What is Penal Substitution?

by Mike Ratliff

6 Ἔτι γὰρ Χριστὸς ὄντων ἡμῶν ἀσθενῶν ἔτι κατὰ καιρὸν ὑπὲρ ἀσεβῶν ἀπέθανεν. 7 μόλις γὰρ ὑπὲρ δικαίου τις ἀποθανεῖται· ὑπὲρ γὰρ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ τάχα τις καὶ τολμᾷ ἀποθανεῖν· 8 συνίστησιν δὲ τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ἀγάπην εἰς ἡμᾶς ὁ θεός, ὅτι ἔτι ἁμαρτωλῶν ὄντων ἡμῶν Χριστὸς ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἀπέθανεν. 9 πολλῷ οὖν μᾶλλον δικαιωθέντες νῦν ἐν τῷ αἵματι αὐτοῦ σωθησόμεθα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῆς ὀργῆς. 10 εἰ γὰρ ἐχθροὶ ὄντες κατηλλάγημεν τῷ θεῷ διὰ τοῦ θανάτου τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, πολλῷ μᾶλλον καταλλαγέντες σωθησόμεθα ἐν τῇ ζωῇ αὐτοῦ· 11 οὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ καυχώμενοι ἐν τῷ θεῷ διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δι’ οὗ νῦν τὴν καταλλαγὴν ἐλάβομεν. (Romans 5:6-11 NA28)

6 For while we were still weak, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die on behalf of a righteous man–though perhaps on behalf of for a good man someone would dare to die– 8 but God demonstrates his own love for us, that though we were still sinners, Christ died on our behalf. 9 Since, therefore,  having now been justified by his blood, much more will we be saved from the wrath through him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, now having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life. 11 Not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ  through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11 translated from the NA28 Greek text)

Penal Substitution is a theory of the atonement within Christian theology, especially associated with the Reformed tradition. It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of sinners, thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive their sins. Penal Substitution is, therefore, a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

As I researched the doctrine of Penal Substitution for this article I was amazed at the lengths some people go to in order to obscure God’s truth through man-centered verbiage slanted away from Sacred Scripture towards human reasoning. Not one piece I read that decried Penal Substitution could attack it exegetically. In every case I read, the focus was on the barbarity of such a doctrine and how this shed a very negative light on the character of God. Before we go any further let us define what Penal Substitution is.

When I first heard of certain theologians, writers, Pastors, and leaders within the visible Church, such as Rob Bell, decrying Penal Substitution as the very act of the Christian’s atonement by God, I was amazed. However, as the Gospel has come under increasing attacks from every direction within so-called Christian circles over the last several years we should not be surprised that the very act of the Christian’s atonement is so radically disparaged by those desiring to create a “new reformation.” They must attack the root of our faith in order to “kill” it. However, they will never succeed. Our Lord promised to build His church and sustain it so that even the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). That means that the Gospel itself will never be destroyed. It has been under constant attack from our enemy and his seed since its inception and has become obscured by false doctrines and false prophets many times in the history of the Church; however, God has always worked to recover it through His servants who stood firm for His truth even if it cost them their lives. Our role in this season is to do the same. We must stand firm and use our “True Jerusalem blade,” the sword of the spirit, to withstand those who seek to destroy our faith.

4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.  (Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB)

There is no way any one of us can honestly say that we do not deserve the wrath of God. We are sinners. Like sheep, we have all gone astray. We have all turned to our own way. This describes the fact that we are rebels against the Lordship of Christ. We are our own “lords.” However, no matter how good the good news is that God is gracious and has forgiveness and salvation available to all those who can repent of their sins and live perfectly from this point onward, no one is able to do that. Why? Our sin is ever before us. We are guilty and there is no sacrifice of blood available to any of us that is able to cover our sins. God is just and must judge all sin and there is not one thing we can do about it. Also, the unregenerate are hostile to God. They are in rebellion against God and are completely incapable of turning to God for mercy even if it was offered. However, God is merciful and has provided a way for His people to be justified before Him.

At the Cross, our Lord Jesus Christ was given the burden of the sins of His people. He suffered and died to pay the price, the penalty, for those sins. Through this act of atonement, this crushing and killing of our Lord on our behalf, God brought us peace and spiritual healing because our sins were laid on Christ.

9 πολλῷ οὖν μᾶλλον δικαιωθέντες νῦν ἐν τῷ αἵματι αὐτοῦ σωθησόμεθα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῆς ὀργῆς. (Romans 5:9 NA28)

9 Since, therefore,  having now been justified by his blood, much more will we be saved from the wrath through him. (Romans 5:9 translated from the NA28 Greek text)

In order for Christ’s work on the Cross to be an acceptable sacrifice to God on our behalf, He would have to actually be our substitute. He actually stood in the place of everyone who would ever believe receiving everything they deserved. This substitution enabled those purchased by the sacrifice and shedding of His blood to be accepted in the beloved. His blood has justified us. This justification saves those purchased from the wrath of God. When our Lord cried, “It is finished” on the Cross (John 19:30), the atonement for all who would ever believe was accomplished.

Romans 5:9 clearly shows us that God’s wrath is against all sin and that the only way of escape from that wrath is to be justified by the blood of Christ. God is just and on the Cross, He imputed to Christ the sins of all those whom Christ purchased. This Penal Substitution satisfied God’s justice. This verse also makes it clear that Christ’s substitutionary death for His people will truly save them from God’s wrath. This Penal Substitution is an actual substitution, not a potential one. All of those purchased will be saved. Not all people are saved from God’s wrath, however, all those who are saved from God’s wrath are the same ones for whom Christ Substituted.

My brethren, the atonement purchased by our Saviour at the Cross is the root of our faith. Christ died for the sins of His people. By His stripes we are healed spiritually from the deadly disease of sin. Therefore, when you read or hear of any writer, preacher, teacher, or theologian attempt to cast doubt on the veracity of Penal Substitution, be forewarned that that person is attacking the Gospel itself and is working with the enemy to try to destroy your faith. The “religion” these people are attempting to create is a form of Christianity, but it is neither of God nor His Word and is, therefore, just another false religion that we must stand firmly against in the power of the Holy Spirit wielding the sword of the Spirit to cast down arguments and destroy speculations.

Soli Deo Gloria!

10 thoughts on “What is Penal Substitution?

  1. People who love themselves more than they love God will always hate these Truths. But they are sweet music to the souls of the saints! Christ died for the ungodly, while we were without strength. Penal substitutionary atonement is a beautiful doctrine, assuring the salvation of the elect.

  2. Dear Mike,
    Yes, penal substitution is a critical element of the True Gospel.

    It is sad to realize that “ministers” throughout history have denied or thought of penal substitution as a form of “cosmic child abuse”.

    George MacDonald (1824-1905) who abhorred the idea of penal substitution was a primary influence for many prolific writers, novelists and “ministers”.

    According to Wikipedia under Penal Substitution:
    “George MacDonald, a universalist Christian theologian who was a great influence on Lewis, wrote against the idea that God was unable or unwilling to forgive humans without a substitutionary punishment in his Unspoken Sermons, and stated that he found the idea to be completely unjust.[70]”

    Very sad indeed… May God keep our eyes focused on the Truth of His Word and preserve us from the deception of mere men.

    Kept only by His undeserved Grace, charisse

  3. Hi Mike,
    Excellent post! After reading it, I went to Wikipedia to see what the “world” view is. It was interesting as they presented the views or opinions of various “theologians” and others. It amazes me how people can ignore the explicit words of Scripture such as you have quoted here and come up with some other stupid idea.

    Keep up the good work…

  4. Thanks Peter. Those who have issues with Biblical teaching on Penal Substitution also either reject or have a false (man centered) view of Covenant Theology. Penal Substitution is all about the Sovereignty of God and is the result of his cutting the New Covenant with his people. The preceding covenants that pointed directly to it are the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants in which God proclaimed what he would do and notice that all Abraham and David did was believe. Now we have the New Covenant and who cuts it? Who does all the promising and all the “work?” Who believes and is justified?

    Covenant Theology is such a blessing. I have no idea why so many want to take on all the “works” upon themselves and try to be like the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. Notice, they were adding a “works” requirement on top of the Grace of God as a requirement to salvation. Ephesians 2:1-10 makes it very clear where we stand before God outside of his Grace and how he puts us in Christ and it most certainly is not according to our merit or works…

  5. Amen. The Old Testament saints and prophets all just believed God when he spoke to them. We have in these last days God speaking to us through His Son (Heb 1:1) But so many who have “heard” refuse to believe Him. So many of the well known preachers, leaders etc. just have to get in there and stir it up and “muddy the waters” rather than taking God at His word. Maybe these people have never been given that Grace and are therefore operating outside of it but think (deceptively) they are saved?? How else can one keep on fighting against straight forward Truth? Or adding the “works”? I get frustrated when I begin reading such false teaching and just stop and discard it. But you must get buried with this nonsense. I thank my Father that He has given you much Grace and wisdom to handle it. :)

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