Penal Substitution as a Valid Theory of Atonement

I am writing in response to posts about the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’ (hereafter referred to as, p.s.) on the anti-NUCU facebook group. For all the posts up to this one, please go here

I am aware of my limitations regarding theology (a number of you are far more well read than I), and so I would point you to a book by John Stott entitled, ‘The Cross of Christ’ (IVP). It is a book that addresses all of the issues raised thus far. However, not having the book at home, I can’t use it for this post. I have instead ripped off whole sections (some parts word for word) from a reference book called ‘Evangelical Dictionary of Theology’, edited by Walter Elwell, Baker Book House.

The following list comprises a summary of the arguments raised against p.s., and the reasons behind them. I will attempt to address each of them in turn. If I misrepresent any of the following arguments supplied by Andrew and Alex, please inform me.

(1) P.s. is “a recent phenomenon”, an orthodoxy that was never meant to be.

(2) P.s. contradicts the ‘revelation of God in Christ’. (i.e. it is not consistent with Biblical teaching). The following points comprise the working out of this statement.

(3) P.s. entails a conflict between the Godhead (in particular the Father and the Son). In a sense, the Son insists on mercy, and the Father insists on justice.

(4) P.s. implies a justice system, independent of God, that he “is subject to”.

(5) P.s. fails to account for the fact that “forgiveness is God’s nature”, and that “blood is not necessary to obtain forgiveness”. Further, the Old Testament (OT) understanding of sacrifice is not of substitution, but of identification and public repentance. And sacrifice was not necessary for forgiveness in the OT.

Alex and Andrew subsequently made some further points:

(6) Substitution is not a Pauline doctrine.

(7) Jesus never said that it is his death that saves us.

(8) Jesus could not take eternal punishment, as he was on the cross for a few hours, and indeed, did not suffer eternal punishment.

The crux of the matter is, is there only one valid atonement model (Section A)? And is penal substitution a valid Biblical atonement model (Section B)? These two questions are addressed in the two sections below. Section C addresses points (7) and (8).

In this section, I outline the Biblical basis for the atonement, and attempt to show the need for many different atonement models. This section addresses point (1) above.

Throughout the Bible, the central question is, “how can sinful man ever be accepted by a holy God”? The Bible takes sin seriously, it sees sin as a barrier separating man from God (Isaiah 59:2), a barrier that man was able to erect, but is quite unable to demolish. But the truth on which the Bible insists is that God has dealt with the problem. He has made the way whereby sinners may find pardon, God’s enemies may find peace. Salvation is never seen as a human achievement. In the OT sacrifice has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit it has of itself (cf. Hebrews 10:4) but because God has given it as the way (Leviticus 17:11). In the New Testament (NT), the cross plainly occupies the central place, and it is insisted upon, in season and out of season, that this is God’s way of binging salvation. There are many ways of bringing this out. The NT writers do not repeat a stereotyped story. Each wrote from his own perspective. But each shows that it is the death of Christ, and not any human achievement that brings salvation.

But none of them sets out a theory of atonement. There are many references to the effectiveness of Christ’s atoning work and we are not lacking in information about it’s many sidedness. Thus Paul gives a good deal of emphasis to the atonement as a process of justification, and he uses such concepts as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Sometimes, we read of the cross as a victory or as an example. It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply, a sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left in no doubt about its efficacy, and it’s complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.

Through the centuries there have been continuing efforts to work out how this was accomplished. Theories of atonement are legion as men in different countries and in different ages have tried to bring together the varied strands of scriptural teaching and to work them into a theory that will help others understand how God has worked to bring us salvation. The way has been open, in part at least, because the church has never laid down an official, orthodox view. In the early centuries there were great controversies about the person of Christ and the nature of the Trinity. Heresies appeared, were thoroughly discussed, and were disowned. In the end the Church accepted the formula of Chalcedon as the standard expression of orthodox faith. But there was no equivalent with the atonement.

People simply held to the satisfying truth that Christ saved them by way of the cross and did not argue about this salvation was effected.

Thus there was no standard formula like the Chalcedonian statement, and this left men to pursue their quest for a satisfying theory in their own way. To this day no one theory of the atonement has ever won universal acceptance. This should not lead us to abandon the task. Every theory helps us understand a little more of what the cross means and, in any case, we are bidden to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Theories of the atonement should attempt to do just that.

Penal substitution is one of many theories that tries to do this. Other theories include: the subjective view, or moral influence theory; the victory model; Anselm’s satisfaction theory; the sacrifice theory; and the governmental theory.

All those views, in their own way, recognise that the atonement is vast and deep. There is nothing quite like it, and it must be understood in its own light. The plight of sinful man is disastrous, for the NT sees the sinner as lost, as suffering hell, as perishing, as cast into outer darkness, and more. An atonement that rectifies all this must be necessarily complex. So we need all the vivid concepts: redemption, justification, propitiation, and all the rest. And we need all the theories. Each draws attention to an important aspect of our salvation and we dare not surrender any. But we are small-minded sinners, and the atonement is great and vast. We should not expect that our theories will ever explain it fully. Even when we put them together, we will no more than begin to comprehend a little of the vastness of God’s saving deed.

In this section, I attempt to summarise p.s., pointing out some strengths and weaknesses and also addressing common misconceptions. This section attempts to address points (2), (3), (4), (5), and (6)

The Reformers agreed with Anselm that sin is a very serious matter, but they saw it as breaking God’s law, rather than as an insult to God’s honour. The moral law, they held, is not to be taken lightly. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and it is this that is the problem for sinful man. They took seriously the scriptural teachings about the wrath of God (as described a bit by Dani) and those that referred to the curse under which sinners lay. It seemed clear to them that the essence of Christ’s saving work consisted in his taking the sinner’s place. In our stead Christ endured the death that is the wages of sin. He bore the curse that we sinners should have borne (Galatians 3:13). The Reformers did not hesitate to see Christ as having borne our punishment or as having appeased the wrath of God in our place.

Such views have been widely criticised. In particular it is pointed out that sin is not an external matter to be transferred easily from one person to another and that, while some forms of penalty are transferable (the payment of a fine), others are not (imprisonment, capital punishment). With regard to point (3) above, it is urged that this theory sets Christ in opposition to the Father so that it maximises the love of Christ, and minimises that of the Father.

Such criticisms may be valid against some of the ways in which the theory is stated, but they do not shake its essential basis. They overlook the fact that there is a double identification: Christ is one with sinners (the saved are “in” Christ, Romans 8:1) and he is one with the Father (he and the father are one, John 10:30; “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”, 2 Corinthians 5:19). They also overlook the fact that there is much in the NT that supports the theory. It is special pleading to deny that Paul, for example, puts forward substitution. It may need to be carefully stated, but this view still says something important about how Christ has won our Salvation.

I believe a further misconception about modern penal substitution theories is as summarised in point (4) above. As set out by Stott, the idea that there is a standard of Justice that God must obey or align with is heresy. He explained that Justice is not merely something that God does, but is something that he is. His justice, like his love, is not independent of himself. God IS justice. Therefore, when it is said that God must fulfill justice, it means that God must act consistently with his very self.

I am not sure how to address point (5), because I am not quite sure what is meant. I do not know if it is completely true to say that it is God’s nature to forgive. I have never heard that before… Does God have to forgive? I am not sure that he does? However, it is clear that he can and desires to forgive.

I understand that God’s nature includes mercy, grace, and love; as well as holiness and justice. It is obvious that the atonement is the prime revelation of all of these: how a God of holiness could remain consistent with his own justice, and at the same time express his love for sinners, giving them grace and mercy. The different theories of atonement set out to explain how this can happen. P.s. emphasises God’s judgment as well as his sacrificial love.

It can be said that the Father’s love is somewhat under-represented in p.s. However consider the following verses:
– The Father’s love for us: (John 3:16) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
– The Father’s love for his Son: (John 10:17) “For this reason the Father loves me [Jesus], because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.�?

Andrew pointed out that in the OT people are forgiven without reference to the sacrificial system. He also said, in effect, that blood was (and is) not necessary for forgiveness. However, consider the following.

As I wrote above, in the OT sacrifice has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit it has of itself (cf. Hebrews 10:4) but because God has given it as the way (Leviticus 17:11).

Hebrews 9:22 outlines the importance of blood, particularly Christ’s (see also the whole section). It says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” We are told that Christ’s sacrifice was the final and effective one. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” (Ephesians 1:7).

How were people in the OT forgiven, particularly out of the sacrificial context? It is my understanding that the arguments Paul applies (particularly to Abraham, as he was saved before the Levitical sacrificial system) in Romans applies to these people.

Paul says that all are saved (past and present) by grace: (Romans 3:23) “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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Remember again that the sacrificial system was a symbol, among other things. It pointed towards Christ. Galatians 3:24 states that the “law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith”. The old covenant was to point to Christ. This understanding is prevalent throughout the NT. It seems therefore, that the people in the OT who were forgiven by God were saved by their faith in the saving ability of God as brought out in the cross. This is often manifested in the sacrificial system.

It is clear throughout the whole Bible, that a sacrifice is needed for the forgiveness of sins. But simply stating that a sacrifice is needed is not complete. How does the sacrifice save? I believe that penal substitution is a helpful explanation.

I think that considering the above, statement (6) is a huge leap into the dark. While not completely explicit, Paul repeatedly uses substitutional themes. The verses quoted above are quite substitutional in nature. The verse from 1 Peter is also unmistakably substitutional, the “righteous for the unrighteous” (italics mine).

This section addresses points (7) and (8) above. Contrary to the point (7) above, Jesus mentioned a few times that his death saves us:

(Matthew 26:26) “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Please see also: John 3:14-15 [cf. Numbers 21:9], and John 6:54. There may be some dispute over different atonement models (i.e. how his death saves us), but no one should dispute that the Bible teaches salvation through Jesus’ death.

I am not sure what to say with regard to point (8) above. The Bible does not go into a lot of detail about what, exactly, happened on the cross – only that Jesus died, and is punished somehow (as a sacrifice of propitiation, Romans 3:23ff; as cursed by God, Galatians 3:13). But what kind of punishment was it? Maybe an insight into the suffering can be found in Matthew 27:46; Jesus was forsaken by the Father (remember though, this is also a quote of a quote). What does it mean, exactly? How long did it last? I don’t believe the Bible provides an answer to those questions (save a thorough look at the Greek and Hebrew language employed).

Regarding time, the following is a simple theory:
– A sin against an infinite God necessitates infinite punishment.
– This, for us, is eternal death, separation…
– Jesus was punished with an infinite punishment, enough for countless people – not just one.
– Since Jesus is infinite himself, this punishment does not have to be constrained or defined by time.

This is clearly basic and incomplete, but I believe it illustrates that it is too simplistic to say that because Jesus was dead for a short while, he could not have suffered our punishment.

I hope this discussion has helped somewhat. I have been challenged about the way I view the theories of atonement. I had obviously narrowed the vast saving work of Christ into a box of small proportions!! However, I think that it is dangerous to ignore the language of substitution and propitiation in the New Testament.


3 Responses to “Penal Substitution as a Valid Theory of Atonement”

  1. Good site!!!

  2. brightshinyobject Says:

    Great post!

    Just a couple ideas.

    1. If we think of Jesus as a big shot’s kid going behind his Dad’s back to get the bail money, then sure, they are in opposition in the matter. But Jesus does what the Father asks, and any one that the Father gives will not be cast out (very slim paraphrase). The clear statement of Jesus with regards to the Father’s will should make it clear that he is not acting separatly, but in consort, as the Trinity does, unless one slides into tritheism.

    2. I have not viewed that site, so I am not commenting regarding what they have to say about it, but would the person who is trying to “nice the Father up” say that God was held to some Ptah sort of standard with regards to Love? If justice is an outside requirement, then so are his other attributes. Now yer all Mormon.

    Thanks so much for the clarity,


  3. I agree that we must be careful to look at this with a correct view of the Trinity (as far as we can!).

    It’s been so long, that I can’t remember the original discussion (and I think the group has been discontinued). But yes, God’s justice is within himself. I think the others were syaing that P.S. contradicted that (and was thus incorrect).

    If you are looking for more info on this matter (and would like something other than my half plagiarised stuff), then I would recommend a book entitled, ‘Pierced for Our Transgressions’ (IVP).

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