Is Penal Substitution Biblical?
In all of our zeal to contend for every doctrine of the bible (as commendable as such an attitude is), we would do well to remember that only a relatively few doctrines are so vital for the purity of the gospel that, to deny them is, in essence, to corrupt the good news of salvation in Christ. It is only fitting that, when we see these doctrines under attack, we give the primacy of our attention to defending them. And such a doctrine is the biblical conception of the atonement; that is, the conception that the atonement involves the substitution of Christ for us, by which, having taken upon himself our sins, he willingly undergoes the righteous wrath of the Father in our place. In other words, it is vital that we contend for an account of the atonement which views it as penal (that Christ satisfied the penalty of the law, as the righteousness of the Father demanded) substitution (that he underwent this penalty in our place). Any other model of the atonement will both fail the test of biblical witness, and leave us without an adequate plea for forgiveness and acceptance with God. So the question arises, â€œIs this biblical doctrine under attack today?â€
Different conceptions of the nature of the atonement are certainly not new to this day. Origen saw the atonement as a ransom paid to Satan, to buy back sinners from his own power; and thus denied, or at least de-emphasized, that God himself demanded the curse of his law to be satisfactorily fulfilled. Irenaeus saw the atonement as Christ recapitulating the entire experience of Adam, only without his failures, which is a true enough point, and admits the need for the law to be positively fulfilled; yet when taken as a full-orbed description of the atonement (as Irenaeus most probably did not take it), it denies that mankindâ€™s failure to fulfill the law must meet with the promised punishment. Much later, Abelard taught that the atonement was merely a graphic display of the extent of God's love, which should motivate us to follow the same example. All of these theories, each perhaps with some facet of truth, when retained as the sole explanatory models for what the atonement accomplished, deny that Godâ€™s wrath must be satisfied before forgiveness can be bestowed. They see Godâ€™s mercy as possible apart from his righteous demandsâ€™ being met and his righteous penaltiesâ€™ being exacted. But these understandings, and any of their various forms, fail to do justice to the God of the scriptures, a God who will not overlook sin.
Somewhat later, during the time of the Reformation, Socinus argued against the penal substitution model of the Reformers with a point of view which, in essence, expanded upon the differing viewpoints of some of church fathers. â€œWhat Socinus did was to arraign this idea as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Giving pardon, he argued, does not square with taking satisfaction, nor does the transferring of punishment from the guilty to the innocent square with justice; nor is the temporary death of one a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and a perfect substitutionary satisfaction, could such a thing be, would necessarily confer on us unlimited permission to continue in sin. Socinusâ€™ alternative account of New Testament soteriology, based on the axiom that God forgives without requiring any satisfaction save the repentance which makes us forgivable, was evasive and unconvincing, and had little influence.â€ (This quotation was taken from J. I. Packer, in an excellent defense of penal substitution, which can be found here.
Regardless of the extent of Socinusâ€™ initial influence, the fact is that, even today there are those who would follow his basic understanding. We have been blessed in that, these attacks on penal substitution have largely occurred outside the orbit of Evangelical Christianity. However, today such views are starting to be influential among self-professed Evangelicals. As an example, I have been dialoguing with a certain Derek Flood, a self-styled Evangelical, who uses the name â€œsharktacosâ€ on his internet interactions. His website, www.sharktacos.com/God, is dedicated to arguing against penal substitution; and he is in the process of writing a book espousing the same views. The influence which he seems to be having has motivated me to compose this article in response to his views. God grant that it may serve to reinforce in all of us the pressing need to hold fast to the Reformed view of the atonement.
In essence, Derek Floodâ€™s understanding of the atonement is in line with that of Origen or Socinus. Although he may not espouse either of these views in all of its particulars, yet he shares with them the sina que non of a non-penal model â€“ namely, that God forgives apart from requiring the demands of his righteousness to be satisfied. His arguments are, in a way, more subtle than those of Socinus, for instance; for he does feel free to admit that he does in fact â€œsee themes of â€˜punishmentâ€™ clearly in there - Christ taking the consequence upon himself for our sin â€“â€ However, it is clear that he does not see this punishment as Godâ€™s righteous retribution against sin. On the contrary, he goes on to state that â€œI do not see this as a fulfillment of the demands of justice, but rather a picture of God bringing about justice out of terrible injustice.â€ Exactly what does he mean by this qualification? Many of the other assertions which he has made should shed light on that question. For instance,
the justice that Paul speaks of was not in the legal sense of punishement but in the Hebrew sense of "making things right". Hence Paul speaks of "justification" which means "setting something right". A justice based on our own performance (works) is a death trap. But a justice that originates from God's goodness through faith means that God sets things right in our lives when we open our lives to him. The first is legal and in conflict with mercy. It sees justice as punishing (active) and mercy as leniency (inaction). That later biblical justice is in contrast about "making things right" and comes through acts of mercy as seen in the ministry of Jesus who came to establish justice in us though acts of healing and restoration. In this there is no conflict between justice and mercy because restorative justice comes through acts of mercy.
So rather than reading the idea of justice in the legal sense of punishing, we need to read with Luther the idea of justification and justice in relational terms as God setting things right, as him through mercy breaking us out of the shackles of performance and law. God did not do this by "satisfying the demands of law" as Penal Substitution would say, but by "nailing the law to the cross" (Col 2:14) by overcoming it along with sin, condemnation, wrath, and the devil and putting all of these tyrants under Christ so that they would no longer oppress us and keep us from life, but serve us and point to the God of grace.
The fundamental issue here, and one that must remain in the forefront no matter how he qualifies it, is that this view of the atonement sees it as possible â€“ even necessary â€“ for God to forgive without demanding that his righteous demands be satisfied. And this one issue is sufficient to cut away every ground for our plea of acceptance with a righteous God whom we have offended.
I think this debate is vital, and concerns the whole fabric of the scriptural witness we have about who God is and how he is able to redeem us and remain just. It is not just an argument over the precise exegesis of a few key texts (although those key texts undoubtedly exist); rather, it is an argument which has to do with the true meaning of the entire biblical story. It is an argument which dictates how we will view the holy God. It is an argument which determines the very worth and substance of the great redemptive work of Christ our Savior. In order to put the discussion on a footing which does justice to the broadness of scope which it inherently involves, I have put together three sets of premises that argue for the necessity of seeing the atonement as penal substitution. These are brief and not at all exhaustive; but they should at least clarify the heads of disagreement upon which the debate should center.
Premises about Godâ€™s wrath
Premise one: The God of the bible actively dispenses wrath/retribution for sin.
From the opening accounts of Genesis, when God deals with the first sin of man by announcing a curse, and consistently throughout later revelation, we are given a picture of a God â€œwho is of purer eyes than to behold evilâ€ (Habakkuk 1:13), a God who says â€œvengeance is mine, I will repayâ€ (Romans 12:19), a God who does in fact pour out wrath upon the world of sinners, as, for instance, in the universal flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, etc., a God who has the rebel nations â€œin derision,â€ who â€œspeaks unto them in his wrath, and vexes them in his sore displeasure,â€ who sets up his Messiah to â€œcrush them like a potterâ€™s vesselâ€ (from Psalm 2), a God before whom sinners tremble in fear, proclaiming, â€œthe great day of his wrath has come, and who shall be able to standâ€ (Revelation 6:17). This is a handful of testimonies from an overwhelming supply â€“ in short, it is impossible to read the bible objectively without finding in it a God who does in fact pour out his wrath actively, and who deals out retribution/vengeance for rebellion.
Premise two: The God of the bible actively poured out wrath/retribution upon Christ.
As we see in Isaiah 53, â€œit pleased the Lord to bruise him, he has put him to griefâ€ â€“ and why was God pleased to bruise the Son? Because God was making his soul â€œan offering for sin.â€ We must acknowledge here that God was actively afflicting his Son â€“ who put Christ to death? Ultimately, it was the Father â€“ and we must further acknowledge that it was because of our sin. The Father was well-pleased to crush the Son, because our sin was upon him. Which is encroaching upon our next point,
Premise three: The God of the bible actively poured out retribution upon Christ in the sinnerâ€™s stead.
Hence we read earlier in the chapter, â€œHe was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities,â€ and elsewhere, â€œhe made him to be sin for usâ€ (II Corinthians 5:21). So then, if God actively and willingly crushed Christ, and if he did so because of the sins which were upon him, and if he is indeed a God who deals in retribution â€“ in fact is too pure not to deal in wrath and retribution â€“ then any model of the atonement which does not embrace a penal aspect fails to do justice to the character of God as we find it revealed in his word.
Premises about the Law
Premise one: The law demanded a curse.
From the first law given in the garden, the breaking of which issued in a curse, as God had in fact promised, â€œin the day you eat of it, you will dieâ€ (Genesis 2:17); to the law given on Sinai, which threatened, â€œCursed is he that does not continue in everything written in this law, to do themâ€ (Deuteronomy 27:26); to the corroborating evidence of the New Testament, which declares, â€œWhoever should keep the whole law, but offend in one point, is guilty of allâ€ (James 2:10); we find without exception that the law demands a curse, and that the exaction of this curse is contingent upon the very word and solemn promise of God, â€œwho cannot lieâ€ (Titus 1:2). If forgiveness should come without the retributive curse of the law being fulfilled, then God will be shown to be a liar; not to mention, one whose eyes are not in fact too pure to behold evil.
Premise two: Christ became the curse of the law.
To substantiate which, we have to look no further than Galatians 3, which, having testified that the law did indeed curse those who had failed to obey it, asserted unequivocally that Christ was â€œmade a curse for us.â€ Now, to our final premise, namely,
Premise three: Christ became the curse of the law for us.
As the remainder of our last text states. And it is impossible that he should have been made the curse which the law demanded by reason of himself, because he â€œdid no sin, neither was guile found in his mouthâ€ (I Peter 2:22), and, â€œhe was tempted in all points, like we are, yet without sinâ€ (Hebrews 4:15). So then, the only theory of the atonement which takes into account the necessity of the lawâ€™s curse being dealt out (a necessity grounded in the solemn promise of God), and which takes into account the fact that the curse of the law was dealt to Christ, who underwent the curse, even death, as that first threat of transgression demanded â€“ and furthermore, who did this in our place â€“ is a theory which accepts the idea of penal substitution.
Premises about the Sacrificial System
Premise One: The sacrificial system was instituted by the sovereign command of God.
This premise is virtually indisputable. Just consider the opening words of Leviticus, in which the sacrificial system is described in detail. It is stated in unequivocal terms that the entire corpus of regulations was the very word of God (Leviticus 1:1 and following).
Premise Two: The sacrificial system taught that God could not be approached apart from innocent, substituionary blood being shed for the sinner.
Hence, before an Israelite could worship God, he was required to bring a spotless sacrifice; to place his hands upon its head, signifying the transfer of his own guilt to the animal; to kill the animal; and to sprinkle its blood upon the altar, signifying that this substitutionary blood had appeased the wrath of God. This is all because, as Godâ€™s people, Israel was required to â€œbe holy as I am holyâ€ (Leviticus 19:2). And in the absence of that required holiness, substitutionary retribution was necessary. It was only when sinâ€™s penalty (death) had been exacted substituionarily that the priest could â€œmake atonement for his sin that he has commited; and [thus] it shall be forgiven himâ€ (Leviticus 4:35). Much more could be said here, but any study of the sacrificial system can only demonstrate in undeniable terms the pervasiveness of this substitutionary punishment as the basis for forgiveness.
Premise three: The sacrificial animals foreshadowed the self-sacrifice of Christ, the only sufficient substitute.
Of many possible passages to demonstrate this point, Hebrews 9:18-28 is notable. In the context of the true intent of the sacrifices, i.e., to demonstrate that â€œwithout shedding of blood is no remission,â€ the author argues very forcefully that the animal sacrifices were necessarily inadequate; but that Christâ€™s perfect sacrifice of himself, in relation to which he bore the sins of his people, was indeed sufficient for the remission of their sins and for securing their unshakeable hope of eternal salvation.
We have been very brief; but the sum of this is that the whole sacrificial system enjoined upon Israel bears witness to the fact that, unless the penalty of transgressing the law is exacted upon a flawless substitute, then there can be no forgiveness or reconciliation. And Christ is the only perfect substitute, as true man and wholly without sin.
A Few Key Texts
Although these biblical motifs are pervasive and unambiguous enough to secure our basic point, it is nevertheless good to be acquainted with a few key texts which state as much in clear terms. Among these vital texts are Isaiah 53; Romans 3:25-26; I Peter 2:24; II Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; and Hebrews 9:18-28. Although these texts are clear in their import, they have been muddied by an elaborate exegesis which seeks to deny their basic intent. By way of example, and so that everyone might be prepared to deal with these expositions, as the case might demand, I will reproduce a typical way of understanding two of these texts, Romans 3:25-26, and Isaiah 53. As this article is already too long, I will try to be brief.
Derek Flood has posited the following understanding of this key passage:
The idea of justice as "paying evil for evil and good for good" is not the model of justice that Paul has. Paul's idea of justice is the opposite - God's justice does not justify the good, it justifies sinners. That's because justice from a Hebrew perspective is about "setting things right". When Paul speaks about God "demonstrating his justice [sic]" he means restorative justive [sic] (making things right) not desributive [sic] justice (paying evil for evil and good for good).
So I read [Romans 3:25-26] as: â€˜God presented [God initiates reconciliation, and he offers it] Jesus as the one who would turn aside his wrath [by the means of] taking away sin, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice [setting things right], because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished [punishment being the natural consequence of sin] â€” he did it to demonstrate his justice [so we do not suffer the natural consequence, but instead are set right] at the present time, so as to be just [righteous] and the one who justifies [sets aright] those who have faith in Jesus.â€™â€
Although time forbids a thorough response, two quick points may be noted: first, this understanding of the passage necessitates that we take the term â€œhilasterionâ€ (translated alternatively as â€œpropitiationâ€ or â€œexpiationâ€ in most English versions) to signify mere expiation (putting aside, irrespective of satisfaction) of sins. But modern scholarship, as well as the whole biblical motif of atonement through substitutionary blood, demands that the term be understood in its commonly accepted sense, namely â€œpropitiationâ€ (satisfaction of just wrath against those sins). Second, this interpretation makes nonsense of Paulâ€™s whole point: that God would have been unjust to overlook sins previously committed; but that he was vindicated, or shown to be just, when Christ shed his blood. In other words, the Fatherâ€™s justice could not have been upheld apart from Christâ€™s blood being shed for those sins.
Mr. Flood makes the following observations about this key chapter:
Well there are themes of "bearing punishment" in Isa 53 (and elsewhere)
"he was bruised for our iniquities and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him"
But at the same time there are similar connections made with bearing sickness and sorrow
"Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows"
and we see that punishment was not just but profoundly unjust
"He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter... By oppression and judgment he was taken away"
â€¦ Throughout Isaiah 53 the tone is that this is a shock, an affront, a scandal. That is why I find the model of vicarious suffering and Christ bearing our sin, sorrow, and sickness as an act of self-sacrificing love is a much better model then that of Penal Substitution.â€
Again, there is much that could be said. Suffice it to observe that this understanding fails to do justice to the fact that God himself was pleased to bruise his Son, and that because he bore the sins of his people (verses 10-12).
Many volumes could be (and have been) written in support of the biblical truth of a penal, substitutionary atonement in Christ on the cross. This article is already too long, so I will conclude with a brief plea. This is a matter of utmost importance. Let us be very serious in submitting our views here to the authority of the entire scriptural witness. If by any means you arrive at a different view of the atonement than that which God graciously allowed the Reformed tradition to argue for so eloquently, then you fail to take seriously certain motifs which are unequivocal and emphatic, and which exist throughout the scope of special revelation. And these motifs, concerning as they do the very nature of the unchangeable God, are to be denied only with very serious and far-reaching consequences. In sum, if Christ did not satisfy the Fatherâ€™s righteous wrath against sin, then one of two results must follow: either we cannot be forgiven, or God cannot be just. And to Godâ€™s immutable justice, the whole of biblical revelation bears emphatic witness. It is imperative, for the upcoming generation of Evangelical Christians, that we be aware of any view which fails to do justice to the biblical requisite of penal substitution, and that we be well-enough grounded in the scriptural teaching on the topic to argue biblically for the substitutionary atonement of Christ, by which he satisfied the demands of the law and took upon himself the full force of the Fatherâ€™s just wrath against our sin.