On Penal Substitution

That Christ died for our sins is foundational for Christian faith and theology. Faithful witness to this fact is, therefore, of the most crucial order.

To speak about the cross in a way that is faithful to the biblical witness requires harnessing a broad range of metaphors that the Bible and the best of the tradition employs to bear witness to the reality of what God has done in Christ. One such metaphor and an indispensable metaphor at that is that of penal substitution. Clearly, the Scriptures teach that there is a penal element within Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. Equally clear, however, is that penal substitution is not the sum of what the atonement is about. Consequently, when taken alone (or given over-amplified voice) in describing the action of the cross, there is a danger of distorting the witness to that action, of painting appalling illustrations of the Father-Son relationship, and of positing an unbiblical shift in the divine-human relation from one primarily filial and ethical to one predominantly legal. If the story of penal substitution has been told shockingly and distortedly in the past and it sometimes has, pitting an angry Father against an innocent Son, for example, or positing that ‘Jesus came to save us from God’, then rather than abandon the story we need to find ways of telling it better, that is, ways that are more faithful to the whole of the Scripture’s story and which also account for the fact that this story needs to be told alongside others.

There are a number of things I would want to affirm in the context of any discussion on penal substitution. These include: (i) that the notion plays an indispensable role in the New Testament’s witness about the cross; (ii) we must maintain the distinction between penalty and punishment. While the Crucified Christ bore sins’ penalty, there is no sense in which he was being punished by God. The Father was never anything but ‘well-pleased’ with his beloved Son; (iii) to be sure, the chastisement of our peace was certainly upon him who entered the orb of our penalty, but the whole of Christian experience ought tell us that we ought not infer from this that there is no chastisement left for us when we are in him, a chastisement with finds the truest, deepest, and bitterest repentance throughout the course of the Christian life; (iv) there was nothing arbitrary about the penalty meted out on sin as if God was concerned with mere clamant justice or abstract wrath; (v) a biblically-faithful atonement theology must adequately account for the forward-looking aspects of the atonement as well as the backward ones. Hence the need for additional models or metaphors of atonement other than only penal ones. Paul Fiddes’ contribution in Past Event and Present Salvation is a valuable study here.

The message of penal substitution remains an important and relevant one to teach us about the nature of God’s love, about the costliness of forgiveness, and about justice for both victims and perpetrators. Penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement instruct us that justice matters, that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside.

That a stream within British evangelicalism has chosen the issue of penal substitution as its defining marker is particularly disturbing for at least four reasons:

1. It represents that some evangelicals are failing to hear and receive the Bible’s own rich account of, and commentary on, God’s action in the cross, an action that all the doctrines in the world (let alone one) could not contain nor bear full witness to.

2. The new enemies of evangelicalism are now fellow evangelicals. It is a very disturbing day when people like Colin Gunton and Steve Holmes (see my review of Steve’s book The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substituion in the Bible and History) are targeted by evangelicals as ‘the enemy’.

3. If Holmes is right that the first full account of the doctrine of penal substitution comes with Calvin, then British evangelicals are again in danger of cutting themselves off from the large majority of the Church and its history. Of course, the evangelical community has its own long tradition of being constantly in search of shibboleths by which to define itself.

4. Not only does it represent a shift in British thinking towards a more North-American way of defining Christian community (rarely a particularly helpful thing in itself), but it fails to recognise that evangelicalism is as much (if not more) a sociologically-defined reality as it is a doctrinally-defined one. Even when some issues seem to move to the fore (as, for example, in some particularly tight definitions concerning the authority of Scripture), it remains that largely cultural phenomenon have traditionally defined how evangelicals have seen themselves (and each other) and others.


  1. While the Crucified Christ bore sins’ penalty, there is no sense in which he was being punished by God.

    I know what you’re getting at, but I don’t think this distinction is very helpful. Our sin (and man’s fallen state, in general) results in the removal of God’s gracious providence and right to communion with him. This leaves us open to the forces of evil, including both the malicious intents of men and the blind mechanical forces of nature. This “removal” of God is at the least an active punishment and one which Christ bore. In other words, Jesus bore the penalty of sin and the punishment of God. If we only say the former then we can fall into a notion of sin and its penalty which only considers the penalty of sin to be its own internal destructive effects — and it is to this alone which Christ remedies. This is Paul Fiddes’ account and one of the central reasons why it is incomplete (and I believe clearly heretical by both Reformation and Tridentine standards — see his essay on “Salvation” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology). The classical Christian, and surely Pauline, account is that Christ’s restores a relationship to which guilt (on our end) and holiness/righteousness (on God’s end, meaning his, and his alone, “right-making”)are the operative dynamics.


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