Definition of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)
There are a lot of theories out there on the atonement of Jesus Christ – theories that have been presented throughout church history – (1) ransom to Satan, (2) recapitulation, (3) satisfaction, (4) moral influence, (5) example, (6) governmental, (7) dramatic, (8 ) barthian, and (9) penal substitution (Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, pp. 308-309). Basically, you can sum up the angles on the atonement in the three ways: Christ sets us free from evil powers, Christ leads us as the loving example, and Christ took the full, wrathful penalty for our sin.
Dr. Tom Schreiner (Associate Dean and Professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) writes,
“I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy his justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested.
The riches of what God has accomplished in Christ for his people are not exhausted by penal substitution. The multifaceted character of the atonement must be recognized to do justice the canonical witness. God’s people are impoverished if Christ’s triumph over evil powers at the cross is slighted, or Christ’s exemplary love is shoved to the side, or the healing bestowed on believers by Christ’s cross and resurrection is downplayed. While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christ’s atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement.”
Steve, Michael, and Andrew write,
The doctrine of the penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin. (Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced For Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, 2007, p. 103).
The Contemporary Rejection of PSA (sampling)
(Controversial) Steve Chalke – “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is Love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.” (Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 2003, p. 182f)
Blake Ostler – “The Penal Theory Posits a Conflict between Father and Son. . . . The angry Father did not pay the price of sin himself but sent his son to do his dirty work for him so that he could be convinced to forgive us when he otherwise refused to do so. Others are free to call this love if they desire, but it is a perverse sense of “love.” . . . The Penal Theory Is Unjust. . . . Anyone who rejects original sin because it is unjust to punish someone for something that he didn’t do personally must also reject the penal substitutionary theory for the same reason. . . . The Penal Theory Erroneously Assumes that Guilt Can Be Transferred. . . . The Penal Theory Limits God’s Power to Forgive. . . . Why can’t God simply forgive us the way we can forgive one another? The Penal Theory Entails a Legal Fiction. . . . This view of the Atonement assumes that God is the sole agent in our salvation and reconciliation.” (Blake Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, 2006, pp. 265-281).
Brian McLaren – “Conventional View: Jesus says, in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you must repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell.” This is the good news. Emerging View: Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with this good news—that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her current path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now.” This is the good news.” (Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change, 2007, p. 79).
Bart Ehrman – “[After declaring a theme of substitutionary sacrifice in Second Isaiah, pp. 77-83, Bart goes on to explain] There is one particularly important implication for our study: the classical view of the relationship of sin and suffering is not simply found throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible. It is central to the understanding of the New Testament as well. Why is it that Jesus had to suffer and die? Because God has to punish sin. Second Isaiah provided the early Christians with a scheme for understanding Jesus’ horrible passion and death: this was suffering undertaken for the sake of others. It was through the death of Jesus that others could be made right with God. Jesus was in fact a sacrifice for sin (p. 84). . . . [And yet Bart rejects the biblical message] The evangelical theology I had once held was built on views of suffering: Christ suffered for my sins, so that I would not have to suffer eternally, because God is a righteous judge who punishes for all time those who reject him and the salvation that he has provided. The irony, I suppose, is that it was precisely my view of suffering that led me away from this understanding of Christ, salvation, and God. I came to think that there is not a God who is actively involved with this world of pain and misery—if he is, why doesn’t he do something about it? Concomitantly, I came to believe that there is not a God who is intent on roasting innocent children and others in hell because they didn’t happen to accept a certain religious creed.” (Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem, 2008, p. 128.)
Doug Pagitt – “As a result, the Greek perspective has come to inform Christian thought about everything from God and Jesus to sin and salvation, for the last seventeen hundred years. In other words, the theology that guides the present-day church is in many ways a version of faith customized for the fifth-century Greco-Romans. And when that view was set in stone as the inarguable, unchanging, only way to explain faith, it created all kinds of trouble for those of us living today (p. 45). . . . The good news of Christianity is that we are integrated with God, not separated from God (p. 90). . . . I had never felt separated from God (p. 97). . . . So it was really hard to make sense of this image of God on one side of a canyon and me supposedly on the other. The chasm itself was strange enough. But what was truly irreconcilable about this version was why God would be so stymied by the chasm. I understood that this was supposed to be a metaphor, but it sure didn’t seem like a metaphor to the people leading me throughout the booklet. They talked about it literally, and in any case, it had an obvious effect on their notion of God. They described a God who, while loving me deeply, was distant, was hard to please, and needed to be appeased in order to participate in my life. They talked as though there truly was a gaping physical canyon between God and me and there was nothing either of us could do about it other than following the prescribed solution. All I could think was, what an odd way to talk about the Creator of the universe—trapped on the far side of a canyon! Maybe this image isn’t troubling to others. And maybe it wouldn’t have been troubling to me if I hadn’t come to the Christian story with a story of my own. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me if it hadn’t been so different from the play I’d seen. But I’m not sure I would have been interested in the Christian faith if the story on the stage had been about a removed God who needed to be placated with a blood offering before he was willing to cross the chasm and participate with humanity (p. 98-99). . . . In this view, God is not a softy but rather a hard-nosed, immovable, infallible judge who cannot abide defiance of the law. And boy, did we defy it. When Adam and Eve broke God’s law in the garden, they offended and angered God. So heinous was their crime that their punishment extended to all of humanity for all time. The antidote to this situation is the crucifixion of the Incarnate Son of God because only the suffering and death of an equally infinite and infallible being could ever satisfy the infinite offense of the infinitely dishonored God and assuage his wrath. Yikes! Even when someone uses a variation of the judicial model, the situation is the same: the judicial model of sin puts the law at the center of the story. In doing so, love, grace, mercy, compassion, goodness, and even God become minor players that must be subject to the law. The gospel itself becomes less about God and more about the sin problem.” (Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing, 2008, pp. 154-155).
Old Defenders of PSA (sampling)
Martin Luther – “All the prophets did foresee in Spirit that Christ should become the greatest transgressor, murderer, thief, rebel, blasphemer, etc., that ever was or could be in all the world. For he, being made a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, is not now an innocent person and without sins . . . but a sinner. . . . Our most merciful Father . . . sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him . . . the sins of all men saying: Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them. Here now come the law and saith: I find him a sinner . . . therefore let him die upon the cross. And so he setteth upon him and killeth him. By this means the whole world is purged and cleansed from all sins. . . . Learn to know Christ and him crucified. Learn to sing to him, and say ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and given me what is yours. You became what you were not, so that I might become what I was not.’”
Charles Spurgeon – “If ever there should come a wretched day when all our pulpits shall be full of modern thought, and the old doctrine of a substitutionary sacrifice shall be exploded, then will there remain no word of comfort for the guilty or hope for the despairing. Hushed will be for ever those silver notes which now console the living, and cheer the dying; a dumb spirit will possess this sullen world, and no voice of joy will break the blank silence of despair. The gospel speaks through the propitiation for sin, and if that be denied, it speaketh no more. Those who preach not the atonement exhibit a dumb and dummy gospel; a mouth it hath, but speaketh not; they that make it are like unto their idol. . . . Would you have me silence the doctrine of the blood of sprinkling? Would any one of you attempt so horrible a deed? Shall we be censured if we continually proclaim the heaven-sent message of the blood of Jesus? Shall we speak with bated breath because some affected person shudders at the sound of the word ‘blood’? or some ‘cultured’ individual rebels at the old-fashioned thought of sacrifice? Nay, verily, we will sooner have our tongue cut out than cease to speak of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.” (Charles Spurgeon, “The Blood of Sprinking (part 1)”, 1886).
J. Gresham Machen – ‘They (liberal preachers) speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner. Against the doctrine of the cross they use every weapon of caricature and vilification. Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy and so precious that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words. It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling on human hearts.” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1923, p.120.)
Contemporary Defenders of PSA (sampling)
Bruce Demarest – “Penal substitution indicates that the Messiah died in the sinner’s place and took upon himself the sinner’s just punishment. The idea of vicarious, penal substitution is imbedded in the warp and woof of Scripture.” (Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 1997, p. 171).
Alister McGrath – “Christ is here understood to be our substitute. We ought to have been crucified, on account of our sins; Christ is crucified in our place. God allows Christ to stand in our place, taking our guilt upon himself, in order that Christ’s righteousness, won by obedience upon the cross, might become ours.” (Alister E. McGrath, Theology, 2004, p. 84).
John Piper – “There was only one hope for me – that the infinite wisdom of God might make a way for the love of God to satisfy the wrath of God so that I might become the son of God. . . . I thank you, heavenly Father, with all my heart, that you saved me from your wrath. I rejoice to measure your love for me by the magnitude of the wrath I deserved and the wonder of your mercy by putting Christ in my place.” (Jeffrey, Ovey, Sach, Pierced For Our Trangressions, 2007, pp. 14-15). “Jesus did not wrestle his angry Father to the floor of heaven and take the whip out of his hand. He did not force him to be merciful to humanity. His death was not the begrudging consent of God to be lenient to sinners. No, what Jesus did when he suffered and died was the Father’s idea. It was a breathtaking strategy, conceived even before creation, as God saw and planned the history of the world. That is why the Bible speaks of God’s “purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). . . . Oh, that we might worship the terrible wonder of the love of God! It is not sentimental. It is not simple. For our sake God did the impossible: He poured out his wrath on his own Son—the one whose submission made infinitely unworthy to receive it. Yet the Son’s very willingness to receive it was precious in God’s sight. The wrath-bearer was infinitely loved.” (John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die, 2004, pp. 22-23)
Robert Duncan Culver – “I once published a book of exposition of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – fruit of several years of teaching exegesis of the Hebrew text. As I wrote my heart was made full of thanks to God for its clear presentation of the saving work of our Lord in His suffering and death ‘in my place.’ The heart of the passage is Isaiah 53:5, which for exegetical purposes I translate ‘And he was pierced for our transgressions; crushed for our punishment; the chastisement of our peace [reconciliation] was upon him, and by his welt healing is for us.’ My closing remarks on the verse, citing two famous authors, were these: ‘Dr. Albert Barnes . . . said concerning these words that if it is possible for human speech to describe substitutionary atonement, these words do so. Franz Delitzch – than whom few more learned scholars ever lived – said that such is the only possible construction to be placed on these words.’ ” (Robert Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, 2005, p. 556).
(Controversial) N.T. Wright – “After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God, upon which Steve [Chalke] had relied to quite a considerable extent, is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find. (2007 internet post, http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?doc=205 )
Mark Driscoll – “The fact that Christians celebrate the murder of Jesus as “good news” is disgusting unless we have understand the reason why Jesus died. The Bible teaches that in perfect justice, because Jesus was made to be our sin, he died for us. The little word for has big implications. In theological terms, it means that Jesus’ death was substitutionary. In theological terms, it means that Jesus’ death was substitutionary (or, as some used to call it, vicarious). His death was in our place solely for our benefit and without benefit for himself. Just to be perfectly clear, this means that Jesus took the penalty for our sins in our place so we do not have to suffer the just penalty ourselves. The wrath of God that should have fallen on us and the death that our sins merit fell on Jesus. This wasn’t something forced on him. Rather, he took it willingly. Scripture repeatedly stresses this point, which theologians call penal substitutionary atonement: (p. 114) . . . Propitiation means God’s wrath, which is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture, was turned away, or propitiated, from sinners and diverted to Jesus Christ. This was made possible because Jesus substituted himself in our place as both our high priest and the lamb of God to pay the penalty for our sins. (p. 117) . . . Curiously, some people in the more left-leaning side of our dysfunctional Christian family are backing away from the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Those in the more established liberal churches, along with their emergent offspring, are routinely decrying the concept that Jesus paid the penalty (death) for our sin in our place on the cross. They say it is too gory, too scary, too bloody, too masculine, and too violent. Furthermore, they say that in our tender little world of kindness, such teachings won’t help further the kingdom of meek and mild Jesus.” (Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears, Vintage Jesus, 2007, p. 118).
Al Mohler – “While the atonement accomplished by Christ cannot be reduced to this understanding alone (and no one should claim that it should), to deny or confuse this doctrine is to deny that Christ died on the cross for our sins and as our substitute. In other words, we honestly believe that those who deny, dismiss, and disparage this doctrine do injury to the gospel.” (J.I.Packer & Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood, 2008, p. 15).
J.I. Packer – “As I grow old I want to tell everyone who will listen: “I am so thankful for the penal substitutionary death of Christ. No hope without it” (p. 21). . . . Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. . . . in the new gospel the center of reference is man. . . . Whereas the chief aim of the old [gospel] was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems to be limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed (J.I.Packer & Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood, 2008, pp. 112-113).
The Heart of PSA
Clear Scriptural Revelation: Exodus 12, Leviticus 16, The fourth Servant Song – Isaiah 52:13-Isaiah 53; The Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of John, Romans, II Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:10-13, I Peter 2:21-25 and 3:18, Hebrews 10:1-4, etc.
The Implications of PSA
Millard Erickson writes, “It carries several major implications for our understanding of salvation: 1. The penal-substitution theory confirms the biblical teaching of the total depravity of all humans. . . . 2. God’s nature is not one-sided, nor is there any tension between its different aspects (i.e., righteous and demanding versus loving and giving). . . . 3. There is no other way of salvation but by grace, and specifically, the death of Christ. . . . 4. There is security for the believer in his or her relationship to God. . . . 5. We must never take lightly the salvation which we have.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 822-823).