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10 Things You should Know about Penal Substitution


Today we focus on 10 things that every Christian should know about the penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Continue reading . . . 

Today we focus on 10 things that every Christian should know about the penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

(1) A good working definition of penal substitution is provided by the authors of the book, Pierced for our Transgressions: “The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” (Pierced, 21). John Piper offers this explanation of its importance: “[I]f God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.” We have only one hope and it is “that the infinite wisdom of God might make a way for the love of God to satisfy the wrath of God so that I might become a son of God” (Piper, Foreword to Pierced for our Transgressions, 14).

(2) Contrary to some critics, penal substitution is found in the early church fathers and throughout the writings of theologians in church history.

I point to Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339), Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368), Athanasius (c. 300-373), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-390), Ambrose of Milan (339-397), John Chrysostom (c. 350-407), Augustine (354-430), Cyril of Alexandria (375-444), and Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), all of whom advocated penal substitution in one form or another. Other significant figures who understood the atonement in this way include Thomas Aquinas (cf. 1225-74), John Calvin (1509-64), Francis Turretin (1623-87), John Bunyan (1628-88), John Owen (1616-83), George Whitefield (1714-70), Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), as well as Billy Graham, John Stott, and J. I. Packer. These are only representative thinkers and represents a small fraction of those who have embraced the truth of penal substitution.

(3) Penal substitution is not the only model of atonement, but alone can account for the truth in all other theories.

There is a sense in which all of the many theories or models of the atonement are true. Satan was defeated and the imago Dei restored and the effects of Adam’s fall were reversed and God’s righteous rule was vindicated and an inspirational example of love and self-sacrifice was provided because Jesus, as an expression of the incomparable love of God for sinners (Romans 5:8), voluntarily suffered the penal consequences of the law of God, the just for the unjust, dying our death, bearing “our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). So long as the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus is retained as foundational and fundamental to what happened on Calvary, we should joyfully celebrate and give thanks for all else that it accomplished.

(4) Penal substitution is not equivalent to what some have described as “cosmic child abuse.” Penal substitution differs in at least two fundamental ways from child abuse. First, Jesus voluntarily and willingly went to his death knowing full well what was entailed by it (see Titus 2:14 where Jesus “gave himself for us”). Child abuse, on the other hand, involves inflicting pain upon an unwilling victim, or exploiting a person who is unable to understand fully what is happening. Second, Jesus died to glorify both himself and the Father as well as to save his people from their sins. Child abuse is carried out solely for the perverse gratification of the abuser.

(5) Critics of penal substitution object to its focus on “redemptive violence.” They insist that 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 are right, then Jesus made a colossal mistake. 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.

(6) Penal substitution, in which an innocent man is punished for the guilt of others, is perfectly consistent with the principles of justice. But guilt, say the critics, cannot be transferred. Needless to say, the biblical authors disagree! We must remember that penal substitution “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” (Pierced, 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).

(7) It is occasionally objected that penal substitution 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).

(8) Penal substitution maintains the unity of the Godhead in the redemption of the elect. Contrary to what critics suggest, there is nothing wrong in principle with saying that one person of the Trinity does something “to” another. 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?

(9) There are underlying reasons why penal substitution is being attacked in our day. One could point to: (a) the changing view of God, one that denies wrath as a personal attribute (wrath is not what God feels but simply the impersonal moral consequence that invariably follows upon evil choices); (b) dislike of the emphasis on individual salvation in which Christianity is viewed as primarily about me getting my sins forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die; this is tied up with a disdain for an escapist mentality that ignores earthly problems for a pie in the sky, bye-and-bye religion such that social justice is ignored; (c) the reaction against anything associated with or looking like the older fundamentalism; and finally (d) the growing emphasis on passivism as a broad approach to life, together with a reaction against anything remotely connected with violence.

(10) Among the numerous biblical texts that explicitly affirm penal substitution, I point to the following in particular: Exodus 12 and the Passover Lamb; Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, and the Scapegoat (where the Hebrew word kipper appears 16x and often refers to the propitiation of God’s wrath through the offering of a substitutionary animal sacrifice, cleansing the people from their sin); Isaiah 53; Mark 10:45; 15:33-34 (cf. Mt. 20:28); John 3:14-18; 3:36; 10:11,15; 11:47-52; Romans 3:21-26 (the noun hilasterion in Romans 3:25-26, and the verbal form hilaskomai mean, respectively, “propitiation” and “to propitiate”; the focus of this action is God himself and the manifestation of his wrath against sin); 5:8-10; 8:1-3; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Galatians 3:10-13; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 1:18-19 (language that recalls the Passover); 2:21-25; 3:18; Hebrews 2:17; 9:11-14; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; as well as the many biblical texts (both Old and New Testaments) that describe the wrath of God (consider the book of Revelation alone).


You say that the penal substitutionary view claims that "Jesus' death was just" whereas "the Bible makes it clear that Jesus' death was unjust." I'm afraid these statements are not very precise or enlightening--even in view of the rest of your comments. The problem may be that of equivocation. Someone affirming penal substitution could easily affirm that the death of Jesus was "unjust" in the sense that it was an unjust criminal act to offer up the sinless Son of God to be crucified. Pilate (and others) are guilty of this sin. But it also the case that the entire sequence of action of the crucifixion (including its planning in eternity past) is a just sequence for the Trinity to participate in.

The justice considered in Jesus' death is not the manner of it or his deserving of it. His death, rather, was God's foreordained method of satisfying his own divine justice; a justice which makes it absolutely right to declare completely righteous for all time everybody who confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes in his/her heart that God raised him from the dead. There is no problem if we separate man's injustice in how Jesus was killed and God's justice in acquitting us from sin.

One of the main problems I see with penal substitution is its claim that Jesus’ death was just, when the Bible makes it clear that Jesus’ death was unjust. In other words, penal substitution seems to say that Jesus’ death was like Herod’s death in Acts 12, whereas the Bible makes it clear that Jesus’ death is more like Stephen’s in Acts 7 (Luke makes numerous parallels between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s).

Just to cite a couple other examples, in Luke 23, the repentant thief on the cross says, “Though we are under the same sentence of condemnation, we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man (Jesus) has done nothing wrong (Luke 23:41).” Notice, the logic of the penitent thief’s statement is not “in my place condemned he stood,” but “we are under the same sentence of condemnation, for me it is just, and for Jesus it is unjust.” 1 Peter 2:18-25 is another decisive passage on this issue. Peter, commenting on Isaiah 53, makes it explicit that Jesus’ death is unjust and that it is the unjust suffering of the righteous that “finds grace with God.”

Major theologians throughout history saw the injustice of Jesus’ death as the means by which Jesus’ merits the just reversal of sin, death, and the curse. In other words, on the cross Jesus suffers all of sin’s destruction unjustly, so that divine justice would enact the reversal of this destruction in his resurrection. Augustine says:

"It is not then difficult to see that the devil was conquered, when he who was slain by Him rose again. It is something more, and more profound of comprehension, to see that the devil was conquered when he thought himself to have conquered, that is, when Christ was slain. For then that blood, since it was His who had no sin at all, was poured out for the remission of our sins; that, because the devil deservedly held those whom, as guilty of sin, he bound by the condition of death, he might deservedly loose them through Him, whom, as guilty of no sin, the punishment of death undeservedly affected. The strong man was conquered by this righteousness, and bound with this chain, that his vessels might be spoiled, which with himself and his angels had been vessels of wrath while with him, and might be turned into vessels of mercy." (Augustine. De Trinity. Chapter 15)

John Chrysostom agrees,

“It is as if Christ said, ‘Now shall a trial be held, and a judgment be pronounced. How and in what manner? He (the devil) smote the first man (Adam), because he found him guilty of sin; for it was through sin that death entered in. But he did not find any sin in Me; wherefore then did he fall on Me and give Me up to the power of death? . . . How is the world now judged in Me?’ It is as if it were said to the devil at a seat of judgment: ‘Thou didst smite them all, because thou didst find them guilty of sin; wherefore then didst thou smite Christ? Is it not evident that thou didst this wrongfully? Therefore the whole world shall become righteous through Him.’” (Chrysostom, John. Homily LXVII. Database online. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf114.iv.lxix.html)

Anselm of Canterbury says this aspect is part of the popular view of atonement in his day. It is justice that sets Jesus free from death, not justice that kills Jesus:

“That God, in order to set mankind free, was obliged to act against the devil by justice rather than mighty power. We reason that thus the devil, having killed Him in whom there was no guilt deserving death and who was God, would justly lose the power which he used to have over sinners.”( Anselm, Why God Became Man. Book 1, Chapter 7)

Thomas Aquinas affirms this as well:

“Christ's Passion delivered us from the devil, inasmuch as in Christ's Passion [the devil] exceeded the limit of power assigned him by God, by conspiring to bring about Christ's death, Who, being sinless, did not deserve to die. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. xiii, cap. xiv): "The devil was vanquished by Christ's justice: because, while discovering in Him nothing deserving of death, nevertheless he slew Him. And it is certainly just that the debtors whom he held captive should be set at liberty since they believed in Him whom the devil slew, though He was no debtor."

It is true that Jesus “became a curse for us (Gal 3:13)” but the point is that he suffers the curse unjustly, so that justice would enact the reversal of the curse through his resurrection.

Divine Justice is therefore satisfied in the resurrection as the reversal and reparation of all the sin that Jesus unjustly suffered on the cross. Jesus dies under the unjust judgment of Humans, and is raised by the just judgment of God. Jesus’ reward, or inheritance, of the covenantal blessings applies to the rest of Humanity if by the power of the Holy Spirit we die in Christ (through confession and remorse) and rise in Christ (through repentance). None of what I am saying denies the very real wrath of God and our salvation from it through the death of Christ, but the idea that Jesus justly died on the cross to “satisfy” of “exhaust” (rather than avert) the wrath of God is unbiblical, distracting, and leads to all sorts of disturbing territory.

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