The Wrongful Death of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

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Penal substitutionary atonement seems to be dying a rather rapid death in theology circles. This is the idea that Jesus died in my place, often to satisfy the wrath of God. One of the most popular Christian songs of the last decade had a line in it that reflected this idea, “While on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” This idea is in our hymnody but is it in our Bibles?

First we have the idea that Christ died FOR us:

  • Isa 53:5 – “But he was pierced for our transgressions,
        he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
        and by his wounds we are healed.
  • Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
  • Romans 5:6 – “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
  • Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”
  • Romans 14:15 – “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.”
  • 1 Cor 8:11 – “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.”
  • 1 Cor 15:3 – “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,”
  • 2 Cor 5:14 – “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
  • 2 Cor 5:21 – “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • Gal 3:13-14 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
  • 1 Thess 5:10 – “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
  • Heb 2:9 – “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.”
  • 1 Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
  • 1 Peter 3:18 – “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;”

Whatever we believe it is clear that Jesus died for us. He became a curse for us. Christ died for our sins. In some sense it also seems clear that the punishment that he endured was one that was in some way intended for or maybe better stated a result of our sin. You will notice in the Galatians 3 verses that Paul connects what happened to Jesus to what was promised to Abraham to bless the nations.

I believe what we are experiencing in theological circles is a needed and biblical expanding of the gospel message because the gospel message included more than we typical attribute to it. But we also need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, that in discovering a new angle on the matter that we miss the accurate parts of the old view. There is a very real sense in scripture that Jesus died for us and even in our place. The big question is whether or not there was some sort of divine mandate that God killed Jesus to keep from killing us? That is often how we interpret the for part. When we say Jesus died for me we mean in my place, which in a sense means so God wouldn’t have to kill me. This is the penal part of penal substitutionary atonement. I believe the substitutionary part is biblical even if it isn’t the whole of the gospel. I believe the penal part is a bit more sketchy.

So what does the for mean from a penal/judicial standpoint? I believe it is covenantal going back to Genesis 15:8-20,

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[e] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God goes between the pieces and it does have a judicial component – that there is a penalty for violating the covenant and God commits himself to bear the penalty because both parties don’t pass through the pieces, only God does. This is a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross where God passed through the pieces as if saying “let it be to me what has happened to these animals if the covenant is broken.” The cross is the carrying out of that punishment/consequence. The issue is we broke it, not him and yet we never walked through the pieces taking the responsibility for punishment as a result of the sin that is a breaking of the covenant.

There is a heavy substitutionary component in what Jesus did on the cross but dating all the way back to Abraham it wasn’t about God killing his own son because he is angry about sin and would otherwise have to kill us. It is about God maintaining the covenant (judicial/penal) through his own faithfulness to us and the covenant he has made with us. God didn’t grudging go between the pieces of the animals. He gracefully went between them. This is a divine substitution but it never had anything to do with satiating God’s wrath. It had everything to do with maintaining the covenant, that all the nations of the world would be blessed through the seed of Abraham, that is Christ.

So penal substitutionary atonement is not completely wrong, although in its typical format misses much of the point. It just needs to be properly understood in terms of the function of the penal/judicial side of it works and why the substitution takes place. This points us to a healthier view of God rather than the angry old codger who is waiting to smite us but picked his own kid instead to beat in our place.

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