3 Reasons I Changed My Mind About Penal Substitution

I was raised in the kind of evangelical church that drummed into us as children that Jesus died to save us from our sins. The cross of Jesus was the center of the message at summer camps, holiday Bible clubs, and youth group talks. Jesus had died in my place, bearing my sin and its punishment for me, so I could know God and live with him forever.

When I began reading theological books and exploring the faith for myself, I grew suspicious of the beliefs I’d been raised with. I read some thoughtful authors who raised serious questions about the way I’d always understood the cross and salvation. I read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. I read Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s now-famous line in The Lost Message of Jesus:

The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. . . . If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies. . . the idea that God was an angry deity, requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ.

I read critiques of Anselm’s theory of satisfaction, which revealed how influential it had been, yet how it was bound to its medieval, Western, forensic categories. More than that, the idea that God is an angry deity—requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath—was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ.

If anything, early church writers apparently steered away from these pagan motifs and spoke about the cross in ways that didn’t focus on God’s wrath, sin’s penalty, and substitution. Such a picture seemed to emerge only as “a courtroom drama of Calvin’s imagination,” as Bradley Jersak put it. It made God out to be angry, his Son a victim, and me a grateful but (slightly shaken) beneficiary of the crucifixion’s violent horrors.

The vision of the atonement I’d grown up with seemed horribly distorted, simplistic, and not historically supported. It was time to move on.

There and Back Again

As I kept reading over the years, however, I sensed my theological revolution had been hasty. Was my childhood understanding of the cross simplistic and naïve? Sure—I was a child, after all. So it was easy to read adult-level critiques of Sunday school illustrations and scoff. It was easy to deconstruct my “youth group” faith and proudly ditch it for the enlightenment of my new favorite authors.

Was it really a theological revolution if I never had a serious atonement theology to begin with?

But was it really a theological revolution if I never had a serious atonement theology to begin with? I hadn’t read much Calvin, Irenaeus, Anselm, or Athanasius. I hadn’t spent much time digging into Scripture either—which should’ve been a warning to me. Doing theology this way has a funny way of exposing us. I began to realize that the vengeful, pagan, loveless god I’d supposedly believed in bore no relation to the real God I had come to trust as a little boy. Just how reliable had my new guides been?

Three significant things have shaped my thinking about the death of Christ, and I’m now much closer to where I started than I imagined I might be.

1. Actually Reading the Bible

Anyone can point to the “clobber” verses that present Jesus as a substitute for sin’s penalty, such as Isaiah 53:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. Plenty of people find ways around these to read the cross another way—and with proof texts, that’s always possible. Yet as I began to read Scripture more deeply, I came to see these texts in the light of Scripture’s great themes and typologies. I could see no other way to interpret them—the animal skins in Genesis 3, the ram in Genesis 22, the Passover lamb and the firstborn sons, the darkness of judgment the night of the exodus from Egypt and the darkness that fell as Jesus died, all the undeniable language of propitiation and the blood on the mercy seat, and so much more.

Actually reading the Scriptures in their cohesive entirety, and seeing the Old Testament repeatedly preview the gospel, showed me that Jesus bearing our sin and its penalty is central—not peripheral, and not artificially imposed—to the story’s vast sweep.

2. The Trinity

It’s fair to say that some explanations of the cross I heard as a child weren’t Trinitarian. “God” was angry at sin but wanted to find a way to save us, and “Jesus” was a third party who stepped in to make it work. It’s partially true, it’s simplistic, and it can lead to a distortion of the gospel and the Trinity. Yet, none of my Sunday school teachers was theologically trained, and I was 10. A little grace and patience can perhaps be afforded to us all.

It’s no use pitting ‘vindictive God’ against ‘innocent Jesus,’ for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God.

According to Scripture, all three persons of the Godhead are offended by sin. All three persons are committed to destroying sin and to liberating humanity and the world from the curse. Jesus is the eternal Son, and when he died on the cross, he was there because he’d chosen to lay down his life, a plan devised in eternity. Philippians 2:6–8 clearly shows the pre-incarnate Son of God deciding to take on flesh, become a servant, and go to his death for sinners. His prayer in Gethsemane, contemplating the cup of wrath, is that the Father’s will would be accomplished through his death (Matt. 26:42).

It’s no use pitting “vindictive God” against “innocent Jesus,” for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God. The Son’s complicity in his own condemnation as our substitute is one of the gospel’s most glorious truths. Being clear about this truth doesn’t just safeguard our faithfulness; it displays Christ’s beauty and love.

3. The Witness of the Historic Church

For all the bluster that penal substitution is a late arrival to the party of atonement theory, I was surprised to read ancient writers offering plain expositions of it. And there were none of the distortions and childish lisping I’d been told to expect from exponents of this theology.

For example, here is one of the earliest Christian apologetic texts we have, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, dated sometime in the second century:

O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

In his exposition of Psalm 51, Augustine (AD 354–430) wrote,

For even the Lord was subject to death, but not on account of sin: He took upon him our punishment, and so looseth our guilt. . . . Now, as men were lying under this wrath by reason of their original sin . . . there was need for a mediator, that is for a reconciler, who by the offering of one sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices of the law and the prophets were types, should take away this wrath. . . . Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call his just displeasure against sin by the name “anger,” a word transferred by analogy from human emotions.

Even ancient songs celebrated the wrath-bearing sacrifice of Christ. Written 1,500 years ago, Venantius Fortunatus’s (AD 530–607) beautiful hymn, “See the Destined Day Arise,” begins:

See the destined day arise! See a willing sacrifice!
Jesus, to redeem our loss, hangs upon the shameful cross;
Jesus, who but you could bear wrath so great and justice fair?
Every pang and bitter throe, finishing your life of woe?

I also read contemporary evangelical classics, John Stott’s The Cross of Christ and J. I. Packer’s What Did the Cross Achieve? and discovered them to be entirely consonant with my primary-source historical reading.

Hallelujah, What a Savior!

Perhaps my childhood understanding had been thin. No great surprise there. But in Scripture, in theology, and in church history, I kept staring at the death of Jesus, in my place, for my sin.

Sure, illustrations need to be tweaked, care must be taken with language, and there are vital concepts to be taken into account such as representation, headship and union, the overthrow of evil powers, the cosmic victory of the cross, and so on. Yet these considerations have only strengthened and enriched the “good deposit” given to me as a child.

Editors’ note: 

This article originally ran on the blog at Union Publishing.