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.