A friend asked me for a list of resources on penal substitutionary atonement and the Christus Victor [Latin: “Christ the Victor”] view of the atonement. Here’s what I sent her.
Penal substitution and Christus Victor both seek to explain what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished. Often the two doctrines are pitted against each other. They aren’t mutually exclusive; they are complementary (though the way some contemporary advocates of Christus Victor articulate their view excludes penal substitution).
Penal substitution focuses on the legal or forensic nature of Christ’s death. Human beings have broken God’s law. They are guilty before him. He is a God of justice and his justice must be satisfied. Christ, who is without sin, died as a substitute, bearing God’s wrath against the sin of all who put their trust in him. Through his substitutionary death, the penalty of our sin has been paid. Much of the NT language of Christ dying “for us” points to this aspect of Christ’s death.
Christus Victor focuses on Christ’s work of triumphing over the evil powers which oppose God, his kingdom, and humanity. The NT certainly teaches this is part of what Christ came to do (e.g. Eph 1:20–23; Col 2:14–15; Heb 2:14–15). However, that doesn’t mean penal substitutionary atonement is ruled out. The articles and blog posts below by Justin Taylor, Mike Wittmer, and Robert Kolb argue that Christ defeated the powers by dying as a substitute for sinners.
- Christus Victor (1 hour audio). Lecture by Sinclair Ferguson. I’ve not listened to it, but it’s been highly recommended as one of the best treatments of the subject. I believe that Ferguson makes the point that Christus Victor depends on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
- Propitiation as the Ground for Christus Victor. Brief blog post by Justin Taylor. Contains some quotes from John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied demonstrating that Christus Victor and penal substitutionary atonement aren’t at odds. “So it’s not Christus Victor (Christ defeating his enemies) instead of propitiation (Christ bearing God’s wrath)–rather, it’s Christus Victor because of propitiation. Both are gloriously important, but only in that order.”
- What Makes a Full Atonement Full? by Mike Wittmer at The Gospel Coalition. He also shows that the two doctrines aren’t in conflict; they’re complementary and part of the total accomplishment of Christ’s atoning work.
- Christus Victor by Robert Kolb at The Gospel Coalition. Helpful essay summarizing the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. Reviews the doctrine’s history, asserts the doctrine is not add odds with penal substitution (I agree), and shows how both the Old and New Testaments teach that God defeats all powers (human and demonic) that enslave and destroy human beings.
- What Did the Cross Achieve? by J.I. Packer. A 1974 journal article that is considered an excellent contemporary statement on and defense of the classic doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It’s not a quick read but careful consideration of it is worth the time.
- The Cross of Christ by John Stott. A book length treatment of the atonement.
- The Heart of the Gospel: Penal Substitutionary Atonement. 9Marks Journal (free, online), August 2019. Many helpful articles on penal substitutionary atonement.