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Reformed theology


parable of the tenants


I grew up believing that the only way of viewing the act of the Cross was through what I now know is called “penal substitution atonement theory.” The day I discovered that there are other atonement theories . . . well, it’s fascinating. Today’s guest post, from a friend, explores an approach to the Atonement that doesn’t rely on penal substitution, satisfaction, or ransom theory– some of the more historically popular theories.


I grew up Reformed, and the default teaching was penal substitution as our central understanding of the cross. “The cross is God’s response to man’s nature.” It’s straightforward, it’s simple, and it’s reflected in a lot of our hymns and doctrinal understandings.

In reading the gospels, though, I’ve been thinking about other ways of looking at it, wondering if there are other understandings that could be useful.

The parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12) is one such example. The meaning of the parable is rather obvious, of course: the tenants are the Jewish leaders, the servants sent by the owner of the vineyard are the prophets, the son is Jesus, and so on. Because the point has more to do with the replacement of the Jewish order, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to have penal substitution worked into the mix. Nonetheless, it got me thinking. Why can’t this parable teach us something about the cross as well?

One thing that bothers me is how easily we skip over some of Jesus’s final words: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” If the people who crucified Jesus were merely pawns in the Father’s judgment of sin, then this statement is almost a bygone conclusion. Obviously they don’t know what they’re doing; they aren’t really the ones doing it, so it’s natural that Jesus would want to forgive. I think maybe it’s more than that.

Penal substitution says, “The cross is God’s response to man’s nature.” But with the parable of the tenants and similar passages, couldn’t we also say, “The cross is man’s response to God’s nature?” That doesn’t seem so far out. Jesus showed us divine nature, so we killed him, because that’s our response to what’s pure and good: we hate it.

If I may propose a parable of my own….


There once was a wise man who served as the mayor of a city. He was fair and just, and the people of the city were glad he was their mayor.

In the city, there was a young man who the mayor employed as a janitor to help keep the city hall clean. The young man had a problem, though: he was a drug addict.

The young man ran up a huge debt with drug dealers in the city. Desperate, he went to the mayor and confessed, asking to borrow money and promising to go to rehab. Though the mayor knew who the drug dealers were and was fully capable of stopping them directly, he agreed to loan the young man the money.

The young man paid off his debt to the drug lords and went to rehab as promised, but he soon left. The mayor invited the young man over for drinks at his house, encouraging him to stay clean. But before too long, he regressed. In less than six months, he had already racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and the drug dealers were harassing him daily.

The cycle repeated. He went to the mayor, begged for a loan and promised to stay clean. But when the consequences disappeared, so did his impulse to follow through. Still, the mayor kept loaning him money each time he asked, knowing full well that it wouldn’t be paid back.

Even in the middle of each cycle, the young man wondered why the mayor didn’t simply bust the dealers. It wouldn’t be hard, and it would solve the problem, wouldn’t it? Of course, he didn’t realize that his repeated return to drugs answered the question. The problem wasn’t the drugs; the problem was his addiction to them.

Each time, the cycle got worse. Greedy, the drug dealers began placing a bounty on the young man’s head every time he ran up a tab, knowing that it would make the money come faster and faster. Finally, after running up a particularly large debt, the dealers simply kidnapped the young man outright.

When the young man called the mayor to beg him for money once again, the mayor refused for the first time. “No, this has gone on long enough. This time I’m sending my son. He’ll take care of the dealers.”

The young man felt a surge of hope. The mayor’s son was head detective at the city police station and had personally busted many notorious dealers. The addict was certain that the son would come in guns blazing and rescue him, getting rid of the drug lords for good.

The dealers didn’t think it would happen. “He’s bluffing. No way he cares enough about you to send in the big guns.” They were certain it was all a bluff right up until the moment that they heard gunfire outside. Moments later, the doors flew open and the mayor’s son walked in.

Cowed, the dealers hung back. Surely they had bitten off more than they could deal with this time. They were in deep trouble now.

The mayor’s son pulled up a chair and sat down with the young man. “Listen. I’m here to put an end to this once and for all. You can’t keep going back over and over and over again; you’re just going to end up killing yourself. My father doesn’t care about the money you owe him. My men have this place surrounded; all you have to do is come with me.”

The young man was ecstatic. This was what he had been waiting for! Finally, these thugs were going to get what was coming to them. It was all about to be over.

The mayor’s son continued. “My father’s house has a lot of room; we want you to come back with me and live there. We’ll get you cleaned up, we’ll help you through withdrawals. You’ll be safe, and you’ll never have to look at or see drugs ever again.”

The addict’s face began to change. Getting out of his mess? Great news. Seeing the drug dealers get busted? Awesome. But the rest of it….he wasn’t so sure.

The drug dealers noticed this. They also noticed that the mayor’s son wasn’t carrying a gun, wasn’t wearing a ballistic vest. He was just an ordinary man.

The son was still talking, but the addict wasn’t listening any more. He hadn’t had any drugs in a while and he was starting to feel shaky. Did he really want this? He wanted to escape his predicament, but getting clean for good….not so much. But if he didn’t get out now, they would kill him.

One of the dealers saw his chance. Grabbing the mayor’s son by the back of the neck, he threw him onto the ground and aimed a gun at his head. “Who’s the big detective now, huh? You’re not so tough without all your guys, are you?”

Another dealer grabbed the young man. Grinning, he pushed a gun into his hand. “It’s either him or you, boy. Somebody has got to die. Who will it be?”

The young man realized he was pointing a gun at the son. What was he doing? But something else rose up inside him….anger. The mayor and his son — they were so perfect, like they were so far above him, like there was something wrong with him. Who did they think they were, anyway? It was fine when the mayor was just bailing him out….but coming in and telling him that he had to get clean once and for all? He was seething.

“Do it,” whispered the dealer. “Do it, and your debt is gone. You’ll never owe us many again; we’ll give you all the drugs you want. We’ll even set you up to deal a little bit yourself. You’ll be one of us. Just pull the trigger.”

The son didn’t say anything. He waited to see what the young man would do.

The addict began to curse, railing angrily. “Who do you think you are? You think that just because you’re important you can come in here and tell me what to do, how to live my life. You’re not so great. Screw you! Screw you and your fancy house and your perfect life and everything else about you. You know what? It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want!”

The young man pulled the trigger again and again, watching the son’s body buck as the bullets tore through his chest. The slide locked open as the last round was ejected.

Blood was trickling out of the son’s mouth as he took one ragged breath. “I….forgive you.” Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped back.

Something snapped inside the young man’s head. What….why? Why would he say that? He was on the other side now. Didn’t this prove that he wanted nothing to do with the mayor or his son? But if he was really on the side of the drug dealers now, why would the son have forgiven him? And why did he feel so…wrong?

The dealers missed it completely. They laughed, taking the gun back and clapping the addict on the back racously. One of them kicked the son’s body into the corner and began dousing it in gasoline. “Let’s get out of here, man! Burn this place to the ground!”

The young man ran.

He didn’t know where he was running. He didn’t even realize that he was running until the cold night air hit him, rushing into his lungs like ice water. But he kept running, running as hard and as fast as he could. Anything to get away from that Man who had said, “I forgive you.”

He realized he was weeping as he ran, his lungs aching as sobs wracked his frame. Suddenly, he could run no more, and he fell to his knees as he continued to weep.

A pair of headlights appeared around a bend ahead of him. The car drove closer….then stopped. The driver door opened.

To the young man’s horror, he realized it was the mayor walking toward him. In the glare of the headlights, he realized his hands were red with blood. It must have splattered up from the son’s body, he realized.

“No, no — stay away from me!” The young man was terrified.

“I sent my son,” said the mayor. “Did you follow him?”

“Just leave me alone,” stammered the young man. “You don’t know what I did.”

The mayor looked down at the young man. He saw his son’s blood on the addict’s hands, the tears on his cheeks, heard the hoarse, ragged sound of his breath.

“Yes, I know what you did. And I forgive you too.”


Editors note: For more on atonement theory, I highly recommend Morgan Guyton’s post at Mercy, not Sacrifice, and Sarah Moon’s on “The Cross and Radical Activism.”


looking for monsters under my . . . theology


We paused, me, Martha*, and Peter*, the second we stepped out into the sunlight. It was one of those pristine, gorgeous spring days: the kind where brick and stone soak up all the sun, the air is clean and balmy, and you want to sit outside, lean back in an Adirondack chair, and close your eyes. We’d just walked out of a classroom discussion that could have only been had by literary majors– we’d just spent close to an hour dissecting “My mother is a fish” in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. None of us had anything pressing, so in a spontaneous decision that was clearly prompted by the spring breeze and an azure sky, we went for some coffee, then settled into the courtyard.

Many of our conversations lately had been of a theological bent: Peter was fascinated by the fact that both I and Martha had graduated from a college that had expressly forbidden any discussion of Calvinism or Reformed theology whatsoever. Martha had become Reformed, and I — well, I still haven’t decided. Peter, however, had grown up familiar with Reformed theology; it was his first language, and he was passionate about theology– and discussing it. He’d become a resource for me, someone who had enough of a handle on Calvinism to explain it to me, and someone who had the time to do so.

That afternoon, sitting in the dappled sunlight of a mostly-abandoned courtyard, I encountered something I didn’t know how to name, even though I recognized it– and it frightened me. Sitting at the vaguely Grecian concrete table underneath the swaying arms of a redbud tree, I listened to a man who was saying words I’d never heard before– but saying them in a way that was so familiar to me I trembled.

He laid out the full breadth of the hyper-Calvinist, neo-Reformed theological movement. In a sweeping scale he took me through much of the New Testament, pointing to verses and passages and using them to paint a landscape of God’s sovereignty in colors that were so vivid and garish it overwhelmed me. I continued asking questions, trying to understand, trying to think through what he was saying, to analyze it and contextualize it. But for every question I had, he had three triumphantly delivered answers.

Two hours later, I was weeping, and Peter was exulting. “Don’t you see?” He kept repeating. “You know the truth, but you’re denying it! You’re denying the plain word of Scripture. You’re denying God when you reject this truth.”


A few weeks later, I was at the Sonic drive-in with Martha, listening through my new Iron & Wine album, and we were talking about some of what Peter had said.

I made soft peaks out of my Oreo Blast with my spoon, pulling it up and twirling it until the peak curled over. “Do you agree with him?” I asked her, my voiced barely louder than the music.

It took her a minute to answer. “I . . . don’t know.”

“I can’t believe what he said is true, Martha, I can’t.”

She waited. Took a sip of her strawberry shake.

“That can’t be who God is. I can’t accept that kind of a god as real. It would break me. I’d never be able to love him.”

“Why not?” her voice was so gentle.

Broken and quiet, I showed her the smashed, glittering pieces of my story, the ones I was struggling to place into a mosaic I could understand. “If that’s who God is, then I’d want nothing to do with him at all. Because he’d be responsible for that. He’d be a monster.”


Today, I am still incredibly uncertain of where I am theologically. I appreciate a lot of the beauty I see in Reformed theology, and I choose to believe that people like Mark Driscoll and John Piper don’t really speak for it. I’m working through the tensions, enjoying a beautiful spectrum that I don’t really understand, struggling to piece together my faith one sliver at a time.

But something I’m coming to understand about my approach to faith and theology is that logic and reason don’t really matter to me — at least, not as much as they once did. Which, for me, is a shocking statement. I’m an analytical person. I examine, I reason, I think, I ponder. For much of my life (short as it is), my approach to faith has always been highly cerebral. I prioritized evidence, support, logic– I took “love the Lord your God with all your Mind” as my personal motto. I absorbed scholarship, I studied apologetics intensely, I searched for people like Lewis and Chesterton– thinking Christians.

Today, though, I’m in a different place.

I’m still the same person– nothing fundamental or radical has changed about me.

What has changed is that I found a monster under my bed, and in my closet, and hiding behind corners and in shadows. It’s the monster I created by believing that I could think my way through theology without any other guiding star. When I embraced the consuming desire for a cogent, structured, rational theological argument, I  abandoned ethics, morality, emotion, and humanity. Theology without heart, theology without a human awareness of hurt, pain, joy and beauty, isn’t theology at all. It’s a back-breaking tyrant.

On the first day of class, there was something I liked to tell my students: just because an argument is logical doesn’t make it right.


faith of a child

I’d been in South Carolina for five days when it happened.

My mom and her friend Sandy* had driven up from Florida to attend a ladies’ retreat, which had been entertaining, and then we attended a Revival that week at Sandy’s father’s church. That week, the evangelist preached several “salvation” messages (a message focused on delivering the gospel and an eventual call to the altar to pray the Sinner’s Prayer), leading up to Thursday night. That night, he read A Physicians’ View of the Crucifixion of Christ. It was bloodthirsty, and violent, and terrifying. I’d never heard anything like it.

Jesus did all of that . . . for me? I remember thinking, shocked and horrified at the brutalities he had suffered.


I was five years old the first time I encountered the idea of “Jesus coming into your heart.” I was in Sunday school, a few days before Halloween, and I remember the Sunday school teacher turning all of the lights off, and lighting a large pumpkin-scented candle. He described the ancient rites of the Druids, how they would travel from house to house, and the parents would surrender their children for the sacrifice. The druids would lay the little girl on a table, cut her skin off, and burn it over a candle lit in a pumpkin. He said they did this to bring the evil spirits into every home– it was part of the deal the Druids had negotiated to keep the demons away the rest of the year.

But, he said, that didn’t actually work. The only thing that can keep demons away is Jesus. Demons will never bother you if you ask Jesus into your heart to protect you.

I went home, silent. I stayed quiet all day. I didn’t know what to do. How did you ask Jesus to come into your heart? Did you just have to say it? Did you have to burn a candle? Was there a certain way you had to sit, or stand, or kneel?

Halloween came, and I was desperate, terrified. I lay in bed, positive that the shadows would come alive and devour me.

Jesus, please come into my heart. Please. I don’t want the demons to take me away. Please don’t let them get me. Jesus, please, I remember praying for hours that night.


I was seven the first time I saw a baptism. I connected the dots and realized that if you’d “prayed to ask Jesus to come into your heart,” then you were supposed to get baptized. I asked my mother, she said we’d talk to someone at church. The lady we talked to took me into another room, away from my mother, and asked me if I’d ever asked Jesus into my heart. I said yes.

She didn’t exactly believe me, if the inquisition that followed was any indication. I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Had I repented? Did I know what hell was? I was bewildered, and then frustrated. The end result was that I didn’t get baptized– until a year later, when I found out what the “answers” to those questions were.


So, in South Carolina, when I was eleven, I realized something. I had never really understood any of the answers. I knew how to say the words– I could list off the Roman’s Road with ease, but I’d had no idea what any of it meant. Jesus had died for me. Me. My sin. Mine alone.


I knew that what logically followed a revelation like that was “getting saved,” so I decided I’d go down for the altar call I knew was coming in about twenty minutes. Then I stopped- what if the Rapture happens before then? People who knew they were supposed to get saved before the Rapture happens will be given over to a “reprobate mind.” I couldn’t let that happen.

I led myself through the Roman’s Road, right there in the pew, and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer I knew by heart.


A dozen years later I was re-examining everything I ever thought I knew. What does it mean to be a Christian? What is this whole “getting saved” business? What’s Arminianism? What is Calvinism– actually, and not what I’d been told Calvinism was by Arminians. Wait– Molinism? That’s interesting.

Hold on, ignore all of that.

What does the Bible say the gospel is?

And, I realized, that, in the Bible, it’s fairly simple. You’re a sinner. God loves you. Jesus is God’s son. He was crucified, and here’s the kicker– he defeated death. He took your sin.

That’s it. It’s really not that complicated. I decided to forget all of the labels, and all of the methods, and all of the processes. I didn’t care any more if I had free will or was predestined, because it’s all the same in the end anyway– at least, when it comes to this. I didn’t care if I had a “lightbulb moment” that I could turn to in moments of “doubting my salvation.” I didn’t need it. I didn’t need a Sinner’s Prayer, or an altar call, or for someone to “declare” me a child of God. I just was. I just am. 

*all names changed

Photo by Nathaniel Hayag