An appeal for men to be saved is near to the heart of Wesleyan Methodism. W. B. Fitzgerald summarized Methodism with four “alls”:
- All need to be saved
- All can be saved
- All can know they are saved
- All can be saved to the uttermost
But what do all men need to be saved from? And why did Jesus need to die to save them from the same?
All Men Need to Be Saved From the Wrath of God
In Romans, Paul’s greatest treatise on “the gospel…the power of God for salvation” (Ro. 1:16), Paul begins in Chapter 1 with a lengthy section on God’s wrath: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Ro. 1:18).
God’s wrath is not only against our sin, as if sin is a thing separate from those who commit it. Sin is the attitude or action of persons against God (Ps. 51:4), and since God is personal, it incurs his personal wrath. Sinners are the enemies of God (Ro. 5:10), and “the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies” (Nah. 1:2).
Paul is unambiguous in Chapter 2: “you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Ro. 2:5); “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (Ro. 2:8). The greatest threat to sinful man is not death, hell, or the grave; it is not “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12); it is the wrath of God (Heb. 10:31).
The greatest threat to sinful man is not death, hell, or the grave; it is the wrath of God.
Methodist preaching was characterized by the warning to “Flee from the wrath to come!” God’s wrath was “in the DNA of the Wesleyan revival.” In fact, Methodists were asked at every class meeting, “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from your sins?”
Sinners need refuge from the wrath of God which is against them. Jesus saves from sin, not merely because sin causes brokenness and disorder, but because it incurs God’s righteous anger. Salvation is the work by which Jesus “delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 5:10).
Whatever else the death of Jesus accomplished, it must address the need for all men to be saved from the wrath of God.
All Men Can Be Saved Through Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement
The principal problem of God’s wrath in Romans 1 and 2 is answered by the divine solution of Christ’s propitiatory death in Romans 3: “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Ro. 3:24-25).
Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). “He is the is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).
“Propitiation (hilasmos, hilasterion) refers to an appeasing or placating of divine anger against unrighteousness. That is propitious which renders one favorably disposed toward another who has been previously alienated” (LBD). God’s wrath was indelibly against us,
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
God’s wrath is his punitive justice. Because God is just, sin provokes him to wrath, which is stored up and poured out in the punishment of sin. Jesus was punished in our place, bearing the wrath of God on our behalf, so that God could forgive us without compromising his justice.
Sinners are under God’s curse, “for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10). To have the Lord “bless you” is to “have his face shine upon you” (Num. 6:24); to have the Lord curse you is to have his face of displeasure set against you, i.e., to be under God’s wrath. Galatians 3:13 explains, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” It was not merely the death of Jesus that brings us salvation; it is a particular kind of death: a cursed death.
Christ “was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities,” and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6), for “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). Wesley comments on verse 11, “he shall satisfy the justice of God, by bearing the punishment due to their sins.” Jesus’ death did not merely conquer the forces of evil; it satisfied the demands of God’s justice which were against us. His atonement did not merely preserve God’s government; it appeased the personal wrath of the Governor. Christ did not merely stand in as our substitute to demonstrate the love of God or the seriousness of sin; he paid the penalty of the law on our behalf. In other words, his substitution was penal.
Christ did not merely stand in as our substitute to demonstrate the love of God or the seriousness of sin; he paid the penalty of the law on our behalf.
Penal substitution became deeply meaningful to me through a Biblical-theological study of the cup of the Lord’s wrath (see Psalm 60:3; Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17; Isa. 51:22; Jer. 25:15; Obadiah 16; Rev. 14:10). While tracing the “cup” image through Scripture, I inevitably came to Gethsemane, where Jesus “fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’” (Mt. 26:39). Christ did not sweat tears of blood over fear of death; he trembled at the thought of “the cup of the wine of the fury of [God’s] wrath” (Rev. 16:19), and the dreadful experience that ensued: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). Unless Jesus drank the cup of the Lord’s wrath in my place, I am without hope in the world.
Christ’s violent death is not cosmic child abuse—the Son being victimized by the Father’s wrath. Rather, it is God assuming human nature to bear his own wrath. “The Son does not propitiate an anger in the Father that He does not Himself share” (Pope). Christ willingly absorbed God’s wrath in his human nature, in no way disrupting the unity of the Trinity. Francis Turretin explains that we should view this as
God suspending for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness that he might be able to suffer all the punishment due to us (as to the withdrawal of vision, not as a dissolution of union; as to the want of the sense of divine love, intercepted by the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him, not as to a real privation or extinction of it.)
Jesus did truly bear God’s wrath, paying the penalty for our sins so that all men can be saved.
Is Penal Substitution a Wesleyan-Arminian Doctrine?
Some mistakenly think that penal substitution is a distinctly Calvinistic teaching, while others intentionally distance themselves from the doctrine because it is held by Reformed theologians. But Wesley would condemn this instinct; he asks, “Does not the truth of the gospel lie very near both to Calvinism and Antinomianism?” and answers, “Indeed it does; as it were, within a hair’s breadth. So that, because we do not quite agree either with one or the other, it is altogether foolish and sinful to run from them as far as we can.”
It is a gaffe to suggest that penal substitution is not Wesleyan-Arminian, since Wesley, Arminius, and the greatest Wesleyan-Arminain theologians subscribed to the doctrine.
Wesley held to penal substitution. Penal substitution is a prolific theme in his Explanatory Notes on the Bible. On Romans 3:26: The attribute of justice must be preserved inviolate. And inviolate it is preserved, if there was a real infliction of punishment on our Saviour.” On 1 Peter 2:24: “[He] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree — That is, the punishment due them.” On Colossians 1:14: “the voluntary passion of our Lord appeased the Father’s wrath, obtained pardon and acceptance for us.” On 1 Corinthians 5:21: “[we] must have been consumed by the divine justice, had not this atonement been made for our sins.” And so on. Penal substitution was at the heart of his gospel preaching: “God will not inflict on that sinner what he deserved to suffer, because the Son of his love hath suffered for him.”
Arminius held to penal substitution. Arminius taught that Jesus “paid the price of redemption for sins by suffering the punishment due to them,” insisting that “the rigour of inflexible justice was declared, which could not pardon sin, even to the interceding Son, except the penalty were fully paid.” Arminian theologian Roger E. Olson insists that Arminius’ position was clear:
Is it possible to consider the government theory the Arminian doctrine of the atonement when it was foreign to Arminius’ own thought? That would be like calling something the Calvinist doctrine when Calvin clearly and explicitly taught an alternative view. Critics who claim that Arminianism includes the governmental theory should read Arminius. William Witt is correct that Arminius accepted and embraced a variation of the Anselmic satisfaction theory not very different, if at all, from the Reformed penal substitution theory. For Arminius, Christ’s death was the substitutionary, expiatory, and propitiatory sacrifice for sins that perfectly fulfilled the law and established a new covenant of faith.
It is orthodox Wesleyan-Arminianism to insist that Christ’s death was in our place (substitutionary), paying the penalty for our sins (penal), appeasing the wrath of God (propitiatory), and taking away our sins (expiatory).
The greatest Wesleyan-Arminian theologians held to penal substitution. William Burt Pope, who is recognized as “the greatest doctrinal theologian ever to take up the task of teaching Christian theology from the point of view of the Wesleyan revival movement” and “one of the most reputable thinkers in the Arminian family,” writes,
Our Savior’s sacrifice on the cross…is no less than satisfaction, provided by divine love, of the claims of divine justice upon transgression: which may be viewed, on the one hand, as an expiation of the punishment due to the guilt of human sin: and, on the other, as a propitiation of the divine displeasure, which is thus shown to be consistent with infinite goodwill to the sinners of mankind. But the expiation of guilt and the propitiation of wrath are one and the same effect of the atonement. Both suppose the existence of sin and the wrath of God against it.
Adam Clarke’s comments on Isaiah 53:6 are soul-stirring:
[Jesus] was the subject on which all the rays collected on the focal point fell. These fiery rays, which should have fallen on all mankind, diverged from Divine justice to the east, west, north, and south, were deflected from them, and converged in him. So the Lord hath caused to meet in Him the punishment due to the Iniquities of ALL.
Wesley, Arminius, and the greatest Wesleyan-Arminian theologians held to penal substitution.
Methodist theologian Richard Watson defined Christ’s atonement as “[t]he satisfaction offered to divine justice by the death of Christ for the sins of mankind.” Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement was celebrated by early Methodists through the hymns of Charles Wesley:
For what you have done His blood must atone:
The Father hath punished for you his dear son,
The Lord, in the day Of his anger, did lay
Your sins on the Lamb, and he bore them away.
A Propitiation for the Whole World
Wesleyans celebrate that Christ’s propitiatory death was for all men. “He is the is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).
But some may ask, “If Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and satisfied the wrath of God that was against us, does this not mean that all men shall be saved (universalism)? Would it not be double jeopardy for God to punish us for sins that have already been paid for? Is not penal substitution, in fact, more consistent with the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, which says that Christ only paid for the sins of the elect?” By no means.
Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement is unlimited in its scope, but limited in its application; its application is conditioned on union with Christ through faith. After all, it is said of the elect that they “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3); if the atonement was applied unconditionally, how could any elect person be under God’s wrath at any point after Christ’s death?
While some Wesleyan-Arminians have denied penal substitution in an attempt to distance themselves from Calvinism, other atonement theories do not adequately answer the question of how the wrath of God is appeased. In his Wesleyan-Arminian Systematic Theology, Thomas Summers challenges John Miley’s governmental view of the atonement which states, “real as the divine displeasure is against sin and against sinners, atonement is made, not in its personal satisfaction, but in fulfillment of the rectoral office of justice.” Summers writes:
It would be well if Dr. Miley could definitely tell us what is his conception of displeasure against sin and sinners in such a being as the unchanging and holy God. Is it appeased without a consideration? Is it a mere temporary affection, an ebullition of personal feeling, that, after the analogy of human wrath, will burn itself out and gradually die away if let alone?
God’s personal wrath must be satisfied, and only penal substitution supplies an adequate explanation for how this happened. In his famous work on the atonement, John Stott concludes, “substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.” Penal substitution provides a robust, Biblical solution to the primary Wesleyan concern that all men need to be saved from the wrath of God.
Because of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement, all men can be saved!
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Ro. 5:9-11)