Penal Substitution: What?

Penal Substitution. What?

When we think about the death of Jesus, there are a variety of beautiful, God exalting, soul strengthening, glorious ways the cross is explored in the New Testament.[1] However, when focussing in on the central biblical concept of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ,[2] we find the very heartbeat of the Gospel, spread throughout the pages of the Bible, and distilled into doctrinal form.

“On Christ’s glory I would fix all my thoughts and desires”
– John Owen

But how on earth does that have any practical outworking when we think about forgiveness and reconciliation work, or in relation to drugs, alcohol, pornography, prosperity, marriage breakdown, prodigal children, bitterness, pride, arrogance, Church schisms, leadership failures and countless other things we may come across in our Christian walk? This concept came to a head for me when, in my first few weeks of being a pastor, I sat in a café with one of the members of the Church who we’ll call Jude. Jude’s husband had unfairly, unjustly and unbiblically run away with another woman many years before. I now sat with Jude, a divorced woman, as she asked for my thoughts and opinion about remarrying. As any good pastor would, I talked through Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 and what Jesus taught about these things. I expressed clearly, and I hope with love, the importance of forgiveness and potential reconciliation. But that remarriage was not Jesus’ desire for her. The conversation moved on, and soon we were discussing our favourite hymns. I talked about “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and Jude talked about “In Christ Alone.” I then mentioned how my favourite line in that hymn says “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. For every sin on Him was laid, here in the death of Christ I live.”[3] Jude then said, perhaps with a knowing look in her eye, “I think that’s the heart of the reason I shouldn’t remarry.” I think at that moment I realised that I had managed to teach accurate Christian ethics, but completely separately from the Gospel. I’d articulated truth, but not the grace and glory of the Gospel. I’d recited Jesus teaching without linking that, and basing that, on the work of Jesus at Calvary.

Absolutely, the pastoral advice I offered, in my view, was biblically based, and even lovingly given. But I realised that without grounding pastoral work, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the Christian life in the Gospel, then I am only ever preaching law, legalism, and works-based religion! The second experience I want to mention is during my time at Bible College. I actually had a wonderful Bible College experience and received profound encouragement from the people there. However, many of the other people at the college either didn’t believe in the penal substitutionary death of Jesus or didn’t believe it was helpful. I remember a running joke in one of the lectures was how I tried to link penal substitution into every other doctrine and area of study. I’m not sure I succeeded in the task of winning over my fellow classmates! But that experience whetted my appetite for what is to follow. I hope you too are interested in how penal substitution might take its rightful place as the core and central doctrine that informs the pastoral and practical aspects of the local Church. Of course, many of us believe that, but the question of how it works out in practice still lingers for me and, I think, merits further discussion.

There are many aspects to penal substitution that we could consider. Most important of all is how God accomplished this work of Christ “for the praise of his glory.” But this book sets out to focus on the practical and pastoral aspects of penal substitution. Many of us, myself included, don’t get the chance to spend enough time considering the pastoral aspects to penal substitution. Many fellow pastors I know, love, and respect simply shy away from the doctrine in pastoral work. Many Christians I know, love, and respect don’t know how to map out the power, freedom, and grace given to us in both horizontal and vertical reconciliation, forgiveness, discipleship, Christian living, generosity, and so much more that comes through the penal substitutionary death of Jesus. This book is an invitation, through a look at the pages of the New Testament, to prayerfully consider the natural practical outworking of the death of Jesus in our lives as Christians.

You were bought with a price

When we begin to think about the practical and pastoral contexts of our own lives, it is important to remember how they have been purchased for us through the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. For example, many of us are aware that the New Testament teaches that forgiveness is primarily given by God due to the death of Jesus. But this forgiveness was not arbitrary. It wasn’t cheap, or easy, or light. It was immeasurably costly for God! But this forgiveness and reconciliation comes to us as the free gift of grace. As the Stuart Townend hymn says

“Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer;
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom.”[4]

The things which we all need forgiveness for are infinitely serious and eternally significant, so much so that the punishment for those sins must be carried out. I’m a father of four. I remember one time one of my daughters came to me to say sorry because they had knocked juice and yoghurt over the floor. I wasn’t that pleased, but I reassured my daughter that it was all fine, she wasn’t in trouble, and that I would fix her mess. A lot of us view our sin in the same way. We say “I’ve made a bit of a mess today.” We lie, steal, hate, watch ungodly television, love pleasure rather than God, and treat those things as nothing more than yoghurt on the floor. Not realising that Jesus died for those sins, and that when we as Christians commit those sins, we forgot that our bodies are actually a part of Christ’s body. I invite you to consider the following words of Paul in his first letter to the Church in Corinth:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
– 1 Corinthians 6:15

However, we also know that when heavenly forgiveness has occurred, reconciliation with the Father also occurs. The grace of God has been lavished upon us, and our sins have been forgiven. Then, reconciliation to the Father happens. But this reconciliation is possible when, and only when, sin has been forgiven by God. Without the substitutionary death of Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation on any level is not possible. Certainly, with God. But also, with our neighbour. Both forgiveness from and reconciliation to God, and forgiveness of and reconciliation with one another is an impossibility outside of the penal substitutionary death of Christ. But, because of penal substitutions central place in the Christian life, every area of Christian living must branch out from it

So, what is Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

To begin it is important for us think through what penal substitutionary atonement is, and when defining penal substitutionary atonement there are several things to consider. First, as we learn from Romans 3:23, every person has sinned,[5] and the consequences of that sin include, our physical and eternal death,[6] judgement, wrath and punishment.[7] Second, Jesus, on the cross, carried the sins of the elect not just as a representative[8], but as a substitute.[9] Sometimes this concept is caricatured, often even in a well-meaning way, as a Christianised version of the “Trolley Problem.”[1] The Trolley Problem is an ethical thought experiment where a train driver is driving an unstoppable train and has two ways ahead. One way will kill one person, the other way will kill many. What will he do? Christians sometimes use this as an example of the cross, saying that God allowed Jesus to die as if the choice was between Jesus and us. There are many problems with this analogy, but the most significant is that this example doesn’t quite get at the heart of what it means for Jesus to be a substitute. We all deserve the full force of the train engine of God’s wrath bearing down on our sin. We have all been found playing on the train tracks of disobedience to God’s law. Jesus graciously stepped into our world, got us out of the way of this “train”, and he saved us from the just consequences of our sins. However, this meant the consequence, punishment, and penalty of our sins that we should have received, the “train” of God’s wrath and fury, hit Jesus. In the news recently there was a story of a father who died saving his children who had been dragged out to sea. The children had been playing too far out at sea. He went out and pulled his 10 and 12-year-old children out of harm’s way at the cost of his life. In a similar way Jesus came and gave his life in our place. He died because of, and to save us from, the errors, mistakes, and sins we have each made.

Third, by taking the sins of the elect as a substitute,[10] Jesus had to suffer the penalty and consequences of those sins in our place,[11] namely the temporal and eternal death, judgement and wrath that we each deserve due to our individual and corporate sin.[12] Because of this, Jesus died as our “penal substitute”. The “penal” aspect of Jesus’ work on the cross simply means that Jesus suffered the consequences, punishments, and penalties of sin for us, in our place.[13] The Bible paints a picture of a law court, where the judge reads aloud all of our sins and brings down the penalty for our sins. Death. But then, the judge himself comes down from the bench and says to us “I will take the punishment you deserve. I will die in your place.” The famous hymn said it like this:

“In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”[14]

Fourth, Jesus is the “sinless saviour”. Jesus never sinned, but he died with the imparted sin of humanity upon himself on the cross, and as a result suffered the punishment due to us.[15] One of the remarkable things about Jesus’ sinlessness is that he had some younger brothers who came to believe in him. Now I have two younger brothers. They wouldn’t dream in a million years of claiming that I had never ever sinned, not even once. But Jesus’ younger brothers believed that with all the heart! Fifth, Christ died for those the Father has chosen from before the foundation of the world.[16] Sixth, this means that every person is subject to the consequences of their sin and in their natural state are unforgiven and unreconciled with God,[17] but by grace God saves people, to the praise of his glory. Thankfully, we find in Jesus’ work on the cross our deliverance from the “the guilt and power of sin” and a restoration of a “right relationship with God”.[18] Because of the work of Jesus on the cross, we can now begin to contemplate how penal substitution is a helpful framework when considering forgiveness and reconciliation.

So, what’s the problem?

Having said all of this, there are still those who in their own pastoral practice, relationships or evangelism encounters consider penal substitution to be too academic, too abstract, too logical, too controversial to be of any practical pastoral help. I vividly remember two conversations I had with Christian leaders about the doctrine. One told me with tears in their eyes “penal substitution makes me feel physically sick.” Another told me “I just don’t think the ins and outs of how God’s wrath is sorted out has any impact to a single mum on benefits trying to stay above the breadline.” An academic example of this is the criticism of penal substitutionary atonement represented primarily by Timothy Gorringe[19] who critiques the “violence” inherent in penal substitution.[20] Because of this, he is especially critical of penal substitution and its impact upon prisons.[21] This point of view simply suggests that, due to its inherent “violence”, penal substitution is not a helpful framework when discussing the practicalities of the prison system, punishment, forgiveness, reconciliation, the law courts or rehabilitation.

            A similar story continues in many places. In fact, there are many scholars who disagree with penal substitution, and there is a bombardment of criticism against the doctrine! There are writers who object to penal substitution because they do not like the image of God it suggests.[22] Others suggest that it has led to violence and abuse, and as such penal substitution has proved harmful to both humanity and Christianity over time.[23] Others argue that the in emphasising the justice of God results, actually, in a doctrine fraught with injustice.[24] Others simply ridicule the doctrine.[25] Others suggest it is impossible to bring together the just and loving natures of God within penal substitution.[26] Others suggest that the doctrine leads to abuse,[27] and others suggest it leads to the subjugation of women.[28] Critically, in relation to the discussions within this book, some suggest that penal substitution offers little practical and pastoral help to the local Church.

The following chapters in this book seek to look at a series of Bible passages to see what the Bible actually says, and then what observations we can see about the difference this all makes in your life. The now infamous phrase that Steve Chalke coined saying that penal substitution is essentially “cosmic child abuse”[29] is certainly a strawman argument, and caricature of the doctrine. But, when we begin to look at this study of penal substitution, only one thing ultimately matters. The key question to consider is can we find this concept in the pages of the Bible, and can we find the practical outworking of the doctrine in our New Testament? It is my hope that you would become like the Berean Jews of Acts 17, who studied the Scriptures themselves to see if these things are true.[30] All of us are capable of mistakes, all of us need to keep returning to the Scriptures, asking God to speak to us. I believe, even wise and seasoned elders in the faith have a responsibility to replough familiar fields to let the truth of the Gospel strengthen and affirm them.

Nobody ever outgrows Scripture; the book widens and deepens with our years
– C. H. Spurgeon

This is all about “when the rubber hits the road” Christianity. Practical Doctrine. But in all of this, let’s make sure we keep our eyes fixed on the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Application Questions

  1. How do you see the Gospel working itself our practically in your life?
  2. How do you respond to the “problems” raised against penal substitution?
  3. How do you find it helpful to phrase and articulate the Gospel to others?
  4. Having read through the definition of Penal Substitution, how does it make you feel? Does it give you reason to worship?

A Prayer

Righteous Father, I thank you for the death of Jesus Christ in my place. I acknowledge my sins, and my need of someone to come and rescue me. I thank you that you provided a perfect substitute, someone willing to take my place. Please help me to see the power and glory of your Son, Jesus Christ, and what he accomplished on the cross. Please help me also to see the impact of the cross of Jesus Christ upon every area of my Christian life. Thank you for the cross, thank you for saving me, thank you for the Gospel. Amen.


[1] An excellent overview of “motifs” found in the bible related to the cross of Jesus and atonement theory, which includes but is not limited to discussions around substitution (though this is less about “penal” atonement and focusses more specifically upon the substitutionary element, see: F. Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), pp. 207-570. It is also interesting to note that many reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, encouraged us to see the breadth of the atonement. See: F. Leron Shults & S. J. Sandage, The Faces of Forgiveness: Searching for Wholeness and Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 143-148. Yet, penal substitution stands at a core and central place in a Biblical understanding of the work of Christ on the cross.

[2] For an excellent defence and development of penal substitution see: J. I.Packer, Saved by His Precious Blood, in: J. I. Packer & M. Dever, In my Place Condemned He Stood (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), pp.114-124.

[3] Lyrics taken from the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty hymn “In Christ Alone”.

[4] From the Stuart Townend hymn “How Deep the Fathers Love for us”.

[5] I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity Electronic Edition (Colorado Springs; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), p. 3.

[6] Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4. Doug Moo rightly notes how every human being who has ever lived is subject to death. See: D. J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p. 332. Romans 6:23 is often seen as the key Pauline text in this regard.

[7] See Marshall’s expansive study of these topics in Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, pp. 13-20.

[8] It is commendable that Wright tries to bring these motifs of Christ as “representative” and “substitute” together in his discussion of Galatians 3:10-14. See: N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p. 865. However, a significant number of scholars interpret Gal 3:10-14 as one of the strongest biblical examples of penal substitution. See: J. R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), p. 344, and T. George, Galatians, vol. 30, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), p. 240.

[9] Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4. Stott helpfully notes that substitution is firstly the means of God “satisfying” himself, and secondly, God participating in an act of “self-substitution”. See: Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 111-163, especially see p. 111 & 149-156.

[10] Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 139-149. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4.

[11] Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4. This is concurrent with the whole debate regarding propitiation and how Jesus suffers, undergoes, is subject to, the wrath of God. See: Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 102-110, 168-175, 198.

[12] Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4.

[13] Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4.

[14] From the hymn by P. P. Bliss “Man of Sorrows, What a Name”.

[15] For this point see: Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4.Christ taking the punishment we “deserve” is a key aspect of penal substitution. See: D. E. Garland, Mark, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), pp. 598–599. Or: R. T. Kendall, Understanding Theology, Volume One (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 1996), p. 104.

[16] That Christ died for the “elect” is seen by many reformed theologians as analogous to penal substitution. This concept of a “limited atonement” can be found in: L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), p. 393. Limited atonement constitutes the “L” in “TULIP” an acronym intended to capture some core elements of Calvinistic theology. For illustrative purposes see: R. E. Picirilli, Understanding Assurance & Salvation (Nashville Randall House Publications, 2006), v–vi.

[17] An important aspect to discuss is regarding the interpretation of the Greek word ἱλασμός. A discussion of the main views and an argument for Jesus death being a “ἱλασμός” or “propitiation” or a “turning away of God’s wrath” due to our sin is in: D. L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), pp. 253-266.

[18] Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 11.

[19] T. Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). A secondary, supplemental view is given using D. W. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012).

[20] Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance, p. 11.

[21] It is important to note that Gorringe doesn’t really deal with atonement theories as much as with specific theologians such as Anselm and Calvin. For an example, Gorringe says “wherever Calvinism spread, punitive sentencing followed”. See: Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance, p. 140.

[22] Chalke and Mann are perhaps most well-known for the phrase “cosmic child abuse” in relation to penal substitution. See S. Chalke & A. Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 182.

[23] J. B. Green and M. D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000), pp, 30-32. For another review of the alleged “harmful effects” of penal substitution over the course of Christian history, see: J. D. Weaver, Violence in Christian Theology, in M. Trelstad (ed.), Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), pp. 232-239, especially p. 239.

[24] Holmes suggests that it is complete injustice to punish a person for the offenses of another, and as such penal substitution is actually opposed to justice see: S. R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007), pp. 95-96.

[25] For an example of this from within the evangelical community, from an excellent, noteworthy scholar see: T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion (London: SPCK, 2016), pp.37-49, especially see pp. 38-39 for a particularly pointed, if caricatured, critique of penal substitution, that is essentially mockery of the doctrine.

[26] L. D. Peacore, “An evangelical feminist perspective on traditional atonement models.” Ex Auditu 26, (2010): pp. 145-163. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 6, 2018), p. 150.

[27] Peacore, Ex Auditu 26, p. 151.

[28] J. C. Brown and R. Parker, For God So Loved the World?, in: J. C. Brown & C. R. Bohn, (ed.), Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse (New York: Pilgrim, 1989), p. 2, 9. For a similar critique from a feminist perspective, seeking to reject models of atonement like penal substitution in the strongest possible terms, see: D. S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (New York: Orbis Books, 1993), pp. 161-167, especially p. 165.

[29] S. Chalke & A. Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 182.

[30] S. D. Toussaint, “Acts,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), p. 402. Note also, as Toussaint explores, that the Berean’s study of the Scriptures led to great missionary fruit. For the best book available on reading and studying the Scriptures aright see John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: