Holy Week: Thoughts on Penal Substitution

Holy Week is upon us. 

Holy Week is an invitation to reflect on the cross. It is more than this, no doubt, but it is not less than this.

Within the Western Evangelical tradition we cannot talk about the cross without talking about Penal Substitutionary atonement. This, of course, is the belief that all of humanity stands condemned because of Adam’s sin and is therefore worthy of nothing less than God’s wrath. Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in our stead in order to appease the wrath of God so that we can be let off scotch free and enjoy life with God eternally.

It seems that this theory of atonement has become, for many, synonymous with the gospel itself. The gospel is that Jesus “died in our place and for our sins.”

But what does it mean that Jesus “died for our sins”?

If we appeal to Penal Substitution then the answer is clear: to say that Jesus died for our sins is to say that he took the punishment that we deserved upon himself. In this sense our sins are paid for.

An important question must be asked, though: who decided that Jesus had to die in order to appease the wrath of an angry God?

Is God bound by some sort of system of justice that requires blood for sin? If so, it would seem that this system of justice is more ultimate than God is for even he, the Creator of all, must bow to its requirements. This is problematic.

I’ve also found it interesting to explore the various theories of atonement from a narrative perspective. Every narrative has a protagonist and an antagonist. Take the Christus Victor theory for example. In this narrative, humanity is enslaved to the Devil (the antagonist) and in response God (the protagonist) sends his son Jesus (a co-protagonist) in order to rescue us from the dominion of Satan. This is an oversimplification but you get the point.

Compare that with the Penal Substitutionary view:

Jesus, of course, remains the protagonist in the story. The interesting thing, however, is that he rescues us from…

Any takers?


Jesus rescues us from God and his wrath.

Any narrative that casts God as the main antagonist should, in my humble opinion, be thoroughly rejected for reasons that are too obvious to state.

It must be made clear that there are other options when it comes to understanding the atonement. If you’re interested I’ll appeal to emergent blogger/author Tony Jones who has been offering up bite sized summaries of alternative atonement theories every Wednesday during Lent on his blog.


7 responses to “Holy Week: Thoughts on Penal Substitution

  1. True story. I think Paul still needs to be wrestled with (at least for me), but I essentially agree. I think that if we were to read ‘sin’ as ‘that which destroys relationships’, things begin to make more sense, at least for me. What if ‘relationship’ is a universal norm, something emanating from God’s own character? What if, at the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’ was a statement for all people for all time? What if the only place that this could be spoken from was at the cross, at the very moment where it was so evident that condemnation was deserved?

    At the moment when condemnation was most deserved, Christ offered forgiveness, reconciling people to God through that act of restoration.

    Work in progress of course, but it seems to be a better answer than many I have heard.

  2. Hey Garret,

    I think the atonement is more than Christ’s willing penal substitutionary death – but it isn’t less. Christ’s substitutionary death is the hub upon which the wheel spins, the roots from which a mighty tree grows.

    In the story that is Christ’s penal substitutionary death the Father isn’t the antagonist. The Trinity is the protagonist in the Bible, in some way that is both foolish and offensive, the Trinity remains the protagonists at the cross. We are the antagonists – we are the ones who willingly rebel against God. While we were rebelling, Christ died in our place so that we can be reconciled to God.

    Friends, in our dialoguing let us not neglect that Christ died for our sins, because God’s righteousness demands that rebellion be addressed. For those who believe the gospel and live in light of it, God will eventually make everything sad come untrue – and not just for us as individuals, but the entire cosmos! Restoration is only possible because of the cross, at the cross God is both just and the one who justifies. What his righteousness demanded his love provided. What God began at the cross he will complete when Christ returns. Come, Lord Jesus.

  3. Greg I struggle with your post because of my understanding of forgiveness. Your view of the cross essentially says that God asks us to do something which he himself is incapable of doing, which is to forgive. Jesus calls us to forgive, 70×7 and even if this means that we get shit on. He does not say that after we forgive someone we must go and kick our child because we are so angry. When I forgive someone I, in a sense, absorb what is due to myself in order to extend grace and mercy to my perpetrator. I never have to vent, release, or kill because of my anger. And I do this because thats what Jesus told me to do. If God can not extend forgiveness in the same way that he told me to forgive then that is not a God that is worth worshiping.

  4. @Jordan – Good thoughts, bro. I’m with you on the whole redefining ‘sin’ thing and I like where you’re going with seeing it as a matter of broken relationship.

    @Greg – Claiming that penal substitution is the hub upon which the proverbial wheel spins is, for me, an overstatement especially when viewed from a historical perspective. It wasn’t until Anselm laid the groundwork for penal substitution with his satisfaction theory of atonement in the 12th century that PS began to take up the prominence that it has now. Did the church simply miss this “central” doctrine during the first millennium of its existence? Additionally, to say that God’s righteousness “demands” that rebellion be dealt with seems to imply that God is bound by a system of justice that holds sway over his own actions. Finally, I’m still not convinced that God is not the antagonist in the PS narrative. Correct me if I’m wrong: the crisis that was averted on the cross in the PS framework was God’s wrath on humanity. If you think of the antagonist as the one we must be rescued from then it seems that there is no one other than God who fits this bill within PS. Humanity’s rebellion has not gone away post-cross. The only thing that’s changed, in the PS narrative, is that God can now declare us to be righteous. The antagonist has been appeased.

  5. Hey Garret

    I don’t want to hijack your blog so I’ll respond to you and let you have the last word unless you request a further reply 🙂

    (1) It is arguable that Anselm was the initial force behind PS atonement. Firstly, the Bible ought to be our final authority on the matter and I think scriptures clearly state that Christ died for our sins (Isa.53:4-6,10,11; Rom. 3:23-26; 2 Cor.5:21; Gal.3:10,13; 1 Pet.2:24; 1 Pet.3:18). Secondly, Garry Williams has argued that patristics such as Justin Martyr (2nd Cent.), Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd Cent), Athanasius (4th cent.), Gregory of Nazianzen (4th cent.), Amrbose (4th cent.), and Augustine (4th cent.) believed and espoused PS atonement [but maybe not in so many words]. You can read Williams’ article here (http://www.ltslondon.org/joc/documents/EQGJWChurchFathersarticle.pdf)

    (2) I think if you view God as the protagonist throughout the Bible then it isn’t hard to see him as the protagonist in a PS atonement narrative. If the Bible is about God and his glory then he remains both God and glorious at the cross; if the Bible is about us then none of the Bible makes much sense.

    (3) Surely we agree that through Christ on the cross there is now a way for atonement with God. Furthermore, I think Paul argues that God needed to judge sin to remain just – and therein remain God (Rom. 3:21ff). He didn’t judge so that he could remain God, He judged because he IS God. Jesus’ death was substitutionary in that he died for us – surely we can agree it was substitutionary, you have to do some serious theological gymnastics to get away from that one. And if his death wasn’t penal then Jesus’ prayer in the garden, or his cry of abandonment on the cross don’t make much sense. There is a penalty for sin (e.g. broken relationships with God/man/self/creation), and if that penalty isn’t paid for then justice hasn’t been judged. God needs to judge the sin, and he did when Christ was on the cross.

    (4) I can understand the push back that people theoretically talk about PS atonement so much that people never actually talk about anything else. But, I don’t think the big issue for our times when we look back in history is that people talked too much about PS atonement, nor does not talking about the other things Christ did on the cross give us freedom to reject the doctrine of PS atonement outright. We can throw my “hub/wheel” picture out the window if it isn’t helpful, but we should heed Wally Unger’s words when he says that the cross is about more than PS atonement, but not less.

    All the best Garret. Have a great Easter as you ponder and meditate on our crucified and risen King.

  6. Greg,

    It is clear that the Bible speaks of Jesus dying for our sins. However, it seems that what the NT means by this varies. I don’t think this phrase (“Jesus died for our sins”) needs to be interpreted in the way that PSA interprets it.

    Also, the Williams article is interesting but it seems to me that what we have in the patristic period could perhaps be considered “hints” of something that came into full blossom with Anselm. The modern PSA theory looks a lot more like what we find in Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo” than anything we find in the early church fathers. Most church historians, it seems to me, would say that the Ransom/Christus Victor theory of atonement was the dominant theory for the first millennium of the church’s existence.

    Additionally, to say that God’s wrath had to be appeased is more of a pagan understanding of sacrifice as opposed to a Jewish one. It seems to me that what the atonement teaches us is that we are the wrathful ones. We are the ones who have the nagging desire to kill other people in order to satisfy our blood lust. What we see in Jesus is God stepping into the role of victim (i.e., the one we kill) so as to unmask our violent tendencies and reveal them for what they really are–self-destructive! To say that God is the one who needs to be appeased is, to me, totally backwards.

    Also, I would agree that Jesus death was substitutionary although I don’t think he was a substitute for us. Instead I understand him as a substitute for other sacrifices. Jesus becomes the final sacrifice and in that sense he substitutes himself for other sacrifices that would have been the victims of our violence.

    The following article from James Alison is, despite being a bit long, fantasitc. He does a way better job of explaining what I just attempted to summarize. He also addresses important Old and New Testament passages on atonement. St. Paul–the NT author who is employed most often in defense of PSA–is read differently in this light.


    Reply if you’d like. Otherwise, Happy Easter, my friend!

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