Penal Substitution as Anchor and Foundation of Other Dimensions of the Atonement

Supplementary Reading #1 on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Related Posts:
Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross
N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement

Christ’s Victory Through Penal Substitutionary Death

The theory of penal substitution is the heart and soul of an evangelical view of the atonement. I am not claiming that it is the only truth about the atonement taught in the scriptures. Nor am I claiming that penal substitution is emphasized in every piece of literature, or that every author articulates clearly penal substitution. I am claiming that penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole. 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.

The fundamental nature of penal substitution is evident if we consider some of the other theories of the atonement. For example, the Christus Victor motif recognizes rightly that Christ has conquered demonic powers and has liberated us from the dominion of evil in our lives. But if the Christus Victor motif is not tethered to penal substitution, we might conclude that human beings are merely victims of sin, held in thrall by evil powers. Penal substitution reminds us that sinners are enslaved to demonic powers because of our own moral failure and guilt. Our fundamental problem as human beings is not that outside powers victimize us. The root problem is that we ourselves are radically evil and that we are wrongly related to God himself. Evil powers reign over us because of the evil within us. We are victims of sin because we have failed to glorify and thank God the way we should (Rom 1:21)

A therapeutic view of the atonement prizes the healing that we experience because of Christ’s death for us. We praise God that his grace repairs those whom he saves, that the deforming effect of sin is removed (progressively, not instantaneously) by the work of Christ. Identifying the therapeutic view as central, however, is mistaken. The focus shifts from the glory of God to the good accomplished for human beings. We diminish the objective work of Christ and exalt the subjective experience of people. Sin may be so redefined that it becomes a disease that disfigures us instead of being a radical egocentricity, pride and rebellion that corrupts and condemns us.

The governmental theory of the atonement emphasizes that God desires to show how seriously he takes the law without requiring a full payment for every fraction. According to this view, God’s law needs to be honoured in order for sinners to be forgiven. Still, the governmental view is flawed because it sunders God’s law from his person and hence undercuts the biblical teaching of God’s awful and beautiful holiness. The governmental view suggests that god desires to demonstrate the importance of the law and his moral standards. The governmental view does not succeed, however, because it does not uphold the truth that God’s justice must be satisfied entirely, not merely approximately.

Some might claim that reconciliation speaks to our contemporaries better than justification, for the former addresses relationships and the latter focuses on legality. It is sometimes said that people today cannot relate to the legal categories that inhabit penal substitution whereas the warm and personal dimensions of reconciliation speak to their hearts. No one should diminish the importance of reconciliation, but neither should we make the mistake of exalting reconciliation and minimizing justification. The reason human beings need to be reconciled to God is because of their sin and guilt. Sin is an objective reality that separates sinners from a holy God. Reconciliation between God and humans does not become a reality merely on the basis of human repentance and a desire for forgiveness. If human beings could be reconciled to God by repentance alone, then the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would be completely unnecessary. All people would need to do to receive forgiveness would be to feel sorry for their sins, and we could dispense entirely with the work of Christ. Reconciliation is a precious reality but it is anchored in the sin-bearing work of Christ on the cross by which the wrath of God was appeased.

The example theory of the atonement rightly sees that Jesus functions paradigmatically for Christians. Some might think that a focus on penal substitution displaces the call to imitate Jesus. On the contrary, the love of Jesus Christ, demonstrated supremely in the cross, becomes the paradigm of love for believers (e.g., Mt 20:25-28; Jn 13:1-17; Rom 15:1-4; 2 Cor 8:8-9; Eph 5:2;  Phil 2:5-11; 1 Pet 2:21-25; 1 Jn 3:16-18; 4:10-11). Jesus’ self-giving on the cross functions as the model of love for believers; those who belong to Christ are to imitate him and to walk in his steps. As important as it is to imitate Jesus, we would be badly mistaken if we conceived of his example as the primary truth with respect to the atonement. Such a view undercuts the radical pervasiveness of sin in human beings and suggests that we primarily need a model and paradigm of love. Jesus functions, according to this scheme, as a model to imitate rather than a Savior who rescues us from ourselves. The depth of human evil is glossed over in the example view, and an optimistic view of human nature comes to the forefront. The penal substitution view rightly heralds that human beings stand in debt before God and that they desperately need more than anything else in the world for his forgiveness. Such forgiveness is secured through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Nature of  Atonement, pp.68-70)
Concluding Reflections
Penal substitution is the anchor and heart of the atonement, for it reminds us that God himself is central in the universe. What God has accomplished in Jesus Christ displays both the justice and love of God because God’s holiness is vindicated in the cross, while at the same time his love is displayed in the willing and glad sacrifice of his Son. Penal substitution is not all that needs to be said about the atonement, but it is the anchor of all other theories of the atonement precisely because of its God-centered focus. As human beings we are prone to think first and foremost about ourselves, but Christ’s propitiatory death points us to God’s beautiful and awesome holiness, and his matchless saving love. The most important being in the universe is God, and penal substitution lifts our gaze from ourselves to god himself.

Yet it must also be said that penal substitution answers the most important question of human existence: How can human beings enjoy a right relationship with God? It explains how God as the holy and righteous judge can forgive sinners who have personally rebelled against their sovereign Lord. The fundamental character of penal substitution is supported by at least three strands of evidence: (1) the emphasis on human sin and guilt in Scripture, (2) the theme that God judges retributively sinners who disobey him and flout his law, and (3) the central texts in both the New Testament and the Old Testament that emphasize that sacrifice is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. We can confidently say that the texts in view are some of the most important in Scripture, whether we think of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 or Christ’s sacrifice as explained in John 1:29 and 11:51-52, Galatians 3:10-14, Romans 3:21-26, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:21-25 and 3:18, and 1 John 2:2 and 4:10.

Does penal substitution matter? If what I have argued in this essay is correct, Christ’s dying in our place is the only way we can be right with God. His death is the only means by which we avert God’s holy and just wrath on the day of judgment. The retribution we deserved was poured out on Christ instead of us. In penal substitution, then, the mercy and justice of God meet. God satisfies his perfect justice and holiness by punishing his Son – Jesus the Christ. At the same time, he extends mercy to sinners by forgiving the sins of those who trust in Christ. Penal substitution explains how God remains god in forgiving us of our sins, for God would deny his very being as God if he forgave us and violated his justice and holiness. In addition, penal substitution emphasizes God’s objective work for us as the basis for his subjective work in us. Sinclair Ferguson correctly remarks that in our experiential and subjective age we are prone to focus on God’s work in us and slight God’s work for us. The latter is always the ground for the former, so that the stress remains on what God has accomplished for us instead of our response to him. (Nature of  Atonement, pp.93-94)

Source: Thomas Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View” in The Nature of Atonement: Four Views ed. James Beilby & Paul Eddy  (IVP, 2006), pp. 67-70, 93-94.