Myth Busting Penal Substitutionary Atonement
The Fuss Over Penal Substitutionary Atonement
What is Penal Substitutionary Atonement? Well, to parse the terms, we are dealing something penal (a punishment that is meted out), something substitutionary (Christ dies in our stead), and an atonement (what reconciles us to God). To expand upon that, according to John Stott “evangelical Christians believe that in and through Christ crucified God substituted himself for us and bore our sins, dying in our place the death we deserved to die, in order that we might be restored to his favor and adopted into his family.”
But the truth and centrality of penal substitutionary atonement are debated, often quite acrimoniously!
Nothing shows theological tribalism more than responses to penal substitutionary atonement (henceforth PSA). How people respond to PSA shows where they sit on the theological spectrum and which theological tribes they hold in contemptuous disgust. There are basically two-tribes:
Pop Evangelical Calvinism: Yes, PSA is not only biblical, it is the gospel. PSA is the central and most significant aspect of the atonement, it is solidly biblical, everyone good in church history believed it, and everything good revolves around it. Read my lips, “In my place condemned he stood.” That’s Luther, that’s Calvin, that’s even Wesley, and if you don’t believe it, you are destined for the deity’s dumpster of destruction!
Progressive Liberal: Oh spare me, PSA is a macabre medieval view that God saves the world by torturing his son, the first idiot to believe that non-sense was Anselm and then John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards perfected the angry, wrathful sky daddy routine. I can’t tell the difference between the PSA God and Satan. Do us a favour and stick PSA in the trash with your Q-Anon membership badge.
Hyperbolic I know, but still a grain of truth!
Call me cynical but the desperate apologetics and aggravated denunciations concerning PSA show just how tribal the topic is in some places. I think most banter about this subject is not actually based on people reading texts, but trying to get their tribal credentials validated. The best way to de-tribalize PSA is to bust up some myths about it.
# 1 – There is no PSA in the New Testament
Let me be clear, I believe that PSA is broadly affirmed in the New Testament.
First, there are Paul’s words in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus … for what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering [peri hamartias]. And so he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:1, 3). The law was powerless to acquit us from the penalty of sin or to liberate us from the power of sin. God achieved for us justification from sin’s condemnation and liberation from sin’s power by sending his own Son. N. T. Wright comments:
No clearer statement is found in Paul, or indeed anywhere else in all early Christian literature, of the early Christian belief that what happened on the cross was the judicial punishment of sin. Taken in conjunction with 8:1 and the whole argument of the passage, not to mention the partial parallels in 2 Cor 5:21 and Gal 3:13, it is clear that Paul intends to say that in Jesus’ death the damnation that sin deserved was meted out fully and finally, so that sinners over whose heads that condemnation had hung might be liberated from this threat once and for all.
Second, moving to Galatians, Paul writes “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’” (Gal 3:13, italics added). The logic of Paul’s argument is that the law requires obedience, and it results in curses for disobedience. People who disobey the law, accordingly, fall under the penalty of covenantal curses (Deut 29:20-21). In particular, Jewish contemporaries of Paul associated crucifixion with the accursedness of one who was hanged on a tree (Deut 21:23). The strange fact is that believers are redeemed from this curse because their accursedness is taken away by Christ, who has taken the curse upon himself. Paul tells us here what we are being saved from—the curse. The only explanation is that the Messiah had willingly taken on himself the dreaded curse that rightly belonged to others. Despite some protests to the contrary, I cannot imagine a clearer affirmation of penal substitionary atonement.
Third, looking a 1 Peter, we read “‘he [Jesus] 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 Pet 2:24, italics added). In this verse, Peter uses Isa 53:4–5 to make the point that Jesus bore the punishment due our sins in his body. He carries our sin away by bearing the brunt of its punishment. In making note of Jesus’s body, Peter underscores the redeeming quality of Christ’s humanity as he suffered unjustly and for those who deserved to suffer as sinners.
So there you have it, Jesus suffers the penalty of our sin as our substitute on the cross.
# 2 – PSA is the central aspect of the atonement in the New Testament
So, PSA is biblical, but how prevalent is it and is it the most central concept for the atonement?
We have to recognize here that there are aspects of atonement beyond PSA. These include Jesus’s death as an example (1 Pet 2:21), an act of divine love (Rom 5:8), cleansing from sin (1 John 1:7), a divine victory (Col 2:14-15), and bound up with redemption (Mk 10:45). So while the atonement is not less than PSA there is far more to the atonement than PSA.
What is more, you have to admit that in the Book of Acts, as a digest of apostolic preaching, PSA does not figure at all. Luke focuses more on Jesus’s resurrection and exaltation rather than his death, and there is a single allusion to the atonement where Paul tells the Ephesians about how God redeemed his church by the “blood of his own son” (Acts 20:28).
If PSA is the one central aspect of the atonement, then why is it not central in the apostolic preaching in Acts?
# 3 – Nobody in church history believed in PSA until Anselm
Anselm was not the first person to affirm something like PSA for two reasons.
First, I don’t think Anselm’s view is PSA, he is offering something of an explanation for divine pardoning in light of feudal ideology.
Second, the criticism that penal substitutionary atonement was a latecomer on the scene of Christian theology is profoundly false. While substitutionary atonement was certainly not the only or even the most popular model for the atonement in the ancient and medieval church, we do find traces of it in many places.
For example, among the Apostolic Fathers, Clement wrote: “In love the Master has received us. Because of the love that he had for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, in accordance with God’s will, gave his blood for us, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives.” The second-century author of the Epistle to Diognetus expressed these poetic words: “O the sweet exchange, O incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners.” There is no doubt that this is arguing for substitutionary atonement. Furthermore, in someone like Athanasius, there is a wonderful blend of incarnation, substitution, and victory:
The Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, might bring to nought Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.
So the idea that PSA is not in the church fathers can be filed under “R” for “rejected.”
# 4 – PSA requires that God gets revenge on Jesus
Okay, it is possible to overcook PSA and over-do the penal aspect or to use unbiblical language as if God “hates” Jesus or gets “revenge” on him – this is simply not true. For instance, Wayne Grudem writes: “God … poured out on Jesus the fury of his wrath: Jesus became the object of the intense hatred of sin and vengeance against sin which God had patiently stored up since the beginning of the world.”
The concepts here are not entirely wrong, God is displeased with sin, it alienates us from God, but where does Scripture say that at the cross God hates Jesus or gets revenge on him? I find this a bit cringy and such a view becomes liable to some of the criticisms that postconservative, emergent, feminist, and liberal theologians raise against penal substitution. More carefully nuanced language should be used.
In fact, that idea that God gets revenge on Jesus always reminds me of this clip from The Simpsons:
# 5 – PSA is nothing more than divine child abuse
A persistent criticism of the PSA that it is a form of “divine child abuse.” God saves people only by abusing, torturing, and unleashing his wrath on his innocent son. All human violence begins with and is inspired by this feat of divine violence.
Fleming Rutledge laments: “It is not an exaggeration to say that in some circles there has been something resembling a campaign of intimidation, so that those who cherish the idea that Jesus offered himself in our place have been made to feel that they are neo-Crusaders, prone to violence, oppressors of women, and enablers of child abuse.”
This pejorative criticism against orthodox atonement doctrine can be deflected by recognizing the triune nature of the atonement. The angry Father does not abuse his Son to appease his wrath against sin. Rather, the Father hands over the Son, the Son willingly goes to the cross, through the Holy Spirit, to make atonement for the sins of the world/elect (delete as preferred).
As Henri Blocher noted, the only God capable of achieving what the cross achieved is the God of Trinitarian and christological orthodoxy. The Father sends the Son, and the Son goes voluntarily to the cross. The Spirit empowers the Son to suffer and withdraws at the final moment, only to raise the Son back to life. God does not inflict suffering on an unwilling Son who is sacrificed for a wrath devoid of love, a justice motivated by hatred, and a disproportionate display of divine rage. Nor does Jesus persuade a blood-thirsty Father to be merciful. Rutledge puts it well: “The Son and the Father are doing this [the atonement] in concert, by the power of the Spirit. This interposition of the Son between human beings and the curse of God upon Sin is a project of the three persons. The sentence of accursedness has fallen upon Jesus on our behalf and in our place, by his own decree as the second person”.
So the New Testament does have a version of PSA. It is there, but it is not everywhere. It is found in church history, but PSA was not exactly the biggest show in town. We should explain PSA properly, in light of the triune economy, rather than, “God hates your sin so much that he’s gonna get revenge on Jesus.”
To read more, see my book Evangelical Theology where I have a massive section on the atonement.
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 7.
 N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” NIB, 10:574–75.
 A point eloquently expounded by Justin, Dial. Tryph. 95.
 Marshall (Aspects of the Atonement, 53 n. 32 [see too 45–46]): “Jesus bears the curse of God on our behalf. If that is not penal substitution I do not know what it is.” Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach (Pierced for our Transgressions, 89): “It is hard to imagine a plainer statement of the doctrine of penal substitution.” Rutledge (Crucifixion, 472): “This is perhaps the clearest statement of the substitution motif in Paul.”
 See Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1–2 Peter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 157.
 For a short summary, see Rutledge, Crucifixion, 477-80.
 1 Clem 49.6.
 Ep. Diogn. 9.5.
 Athanasius, Incarnation, 4.20.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 575.
 Rutledge, Cucifixon, 464 (italics original).
 Henri Blocher, “God and the Cross,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (ed. B. L. McCormack; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 138 (125–41). See too
 Rutledge, Crucifixion, 100