So, what can be done in the face of all of this wide ranging and varied criticism against penal substitution? Is penal substitution a helpful and practical doctrine? Should the doctrine be ditched altogether? First, in response, many good and thorough defences of penal substitution have been made in recent times. This is a helpful task, and profoundly important. However, this book seeks to advocate how penal substitution as a doctrine can actually offer practical and pastoral help in our thinking and practice. Penal substitution has a distinctly practical and pastoral outworking found throughout the pages of the Bible. However, as we saw earlier, there are many who profess to be Christians yet increasingly want to distance themselves from the doctrine. First, it is important to note that any misuse of a doctrine does not make it false. If I got caught speeding, and tried to say to the judge that it was the cars fault, or the cameras fault, or the laws fault, the judge would simply look at me and say “no, it’s your fault.” I misused the car, but that doesn’t make the car wrong, broken, or worthy of blame. The blame lies with me. In the same way, I encourage you not to think about what other people say about penal substitution, or even what you think and feel, but to hear from the Bible what the Bible says.
It is also important to note, simply, that the death of Christ was violent, in that to be crucified was violent. That is inescapable. But amazingly, the painful, brutal, humiliating execution of a Jewish peasant thousands of years ago, who never owned a car, a house, and ended his life with a handful of friends scattered and scared, that man still changes lives today. For that reason alone, we know that penal substitution can provide real, helpful, pastoral support to those struggling, for example, with feelings of guilt over sin. Therefore, this book will map out how penal substitution is a helpful framework for living the Christian life, specifically in its pastoral outworking in the lives of the people of God. This is so important as penal substitution is the central Christian doctrine without which every other doctrine fails to make sense.
Because of these things, when considering the definition of penal substitution that we looked at earlier, and the current consideration of reconciliation, the concept of sin is important to think about. It is helpful here to be specific. Penal substitution asserts that sin and its consequences are the universal experience of every person, but Christ died as a substitute, in order to make a way to remove sin and its effects from those whom the Father has chosen. Or, as Paul says:
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”
– Ephesians 5:25
As such, Christ takes on sin, its effects, and the due punishment for those sins as a substitute for God’s people. However, until that sin is removed, that sin remains as a barrier to between us and God. But it is also a barrier to living out the Christian life. For example, I moved house recently, just before Christmas. There were huge amounts of boxes, plastics, litter and other items that needed to go to the tip. We decided to store it in the shed until the right time. Then Christmas came, and Christmas in a house with four children means a lot of wrapping paper, card, plastic, and litter. We put it all in the shed to take to the tip. The same happened again in early January when we celebrate three birthdays. Despite the best intentions, the starting of a new job and the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 meant that all of those items sat in the shed for months, until one day I wanted to get the bike out of the shed, which was underneath countless layers of paper, cardboard and plastic which was now all damp, covered in mildew, and home to a whole colony of ants and spiders. Simply put, I needed to get rid of this barrier to get to my bike. The same is true of our sin, but our sin is a barrier that we can do nothing about, we need help.
I have had countless conversations with people who tell me that they are living a good life, they are kind, love their kids, and they just “aren’t that religious.” I have had well-meaning Christians tell me their unbelieving spouse “is just as much of a Christian as I am” due to the good, kind and generous things they do. But everything we do outside of faith in Jesus, even the most altruistic gestures, are simply dirty rags in God’s eyes. The book “Prodigal God” by Tim Keller helps us to see that more clearly. Tim Keller suggests that the parable of “the Prodigal Son” should be referred to as the parable of the “Two Lost Sons.” The younger son is lost because of his bad deeds, the older son is lost because of his good deeds. The younger son comes home realising his need to be be made right with the Father, but the older son remains unrepentant and trusts in his own morality. He has “never disobeyed.” But in the end, the older brother is lost and alienated from the Father not because of his badness, but because he is trusting in his own “goodness.”
Moreover, when defining sin, it is helpful to note that any sin is always against God, and God is both the judge and the victim of every sin. As David says to God after his mistakes with Bathsheba:
“Against you, and you alone, have I sinned”
– Psalm 51:4
Because of this, as judge, God’s justice dictates that sin must be punished, but as victim, God in Christ died a substitutionary death to remove sin and its effects. Therefore, penal substitution has a primary focus on how sin is dealt with and then, how reconciliation can occur. Simply put, sin is the problem that penal substitution seeks to address. Sin is like being stuck at the bottom of an ocean without equipment, ladder, oxygen. There is no way out, and there is nothing we can do. A terrifying situation. We need someone to rescue us.
Penal Substitution and reconciliation to the Father
So how is it that God reconciles humanity to himself? J. I. Packer helpfully talk about the need for the “cancelling” of our debts against God. In the Gospel, our debts against God are removed. I’ve never been in serious debt, but I know those who have. The weight and pressure of financial debt can feel impossible to bear, and sometimes as a person in debt you can’t help but wonder what it would be like if some millionaire somewhere came along and paid your debt. Cancelled it. Completely. The debt can’t simply be forgiven, it has to be paid for in full. Only then can you be free! The same is true of our debt of sin. It needs to be paid. It needs to be cancelled. Payment must be made. But then, reconciliation to the Father can occur. Therefore, penal substitution is the way, the means, through which a person may be reconciled to God, because the costs of a person’s sin are borne by Christ on the cross.
Reconciliation is one of the most powerful themes that can resonate to the bottom of our hearts. I remember before I got married my wife, she went away on missions for three months. It was agony. But then that moment of reconciliation when I picked her up from the airport and saw her coming through the gates was wonderful. Imagine the moment of reconciliation for Nelson Mandela when he saw his wife for the first time in 22 years after being released from imprisonment on Robben Island. Imagine the moment of reconciliation of families, wives, and children waiting for boys to come back from the First and Second World Wars. Remember the reconciliation at the heart of the Father’s embrace of the prodigal. Reconciliation has a powerful place at the centre of the Gospel. As Peter reminds us, Christ died in order to bring us to God.
The first letter of Peter and penal substitution
It is important that we begin by asking how this concept is worked out in the pages of the New Testament. Specifically, that penal substitution, namely the death of Jesus in our place to remove sins, propitiate God’s wrath, fulfil the Scriptures, redeem, forgive, ransom a people, and bring us into relationship with the Father, all to the praise of his glory, has a practical and pastoral outworking. Penal substitution is glorious, wonderful, helpful, and practical. We see that on full display in Peter’s first epistle, when Peter says the following:
“For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.”
– 1 Peter 3:17-18
We can see straight away from these verses a clear explanation of the Gospel, and our reconciliation to God. We see that Christ suffered. A key concept. But we see also that Christ suffered one time for something. Namely, Christ died once for sins. Not simply “sin” in an abstract sense, but “sins.” When we begin to question what Peter meant by that, he continues to expand. Christ suffered, Christ died, as a righteous figure in the place of those who are unrighteous. We see here a substitutionary core, but also a “penal” element to what Peter is saying. He died in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous. But he also suffered, was punished, due to the sins of the unrighteous. But there was still an express purpose for Jesus in doing those things. Christ died a penal substitutionary death for a purpose in 1 Peter 3:17-18. Namely, to bring us to God. Here we see divine reconciliation taking place through the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on a cross outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
But we can see also an incredible pastoral outworking in the book of 1 Peter. In the context, Peter is advising his audience what they should do when people “speak maliciously” about Christians and the Church. When they or members of their Church are “slandered”, what are disciples of Jesus called to do? Peter is also talking here about Christian mission and evangelism, giving people “the reason for the hope” that we have. This is an incredibly practical and pastoral situation that Peter is trying to address with the Gospel. We see this emphasised in the word “for” at the start of 1 Peter 3:18. Why is it better to suffer for doing good? Why should Christians be prepared to witness for Jesus? Why should Christians be willing to overlook and forgive people speaking badly about them? Why should Christians be willing to endure under external pressure? Why should Christians not fear the threats and taunts of those outside of the Church? 1 Peter 3:18 answers with a loud exclamation. For! Because! Because Jesus died a penal substitutionary death in our place to bring us forgiveness and reconciliation to the Father, and because of that, these practical and pastoral situations can be addressed in light of, and because of, the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Because Christ died once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. Because of that, on the basis of that, we should witness, stand up under pressure, be faithful, endure suffering and hardship, forgive, be reconciled to those who slander us and so much more.
The logic here is beautiful. Is someone slandering you right now? Are people speaking ill of you? Are people giving you a bad name? Well then, remember how God redeemed you to himself through the death of Jesus. They may speak bad things about you, but they spat on Jesus. They may laugh at you in the workplace, but they mocked Jesus with purple robes and a crown of thorns. They may slander you, but they accused the Son of God of blasphemy. One of the most natural things we all experience is the pain we feel when people speaking maliciously about us, especially when it’s not true. But remember, that is exactly what happened to Jesus. Peter also reminds us that each one of us is going to go through suffering in our lives. Maybe that’s you right now, and you are struggling with sickness, joblessness, pain, loss, depression, or ten thousand other things that may weigh down your soul. One of the antidotes that Peter turns our eyes to is the penal substitutionary death of Jesus. Simply put, you can face whatever comes because of the atoning death of Jesus in your place. Peter also links the importance of this doctrine to our outreach and evangelism. Just like David’s mighty men were willing to fight through the enemy lines to get David a drink from the well at Bethlehem, how desperate are we to help people to drink from the well of living water. Penal substitution, according to Peter at least, is meant to spur us on to see others reconciled to, and enjoying relationship with, the Father. This connection between reconciliation with the Father through the death of the Son is meant to teach us explicitly how to share the Gospel and how to stand up when people slander, malign and speak ill of us. I hope you are beginning to see that, for the New Testament writers, penal substitutionary atonement is at its heart a practical doctrine.
Let’s think about this practically then. Peter is telling us that our sin is gone, and we are reconciled to the Father because of the sin bearing, wrath absorbing, life-giving death of Jesus in our place. That reality, Peter says, should have total control over what we say. Remember that the letter of James says that what we say is a good barometer of our faith. In both practical aspects Peter is talking about talking! In the first case, Peter is talking to us about speaking in response to people illtreating and maligning us. In the second case, Peter is talking about how, when, and why we should speak about the saving power of the Gospel. The heart of what is going on here is this. Your reconciliation with the Father through the death of Jesus should have a profound impact on what you say. Different situations may come. Sometimes you may need you need to defend yourself, other times you may be able to share the Gospel, other times you may feel attacked, other times you may feel overwhelmed. All of that should be filtered through the reality of our right standing with God because of the cross.
- How does the Gospel encourage you to tell others about Jesus?
- How does the penal substitutionary death of Jesus help us endure hard times?
- When people slander us and speak badly of us, how does the death of Jesus teach us how to respond? What parts of the story of Jesus’ death stand out to you?
- What pressure do you need the help of God to stand up under? – What does the Gospel do to help you in these times?
Holy Father, I am confident of the hope we have in Jesus. Because of him I can see the staggering lengths you would go to for love. I see the depths you went to in order to bring me to yourself. Would you overflow with divine power in my life. Help me to be your witness, help me to stand up under pressure, and help me to know how to respond when people speak badly about me. Above all, help me to see Jesus, and his work on the cross, more clearly than ever. Amen.
 Tim Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the heart of the Christian faith (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009).
 For a series of common “problems” related with penal substitution and some associated solutions, see: G. Williams, Penal Substitution: A response to recent criticisms, in D. Tidball, D. Hillborn, & J. Thacker (ed.), The Atonement Debate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), pp. 172-191. Moreover, the following book has a rather lengthy and very helpful section devoted to this: S. Jeffery, M. Ovey & A. Sach, Pierced For Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitutions (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), Part 2: Answering the Critics, pp. 205-328.
 D. Tidball, Penal Substitution: a pastoral apologetic, in: D. Tidball, D. Hilborn & J. Thacker, The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London symposium on the theology of atonement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), p. 349. Moreover, an argument Stott makes is that simply not liking a doctrine does not make it untrue. See: Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 10.
 Tidball, The Atonement Debate, p. 349. John Stott highlights how “cruel”, painful and humiliating crucifixion would have been in Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 23-25.
 Tidball, The Atonement Debate, p. 347.
 Nicole argues that penal substitution is the “linchpin” of Christian doctrine. Nicole seeks to argue that without the doctrine of penal substitution much other Christian doctrine fails to be complete, and that the only way to understand Christ’s death as an exemplar, God’s sovereignty and justice, victory over sin and death, and other motifs are when viewed through a lens of penal substitution. See: R. Nicole, Postscript on Penal Substitution, in: C. E. Hill & F. A. James III, The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 445-452.
 Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 3-4. That Christ “bore” our sins as a substitute is seen in: Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 141-144. This is set as an argument in a much larger argument that Christ died specifically as a substitutionary atonement and sacrifice, see: Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 133-163, especially pp. 133-134.
 Kruse, The Letters of John, pp. 74-75.
 See the work of D. A. Carson, Atonement in Romans, in: C. E. Hill & F. A. James III (ed.), The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 132. This same position is held by Tidball, The Atonement Debate, p. 347. John Stott also makes the argument that sin is always against God, see Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 90.
 Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 11.
 Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 57. Perhaps more than this, some scholars suggest that penal substitution is also the means through which people can be assured of forgiveness. See: Tidball, The Atonement Debate, p. 348.