Wayne Grudem on Penal Substitution and Baptism

Wayne Grudem is an evangelical theologian, and a smart man—I have read stuff from him before in the course of research—but this quotation of his on the idea of theological disagreements blows my mind (and not in a good way):
“I’m thankful that believers who differ on the issue of baptism can still have wonderful fellowship with one another across denominational lines, and can have respect for each other’s sincerely held views. I certainly do not put the question of baptism in the same category as the denial of penal substitutionary atonement…because that seems to me to be a denial of the heart of the Gospel…But differing views on baptism…do not have serious consequences of that type.
So basically, accepting a view of the atonement that centers on penal substitution is more important than baptism. What?

It has become a trendy thing for Christians to want to distance themselves from penal substitutionary atonement, which I think is unfortunate, because the Bible definitely and repeatedly affirms that Jesus Christ was punished in our place as part of the atonement (John 1.29, Romans 3.21-26, 2 Corinthians 5.21, Galatians 3.13, Hebrews 9.29, 1 Peter 2.24).

However, I am aware of nowhere in the New Testament where possessing the single, correct understanding of the atonement is tied to an individual’s salvation or the forgiveness of sins (which is a good thing, because although Christ’s substitution for us was part of the atonement, the Bible indicates that there was more to it than just that). On the other hand, there are plenty of scriptures that link baptism to salvation and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2.38, Acts 22.16, Romans 6.1-4, 1 Peter 3.21).

I think Grudem is mixed up on this one.


Jr 7/5/12, 10:23 AM  

Luke: I think what Grudem is focusing on here is what would constitute a "denial of the heart of the Gospel."

In other words he says that to deny substitution is to deny the heart of the Gospel, while two people having differing views on baptism would not constitute denying the heart of the gospel.

Now if one's tradition was to propose that "regeneration/salvation takes place at the moment of water baptism" and felt so strongly as to say anyone who denies it is denying the Gospel, then I could see your disagreement with Grudem here.

However, because Scripture does not consistently teach that point (and many would question your conclusions pertaining to the baptism texts cited), that would not equal the point of regarding substitution as central since it is without question an absolute and consistent teaching.

Grace be with you -

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 11:19 AM  

Hey Jr,

I appreciate your comment and understand your point, though perhaps I didn’t reflect that in my post.

My disagreement with Grudem doesn’t stem from what he says about the heart of the Gospel—when you strip the Gospel down to the bare essentials of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, then atonement theory is certainly central—but from the implication that a correct intellectual understanding of the atonement is more important to the believer than a correct response to the command of baptism (i.e. obedience to the command).

Remember, Grudem’s comments were ultimately made in the context of having disagreements with other believers—which disagreements can be winked at and which must be dealt with. From his perspective, the intellectual understanding of the nature of the atonement is more important than the practice of baptism. Based on Scripture, I disagree with him.

Does Scripture require believers to understand the atonement exclusively in terms of penal substitution? I don’t think so, as evidenced by the fact that various passages lend credence to Ransom and Moral Influence ideas as well.

Furthermore, since Anselm didn’t popularize Satisfaction Theory until the late 11th century (with Calvin and others adding Penal Substitution nuances after that), I guess the Early Church Fathers (from Grudem’s perspective) were all Gospel-deniers since they almost universally (from what I have read/learned) subscribed to Ransom Theory…I have a hard time with that.

On the other hand, does Scripture require believers to respond in obedient faith to the command of baptism? Absolutely. The witness of the New Testament affirms this repeatedly.

Regarding the link between baptism and the forgiveness of sins and salvation, certainly I’m aware that many people within Christendom hold different views than I do, but I believe that Churches of Christ have largely gotten baptism “right” (while recognizing that at times it has been dumbed down and over-emphasized).

Good to hear from you! I missed seeing you on campus this summer, but I enjoy reading your updates as you progress towards ministry in Peterhead. And on a similarly important note, there’s some good baseball being played up in the D.C. area about now—must be nice to live nearby. :)

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 11:44 AM  

Oh, and by the way, none of that was meant to actually discount Penal Substitution, which I believe is at the heart of biblical teaching on the atonement.

Aaron 7/5/12, 12:38 PM  

Luke: "I am aware of nowhere in the New Testament where possessing the single, correct understanding of the atonement is tied to an individual’s salvation or the forgiveness of sins."

Rom 10:10 "For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved."

Now I know context is everything, but this seems to be a clear formula for salvation. Does it not? I'd love to hear an old friends thoughts.

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 2:45 PM  


I apologize if this comes across as dense, but what part of Romans 10.10 suggests that “possessing the single, correct understanding of atonement is tied to an individual’s salvation or the forgiveness of sins”?

Maybe you were trying to make a different point, but based on what you quoted, I am way confused.

Jr 7/5/12, 3:04 PM  

Luke, you wrote "...does Scripture require believers to respond in obedient faith to the command of baptism? Absolutely." - Having heard Grudem speak on baptism, he would concur 100% with that statement (if you changed the word 'require' to 'instruct'). It is certainly a question of obedience. Where he would stop at is saying that water baptism is the time in which someone is saved. So two people can differentiate on that point and still be together in the Gospel message. And so, the act of water baptism "being the time of salvation" is questionable enough that saying so is not central to the Gospel message.

Aaron does well in pointing out just one of the passages that relate salvation outside of the act of water baptism. Though nobody can doubt the absolute consistency of Scripture that promotes true faith/true belief as salvific. The act of water baptism? Not so much.

But should we do it? Most certainly! Jesus commanded it, it is the pattern we see before us, and the symbolism it provides is a tremendous blessing for us. But an act of obedience and profession and appeal for a good conscious does not necessarily equal the point and time of deliverance from sin for all who do it, no matter how analogically Paul and Peter use it when teaching. The fact that there are many who have been baptized who are not born again can prove that out.

To another point, I don't think we're talking about how one understands something (like substitution or baptism) and that understanding becomes a basis for salvation. The question instead is, is if substitution is central to the Gospel message itself. I would affirm that it is and that if someone purposefully removed substitution from their Gospel message then they were doing great violence to the truth. So, fully understanding substitution in order to be saved vs. neglecting or denying substitution in a Gospel presentation are two different things.

I agree that our own tradition has been good in that we have taught the importance of water baptism. However, the extreme end that teaches water regeneration is overboard, superstitious, and puts the focus on the material instead of on the Holy Spirit. Beyond that, the historical church has also seen the good and bad of teaching on baptism. Even in the early centuries there were times when the church-at-large was teaching people not to be baptized until deathbed because it was only effectual for past sins and not future ones. Not exactly the highlight moment of interpretation, to say the least.

In sum: Can one be baptized, not have true saving faith, and be saved? No. Can one have true saving faith, not be baptized (perhaps due to bad teaching), and be saved? Yes. [This was the position of Alexander Campbell, by the way. Remember the Lunenburg Letter controversy? "There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of the faith, absolutely essential to a Christian—though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort. . . But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision."]

Can the active denial of substitution in a gospel presentation be considered a gospel presentation? No.

The prior is debatable, the latter is not. That is what Grudem is thinking, I think. :)

[On the baseball front; yes, things are good in this area. My Os are hanging tough! I hope we keep it up post-break. As for the Nats, I'm actually heading to my first game at their new park on Saturday. Looking forward to it. But I will always be an Os fan. Go Os!]

Grace be with you -

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 6:07 PM  


After reading Jr’s last comment, it seems that perhaps you weren’t actually making any claim in reference to the quotation from me which you included, but were simply quoting a passage which connects salvation to faith (and confession of that faith) but says nothing about baptism and asking for my response to the implications of that passage.

In response, I would:

(a) Affirm everything that Romans 10.9-10 says: faith and confession are undoubtedly a part of the “formula” for salvation.

(b) Point out what Jimmy Allen used to say repeatedly: “You don’t learn anything about a Bible subject by reading a verse in which it is not mentioned.” So in this case, we don’t learn anything about what baptism does (or doesn’t do) by reading Romans 10.9-10. We just learn that faith, and apparently confession, are related to salvation.

To take the second point further, Acts 2.38 clearly links repentance and baptism to the forgiveness of sins and the receipt of the Holy Spirit, but it says nothing about faith. Does that mean that faith isn’t necessary for forgiveness of sins or the receipt of the Holy Spirit? Certainly not—Acts 2.38 doesn't mention faith at all, so looking at that verse alone, we are not told what faith’s role is.

At the end of the day, I think 2000 years of distance and a good deal of poor teaching has greatly misled people about baptism. On the one hand, you have people who are convinced that baptism is a work of human righteousness that basically denies the teaching of Paul. On the other hand, you have many people (within Churches of Christ) who, in response to this view, underscore baptism as a distinct, essential “step” in the plan of salvation.

Originally, I think it was neither of these things, but simply a part of obedient faith and the expected, automatic accompanying action in the process of salvation (as evidenced by all of the conversion accounts in Acts).

Gary 7/5/12, 6:20 PM  

I tried to send this earlier, but apparently it didn't go through (or the page is messing with me and I just can't see it)...

When I see discussions on the "theories" of the Atonement, I always think of this quote by C.S. Lewis (yeah, I know - Gary quoting C.S. Lewis, what a shock);

“On my view the theories are not what you are asked to accept. Many of you no doubt have read Jeans or Eddington. What they do when they want to explain the atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are only there to help you understand the formula. They are not really true in the way that the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them.” The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically. We are in the same boat here. We believe that the death of Christ is just that point at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found we could fully understand it, that very fact would show that it was not what it professes to be--the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning…A man may eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he as accepted it.”

Theories of the Atonement are nice, but they're just that - theories. If I choose not to posit any one of them as primary above the others, I don't see that as constituting a "denial of the heart of the Gospel." No explanation we give will fully encapsulate the mystery of God, and so we recognize each theory for what it is and try not to make it say too much.

I realize this may be a bit oversimplistic on my part, or even somewhat of a cop-out, but I tend to be very wary of overstepping my bounds when it comes to making grand declarations such as what does and does not constitute a "denial of the heart of the Gospel." Maybe it's the apologist in me, I dunno.

Aaron 7/5/12, 6:39 PM  

Luke, I realize my comment diverges from the topic of "atonement theory", and I have long forgiven you for being dense just as you have forgiven me for not making the complete sense :) As far as "correct understanding of atonement," I didn't even know there was such a thing as different theories on atonement until reading this today. So thanks for the lesson. Also thank you for causing me to look up "penal substitution" which, as you can assume, made me giggle the first few times I read it.

Years ago I spent a lot of time reading and praying about when is moment of salvation is. I wanted to get it right! It wasn't until reading "Prodigal God" by Tim Keller that I realized I had been too much like the older brother in Jesus' parable...trying to win the Father's grace by damnable good works (or in my case, right thinking).

So about a year ago I decided to abandon my quest for theological perfection. I think this helped me read Paul's words without trying to read "baptism" between the lines (which I always use to do).

Paul says we are justified when we believe and saved when we confess. I still believe the command to be baptized is important and should be followed immediately by every disciple as the Bible instructs and illustrates.

Peter said in 1 Peter 3:21 it's not the water that saves us but the appeal we make to God.

Whether or not this appeal or repentance must come with the "correct understanding of the atonement" I don't know. However, I believe our CoC tradition is to put the cart of water baptism before the horse of faith and confession.

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 6:52 PM  


I tend to be long-winded, so here is an attempt to avoid that. :)

Some of what you say I agree with; some I don’t. But cutting right to your conclusion, you said:
In sum: Can one be baptized, not have true saving faith, and be saved? No. Can one have true saving faith, not be baptized (perhaps due to bad teaching), and be saved? Yes.

For one thing, I think “saving faith” is somewhat of a loaded term in your question, because biblically-speaking, saving faith is obedient faith, which in the context of the New Testament, always involved baptism (at least, in the conversion examples we have). So the second question is somewhat of an oxymoron from a biblical perspective, because saving faith would result in baptism, period.

To illustrate, to take something I told Aaron a step further, if we could pull Peter or Paul into a similar discussion today and ask, “Does faith save us? Or baptism?”, I think they would look somewhat confused and then say something like, “Yes…and the grace of God…made possible by the death of Jesus….” My point being, I don’t think it is an either/or issue, and wasn’t originally. Baptism was just an automatic part of obedient faith.

Of course, that changed over time, and due to poor teaching, a lot of people came to believe that immersion was not a necessary part of obedient faith. Which leads to the sort of questions that Alexander Campbell faced…

More on that in the next comment.

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 6:53 PM  

This was the position of Alexander Campbell, by the way. Remember the Lunenburg Letter controversy?

I appreciate you bringing up Campbell, as I have a great deal of respect for him. Of course, his opinions aren't binding on me, but it is helpful to consider the perspective of such a direct spiritual ancestor. That being said, the Lunenburg Letter is often quoted without being given full context (to be clear, I am not accusing you of doing this; I myself was ignorant of the context when I first heard of the letter but then studied it more and found the fuller context to be helpful).

First, Campbell suspected the originator of the letter to be tied with John Thomas, a former member of the Stone-Campbell Movement who later founded the Christadelphians and, among other things, denied the validity of any baptism that was not expressly for the purpose of the remission of sins (and because of this, refused fellowship with those from the Baptist Church who had already been immersed). Eager to refute this extreme view that he disagreed with, it seems possible that Campbell, using strong language, somewhat overstated his position in his original response to the letter.

This idea is further supported by statements he made in a second and third article on the same letter/issue. In his second article, from November 1837 (the original was from September), he said:

Can a person who simply, not perversely, mistakes the outward baptism, have the inward? We all agree that he who willfully or negligently perverts the outward, cannot have the inward. But can he who, through a simple mistake, involving no perversity of mind, has misapprehended the outward baptism, yet submitting to it according to his view of it, have the inward baptism which changes his state and has praise of God, though not of all men is the precise question. To which I answer, that, in my opinion, it is possible. Farther than this, I do not affirm.

In a third article, from December of 1837, Campbell presents a similar opinion:

We shall now attempt to defend this opinion from the sectarian application of it . . . . It affords them too much joy for the consolation it brings, because it imparts no certainty of pardon or salvation to any particular unbaptized person whatsoever. . . . In no case, indeed, can there be the same certainty (all things else being equal) that he who was sprinkled, poured, or immersed on some other person’s faith, or that he who was sprinkled or poured on his own faith, shall be saved, as there is that he that first believes and is then, on his own confession, immersed, shall be saved. In the former case, at best, we have only the fallible inference or opinion of man; while in the latter we have the sure and unerring promise of our Saviour and Judge. . . .

So back to your original (slightly-edited) question, “Can one have genuine faith, not be baptized due to bad teaching, and still be saved?”

Based on the fuller context, I think Campbell’s answer would be something like, “It’s possible, but it’s not taught in Scripture, so there’s no guarantee.”

My answer would be something similar, and on such shaky ground, there’s no way I would teach that one can be confident of salvation without baptism (I just don’t see it in Scripture).

Can the active denial of substitution in a gospel presentation be considered a gospel presentation? No.

I basically agree here. Ultimately, I think it’s more important that we affirm that Jesus’ death accomplished atonement than that we subscribe to a particular understanding of how that happened, but I do believe that substitution is a huge part of that.

Maybe there’s a difference between “active denial” and having an incomplete understanding of how atonement works?

Thanks for the dialogue; so much for brevity!

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 6:56 PM  


Thanks for joining in the discussion and for the C.S. Lewis quote. I largely agree with all of it.

I would agree with Jr in that Scripture teaches that substitution was part of the atonement. I don’t believe it is imperative that we understand it fully.

Or how the Trinity works…or the Incarnation…or all that baptism does…or the Virgin Birth…you get my point. :)

Gary 7/5/12, 7:05 PM  

I would also agree re: substitution, as would Lewis, though he probably would not see it as a penal substitution. Then again, it seems like proponents of multiple theories like to quote Lewis in support of their views, so it can be hard to know exactly which theory he might put the most weight behind. Like you said, it's just one of a number of concepts that we can't fully comprehend, but thankfully that's not a requirement.

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 7:06 PM  


(1) Not sure if you saw my most recent comment or not, but my basic response regarding baptism being a part of obedient faith (as opposed to a distinct “step”) still applies (as does the thought that Romans 10.10 doesn't tell us anything about baptism, one way or the other).

(2) The Prodigal God is a good book and provides a helpful corrective for those of us who are tempted to be Elder Brothers (and I am one).

(3) Also, touching on something you mentioned, I think it can be tempting to think that we are saved based on perfect knowledge or understanding. To me, this is just a new form of gnosticism, one of the earliest Christian heresies.

We are saved by the grace of God, and all of our good works are like filthy rags. They don't save us. That must always be remembered.

With that in mind, I think we are free to devote our lives to good work and the search for the best understanding of Scripture and God's will for our lives—not because it saves us, but because it is what saved people naturally do!

Luke Dockery 7/5/12, 7:13 PM  


The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is hardly a systematic theology, but it contains strong elements of Ransom Theory/Christus Victor as well as Substitution (though as you pointed out, probably not in a penal sense).

Jr 7/6/12, 10:00 AM  

Luke, this comment: "...there’s no way I would teach that one can be confident of salvation without baptism..."

... is what worries me greatly. It removes the focus from the work of the Triune God in salvation and puts the focus of security on a physical act carried out by men. I do not doubt that the physical act can operate as a point of security (and pastorally this was Campbell's intent, I believe), but the main focus for salvation and security needs to be on what Christ has done. There are plenty of Scriptures that point us to the security we have in Christ, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit as a down-payment on what is to come, and the work of the Father in completing what He started inside of us. THIS is where our focus and security needs to be: On a faithful God and His promises, and not on a physical act (however important it might be).

The arrow always must point to Christ and not at something I did (even my own obedient acts, like baptism). We are justified by faith; and from that justification we are obedient.

Gary: My view is that a flat denial of 2 Cor 5:21 and Romans 3:21-26 is a denial of the Gospel. It's what the atonement means.

I do not deny the other things that took place on the cross (Christus Victor being one); but regarding atonement, substitution is at its core.

Love you, brothers.

Grace be with you -

Luke Dockery 7/7/12, 5:36 PM  

It removes the focus from the work of the Triune God in salvation and puts the focus of security on a physical act carried out by men.

I see why you say that, but ultimately, I disagree. The security of my salvation lies in the eternal effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice, which makes salvation possible, and the faithfulness of Scripture, which provides the terms for the acceptance of God’s offer of that salvation. My security, which does involve my response, is still ultimately based on what God has already accomplished.

When I read about baptism in the New Testament, I see it directly linked to salvation, forgiveness of sins, purification, washing, receipt of the Holy Spirit, putting on Christ, become a part of the Church, being born again, becoming a new creation, and the reenactment of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Based on that, what worries me greatly is that someone would feel free to teach that these blessings are available to the unbaptized.

Ultimately, I believe that I can hold opinions on a variety of issues (like if it’s possible for someone to be saved without being baptized), but that I can only teach what Scripture has taught before me.

Since Scripture repeatedly connects elements from the list above to baptism, I can’t do otherwise.

Thanks for your thoughts; blessings to you.

Jr 7/8/12, 6:30 PM  

Luke: We obviously disagree, but the interaction has been great and I love these discussions. God is glorified when believers can disagree and yet dialogue in love. May He be glorified ever more.

I find your "opinion/teach" statement above to be inconsistent. Why would you not teach something you have an opinion on? And if you have an opinion on that something, there must be something in Scripture that makes you have such and such opinion. Then we let the conversation take place. I don't think we should hide from that. As iron sharpens iron.

You also have opened the door for some engaging dialogue on specific texts that perhaps you may or may not want to engage in. So I'll just mention the following conviction:

I simply cannot imagine basing any part of my security on my own actions, even my actions of obedience. My sin is too great. My eyes must focus on something greater.

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life," (John 3:14-15; cf. Numbers 21:4-9)

I rest in this.

Grace be with you -

Luke Dockery 7/10/12, 9:43 AM  


Perhaps I was unclear on the opinion/teach issue. Obviously there is a degree of opinion on anything we teach, as we have to interpret the meaning of Scripture for our lives. What I was distinguishing between was offering one’s interpretation of the instruction and commands of Scripture, and offering one’s opinion on something that is not in Scripture but is believed anyway.

From my perspective, Scripture simply does not teach that the unbaptized believer is promised forgiveness of sins or salvation. To me, teaching otherwise is an opinion. I would not do that.

To use another example, Scripture teaches that there is an “unpardonable sin”—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—but does not specifically tell us what that entails. So I would have no problem teaching of the existence of such a sin, but before I tried to explain exactly what I thought that sin was, I would make sure the audience realized I was giving an opinion.

Hopefully that helps to explain what I was saying somewhat.

I simply cannot imagine basing any part of my security on my own actions, even my actions of obedience. My sin is too great. My eyes must focus on something greater.

I feel comfortable doing so because I believe Scripture teaches us to do so. Nevertheless, salvation is ultimately found in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross and in the faithfulness of God. That is the something greater I focus on, and in that sense, we are in agreement.

Thanks for the discussion.

Rusty 7/13/12, 12:00 PM  

Hey Luke, just clicked on your blog through facebook and saw this discussion. I'm definitely in agreement with you on this one. A couple of points I'll make...

- there are obvious passages that connect baptism to the point of salvation.
Acts 2:38
Acts 22:16
I Peter 3:21

Someone mentioned I Peter in their note... the passage says 'this baptism that saves you', meaning we are saved at baptism... but not by the physical properties of the water, but the pledge of a good conscience towards God (in other words, our faith at baptism).

There are a whole lot of passages that talk about salvation in the NT. I came up with around 80 no-doubters. Some refer to 'becoming' saved, most refer to 'staying' saved. But as you say, just because some are listed in Acts 2:38 and some are listed in Romans 10:9 doesn't invalidate either one.

Anyway, I think we have to be very careful to not tell people they're saved if they have not fulfilled biblical commands about how to become (or stay!) saved.

Luke Dockery 7/16/12, 10:50 AM  


Good to hear from you man, and thanks for the comment!

Of course I agree with you—to me the NT overwhelmingly connects baptism with salvation, and does the same things with other elements (faith, repentance, etc.) as well.

Also, I appreciate your emphasis on 'staying' saved. Historically, I think that Churches of Christ have emphasized baptism so much (because it's incredibly important and a lot of people disagree) that it makes it seem like what happens after baptism doesn't matter—which is certainly not a biblical notion.

Baptism is just the beginning of the Christian life (albeit, a necessary beginning!).

Good to hear from you, brother!

The Doc File © 2006-2012 by Luke Dockery

  © Blogger template 'Fly Away' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP