College Services, Penal Substitution, and Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

So the following are some of my thoughts on Penal Substitution, Worship, and the formation of theology in light of our worship practices. Its a bit “stream of consciousness” so forgive me if there are some gaps in my logic and or some parts don’t make sense…


So Thursday I went to visit a college group in San Dimas, CA with my girlfriend Amelia and Jacqueline Elliot (a student in the college ministry that I lead) because Jacqueline (who goes to APU) is thinking about going to that church once school starts up again. So we were worshiping and at the end of the service one of the songs we sang was John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves Us.”

Here are some of the Lyrics:

And we are his portion and He is our prize // Drawn to Redemption by the grace in his eyes // If Grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking // And Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss // And my heart turns violently inside of my chest // I don’t have time to maintain these regrets // When I think about the way // Oh, how he loves us, oh // oh how he loves us, how he loves us all // How He loves us

As I was singing that I was flooded with emotion and a sense of love for Jesus. I felt overwhelmed by his grace. I was so greatful that he loved me that he redeemed me that he draws me with his grace that he covers my sins so I don’t have to maintain my regrets. And then my mind turned to what I was singing and feeling. I realized that I was meditating upon the atonement. And that I was meditating upon a penal subsitution view of the atonement and that meditating on that overwhelmed me with feelings of grace and of being loved. I was mediating on the fact that the God of the universe loved me so much that he gave his son to die on my behalf. And then I began to think about all the debates regarding penal-substitutionary atonement and the claim about how this view makes the Father look like he is a child-abuser or he is angry and vindictive. But the truth is that as I was singing all I felt was God’s overwhelming love and grace for me.

I think that there really is something to this experience of feeling these things in light of this doctrine. After all “lex orandi lex credendi” (the law of prayer is the law of belief). In other words our liturgical practices (namely prayer and worship) are the measure for shaping our move from Scripture to dogmatics. When considering modern atonement theories we must consider not only in light of scripture but also lex orandi, in light of the church’s prayer and worship life. (Side Note: I understand and fully believe that we must begin with scripture as our foundation for all our theology, however we must also be upfront with the fact that our interpretation of scripture is shaped by our worship practices, our traditions, and our life experiences.) The reason I bring up lex orandi lex credendi is that in my own reading of other atonement theories (I have only read a few), God’s love for his people is not emphasized. I have a hard time imagening what a moral exemplar worship song will be about. Anyway I think that it would be an interesting project to evaluate the worship that is produced by the other atonement theories. Do they make God more beautiful in our eyes? Do they paint a picture of God as sovereign and loving? If not then they fail the worship “test.” In other words we should ask if these theories make us want to worship Jesus more. If they don’t then there is something off in them.



Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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