Bad Doctrine in the Hands of an Angry Minister: A Review of Brian Zahnd's "Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God"

Brian Zahnd has a bone to pick. By the title of his upcoming book, slated to release on August 15, you might think his bone is with puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards. The title of the book is Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God, a play on words against Edwards' sermon Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God, perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil. But Zahnd's bone isn't with Edwards. It's with the Bible.

Zahnd hates the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. He has made no secret of this. I believe that if he and I were sitting next to one another, he would go, "Yup, I hate it." He agrees that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but he has a rather vague way of explaining that. Zahnd says, "We violently sinned our sins into Jesus." Okay, what does that mean? Where is that in the Bible?

The Bible says Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt for our sins onto His Son, and He bore the punishment that we deserve in our place. By His sacrifice, God's wrath burning against unrighteousness is appeased. All who believe on the name of Christ are covered by His blood, and they have peace with God. The theological term for this is penal substitutionary atonement.

The Bible says, "He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned -- every one -- to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:5-6). Notice there that God put our sin on Jesus.

The Apostle Paul says the same in 2 Corinthians 5:21, stating that for our sake, God made Him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. God did that. To the Romans he wrote, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith" (Romans 3:23-25). Again, God put Him forward to be a propitiation by His blood.

Propitiation specifically means that God's anger has been turned away by the ransom that Christ paid for us. R.C. Sproul explains, "Propitiation brings about a change in God's attitude, so that He moves from being at enmity with us to being for us. Through the process of propitiation, we are restored into fellowship and favor with Him."

John wrote, "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 John 4:10). The doctrine of the atonement is a beautiful word of God that brings forth praise in the heart of every Christian who looks upon the cross and sees the love of the Father displayed in His Son Jesus Christ who laid down His own life and shed His blood for our sins.

Brian Zahnd doesn't think so. He's quite sour over it, preaching that it makes God out to be a monster. Consider the implications of that -- If the doctrine of the atonement is biblical, Zahnd says God is a monster. How can Zahnd worship God if he thinks Him monstrous? Is he willing to hinge his own salvation on this issue?

Now, I've only read the first chapter since that's what his publisher has made available online ahead of the book's release. Lest anyone think I'm being unfair limiting my judgment to one chapter, the chapters in the table of contents happen to be titles of articles Zahnd has written on his blog: Jesus Is What God Has to Say, Who Killed Jesus?, Closing the Book on Vengeance, etc. I doubt the rest of the book says anything I haven't read or heard him say somewhere else.

From Jonathan Edwards to George MacDonald

Apparently Zahnd used to be quite the fundamentalist and his inspiration was Jonathan Edwards. He even made his own handwritten copy of Edwards' sermon Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God. That's dedication. But then turning to criticize the sermon, Zahnd is on his way to calling God a sadistic juvenile by page three, and a merciless torturer and keeper of an eternal Auschwitz by page five.

Now a far cry from Edwards, Zahnd's opinions on divine punishment are heavily influenced by the late George MacDonald, of whom Zahnd gives glowing praise. MacDonald likewise hated the doctrine of the atonement and taught that Jesus atoned for sins simply by defeating evil (known as the Christus Victor theory). He also believed that hell was not a place God sends people to, but a fire he uses to purify the heart of a hardened sinner just as a doctor uses fire to cauterize an infectious wound.

Zahnd quotes MacDonald's repudiation of Edwards believing that the Puritan's teaching was not Christ-like: "From all copies of Jonathan Edwards' portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is he concerning whom was the message John heard from Jesus, that he is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

According to Zahnd, God can't be a God who destroys sinners because that's too dark and God is light. He craftily pieces together fragments from Jeremiah, Paul, John, David, Hosea, Solomon, Job, and Hebrews. He insists, "The Old Testament is a journey of discovery," and "The Old Testament gives us many (and often contradictory) options." In between he says, "The Bible itself is on the quest to discover the Word of God."

Ah, and there's the fault in Zahnd's doctrine. The Bible is not on a quest to discover the word of God -- the Bible is the word of God. All Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16). The God on the right side of the book is the same God as the one on the left side of the book. Jesus Christ is the God of Leviticus. He is the God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and destroyed those in the wilderness who did not believe (Jude 1:5). He was not idly standing by while He watched His angry dad reign down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah but was active in that judgment (Genesis 19:24).

How does Zahnd deal with such stories and passages? The same way MacDonald did concerning hell. Whenever we read about God's "wrath" in the Bible, Zahnd says it's simply a metaphor. Citing Psalm 7:11-13, Zahnd says God doesn't actually abhor sinners. Rather, sinners destroy themselves by their own sin and the Bible calls this the wrath of God.

The truest picture of God we have in the Bible, believes Zahnd, is seen in the parable of the prodigal son. "This is the portrait that preachers and theologians and artists should work from," he says. By that one quote it should be apparent how Zahnd attempts to paint the version of God he likes best. When you approach the Bible as a quest or a metaphor, then you can start with any allegory in the middle and work out from there.

I'd like to note that the story of the prodigal son is not actually called the story of the prodigal son. That's the name most popularly attributed to the parable, but it would be more accurate to call it the parable of the older brother. Why? Because that's who Jesus is addressing. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus "receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2). So Jesus told them three parables: one about a shepherd who rejoices when he finds his one lost sheep, one about a woman who rejoices when she finds her one lost coin, and one about a father who rejoices when he receives his one lost son.

All three parables illustrate that all of heaven rejoices when even one lost sinner repents (verses 7 and 10). But the parable of the prodigal son contains an element the other two stories don't have, and that's the older brother. When Jesus gets to the third parable, he hammers his point home to the audience he was addressing -- the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling. They're like the older brother who doesn't rejoice over the repentance of sinners, but rather believes he deserves a party because he kept all the father's rules.

In a sermon on this parable entitled Beware the Elder Brother, Voddie Baucham preached that the older brother here is saying, "I don't care that the death of Christ on the cross made the redemption of my brother possible. I just care that you don't think enough of me keeping the rules. What's important here," according to the elder brother, "is not the Father's delight in a sinner who was ransomed by the Son and brought home by the Spirit. What matters here is that you make much of me." That's the point of the parable. It's to warn the elder brother, not to preach the gospel.

Much to Zahnd's chagrin, Benjamin Warfield has pointed out that the parable of the prodigal son does not contain the gospel. Jesus said, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10), yet there is no seeking on the part of the father in the story. But most importantly, Warfield says, the parable is not the gospel because there's no atonement for sin! Of little wonder why Zahnd likes it so much.

Warfield dealt with this same matter in his day. Certain false teachers were denying the atonement and trying to push the message of the gospel contained in the parable of the prodigal son. Warfield responded:
 "It is precisely because there is no atonement in this parable that it has been seized upon by the modern tendency to which we have alluded, as the norm of the only Christianity it will profess. For nothing is more characteristic of this new type of Christianity than that it knows and will know nothing of an atonement. The old Socinians were quick to perceive this feature of the parable, and to make use of it in their assault upon the doctrine of Christ's satisfaction for sin. See, they cried, the father in the parable asks no satisfaction before he will receive back his son: he rather sees him afar off and runs to meet him and gives him a free and royal welcome. The response is no doubt just that other Scriptures clearly teach the atonement of which no hint is given here; and that we have no right to expect that every passage in Scripture, and least of all these parables, which exist under necessary limitations in their power of setting forth the truth, shall contain the whole circle of Christian doctrine."
Bam. So again, nothing that Brian Zahnd has written in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is anything new. Warfield was combating these same criticisms a hundred years ago. It's just the same old heresies with a different book jacket on it.

In Conclusion

The doctrine of the atonement has taken some punches this year, but the word of the Lord stands forever. Michael Gungor went on a Twitter tirade in which he called the doctrine of the atonement "horrific." William Paul Young, who wrote the forward to Zahnd's book (and whose most recent book I reviewed a few months ago), calls the atonement a "lie."

In response, Owen Strachen wrote the following: "What truly horrifies sinful humanity is not, in the end, Scripture's stubborn reliance upon blood atonement. The problem is much deeper. What truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it. It is precisely this salvation our fallen hearts reject. It is exactly this forgiving God we defy and even dare to correct. We must take care here: to promote the cross without the atonement means we do not promote the cross at all."

I fear for Zahnd's soul when he calls God a monster for the atonement when the Bible clearly teaches the atonement. If Zahnd doesn't repent, he may soon discover that the wrath of God is not a metaphor, no matter how much he insists it is. If Zahnd does repent, he will finally see the grace, love, and mercy of God in the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ for sinful man -- as he has yet to see it.

EDIT: I continue to receive bitter e-mails about how I did not read the whole book before posting my review, despite the fact that I was fully transparent regarding my approach and awareness of the material. Since the book's release, a full read of "Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God" does not change my review one iota. It would only have been longer. For a more robust critique, consider Derek Rishmawy's review by clicking here.

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