The Extreme Weakness of Faith Alone and Penal Substitution

A recent comment on the article, “What is the biblical basis against Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone, apart from works)?” led to a multi-part question by a regular reader of this blog named Rami. You can read his comment here. If you do, it will be clearer what this post—which is a lightly edited version of my comment replying to Rami—is responding to.

Here it is, with headings added:

Yes, I’ve had Protestants make all of these arguments in response to my attacks on justification by faith alone and penal substitution as being unbiblical and false.

However, all of these arguments have major problems. I’ll take them in the order you present them.

There is no confusion about the theme of the Bible

First: The Bible is quite clear in many places what it’s about.

Just to pick one: salvation.

In the Old Testament, salvation is mostly about physical life and death, prosperity and ruin. And the Old Testament is crystal clear in passage after passage that these are the stakes, and that if you do this you’ll receive life and prosperity, whereas if you do that you’ll receive ruin and death.

The New Testament is also very clear that if you repent from your sins and live a life love and service to God and the neighbor instead, you will be saved spiritually, and if you don’t you will be doomed spiritually.

I completely disagree that the Bible isn’t all that clear on what its theme is. Based on my extensive reading of the Bible, it is very clear, and there’s really no need for fancy human theologians to “figure it out” for people and provide some “larger theological interpretation.” Any person with basic reading comprehension can read the Bible and get a pretty good idea of what it’s about and what you have to do to be saved.

Even people who have had false, unbiblical doctrines hammered into their heads still commonly live according to what the Bible teaches, and are saved thereby. That’s how clear and powerful the Bible is. It can cut through all of our human confusion and fallacy, and still convey the message of eternal life to those who sincerely seek it.

There are far better ways to understand the Bible

Second: Protestant doctrine is very far from “the only way to make sense of the Biblical data.”

Emanuel Swedenborg made far better sense of the entire Bible, and everything in it, while rejecting the entire edifice of Protestant doctrine.

But it’s not just Swedenborg. For 1,500 years, Christians of all stripes made sense of the Bible without a single Protestant doctrine, because neither Protestantism nor its signature doctrines of justification by faith alone and penal substitution existed.

In short, the idea that justification by faith alone and penal substitution are “the only way to make sense of the biblical data” is not only wrong, but just plain silly.

’Nuff said.

People do need to know what to believe and do to be saved

Third: No, it’s not necessary for people to understand the mechanism of salvation. There are many abstruse, non-common-sense doctrines about the mechanisms of salvation in Swedenborg’s theology that I believe are true, but that no one really needs to know in order to be saved.

However, people do need to know what they themselves must believe and do to be saved. And the Bible is quite clear on these subjects, without the slightest need for the doctrines of justification by faith alone and penal substitution.

In fact, those doctrines do real damage to the Bible’s teaching on what people must believe and do to be saved. They make it sound like believing is far more important than doing, when the Bible says the opposite. Faith and belief in the Bible are useful only in leading people to repent from their sins and to live a good life, which is what actually saves people. Penal substitution makes it sound like it doesn’t matter if we’re sinners because Christ paid for all of our sins anyway.

No matter how many times fancy theologians say that you still have to repent, not sin, and live a good life, what comes down to ordinary folks from their doctrine is, “If I believe the right thing, I’ll be saved.” And the corollary is, “Even if I sin, I’ll be saved.” There are millions of Protestants who think this way, despite all the fancy theologistics that fancy Protestant theologians engage in.

These doctrines confuse people’s minds and do damage to the plain, clear teachings of the Bible about what leads to eternal life.

The Protestant “hermeneutic” flatly contradicts the Bible.

Fourth: Any “larger hermeneutic” to justify justification by faith alone and penal substitution has a further basic problem. Not only is the Bible clear on what we must believe and do to be saved, but it states very clearly that the key Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone and penal substitution are wrong.

I simply don’t see how the Bible could be any clearer than to say:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

Now, if there were other passages in the Bible saying that we are justified by faith alone, there might be some room for doubt.

But there aren’t.

That is the only passage anywhere in the Bible that even mentions faith alone, and it specifically rejects the idea that we are justified by faith alone.

And as for penal substitution, there are multiple passages in the Bible saying that God is utterly opposed to the whole principle behind it. Here are some of them:

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. (Exodus 23:7)

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exodus 34:6–7)

The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. (Numbers 14:18)

When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. (Deuteronomy 25:1)

Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the Lord detests them both. (Proverbs 17:15)

Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent,” will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. (Proverbs 24:24)

The Bible is very clear that God detests acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—which is exactly what the doctrine of penal substitution says God does. The Bible says that God will not acquit the guilty and will not leave the guilty unpunished—which is exactly what the doctrine of penal substitution says God does. It says that God condemned Jesus, the only totally innocent person ever to live, to die on the cross, and that as a result of the death of this innocent person, acquitted every guilty sinner who believes that Jesus died instead of him or her.

So it’s simply not a matter of the Bible leaving things open for a “larger hermeneutic” to determine that justification by faith alone and penal substitution are correct doctrines. The Bible specifically and emphatically rejects them both.

There is no real theological muscle behind these doctrines

Fifth: I used to think that there was “enough thoughtfulness and intellectual muscle” in Protestant ranks to make their doctrines at least sound plausible. And when I was young, I used to think that somewhere in the Epistles it said what they believe.

Then I engaged in several close readings of the Epistles, and found that no, it never says what they believe.

And then, more recently, I read most of two books by eminent contemporary Protestant theologians (Thomas Schreiner and R. C. Sproul) on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And I found them so weak, nonsensical, and downright foolish that I no longer believe Protestants have even a single theological leg to stand on, or even a single valid argument for their doctrine. If the best contemporary Protestant theologians are reduced to basically saying, “Justification by faith alone is true because it’s the fundamental doctrine of the church, so that’s what the Bible must mean and that’s what people must believe,” then they have lost all credibility with me.

I finally grew so frustrated with the circular logic, sloppy thinking, and just plain dumb (if you’ll excuse my French) readings of various Bible passages that I couldn’t take any more, and stopped reading halfway through the second book. I simply couldn’t force myself to wade through so much fallacious muck any longer.

If that’s the best that the best Protestant theologians have to offer (these books were recommended to me by a theologically knowledgeable Protestant), then it’s clear to me that the Protestant theologians’ “intellectual muscle” is so weak and flabby that they can’t even do a single bench press for their doctrine, let alone put really solid muscle behind it.

Really, I was shocked at how weak their arguments were. I expected at least to have to exercise some of my theological muscle refuting them. But their arguments were so shoddy and full of holes that it was more like poking a finger through a used tissue.

There is absolutely no good reason to believe these doctrines

Finally, to sum up: There is absolutely no good reason to believe in justification by faith alone or penal substitution except that various Protestant theologians and many Protestant preachers insist that they’re true. And that’s not a good reason to believe something. The Bible not only doesn’t ever say these things. It explicitly rejects them. And there are far, far better “hermeneutics,” or in ordinary language, ways to understand the Bible, than these specious doctrines offer.

Further, these doctrines make God out to be a horrible, insane tyrant who sends billions of people to be eternally roasted in fire, even if they’re good, wonderful loving, caring people, just because they don’t believe the “right” doctrine, and who takes pleasure in seeing his own son brutally murdered as a payment for other people’s sins.

These doctrines are full of horrific blasphemy against the good name and character of God. Not only are they unbiblical and false, but they are the worst kind of stinking theological feces flung in the face of God. That’s why so many ex-Protestants are now atheists. They recognize those inhuman and insane doctrines for what they are, and they want no part of it.

So yes, I’ve heard all of these arguments. And they are all completely specious, wrong, and false.

There is absolutely no good reason to believe in either justification by faith alone or penal substitution, and there are massive reasons not to believe them. Really, they are outside the pale of reasonable theological discourse. They are a theological version of believing that the earth is flat:

Best line in the video: “It’s not okay to think that the earth is flat. This is not a viable argument.”

It’s not okay to think that we are justified or saved only by what we believe, and not by the way we live.

It’s not okay to think that God considers us innocent because God punished Jesus instead of us for all of our sins.

These are not viable arguments.

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Spiritual Growth, The Bible Re-Viewed
4 comments on “The Extreme Weakness of Faith Alone and Penal Substitution
  1. larryzb says:

    I have read that there are now approximately 28,000 sects or denominations of Christianity in the US. This is likely an estimate, but it is instructive. There is too much spiritual confusion and that is driving people away from religion. The fact is that Protestantism has led to fracturing and splintering Christianity in the West. We do not get these effects from Orthodox or Eastern Christianity, or from Catholicism.

    • Lee says:

      Hi larryzb,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Yes, Protestantism is highly fractured. But don’t forget that the earlier main body of Christianity had its own fracture about 1,000 years ago, leaving the Roman Catholic Church on the Western side of the split and Eastern Orthodoxy on Eastern side. And there are also many lesser known non-Protestant Christian denominations and sects, some of which go back to the early days of Christianity.

      But yes, Protestantism beats them all for the sheer number of different sects within it, each with its own particular differences and variations on the same overall Protestant doctrinal themes. Some of those differences are hair-splittingly fine.

      What it boils down to is that Protestants, in line with their intellectually-leaning doctrine that faith, or belief, is the primary component of salvation, have shattered into many splinters over intellectual, doctrinal issues.

      That’s what happens when so-called Christians focus more on “correct belief” than they do on what Jesus said was the most important thing in religion and in life: loving the Lord our God with everything we’ve got, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

  2. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    I was actually prepared to issue a reply back in the post you’re quoting, but I guess I’ll do it here instead.

    My intent behind my question wasn’t to substantiate or defend Protestant (or anyone else’s) doctrines on key issues like atonement and justification, but to explore whether or not the treatment that’s often given to them around these parts does them adequate justice. This is especially important or someone like me, who is, at best, a very partially read laymen on matters of theology, who has neither the experience nor education to adequately interact with arguments on either side of these issues.

    For instance, on the frustration you experienced when attempting to get through a couple of books on the issue of justification, you characterized the thrust of their efforts as ‘Sola Fide is true because it’s something Protestants have already accepted as true’- certainly there’s more to their arguments than that! I’m of course not asking for a detailed breakdown of their position and the reasons behind it, but I’m familiar enough with the top names in the field to know they’ve demonstrated a level of academic rigor that’s earned them the respect of both faithful and secular academics alike. So if they are to be taken down and dismissed in a single blog post, yeah, I’m looking for a bit more than ‘they can’t point to a single verse that explicitly says…’ I know you’re not intimidated by their status in the academic community, nor impressed by their scholarship, but I don’t think we can reasonably deny that their arguments are nuanced and sophisticated, and any refutation of them would seem to necessitate the same.

    This leads me to ask, then: what value do you place on the advanced study of theology? I know that alluding to most theologians- either in general or individually- causes you to roll your eyes, but do you believe there’s something to be said for at least the *nature* of the work that’s undertaken by these theologians and in the universities from which they undertake and disseminate their work? I totally understand and side with some of the cynicism you harbor toward the relationship between academia and theology. Theology and Biblical studies are immensely complex, intricate subjects that require a great level of intellectual rigor and stamina even at an intermediate level. Unfortunately this often results in people over-intellectualizing and ‘academicizing’ their faith. Head replaces heart, we rely more on our flawed, material human intellect and far less on our guiding intuition, and faith quickly becomes flat and sterile. And while their arguments may be far more than, ‘it’s true because we accept it to be true,’ it wouldn’t be at all surprising if that ultimately, inwardly, all these top-end theologians are motivated to defend something because that’s what any good Protestant would defend.

    So I’m actually asking most of this from the perspective of already agreeing with you: I do believe that the essentials of salvation should be clearly, plainly stated to the reader. By ‘clearly and plainly stated,’ I don’t necessarily mean a specific verse that spells out in no uncertain terms ‘you must do this to be saved.’ Rather what I mean is more in terms of a general impression one gets when they read the Bible. When someone goes into the Bible with an open mind and open heart, and reflectively reads through the pages, I believe that they put the book down having received a new, elevated spiritual understanding, even in the absence of one very specific sequence of words that articulates to them that understanding. In ‘The Book of Eli’ (spoiler alert, I guess?), Denzel Washington’s character is tasked with safeguarding a copy of the Bible in a post-apocalyptic age when most of them have long since been destroyed. When asked by his travel companion- who had only heard rumors of the Bible- what he had learned from it, he replies ‘do for others more than you do for yourself. At least that’s what I got from it.’

    So yes, there are some incredible complexities to what the Bible teaches and to the very book itself, and one can certainly enter into this study if they were so inclined. They could get neck deep in things like historical context, textual context, a linguistic study of the text, historical analysis of the author so as to ascertain their background and determine what they were likely to have believed so as to determine what they were likely to have meant by that they said- all the advanced, multi-disciplinary things that advanced theologians do in their work at advanced universities. And that’s fine, if that’s what your interested in. But I don’t believe that anyone’s sense of theology needs to be any more complicated than what I described earlier, and that all the incredibly complicated, sophisticated study of theology ultimately aligns itself with the simple, basic truths gleamed from ‘what did you get from it?’

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      I’m short of time at the moment, but here are a few quick responses.

      First, if you really want the nitty gritty, and you’re something of a masochist, you’re welcome to read through my blow-by-blow response to reading those two books on Sola Fide. The first page of the transcript of the chatroom on Christianity StackExchange where I did so is here: Discussion of Sola Fide. From there you’ll have to page through it day by day to read it.

      Second, yes, theology is important, but in the end, only if it’s good and true theology. See:
      Does Doctrine Matter? Why is it Important to Believe the Right Thing?

      Third, I don’t doubt the intelligence and sincerity of the Protestant theologians defending Sola Fide and penal substitution.

      The problem is, when you start with a false premise, all of your scholarship is false. It would, as suggested in the above post, be like saying, “A whole group of us is going to study science starting with the premise that the earth is flat.” Even if that whole group consisted of the most brilliant academic thinkers in the world, every conclusion they drew would be flawed and false because their premise is flawed and false. And in fact, flat-earthers believe some absolutely nutty things beyond the original ridiculously stupid idea that the earth is flat.

      That’s also what happens when you take a group of very intelligent people, start them off with, “We are justified by faith alone; this tenet cannot be questioned,” and then tell them to go at the Bible with all of the academic rigor at their disposal.

      As the programmers say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It doesn’t matter how fast and sophisticated the computer is.

      Oh, and I think Denzel Washington’s character got it pretty much right. The “big picture” of the Bible really isn’t all that complicated.

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