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Are officebearers in the Christian Reformed Church required to teach only penal substitutionary atonement theory, or may they explain other atonement theories?

The Christian belief that Jesus satisfied God’s wrath against our sin at the cross is commonly called penal substitutionary atonement. But that is not the only theory of atonement or the only theology of the cross. Other theories have been taught throughout the history of Christianity that emphasize the victory of Christ, or his moral influence, or themes of ransom, liberation, and reconciliation.

Penal substitutionary atonement emphasizes the wrath of God regarding our sin and Jesus’ substituting for us in taking the punishment for our sin. That theory of the atonement is clearly taught in the Reformed confessions. 

Out of concern that other theories are being taught in CRC churches instead of PSA, Classis Illiana asked Synod 2022 to declare the denial of penal substitutionary atonement to be a heresy and to consider those who deny it worthy of discipline. Synod 2022 also received a helpful report, commissioned by Synod 2019 after it declared Kinism to be a heresy, addressing the proper and ongoing definition and application of the word “heresy.”

After considering all this, Synod 2022 did not declare the denial of PSA to be a heresy but did declare that “it is a serious deviation from the teachings of the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church” and that “any officebearer who explicitly denies penal substitutionary atonement is worthy of special discipline.” The focus of synod was on the denial of PSA, not the other theories of atonement.

So it’s fine to teach other views of the atonement—in fact, this is typically part of Reformed Christian education at the high school, college, and seminary levels. We ought to be well informed about these traditions and various ways of understanding the cross and its meaning. But given Synod 2022’s decision, an officebearer who denies PSA would then be worthy of discipline. Such discipline is always administered through the discernment of the church council to which that officebearer belongs.


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