Atonement (Part 3): A Wright Account of the Atonement

Today we begin to wrap up this min-series on the atonement by looking at what I take to be the most convincing account of the atonement. One that follows N.T. Wright’s work in NT Studies. We will be looking at this account over the next few days. I begin by laying out some groundwork.

[Tentatively this is the account I gravitate towards the most on. If you see anything wrong with it PLEASE point it out to me. Because I have blind spots too. And I am open to correction if my views lead to heresy =) thanks! ]


The atonement is a subject that has been garnering a significant amount of interest over the last several years. Much of this interest has involved asking the question: “What is the best way to talk about the atonement?” One answer to this question that has become en vogue in recently is the Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement. Joel Green is one proponent of this view; this view states that there is no one model or metaphor for the atonement that adequately captures what happens on the cross. To a certain extent Green’s thesis is correct. The atonement is rich concept; it is so rich that human language cannot adequately capture what God is doing on the cross. This view displays the richness of the atonement by leaving room for many ways of talking about the atonement including Christus Victor and moral exemplar theories. However, it seems as though one theory of the atonement is left out of this model: penal substitution.

Penal Substitution (henceforth “PS”) is the theory of atonement that has dominated Reformed thought. As someone who finds myself within the Reformed tradition I have a bias towards this theory. While recognizing that the Kaleidoscopic theory is probably correct, I still want to leave room for penal substitution. However, for some people PS serves as a barrier to believing the Gospel. It is a well known fact that some reject the atonement because PS seems to imply that God is an angry man or a vindictive judge. At its worst, PS can seem like divine child abuse; the angry father beats and even kills the innocent son. These objections should be recognized and taken seriously. Thus, for those of us who have a commitment to the Reformed tradition it is imperative that a theory of penal substitution be formulated in such a way that God is not presented as an angry vindictive, abusive father. For the Reformed believer it is a matter of keeping her core commitments, while being able to present a view of the atonement which in and of itself is not offensive.

In this blog, I hope to present a way of understanding penal substitutionary atonement which does not distort our view of who God is. In doing this there are several core commitments that I want to keep.

Core Commitments

First, an evangelical and reformed doctrine of the atonement must have a Christology that is in line with the ecumenical creeds and the important Reformed confessions. At its most basic, it must be Chalcedonian in nature.

Second our theory of the atonement must be Biblical. By this we mean that it must be in line with Scripture, it cannot contradict scripture. It is important to understand that this commitment is not to be equated with proof-texting. We must not pull scriptures out of context to support our theory. Rather our theory of the atonement must be grounded in the meta-narrative of Scripture. It must also take seriously the fact that covenants play a major role in Scripture.

Third, our theory must take seriously the consequences of sin. By this I mean that it must be retributive. This in itself might be considered controversial, namely because retributive justice is such a controversial concept. But in its most basic sense I mean that the punishment for sin must fit the crime. Also it must not present the penal nature of substitution in such a way that God the Father is opposed to the Son. We must not say that the Father takes pleasure in destroying the Son. We must not say that the punishment the Son endures is God’s wrath arbitrarily being poured out upon him, rather we must say that the punishment the son endures is the consequence of sin.

Fourth, it must make the cross central.

Fifth, it must be substitutionary. We do not have the power to perform atonement for ourselves. We do not have the power to rescue ourselves



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.

4 thoughts on “Atonement (Part 3): A Wright Account of the Atonement

    1. Thanks for the link to the article. I will check it out. Two other helpful theologians who take into account Wright’s work into their own account of PSA are Hans Boersma in “Violence, Hopsitality, and the Cross” and Kevin Vanhoozer in his article “The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats, and Gifts.”

      1. Dude, I knew we would be friends. Vanhoozer is my favorite systematic theologian alive. I bought that book just to get his article on atonement. Also, Boersma’s great. I will say, he has an article on PSA that is better than his chapter in his book. His book is good, though.

        Two other good overall books, (while we’re doing this):
        1 God the Peacemaker by Graham Cole
        2. King, Priest, and Prophet- by Robert Sherman.

        Keep up the good work man!

  1. Sweet I love Vanhoozer. Oliver Crisp is my favorite contemporary systematic theologian. I actually have the privilege of being in his Atonement seminar this quarter, its a ton fun. Thanks for the recommendations, I will definitely check out these books.

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