As the pages of this blog testify, I gladly affirm the doctrine of penal substitution (PS).
The line I have tended to take is that this doctrine is one of a number of equally-valid and equally-important facets of atonement as taught in Scripture. It takes its place alongside images such as ransom, reconciliation, ‘Christus Victor’, and so on.
I have been aware that a significant body of evangelicals regard PS as the pre-eminent account of the atonement. All the others are entailments that flow from this great central truth.
I want, in this post, to examine this claim.
Stephen J. Wellum (on whose article much of what follows is based) notes that the church did not, in its historic confessions, privilege any one understanding of the atonement over others. But this should not prevent us from returning to Scripture to see whether one understanding is, in fact, more central than others.
Wellum maintains that PS is the core atonement doctrine, and not just one view among others. He does not deny that other images and explanations are taught in the Bible. But none of these addresses ‘the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God.’ They form legitimate parts of the superstructure, but PS is the foundation.
D.A. Carson agrees:
‘I think it can be shown (though it would take a very long chapter to do it) that if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is…grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. The way Christ triumphs over sin and death is by becoming a curse for us, by satisfying the just demands of his heavenly Father, thereby silencing the accuser, and rising in triumph in resurrection splendor because sin has done its worst and been defeated by the One who bore its penalty. Moreover, in the light of such immeasurable love, there are inevitably exemplary moral commitments that Christ’s followers must undertake. In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.’
To be specific:
Recapitulation theology stresses Christ’s identification with fallen humanity. Our Saviour reverses the effects of Adam’s falls and restores immortality to us and reconciles us to God. This view reflects a number of important biblical truths, not least in setting forth Christ as our representative and our substitute. But its main focus is on what sin has done to us, rather than on the problem of our own sin before God and the need to avert God’s righteous judgment on that sin.
This approach rightly stresses our solidarity with Adam, and that Christ, the second Adam, provides covenant obedience in place of Adam’s disobedience. But God’s holy nature requires not only covenantal representation but also propitiatory sacrifice, and this is not provided for in the doctrine of recapitulation.
Christus Victor presents Christ as triumphing over the powers of sin, death, and Satan. This theme is clearly taught in Scripture (Gen 3:15; John 12:31–33; Col 2:13–15; Heb 2:14–16; Rev 12:1–12). But it cannot be regarded as central, because it is the powers (not God) which are presented as the objects of Christ’s atonement work.
Christus Victor rightly celebrates Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil. But it doesn’t give a central place to the problem of human sin before a righteous God. According to this approach, humans are victims of sin, more than they are perpetrators. The powers of evil are only problems to us because of our sin before God (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23; Heb 2:14–15). Our biggest problem is within, not outside. It is only when our sin is dealt with that the powers are destroyed (Col 2:13–15; 1 Cor 15:55–57).
The moral influence view presents Christ’s death as a revelation of God’s love and as an example for us to follow. But, taken on its own, it privileges divine love over divine justice and implies that God can forgive sins without that divine justice being satisfied. Again, the main object of the cross is not God, but us.
It is true the Scripture presents Christ’s death as a great moral example to us all (John 13:12–17; Eph 5:1–2, 25–27; Phil 2:5–11; 1 Pet 2:18–25). But this by no means displaces the sin-bearing aspect of Christ’s death. In fact, the cross only works as an example of love as it releases us from the grip of sin (1 John 4:7–10). Jesus is a rescuer from sin, and only then does he become an example to follow.
The governmental view denies that God requires full satisfaction for human sin. His law (according to this view) is external to himself and therefore relaxed, so that sinners can find mercy. But, actually, God’s justice is not external to himself, and cannot therefore be simply ‘trumped’ by his love. The cross upholds God’s moral governance of his universe and shows both his hatred for sin and how sin has been paid for in full.
Again, Jesus does show solidarity with the human race by his incarnation, obedience life, and painful death. But solidarity is not the same as atonement: it is its prerequisite. We need a Saviour who not only lives and dies like us, but one who lives and dies for us.
Something similar might be said about a therapeutic understanding of the atonement. ‘By his wounds you have been healed’ writes Peter (1 Pet 2:24), quoting Isaiah 53. But this very citation is used by the apostle to illuminate a penal substitutionary understanding of the death of Christ, who ‘bore our sins in his body on the tree.’ In this very text, then, atonement as healing is linked is traced back to atonement as penal substitution.
On its own, a therapeutic model ‘shifts from the glory of God to the good accomplished for human beings. We diminish the objective work of Christ and exalt the subjective experience of people. Sin may be so redefined that it becomes a disease that disfigures us instead of being a radical egocentricity, pride and rebellion that corrupts and condemns us.’ (Schreiner, in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, p. 80)
Some Christians today express a strong preference for a relational, rather than a forensic, understanding of the meaning of the cross. The focus then would be on reconciliation, rather than on justification. To be sure, would should by no means jettison such an approach. But the one should not be valued at the expense of the other. Put simply: ‘the reason human beings need to be reconciled to God is because of their sin and guilt…’ (Schreiner, p80). And God has effected that reconciliation through the sin-bearing work of his Son on the cross.
Penal substitution does not contradict the very real insights offered by these other approaches. Rather, ‘it contends that central to the cross is God the Son incarnate acting as our new covenant representative and substitute to satisfy fully the triune God’s righteous demand against us due to our sin.’
Without penal substitution there would be no restoration of humanity, no victory over the powers, no revelation of divine love. PS is uniquely important, because it focuses upon God himself as the supreme object of atonement. It is not some external law that has been offended by human sin; God himself has been offended. God cannot tolerate sin (Hab 1:12–13; Isa 1:4–20; 35:8); he must act in holy justice against it (Gen 18:25; Rom 3:21–26; Heb 9:15–22), or else deny himself. In order for God to justify the ungodly (Rom 4:5), sin must be paid for, its penalty fully borne.
For all their value and validity, other understandings of the atonement, then, fail to address the central problem that the cross remedies, namely, the problem our our sin before God.
Other theologies of the cross emphasise its horizontal effects – on us, or on the powers of evil. The doctrine of penal substitution, however, stresses its vertical effects. God, in the person of his Son, bears his own righteous demands, so that we might be acquitted before him (Rom 5:1f).
J.I. Packer traces all of the blessings and benefits of the Cross back to the doctrine of penal substitution:
What did Christ’s death accomplish? It redeemed us to God—purchased us at a price, that is, from captivity to sin for the freedom of life with God (Tit 2:14; Rev 5:9). How did it do that? By being a blood-sacrifice for our sins (Eph 1:7; Heb 9:11–15). How did that sacrifice have its redemptive effect? By making peace, achieving reconciliation, and so ending enmity between God and ourselves (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18–20; Eph 2:13–16; Col 1:19–20). How did Christ’s death make peace? By being a propitiation, an offering appointed by God himself to dissolve his judicial wrath against us by removing our sins from his sight (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10). How did the Savior’s self-sacrifice have this propitiatory effect? By being a vicarious enduring of the retribution declared due to us by God’s own law (Gal 3:13; Col 2:13–14)—in other words, by penal substitution. (The Atonement in the Life of the Christian)
Sam Storms puts it like this:
Satan was defeated and his power vanquished because the guilt of mankind by which he held us in his clutches was imputed to Christ and its penalty endured and exhausted by Christ (Colossians 2:13-15). We are profoundly moved and stirred by the example of his sacrifice because therein “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The imago Dei is restored and the effects of Adam’s fall were reversed and God’s righteous rule was vindicated (Romans 3:21-26) because Jesus, as an expression of the incomparable love of God for sinners (Romans 5:8), voluntarily suffered the penal consequences of the law of God, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18), and died our death “by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
In other words, the primary problem to be resolved is not that we need an example of how to be good, nor that evil powers are arrayed against, nor even that our sin has brought untold misery upon ourselves. The main problem is that we have sinned against God, and lie under his wrath until his own remedy is provided and applied. Only the doctrine of penal substitution addresses this central problem, and only that doctrine can best account for why Jesus had to die, and why he alone can save.
Scott McKnight trains his sights on Tom Schreiner (referenced above) for his advocacy of the ‘PS-Central’ position. I find much of McKnight’s criticism weak, insisting as he does that Schreiner is driven by a theological need to find penal substitution in text where it does not belong, and to emphasise it more than the NT texts themselves do.
As for more substantive argument, McKnight suggests that for PS to be accorded a central place in our theology of the atonement, any of a number of things would have to apply:
- We might seek to demonstrate that a majority of atonement texts clearly advocate PS. But they do not.
- We might seek to isolate the single more important text about the atonement, and show that PS reveals itself prominently there as a controlling metaphor. But this is not possible.
- We might contend that when a New Testament writer offers another way of explaining the atonement (e.g. the Christus Victor motif in Col 2:13-15), he then reverts to PS in order to explain it more fully. But this does not happen.
- We might look for a NT author who explicitly states that PS is of unique and central importance. But none does.
- We might choose (as Schreiner does, according to McKnight) to favour the PS model and then force everything else through that lens, claiming that our ability to do so proves the point about the centrality of PS.
Actually, although in McKnight’s hands, this last point is a pretty weak caricature, it is the nearest to what Schreiner actually does. But Schreiner’s argument is stronger that McKnight supposes (and Storms’ argument is, although similar, yet stronger in my opinion). The point they are making is that the other explanations of the atonement (Christus Victor, moral influence, and so on) presuppose penal substitution in ways that penal substitution does not presuppose them. It is this consideration, more than any, that gives weight to a ‘PS-central’ position.