Penal Substitution Revisited

In my last post, there began a good debate about penal substitution. I've stressed that I am not denying penal substitution, but that I believe it is a single rose in the bouquet of Atonement Stories. This will not due for many who are steeped in the Reformation and follow Reformer's view on the Atonement. I am Reformational as well, but I find it difficult to deny the biblical evidence and the thoughts of other Christians through the centuries.

Anyway, I found the following quote from Scot McKnight to be helpful. Scot was one of my profs in seminary (I studied the Synoptic Gospels under him). He offers this insight (from this post at Jesus Creed):

What is it about these two terms “penal” and “substitution”?

Here is what one is saying by using those terms: the atonement takes place at the cross; the cross is the place where God vented his wrath against sin; the cross is the place where God in Christ assumed the punishment for sin; the cross is the place where Christ substituted for my sins; the cross is the place where Christ was punished for the sins of the world (or, if you so think, the elect). The use of these terms suggests that it is stating atonement takes place on the cross (no resurrection, no Pentecost) and that is fundamentally about propitiating the wrath of God against sin. To clarify — I’m not suggesting for one second that those who believe in penal substitution do not think there is saving significance in the resurrection or in Pentecost; I’m suggesting the terms being used do not naturally convey those events as well. I’ve rarely heard anyone speak of a “vicarious” or “substitutionary” resurrection — though I think orthodoxy believes in such.

It is, in other words, this set of terms deals with not just substitution, but a restricted kind of substitution: a penal kind of substitution. This is too narrow, I am suggesting, to carry the load of what we (who are orthodox) believe occurs in the atonement ...

Let's admit that our churches are filled with folks who have embraced the gospel that Jesus died for my sins (understood in terms of guilt) and that in so believing or accepting that gospel the problem has been taken care of — and they need not get any further than that. I am suggesting that a reduced gospel emerges from a reduced atonement theory.

What I want to say is not that this theory is wrong, dead-wrong, or anything like that for any theory of the atonement must deal with the issue of God’s just justice with respect to sin; what I want to say is that the atonement is so much more than this. And, if it is so much more than this, then it follows that using “penal substitution” as our guiding term is inadequate and misleads others. At the least, it does not provide enough information to explain what one really believes occurs in the atonement.

But, I’ll say more so it is clear how I think about these terms as a defining instrument for our theory of atonement: because this is the category used by so many, it defines atonement into its category and actually damages the other biblical images for what God does in his atoning work. Using this category leads us to think of atonement in just these terms, and before long we have no room for the other theories. In other words, we need to give some value to what is called the "linguistic turn." If we use this category, we turn atonement into this theory.

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Becky said...

Hi Bob:

These last two posts have been challenging, so thanks. I absolutely agree that too often our doctrine reflects one view of the atonement and in doing so, we miss the contributing perspectives and the whole picture the other theories provide.

I think, also, that we fundamentally misunderstand the penal substitution theory. By focusing precisely on the sacrifice made by Jesus, we fail to understand the positive work being done for us in God's presence. It is not only that Christ took our sin upon him, but also that Christ's atoning work on the cross restored and renewed our relationship with God. I'm not sure if that is clear. At any rate, I think the *typical* understanding of the penal substitution theory is best reflected in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." While the sacrifice is emphasized, the restoring work of Christ is left out of the picture. Mel's viewers miss the true point of the gospel!

Your previous post also got me thinking about the central tenet of faith, and led me to the question, "Could we have the resurrection without the incarnation?" My answer is no, and this indicates that we need to have a more coherent and complete theology to understand the full person and full truth of Jesus Christ. I would argue that his significance is only understood in light of his totality (i.e., incarnation, teaching, crucifixion, redemption). This is still a thought in progress.

I was also thinking about the following: if belief is (as you say) in the person of Christ, then what does knowledge look like in that premodern setting? Plato's dialogues argue for justified true belief (the "tripartite analysis of knowledge,") in order for one to have knowledge. How, on your presentation of belief, does one come to have knowledge? This is a fascinating thought experiment for me. Just some ideas.


Matt Wolf said...

I know I am in the minority relative to this blog in saying this, but there is only one view of the atonement. What does atonement mean but to be reconciled to God? Where once there was enmity between God and man because of our sin, Christ through His death paid the penalty for our sin therby reconciling us to God. It seems most on this blog would agree with that but also say this is an incomplete view of the atonement.

I guess that would be true if atonement meant something else. But it doesn't. There are no other atonement stories.

However, there are great blessings that flow from being reconciled to God all of which come from God.

1)We are transfered from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God's beloved son.

2)We are given the Holy Spirit as a seal of promise and who empowers us to put to death the deeds of the body.

3) We will share eternity with Him in heaven.

4) etc.

The point is this: what your view of the atonement attempts to do is to lump into one big vase all of the blessings that flow from the atoning work of Christ and labeling them as just other facets of the same thing.

What then happens in presenting these other "facets" of the redefined atonement stories as Gospel is that it is possible never to come to terms with your own sin in light of a holy God. "Believe in the person of Jesus and you will spend eternity in heaven with Him" one might say to someone because in this view, that is one of the flowers in the bouquet of atonement stories.

But how is one to repent if they are never confronted with the fact that there is enmity between that person and God as a result of their sin?

Another thing:

You quote Mcnight as saying:

"Let's admit that our churches are filled with folks who have embraced the gospel that Jesus died for my sins (understood in terms of guilt) and that in so believing or accepting that gospel the problem has been taken care of — and they need not get any further than that. I am suggesting that a reduced gospel emerges from a reduced atonement theory."

I don't think the problem with people not going further than "that" is not the result of a "reduced atonement theory" but rather poor discipleship and teaching that fails to encourage believers to continue to grow in their knowledge of the salvation they have received.

Paul constantly exhorts the saints to grow in their knowledge of Christ. He encourages this often and prays toward that end.

Redefining terms just confuses things and is obviously dangerous.

Scot McKnight said...

Matt Wolf,
Odd that you define the one theory as "reconciliation" for that is not what penal subsitution theorists usually do. Instead, they see PS as the "mechanism" of removing the sin problem (God's wrath propitiated and sin expiated), but very rarely then include "reconciliation" in the meaning of penal substitution.

The singular issue here, Matt, is that many are suggesting that the atonement theory is best expressed by PS. I contend that it is not; not because PS is wrong but because it does not say enough.

What is at stake here is the gospel: if we reduce atonement to PS, we reduce sin to judicial guilt and we reduce the impact of atonement to propitiation/expiation. These are absolutely essential to the gospel, but they are not the whole gospel.

And reconciliation takes us further, as you have done.

I don't get how you can say there are no other stories -- for there surely are. What about atonement as redemption, or ransom/liberation, or recapitulation (Romans 5:12-21)?

Matt Wolf said...


Thanks for your response.

In your view would one need to include penal substitution in their presentation of the gospel?

You also say, "if we reduce atonement to PS, we reduce sin to judicial guilt and we reduce the impact of atonement to propitiation/expiation."

How can an "impact" of the atonement be atonement itself? This is my point. What you claim to be inclusive in the atonement is rather a result of the atonement.

Matt Wolf said...


I guess my referring to the atonement as PS and then including reconciliation to God does go beyond PS as you say theorists usually define PS. So I have myself, in attempting to critque your position, become guilty of including a blessing of the atonement as part of the atonement. So forgive my mispeak. But let me also affirm that without penal substitution, reconciliation to God would never occur.

So I still offer this question because it does hit at the heart of what I see as a potential problem with this idea of other atonement stories:

Does one, in your view, need to include PS in the presentation of the gospel?

Ted Gossard said...

To limit the atonement to penal substitution is something I did, more or less, for years, in my speaking/preaching. But it is more than that, without denying that truth. So true, as I keep going over Scripture through the years. I think of Leviticus and how everything was dealt with through sacrificial blood. So that there is the sense of restoration towards shalom, as well as reconciliation towards relationship to God.

Eric Steen said...

Hello, Ted, Scot.

With all due respect, Gentlemen, your responses strike me as non-answers. For the sake of clarity, perhaps you can answer a multiple-choice question.

Please read the following statement and select A, B, C, D, or E. Feel free to qualify your response, but please, for the sake of my understanding, pick a letter.

A man reads the Bible and encounters God's righteousness, and he feels heartfelt conviction for his sin. His reading reveals that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. He understands that God requires that his sin be expiated and propitiated and becomes discouraged because he knows that he is incapable of such a feat. But he continues to read and comes to understand that God loves him and therefore gave His own Son as a sacrifice for sin. His Son, Jesus, took on flesh, lived a sinless life and went to the cross. On the cross Christ bore his sins, received God’s punishment due him, died, and rose again, victorious over sin and death. The man confesses his sin and trusts that Christ's blood removes his sinfulness. The man rejoices because he sees himself raised to life with Christ and covered by Christ’s righteousness.

A) The man is reconciled to God.
B) The man is reconciled to God, but he has a diminished understanding of atonement.
C) The man is reconciled to God, but he could have been reconciled to God by embracing any number of atonement theories as long as Penal Substitution (above) is embraced.
D) The man is reconciled to God, but he could have been reconciled even if he did not embrace Penal Substitution (above), but embraced some other atonement theory.
E) The man is not reconciled to God.

Thank you!


Matt Wolf said...


Great post!

However, I think in order to get someone to make a choice, you need to provide the following options as well:

f) We just don't know.
g) Let's just keep talking about this.

You see, the emerging community thrives on conversation, not decisions. This stems from a failure to recognize the sufficiency of Scripture for all things pertaining to life and godliness and ultimately an ignorance of the character of God.

Brian McLaren, who is one of the leading voices in this "movement" (although not identified by the emerging community as their leader for they do not like structure) is well known for never making any clear statements about any given postition except that he will not make any clear statements about any given position.

It's all about the process and never about coming to an end of the process.

"...always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." 2 Timothy 3:7

But I'm sure you already know this.

Bob Robinson said...

My answer to your quiz would be: D.

Reconciliation is a matter of having peace with God. We agree that sin must be addressed. But what kind of sin? The penal substitution theory deals only with individual sin. That is good in and of itself, but what about systemic sin? What about the enmity that exists between God and all of His Creation? Your story stresses an individual’s need to repent, and I whole-heartedly agree. However, as Scot said above, when we reduce sin to judicial guilt and we reduce the impact of atonement to propitiation/expiation, we are dealing with essentials of the gospel, but we are not dealing with the whole gospel.

Reconciliation is bigger than Penal Substitution. Can we not repent and be reconciled to God by way of believing in “redemption,” or “ransom,” or “liberation,” or “recapitulation?”

Bob Robinson said...


I have been in awe of your first comment above. A lot there to think about!

1) I think that when we reduce the Gospel to penal substitution, we focus only on the cross (which I do not deny as key to the Gospel), and we miss the rest - like what you pointed out: incarnation, teaching, crucifixion, redemption. I think when we make the Gospel just about the cross, we miss other important aspects of the Gospel: Re-Creation of a broken Cosmos, the reclamation of the Sovereignty of God and His Kingdom, etc.

2) Knowledge, as I understand it in a Hebrew and ancient Near-eastern setting is more about intimacy. To "know" is to have relationship. Plato's knowledge category, I think, is foreign to a biblical worldview.