What is Penal Substitution and why is it so important in Justification?

by Mike Ratliff

6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11 NASB)

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.

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.

When I first heard of certain theologians, writers, Pastors, and leaders within the visible Church 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 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (Romans 5:9 NASB)

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!

3 thoughts on “What is Penal Substitution and why is it so important in Justification?

  1. Natural man cannot accept spiritual things. And so many professing Christians deny essentials of the faith that their very profession is doubtful.

    I am reading Charles Leiter’s wonderful book, Justification and Regeneration. He begins by examining the true nature of sin and then moves into the price that was paid to buy back and what that means and entails. It is, thus far, a wonderful look at this topic.


  2. Mike, it shocks me to think that there are those who profess to be Christians but who deny penal substitution. If not for Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for sins, there is no Christianity. This is a strange time in which we live. Maranatha!


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