Penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is not a single doctrine. As the name suggests, the doctrine comprises theological principles like a penalty for sin, a substitutionary saviour, and a particular vision of the atonement. And actually, it draws from even more theological first principles than this list.
The composite nature of PSA explains why few Christians before the reformation defined PSA exactly as the Reformed did, while most pre-reformation Christians affirmed the first principles that would make up the doctrine. Hence, the historical plausibility of PSA derives from the fact that each of its theological first principles finds clear affirmation among Christians and Scripture. So its composite conclusion not only follows from these but also has its roots in 2,000 years of church history.
These first principles include: God is just, we are unjust, and the man who ascended the cross substituted himself for us to bring us salvation. Put together, PSA makes good, biblical sense. And stated in this way, it is obvious how Christians throughout the ages have affirmed these biblical teachings using different idioms of theology. In the following, I explain these theological first principles, albeit in short form.
While interceding for Sodom, Abraham rhetorically asks God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25). His point is that God as universal judge is just. God confirms this supposition by responding, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake” (v. 26). We learn here that God will save the unrighteous through a righteous substitute since it would not be right to punish a righteous person—in this case, fifty such persons.
Scripture consistently presents God as a just judge. He gave the law to Sinai in which principles of justice lie out for all to see. When he reveals the meaning of his name through his pluriform attributes, he not only affirms his will to forgive but also that he will “by no means clear the guilty” (Exod 34:7).
His justice, however, works together with his patience and compassion. For his chosen people, he gave the law and sacrificial system to offer forgiveness, to encourage holiness, and to sustain fellowship with God and others. To gentiles, he not only offered Israel as a revelation of himself but also patiently passed by their sins to give full opportunity for repentance.
He also distinguishes between willing and unwilling sins. The former primarily has punitive consequences while the latter seems more restorative since restoration to the community is the end-goal (Num 15:27–31).
Christians, therefore, affirm the goodness of God’s justice. God rightly punishes us for our sins according to our works. He is neither too unjust nor too lenient; he often surprisingly will give the grace of forgiveness while at other times will administer justice directly.
So God is just, and he so chooses to administer justice according to his divine will. He created us with the capacity for culture—agriculture, horticulture, politico-culture, and so on. So society forms on the basis of human capacity for order and community. God chooses to work through these human means to manifest his justice—through law codes, covenants, and so on.
This divine accommodation, however, does not mean God allowed Israel to have wrong views about God or that God merely is an artifact of human culture. Within the culture of the world, God breaks in and establishes his kingdom whether through the idiom of ANE law codes or the New Covenant in his blood.
The entire preaching ministry of the church brings about the miracle of salvation through human means and Spiritual application of these means. God just works this way. And it allows us to understand his justice from our human perspective. In this general sense, everything God does is anthropomorphic—done in a way to communicate to humans. God lovingly accommodates himself to us without compromising his Being or Truth.
We inherit sin from our original father, Adam. Death follows sin. Everyone dies. So it is obvious that everyone sins as Paul reasons in Romans 5. More than that, experience teaches us that nobody is free from sin. As anybody can affirm, evil acts should be punished. Good acts should be rewarded. So God, just rulers, and parents do just that. It follows that God should punish the perpetrators of evil for their wrongdoing.
A murderer should be stopped. His victim should be vindicated. We sin and sin badly. Even from birth, sin threads through our bodies. David writes, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). So we are sinful at birth, and we act sinfully throughout life. Both the son that we are born into and the sins that we commit warrant judgment.
Still, it is hard to understand how an infant could be judged as a sinner and so condemned to eternal conscious suffering. And this is why many Christians affirm that God saves children and the mentally disabled when they die. Put positively, every baby who dies is elect. In practice, then, God does not condemn someone until they can be accountable for their own actions.
Some Reformed thinkers do affirm that unbaptized babies enter into eternal perdition. For example, Peter Vermigli pleads ignorance on how this works exactly, yet affirms that unregenerate infants will enter hell. He qualifies his assertion: “Since they did not add actual sins to their original sin, they will be punished more lightly”. He then adds:
“Yet, I always except the children of the saints, because we do not hesitate to count them among believers, although they do not in reality believe yet because of their age. We do not reckon the children of infidels among believers, though in and of themselves they are not rejecting the faith. From this, believers’ children who have died without being baptized, because of the covenant that God struck with the parents, can be saved, if they are predestined as well. I will except any others too who are predestined by the hidden council of God” (“On Original Sin,” in Commonplaces, Ch 11).
We should not be so quick to dismiss Vermigli since he follows through on the doctrine of original sin. If we have original sin and that sin condemns us, then infants are too “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3).
Still, I do not think we need to foray into the forest too far here. For my part, I cling to the words of Jesus when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt 19:14). Other passages in Scripture suggest that God does not condemn someone who, for example, does not their right from their left, which may refer to children (e.g., Jonah 4:11).
If Jesus’ words above do signify child salvation, we can better specify the doctrine of original sin. Original sin corrupts the whole person. Everything we do, even the good deeds, have some taint of evil in them. And such ancestral sin metaphysically is sufficient to condemn us—but actually does so when we knowingly sin. Some call this teaching the age of accountability. In any case, it is not necessary to make a decision here to understand our unjust status and actions.
Original sin points to: (1) our birth into sinful existence, (2) our metaphysical state of sinfulness via imputation of Adam’s guilt, and (3) our corporate solidarity with sinful humanity. From original sin, we also all (4) actively sin and so are worthy of condemnation not just due to original sin but also due to willing sin.
Each of these four major premises requires resolution. Yet sin so pervades our affections, intellect, and will that we cannot possibly live a perfect life and so avoid justice; and we cannot possibly substitute ourselves for the whole human race since we do not stand in the place of first progenitor (Adam) nor do we possess a common humanity that can affect a change in other particular human persons (like Christ).
In short, we need a substitute.
Christ uniquely can be our substitute because:
(1) Christ has the power of an incorruptible life through his union of divinity and humanity (i.e., the hypostatic union). Therefore, he overcame sin, and death could not hold him in its grasp. He is Life, and so he broke death.
(2) Christ has the power of a common nature without a specific human person in that nature. The only person in Christ is the Logos. The Logos is God, and God assumed humanity—always remaining one discrete individual person—the Logos, the Son of God. In light of this, Christ can head the whole mass of humanity since he represents the whole lump of humanity rather than just an individual human person. Theologians call this his anhypostatic union with humanity.
(3) Christ has the power of a Davidic lineage so by logic of corporate solidarity and covenant, he may represent Israel as their king, their priest, and their prophet. He further traces his lineage to Adam (as do we all) which points to what the second Adam can accomplish—the reversal of all that the first Adam wrought upon humanity.
(4) Christ by logic of a common humanity recapitalized the story of Israel and Adam in himself and perfected humanity. Matthew’s Gospel book particularly traces Christ as the New Israel who “fulfills” the Scripture by succeeding where Israel failed. Luke does much the same but traces his lineage to Adam, showing all humanity is in view. Mark announces that all the good promises of God are fulfilled in Jesus by his opening citations of Israel’s scripture.
John, like an eagle soaring above the rest, opens Christ’s salvation to all who confess him to be the Christ—he who descended and ascended the cross for us and for our salvation.
If God holds the guilty accountable yet forgives the repentant, then how can he forgive sin without making justice seem contrived? One answer is that God could punish the evil of humanity through one act. Yet to do so requires, it would seem, a unique kind of person.
I (Wyatt) cannot substitute for another individual. At best, I may be able to represent my family. But I still cannot atone for the sins of my child. Paul wishes he could do that with his family according to Jewish lineage, yet he knows that he cannot (Rom 9:3).
Somehow, the man Jesus Christ can do so. How? Some argue that Jesus has infinite worth due to his divine nature, and so he alone can forgive sins against an infinite God. Sin on this paradigm deserves infinite punishment due its offense against an infinite being. Jonathan Edwards held to this view, and its precursor exists in Anselm of Canterbury.
The major wrench in this argument is that Jesus was truly human. He took on human flesh which is thereby circumscribed and not infinite. The point here is that his flesh is mortal like ours; he took on flesh and blood like us to die for our sake (Heb 2:14; John 1:14). So while we cannot fully discount the infinity theory, it requires further elaboration to work—at least in my estimation.
A clearer logic finds its basis in the history of Israel and in the metaphysical paradigm that Israel’s history points towards. The three offices of prophet, priest, and king signal certain realities to us and clarify the identity of Jesus. As prophet, Jesus announces the Word of God. As (melchizedekian) priest, Jesus can make atonement for our sins. As king, Jesus represents all his people (and so can be a substitute).
These make historical and typological sense. Yet these facts of redemption work because of metaphysical causes that undergird them. Jesus can speak the Word of God because he, the Word, hypostatically unites to humanity (John 1:14). Jesus can atone for the sins of his people because of his perfect life which recapitulates and perfects humanity in his body of flesh (e.g., 1 Cor 15:45, 50). And he can vicariously represents humanity because he assumed a personal human nature, which is common to all (Heb 2:14).
Anyone who by faith and through the Spirit unites to the body of Christ therefore partakes of all that he is: perfected humanity, sinless humanity, death overcoming humanity, united to God humanity, incorruptible humanity, immortal humanity, and so on (e.g., 1 Cor 1:30). The Spirit mediates the perfected body of Christ to us such that Scripture claims that we are Christ’s very body by the Spirit’s indwelling and uniting work (Eph 2:19–22; 4:15–16; 1 Cor 6:15–20; 1 Cor 12–14, etc.).
Christ is the head—we the body. We are in Christ and are his body. This Spiritual body is no mere fiction, but a real Spiritual participation in Christ through whom we have access to the Father. And it is a triune indwelling. As Jesus explains, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23).
From this, Jesus’ whole life-lived as prophet, priest, and king happened for us and for our salvation, and even now he lives always to make intercession for us (Heb 7:25). At the cross in particular, he bears the burden of sin on behalf of humanity and dies the death we should die due to our sin to satisfy the wrath of God.
In this satisfaction, God “condemned sin in the flesh” of Jesus (Rom 8:3). “In the flesh” here is key. The assumed flesh, the humanity of Christ, bore the sin that deserved wrath. And in his body, he bore our sickness, our evil, and underwent the penalty for our sin—namely, death.
Our penalty went to the grave with him because he nailed our sins to the cross. Yet being forgiven but mortal means that we cannot return to God. So he also broke death. He is Life itself. So he tore down the doors of sheol in his victory over death. In so doing, he disarmed Satan who enslaves humanity through the fear of death (Heb 2:14–15).
In this way, Christ satisfied God’s justice through his life and death in the flesh before overcoming death and Satan. Lastly, through our Spiritual union with him by which all these benefits are mediated to us, we have the Spirit making his home in us—hence, no cosmic power—whether thrones or dominions—may over come us. We are overcomers—guaranteed.
The logic of PSA flows out Scripture, has deep roots in history, and fits into Christian metaphysics. In short, it is coherent and explains how our sins may be forgiven, how death may be overcome, and how Satan’s head gets crushed.