In recent years, many have argued that Penal Substitution is not true. They argue that God could not possibly expend his wrath on the Son of God in our place; he could not stand condemned for us and for our salvation. For them it’s simply not true.
Whenever I hear arguments against penal substitution, they interest me. I want to gain a closer look at the truth, and so I am open to listening to others. But whatever the argument is (and however good it sounds), we always need to step back and ask: Yes, but is it true?
Or better: Yes, but is penal substitution true?
Whatever you think or feel about the doctrine, we must ask: does the Bible teach it? Even if it abhors or scares us.
We must be relentlessly biblical.
And you know what. When we come to understand and to accept the Bible’s message, the abhorrence and fear melts away. You come to see that God is beautiful and that whatever he does is beautiful, good, and right.
What Is Penal Substitution?
Penal substitution is based on the belief that God is love and holy. Because he is holy, he hates sin and must punish it justly. Because he is love, he is not willing that any should perish. So, God becomes man. And he lives among us perfectly. He then dies an unjust death on our behalf. He receives the wrath of God due to us. The Father punishes sin in the Son in our place. He puts sin and death to rest on the cross and in the resurrection.
Many, however, find this doctrine abhorrent.
The Arguments against Penal Substitution
First, some argue penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) approximates Greek myths and theology (a anachronistic term, but alas). Greco-Roman thinking held that the gods were wrathful. They needed to be appeased by sacrifice to propitiate them.
This critique correctly identifies a greco-roman view of propitiation and gives those who hold to PSA a helpful warning. But, PSA goes beyond greco-roman worship. It says that God himself became our ransom, our sacrificial lamb. God loved the world in this way: he sent his only Son to live, die, rise, and reign over it.
It is quite different than the greco-roman views of propitiation. And so this argument is not convincing.
Related to this, some argue that PSA is a medieval invention. I’ve responded to this accusation here.
Second, some argue that the violent atonement that PSA outlines cannot be true because God is not violent. He is a good, loving God. Greg Boyd’s recent book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God argues that the violent God of the OT is a human imposition of who they thought God was. At the cross, God shows us who he really is.
But that undervalues the testimony of the Old Testament being an inspired witness to God. The whole Bible truthfully speaks of God.
Third, some argue that PSA should be likened to child abuse, because the Father punishes the Son.
The problem here is that human analogies about a God cannot fully reveal God. God’s being transcends our ability to understand him in his being. He is invisible, almighty, and his ways are inscrutable. While human examples can help us to understand God, we cannot press them too far. God is not like us.
Such an analogy is also backwards. It starts with sinful people and applies itself to a sinless God. He cannot be likened to an angry Father who unjustly assaults his son.
Fourth, some argue that PSA divides the Trinity because one person (the Father) expends his wrath on the Son. To answer this complaint, we need to spend some time thinking through the Trinitarian implications of PSA.
The Trinitarian Mystery of the Cross
We confess that God is one: One Father, One Son, One Spirit. He is not three beings but one being in three persons.
If one person (Father) expends his wrath on the Son, then it implies that the Trinity works separately; that is, it implies that two beings with two wills exist, one willing to expend his wrath and the other to receive it. It also implies that God has two parts (Father and Son).
So, it implies that God is two, is made up of parts, of separate wills.
But we confess that God is one. As one God, he has one will because he is ONE being. He is not made up of parts; he not like us.
So, how do you avoid Trinitarian heresy and affirm PSA?
The Father and Son inseparately will to experience the wrath of God according to the humanity of Christ (not through the humanity of Christ). Thus, God and all that is in God experienced death according to the humanity of Christ.
The Son of God eternally assumed human flesh, becoming one person with two natures: divine and human. His human nature can die, his divine cannot. And so the Son can experience death according to his humanity. And whatever the Son does, so does the Father. And whatever the Father wills, so does the Son. They have one will, one power, and one being.
So God, which includes all that is in God, experiences death when the Father and Son will to unleash the wrath of God on Christ.
The one God, the divine triad, works inseparately for us and for our salvation on the cross of Jesus Christ. There is no Trinitarian division.
But Is It in the Bible?
Why spend time carefully articulating the Trinitarian mystery of the cross? Because the Bible teaches PSA, and we must hold the truth of Scripture consistently.
The Old Testament continually testifies that God punishes sin and that he requires a sacrifice to atone for sin (Leviticus). Romans 3:25–26 reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
And so Christ came as a sacrifice to atone for sin. The syntax of the Old Testament sacrificial system lies behind these statements. God punishes sins. He requires a blood sacrifice. And Christ is ours. He is our passover lamb.
The Bible simply teaches PSA. The arguments against PSA may sound good, but they cannot overturn the clear teaching of PSA in Scripture. It’s there. And while we may need to modify how we talk about the atonement in light of new arguments or clearer explanations of Scripture, the Bible speaks of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for our sins. We must confess, at the very least, just that: Christ died for our sins, so that we could come to God. And this is a beautiful truth.
Richard Paulson says
To all of God’s children (who have ears to hear).
Penal substitution is not the heart of the gospel, it is the heart of evil. Justice is not satisfied by punishing the innocent. It is the worst injustice that the innocent God would be punished for our sins. Obviously it cannot be true.
I believe that penal substitution along with original sin are the two biggest lies against the gospel of Jesus Christ. These doctrines subtly deny the meaning of Jesus Christ come in the flesh and his dying on the cross for us; which was to prove the ignorant children of God innocent of all sin to God the Father through the body of Jesus Christ.
The churches worldwide are deceived by abuse and offers an abusive “gospel” in condemning all people as deserving of death and hell. They deny the good news which is that Jesus died to prove his children innocent to God. This is abundantly revealed in Scripture, which God has shown to me clearly, because he delivered me from the words of men, and the selective Scripture reading which Satan uses to delude people into believing they are truly guilty of sin.
The churches deny that Jesus took away sin by saying that Jesus paid for sin. Jesus did not pay for sin, he took away sin, meaning that he showed that although under the law, guilt for sin is declared, we are justified (proved innocent) by the blood of Jesus Christ. Sin taken away means that through Jesus we are proved innocent to God. Jesus proving our innocence is what was needed for man to be reconciled to God.
Only the children of the devil, who become so, by freely choosing to take pleasure in sin, knowing the truth, and preferring darkness to light, are damned forever. To be truly guilty of sin destines one to eternity in the lake of fire. To be truly innocent destines one to eternity in Paradise. God’s judgment is just, and only the truly righteous can have eternal life, just as only the truly wicked can have eternal punishment.
I hear people quote always that the wages of sin is death for “all”, however this is not true for the repentant who did not mean to sin. (The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak). The wages of sin is not death for the repentant because the repentant do not earn such wages. In the book of Revelation it is stated that those who keep God’s commandments have the “right” to the tree of life. They certainly then cannot have deserved and cannot deserve eternal death or any death at all.
God has shown me exactly the meaning of the atonement: why Jesus died, and even how the cross of Christ works in the heart of God, and exactly how the world was reconciled to God. This is the most important truth which God wants me to share with his children.
I am happy to share much more as God’s will is for me to establish the truth in the hearts and minds of God’s people.
God bless you,
Wendy FC says
You say… “The Old Testament continually testifies that God punishes sin and that he requires a sacrifice to atone for sin (Leviticus). ” Err – why not actually read it? Levitical sacrifices are about cleansing and forgiveness, but nothing to do with punishment. God is not punishing the house with mildew, nor the Altar and Tent of Meeting, nor the woman who has just given birth etc. You cannot re-purpose Leviticus to make it about ‘punishing’ sin. There is no ‘punish’ in the text.
You claim “Romans 3:25–26 reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” Err- no it doesn’t. The NT was written in GREEK. And the Greek text does not say anything about leaving sins ‘unpunished’. God purposefully and in total demonstration of his righteousness ‘passed over’ sins previously committed. And it was ‘just’ of Him to do so (because, you see, his justice is all about MERCY (Zech 7:9))
God requires mercy NOT sacrifice (and Jesus already drummed that one home twice).
PSA takes the Bible on a massive leap beyond (and in direct denial of) what is actually written.
Jonathan Grandt says
Amen amen and amen! Boom.. preach.
With PSA THERE IS NO MERCY.
Jonathan Grandt says
You claim that God cannot let sin go unpunished… that THIS is because of His holiness. This proves that you completely misunderstand God’s Holiness and Mercy. I could show folks like you time and time again where God forgives without anyone having to be tortured for it, and you will come back and say, “no no n-n-n-no no… God punished Jesus FOR the sins of Nineveh too!”
You people are obsessed with someone needing to pay for sin.
Lol… the Bible SAYS this over and over. He casts the sins into the sea of forgetfulness, not upon an innocent man so that He can kill him.
Penal Substitution… because I can’t forgive you unless I hurt someone first… and sometimes that someone is Myself..
Joseph Kuzara says
By stating that Yeshua’s death was unjust, of which it was, do you not see that you just admitted that God who you believe is one of those personally responsible for killing Yeshua under his wrath being declared a enemy of God(nahum 1:2-3) to undergo such an event, unjustly killed his own Son?
If you see his death as unjust because scripture leads to such an conclusion for any reason then those who you believe is the executioner are the unjust.
So there is a flaw in your thinking as God is never unjust, God never had a direct personal hand in the death and betrayal of his son because such actions against the son were sinful in his eyes. God is not tempted by evil nor tempts anyone into evil. So sense Yeshua declares that his betrayal and death is a sinful act against him, then God the Father did not slay His Son under his wrath.
In so much the apostles addressed the peoples guilt in putting their Messiah to death, although many in ignorance, none the less guilty for betraying, denying and killing a truly righteous man.
If Father killed His Son under His wrath through His own hand through both human and demonic instruments, their would be no guilt , nor sin by killing the son, as it would be seen as a just kill and no point for the apostles to address what these many did as wrong , nor a need of repentance for killing the author of life.
If PSA is true it’s not forgiveness, it’s transfer. Nothing is accomplished, death and hell are not defeated, just a pissed off God getting revenge. The Good News is Christ defeated death and hades now we live not in fear of death, man, or God. Look at the paralyzed man, Jesus didn’t say “My dads angry at you but don’t worry I’m going to appease him”. No he said “Son, your sins are forgiven.” No sacrifice of any kind. Forgiveness is just granted to man, not earned.
Your first diatribe about Greco-Roman thinking is unsubstantiated, and indeed, devoid of substance. Saying that God ‘put on himself a moral obligation to punish’ because he made himself under sin’s control is press-conference-talk for ‘lost his temper,’ and the OT sees no difference between God’s anger and some vague moral responsibility to cause pain. You didn’t even bother to summon a word study on ‘atonement’ both as used in Greek and as translated from Hebrew, because you don’t have the energy to twist the usage definitions to your indoctrinated views.
Your second point is a claim that you claim as evidence, as though an inspired record of ancient people’s understanding of things is an inspired understanding for today, an idea which you yourself vanquish in your third point by gaslighting everyone with a conscience and rendering the perspicuity of scripture null, as if it ever were perspicuous.
If scripture is so perfect that it can be understood without the anchent traditions they come with, yet cannot make plain something so simple as righting a wrong, then perhaps there is no right or wrong.
Why do you strain at the gnat of cosmic child abuse while swallowing the camel of punishment being the solution to sin instead of repentance and reparation?
Punishment is a deterrant, not a solution. Suffering has no purpose if it cannot be avoided. It doesn’t bring wholesomeness. It doesn’t unrape. It doesn’t unwound. It doesn’t unscar.
If we humans are too stupid to see that God’s doing evil (attacking the innocent to assuage his arbitrary wrath at those whom he arbitrarily made infinitely guilty for unavoidable shortcomings) is somehow good, what makes you smart enough to be so sure (against every non-Western-Church tradition) that God accomplishes a good (fixing sin) by doing evil such evil?