Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Category: atonement

Biblical Support for Penal Substitution

As promised yesterday, here is what amounts to a super-brief (again) presentation of the biblical support for penal substitution. Despite what the critics will posit, it’s not new, it’s not western, it’s not because of Augustine, and it’s not even modern; penal substitution is biblical.

We’ll borrow our definition of ‘penal substitution’ from Wayne Grudem (579):

Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a ‘substitution’ in that he was a substitute for us when he died. 

The biblical support for penal substitution is so prevalent throughout the storyline of redemptive-history that it is hard to express with concision. Our approach will be to sketch a few examples of the foreshadowing of Christ’s penal substitutionary work from the OT, and then examine the corroborating evidence from the NT.

The penal substitution of Christ is foreshadowed at least as early as Genesis 22. In this story Abraham is called to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. When Abraham demonstrates his faith in God by preparing to offer his own sin, God intervenes—surprisingly and miraculously—by providing a substitute; a ram was sacrificed in the place of Isaac, so that he could live. Again, in the miraculous redemptive work of God in saving Israel from their captivity in Egypt, penal substitution is prefigured. On the night of the Passover, the people are to slaughter a spotless lamb (just enough for each household). During the night, the Destroyer would come to take the lives of all the firstborn sons in the land. Only those who were in the homes where the lamb had been slaughtered were preserved; the lamb had died in place of the son. The book of Leviticus (chs. 4-7 indicate specifically the nature of the cultic rites) teaches that where sin has occurred, whether intentional or not, a death must result. Here it is made clear that an animal had to die in place of the human who had sinned, and therefore deserved death. The prophetic writings reflect back to the Israelites the nature of that law, as well as looking forward to the coming of Christ, which is why Isaiah 52-53 portrays the penal substitutionary work of Christ perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the OT. There it is put bluntly and undeniably: “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

The NT evidence is no less scarce. In fact, one approach to displaying the NT evidence is by a simple study of the preposition huper (ὑπερ). It has been argued that huper has a simple meaning of “for one’s benefit.” When studied in individual passages, however, it has been demonstrated that there is a much stronger meaning contained in the word, which may be explained as “for one’s benefit, by being in one’s place.” This stronger meaning is evinced in the following passages. In John 10:11, Jesus teaches that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The very nature of the metaphor requires the stronger meaning. Similarly, in Galatians 3:13 we are told that Christ redeems us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. This simply cannot mean only “for our benefit”; in this instance it is clear that he becomes the curse in our place, that we might benefit. Again, 1 Peter 3:18 states that the righteous one suffered for the unrighteous, which clearly indicates that we receive the benefit only by having a substitute. Aside from the meaning of huper, a plain reading of passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21 (where Christ was “made to be sin” on our behalf) and 1 Peter 2:24 (where Christ “bore our sins in his body”) militate against any argument that penal substitution is unbiblical or unnecessary.

Some Objections to Penal Substitution

In keeping with our theme of atonement from yesterday, I thought I’d outline some of the more common objections to penal substitution offered in contemporary ‘evangelical’ literature. Again, these are very brief descriptions of the arguments, but they are simply intended to familiarize us with what is being said by self-proclaimed evangelicals today.

God willing, we’ll examine some of the arguments for penal substitution tomorrow, but for now, here are some of the most common contemporary objections to it:

  1. Penal Substitution and Divine Love
  2. Those who hold to this objection argue that God is love (1 John 4:8), and his expression of his character in Christ is ultimately love. With this schema in place, seeing God as wrathful and punitive is clearly out of character, and therefore wrong. The God who would demand penal substitution is a God of vengeance, it is argued, not a God of love. The justice of the God of the Bible is in line with his love and is therefore corrective and remedial rather than wrathful or punitive.

  3. Penal Substitution and Divine Justice
  4. Here it is argued, in connection with the above argument that we have misunderstood divine justice. God’s justice must be interpreted in light of his love. The notion that there is guilt which must be punished is western and modern in its origin, and is far from biblical. God’s justice must be viewed as remedial. Our guilt is better viewed in terms of shame, rather than guilt, and once that is understood we will see that there is no need for a penal substitute to satisfy the wrath of God. Like God’s justice, it is argued that his wrath must be redefined in non-western terms. Rather than an angry response to sin, God’s wrath is seen merely in the natural consequences for sin.

  5. Penal substitution and the Trinity
  6. Here it is argued that penal substitution betrays a wrong understanding of the Trinity. Since, in penal substitution, God the Father would be turned against God the Son (which, it is assumed, could never happen), then penal substitution must therefore be wrong. Any pitting of the persons of the Trinity against each other must be wrong, and therefore penal substitution is jettisoned.

  7. Penal Substitution and Violence
  8. Here it is argued that the notion of God requiring a violent atonement for the sake of forgiving offences and propitiating wrath is entirely distasteful at best, and could well be construed as condoning violence in human relationships as well. For example, it is often argued in contemporary feminist literature that penal substitutionary atonement theories only encourage the abuse of women and children who are innocent, but told they must bear the wrath of their fathers and “bear up” and suffer like Christ. This, they argue, is a far cry from biblical Christianity, and is a reason to deny penal substitution.

The Atoning Work of Christ

It is a charge often brought against those who hold to penal substitution that we miss the dynamic presentation of the atoning work of Christ through Scriptures. In other words, if you hold to penal substitution, you miss the many ways that the Bible speaks about the atonement.

I’ve had some opportunity lately to think through the atonement, and I believe that this charge is patently untrue. As one who holds firmly to the notion that penal substitution is at the root of all benefits that come to us through the cross of Christ (biblically and historically), I still am able to see that the picture of Jesus’ cross-work is not monolithic.

In an effort to flesh this out, and show that this charge is incorrect, here is a super-brief examination of six facets of the biblical presentation of the atonement aside from penal substitution.

  1. Sacrifice
  2. The storyline of Scripture is replete with examples of sacrifice, not all of which carry notions of penal substitution. The concept of Christ as “the Sacrifice of God” picks up on these sacrifices and proclaims Jesus to be the ultimate antitype. Examples would include Noah’s post-flood sacrifice, the averted sacrifice of Isaac, the various prescribed sacrifices in the Old Testament law, and many others. Christ as the antitype of the sacrifice theme in the Old Testament is picked up clearly by John the Baptist, who proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36; all Scripture quotations from the esv). This theme is developed most prominently in the book of Hebrews, particularly in chapters 5-9. In chapter 9, Christ is seen to be the antitype of all the “bulls and goats” as he accomplishes salvation as a sacrifice for his people, in the eternal holy place (vv. 11-27). As Hebrews 9:26 sums up, Christ came “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

  3. Redemption
  4. Redemption is another theme which runs through storyline of salvation-history. God’s people are, at various points, seen to be slaves or captives who must have their freedom purchased at a price. So, the Israelites needed to be redeemed from slavery in Egypt, then the laws for the redemption of individual slaves are established through the Torah, and then finally, when Judah is in exile in Babylon, God must accomplish her redemption to bring her home. This theme is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, through whose work we see that the redemption price must ultimately be paid to God, not to any human oppressor. It is God who is offended by our sin, and therefore, the price of redemption must be paid to him. Hebrews 9 draws out the fulfilment of this theme, saying that the “blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (v. 14) is what has secured our “eternal redemption” (v. 12). Through his death, Christ has inaugurated the new covenant, in which his people may receive the “promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them” from their transgressions (v. 15). The basic idea of redemption is that the world is in bondage to sin and Satan (1 John 5:19), but Christ came to offer his life as a redemptive ransom (Mark 10:45).

  5. Propitiation
  6. Interestingly, Romans 3:24-25 links the redemption accomplished in Christ with the propitiatory nature of his sacrifice. Propitiation carries the notion of God’s righteous wrath against sin being fully borne out on another. In the context of Romans 3, then, as Paul has said (vv. 5-6), God is indeed righteous to inflict wrath on us and the condemnation of all is justly deserved (vv. 8, 19, 23). In fact, it was for the very purpose of displaying his righteousness that God showed himself to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly when he put forward Christ Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood” (vv. 25-26). God’s propitiation of his wrath against sin and sinners in the atoning death of Christ Jesus, then, is intrinsically tied up with the display of his justice and righteousness, as he declares the guilty innocent; the wrath they deserved was justly poured out on the substitute. Hebrews 2:17 declares that Jesus’ had to be entirely human in every respect so that he could justly become the propitiation for the sins of humans. 1 John 4:10 also states that the love of God is shown in this: that Christ was sent to become the propitiation for our sins.

  7. Reconciliation
  8. There are three aspects to reconciliation. First, there must be a present relationship of estrangement / alienation / hostility between persons. Second, an intervention must be made to remove the basis of the estrangement. The third stage is a renewed relationship of peace, love, and acceptance between those formerly estranged persons. The biblical doctrine of reconciliation begins with the understanding that we have sinned against God, and that he is the alienated party. That is why Paul can plead with sinners to be reconciled with God (2 Cor 5:20). The reconciliation that takes place is accomplished by God, in Christ, who initiates reconciliation, even though he was the offended party (2 Cor 5:18-19).

  9. Christus Victor
  10. The doctrine of Christus Victor states that Christ’s work (death—resurrection—ascension) indicates that he has taken on death, sin, and Satan, and has emerged from the battle as a victorious conqueror. It is based on texts such as Colossians 2:15 and Hebrews 2:14-15, which state that Christ has destroyed the one who has the power of death and delivered all those who through fear of death were subject to slavery; he has disarmed the rulers and authorities and triumphed over them. While the doctrine of Christus Victor is often pitted against the doctrine of penal substitution, it is actually a result of Christ’s penal substitutionary work, and the two doctrines must be held aright in view of each other.

  11. Christus Exemplus
  12. Similarly, the doctrine of Christus Exemplus is sound only when kept in perspective by a right understanding of the justifying and propitiating work that Christ accomplished on the cross. This doctrine teaches that Christ, in his suffering, became a perfect model for us of how we are to live and to suffer, entrusting ourselves to God. This is based on passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Peter 2:18-25. We are to follow Christ and become like him in his sufferings, taking up our cross daily; but we must bear in mind that the primary intent of Christ’s cross-work was first and foremost to propitiate God’s wrath, accomplishing salvation, and then derivatively it serves as an example for us.

The Abandonment of Christian Atonement

Christians never cease to amaze me. In our contemporary ‘conversation’ we find people rejecting the idea of penal substitution, the imputation of righteousness, justification by grace alone, through faith alone, etc., etc., etc.

The thing that really bothers me about this is the arrogance with which such historic Christian doctrines are tossed aside in such a cavalier manner. We are told that these ideas of God being ‘angry’ and desiring to make his Son pay the ‘punishment’ as a ‘substitute’ to give us a ‘forensic’, ‘legal’ righteous standing before God are western, modern, and un-nuanced. We are told that for hundreds of years we’ve been reading the New Testament through the eyes of Luther, rather than first-century Judaism.

Bogus.

Below is an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus, written in the second-century AD, one of the earliest extant apologies for the Christian faith outside of the New Testament. In this section the author discusses the nature of the atonement, as taught in the New Testament. What this is an attempt to show is that the abandonement of penal substitutionary atonement which accomplishes justification (including the imputation of righteousness) by grace alone through faith alone is not just an abandonment of modern, western Christianity, but is an abandonment of historic, biblical Christianity at its very core.

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But when our iniquity was fulfilled and it had been made fully manifest that its reward of punishment and death was awaited, and the season came which God had appointed to manifest henceforth His own goodness and power (O the exceeding kindness and love of God!), He did not hate us or repel us or remember our misdeeds, but was long-suffering, bore with us, Himself in mercy took on Him our sins, Himself gave up His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for the wicked, the innocent for the guilty, “the just for the unjust”, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for mortals. For what else could cover our sins but his righteousness? In whom was it possible for us, wicked and impious as we were, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O work of God beyond all searching out, O blessings past our expectation, that the wickedness of many should be hidden in one righteous Man and the righteousness of the One should justify many wicked!


— Taken from The Epistle to Diognetus, IX.2-5. The is one of the earliest extant apologies for the Christian faith, written in the second century ad, within decades of the death of the apostle John.

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