The Doctrine of Penal Substitution

by Richard on January 29, 2008

I headlined penal substitution as a doctrine, though that isn’t strictly a true designation. The doctrine is “atonement” — Jesus saves! All Christians agree on that. Penal substitution is a theory which attempts to explain how Jesus saves. That’s much more controversial.

The Theory
Penal substitution is a development of the thinking of the medieval church leader Anselm. He lived in a feudal society, and his thinking reflected that. For Anselm, sin represented an offense against the honour of God. A dishonoured monarch demanded satisfaction. The sacrifice of Jesus was the means by which God’s honour is restored and forgiveness is made possible. The Reformers (Calvin, Luther and all that crowd) took Anselm’s thinking a stage further. In their scheme of things, sin is not an affront against God’s honour but rather a debt which has to be paid. The punishment due to the crime must done before restoration can be offered. God in Christ pays the penalty himself and makes atonement possible. That’s it, I think, in a (very small) nutshell.

The issue
Because of its origins with the Reformers, the penal substitution theory has been central to the faith of many evangelical Christians, hence the controversy about Steve Chalke. For example, in the statement of faith of UCCF we find

Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God

and Adrian Warnock wrote on his blog a while ago:

There is no doubt that this view of the atonement as primarily a judicial matter, ie there being a real penalty for sin that God exacts from Christ, is the theory that evangelicals have always held dear. The wrath of God against sin is very real and needs to be turned away.

My problem with penal substitution is not with the theory itself, which has proven its worth as a way into an understanding of the reconciliation which has been won by Jesus. My problem is that it seems to me that what should be one theory among many (or at least several) has been raised up to a place that makes it the only acceptable way to understand Jesus and his Cross. Rather than being treated as a metaphor, the model of penal substitution has been given an objective reality which does not belong to it.

An understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus has to seen in the context of the Jewish sacrficial system. As Keith Ward rightly points out in “What the Bible Really Teaches”, the function of sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures does not remove the need for punishment of offenders. Sacrifices are principally about submitting to the will of God. The sacrifice is not effective because a literal transaction is being done, it is effective because God says it is. Nothing in the animal on the altar or the blood which spills from it is of itself effective. The scriptures are clear that when sacrifices are offered without true devotion to God they serve no purpose. A sacrificial understanding of the Cross does not have to imply the satisfaction theory in the way that is often thought.

The penal substitution theory breaks down completely when it is pressed too far. If Jesus is a “ransom”, to whom is he paid? But seen as a metaphor rather than an entirely objective understanding there is no need to press it to those limits. It serves us as one of a range of ways into an understanding of the Cross.

We should approach this as the writers of the New Testament did. They did not begin with a theory of human sin and the way it would need to be addressed. No one was reading Isaiah 53 and saying, “When this Suffering Servant comes along to die on our behalf, all will be well.” No, the New Testament is written knowing that “the answer” is Jesus. Those first Christian communities knew themselves to be saved. They experienced God’s grace through Christ. So in a real sense they work back from the answer to a statement of the question, a statement that is bound to be incomplete, or at least metaphorical.

To ask questions of “penal substitution”, as dear as it is to evangelicals, is not to question the fundamental fact of the power of the Cross. I think Steve Chalke has done us all a favour by raising the issue and making it clear that the Cross of Christ cannot be reduced to a single theory but is an eternal mystery beyond our comprehension and before which we can only fall to our knees in worship.

Uninispired today, hence the re-blog

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


DH 01.29.08 at 8:10 pm

I see what the person is saying in their disagreement with penal substitution. I kind of see that people problems are with the extreme of the particular view of penal substitution. There is no doubt that it is the heart that repentence is made OT, time of Christ and NT and beyond. However, one can’t deny at the same time that “Without the shedding of blood there can be no remiscion (spelling) of sins. (in Scripture). So for me penal substitution has to be included as the truth in conjunction with heart felt repentence.

It was asked “If Jesus is a “ransom”, to whom is he paid?” The answer is to those who: “If you confess with your mouth the LJ and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.” To me Christ death is well beyond a metaphor. Christ WAS the “substitute” for judgement by making available the way for Salvation by being the “propitiation” (the substitute) for the judgement of sin aka “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” At the same time one must include “Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead.” So it is a combination of both Christ being the substitute for those who accept Him by Faith as well as the heart of man to choose to follow Christ with heart, soul and mind. It can’t be 100% one with the other. Both must be included for proper understanding of Truth.

So while I agree that the attitude of some who believe in penal substitution doesn’t include repentence from the heart, that doesn’t change the fact of the Truth in Scripture for penal substitution.

I agree that many before the time of Christ had this as you say “No one was reading Isaiah 53 and saying, “When this Suffering Servant comes along to die on our behalf, all will be well.” However, my thought was that there was a wrong theology against the concept of Christ as the Sacrifice for substitution that was perpetrated by the Pharisee’s. The Pharisee’s didn’t see the point of Christ’s death only the political part or at least being the Savior of the World as Messiah. They didn’t see that their sin must be dealt with and that was by Jesus dying on the cross and Faith in Him for true Salvation. Christ’s death while it supports Christ as being Messiah, also included being the propitiation or substitute. Therefore one must include penal substitution to be accurate with Scripture but there also must be an inclusion of the heart change by choosing Christ for penal substitution to be truly understood and correct. Otherwise, the statements on this post are correct.

I think if one rethinks their disagreement with penal substitution that it really boils down to semantics or at least only observing the extreme or emphesis of those who happen to believe in penal substitution. When one look at the context of those who happen to believe in penal substitution then the arguments of the “lack of heartfelt repentence” goes away because I know not one who believes in penal substiution who doesn’t acknowledge the fact that “out of the heart Salvation is made.” Therefore the praxis of penal substitution is unfounded and is an observation of the minority view of those who happen to believe in penal substitution.


Rachel 01.29.08 at 9:32 pm

I think that Jesus suffering the punishment for our sins is the natural consequence of his desire to unite himself fully to us. Jesus came to participate in the worst of our life situation, which is utter alienation from God. So I guess I would tend to see the crucifixion as one more part of recapitulation, and I would want to guard against simply seeing the Incarnation as a means to get Christ to the cross, which is a danger implicit in the emphasis on Penal Substitution. Does that make any sense? Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not a professional theologian. :)


DH 01.29.08 at 9:55 pm

Well Rachel, I kind of see your point. However, I see Christ as being at all times God taking on the form of man. I do agree He came to participate in the worst of lifes situation. However, Jesus coming to this earth is so much more than that. He came to fulfill prophesy of the coming Messiah, He came to propitiation between God and man, He came to be the Sacrifice, He came to make the way for those who by Faith accept Him as their Savior, etc. What is the danger of understanding that Christ must be Crucified when in the OT it says “curseth anyone who hangs on a tree” (which is a clear prophesy of Christ on the cross when the Apostle Paul refers to Christ death as being on the tree)? I believe it isn’t a danger when the Apostle Paul makes it clear that Christ came to this earth not only to participate in the worst of lifes situation but He came also to die on the cross and to be resurrected again. I agree that He came for multiple reason. However, one cannot deny penal substitution as a very important part especially in light of clear Scripture that states this as well. Does that make sense? Am I understanding you fully as well? If not could you explain it further?


ee 01.29.08 at 10:33 pm

This is a great, well balanced post. Thanks very much.


Keith McIlwain 01.29.08 at 11:12 pm

I also find the penal theory problematic. I’ve found much wisdom in the “governmental” theory of the atonement. HERE is a fine summary by Nazarene theologian Kenneth Grider, and HERE is some wisdom from the great 19th century Methodist John Miley.


Kim 01.30.08 at 12:28 am

There is a lot of consfusion surrounding this issue.

For starters, Anselm’s doctrtine of satisfaction should not be conflated with Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution, particluarly in the form it took with Charles Hodge (let alone the demotic form it takes in some contemporary conservative evangelical circles), neither should either be conflated with a doctrine of sacrifice. We are dealing with three different metaphor systems here - the feudal system, the law court, and the altar - and the failure to distinguish them causes theological havoc.

Second, it is essential to disentangle the notion of substitution, and its near relation representation (with which it is sometimes needlessly contrasted in an either/or way) from the specific notion of penal substitution, which turns the havoc of mixed metaphors into an absolute theological catastrophe. God does not punish Jesus, let alone does God have to punish Jesus in order to forgive us. Not only is such a retributive, indeed violent, understanding of the atonement contradicted by the entire ministry of Jesus, it also opens up such an abyss between the Father and the Son that a coherent trinitarianism becomes impossible to sustain. Christ died for our sins and on our behalf, from love and for love, yes; and we must speak of judgement, yes - but only (as Barth memorably put it) of the Judge judged in our place; but we should never speak of Christ being punished.

By the way, metaphors are not just metaphors, mere metaphors - ornamental and therefore dispensible figures of speech - they are referential, heuristic, indeed revelatory, and quite indispensible. Even the physical sciences cannot do without metaphor.

Finally, it is indeed crucial that the important model of vicarious substitution be complemented by other atonement models, drawn, for example, from the battlefield (Christus victor), the slave market (Christ the Redeemer), and the realm of social conflict (Christ the Reconciler). On its own, even an intelligible, credible, and serviceable model of substitution lacks certain essential elements that need to be included to comprehend the full sweep of what was wrought for the salvation of the world through the death of Jesus, which itself must not be separated from his life, resurrection, and reign. One-legged tables have a way of collapsing.

Oh, yes, and to insist that one must hold this doctrine, particularly in its pernicious penal form, in order to be a “proper” Christian, and to unchurch those who don’t, is shamefully scurrilous and sectarian.

(And speaking of being shameful - shamefully self-promoting - for a fuller exposition of my thoughts on the subject, see my “Ten Propositions on Penal Substitution” at “Faith and Theology”. I would now put some things rather differently - I learned a lot from the comments, and one is always on a learning curve - but the gist still stands.)


DH 01.30.08 at 3:08 pm

I agree with you AND understand that Jesus was made a curse for us. Even the Apostle Paul says this. Even Scripture says this under OT law, since Christ hadn’t died and rose again people were under OT law, “Curseth is anyone who hangs on a tree.” I’m not saying Jesus was punished but it is very clear that He was made a curse for our transgressions as Scripture clearly points out.

I don’t see Christ’s death as a metaphor. He fulfilled OT law by dying for our sins by making a way to overcome death by having Faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as all of the other things mentioned.

If one reads OT law with regard to Sacrifice, it seems very clear that under OT law sacrificing a lamb IS violent. So to use that as a reason not to support the concept seems strange when in fact God in the OT tells people that one must Sacrifice a perfect lamb for cleansing of sin aka “Without the shedding of blood there can be no remiscien of sins.” It is clear that Christ was made a Sacrifice in our place Scripture is very clear about that. I see nowhere in Scripture that says otherwise. Again, I don’t believe Christ was punished but it is clear He was made a Sacrifice in our place. To me this seems so semanticical to me. It seems to me we are all saying the same thing. To deny the concept based on the violence of Christ’s death seems odd in relation to the clear OT scripture refering to shedding of blood of a spottless lamb for cleansing of sin.


DH 01.30.08 at 3:09 pm

Please read the above response by me. I still had one more thing to say in addition:

Being made a curse and being punished are two different things but it seems semantics to disagree based solely on that like it appears here

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