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How can it be just that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty?

How can it be just that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty?

Many Christians stumble over the apparent injustice of the idea that God would punish the innocent Christ in place of guilty sinners. It appears to be an affront to God’s justice. After all, we would never accept as just a human judge who punished the victim of abuse in place of the victimizer.

There’s more than one way to answer this question, but in this post, I want to explore the one given by Joshua McNall in The Mosaic of Atonement. He refers to this problem as “penal nontransference,” that is, the problem of transferring penalty from a guilty to an innocent party. He heightens the tension by showing that not only does this go against human conceptions of justice, but the justice God reveals in passages likes Proverbs 17:15: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—both are detestable to the Lord.”

Models of Atonement

To understand McNall’s answer we must understand the overall structure of his book. He shows that four atonement models can be made to harmonize without elevating one over the others. Each model of atonement forms a piece of a mosaic and together they give us a full picture of how Jesus’ death brings us salvation. Those four models are:

  1. Recapitulation – The feet and logical foundation of the atonement
  2. Penal substitution – The beating heart that gives life to the rest.
  3. Christus Victor – The head and purpose
  4. Moral Influence – The hands, one beckoning us to come to God, one restraining us from evil.

In this essay, we will show how McNall’s view of recapitulation solves a dilemma (penal nontransference) inherent in certain forms of the doctrine of penal substitution.

Defining terms

We must begin by defining some terms.

Recapitulation is the view the Jesus saves humanity by walking the same path as humanity but succeeding where humanity failed. The first Adam plunged humanity into sin and death through rebellion. The last Adam fully submitted himself to the Father and so God raised Him, and those who are “in” him through faith. I’ll expand on recapitulation later.

Penal substitution posits that Jesus saves humanity by experiencing God’s judgment for us. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus took our sin upon his body, and that sin was punished in his body on the cross.

As already noted, the problem of penal substitution is whether such an arrangement could be just. McNall wants us to see how recapitulation can give us the logical framework to answer that objection.

Recapitulation expanded

Recapitulation can be viewed from multiple angles. From the perspective of biblical history, we can see the parallels between Adam and Christ. Both were of a “virgin birth.” Both were tempted by the Devil, though only Jesus prevailed. Adam sinned by eating from a tree. Jesus redeemed by dying on a tree. Paul refers to Jesus as the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Jesus also “recapitulates” Israel’s story. He was exiled to Egypt. He was tempted in the wilderness. He was baptized in the Jordan. He called to himself 12 disciples, which mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. Like Israel, he was called to be a light to the nations. Whereas Israel failed in its mission, Jesus succeeded by completely trusting the Father.

From a theological angle, we might say that Jesus’ recapitulation of humanity’s story allows him to be the new “head” of humanity. Theologians refer to this by the term “federalism” (nothing to do with its usage in American politics.)

McNall, following Irenaeus, believes that Adam, in being formed in the image of God, was formed in the image of Christ. He gets this from passages such as Colossians 1:15 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 which describe Christ as the “visible image of the invisible God” and “the exact likeness of God.” Since Christ is eternally existent, it would follow then, that Adam would be made in the image of Christ, who is the image of God. This means that Christ is the “pattern” of the whole human race. He simultaneously forms both the root and the branch of Adam, in the same sort of way that as the Messiah he forms both the root and branch of David (Revelation 22:16Isaiah 11).

Since he is the source of all humanity, all humanity can be said to subsist in him, not in a pantheistic sort of way, but in a mystical way, nonetheless. As the head, he can act on behalf of all humanity. The analogy of David and Goliath may help. David acted on behalf of all Israel by defeating Goliath, so all Israel won the battle that day. He acted in place of Israel as its representative and all Israel experienced the victory. Had he lost (by failing to trust God), all Israel would have experienced loss.

Likewise, under the representation/headship of Adam, all humanity experienced defeat. “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” (Romans 5:12). Where, however, one man’s sin brought death to everyone, Jesus’s obedience brings life to everyone (Romans 5:15-191 Corinthians 15:22). Adam’s sin, at the root of humanity, poisoned the rest of the tree. But there is another root, deeper than Adam, who can bring healing to all.

In a memorable passage, McNall describes Jesus as “re-heading” humanity. When Adam sinned, humanity lost its appointed head. It was “decapitated.” Christ came as the new and rightful head, to act on behalf of humanity and bring it back to life.

Is McNall alone?   

McNall bolsters his views by showing how past theologians have drawn on the recapitulative tradition:

John Calvin: “[O]ur Lord came forth as true man and took the person and name of Adam… in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father.” Christ, therefore, “abolished sin” not merely by penal substitution but “by the whole course of his obedience.”

John Owen: “There is no contemplation of the glory of Christ that ought more to affect the hearts of them that do believe with delight and joy than this, of the recapitulation of all things in him.”

T.F. Torrence: “He came, then not only as the creator of our race, but as the head of our race, for in him the whole race consists (Col 1:15-20). It was thus that Christ, true God took upon himself our flesh and he became true man, and as such made atonement.”

Is McNall’s view universalistic? 

If you have followed the argument carefully you might observe that it could lead to universalism, the idea that all are eventually saved. If Christ, as the root and head of all humanity, acts on behalf of all humanity, then his righteous act should apply to all and thus all should be saved.

Against such a view, McNall reminds us of the language of faith in Scripture. While there is a sense in which Christ can carry with him all of humanity, only those who believe receive the benefits of his act. He can therefore re-head humanity, reconciling all things to himself, but only the church is truly described as his body. All are made in the image of God, but only believers are being formed into the image of his Son. We must move, by faith, from the (non)headship of Adam to the (true)headship of Christ to receive the benefits of his atoning work.

Returning to the problem of penal nontransference

From a Western individualistic perspective, we are primed to see three distinct “individuals” at work in the courtroom scene that is penal substitution. You have an angry judge (God) who punishes the innocent party (Jesus) in place of the guilty party (me). The Biblical record challenges our individualistic presuppositions in two ways. First, in a Trinitarian sense, while the Father and the Son are two persons, they are, with the Spirit, one substance. In this way, God himself can be seen as taking the penalty for humanity’s rebellion.

Second, from the perspective of recapitulation, not only are the Father and the Son bound up together but so are Christ and the whole human race. “All humanity is bound up with the moral actions of a single human (whether Adam or Christ) and this singular person, therefore, acts as a federal head, on behalf of others.” Indeed, because Christ is the root and head of humanity, “Christ’s life and our lives share a mysterious but real connection.” (See Col 1:15-20).

How does this solve the problem of penal nontransference? Since all humanity is bound up with the Messiah (Acts 17:28Colossians 1:16, 17) God’s judgment displayed on the cross was a judgment against all humanity. His judgment was substitutionary because only Jesus experienced the full wrath of God in his flesh, but humanity’s sin was the true object of God’s judgment. McNall says it like this: “The cross involves the judgment of the sin of the entire human race in the body of one person who really does (somehow) contain us all.” Again, “Christ may bear the judgment of our sin because he does, in some sense, bear us.”

Imagine a runner in a marathon. That runner, before completing a race, sees another runner collapsed on the road. The runner picks up his fallen companion and hoists him up on his back and finishes the race. Both runners can be said to have finished the race, though the work (and suffering) of one substituted for the work of the other. When Adam sin, humanity collapsed on the road. But Jesus, in his recapitulation, carries us with him to the cross and the resurrection.

The idea that we are bound up with Christ gives new light to verses like 2 Corinthians 5:14: “Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life”, Galatians 2:20 “My old self has been crucified with Christ” and 1 John 2:2 “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.”

Back to McNall’s original thesis

Recapitulation, then, forms the foundation of the atonement. That does not make it the most important aspect of atonement. All work together to form the body. But, it does provide a certain logic on which the others rely: “By reliving, retelling, and reconstructing the human story as the true Adam and true Israel, Jesus may be understood to bear the penalty for sin, secure the victory over evil, and set forth a loving example for us to follow.”


Book Review: I Am Restored by Lecrae

A caterpillar and a butterfly sit down for drinks. The caterpillar says to the butterfly, “You’ve changed.” The butterfly responds, “We’re supposed to.”

Lecrae refers to this cartoon in I Am Restored

For humans, these transformations don’t tend to happen in the safety of a cocoon, but in the crucible of crisis. Lecrae’s I Am Restored marks the second book that recounts crisis and transformation that I have read this year, the first being Another Gospel by Alisa Childers. One might add Esau McCaulley’s struggles with biblical interpretation to the list.

Childer’s crisis of faith had a single point of struggle: A pastor who called into question her fundamental beliefs about the work of Jesus and the reliability of Scripture. Lecrae’s struggles were more multifaceted and personal. He wrestled with the demons of past trauma – childhood sexual and physical abuse – that continued to haunt him into his adulthood. He also struggled with a sense of alienation from his fans and theological tribe, a rift that widened when he began to directly address issues of race and justice.

Other issues added to the chaos: substance abuse, marital division, clinical depression, a breakdown of accountability structures that led to highly curated “authenticity” and a general loss of faith. Lecrae’s restoration out of this turmoil didn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, it proved to be the crucible that led to his (yet incomplete) transformation. Here are a few noteworthy shifts: 

From self-reliance to acceptance of help through licensed therapy: Lecrae found great value in therapy, not only when he faced depression, but as a way of maintaining good psychological health.

From curated authenticity to confession and openness with those who loved him most. He had previously shared sensitive areas of his life to help his fans but hid the darkest corners from his closest friends. Part of his transformation came from confessing his sins and experiencing the forgiveness extended to him. He doesn’t enter this new form of honesty in a performative way to help others heal, but to help him heal from his own trauma.

From rote spiritual disciplines to rhythms of rest and meditation. Lecrae’s relationship with the spiritual disciplines is idiosyncratic. At his worst moments, prayer and Scripture reading had gone out the window. In one false start to pull himself up by his spiritual bootstraps, he reignited those disciplines, but to no avail. Part of the problem was that he was going to Scripture primarily for head knowledge, not to see himself in God’s redemptive story. His new disciplines (rhythms) include meditation and daily, weekly (Sabbath), and annual times of rest. 

From a narrow to a broad view of the Church. Early in Lecrae’s spiritual journey, he fell in love with a distinct American Reformed theology and the community that surrounded it. He has since expanded spiritual and theological horizons to learn from brothers and sisters around the world. He discovered that Christianity was not just a white man’s religion, but one that found expression in many different cultures.

From self-righteousness to complete dependence on God. Ironically, you would think that his love for Reformed theology would have kindled in him a sense of dependence on God. Instead, his caterpillar self simply longed merely to be “right.” He prided himself on knowing all the theological facts. He looked down on others who did not. This pride lay at the heart of many of his issues. He needed to come face-to-face, once again, with the God who showed his grace, not only at a moment of salvation but throughout the whole of his life.

Here Lecrae makes a critical distinction for his readers. He wants us to know that God, and communion with him through Jesus, is the only final answer to our chaos and trauma. At the same time, he embraces the provisions that God offers to mediate his healing to us. Note this important paragraph: 

We must use every muscle of faith and every human tool in its proper context, as God intended. I’m tempted to say, at this point in my journey, that counseling is the answer. Counseling is not the answer, it is the provision for my health. Others might think that eating right and exercise are the answer. They are not the answer, but the provision. These tangible means are benefits, but they are not preeminent. We need every tangible muscle but we also need the intangible muscles of spiritual fellowship with God.

I have never experienced the sort of trauma that Lecrae has, but I found this book at points convicting and healing. It was convicting because he uncovered my own self-righteousness. It was healing because it reminded me of God’s love and redemption. Lecrae covers a broad range of topics, but at its core is the gospel truth that God’s restoration is available to absolutely anyone.

The Analog Church ideal and the COVID reality

As a pastor in 2020 I was pre-occupied with the question: Should we gather in person and, if so, how? Today, Christians are pivoting to another question: If/when should I return to in-person services? Jay A. Kim’s Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age presents an ideal answer, but that answer is complicated by the reality of COVID-19.

Transcendence, Communion, and Transformation

Written before the reality of coronavirus lockdowns, Kim argues that many churches are overly enamored with the new, the trendy, with what appears to be relevant. They have bought into the values of the digital age; speed, choice, and individualism. But, he claims, the world doesn’t need “relevance” in that sense, but transcendence and the values of the digital world often work against transcendence.

He begins by warning us of the dangers of the digital age. The digital world values speed, choice, and individualism. While we may see some good in these values, Kim discerns peril for discipleship.

The value of speed can lead to impatience.

The value of choice can make us shallow.

The value of individualism can make us lonely and isolated.

Social media can rewire our brains, moving us away from the slow, deep, work of discipleship and towards a shallow consumeristic approach to faith. By contrast, churches must adopt the values of patience, depth, and community. Churches need to beware of uncritically adopting a digital medium, which smuggles in those uniquely digital values and vices. Churches should recognize that the medium is the message and that it is hard to promote depth through a shallow platform.

Instead of adopting digital media wholesale, Kim argues that digital media can be used as a tool for communication. For the church, communication is useful, but not insufficient for discipleship. Christians need communion, which he argues is not achievable in the digital world.

Digital media can supply information, but what Christians need is transformation, something that only happens in face-to-face analog environments.

In the forward, Scot McKnight centers the theology of this book in the incarnation:

For some people Christianity is digital: God sent a message to us and we pick it up somehow, either believe it or not, and then either live according to it or not. But God didn’t send a message. God sent his Son, born of a real woman, married to a real man, who had a real job… God chose to reveal himself in analog, not digital.

While I think Kim can sometimes be overly black and white in his reasoning, I generally share his ideal. However, while I served as a pastor, I struggled to contextualize this ideal to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. I faced the tension of the values described in this book with another set of values – honoring governing authorities, caring for the physical health of my church members, caring for my neighbors in the community.

Navigating the tension

I’ve observed three ways that church leaders have tried to navigate this tension.

Some churches continued to meet with very few changes. Some were most certainly driven by political and financial pressures. Others, though, were likely driven by the values and motivations described in this book, with a genuine concern that to not meet as a church would mean to not be a church at all, to give up something essential to their very essence.

Other churches decided to lean-in to their digital presence. They recognized that digital platforms provided a great opportunity for evangelism, for spreading the good news of Jesus far and wide to people who would never darken the door of a church but might watch a sermon online.

Finally some, maybe most, sought some kind of middle ground, torn between competing goods. They sought to limit larger gatherings but find ways to incorporate smaller, less risky, gatherings. They decided that while digital media had some value, gathering together still mattered, assuming it could be done in a safe, government-honoring, neighbor-loving way.

Where do we go from here?

These pandemic lockdowns are temporary, but their effects will likely be long-lasting. It will be very easy for some regular church-goers to either fully adopt “digital church” or to opt-out of church entirely. They may have done so anyway, but this will speed that process. Churches will feel pressure to make their digital presence permanent or continue to expand it. That’s not necessarily wrong but is spiritually dangerous if done uncritically.

Analog Church calls us back to being the gathered church, to remind us of what we lost when we all went online, to remind us that discipleship and transformation happen through more than just communication, but through communion with God and with other believers. We’ll need to push through the discomfort and remember that while “being the church” doesn’t mean “going to church,” it includes gathering in analog worship and fellowship for transcendence and communion.

Another Gospel? Book Review


Alisa Childers takes the reader on a journey through her crisis of faith in Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity.

Along the path of her deconstruction and reconstruction, she offers an apologetic against progressive Christianity – a form of Christianity which she says offers a different gospel from the one taught by historic Christianity.

She begins the book by sharing a moment where she cried out to God in anguish as she wrestled with her doubt. Did God really exist? Were the pillars of her faith sound? In this moment of doubt, she said, “It felt like I’d been plunged into a stormy ocean with waves crashing over my head. No lifeboat. No rescue in sight.”

How did Childers get into this crisis of faith? Her upbringing was solid. She saw genuine faith and she saw that faith in action. “Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Loving the outcast. This is what was modeled to me as genuine Christianity.” However, she notes, her faith was intellectually weak and unprepared for the coming assault.

The threat

The assault didn’t come from atheism or someone of another religion but from a progressive pastor. The pastor, whom she had learned to trust, invited her to a special class where “every precious belief I held about God, Jesus, and the Bible was placed on the intellectual chopping block and hacked to pieces.” These beliefs included the divinity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and the Resurrection. This pastor was going through his own “deconstruction,” and bringing the class, and eventually the church, with him.

The class, and the arguments from the progressive pastor, sent Childers into a “spiritual black hole.” It rocked her faith, but she had enough left to ask God for rescue, to send a lifeboat. He did, and that lifeboat came in the form of books, podcasts, and seminary classes, which she audited. She dove into the intellectual pursuit of answering objections to historic Christianity posed by progressive Christians. Her renewed faith and this book are the fruit of that journey.


The book is effective for two reasons. First, and most importantly, it gives the story of a reconstruction. We have heard, and will continue to hear, stories of deconstruction, of people losing their faith in historic Christianity. It is refreshing to hear the story of someone who God pulled back from the brink.

Second, it works as an apologetics book. Childers deals with many issues, but two areas of importance stood out: The reliability of the Bible and the atoning work of Jesus. In these areas, Childers shows that she understands the main objectives leveled by progressives and effectively responds with her own research. The book doesn’t go especially deep, but it does give the reader resources for their intellectual pursuits.

Progressive Christianity?

One might ask: What is progressive Christianity? I frankly worried that her definition of “progressive Christianity” might just mean anything that doesn’t fit a narrow doctrinal path, but that is not the case. Instead, she understands progressive Christianity to be a form of Christianity that denies essential doctrinal beliefs and that undermines the way we come to those beliefs, the authority of the Bible. Childers describes progressive Christianity as “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9) and, by her definition, it is.

The danger with a book like this is that it might train someone to see “progressive Christianity” everywhere, to believe that disagreements on non-essentials mean that someone has denied the faith entirely. I believe Childers (mostly) avoids that danger.

A different sort of deconstruction

In the spirit of her book, I will be briefly autobiographical.

The descent of evangelicalism towards Trumpism over the past five years has led me to my own form of deconstruction. A sense of communal betrayal in 2016 led to disappointment and disillusionment.[1] I discovered many things about my tradition that I didn’t know, though perhaps I should have, and that has caused me to ask questions of my identity (and sanity). This deconstruction has not led to a loss of faith, but it has required me to reevaluate certain (nonessential) positions. God is now “reconstructing” me, by his grace.

In the coming year, you will see me criticize aspects of evangelicalism. You may be inclined to interpret this as a move towards “progressive Christianity,” especially if you equate political conservatism with Christianity. They are not the same and I am not becoming progressive as Childers describes it. Feel free to call me out if I go too far, but understand that I critique, not because I have a bone to pick with the Church, but because I love her, because I love Jesus, and because I believe we need to be called back to faithfulness to Him above all. My aim is reform, not abandonment.

For those of you who are disillusioned with Christianity in its current form and are going through your own deconstruction, consider this: Many of you will be tempted to raze the building, not only to the foundations but beyond. Don’t throw baby Jesus out with the bathwater. Do the hard work Childers describes. Learn, not only from those critical of historic Christianity but those who love it as well and who are capable of distinguishing between faithful historic Christianity from the political and cultural trappings we cover it with.

[1] By Trumpism, I do not mean reluctantly voting for him despite his worst traits, but firm loyalty to him, because of those traits. I refer to brushing off his immoral behavior and crude language. I refer also to admiring his combativeness, being taken in by his lies, and agreeing with his harsh rhetoric on immigration.