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Definition

The penal substitutionary theory of the atonement holds that the most fundamental event of the atonement is that Jesus Christ took the full punishment that we deserved for our sins as a substitute in our place, and that all other benefits or results of the atonement find their anchor in this truth.

Summary

All people are in need of a substitute since all are guilty of sinning against the holy God. All sin deserves punishment because all sin is personal rebellion against God himself. While animal sacrifices took on the guilt of God’s people in the OT, these sacrifices could never fully atone for the sins of man. For that, Jesus Christ came and died in the place of his people (substitution), taking upon himself the full punishment that they deserved (penal). While there are other theories of the atonement, which point to other valid aspects of what happened in Christ’s death, the penal-substitutionary element of the crucifixion secures all other benefits that come to God’s people through the death of their representative.

Penal substitution is the anchor for other truths about the atonement, whether we are talking about Christus Victor, Christ as an example, or the healing that comes in the atonement. Penal substitution means that Christ died in the place of sinners, taking upon himself the penalty and punishment they deserved.

Human beings need a substitute since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Sin separates human beings from God as we see from the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Only perfect obedience will satisfy God’s justice, and we see this in that Adam and Eve were severed from God for one sin. As Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is cursed.” The curse falls upon those who transgress God’s commands, and no one is exempted (Rom. 3:9–20, 23).

Sin deserves punishment because God is holy. Breaking the law is not merely an impersonal reality, for sin represents rebellion against God himself (1 John 3:4). The heart of sin is the failure to glorify God and to give thanks to him (Rom. 1:21). Sin represents a flagrant refusal to submit to God’s lordship, and those who sin rightly deserve the retributive judgment of God. Since God is holy (Lev. 19:2) he judges those who transgress his law. God’s judgment is evident in the flood of Noah, the judgment of pagan nations in the OT, and the judgment of Israel for its sin. John the Baptist warns people to flee the coming judgment of the Lord (Matt. 3:1–12). Human beings are summoned to repent before the coming judgment arrives (Acts 2:14–39; 3:12–26; 4:8–12). Paul often refers to God’s eschatological judgment (Rom. 2:5, 16; 6:23; 9:22; 1 Cor. 1:18; 5:5; 2 Cor. 2:16; Gal. 1:8–9; Phil. 3:18–19; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:14–16; 5:9). The retributive nature of judgment is as clear as it gets in 2 Thessalonians 1:5–9. Paul argues that God is “just” to punish people forever for their sin.

God’s anger against sin represents his personal response to sin. Judgment is not merely cause and effect, but is God’s holy wrath against sin, which must be distinguished from sinful human anger. God’s anger is holy and in this sense beautiful and right because sin is so horrible that it warrants punishment, and the failure to see this indicates that sin is seen to be a minor defect instead of a destructive and disfiguring cancer.

We see substitutionary atonement in OT sacrifices, for their fundamental purpose is to obtain forgiveness of sins. People laid hands on the animal to signify that the animal functioned as a substitute for the person, and their sin was transferred to the animal. The violent death of the animal signifies the penalty human beings deserve for their sin. Thus, the death of the animal functions as a substitute for the worshiper. The substitutionary nature of the sacrifices is especially evident on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the great day once a year when the sins of Israel were atoned for. We see in Leviticus 17:11 that atonement is secured through the shedding of blood, and the shedding of blood signifies violent death. Forgiveness only comes through the violent death of an animal, and the animal takes the penalty the worshiper deserved.

Animal sacrifices do not and cannot finally atone for sin (Heb. 9:1–10:18), and such sacrifices point to the atoning death of Jesus Christ which secures complete and permanent forgiveness of sins. We see in Isaiah 53 that Jesus as the servant of the Lord suffered death in the place of sinners. “He himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains” (Isa. 53:4). As the next verse says, “he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds” (Isa. 53:5). He died as a “guilt offering” in the place of sinners (53:10). In his death, “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Lord “was pleased to crush him” (53:10), and Jesus Christ as the Servant of the Lord suffered the wrath of God sinners deserved.

Romans 3:21–26 is a central text on penal substitution. In the preceding section of the letter we see that all without exception are sinners deserving final judgment (Rom. 1:18–3:20). Paul affirms in Romans 3:21–22 that a right relationship with God cannot be obtained through keeping the law (since all sin; Rom. 3:23) but only through faith in Jesus Christ. How can God forgive sinners so that they stand in a right relationship with him? The answer is given in Romans 3:25–26, “God presented him as an atoning sacrifice in his blood, received through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.” The words translated “atoning sacrifice” has a more technical meaning and can be rendered as “propitiation” or “mercy seat” (hilastērion). The word propitiation signifies that God’s wrath has been satisfied or appeased in the cross of Christ.

Such an idea fits well with the flow of thought in Romans, for we see in Romans 1:18 that “God wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people.” We are also told in Romans 2:5 that those who don’t repent and soften their hearts are “storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed.” Romans 3:25–26 teaches us, then, that God’s righteousness, God’s holiness and justice, are satisfied in the death of Christ. In the cross of Christ, God is shown to be loving and holy, merciful and just, the “just and justifier” of those who put their faith in Jesus. God has not compromised his justice since Christ has borne the penalty deserved for sin, dying as a substitute in the place of sinners.

We see the same truth in Galatians 3:10–13. No one can escape God’s curse by works of the law since all without exception sin. The solution to the evil of human beings is set forth in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” The curse every person deserves is removed for those who put their trust in Christ, because Christ took the curse we deserved upon himself. He took the penalty we deserved, fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 21:23 that those who are hanged upon a tree are cursed.

The same truth is found in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “[God] made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We have here the great exchange. Jesus took our sin by dying in our place, and we received his righteousness.

Nor is this teaching restricted to Paul. Jesus himself clearly teaches penal substitution in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We have an allusion here to Isaiah 53. Jesus as the Son of Man of Daniel 7 is also the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. In surrendering his life in death, he died as a ransom in place of many. His death constituted the payment demanded for the sins committed. The same teaching is also present in the Gospel of John: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, whether it is the Passover Lamb, the lamb in the sacrificial system, or the lamb of Isaiah 53:7 (or even all three), dies as a sacrifice in the place of sinners.

Penal substitutionary atonement is woven into the fabric of the NT. Peter, drawing on Isaiah 53, declares, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). In the next chapter he declares, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).

Penal substitution captures the heart of the atonement, for we see in the atoning sacrifice of Christ both the love and justice of God. Nor should we pit the Father against the Son since the Son willingly and gladly gave of himself for the sake of sinners (John 10:18). As the Gospel of John emphasizes repeatedly, the Father sent the Son, but the Son rejoiced to do the Father’s will.

Further Reading