Penal Substitutionary Atonement and The Alabama Baptist: What Should We Conclude?

In his penetrating attack on liberal theology, Westminster Seminary Professor J. Gresham Machen said, “Modern liberalism in the Church, whatever judgment may be passed upon it, is at any rate no longer merely an academic matter. It is no longer a matter merely of theological seminaries or universities. On the contrary its attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith if being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School ‘lesson-helps,’ by the pulpit, and by the religious press.” (Christianity & Liberalism, p. 17)

Gresham wrote that in 1923 in the throes of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, but the situation has never really changed. Christian orthodoxy remains under attack in the academy, but it’s the attacks in popular expression, within popular media, that have perhaps the greatest potential to wreak the most havoc in the minds and hearts of those who populate the pews of local churches.

Bob Terry: President and

Editor of The Alabama Baptist

This reality has risen to the forefront in Southern Baptist life over the past few days here in Alabama, where I serve as pastor.

Bob Terry, president and editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, in the Aug. 8 edition of the paper expressed his

agreement with the liberal Presbyterian Church USA hymnal committee’s rejection of Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “In Christ Alone” because of the line in the second verse: “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Terry took issue with the doctrine of Christ’s appeasing the wrath of God, wrath that should have been poured out on sinners instead of Christ, who was the substitute. Wrote Terry, “Some popular theologies do hold that Jesus’ suffering appeased God’s wrath. That is not how I understand the Bible and that is why I do not sing the phrase ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ even though I love the song ‘In Christ Alone.’” Further, Terry wrote, “Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm him down.”

I believe Terry’s words represent a severe misunderstanding of the good news of the orthodox doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. If Christ has not born the wrath of His Father, a wrath that our sins deserve, then Rom. 3:25 is a misstatement by the apostle Paul and the Bible is in error at that point (see how these doctrines stand or fall together?): “[Christ Jesus] whom God put forth as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Worse, we are still under God’s wrath if Christ did not bear it in our place (Some liberal theologians have scandalously called it “divine child abuse.”). What are we to think about our editor’s uneasiness with this doctrine?

Following are a few thoughts on Terry’s words and the lessons we can take away from this debate:

  • The nature of the cross will always be a scandal to those who reject the Bible’s portrayal of it. The apostle Paul told members of the church at Corinth as much when he wrote, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18) Thus, we should not be surprised when such core doctrines of the Gospel are denied, even within the church. By no means am I weighing in on the condition of Mr. Terry’s heart—we should never presume to know the genuineness of another person’s relationship with God—but I say this simply to express that the Gospel is a scandal to all outside the church and even some within it.
  • We must teach doctrine in our churches. Many who sit in our pews each Sunday have little taste for doctrine, preferring instead folksy homilies and homespun therapy that provides a small helping of chicken soup for the soul, yet God’s Word is filled with crucial, central, Gospel-defining doctrines that we must teach faithfully and winsomely if our churches are to rest upon a healthy foundation. After all, Paul called on Timothy to toe the line in teaching sound doctrine, itching ears notwithstanding, because the church is defined primarily as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
  • The holiness of God/the sinfulness of man will always serve as central points of attack on Christian theology. This is true because many theologies, Protestant liberalism chief among them, tend to exalt man as the measure of God instead of holding up God as the measure of man. John Calvin famously began his systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion, with the profound dictum that true wisdom consists entirely in two parts: knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves. That is, when we know God as meticulously sovereign, all-powerful, all-wise, all-knowing and perfect in holiness, we will know ourselves as deeply flawed and desperately in need of a rescue that can only from outside ourselves. Protestant liberal theology in the post-Enlightenment period in Europe and America flipped the Bible’s teaching of God and man on its head and the result is seen in Terry’s denial (a garden variety assertion among Protestant liberals) of the doctrine of propitiation. A denial of the biblical doctrine of propitiation blunts the sinfulness of sin, domesticates the justice of God and to empties the love of God of any substantial meaning.
  • The Reformation/Conservative Resurgence will never really end in this life. Terry’s rejection of penal substitutionary atonement is a classic example of Protestant liberalism. The church will be forced to earnestly contend for the orthodox faith until Jesus comes. The battle set forth in Genesis 3, the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, will only be finished when Christ’s Kingdom comes in its fullness. Until then, Satan will continue his war on the church by using the deadly weapon of aberrant theology. Christians will always need to continue asserting and reasserting the truth and Southern Baptists will always be in the mode of “semper reformanda–” always reforming, according to the Scriptures.
  • Southern Baptists should expect to read sound doctrine in their state newspapers and from their press agency. Though the newspaper business in America is in precipitous decline, the state Baptist newspapers continue to reach a significant sector of Southern Baptist Christians. Thus, we should expect them to articulate doctrine that is faithful to Scripture. Editors and writers who attack central doctrines of the faith, such as penal substitutionary atonement, must be called into account and, if they will not recant or clarify in a way that is squares with Scripture, such journalists should be asked to resign their post for theological malfeasance. Though it is little known to many in Southern Baptist life today, the SBC possesses a rich tradition of theologians and sound doctrine owning, editing and writing for state Baptist newspapers. Men such as Jesse Mercer, James Pettigru Boyce and Henry Holcombe Tucker—Baptist theologians and educators all—served in the editor’s chair of Baptist newspapers with great distinction. More recently, R. Albert Mohler Jr., edited the Christian Index of Georgia prior to being elected as the ninth president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. These men and many others articulated sound doctrine and engaged in deep biblical analysis of the cultural, ethical and theological issues of their times.

To his credit, Bob Terry affirmed the reality of God’s wrath and, in a statement of clarification to the press issue on Aug. 12, said he affirms penal substitutionary atonement. Still, with all due respect, if Mr. Terry cannot sing the line from the hymn above quoted because it violates his conscience, does he really hold to penal substitutionary atonement? It must be a matter of concern to all who love truth and all who love fellow members of the body of Christ.

Let us pray for our state newspaper editor that God will give him fresh light to see the beauty of the full biblical account of this central doctrine. And let us pray that we will be humble, gracious and clear in our attempts to teach, correct, rebuke and train others in the great doctrines of God’s holy Word.

[Note: Bob Terry has written an apology and a clarification to Alabama Baptists and published on the website at the link below. I appreciate his courage in dealing directly with the (understandable) firestorm that arose in the wake of his earlier editorial and I am also grateful for the gracious tone of his statement. Mr. Terry humbly consulted with noted historian/theologian Timothy George to help him see theological blind spots in his previous article that stoked the controversy. Again, he is to be commended for his display of humility and willingness to receive correction, correction which he sought. I encourage you to read the whole thing here.]


Jeff Robinson

Jeff is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Ga., Jeff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Georgia, a Master of Divinity in biblical and theological studies and a Ph.D. in historical theology with an emphasis on Baptist history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He is pastor of New City Church in Louisville, KY. Jeff and his wife Lisa have been married for 19 years and have four children.
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