The doctrine of “Penal Substitution”

by Richard on November 22, 2004

I’ve had to write this piece. I promised. But I can’t say that I’ve found it very easy. Systematics is not really my thing — I’m more your “jobbing parson” than I am theologian. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

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 recently:

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.

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Steve 11.24.04 at 1:06 am

Hi Richard - I printed this off to read as my eyes are a little funny this evening, and the print preview came out as plain text pages.

I wanted to say how cool that is!



Camassia 11.24.04 at 7:41 pm

Another problem with penal substitution is that it can be a gigantic turnoff to non-Christians. At the worst, it makes it sounds like Jesus’ act didn’t really accomplish anything for you except to rescue you from an unspeakable punishment by a god who, by the way, you’re supposed to worship as a loving Father. I had this problem with it myself, and still don’t prefer it as a theory of the Atonement, but I’ve become a little more attuned to its good points. I wrote about this in more detail here:


Rick 03.29.05 at 2:04 am

I’ve been studying and meditating on the atonement for a few months now as my primary doctrine to grasp. Being influenced by some old friends, I began to question the substitution/wrath theory. I find it superfluous. Leviticus 17:11 makes clear that atonement is made by the blood, because life is in the blood. Thats why there are over numerous references to blood and salvation in the new testament. They understood the sacrificial system. Something I think was lost by gentile believers. I appreciate your article because I have wondered when this substitution doctrine originated. Do you have any ideas how I could find out what the anti-nicean church belived on the atonement. I would appreciate any help. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only Christian who questions penal substitution. Thank you for any help that you give me


Jazzki 11.05.06 at 1:52 am

Hiya, Camassia!

“Another problem with penal substitution is that it can be a gigantic turnoff to non-Christians.” I guess that’s why Paul calls it a “stumbling block” and Jesus Himself says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” Man has never—then or now—taken kindly to the truth of the holiness of God vs. the sinfulness of man, nor the teaching that the only payment for man’s sin is the barbarity of the Cross. But anyone who (for example) has really looked the Shoah in the face will understand the imperative of the Atonement. The Shoah tells us who we really are, and how bottomlessly desperate our plight is.


Dave Warnock 11.05.06 at 2:04 pm

I guess that’s why Paul calls it a “stumbling block”

Paul does not and cannot refer to penal substitution as a stumbling block as it was not invented in his lifetime. Context matters when we read scripture.


Pam 11.05.06 at 5:04 pm

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.

I totally agree. I’d also add that the other problem I have with the theory’s practical application in evangelical circles is that, functionally, it is the violence of Jesus’ death that saves rather than Jesus Christ himself. Objections to other theories often seem to centre around the objection that the Father’s wrath needs to be propitiated with violence.

I’d also like to add that I think that the resurrection was also an essential part of salvation (I usually say “we are saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus”). PSA could theoretically allow that the resurrection wasn’t necessary other than to prove that Jesus was God. Many people seem to believe this on a functional level.

Finally, I want to add that disbelief in PSA (and I think I’m getting to that point of disbelief) doesn’t mean that one does not believe in human sinful nature. The more I believe in human sin, the less I believe in PSA. WE killed Jesus by our sin, not the Father.


DH 11.06.06 at 4:46 pm

How was it not as you say “inviented” when itsays in God’s Word that He was made the propitiation between God and man? Even Paul refers to Jesus being theperfect Sacrifice. It doesn’t make snese to say it isout of context when the straight forward Christ being made aspropitiation and being the perfect Sacrifice are so clear. We killed Jesus by our sin making it necessary for God, who wanted us to be joined to Him, to allow Him to be sacrificed. It is a combination of us killing Jesus AND God’s desire for us to have a way to come to Him by making Him aSacrifice. It is a combination. Also, Jesus Himself with His life, death and resurrection all in a whole that saves by making the gift available to all who receive. We aresaved by accepting the savlvation made availabel by Christ’s life, death and resurrection. “PSA could theoretically allow that the resurrection wasn’t necessary other than to prove that Jesus was God.” That is such an important part. At the same time, we would still be under the law if Jesus didn’t rise and we would definitely not be Born Again because Jesus would still be dead. So you conclusion from PSA on this is a misunderstanding of the definition and a misconclusion.


DH 11.06.06 at 4:48 pm

I Believethe 1st century church knew they were Saved by them understanding that Jesus was God, they understood the making available by His death and resurrection as satisfying the Law. “Without the shedding of blood there can be noremiscien of sins.”


Dave Warnock 11.06.06 at 8:23 pm


There is a well known series of adverts on British TV with the catchline “it does exactly what it says on the tin”. Read Paul with that in mind, forgetting your own theological view and you will not find penal substitution. You will find atonement, but not penal substitution. As Richard wrote penal substitution is one theory of atonement development a long time after Paul. Yes what Paul wrote is important in the development of the theory of penal substitution but it is not actually penal substitution.

Other theories of atonement also understand the cross as sacrifice. Sacrifice does not equal penal substitution. Review the OT for a variety of models of sacrifice.

It seems to me as I read what you have written that you are equating “the doctrine of atonement” and “the theory of penal substitution”, again Richard has made the difference clear. There are many theories of atonement of these penal substitution has been the favourite of the evangelical movement, but that does not imply it is the only theory or that all others are invalid.


DH 11.06.06 at 8:45 pm

Well Dave, I see what you are saying but when the Bible and in the NT (referring to Jesus) “Without the shedding of blood there can be no remiscen (I know spelling) of sins.” I can’t get over this being the definition of the term penal substitution. This isn’t my projection of my own theological thought but reading this for what it says. When I read of all of the Sacrifice in the OT it was for remiscen of sins and of worship toward God. Worship in that the sins were covered by the use of the Sacrifice of being in the place for the sin. Thus making the worship by the use of the Sacrifice even more wonderful being multi-faceted without one or the other seperate as is implied by your response. I still don’t feel there is adifference between PS and atonement. I don’t feel he has made it clear by not taking into account the clear Scripture for what it says from Paul and from the OT. I don’t seethe conclusion from what you are saying. It doesn’t seem consisteent. Sorry, Dave. This isn’t my own view but the clear consistency.


Richard 11.06.06 at 11:08 pm

I see your point, DH, but this verse is anything but a definition of penal substitution. The Letter to the Hebrews uses teh language of the sacrificial system to explain the significance of Jesus. He is, at one and the same time, priest and victim. So far, I’m sure we agree.

But penal substitution says, very crudely: There is a punishment due to us for our sin, a punishment which Jesus accepted on our behalf.” I don’t deny that this is a scriptural image. I’m just saying that it is one among several — and ironically Heb 9:22 is one of the several others, which presents Jesus as a Levitical sacrifice, not a substitute receiving the punishment due to another. (And in any case, as this verse makes clear, it is not ‘the shedding of blood’ as such which enables a restored relationship with God, but obedience to God’s commandments. Indeed, Heb 9:22 clearly refers back to Lev 5:11f, which describes sin offerings which do not require the shedding blood.)


DH 11.07.06 at 3:40 pm

For me the shedding of the blood of Jesus and His subsequent resurrection made the gift available entered into by obedience by Faith. So I agree and disagree at thesame time as you see. To say there isn’t at all penal substitution I feel is unbiblical. I don’t deny all of the others but to say Jesus was not the substitiute for our sin making available to all by our Faith in Him seems resonable.

Afterreading your verse, the fact is it was the shedding of blood unless the person was poor and couldn’t afford financially the doves and other Sacrifices which were done of these animals. So it seems inconsistent what you are saying with what technically is going on with regard to the “shedding of blood”. The fact is the Levitical Sacrifice IS the substitue sacrifice in that the animal sacrifice (which the law required was the physical best) wasthe substitute by obedience to God to forgive sin. Jesus being the perfect Sacrifice was this Levitical sacrifice which actually is the substitute as well that after His death and resurrection can be entered into by our Faith in Him. The verses still don’t seem to support the conclusion you are stating. However, we agree to a point but only to a point.

The point is if Jesus didn’t die as a Sacrifice our Faith wouldn’t be enough to receive the Grace of forgiveness of sin. By Jesus’s death and resurrection Sacrifice our Faith is enough to receive the Grace of forgiveness of sin. So you are right shedding of blood isn’t what restores a releationship to God but obedience. However, the death and resurrection makes it available to all by our free-will choice to accept Him or reject Him.


Norman McIlwain 11.22.06 at 3:57 pm

Hi Richard,

I came across your website just a few minutes ago. May I refer you and others to a book that presents an alternative to penal substitution from a biblical perspective: ‘The Biblical Revelation of the Cross’. You may find it referred to at my website and @

As the author, I have covered many of the issues you have raised and most relevant texts. I hope you and your subscribers can find time to read part of it online. It will contribute to your understanding.




Notions Incognito 06.16.07 at 1:19 am

Hi Richard, I just stumbled across this page from Google. I particularly agree with you on this:

“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.”


Tom Jackson 01.28.11 at 2:42 pm

That’s really the issue, isn’t it? We disagree over what the Bible teaches. Some of us see penal substitution crystal clear in the Bible, a metaphor, yes, but also an ‘objective reality.’ You don’t. I get it.

Where, you ask, do I see it? If the GOSPEL in nutshell form is this: God saves sinners (I Timothy 1:15), Penal Substitution is this: Christ died for our sins (I Corinthians 15:3). And it’s rounded out by I Peter 3:18: For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.

The courtroom picture laced with guilt and innocence all through Paul isn’t just a culturally contextualized way of communicating the gospel. It’s the God-ordained metaphor that describes what’s really at stake.

We really are guilty. God really is angry. Jesus really did take our place. He really did bear the punishment that should have come towards us. And that’s good news.

Is the atonement MORE THAN penal substitution? YES - it also deals with SHAME and FEAR (restoring honour and power). But never LESS THAN penal substitution. Dealing with the problem of guilt is central to the atonement and consistent with the biblical meta-narrative. An that’s good news.

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