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A Defense for Penal Substitution

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The Crucifixion by Simon Vouet

The Crucifixion by Simon Vouet

So the kids I like to play with tend to reject the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins in order to satisfy the wrath of God. A recent article on the Sojourners website gives a good example of this:

Essentially, the cross is explained exclusively in legal terms. You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free as he awaits the “end times” when he’ll finally get to let the bodies hit the floor and feel good about himself.

It’s actually quite twisted when you break it down. Jesus protects us from God? Or, if you accept the inspiration of Scripture (which I 100 percent do), it gets even more uncomfortable when you see Jesus say things like: “If you have seen me, you have seen the father, for we are one,” or in Hebrews, when it is stated that Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being.”

Accepting both the inspiration of Scripture and the penal substitution theory of the atonement, one could actually say that Jesus died to protect us from Jesus.

Which is quite silly, really — from one aspect this makes God look schizophrenic, and on the other, it makes the cross look like a bad case of domestic violence — something I personally find offensive.

With hardly any Scriptural quotations at all, Benjamin Corey goes on claiming that penal substitution is responsible for the capital punishment and crual legal system of the United States, and like many other critics of the penal substitution theology he claims that the idea was founded by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and that no Christian believed in it in the first millenia of the church.

Allow me to disagree.

Firstly, let’s define the term here. “Penal” means “punishmental” sort of, so the “penal substitution” of Christ means that He took our punishment as our substitute when He died on the cross. Now, this is something the Scriptures teach very clearly. The Old Testament is extremely clear in telling us that God wants His people to follow the Law, and if they don’t, they are punished for sinning (Ex 32:34, Deut 28:20, Hos 12:2, Zeph 1:9). To claim that God does not punish sin is totally unbiblical. Through His self-sacrificial love, however, He Himself dies for our sins on the cross (John 3:16, 1 Cor 15:3, 1 Peter 3:18). The messianic prophecy in Is 53 tells us:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:6)

I tried to explain to a Christian friend about the criticism against penal substitution once: “You know, there are some who don’t think Jesus took our punishment when He died on the cross.” Surprised, she asked me “Who do they think took the punishment then?” “Uhm, no one… I guess.” “Then how do they interpret the Bible when it says that God punishes sin?” “You know what? I have no idea.”

I have still not found any reason to reject the theory of penal substitution, simply because it’s biblical. Other atonement theories like Christus Victor cannot replace it, only complement it. I read a book today called The Nature of the Atonement: Four Viewswhere Greg Boyd defends the Christus Victor framework, and while I really liked his Kingdom approach there was one vital ingredient missing that Thomas Schreiner, who represented the penal substitution view, pointed out: Boyd can’t explain why Jesus’ death on the cross defeats the satanic powers unless he admits that it is because He died for our sins on that tree.

Likewise, Corey’s claim that penal substitution presupposes a “schizofrenic” God who uses domestic violence against His Son, is just a disturbing and unserious argument that honestly doesn’t fit such a good website as Sojourners. Jesus gives His life out if free will (Jn 10:18) and since He is God, God punishes Himself, He takes the punishment for man’s sinfulness in order to reconcile humankind with Himself. And this is indeed what the church fathers thought. I will come back later with another post covering atonement theology in the early church.


  1. jonte95 says:

    Jesus took the punishment for our sins in order to satisfy the wrath of God.

    Penal Substitution Atonement theory is that God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus on the cross, as I have understood it. What you described above would be closer to Satisfaction theory I think.

    However, Jesus can still satisfy it without it being poured out on him. That’s “Satisfaction theory”.

  2. N Good says:

    Penal Substitution is a specific model of Satisfaction Theory. And I would question how Jesus satisfied God’s wrath unless that wrath was poured out on him.
    Also, I don’t see any conflict between Christus Victor and Penal Substitution. How does God “pour out His wrath” when He has been merciful for a long time but it is time for justice and wrath(Exodus 34:5-7)? We see Him send a flood in Genesis, He wipes out Pharaoh and his army with the Red Sea, He punishes the Canaanites by the hand of Israel and then punishes the Israelites through other nations. These are just a few examples, but it seems to me that the Bible shows us time and again that God uses His creation to accomplish His purposes and then calls the work His own rather than “showing up Himself” and doing it. In fact, it seems that the only time we see God showing up in the story is when He’s calling a person to action (Abraham, Moses, Gideon, etc) or when there is no other way to accomplish His purpose (Jesus).
    So how does the Christus Victor atonement model account for “the powers” being overcome? What if, as the powers (physical and spiritual) tortured and killed Jesus they were actually the agents of God’s wrath? (Consider Isaiah 10:5 and Romans 13:4 as two examples of God using others to execute His just wrath.) So was this some form of divine child abuse? No! God incarnated Himself knowing He would be tortured and killed by the evil powers of darkness so that He could cancel the code of sin and death by paying the penalty IN HIMSELF!! It was the evil powers that killed Jesus, but he went willingly and, in fact, even planned for it to happen that way.
    So we have Christ the victor over sin and death, but that victory was bought by His precious blood that not only covers over our sin but actually pays the penalty of sin (death) so that our sin is canceled, paid for, atoned, and now meaningless in the sight of God.

  3. Paul Walker says:

    There is a lot that I could say in response to this blog, as The Cross has been one of my ongoing realms of study. I think I will make one observation:

    I think you are misreading Isaiah 53 in implying that God is the one punishing Jesus on the Cross.

    Isaiah 53 is an important passage in regards too discussions around atonement. There IS a language of punishment but it is not the active punishment from God, rather Isaiah 53 is a clear rebuke of framing God as the punisher. The Gospels and Acts are very clear that God is not to blame, rather humanity is offending party. (c.f. Mark 12:1-12; Acts 2:23,36;7:52) God’s action is to vindicate the Suffering Servant.

    Let me sketch this out: (Comments are in [brackets])

    3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, [Who rejected him? God? No, men did]
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
    Like one from whom people hide their faces [Who hid their face(s)? God? No, us]
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
    4 Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
    YET WE considered him punished by God,[Who thought this? We did.]
    stricken by him, and afflicted. [And was he?]
    5 BUT he was pierced for OUR transgressions, [No, our sins pierced him]
    he was crushed for our iniquities; [It was our iniquities that crushed him]
    the punishment that brought us peace was on him, [ Who punished him? We did. And his response? [Peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.]
    and by his wounds we are healed. [We wounded him, but he healed us.]

    There are still many people that might point to verse 10 to indicate that God is punishing the Suffering Servant.

    Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,

    We know God finds no pleasure in the punishment of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), much less his suffering servant. What is going on here? The answer is there is a bigger picture. Penal substitution is one attempt to paint it. But it overstates things when it makes God the wrathful punisher and his appeasement the purpose. We need to flip perspectives. God’s pleasure is found in the suffering servants heart of humility, his willingness to identify with the exiles, the joy of the foreknown outcome and good fruit of Christ’s suffering. (c.f. Heb 12:2)

    I could go on, but I hope to dialogue with you in my upcoming atonement blog series!

    For more on this reading of Isaiah 53 I would check out Dr. Bob Ekblad’s essay titled, “God is not to blame” ( In this essay Bob demonstrates that the Septuagint purposely translates the Isaiah passage to indicate that God is not the author of the Suffering Servants infliction and punishment.

    God Bless You my brother!

    • Aaron Andrus says:

      This is a fantastic response. Many thanks!

    • Wayne says:

      The way you described it is the way I have come to understand the atonement. Very few see this if they read the scriptures through the eyes of theologies or presuppositions. Im very glad to read your understanding. Do u have a direct link to your blog?

  4. gaberenfro says:

    The problem with penal substitution is that it mislocates the central problem of sin as God’s wrath. The truth is that even if God never lifted a finger to punish sin, sin itself would still destroy sinners. To deny that is to deny the seriousness of sin. I am not arguing that God does not actively punish sin, clearly He does, I am arguing that God’s wrath was not the reason Jesus died on the cross. Even if God did not respond to sin in wrath, Jesus would still need to die on the cross and rise from the dead to rescue us from sin.

    So why does Jesus need to die on the cross and rise from the dead? I think it is a matter of justice, but penal substitution advocates have focused on the wrong priority of justice. In the Bible, justice requires both retribution for the guilty (that the sinner’s own sin return upon the sinner’s own head) but also restitution for the innocent, that innocent parties receive reparations for damages they have suffered. If we construct our atonement logic on the principle of restitution rather than retribution, we get a model that better represents what is going on in the Scriptures: Justice requires restitution for damages done to innocent parties. Humans have totally and severely destroyed themselves by their own sin (God is not the victim of our sin. In the case of sin against God, the offense is to the destruction of the offender, like punching a brick wall). God desires to enact restitution for humanity’s self-destruction, but humans are not innocent, they are guilty, so how can a just God enact restitution for guilty sinners? Answer: God becomes a human in the person of Jesus Christ and suffers all of sin’s destruction and the hands of all humanity on the cross. Jesus therefore merits restitution for all of sin’s destruction, for he alone has suffered it as an innocent party. This restitution manifests in his resurrection, when “God raised our Great Shepherd from the dead through the blood of the eternal covenant (Heb 13:20).” So the correct response to the question “Why did Jesus die?” is: in order for all suffering and death to be repaired by God, all suffering and death had to be endured by a perfectly innocent and righteous person (for only innocent persons have the right of restitution for wrongs suffered) and only Jesus qualifies as that perfectly righteous person.

    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 participate in His death (through remorse) and participate in His resurrection (through repentance). So the gospel is not that “God substituted Himself to satisfy His own wrath,” which is not Biblical terminology. The gospel is exactly what Paul says it is: “the good news that God has fulfilled His promises to our children in that He raised Jesus up from the dead (Acts 13:30).” The gospel is that God’s covenantal promises to restore the world from Adam’s curse (the subject of the Old Testament) are fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection (the subject of the New Testament).

    • Theodore A. Jones says:

      “So why does Jesus need to die on the cross?” and “Why did Jesus die?”
      Heb. 7:12 , “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.”
      Relative to what Paul teaches “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 NIV The only thing you need to do now is figure out what this law is Paul references and obey it. But you need to understand that Paul is not referencing the OT code of law.

  5. […] promised in my last blog post about atonement theology, I want to share what I’ve found when researching the early church fathers’ view on the […]

  6. […] promised in my last blog post about atonement theology, I want to share what I’ve found when researching the early church fathers’ view on the […]

  7. Nick says:

    Hello Michael,

    I blog at Nick’s Catholic Blog and I have written a ton about Penal Substitution, almost entirely using Scripture alone.

    I show how Penal Substitution is thoroughly unbiblical on every front, for example: misunderstanding the Hebrew word for “atonement,” misunderstanding the Levitical Sacrificial system, not having any proof from the Crucifixion accounts themselves of God dumping His wrath on Jesus, making nonsense of concepts of Christians needing to “offer themselves as spiritual sacrifices” and “carrying our Cross daily,” as well as flat out blasphemy against the Trinity by suggesting Jesus was “damned in our place” and “the ancient fellowship between the Father and Son was broken” (actual words famous Protestants use).

    I cover all the typical prooftexts that are mistakenly appealed to: Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2:24; Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21; “Why have you forsaken me?”; Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16; Scapegoat; Passover Lamb; and others.

    If you want a starter post, read my posts “Atonement According To Scripture,” and for a get-your-mind-thinking post I have the straightforward “Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit”.

    You wont be disappointed!

  8. […] promised in my last blog post about atonement theology, I want to share what I’ve found when researching the early church fathers’ view on the […]

  9. Jub says:

    Hi Michael,
    Any comments on “A Case against Atonement” at ?

  10. Nathan says:


    Interesting thoughts in the comments here. I’m just learning about this controversy, and only have one thought about the original post. You point out that God punishes sin. Nearly everyone agrees with that. In fact, we know from Hebrews that He punishes everyone He loves — for our good. More relevant to the atonement debate would be investigating why he punishes sin. Is He vindictive, or vindicating? Is His punishment meant to equalize cosmic scales of wrongdoing and suffering, or is it meant to heal? Is His justice in conflict with His mercy, or in harmony with it? Does justice mean that wrongdoers are hurt, or that righteousness is victorious? If I were more holy, would I swiftly kill my children, or love them better?

    • Jub says:

      Good on you Nathan! Very good questions!

      I think human beings are very LEGAListic i.e. preoccupied with LAWS that at times seem to require more than our sinful selves can fulfill. These laws therefore promise condemnation & punishment for wrongdoers. But God, after the Flood, gave law & lawgivers to promote societal safety. In the case of Israel, the Lawgiver is very famous: Moses. In STARK CONTRAST, through Jesus comes (not more law but…) “grace and truth”! (John 1:17) Notice the implication in this verse that LAW is something other than “grace” and “truth”. Notice that we get grace & truth through Jesus, not through law.

      Law and fear both have to do with punishment and the purpose of law & punishment is to promote good order in human societies. God gave no law to Adam & humanity before the Flood and the result was a multiplication of escalating violence (Gen 4:24, 6:13). Since the Flood, Law has been Humanity’s guardian (in all societies) “UNTIL” the Christ should come (Gal 3:24) and put love into our hearts. Thus grace & truth both fulfill & supersede the law in those in whom Christ’s Spirit lives and reigns.

      In Romans 7, Paul speaks of his own transition from a time when he was able to only approve of – not keep – the law – and how wretched that left him feeling (Rom 7:23,24). At that time, he was FEARFUL of condemnation under Law – condemnation, if not from people, then from God. But the Christ who did not condemn the woman caught in adultery is not like us. In Christ, Paul did not discover an even more stringent Moses-type legalism – rather he discovered that whilst Law & Punishment may freak all of us under the sky to the danger of us falling foul of the law’s wrath (Rom 1:18), God’s righteousness in Christ has been gloriously shown “APART from Law”. This phrase “apart from Law” means the Cross CANNOT be about a penal substitution because penal substitution is EXACTLY about law & punishment! If we have really heard the true Gospel, our hearts no longer fear condemnation (Rom 8:1). Why “no condemnation”? Because God is love and there is no contradiction or tension between God’s holiness and His love. But many Christians have heard a Gospel that has been twisted and deprived of much of its power for millennia!

      Could the Church have been wrong about this for centuries? Yes indeed it could. Christ’s truth can, in my view, be maintained uncorrupted only by those willing to accept that their Heavenly Father’s plan for them might be death sooner rather than later. Humanity, like Adam (who avoided the guardian angel with the sword), mostly does ANYTHING to survive in exile here on Earth (which is why Law became so necessary – to stem the violence!) It was for that goal (to avoid death) that the Church joined with the Roman Empire – and so lost the pacifist Gospel. (Violence is so wrong NOT because it causes death which ushers us into the blessed hereafter but because it proceeds from hatred & faithlessness & produces much grief in the living.)

      So what is the Cross about? In my view, it’s about building our FAITH – apart from which we may not know God. (All personal relationships stand & fall on mutual faith!) By His stronger-than-death FAITH, Jesus demonstrated the FAITHFULNESS of the Father, not only by miraculous healings, not only by preaching a Kingdom not based on power & punishment (which the world & much of the church don’t wish to hear) but also by rising from the dead. Not many gained faith stronger than death in the OT (but some would have – e.g. I suppose Enoch & Elijah to name just two). Instead most human beings were very willing to kill others either to ensure their own safety & wealth or out of the ego-lust called revenge. Because of human wrath & violence, the Earth before the Flood (like many places on Earth today) seemed like a God-forsaken hell-hole. But Jesus, even in a hell-hole, trusts the Father implicitly and unwaveringly. And by what He achieved through His faith, Jesus showed us clearly what God is really like! Even the slow-of-heart-to-believe can come to faith now that Jesus has come to displace Law as our Guardian! The Cross exposes and melts our suspicions about God being capricious, power-oriented and unfair. The Cross exposes Death for the impotent enemy it really is (in the last analysis at least)!

      The message of “Christ and Christ (God) crucified” is “the power of God for salvation” because it is through this Word that faith is grown in us, so that we come to share the Core Beliefs (i.e. faith) of Christ. Outward circumstances merely trigger a person’s perceptions, feelings and acts – the actual source of the person’s particular perceptions, feelings and actions is their Core Beliefs [in particular, the content & fixedness of their core beliefs] – as demonstrated by CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). By having the “faith of Jesus”, we are empowered to perceive, feel and act in, situations as though we have Christ living in us – as indeed we may have! This is true deliverance from sin!

      But nowhere do the Scriptures say Jesus came to save us from “the penalty” of sin. He came to save us from sin itself! i.e. He came to deliver us when sin was our master! i.e. He came to be our Master instead of sin! i.e. so that we may no more be sinners!

      How can those committed to “murder & lies” (John 8:44) understand such things?? They cannot. That is why I say we must become pacifists. That is also why non-pacifists will likely continue to miss and suppress the truth!

      • Theodore A. Jones says:

        “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Paul, Rom 2:13 NIV You can’t obey this law by being a pacifist.

        • Jub says:

          If a person is fully in Christ they will “love their enemies”. This kind of pacifism fulfills the law because “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 10:13).

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Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

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