Check out the new Convergence Church Network! 

Visit and join the mailing list.

All Articles

Pierced for our Transgressions:

Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution




Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach

(Nottingham, England: IVP, 2007, 373pp.)


Part Two

In Part Two of their book, the authors of Pierced go to remarkable lengths to respond to every major objection to PSA that they have encountered.

Chapter Seven is devoted to “Penal Substitution and the Bible,” in which they respond to such objections as: PSA is not the only model of atonement (of course, no one ever said it was), PSA diminishes the significance of Jesus’ life and resurrection (to which they respond by pointing out that “the great majority of Reformed theologians have always insisted that Christ’s entire life on earth was part of his atoning work), PSA is not taught in the Bible (but see Part One of this work), and PSA is not important enough to be a source of division (whereas this is certainly true of some doctrines, it is not the case with PSA which the authors contend “lies at the heart of the gospel”).

The eighth chapter takes up the issue of PSA and culture. Some critics of PSA have argued that the doctrine is a product of human culture, not biblical exegesis. Certainly it is the case that our cultures affect how we read the biblical text, but “the key question . . . is not whether ideas found in penal substitution are also present within contemporary culture, but whether they are found in Scripture” (220). In other words, “the correspondence or lack of it between a given doctrine and human cultural ideas is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether that doctrine is biblical. What counts is whether it is taught in Scripture” (221).

Another objection is that PSA is unable to address the real needs of human culture and the desires of the human heart. The simple fact is that PSA will not gain acceptance in large parts of the modern world because it fails to address our perceived needs or cannot be understood by those in different cultural settings. It is true, of course, that PSA may be less readily grasped in certain cultures where its foundational ideas are absent. “However, this does not make it ‘unintelligible’; it just means that the task of explanation may be more difficult” (222). Or again, “the lack of common ground with other people does not require that we abandon distinctive ideas; only that we work harder to explain them” (223).

The authors of Pierced proceed to point out that “there is a deeper problem here. The Bible offers a disturbing explanation for why people of every culture find it hard to understand aspects of the gospel, or may even find it repulsive. While they know in their hearts that there is a God and that they should acknowledge him, they ‘suppress the truth’ with the result that ‘their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened’ (Rom. 1:18,21; cf. Eph. 4:17-18)” (223).

The authors take up the controversial theme of violence in chapter nine and in particular the objection that PSA is tantamount to “cosmic child abuse”. This sort of inflammatory rhetoric needs to be defused. PSA differs in two fundamental ways from child abuse. “First, according to the doctrine of penal substitution, Jesus willingly went to his death, in the full knowledge of what would be entailed. . . . By contrast, child abuse involves inflicting pain upon an unwilling victim, or exploiting a person who is unable to understand fully what is happening” (230). Second, according to PSA, “Jesus died to bring glory to himself . . . and to save his people . . . as well as to glorify his Father. By contrast, child abuse is carried out solely for the gratification of the abuser” (230).

Much more is said in response to this scurrilous accusation, such as the explicit testimony of Isaiah 53:10 that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” One should also consider the role of the Father in the Son’s death as stated in Acts 2:23; 3:18; and 4:27-28. “In short, there is simply no way of avoiding the Bible’s clear, repeated and unambiguous teaching that God was in control of Jesus’ death, just as it presents him as sovereign over every other event in the entire universe. God did not merely foresee Jesus’ death; much less was he a passive bystander. The fact that penal substitution affirms this constitutes an argument in favour of this understanding of the atonement, not an argument against it” (232).

Related to this is the objection that the notion of “redemptive violence” is a myth; in other words, violence doesn’t work. It only compounds the problem. But Jesus was fully aware that a violent death awaited him in Jerusalem and set himself to pursue that course (Mark 10:33-34). If the critics of PSA are right, “then Jesus made a terrible mistake” (238). Let’s also not forget that the entire OT sacrificial system was violent, yet had profound redemptive benefits. Finally, the violence entailed in Jesus’ death differs greatly from how we see it manifest in other settings. Jesus died voluntarily (John 10:17), as a selfless act motivated by love for the glory of his Father and the salvation of those for whom he suffered. And Jesus’ death, unlike other expressions of violence, was in fulfillment of justice, not a violation of it.

Another oft-heard objection to PSA is that it is inconsistent with principles of justice, for how can an innocent man be punished for the guilt of others. Guilt, say the critics, cannot be transferred. Needless to say, the biblical authors disagree! We must remember that PSA “does not propose a transfer of guilt between unrelated persons. It asserts that guilt is transferred to Christ from those who are united to him” (243). In other words, “union with Christ explains how the innocent could be justly punished – he is judged for others’ sins, which, by virtue of their union with him, become his. Conversely, it explains also how the guilty can be justly acquitted – believers are one with the innocent Lord Jesus Christ, and so his life of perfect righteousness is rightly imputed to us” (244).

A related objection is that PSA implicitly denies that God forgives sin, for if Christ suffers for our transgressions there is nothing left for God to forgive. But this fails to see that the reason why PSA does not deny that God forgives sin is precisely “because it is God himself, in the person of his Son, who pays the debt we owe” (264). It is true that in the relationship between human beings “receiving payment and offering forgiveness are mutually exclusive” (264). But the same does not obtain in God’s relationship with his creatures. God did “what no human creditor could do, even in principle: he received payment by giving himself in the person of his Son to take our human nature and suffer the punishment we deserve. In this way he himself repaid the debt of all who are in Christ, paving the way for us to receive his forgiveness” (265).

Should it be objected that PSA doesn’t work because Christ didn’t suffer the equivalent that was due us (i.e., how could an infinite punishment be borne in a finite time?), “the answer is that just as the heinousness of a sin is determined in part by the dignity of the person sinned against, so also the severity of a punishment is determined in part by the dignity of the one punished” (267). And “thus Christ’s suffering, though it lasted only a finite time, was infinite in value because he is infinitely worthy” (267).

Yet another objection to PSA is that it would necessarily entail universal salvation, for how can Christ suffer for the sins of a person and that person still suffer for the same sins in hell? In other words, if Christ died as a penal substitute for all, all grounds for condemnation have been removed. All, therefore, must of necessity be saved.

John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872) recognized this problem and addressed it in his book, The Nature of the Atonement (1856). Campbell rejected PSA because he believed it necessarily entailed one of two conclusions, neither of which he found acceptable. If Christ died as a penal substitute, propitiating the wrath of the Father, then either we must restrict his death to the elect or we must embrace universalism. Campbell said this concerning John Owen’s defense of limited atonement in the Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“As addressed to those who agreed with him as to the nature of the atonement, while differing with him as to the extent of its reference, this seems unanswerable” (1873, 4th ed., 51).

Of course, I think Campbell is correct. If one embraces PSA, either one must embrace particular redemption or universal salvation. The authors of Pierced also recognize this and provide a brief defense of the view that Christ died as a substitutionary sacrifice for the elect only (see pp. 268-78).

A frequently heard protest against PSA is that it is in danger of severing the Godhead, pitting one member of the Trinity against another. But as the authors of Pierced point out: “It is a bizarre objection, for there is nothing wrong in principle with saying that one person of the Trinity does something ‘to’ another” (281). The Father “sends” the Son, “loves” the Son, “glorifies” the Son, etc. Why is it so difficult to envision a scenario in which by voluntary agreement the Father “punishes” the Son in the place of those for whom he dies?

Furthermore, “the fact that the Father exacts a punishment borne by the Son does not mean the members of the Trinity are divided or act independently. Rather, they are inseparably engaged in two aspects of the same action. Their involvement is asymmetrical, but this is entirely apposite to the asymmetry inherent in their relationship” (285).

In the final two chapters this book responds to objections relating to the Christian life, most of which are so ridiculous that they hardly warrant mentioning. For example, some critics insist that PSA fails to address issues of political and social sin as well as cosmic evil. The authors of Pierced are perceptive in pointing out that this objection is often fueled “by frustration at the failure of conservative evangelicals to engage with issues in the social and political sphere. It is by no means clear, however, that this is the result of a belief in penal substitution” (309).

To suggest that PSA fails to address so-called “structural” or “systemic” evil (whether it be political, economic, ethnic) is silly. There’s no other word for it. For we must recognize that “blame for all sin rests ultimately with sinful people, and not with the impersonal ‘structures’ of which they are a part” (310). In other words, the only reason there is such a thing as structural or systemic evil is because evil, sinful people have corrupted institutions and infused systems of government and education and the like with immorality, injustice, selfish ambition, and a thirst for power. PSA is, in fact, the only theory of the atonement that adequately addresses the problem of human sin which is the source and culprit for all forms of evil.

Of course, “complex social structures may sometimes behave as if they had a life of their own, even to the extent that we may be unable to distinguish the contributions of individual members. But ultimately no social or ethnic group, no company, no government has an existence apart from the people who comprise it” (311).

And lest anyone suggest that PSA fails to address the ecological concerns of a decaying cosmos, let’s not forget that the apostle Paul clearly relates the release of creation from its corruption to the final redemption from sin in the experience of God’s people (read carefully Romans 8:19ff.). PSA thus deals with so-called “structural sin” inasmuch as “the roots of this lie in human hearts. . . . Penal substitution also holds the key to the redemption of the whole created order, for as God’s people are liberated from his curse, so the curse on creation will ultimately be lifted” (313).

One more objection relating to the Christian life is the bizarre suggestion that PSA causes people to live in constant fear of God. Of course, on the one hand, the body of Christ could do with a little (a lot?) healthy reverential fear of God. And, as the authors of Pierced so perceptibly point out, “a lingering fear of God may actually arise from a neglect of penal substitution” (320). When people read Scripture and repeatedly encounter the reality of divine wrath, only then to find PSA ignored in our pulpits, “is it any wonder they are left with a troubled conscience? For if God’s holy wrath was not endured by Christ in our place, it remains upon us” (320), and that, dear friend, is certainly good grounds for fear.

The authors conclude their work with some helpful advice for preachers. They warn against the use of inadequate and misleading analogies and illustrations of PSA. The well-known courtroom story of a judge stepping out from behind the bench to assume the place and endure the penalty of the defendant who has just been convicted is a case in point. Even worse is the story of the railroad switchman who is compelled to make a choice between the people on the train and his young son who has accidentally wandered onto the track. If he throws the switch, his son will live, but the people will die as the train crashes into the freight cars located on the other side. It’s a moving story, but no less distorting of the truth of PSA. I leave it for the reader to figure out why, or simply read Pierced and let them provide instruction on the inadequacies of such illustrations.

No book is without its faults, but I struggled to identify any major ones. My only complaints, and they are minor, are these. First, there are so many other representative theologians from the history of the church who could have been cited as advocates of PSA that I wondered what were their criteria for selection or exclusion. But this ultimately boils down to personal preferences and is not a fatal flaw. Second, more could have been developed from the book of Revelation. Although their biblical survey was good, the portrait in Revelation of both divine wrath and the redemptive work of the Son provides even more support for PSA.

Finally, there is an absence of extensive interaction with rival theories of the atonement. One of the primary objections to PSA I often hear is the failure of its proponents to incorporate the elements of cosmic victory over the powers of darkness (as, for example, in the work of Gustaf Aulen); the concept of recapitulation (as articulated by Irenaeus), the subjective moral influence of Christ’s death (as found in Peter Abelard and certain liberal theologians of the 19th and early 20th centuries), as well as the governmental theory (defended, among others, by Hugo Grotius).

The authors of Pierced did make an occasional reference to these other models of atonement, but it would have helped had they demonstrated in detail how each of them makes sense and accomplishes something of a positive and redemptive nature only because of the foundational and more fundamental work of Christ in dealing with human sin and guilt by propitiating the wrath of the Father.

Those minor caveats aside, this is a superb book that should be given full and serious attention by all students of Scripture. I cannot recommend it too highly.