Open theism arose in  evangelicalism over a decade ago when evangelicals posited a God to whom  one can easily relate and who is manageable in place of a God who punishes sinners for their sin. This they did by proposing a model of Christ’s atonement that was not substitutionary. To do so they adopted the model of the  16th-century Socinian heresy, which taught that God could forgive without the payment of a ransom. The biblical doctrine, however, is that Christ’s atonement was substitutionary, a teaching that was not immediately defined in the early church, but which Anselm stated clearly during the 16th century. Open theists on the other hand tend to vacillate between the inadequate positions of Abelard and Grotius in their views of the atonement. Because of their distorted views of the atonement, open theists do not belong in the ranks of evangelicalism.

More than a decade ago a controversial article in Christianity Today heralded the rise of open theism. The article, “Evangelical Megashift,” was written by Robert Brow, a prominent Canadian theologian. Brow described a radical change looming on the evangelical horizon—a “megashift” toward “new-model” thinking, away from classical theism (which Brow labeled “old-model” theology).[1] What the article outlined was the very movement that today is known as the “open” view of God, or “open theism.” Although Brow himself is a vocal advocate of open theism, his 1990 article neither championed nor condemned the megashift. In it, Brow sought merely to describe how the new theology was radically changing the evangelical concept of God by proposing new explanations for biblical concepts such as divine wrath, God’s righteousness, judgment, the atonement-and just about every aspect of evangelical theology.

The Quest for a Manageable Deity

Brow’s article portrayed new-model theology in benign terms. He saw the movement as an attempt to remodel some of the more difficult truths of Scripture by employing new, friendlier paradigms to explain God. “According to Brow, old-model theology casts God in a severe light. In old-model evangelicalism, God is a stem magistrate whose judgment is a harsh and inflexible legal verdict; sin is an offense against His divine law; God’s wrath is the anger of an indignant sovereign; hell is a relentless retribution for sin; and atonement may be purchased only if payment in full is made for sin’s judicial penalty. In new-model theology, however, the God-as-magistrate model is set aside in favor of a more congenial model-that of God as a loving Father.

New-model thinkers want to eliminate the negative connotations associated with difficult biblical truths such as divine wrath and God’s righteous retribution against sin. So they simply redefine those concepts by employing models that evoke “the warmth of a family relationship.”[2] For example, they suggest that divine wrath is really nothing more than a sort of fatherly displeasure that inevitably provokes God to give us loving encouragements. God is a “judge” only in the sense of the OT judges (“such as Deborah or Gideon or Samuel”[3])—meaning He is a defender of His people rather than an authority who sits in, judgment over them.

Sin is merely “bad behavior” that ruptures fellowship with God-and its remedy is always correction, never retribution. Even hell is not really a punishment; it is the ultimate expression of the sinner’s freedom, because according to new-model thought, “assignment to hell is not by judicial sentence”[4]—so if anyone goes there, it is purely by choice. Gone are all vestiges of divine severity. God has been toned down and tamed. According to new-model theology, God is not to be thought of as righteously indignant over His creatures’ disobedience. In fact, Brow’s article was subtitled “Why you may not have heard about wrath, sin, and hell recently.” He characterized the God of new-model theology as a kinder, gentler, more user-friendly deity.

Indeed, one of the main goals of the open-theism megashift seems to be to eliminate the fear of the Lord completely. According to Brow, “No one would deny that it is easier to relate to a God perceived as kindly and loving.”[5] Of course, the God of old-model theology is also unceasingly gracious, merciful, and loving (a fact one would not be able to glean from the gross caricature new-model advocates like to paint when they describe “old-model orthodoxy”). But old-model theologians-with Scripture on their side-teach that there is more to the divine character than beneficence. God is also holy, righteous, and angry with the wicked every day (Psalm 7:1 1). He is fierce in His indignation against sin (cf. Ps 78:49; Isa 13:9-13; Zeph 3:8).

Fear of Him is the very essence of true wisdom (Job 28:28;’Ps II 1: 10; Prov 1:7; 9: 10; 15:33). And “the terror of the Lord” is even a motive for our evangelism (2 Cor 5:1 1). “Our God is a ‘consuming fire”[6] (Heb 12:29; cf. Dent 4:24), and “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”,(Heb 10:31). Nonetheless, open theists are. determined to eliminate or explain away every feature of the divine character except those that are instantly “perceived as kindly and loving.” They want nothing to do with a God who demands to be feared. Their theology aims to construct a manageable-deity, a god who is “easier to relate to”—a quasi-divine being who has been divested of all the features of divine glory and majesty that might provoke any fear or dread in the creature. Instead, they have made Him into a kindly, non-threatening, heavenly valet.

Redefining the Atonement

Above all, the new-model god never demands any payment for sin as a condition of forgiveness. According to the new-model view, if Christ suffered for our sins, it was only in the sense that he “absorb[ed] our sin and its consequences”—certainly not that He received any divinely-inflicted punishment on our behalf at the cross. He merely became a partaker with us in the human problem of pain and suffering. (After all, earthly “pain and suffering” are just about the worst consequences of sin new-model theologians can imagine.) The most disturbing line in Robert Brow’s article is an almost incidental, throwaway remark near the end, in which he states that according to new-model theology, “the cross was not a judicial payment,” but merely a visible, space-time expression of how Christ has always suffered because of our sin.[7]

In other words, according to new-model theology, the atoning work of Christ was not truly substitutionary; He made no ransom-payment for sin; no guilt was imputed to Him; nor did God punish Him as a substitute for sinners. None of His sufferings on the cross were administered by God. Instead, according to the new model, atonement means that our sins are simply “forgiven” out of the bounty of God’s loving tolerance; our relationship with God is normalized; and Christ “absorbed the consequences” of our forgiveness (which presumably means He suffered the indignity and shame that go with enduring an offense). So what does the cross mean according to new model theologians?

Many of them say Christ’s death was nothing more than a public display of the awful consequences of sin-so that rather than offering His blood to satisfy God’s justice, Christ was merely demonstrating sin’s effects in order to fulfill a public perception of justice.[8] Other new-model theologians go even further, virtually denying the need for any kind of ransom for sin altogether.[9] Indeed, the entire concept of a payment to expiate sin’s guilt is nonsense if the open theists are right.[10] Thus new-model theologians have rather drastically remodeled the doctrine of Christ’s atonement, and in the process they have fashioned a system that is in no sense truly evangelical-but is rather a repudiation of core evangelical distinctives.

It is surely no overstatement to say that their emasculated doctrine of the atonement obliterates the true meaning of the cross. According to open theism, the cross is merely a demonstrative proof of Christ’s “willingness to suffer”-and in this watered-down view of the atonement, He suffers alongside the sinner, rather than in the sinner’s stead. It is my conviction that this error is the bitter root of a corrupt tree that can never bear good fruit (cf. Matt 7:18-20; Luke 6:43). Church history is rife with examples of those who rejected the vicarious nature of Christ’s atonement and thereby made shipwreck of the faith. In fact, the “new-model” innovations described in Robert Brow’s 1990 article—and the distinctive principles of open theism, including the open theist’s view of the atonement—are by no means a “new model.”

They all smack of Socinianism, a heresy that flourished in the 16th century. Like modern open theism, 16th-century Socinianism was an attempt to rid the divine attributes of all that seemed harsh or severe. According to Socinianism, love is God’s governing attribute; His love essentially overwhelms and annuls His displeasure against sin; His goodness makes void His wrath. Therefore, the Socinians contended, God is perfectly free to forgive sin without demanding a payment of any kind. Moreover, the Socinians argued, the idea that God would demand a payment for sins is contradictory to the very notion of forgiveness. They claimed that sins could be either remitted or paid for, but not both. If a price must be paid, then sins are not truly “forgiven.”

And if God is really willing to pardon sin, then no ransom-price should be necessary. Moreover, according to the Socinian argument, if a price is demanded, then grace is no more gracious than any legal transaction, like the payment of a traffic ticket. That argument may seem subtly appealing to the human mind at first. But biblically it falls far short. In fact it is completely contrary to what Scripture teaches about grace, atonement, and divine justice. It hinges on definitions of those terms that ignore what Scripture clearly teaches. Grace is not incompatible with the payment of a ransom. It was purely by grace that God Himself (in the Person of Christ) made the payment we owed.

In fact, according to I John 4:9-10, this is the consummate expression of divine grace and love: that God willingly sent His Son to bear a world of guilt and die for sin in order to propitiate His righteous indignation, fully satisfy His justice, and thereby redeem sinners: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (emphasis added). Christ came to be “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). That language is a plain reference to the OT sacrificial system, deliberately evoking the concept of expiation, which in the Jewish sacrificial system involved the payment of a blood-price, a penalty for sin.

Furthermore, anyone who studies what Scripture has to say about the forgiveness of sin will see very quickly that the shedding of Christ’s blood is the only ground on which sins may ever be forgiven. There can be no forgiveness unless the ransom-price is paid in blood. Remember, that is the very thing both Socinians and open theists deny. They say forgiveness is incompatible with the payment of a penalty-sins that must be paid for have not truly been remitted. But Heb 9:22 clearly refutes their claim: “Without shedding of blood [there) is no remission.” Scripture expressly teaches this. Christ died in our place and in our stead. He “was once offered to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:28). He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Pet 2:24). And as he hung there on the cross, he suffered the full wrath of God on our behalf.

“Surely he hath home our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isa 53:4-5). “‘Me Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). These are principles established in the OT sacrificial system, not concepts borrowed from Greek and Roman legal paradigms, as open theists are so fond of claiming. It was God who decreed and orchestrated the events of the crucifixion. Acts 2:23 says Christ was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” God’s hand and His counsel determined every facet of Christ’s suffering (Acts 4:28).

According to Isa 5 3: 1 0, “it pleased the Lord to crush him; he hath put him to grief.” That same verse says the LORD made His Servant “an offering for sin.” In other words, God punished Christ for sin on the cross and thereby made Him a sin offering. All the wrath and vengeance of the offended Almighty was poured on Him, and He became the sacrificial Lamb who bore His people’s sin. This is the whole gist of the book of Hebrews as well. “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Verse 10 says “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Verse 12 says His death was “one sacrifice for sins for ever.”

Very clearly those verses are teaching that Christ was sacrificed as a blood atonement to meet the demands of God’s righteousness. No wonder many find that a shocking truth. It is shocking. And it is profound. It ought to put us on our faces before God. Any “new model” that diminishes or denies the truth of Christ’s vicarious suffering at God’s own hand is a seriously flawed “model.” What do you think of when you ponder Christ’s death on the cross? Open theism reasserts the old liberal lie that He was basically a martyr, a victim of humanity—put to death at the hands of evil men. But Scripture says He is the lamb of God, a Victim of divine wrath. What made Christ’s miseries on the cross so difficult for Him to bear was not the taunting and torture and abuse of evil men. It was that He bore the full weight of divine fury against sin.

Jesus’ most painful sufferings were not merely those inflicted by the whips and nails and thorns. But by far the most excruciating agony Christ bore was the full penalty of sin on our behalf-God’s wrath poured out on Him in infinite measure. Remember that when He finally cried out in distress, it was because of the afflictions He received from God’s own hand: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). We cannot even begin to know what He suffered. It is a horrible reality to ponder. But we dare not follow open theism in rejecting the notion that He bore His Father’s punishment for our sins, for in this truth lies the very nerve of genuine Christianity. It is the major reason the cross is such an offense (cf. 1 Cor 1:18).

Scripture says, “[God] hath made [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:2 1). Our sins were imputed to Christ, and he bore the awful price as our substitute. Conversely, His righteousness is imputed to all who believe, and they stand before God fully justified, clothed in the pure white garment of His perfect righteousness. In other words, this is the meaning of what happened at the cross for every believer: God treated Christ as if he had lived our wretched, sinful life, so that He could treat us as if we had lived Christ’s spotless, perfect life. Deny the vicarious nature of the atonement-deny that our guilt was transferred to Christ and He bore its penalty-and you in effect have denied the ground of our justification.

If our guilt was not transferred to Christ and paid for on the cross, how can His righteousness be imputed to us for our justification? Every deficient view of the atonement must deal with this same dilemma. And unfortunately, those who misconstrue the meaning of the atonement invariably end up proclaiming a different gospel, devoid of the principle of justification by faith. (Online source)

John MacArthur

End Notes:

[1] Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift” Christianity Today (19 Feb 1990):12-14.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] lbid, 14.

[6] Scripture quotations here and throughout the essay are from the King James Version of the Bible.

[7] Brow, “Evangelical Megashift” 14. For a reply to the erroneous suggestion that God “suffers” at the hands of His creatures, see the chapter by Phil Johnson that will appear in Taming the Lion: The Openness of God and the Failure of Imagination.

[8] This is a version of Grotius’s governmental atonement theory discussed later in this chapter. See also Appendix I (“How Are We to Understand the Atonement?”) in John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998) 197-203, for a more thorough critique of Grotius’s view of the atonement.

[9] John Sanders, a leading proponent of open theism, begins his discussion of the cross by writing, “I understand sin to primarily be alienation, or a broken relationship, rather than a state of being or guilt” (The God Who Risks [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998] 105) With such a definition of sin, what need is there of any propitiation? Indeed, Sanders goes on to characterize the cross as a public display of God’s willingness to “suffer the pain, foregoing revenge, in order to pursue the reconciliation of the broken relationships In other words, the “cost of forgiveness” in Sanders’s system is a sacrifice God makes pertaining to His personal honor and dignity, rather than a price He demands in accord with His perfect righteousness. So Sanders believes God ultimately relinquishes the rightful claims of His justice and holiness rather than satisfying them through the atoning blood of Christ. That is the typical view of open theism toward the atonement.

[10] Open theist David Basinger suggests that the believer’s own free-will choice-rather than Christ’s atonement-is what “bridges” the “initial separation … between God and humans” (Clark Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994] 173-75). Basinger moreover describes the gap “between God and humans” without a reference to sin whatsoever; it is merely “an initial inability for God and humans to interact to the extent possible” [ibid.]. He depicts the gospel as “‘good news’—the joy and excitement of being properly related to God” [ibid.]. Utterly missing from his discussion of open theism’s evangelistic ramifications is any reference to the cross of Christ or the meaning of atonement. No wonder-for if Basinger and other open theists are right, the cross is really superfluous as far as divine forgiveness is concerned. The crucifixion of Christ becomes little more than a melodramatic display of sentiment, not a ransom for anything.

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