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Penal substitution

Penal substitution (sometimes, esp. in older writings, called forensic theory)[1][2] is a theory of the substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus' death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.


  • Overview 1
  • Differing views 2
  • History 3
    • Early Church 3.1
    • Anselm, the Reformers, and John Wesley 3.2
    • Criticisms 3.3
    • Replies 3.4
  • Bible passages 4
  • Recent controversies 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Penal substitution derives from the idea that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice, that is, that God is not willing or able to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction for it. It states that God gave himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for our sin. This theory was condemned as Patripassionism, and Theopassionism, as it was taught by Sabellius because it required the Father to suffer equally with the Son since the Trinity is God. This unity of God in the "Homoousion" (coined by Sabellius) required the Trinity be understood by what was called the heresy of Modalism.

Important theological concepts about penal substitution depend on the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who believe that Jesus was himself God, in line with the doctrine of the Trinity, believe that God took the punishment upon himself rather than putting it on someone else. In other words, the doctrine of union with Christ affirms that by taking the punishment upon himself Jesus fulfils the demands of justice not for an unrelated third party but for those identified with him. If, in the penal substitution understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ deals with sin and injustice, his resurrection is the renewal and restoration of righteousness. Key biblical references upon which penal substitution is based include:

  • Isaiah 53:4-6, 10, 11—"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all ... It was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin ... By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities." (RSV)
  • Romans 3:23-26—"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus." (NRSV)
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21—"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (RSV)
  • Galatians 3:10, 13—"All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.' ... Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us - for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.'" (RSV)
  • 1 Peter 2:24—"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness."(RSV)
  • 1 Peter 3:18—"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." (RSV)

It is debated if the Church Fathers subscribed to this doctrine, including Justin Martyr c. 100-165, Eusebius of Caesarea c. 275-339, Athanasius c. 300-373 and Augustine of Hippo 354-430 (see Early Church, below). Although penal substitution is often associated with Anselm of Canterbury, he predates its formal development within later Reform theology. It is therefore doubted even among Reform theologians whether his 'satisfaction' theory is strictly equivalent.[6]

While penal substitution shares themes present in many other theories of the atonement, penal substitution is a distinctively Protestant understanding of the atonement that differs from both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understandings of the atonement. Many trace its origin to Calvin, but it was more concretely formulated by the Reformed theologian Charles Hodge. Traditionally a belief in penal substitution is often regarded as a hallmark of the evangelical faith and is included as an article of faith by many (but not all) evangelical organizations today.

Differing views

Advocates of penal substitution argue that the concept is both biblically based and rooted in the historical traditions of the Christian Church (although others say that the theory was developed later, in the Reformation period[3][7]). Critics, however, argue that the theory of penal substitution is solely a later development, only forming part of orthodox Christian thought during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th-century,[1][2][4][5][8][9] being advocated by Martin Luther[10] and Calvin.[11]

It has traditionally been compared with the so-called classic theory, that Christ's death represents the cosmic defeat of the devil to whom a ransom had to be paid (or the rescue of humanity from the power of sin and death), a view popularised by Gustaf Aulén; and secondly with the notion that the cross had its effect on human beings, by setting forth a supreme example of godliness or by blazing a trail which we must follow or by involving mankind in his redemptive obedience, the so-called subjective or exemplary theory associated with Peter Abelard and Hastings Rashdall.

On the other hand, those teaching an interpretation of the Cross consistent with penal substitution reject such a characterization of their beliefs. Their theory teaches that Christ's cosmic defeat of the devil was accomplished because Jesus suffered the penalty for mankind's sins. Under this view, the nature of Satan's authority over humanity comes from mankind's problem of sin, but by Jesus' cross, the guilt of sin before God is paid for and erased, the devil has no more power over the person saved. ( Romans 3:25)


Early Church

In scholarly literature it has been generally recognised for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church.[1][2][3][4][5][8][9][11] The ransom theory of atonement in conjunction with the moral influence view was nearly universally accepted in this early period.[12][13][14] Christian theologians, particularly from the fourth century AD onward, began to hold a variety of other atonement ideas in addition to this view, particularly the Ransom theory of atonement.[15] Controversy around atonement doctrine in the early centuries centred on Athanasius' promotion of a mystical view in which Christ had brought salvation through the incarnation itself, by combining both God and humanity in one flesh.[16] This view of atonement required that Jesus be fully divine and fully human simultaneously, and Athanasius became embroiled in controversies on the Trinity and Christology as a result.

Scholars vary widely regarding how much they are willing to see precursors to penal substitution in the writings of some of the Early Church fathers. There is general agreement that no writer in the Early Church taught penal substitution as their primary theory of atonement. Yet some writers appear to reference some of the ideas of penal substitution as an afterthought or as an aside. The ransom theory of atonement, which became popular during the fourth century AD, is a substitutionary theory of atonement, just as penal substitution is. It can therefore be difficult to distinguish intended references to the ransom view by Early Church writers from real penal substitutionary ideas. Patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly is one of the scholars most willing to see precursors to penal substitution in the Early Church writings, and points to a variety of passages which "pictur[e] Christ as substituting himself for sinful men, shouldering the penalty which justice required them to pay, and reconciling them to God by his sacrificial death." [17] While scholar J. S. Romanides[18] disagrees with Kelly's reading of these passages. Instead, he argues that they, like the Orthodox Church of today, understood humankind as separating themselves from God and placing themselves under the power of sin and death. The work of Christ is viewed, he says, not as a satisfaction of God's wrath or the satisfaction of justice which God was bound to by necessity, but as the work of rescuing us from death and its power. He argues that the notion of penal substitution was never contemplated until Augustine, and was never accepted in any form in the East. Further and similarly to Romanides, Derek Flood[19] argues (through the example of Justin Martyr, Augustine and Athanasius) that the Early Church never held an atonement theory of penal substitution but, rather, a restorative substitutionary model of the atonement, and that penal substitution was not truly developed until Calvin. Gustaf Aulén, in his classic Christus Victor, argues that the ransom theory was the dominant understanding of the atonement for over a thousand years and that the penal substitution theory came only after Anselm.

To take patristic examples from among the Latin Fathers,

  • Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood
  • Pierced for Our Transgressions
  • The Cross and the Caricatures by N. T. Wright—a response to Robert Jenson, Jeffrey John, and Pierced for Our Transgressions
  • Christ Our Penal Substitute by R. L. Dabney
  • Revisiting Penal Substitution (pdf) by Kevin D. Kennedy
  • The Theology of the Atonement (pdf) by I. Howard Marshall
  • The Logic of Penal Substitution by J. I. Packer
  • Nothing But the Blood: More and More Evangelicals Believe Christ's Atoning Death Is Merely a Grotesque Creation of the Medieval Imagination. Really? by Mark Dever
  • A Scandalous Attack on the Cross by Martin Downes
  • Penal Substitution Refuted by John Miley
  • Rethinking Penal Substitution by Paul Owen
  • Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor by Derek Flood
  • The Meaning of the Atonement by Mark M. Mattison
  • "Did Christ Pay for Our Sins?" by R. Dennis Potter (Mormon view) from the Web Archive
  • The Biblical Revelation of the Cross (Online Edition) Part 1 and Part 2: A Bible Study of the Atonement by Norman McIlwain

External links

  • Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor tr. A.G. Hebert (SPCK 1931).
  • John Calvin (Jean Cauvin), Institutes of the Christian Religion.
  • James Denney Atonement And The Modern Mind, (Hodder And Stoughton, 1903).
  • F. W. Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of the Atonement (Nisbet 1968).
  • Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, 2007).
  • Paul Fiddes, Past event and Present Salvation: the Story of the Atonement (1989).
  • Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins Of, And Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine, ISBN 0-8146-5220-4.
  • J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Adam & Charles Black 1968).
  • Norman McIlwain, 'The Biblical Revelation of the Cross', EAN 9780955102905 Part 1 and 2 - Online Edition.
  • Leon Morris. The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) Chap. 8 The Cross in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
  • Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
  • J. I. Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998) chap. 8 "What Did the Cross Achieve?" Chap. 9 Sacrifice and Satisfaction.
  • J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downer's Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973) chap.15 "The Wrath of God"; chap. 18 "The Heart of the Gospel".
  • Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) Chap. 17 The Character of the Cross Work of Christ.
  • John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IV Press, 1986).
  • Stephen Sykes, The Story of the Atonement (DLT 1997).


  1. ^ a b c d D. Smith, The atonement in the light of history and the modern spirit (London: Hodder and Stoughton), p. 96-7: 'THE FORENSIC THEORY...each successive period of history has produced its peculiar type of soteriological doctrine...the third period--the period ushered in by the Reformation.'
  2. ^ a b c d Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 71-2: '...the four main types, which have persisted throughout the centuries. The oldest theory is the Ransom Theory...It held sway for a thousand years. [...] The Forensic Theory is that of the Reformers and their successors.'
  3. ^ a b c J. I. Packer, What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution (Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973): '... Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it [i.e. the penal substitutionary theory]...'
  4. ^ a b c L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 191: 'Before the Reformation only a few hints of a Penal theory can be found.'
  5. ^ a b c H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic doctrine of the atonement (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. 112-3,119: '...we may pause to sum up briefly the main points of teaching on Christ's work of redemption to be gathered from the patristic literature of the first three centuries as a whole. And first, as to what it does not contain. There is no trace, as we have seen, of the notions of vicarious satisfaction, in the sense of our sins being imputed to Christ and His obedience imputed to us, which some of the Reformers made the very essence of Christianity; or, again, of the kindred notion that God was angry with His Son for our sakes, and inflicted on Him the punishment due to us ; nor is Isaiah s prophecy interpreted in this sense, as afterwards by Luther; on the contrary, there is much which expressly negatives this line of thought. There is no mention of the justice of God, in the forensic sense of the word; the Incarnation is in variably exclusively ascribed to His love; the term satisfaction does not occur in this connection at all, and where Christ is said to suffer for us, huper (not anti) is the word always used. It is not the payment of a debt, as in St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, but the restoration of our fallen nature, that is prominent in the minds of these writers, as the main object of the Incarnation. They always speak, with Scripture, of our being reconciled to God, not of God being reconciled to us.' [p. 112-3]; 'His [Jesus'] death was now [in the Reformation period], moreover, for the first time viewed as a vicarious punishment, inflicted by God on Him instead of on us.' [p. 119]
  6. ^ Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, 'N. T. Wright on Pierced for our Transgression', quoted in D. Flood, 'Substitutionary atonement and the Church Fathers' in Evangelical Quarterly 82.2 (2010), p. 143: 'Anselm did not teach penal substitution. Yes, he brought to prominence the vocabulary of ‘satisfaction’, which became important in later formulations. But in Anselm’s feudal thought-world, it was God’s honour that needed to be satisfied by substitutionary obedience, not his justice by substitutionary penalty.'
  7. ^ Gregg Allison, 'A History of the Doctrine of the Atonement' in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 11.2 (Summer 2007): 4-19: 'The Reformers introduced another view of the atonement, generally called the penal substitutionary theory ' (p. 10); '...the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, originated by the Reformers and developed by their successors' (p. 14-15).
  8. ^ a b Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (1931) (London: SPCK), p.143: 'The history of the doctrine of the Atonement is a history of three types of view, which emerge in turn. The classic idea emerges with Christianity itself, and remains the dominant type for of teaching for a thousand years. The origin of the Latin doctrine can be exactly determined...'
  9. ^ a b J. F. Bethune-Baker, An introduction to the early history of Christian doctrine to the time of the Council of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co, 1903), p. 328, 351-2: 'Of the various aspects of the Atonement which are represented in the pages of the New Testament, the early Fathers chiefly dwell on those of sacrifice (and obedience), reconciliation, illumination by knowledge, and ransom. Not till a later time was the idea of satisfaction followed up' [p. 328]; 'The only satisfaction which was thought of was the satisfaction which the penitent himself makes. There is no suggestion of any satisfaction of the divine justice through the sufferings of Christ. ' [p. 328, n. 3]; 'From this review of the teaching of the Church it will be seen that there is only the most slender support to be found in the earliest centuries for some of the views that became current at a later time. It is at least clear that the sufferings of Christ were not regarded as an exchange or substitution of penalty, or as punishment inflicted on him by the Father for our sins. There is, that is to say, no idea of vicarious satisfaction, either in the sense that our sins are imputed to Christ and his obedience to us, or in the sense that God was angry with him for our sakes and inflicted on him punishment due to us.' [p. 351-2].
  10. ^ Gustaf Aulén, a critic of penal substitution theory, disputed in his 1931 book Christus Victor that Luther accepted penal substitution. 'Under Aulen's assessment, Martin Luther revitalized the Christus Victor paradigm. According to Aulen, however, beginning with Melanchthon himself, Luther's reappropriation of the classic theme was quickly lost within later Protestant circles as more objective, "Latin," theories were allowed to displace it.' (Paul R. Eddy and James Beilby, 'The Atonement: An Introduction', in P. R. Eddy and J. Beilby [eds], The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [Downers Grove: IVP, 2006], p. 13)
  11. ^ a b 'The roots of the penal substitution view are discernible in the writings of John Calvin (1509-1564), though it was left to later expositors to systematize and emphasize it in its more robust forms.' (Paul R. Eddy and James Beilby, 'The Atonement: An Introduction', in P. R. Eddy and J. Beilby [eds], The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [Downers Grove: IVP, 2006], p. 17)
  12. ^ A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp 250-277.
  13. ^ 'In one form or another, [the Christus Victor] view seems to have dominated the atonement theology of the early church for the first millennium (thus the label "classic view").' (Paul R. Eddy and James Beilby, 'The Atonement: An Introduction', in P. R. Eddy and J. Beilby [eds], The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [Downers Grove: IVP, 2006], p. 12
  14. ^ Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2004; first published 1984), p. 64-5: 'The simplest and most obvious understanding of the cross is to see it as the supreme example. ... This is a favourite theme in the early Fathers, as H.E.W. Turner showed in The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption. ... It can scarcely be denied that much of the second century understanding of the cross was frankly exemplarist.'
  15. ^ A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp 272-277.
  16. ^ Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word.
  17. ^ Kelly p. 376
  18. ^ Fr. J. S. Romanides (translated by G. S. Gabriel), The Ancestral Sin, Zephyr Publishing, Ridgewood, NJ, 1998
  19. ^ D. Flood, 'Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers' in Evangelical Quarterly 82.2 (2010) 142-159. Online (accessed 28/12/10).
  20. ^ D. Flood, Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers' in Evangelical Quarterly 82.2 (2010) 142-159. Online. '[O]ne must look at how a patristic author is using ... concepts within their own understanding of the atonement and ask: what salvic purpose does Christ bearing our suffering, sin, and death have for this author?' (p. 144)
  21. ^ Gregory of Nazianzus, Second Easter Oration,
  22. ^ D. Flood, Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers' in Evangelical Quarterly 82.2 (2010), p. 155. Online.
  23. ^ S. Finlan, Problems with Atonement (Liturgical Press, 2005), p. 121
  24. ^ Kelly p. 377; Gregory of Nyssa, who follows him, developed the 'classic' theory of Christ as a ransom.
  25. ^ Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word,
  26. ^ J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (fifth, revised edition; London: Adam & Charles Black, 1977), p. 375. Compare F. W. Dillistone The Christian Understanding of the Atonement(Nisbet 1968).
  27. ^ Cur Deus Homo, Book I, XI
  28. ^ Richard Southern, Anselm and his biographer (CUP 1963)
  29. ^ The primitive character of Germanic tribal law is perhaps best evidenced by how closely it resembles the codes of ethics found among the street gangs of a major American city.
  30. ^ Cf. Paul Althaus, Die Theologie Martin Luthers, 7th ed. (1994), 179, 191-195.
  31. ^ One might recall Gershom Scholem's observation in another context (i.e., in reference to Jewish gnosticism) that not all the elements of the mythological have been expunged from Jewish monothelism.
  32. ^ To what extent Luther's understanding of the Christ's sufferings on the Cross paralleled similar conflicts within his own personal character will doubtlessly continue to be a matter of academic debate, but may ultimately be theologically irrelevant, because the ultimate question is how closely Luther's personal spiritual struggles are paradigmatic of humanity in general and not merely those singularly characteristic of Luther's own personality.
  33. ^ John Calvin, Institutes 2:16:10
  34. ^ Kenneth J. Collins, "The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace" 102
  35. ^ Jackson,"Wesley's Works" 9:412
  36. ^ A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation, (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011) ISBN 978-1-4563-8980-2
  37. ^ David. A. Brondos, Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006) ISBN 978-0-8006-3788-0
  38. ^ Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins Of, And Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine (Liturgical Press, 2005) ISBN 978-0-8146-5220-6
  39. ^ Joel B. Green, Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (IVP Academic, 2000) ISBN 978-0-8308-1571-5
  40. ^ De Jesu Christo Servatore (1578)
  41. ^ a b c d e  
  42. ^ Anscome, G.E.M., "Modern Moral Theory" in Virtue Ethics (OUP 1997; see also Hart H.L.A., Punishment and the Elimination of Responsibility (Hobhouse Memorial Lecture 1962)
  43. ^ The Christian Understanding of the Atonement (Nisbet 1963) p. 214
  44. ^ Daube, David Studies in Biblical law (CUP, 1947)
  45. ^ a b Dillstone, p. 199)
  46. ^ '['Propitiation'] accurately represents the meaning in classical Greek of the word used…However, the Hebrew equivalent is never used with God as the object, this fact suggests that the primary meaning is to expiate or remove an obstacle on man’s part to his relationship with God. To say that the death of Christ is ‘propitiatory’ is, then, to say that it is effective in restoring the relationship between God and man, damaged by sin.' ('Atonement'. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (E. F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone [Oxford: OUP, 2005])
  47. ^ James D.G. Dun, 'Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus' in Robert Banks (ed.), Reconciliation and Hope (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1974), p. 137: '...“expiation” does seem to be the better translation [than “propitiation”] for Rom. 3:25. The fact is that for Paul God is the subject of the action; it is God who provided Jesus as a [hilasterion]. And if God is the subject, then the obvious object is sin or the sinner. To argue that God provided Jesus as a means of propitiating God is certainly possible, but less likely I think. For one thing, regularly in the Old Testament the immediate object of the action denoted by the Hebrew kipper is the removal of sin―either by purifying the person or object, or by wiping out the sin; the act of atonement “cancels”, “purges away” sin. It is not God who is the object of this atonement, nor the wrath of God, but the sin which calls forth the wrath of God.'
  48. ^ Anglican theologian O.C. Quick: "the persistent mistake of supposing that sin-offerings must somehow have been meant to propitiate God by the killing of a victim in the offerer's stead, an idea which has been a source of endless confusion in the exegesis of the New Testament." (O.C. Quick, Doctrines of the Creed [Scribner's, 1938] p.232.
  49. ^ Austin Farrer argues that St. Paul's words should be translated in terms of expiation not propitiation: "God himself, says St. Paul, so far from being wrathful against us, or from needing to be propitiated, loved us enough to set forth Christ as an expiation of our sins through his blood." (Said or Sung [Faith Press, 1964] p.69)
  50. ^ Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 150–152: 'In the New Testament, instead of a sacrifice offered by human beings to God, [the hilaskomai] word group refers to a sacrifice made by God himself (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 4:10). Some passages use the expected language of a sacrifice offered to God (Eph. 5:2), but the New Testament usage of hilasterion and hilasmos stands the pagan Greek idea on its head. God is not appeased or propitiated. He himself acts to remove the sin that separates human beings from him. Instead of humans offering the sacrifice, God himself expiates or makes atonement for sins. God performs the sacrifice. The divine action for human salvation completely reverses the usual understanding of religion and worship.'
  51. ^ 'A doubtful feature in this presentation is the distinction between an objective atonement and a subjective which is obviously quite different from it. So, too, is the distinction between that which has been worked out and is available in Christ and that which has still to come to me. So, too, and above all, is the description of the antithesis in categories of possibility and actuality, which later becomes the differentiation of a purpose which is only present in Jesus Christ and which attains its goal only in some other occurrence.' Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1:285
  52. ^ Fiddes, Paul, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Story of the Atonement (1989)
  53. ^ Wiles, Maurice The remaking of Christian Doctrine (SCM 1974) p. 65.
  54. ^ '...we must not make this [the concept of punishment] a main concept as in some of the older presentations of the doctrine of the atonement (especially those which follow Anselm of Canterbury), with in the sense that by His [Christ's] suffering our punishment we are spared from suffering it ourselves, or that in so doing He "satisfied" or offered satisfaction to the wrath of God. The latter thought is quite foreign to the New Testament.' Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1:253
  55. ^ Europe in the Age of Reformation, on Zwingli "He was still at the point where he would say not only that he could find no basis in Scripture but also not in the Church Fathers."
  56. ^ https://articles/Church_fathers Under Modern Positions Section
  57. ^ Calvin in his preface to the Institutes "Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages."
  58. ^ Christianity today. Chris Armstrong writes "'Ours is the ancient tradition,' they said. 'The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!' They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching."
  59. ^ The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists,edited by Irena Dorota Backus (John Calvin and the Church Fathers) P665 “Calvin counterclaims two things, first that the doctrines of Rome are contrary to the teachings of the Early Church, and secondly that the teaching of the Reformers is in fact very close to “the ancient writers of a better age of the church.’”
  60. ^ Concordia Theological Quarterly Volume 68:3/4 Carl Beckwith Martin Chemnitz's Use of the Church Fathers in His Locus on Justification
  61. ^ James Denney, Atonement And The Modern Mind, (Hodder And Stoughton, 1903) p.271, as quoted by Packer in note 28 of his essay above
  62. ^ John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (IVP, 1986) p. 172
  63. ^ Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho: "Cursed is everyone who hangeth on a tree" - Deuteronomy 21:23; "Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law": Deuteonomy 27:26, quoted in Galatians 3:10-13
  64. ^ Gregory of Nazianzus quotes in the same passage Galatians (above), 1 Corinthians 15 (the "new Adam") and Hebrews 5:8 (obedience through suffering)
  65. ^ Dillistone, p. 201
  66. ^ Dillistone, p. 214
  67. ^ N. T. Wright, "The Cross and the Caricatures" Fulcrum (Eastertide 2007)
  68. ^ Steve Chalke, Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan, 2003) p. 16
  69. ^ See Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, 2007) to which the Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, has responded in "The Cross and the Caricatures".
  70. ^ Jeffrey John, Lent Talks, BBC Radio 4 (04/04/07): 'As he said, "Whoever sees me has seen the Father". Jesus is what God is. He is the one who shows us God's nature. And the most basic truth about God's nature is that he is love, not wrath and punishment.' [8.07-08.21 min.]; 'The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it's almost the opposite. It's about a totally loving God, incarnate in Christ, reconciling us to him. On the cross, Jesus dies for our sins, the price of sin is paid; but it's not paid to God, but by God. As St Paul says ... Because he is love, God does what love does: unites himself with the beloved. He entres his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death so that he can bring us through death to eternall life in him.' [09.37-10.36 min.]; ' far from inflicting suffering and punishment, be bears our griefs and shares our sorrow. From Good Friday on, God is no longer God up there, inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions; on the cross, even more than in the crib, he is Emmanuel, God down here, God with us.' [13.22-13.45 min.]
  71. ^ '"In other words, Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him," says Mr John. "This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we'd say that they were a monster."': Jonathan Wynne-Jones, 'Easter message: Christ did not die for sin' in The Telegraph, 01/04/07. Online (accessed 27/02/11).
  72. ^ E.g., from Reverend Rod Thomas of Reform on Today, BBC Radio 4, 04/04/07
  73. ^ 'Church figures have expressed dismay at his comments, which they condemn as a "deliberate perversion of the Bible". The Rt Rev Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, accused Mr John of attacking the fundamental message of the Gospel. "He is denying the way in which we understand Christ's sacrifice. It is right to stress that he is a God of love but he is ignoring that this means he must also be angry at everything that distorts human life," he said.': Jonathan Wynne-Jones, 'Easter message: Christ did not die for sin' in The Telegraph, 01/04/07. Online (accessed 27/02/11).
  74. ^ Audio of both J. John's Lent Talks and R. Thomas' criticism can be found on the BBC website, here [2] (accessed 27/02/11).
  75. ^ Mere Christianity (Fount, 1981), pp. 54-55
  76. ^ Mark D. Baker, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 37-38,41
  77. ^ Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 106
  78. ^ Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead, A Reader's Guide to Caspian (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), p. 110
  79. ^ George MacDonald, 'Justice' in Unspoken Sermons


See also


In his book Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis mentions that before becoming a Christian, the doctrine of penal substitution had seemed extremely unethical to him, and that while he had since found it to be less so, he nonetheless indicated a preference for a position closer to that of Athanasius, in which Christ's death is seen as enabling us to die to sin by our participation, and not as a satisfaction or payment to justice as such. He also stated, however, that in his view no explanation of the atonement is as relevant as the fact of the atonement.[75] Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in his fantasy fiction series, The Chronicles of Narnia, depicts the king Aslan surrendering himself to Jadis the White Witch as a substitute for the life of Edmund Pevensie, which appears to illustrate a ransom or Christus Victor approach to the atonement.[76][77][78]

The debate has largely been conducted in evangelical circles,[69] though the dismissal of the doctrine of penal substitution on moral grounds by the Anglo-Catholic Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, in a broadcast talk during Holy Week 2007[70][71] has drawn fire in his direction.[72][73][74]

Recently controversy has arisen over a statement made by Steve Chalke that "The cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse—A vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed."[68] This sparked a debate in the UK among evangelicals which is cataloged in the book The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement (Zondervan, 2008).

Recent controversies

On the basis of Romans 3:23-26 it has been argued that there are, in fact, different models of penal substitution[67] in which ideas of justification work together with redemption and sacrifice (expiation). Thus: "For all alike have sinned and are deprived of the divine glory and all are justified by God's free grace alone through his act of redemption in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his death, effective through faith. God meant by this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had overlooked the sins of the past, showing that he is himself just and also justified anyone who puts his faith in Jesus."

The Bible includes, not merely the story of the Paschal mystery in the Gospels, but also the sources of ideas of the atonement. The Fathers often worked upon biblical quotations,[63] from both Testaments, describing Christ's saving work, sometimes adding one to another from different places in Scripture.[64] Calvin made special appeal to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 and to 1 Peter 3:18-22 with its reference to the "Harrowing of Hell"—the release of the spirits of those who had died before Christ. From the former he singled out "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." Both are set, by Calvin within the context of Pilate's court of judgement to which, according to Dillistone, they do not properly belong;[65] nevertheless, the image of "one who has borne the stripes and the chastisement which should, by strict desert have fallen"[66] upon others, within the divine purpose, is, on all sides agreed to be an essential element in the story.

Bible passages

Theologians who advocate penal substitution are keen to define the doctrine carefully, rather than, as Packer says; "the primary question is, not the rationality or morality of God but the remission of one's sins." He suggests that it be seen not as a mechanical explanation (how it works) but rather than [41] However, John Stott critiques loveless caricatures of the cross as "a sacrifice to appease an angry God, or ... a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others" as being "neither the Christianity of the Bible in general nor of Paul in particular." Furthermore, "It is doubtful if anybody has ever believed such a crude construction."[62]

J. I. Packer[41] states that language must be used in a stretched sense. God is not a sixteenth-century monarch, he says, and divine government is not the same as earthly government. He states that Christians should regard all truth of God as an "apprehended mystery," and always hold that God is greater than our formularies. He holds, nonetheless, that penal substitution can be described as a model in a way comparable to how physics uses the term. He defines the term model, in a theological sense, as "explanatory constructs formed to help us know, understand, and deal with God, the ultimate reality." He states that the "mystery of God is more than any one model, even the best, can express." He states that "all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery which we can only think and speak by means of models." To Packer, the biblical models are presented as being inspired by God and given to us as "knowledge of the mystery of the cross." The theologian Stephen Sykes has interpreted Packer's account of penal substitution as being presented as a metaphor.

The Reformers claimed over and over to be recovering the truth of the Gospel from both the New Testament and the earliest Christian fathers. They generally believed doctrinal errors were introduced by the later fathers of the middle ages.[55][56][57][58][59][60]

Some critics of penal substitution would say that the above quotes indicate that Jesus did take upon himself the curse of the law, not as a penalty substitution, but as a willingness to suffer for and with sinful humanity even though He did not really deserve it.

Augustine of Hippo wrote, "He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offenses, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment."

Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers seem quite clear that a curse for sin was placed on Christ. Hilary of Poitiers writes, "Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed."

Jesus' identity as himself being God is also central to penal substitution. Those who do not believe that Jesus was God visiting the Earth in human form necessarily conclude that God chose a bystander named Jesus to suffer for others. However, those who believe that Jesus was actually God ( John 14:7-9; 10:30-33) conclude that God—against whom mankind had sinned—came to accept the penalty upon himself. Thus, they see no injustice in God's choosing to come to Earth in order to take humanity's sin upon himself. However, the replies in these two paragraphs do not directly answer the objection that guilt is inherently non-transferable, whether the victim seeks to have it transferred or not. While they show that Jesus was not in the position of being punished involuntarily, they do not show that it is possible or just to punish a willing innocent victim in place of the guilty. J. I. Packer[41] admits that proponents do not know how this could be possible but choose to believe it anyway.

Proponents of penal substitution contend that critics overlook the repeated declarations of Jesus that he intended to die on the cross, and that his death was the very purpose for which he was born on the Earth ( John 12:27). It is irrelevant, they argue, whether it might be unjust to punish an innocent bystander involuntarily, since the actual proposition is one of Jesus offering voluntarily to die on behalf of others, like a soldier throwing himself on a hand grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Jesus himself taught that "greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" ( John 15:13) and repeatedly announced that he was intentionally going to Jerusalem, knowing that he was heading to his death ( Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22).


Some, like Karl Barth, simply criticised the concept of sanctification of God's wrath for being unscriptural.[54]

Additionally, a view of human salvation which defines it in terms of once-and-for-all acquittal has to deal with its relationship to subsequent actions[52] and the lives of those not born at the time of the Paschal Mystery.[53]

Next, the two words "Dietrich Bonhoeffer says grace is free, but is not cheap.

Thirdly, in Calvin's work, and subsequently, there is an interplay between legal and cultic language. Words such as "curse", "expiation", "propitiation", "wrath", and "sacrifice" appear together with sixteenth-century legal language. "The framework is legal, the process is cultic. Removal of legal sanctions is equated with freedom of access in worship."[45] Calvin contends that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation), but tying this to the need for sacrifice "proved to be a dead weight upon the thinking and imagining of Reformed Christendom."[45] according to Dillstone.

Secondly, ideas of justice and punishment are not the same in Jewish law, imperial Roman law, sixteenth-century European law and modern common law. Thus, for instance, "satisfaction" and "merit" are understandable within the context of Roman law, but sit less easily within either Old or New Testament conceptions. Likewise, when the word "penal" is used, it raises as many questions about the different theories of punishment, past and present.

Among the problems identified is that the word "penal" implies an association with law, but the relationship between theological ideas and social institutions such as the law changes.[44] The contemporary argument as to the relationship of human rights to positive law is a modern extension of this.

Further, with the development of notions of inalienable personal responsibility in law, the idea of "penal" substitution has become less easy to maintain. In modern law, the punishment of the innocent and the acquittal of the guilty is regarded as the perfect example of injustice.[42] F. W. Dillistone stated that "no strictly penal theology of the atonement can be expected to carry conviction in the world of the twentieth century."[43]

Calvin's general framework, coinciding as it did with a rising respect for law, considered as a bulwark against the ferments of war, revolution and civil insurrection, remained normative for Reformed Christians for the next three centuries. Moreover, if Socinus spoke from the point of view of the radical reformers, there were also Catholics for whom the once and for all nature of Christ's redeeming work was in danger of weakening the doctrine of sanctification and the spiritual life of the believer and his or her appropriation of the divine mystery through the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.

Socinus thought that Jesus was not himself God and that he had not come in the flesh to intentionally die for humanity. Socinus argued against the Trinity. It thus follows as a natural consequence that it would be unjust to punish Jesus for the sins of others. Similarly, his argument that a temporary death of one would not be sufficient to pay for all mankind's sins also flows from his premise that Jesus was only an ordinary man.

  1. Perfect satisfaction for sin, even by way of substitution, leaves no room for divine forgiveness or pardon.
  2. It is unjust both to punish the innocent and to allow the guilty to go free.
  3. The finite suffering and temporary death of one is disproportionate to the infinite suffering and permanent death of many.
  4. The grace of perfect satisfaction would appear to confer on its beneficiaries a freedom to sin without consequence.

Ever since the doctrine of penal substitution received full expression in the Reformation period, it has been the subject of continual criticism on biblical, moral and logical grounds. A number of 21st-century works provide recent critiques.[36][37][38][39] The first extensive criticism of the penal substitutionary view came during the Reformation period from within the Anabaptist movement, from the pen of Faustus Socinus.[40] He argued that penal substitution was "irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible."[41] His objections were as follows:


The work of the Reformers, including Zwingli and Philip Melanchthon, was hugely influential. It took away from religion the requirement of works, whether corporal or spiritual, of the need for penances, belief in purgatory, indeed the whole medieval penitential system; and it did so by emphasizing the finality of Christ's work.

John Wesley the founder of Methodism also held strongly to the penal substitution theory of the atonement, as did the majority of early Methodists including the first great Methodist systematic theologian Richard Watson. Kenneth J. Collins in his book "The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace" writes, "for Wesley, Christ makes compensation and satisfies the justice of God precisely by standing in the place of sinful humanity, by being reckoned among its numbers, and in the end by bearing the penalty, the very wages of sin."[34] This is perhaps made the most clear in Wesley's writing entitled "The Doctrine of Original Sin". In this treatise Wesley writes, "Our sins were the procuring cause of all his sufferings. His sufferings were the penal effects of our sins. 'The chastisement of our peace,' the punishment necessary to procure it, 'was' laid 'on him,' freely submitting thereto: 'And by his stripes' (a part of his sufferings again put for the whole) 'we are healed'; pardon, sanctification, and final salvation, are all purchased and bestowed upon us. Every chastisement is for some fault. That laid on Christ was not for his own, but ours; and was needful to reconcile an offended Lawgiver, and offering guilty creatures, to each other. So 'the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all'; that is, the punishment due to our iniquity."[35]

Calvin appropriated Anselm's ideas but changed the terminology to that of the criminal law with which he was familiar—he was trained as a lawyer—reinterpreted in the light of Biblical teaching on the law. Man is guilty before God's judgement and the only appropriate punishment is eternal death. The Son of God has become man and has stood in man's place to bear the immeasurable weight of wrath—the curse, and the condemnation of a righteous God. He was "made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them."[33]

Broadly speaking, Martin Luther followed Anselm, thus remaining mainly in the "Latin" model identified by Gustaf Aulén. He held, however, that Christ's atoning work encompassed both his active and passive obedience to the law;: as the perfectly innocent God-man, he fulfilled the law perfectly during his life AND he, in his death on the cross, bore the eternal punishment that all men deserved for their breaking the law. Unlike Anselm, Luther thus combines both satisfaction and punishment.[30] Furthermore, Luther rejected the fundamentally legalistic character of Anselm's paradigm in terms of an understanding of the Cross in the more personal terms of an actual conflict between the wrath of God as the sinner and the love of God for the same sinner.[31] For Luther this conflict was real, personal, dynamic and not merely forensic or analogical.[32] If Anselm conceived of the Cross in terms a forensic duel between Christ's identification with humanity and the infinite value and majesty of his divine person, Luther perceived the Cross as a new Götterdammerung, a dramatic, definitive struggle between the divine attributes of God's implacable righteousness against the sinful humanity and inscrutable identification with this same helpless humanity which gave birth to a New Creation, whose undeniable reality could only be glimpsed through faith and whose invincible power worked only through love. One cannot understand the unique character or force of Luther's and the Lutheran understanding of the Cross apart from this dramatic character which is not readily translated into or expressed through the more rational philosophical categories of dogmatic theology, even when these categories are those of Lutheran Orthodoxy itself.

In order to better understand the historical situation in which Anselm developed his argument one must recall that medieval common law developed out of Germanic tribal law, in which one finds the principle of the wergild, i.e., the value which a man's life had determined by his social standing within a tribal community. Thus if a man killed a slave, he owed the owner of the slave the amount of money he had paid for the slave or would have to pay to buy another slave of equal worth. If a man killed another free man he forfeited his own life, unless the slain man's family or tribe agreed to accept some amount of money or goods equal to the value of the slain free man's life within his own tribal group. Again, a man's honour is conceived of in terms of his social standing within his own tribal group. Thus, a slave has no honour since he is owned by another, but a free man's social standing is equal to that of another free man within his tribal group, but is subordinate to that of his tribal king. A free man will therefore defend his own honour with his life, or forfeit it (i.e., his social standing within his tribal group) and any affront to his honor by another free man must be repaid by the other man's forfeiting of his own life. Hence the custom of fighting duels. One who committed an affront to another man's honour or would not defend his own affronted honour would be regarded as a coward and suffer outlawry, i.e., he would lose his own social value and standing within his tribe and anyone could kill him without fear of retaliation from the man's tribal group. Thus, since God is infinite, his honour is infinite and any affront to his honour requires from humanity an infinite satisfaction. Furthermore, as humanity's Creator, God is humanity's Master and humanity has nothing of its own with which to compensate for this affront to his honour. God, nevertheless, must require something of equal value to his divine honour, otherwise God would forfeit his own essential dignity as God. Anselm resolves the dilemma thus created by maintaining that since Christ is both God and man he can act as humanity's champion, (i.e., as a man he is a member of humanity—again, conceived of in tribal terms, i.e., Christ is member of the human tribe, with all the standing and social responsibilities inherent in such membership) he can pay the infinite wergild that humanity owes for the slighted divine honour, for while the life he forfeits to pay this wergild on humanity's behalf is a human life, it is the human life of his divine person & thus has the infinite value proper to his divine person. At the same time, Christ is also God and thus his divine person and his human life, as the human life of his divine person, has infinite value. Thus he offers his human life (with its nevertheless infinite value as the human life of his divine person) as the wergild humanity owes his divine Master for his humanity's affront to his divine honour as God. At the same time, Christ as God acts as the champion of the infinite dignity of his own divine honour as God and Master of humanity by accepting as God the infinite value of the wergild of his own human life as the human life of his own divine person as the proper and only sufficient wergild due to his own divine honour. One might thus interpret Anselm's understanding of the Cross in terms of a duel fought between Christ's identification with humanity as a man and his divine honour as God in which the claims of both his human and divine natures are met, vindicated and thus reconciled.[29]

It was not until St. Anselm's famous work Cur Deus Homo (1098) that attention was focused on the theology of redemption with the aim of providing more exact definitions[26] (though there is disagreement as to how influential penal conceptions were in the first five centuries). Anselm held that to sin is for man "not to render his due to God."[27] Comparing what was due to God and what was due to the feudal Lord, he argued that what was due to God was honour. "'Honour' comprises the whole complex of service and worship which the whole creation, animate and inanimate, in heaven and earth, owes to the Creator. The honour of God is injured by the withdrawal of man's service which he is due to offer."[28] This failure constitutes a debt, weight or doom, for which man must make satisfaction, but which lies beyond his competence; only if a new man can be found who by perfect obedience can satisfy God's honour and by some work of supererogation can provide the means of paying the existing debt of his fellows, can God's original purpose be fulfilled. So Christ not only lives a sinless life, which is again his due, but also is willing to endure death for the sake of love. Thus, Anselm's view can best be understood from medieval feudalistic conceptions of authority, of sanctions and of reparation. Anselmian satisfaction contrasts with penal substitution in that Anselm sees the satisfaction (i.e. restitution) as an alternative to punishment, "The honour taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow" (bk 1 ch 8), whereas penal substitution views the punishment as the means of satisfaction.

Anselm, the Reformers, and John Wesley

The dominant strain in the soteriological writings of the Greek Fathers, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, was the so-called "physical" theory that Christ, by becoming man, restored the divine image in us; but blended with this is the conviction that his death was necessary to release us from the curse of sin, and that he offered himself in sacrifice for us.[24] For Athanasius, however, Christ's substitution is not a payment to God, but rather a fulfillment of the conditions which are necessary to remove death and corruption from humanity; those conditions, he asserts, exist as consequences from sin.[25]

[23] Irenaeus is another example of an Early Church Father who uses phrases that could be misread as referring to penal substitution, but these phrases 'mainly describe the problem; they do not provide the content of the recapitulation idea'.[22] Augustine's main belief regarding the atonement was not penal substitutionary but, like Gregory's, the classic, or ransom, theory.[21]

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