’s brokenness, as opposed to being the truth it and of itself. That’s why “the law came through Moses, but grace and *truth* came through Jesus Christ.”
The “substitutionary” part of PSA is also quite misleading. If the atonement is purely judicial, and Jesus was merely punished by God in our stead, that raises as many issues as it purports to solve. It’s a double travesty of justice to punish the innocent and let the guilty go free. Instead, the Gospel teaches something which may sound similar to substitution on the surface, but it’s very different in a number of significant ways. I am talking about vital identification.
In a nutshell, Jesus bore the sin, the sickness, the entropy, decay, and the death of the world in his own body on the cross. Remember – Jesus was the Logos of God, and by him everything was created and in him everything moved and had its being. So, he didn’t just bear those things for humanity alone – he did it for the whole world. After the crucifixion, he went to the grave (which was to be our post-Adamic destiny as well). Afterwards, he rose from the dead with none of those things (sin, sickness, death, etc) being part of him any longer. In doing so, Jesus disposed of sin, sickness, entropy, decay, and death. When that happened – legally minded Jews “deemed him stricken and afflicted by God” punitively, but that was an error of perception. Jesus wasn’t stricken by God. He was betrayed by religious Jews and stricken by the occupying Romans. And he submitted to that treatment in order that “by his wounds we [may be] healed”, as humanity.
Here’s a key part that makes it all work for us. When you believe in those things about Jesus and trust that you will also benefit from them – you are instantly immersed (Greek “baptizo”, or “baptized”) into Christ. You are not immersed into water, but into the living Christ – that’s a key point that’s very often missed. Water baptism is merely an object lesson pointing to that deeper reality. Once you are in Christ via such baptism / immersion into him – you are *identified* with him. His past becomes your past, and his future becomes your future. You are part of him, part of his metaphysical body. Therefore, since Christ and you are one – you can say “I was crucified with Christ, I was buried with Christ, I rose from the dead with Christ, I am seated at the right hand of the Father with Christ”. That’s the entire thrust of the letters of Paul to Ephesians and to Colossians. You are one with Christ via that metaphysical (but very real) baptism.
So, saying that Jesus was crucified for you is only telling part of the story. In reality, Jesus got crucified *as you* in faith that you would become one with him, and that your past will get intertwined with his past on the cross. When you come to believe in him – Christ is yours and you are Christ’s, you have come to share with him your past, your present, and your future, and nothing can separate you from your beloved Christ any longer.
So, coming back to the PSA – it’s not about Christ taking your place in an act of substitution. It’s you identifying with Calvary and everything it did for you through *identification*. It’s not a mental stance, it’s a concrete reality which you can be aware of, be sensitized to, and draw upon. When you learn to lean into that union with Christ by your spirit’s faculties, and learn to draw life from Christ in a tangible way – those acts of drawing life from the living Christ with whom you are eternally united is called “communion” with Christ, or “partaking” of Christ. Bread and wine are merely symbols illustrating that deeper reality. Once you learn not just to get there, but to stay there – that’s called “abiding in Christ”. That’s what I am in the process of learning as I write this. If there’s anything in the universe that’s worthwhile to master, it is abiding in Christ. All other achievements and skills fall by the wayside in comparison. It’s Mount Everest of our life as followers of Jesus. Its from that place that everlasting life really flows, and all of the Holy Spirit gifts originate. Once we learn to get there and stay there – I believe that sky is the limit for us (or “heaven’s the limit”, how’s that?)
And finally, one more piece of understanding needs to be added to Christus Victor (which is the view of atonement that I am defending here). It can’t remain just another heady theory. In order to make it work for you – this proper understanding of the atonement has to be married to a good understanding of the power and authority of God given through Christ to you as a believer. And it has to be married to a proper ecclesiology, positing one invisible universal church as the present-time diverse embodiment of the living acting Christ. Church not a place where one goes to get fire insurance in exchange for tithes (that is nothing more than another MLM scheme specializing in selling indulgences). Rather, church is a gathering of people captivated by God’s beauty and power. It’s a gathering where one should awaken to their standing as a son / daughter of the Most High God, and where they should get trained and get launched out to serve as plenipotentiary ambassadors of God in this world. And that’s the one missing piece to the atonement puzzle which makes this whole thing work in real life.