Penal Substitution as Trinitarian Love: A Response to Frederick W. Schmidt

Rublev’s famous icon depicts the other-oriented love of the God who is triune.

Is God a violent monster? If you think Jesus embraced the penalty of your sin on your behalf, then the Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. believes you must “believe in a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds the Christian tradition.” At least that what he claims in a recent article called “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution.” Schmidt is no insignificant critic. He is the author or editor of numerous books and holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, all of which are reasons we might expect him to levy an argument that is not marked by fallacy. But, alas, we expect too much.

Steel Man, not a Straw Man

The chief fallacy Schmidt commits is that of arguing against a straw man. That is to say, he marshals an argument against the weakest form of penal substitution and fails to even acknowledge that there might be more robust articulations of the doctrine. Schmidt paints penal substitution as a fundamentalist doctrine that pits an angry God the Father against the “innocent victim” of God the Son. In this way of thinking, substitution is branded as a dangerous teaching characterized by what might be considered divine child abuse. How could anyone love a God like that? How could such a monster be worthy of our worship? Well, I’ve got good news for Schmidt and any who share his concerns. Serious proponents of penal substitution don’t actually believe in that sort of God either.

In the classes I teach, I always encourage my students to represent their opponents as well and as accurately as possible. I remind them that misrepresenting those whith whom they disagree undermines their credibility and makes their arguments easily refutable. The opponent can simply note that the critique is offered against a view they don’t hold. Some put it this way: be sure to argue against a steel man, not a straw man. That is to say, argue against the best version of whatever you are criticizing. It’s easy to knock over a scarecrow. A statue forged of metal takes a bit more work and, when it is toppled, is cause for rather more respect.

A Trinitarian Approach

So, what is the more robust version of penal substitution that critics of the doctrine need to take seriously? It is a version that accounts for the trinitarian nature of God. The problem with the “Monster-God” construal of substitution is that it emphasizes the personal distinction between God the Father and God the Son and neglects the unity of being between God the Father and God the Son. The trinitarian doctrine of God says both that God is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that Father, Son, and Spirit are one in deity, glory, power, eternity, and being. (If it helps, remember that “persons” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian distinction, and “being” is the word we use to talk about trinitarian oneness or unity.) We run into trouble (1) when we emphasize the distinction between persons to the neglect of their union and (2) when we emphasize the union of the Godhead to the neglect of their distinction. Balance must be maintained.

What happens to penal substitution when we approach it with the essential unity between God the Father and God the Son in mind? Consider this. In the person of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity took upon himself the penalty that the one triune God requires for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued. In Jesus, God takes the penalty of human sin on God’s self. It’s worth noting also that Jesus is no passive victim. To the contrary, he is the judge who doles out the penalty. Consider that in the canonical gospels it’s not God the Father who is portrayed as the judge before whom all must one day stand. Jesus insists that role belongs to him (Matt 7:21-24). It is the Son of Man who separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-40). Jesus is the Lawgiver and the Judge who steps down from the bench to take upon himself the penalty he himself requires. And when the triune God, in his eternal counsel, determined that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), the one God knew the day would come when he would take on flesh and feel the horrible weight of those wages for the sake of the rebel creatures he loves. In this way, Jesus embodies and reveals the perfect, self-giving love that characterizes the eternal unity of the Trinitarian persons. If we want a robust account of penal substitution, it requires a balanced account of trinitarian love. This is what Schmidt fails to offer. That is why his argument is flawed and unconvincing.

Resist the Caricature

Let me add before concluding that I would offer the same argument against any who might actually hold the view Schmidt critiques. Against those who promote a caricature of penal substitution as an angry or unhinged monster-God furiously abusing an innocent victim, I would say they’ve failed to reckon with the trinitarian love of the one God, and they need to rethink their account of substitution.

What then shall we say? Is penal substitution the only way to talk about what God has done in Christ to redeem us? Certainly not. Dr. Schmidt helpfully reminds us of other ways to talk about the atonement (e.g., recapitulation). But is penal substitution one of the central ways that God reveals his trinitarian love? It certainly is. And when we miss that, we miss out an expression of God’s perfect love that is not only good and true but beautiful as well.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

For more from Matt on understanding the Trinity, watch this video. Then subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Leighton Flowers Live Review of “Why Calvinism Gets Romans 9-11 Wrong”

Dr. Leighton Flowers recently offered a live review of my video “Why Calvinism Gets Romans 9-11 Wrong (Election and Mission).  The review is posted on his Soteriology 101 YouTube Channel. It includes the original video with Dr. Flowers’ comments interspersed along the way. He had some very helpful points to make, and I learned a few things listening to his reflections. I’m very grateful for this honor and hope you’ll take a look at the video and subscribe to his YouTube Channel. And if you haven’t subscribed to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, be sure to click over and check it out.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

The State of New Testament Studies: A Quick Review

The field of New Testament studies is vast. And it’s growing at a remarkable pace. That reality is both exciting and discouraging. Exciting because these all-important documents are getting the attention they deserve and the field as a whole continues to thrive. Discouraging because no single person could possibly keep up with all the literature. In light of that, we can be grateful to Scot McKnight and Nijay Gupta for editing a new book titled The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Current Research (Baker Academic) which brings together a top-notch group of New Testament scholars to survey the major developments in their areas of specialization.

The contributions fall into four major sections. Part 1 is on the ancient context of the New Testament and attends to the relationship between early Christianity and the Roman Empire along with attitudes toward women in the ancient world. Part 2 takes up questions related to interpretation with chapters focused on hermeneutics, Old Testament use in the New Testament, the genre of the canonical Gospels, and developments in the study of Greek. Part 3 contains essays generally oriented around the relationship between history and theology in scholarship on Jesus, Paul, eschatology, and ethics. The final section is Part 4, which contains chapters surveying scholarship on most of the New Testament texts.

I found the book fascinating. One of the challenges with edited volumes is maintaining a sense of coherence between chapters written by different authors. This navigates that challenge well. In general, the chapters do a good job surveying the major movements in each area. They consistently relate newer scholarship to older scholarship and every chapter draws attention to voices that have been marginalized in the interpretation of the New Testament. The chapters focused on my area of specialization (i.e., Paul) helpfully clarified a few matters regarding how different streams in Pauline scholarship relate to one another. And the chapters focused on areas of the NT beyond my specialization were particularly helpful in orienting me to the major emphases in those discussions.

I will say that I would have liked to have seen more on Paul in Part 4. The only text from Paul that gets serious and extended treatment as a text is Romans, which means the rest of the Pauline corpus (and the extensive scholarship on it) was dealt with to a lesser degree than other New Testament documents. I think I understand the editorial choice here. Romans is useful for orienting people to Pauline scholarship, and more chapters on other letters in the Pauline collection would have made an already lengthy book even more so. Nevertheless, I would have very much enjoyed a chapter on the Corinthian correspondence and some attention to the shorter letters. Of course, this is no reason not to read the book. If anything, it’s a testament to its value. Upon reading a nearly 500 page book, I found myself wanting more.

The book will be most useful to graduate students in biblical studies. Every New Testament PhD student should read the whole thing. It will be immensely valuable in navigating the intimidating mountain of secondary literature with which students need to become familiar, and many chapters draw attention to potentially fruitful avenues for future study. Established scholars will already be familiar with much of the material, and will find the book most helpful in orienting them to areas of the New Testament that might lie outside their established research agendas. Academically-minded pastors may also find the book of interest.

All in all, I’m happy to recommend The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research. I plan to keep my copy close at hand and expect to consult it often.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Hey Wesleyans, Let’s Stop Talking about 3 Types of Grace

It happens all the time. We Wesleyans love to talk about what are often called three types of grace – prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. The problem is that there are not three types of grace. There is only one type of grace, the type that joins a person to Christ and saves that person from sin and death. The three adjectives we use to modify the word “grace” are not referring to different types of grace; they are referring to different times of grace.

Grace is not a substance

Part of the problem is that we seem to think of grace as if it’s a substance – a substance that comes in different types. If you do not yet know Jesus, then you get the prevenient sort of grace. If you are in the moment of meeting Jesus, you need the justifying type of grace. If you’ve already met Jesus, you get sanctifying grace. And we are left erroneously thinking  in terms of different things.

But grace is not a thing that God gives us. Grace just means gift. And when the Bible talks about God’s grace, it means God’s gift of himself to us in a way that rescues us from condemnation and slavery to sin. Grace is union with God in Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit. That’s a single reality, not a range of substances or types of things. There is no grace outside of Jesus. So, when we think about grace, we need to be thinking about union with a person named Jesus. We need to be thinking about how Jesus gives us access to the Father. We need to be thinking about how the Spirit renews us as a consequence of our union with Christ. When we think about grace, we don’t need to be thinking about some thing or things. We need to be thinking about reconciliation with God.

Seasons of grace

So, what should we make of these three terms – prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying? In theology, these terms don’t refer to substances, they describe the work of the Holy Spirit in distinct periods of time as he draws us into union with Christ, unites us to Christ, and works out the implications of that union with Christ in all of life. Prevenient grace describes the work of the Spirit through the gospel before conversion that draws us to Jesus by convicting us of sin and enabling us to repent and believe. The Latin word “prevenient” only means “to come before.” Justifying grace is the forgiveness of sin and experience of peace with God that comes from the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. This is not a different thing; it is the beginning of a new season of life – one in which we are reconciled to God in Christ. The reality is still union with Christ. The difference is two periods of time, one in which that new reality is anticipated and the other in which that new reality is realized. Likewise with sanctifying grace. Again, grace isn’t describing a thing in itself but the work of a person (the Holy Spirit!). The language of sanctification encapsulates the new period of time after our initial union with Christ in which the Holy Spirit renews us and works out the many and varied implications of our union with Christ. The adjectives are describing a range of temporal realities, distinct periods in time, seasons in God’s economy of grace in our lives, not distinct substances or types of grace.

Grace is grace all the way through. It’s the work of the Spirit to draw us to Christ (prevenient), unite us to Christ (justifying), and form Christ in us (sanctifying). We do better thinking of these in terms of a single continuous work that stretches out over time. This is about seasons of growth in reconciled relationship with Jesus rather than different sorts of things that happen to us. So, dear Wesleyan friends, can we agree to stop talking about three types of grace?

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Falling Away or Cut Off? Romans and the Question of Apostasy

I’ve recently had the opportunity to contribute to a three-part series of essays on the question of apostasy. The essays are being published at the Center for Pastor Theologians blog and will be written by fellows of the Center from different eccesial traditions who (consequently) handle the question in somewhat different ways. My contribution was posted today. Here’s the intro:

The recent departure of Joshua Harris not only from Christian ministry but from Christianity altogether has brought questions regarding apostasy and falling away to the forefront of recent evangelical dialogue. Can a true believer fall from grace? If someone commits apostasy, were they ever really saved? If it is indeed possible to lose your salvation, how does it happen? What’s the condition? How should we understand the notion of perseverance? What do key biblical texts say about the issue?

You can read the rest at the CPT blog. If the CPT is new to you, be sure to check out the other resources on the site. I’ll also add links to the other contributions once they go live.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Why Calvinism Gets Election in Romans 9 Wrong


There are a number of reasons I’m not a Calvinist. One of them stems from the problematic way Calvinism frames the biblical doctrine of election. In this video, I consider how God’s choice of Abraham’s family (over others) shapes the way we should read the language of election in Romans 9-11.  Watch the video below. Then click over to YouTube and subscribe to my channel to get notifications when new content is posted.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

#GC2019 Interview Roundup (#UMC)

I’ve recently had the opportunity to be interviewed on a couple of podcasts regarding the outcomes and implications of the United Methodist Church special session of General Conference earlier this year. This post puts all the links in one place.

The first one was came on The Kuyperian Commentary and was hosted by Pastor Uri Brito. You can listen here.

The second interview came in two parts on The Pastor Theologians Podcast hosted by Todd Wilson and Zach Wagner.

I’m grateful to have had these invitations. Feel free to chime in with comments and questions. Thanks for listening.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.