Sundoulos - Winter 2011

Nothing But the Blood?

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

This issue’s cover article features Talbot School of Theology’s new and urgently needed building, the first additional facility since 1975. The new facility is the first of two buildings that will help ease an enormous need for classrooms and faculty/staff offices that student growth has created. As the new building opens, Talbot’s faculty continue to emphasize faithfulness to God’s word and thoughtful interaction with theological trends in the church.

In recent years, challenges and objections to historic understandings of justification and atonement seem to abound. Some argue that justification, atonement, and related concepts are Old Testament ideas that should be supplanted by Christ’s incarnational embodiment of love and inclusion. They suggest that such notions are distasteful to contemporary human sensibilities and must be updated.

Then there are those whose (over?) sensitivity to violence dismisses the cross as an unnecessary and even offensive part of God’s plan for redemption. Out of this view flow charges that historic understandings make God guilty of “cosmic child abuse.”

Some give primacy to Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, leaving Paul’s emphasis on justification, atonement, propitiation, and penal substitution as an unexplainable footnote. This, unfortunately, squares with the evangelical community’s tendency 
to over-emphasize the love of Jesus to the exclusion of the necessity for dealing with the incompatibility of sin and the righteousness of God.

A bit of this focus on Jesus’ love is captured in a recent article by Scot McKnight who, though harboring concerns of his own with the idea of substitution, observed that “evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and many today are choosing sides... Something has happened in the past two decades: a subtle but unmistakable shift among many evangelicals from a Pauline-centered theology to a Jesus-shaped kingdom vision.” McKnight asks, “Will we center our gospel teaching and living on ‘the kingdom’ or ‘justification by faith’?”

One consequence of all this is not merely displacement of emphasis but in some cases outright rejection of justification and other related concepts nestled within. Yet it seems clear that justification by faith and the atonement that made it possible are such strong themes in Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom. 3:21-28) and other epistles that they dare not be dismissed.

If historic understandings of justification, atonement, and penal substitution are central to the gospel, what differences should that make in our priorities and in ways we go about ministry? For one, they cannot be ignored in how we minister for spiritual growth in those we lead, as John Coe’s article, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Spiritual Formation Grounded in the Cross and Justification,” pleads in this issue. The lure of good works as a means of self-growth continues to course strongly through the human spirit and must be confronted.

Steve Porter, in his article “The Moral Plausibility of Substitution,” addresses some of the frequent questions believers have today about the biblical need for penal substitution, and provides rationale for continuing to hold to this historic essential truth of our faith.


Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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