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 (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus' death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

Differing doctrines

Advocates of penal substitution argue that the concept is both biblically based and rooted in the historical traditions of the Church. Those who are critical of it argue that at least some versions of the theory present difficulties in terms of modern penal theory, and that it presents God as unjust and even cruel.

It has traditionally been compared with the so-called classic theory, that Christ's death represents the cosmic defeat of the devil to whom a ransom had to be paid, a view popularised by Gustaf Aulén and secondly with the notion that the cross had its effect on human beings, by setting forth a supreme example of godliness or by blazing a trail which we must follow or by involving mankind in his redemptive obedience, the so-called subjective or exemplary theory associated with Peter Abelard and Hastings Rashdall.

On the other hand, those teaching an interpretation of the Cross consistent with penal substitution reject such a characterization of their beliefs. Their theory teaches that Christ's cosmic defeat of the devil was accomplished because Jesus suffered the penalty for mankind's sins. Under this view, the nature of Satan's authority over humanity comes from mankind's guilt, somewhat like a jailer. Once that guilt is paid for and erased, the devil has no more power over the person saved.

Still others argue that seeking a single meaning in Jesus' choice to willingly die on the Cross (as he said in John 12:27 "for this purpose I came to this hour") sets up a false dichotomy, and find multiple effects, motives, and aspects of Jesus' death. They teach that Jesus' death was both penal and exemplary substitution at the same time.

Penal substitution derives from the idea that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice.

Important theological disputes about the doctrine turn on the doctrine of the Trinity and (for many but not all expressions of the concept of penal substitution) the doctrine of faith union of believers with Christ which prevents an understanding of penal substitution by those to whom God's grace has not yet been given.

Those who believe that Jesus was himself God in keeping with the doctrine of the Trinity, believe that God took the punishment upon himself rather than putting it on someone else.

The doctrine of union with Christ affirms that by taking the punishment upon himself Jesus fulfils the demands of justice not for an unrelated third party but for those identified with him. The resurrection of Christ is necessarily linked to this as the vindication of Christ and those who belong to him. If, in the penal substitution understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ deals with sin and injustice, his resurrection is the renewal and restoration of righteousness.


Early Church

The history of the early church, following the ending of persecution, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, is marked by creedal controversies centring around the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. The resulting Nicene Creed contains no detailed articulation of a doctrine of the atonement. "Redemption did not become a battle ground until the twelfth century."[1]

However, among the variety of ideas about the atonement during the early centuries, can be detected the so-called "realist theory" which directed attention to Christ's sufferings and to their significance. According to the Patristics scholar J.N.D. Kelly, "This pictured Christ as substituting himself for sinful men, shouldering the penalty which justice required them to pay, and reconciling them to God by his sacrificial death."[2]

Among the Latin Fathers, St. Augustine in particular writes that "by His death, the one most true sacrifice offered on our behalf, He purged abolished and extinguished ... whatever guilt we had." "By it", writes Kelly, "God's wrath was appeased and we were reconciled to him." Nevertheless this is one of several strands of thought: he expounds the mediating work of Christ, his act of ransoming humankind and also the exemplary aspect of Christ's work. As with his predecessors, such as Justin Martyr c.100-165 and Gregory of Nazianzus the imagery of sacrifice, ransom, expiation, and reconciliation all appear in his writings.

The dominant strain in the writing of the Greek Fathers, such as St. Athanasius, was the so-called "physical" theory that Christ, by becoming man, restored the divine image in us; but blended with this is the conviction that his death was necessary to release us from the curse of sin, and that he offered himself in sacrifice for us.[3]

Anselm and the Reformers

It was not until St. Anselm's famous work Cur Deus Homo (1098) that attention was focused on the theology of redemption with the aim of providing more exact definitions[4] (though there is disagreement as to how influential penal conceptions were in the first five centuries). Anselm held that to sin is for man "not to render his due to God."[5] Comparing what was due to God and what was due to the feudal Lord, he argued that what was due to God was honour. "'Honour' comprises the whole complex of service and worship which the whole creation, animate and inanimate, in heaven and earth, owes to the Creator. The honour of God is injured by the withdrawal of man's service which he is due to offer."[6] This failure constitutes a debt, weight or doom, for which man must make satisfaction, but which lies beyond his competence; only if a new man can be found who by perfect obedience can satisfy God's honour and by some work of supererogation can provide the means of paying the existing debt of his fellows, can God's original purpose be fulfilled. So Christ not only lives a sinless life, which is again his due, but also is willing to endure death for the sake of love. Thus, Anselm's view can best be understood from medieval feudalistic conceptions of authority, of sanctions and of reparation. Anselmian satisfaction contrasts with penal substitution in that Anselm sees the satisfaction (i.e. restitution) as an alternative to punishment "The honour taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow" (bk 1 ch 8), whereas penal substitution views the punishment as the means of satisfaction.

Broadly speaking, Martin Luther followed Anselm, thus remaining mainly in the "Latin" model identified by Gustaf Aulén. However, he held that Christ's atoning work encompassed both his active and passive obedience to the law: as the perfectly innocent God-man, he fulfilled the law perfectly during his life AND he, in his death on the cross, bore the eternal punishment that all men deserved for their breaking the law. Unlike Anselm, Luther thus combines both satisfaction and punishment.[7]

Calvin appropriated Anselm's ideas but changed the terminology to that of the criminal law with which he was familiar - he was trained as a lawyer - reinterpreted in the light of Biblical teaching on the law. Man is guilty before God's judgement and the only appropriate punishment is eternal death. The Son of God has become man and has stood in man's place to bear the immeasurable weight of wrath; the curse, and the condemnation of a righteous God. He was "made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them."[8]

The work of the Reformers, including Zwingli and Philip Melanchthon, was hugely influential. It took away from religion the requirement of works, whether corporal or spiritual, of the need for penances, belief in purgatory, indeed the whole medieval penitential system; and it did so by emphasising the finality of Christ's work.


Faustus Socinus, an anti-Trinitarian Italian scholar, declared[9] that Calvin's description was "irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible."[10] His objections were as follows:

  1. Giving pardon does not square with taking satisfaction;
  2. There is nothing that conforms with justice about punishing the innocent and letting the guilty go free;
  3. The temporary death of one is not a substitute for the eternal death of many;
  4. Perfect substitutionary satisfaction would confer on its beneficiaries an unlimited permission to sin.

Socinus thought that Jesus was not himself God come in the flesh to intentionally die for humanity. Socinus argued against the Trinity. It thus follows as a natural consequence that it would be unjust to punish Jesus for the sins of others. Similarly, his argument that a temporary death of one would not be sufficient to pay for all mankind's sins also flows from his premise that Jesus was only an ordinary man.

Calvin's general framework, coinciding as it did with a rising respect for law, considered as a bulwark against the ferments of war, revolution and civil insurrection, remained normative for Reformed Christians for the next three centuries. Moreover, if Socinus spoke from the point of view of the radical reformers, there were also Catholics for whom the once and for all nature of Christ's redeeming work was in danger of weakening the doctrine of sanctification and the spiritual life of the believer and his or her appropriation of the divine mystery through the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.

Further, with the development of notions of inalienable personal responsibility in law, the idea of "penal" substitution has become less easy to maintain. In modern law, the punishment of the innocent and the acquittal of the guilty is regarded as the perfect example of injustice.[11] F.W. Dillistone stated that "no strictly penal theology of the atonement can be expected to carry conviction in the world of the twentieth century."[12]

Among the problems identified is that fact that the word "penal" implies an association with law, but the relationship between theological ideas and social institutions such as the law changes.[13] The contemporary argument as to the relationship of human rights to positive law is a modern extension of this.

Secondly, ideas of justice and punishment are not the same in Jewish law, imperial Roman law, sixteenth century European law and modern common law. Thus, for instance, "satisfaction" and "merit" are understandable within the context of Roman law, but sit less easily within either Old or New Testament conceptions. Likewise, when the word "penal" is used it raises as many questions about the different theories of punishment, past and present.

Thirdly, in Calvin's work, and subsequently, there is an interplay between legal and cultic language. Words such as "curse", "expiation", "propitiation", "wrath", "sacrifice" appear together with sixteenth century legal language. "The framework is legal, the process is cultic. Removal of legal sanctions is equated with freedom of access in worship."[14] Calvin contends that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation), but tying this to the need for sacrifice "proved to be a dead weight upon the thinking and imagining of Reformed Christendom."[14] according to Dillstone.

Next, the two words, "expiation" and "propitiation" present problems. It has been argued that the former, which means to purge away, needs to be distinguished from the latter which means to appease a person and that it is propitiation which presents the problem for those who are critical of the idea of penal substitution. Austin Farrer argues that St. Paul's words should be translated in terms of expiation not propitiation.[15] Karl Barth (and later Jürgen Moltmann) argued that propitiation and expiation are false categories when applied to the triune God: if God forgives us in and through Christ ("Christ pays our debt") then the cost has been borne by God in, as, and through Christ. For God to propitiate himself is expiation; because expiation is always self-propitiation as it means the forgiver paying the debt (here, the price of the sin) at his own expense. Hence Dietrich Bonhoeffer says grace is free, but is not cheap.

Finally, a view of human salvation which defines it in terms of once-and-for-all acquittal has to deal with its relationship to subsequent actions[16] and the lives of those not born at the time of the Paschal Mystery.[17]


Christian theology teaches that critics overlook the repeated declarations of Jesus that he intended to die on the cross, and that his death was the very purpose for which he was born on the Earth (John 12:27). It is irrelevant, they argue, whether it might be unjust to punish an innocent bystander involuntarily, since the actual proposition is one of Jesus offering voluntarily to die on behalf of others, like a soldier throwing himself on a hand grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Jesus himself taught that "greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) and repeatedly announced that he was intentionally going to Jerusalem, knowing that he was heading to his death (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22).

Jesus' identity as himself being God is also central to penal substitution. Those who do not believe that Jesus was God visiting the Earth in human form necessarily conclude that God chose a bystander named Jesus to suffer for others. However, those who believe that Jesus was actually God (John 14:7-9; 10:30-33) conclude that God -- against whom mankind had sinned -- came to accept the penalty upon himself. Thus, they see no injustice in God choosing to come to Earth in order to take humanity's sin upon himself.

J. I. Packer[10] states that language must be used in a stretched sense. God is not a sixteenth century monarch, he says, and divine government is not the same as earthly government. He states that Christians should regard all truth of God as an "apprehended mystery", and always hold that God is greater than our formularies. He holds, nonetheless, that penal substitution can be described a model in a way comparable to how physics uses the term. He defines for theology the term model as "explanatory constructs formed to help us know, understand, and deal with God, the ultimate reality." He states that the "mystery of God is more than any one model, even the best, can express." He states that "all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery which we can only think and speak by means of models." To Packer, the biblical models are presented as being inspired by God and given to us as "knowledge of the mystery of the cross." The theologian Stephen Sykes has interpreted Packer's account of penal substitution as being presented as a metaphor.

Theologians who advocate penal substitution are keen to define the doctrine carefully, rather than, as Packer says, crudely. The primary question is, he says, not the rationality or morality of God but the remission of one's sins. He suggests that it be seen not as a mechanical explanation (how it works) but rather than kerygmatically (what it means to us).[10] Denney contends that the atonement should not be seen forensically (though as Packer says, Denney avoided the term "penal" in any case).[18] What matters in Packer's view is that "Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory".[10] Thus, John Stott critiques loveless caricatures of the cross as "a sacrifice to appease an angry God, or ... a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others" as being "neither the Christianity of the bible in general nor of Paul in particular" and further that "It is doubtful if anybody has ever believed such a crude construction."[19]

Bible passages

The Bible includes, not merely the story of the Paschal mystery in the Gospels, but also the sources of ideas of the atonement. The Fathers often worked upon biblical quotations,[20] from both Testaments, describing Christ's saving work, sometimes adding one to another from different places in Scripture.[21] Calvin made special appeal to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 and to 1 Peter 3:18-22 with its reference to the "Harrowing of Hell" - the release of the spirits of those who had died before Christ. From the former he singled out "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." Both are set, by Calvin within the context of Pilate's court of judgement to which, however, they do not properly belong;[22] nevertheless, the image of "one who has borne the stripes and the chastisement which should, by strict desert have fallen"[23] upon others, within the divine purpose, is, on all sides agreed to be an essential element in the story.

On the basis of Romans 3:23-26 it has been argued that there are, in fact, different models of penal substitution[24] in which ideas of justification work together with redemption and sacrifice (expiation). Thus: "For all alike have sinned and are deprived of the divine glory and all are justified by God's free grace alone through his act of redemption in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his death, effective through faith. God meant by this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had overlooked the sins of the past, showing that he is himself just and also justified anyone who puts his faith in Jesus."

Recent controversies

Most recently, controversy has arisen over the strict doctrine of penal substitution in which Socinus's argument about the justice of God has been raised: namely, whether it constitutes "cosmic child abuse."[25] Proponents of penal substitution reject Socinus's charge out of hand because he also rejects the trinity, in which there is substantial unity between the God the Father and God the Son and which, in their view, breaks the analogy.

The debate has largely been conducted in evangelical circles,[26] though the dismissal of the doctrine of penal substitution on moral grounds by the Anglo-Catholic Jeffrey John in a broadcast talk during Holy Week 2007 has drawn fire in his direction.


  1. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Black 1968)
  2. Kelly (ibid.) p. 376)
  3. Kelly (ibid) p. 377; Gregory of Nyssa, who follows him, developed the 'classic' theory of Christ as a ransom.
  4. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (fifth, revised edition; London: Adam & Charles Black, 1977), p. 375. Compare F. W. Dillistone The Christian Understanding of the Atonement(Nisbet 1968).
  5. Cur Deus Homo, Book I, XI
  6. Richard Southern, Anselm and his biographer (CUP 1963)
  7. Cf. Paul Althaus, Die Theologie Martin Luthers, 7th ed. (1994), 179, 191-195.
  8. John Calvin, Institutes 2:16:1
  9. De Jesu Christo Servatore (1578)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Packer, J.I.. "What did the Cross achieve - The Logic of Penal Substitution". Retrieved 2009-03-01. 
  11. Anscome, G.E.M., "Modern Moral Theory" in Virtue Ethics (OUP 1997; see also Hart H.L.A., Punishment and the Elimination of Responsibility (Hobhouse Memorial Lecture 1962)
  12. The Christian Understanding of the Atonement (Nisbet 1963)p. 214
  13. Daube, David Studies in Biblical law (CUP 1947)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Dillstone, p. 199)
  15. Said or Sung (Faith Press 1964) p.69: "God himself, says St. Paul, so far from being wrathful against us, or from needing to be propitiated, loved us enough to set forth Christ as an expiation of our sins through his blood."
  16. Fiddes, Paul, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Story of the Atonement (1989)
  17. Wiles, Maurice The remaking of Christian Doctrine (SCM 1974 ) p. 65.
  18. James Denney, Atonement And The Modern Mind, (Hodder And Stoughton, 1903) p.271, as quoted by Packer in note 28 of his essay above
  19. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (IVP, 1986) p. 172
  20. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho: "Cursed is everyone who hangeth on a tree" - Deuteronomy 21:23; "Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law": Deuteonomy 27:26, quoted in Galatians 3:10-13
  21. Gregory of Nazianzus quotes in the same passage Galatians (above), 1 Corinthians 15 (the "new Adam") and Hebrews 5:8 (obedience through suffering)
  22. Dillistone (ibid). p. 201
  23. ibid. p. 214
  24. N. T. Wright, "The Cross and the Caricatures" Fulcrum (Eastertide 2007)
  25. An expression used by Steve Chalke in his book The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervaan 2003)
  26. See Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, 2007) to which the Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, has responded in "The Cross and the Caricatures."


  • Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor tr. A.G. Hebert (SPCK 1931)
  • Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • James Denney Atonement And The Modern Mind, (Hodder And Stoughton, 1903)
  • F. W. Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of the Atonement (Nisbet 1968)
  • Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, 2007).
  • Paul Fiddes, Past event and Present Salvation : the Story of the Atonement (1989)
  • Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins Of, And Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine, ISBN 0814652204
  • J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Adam & Charles Black 1968)
  • Norman McIlwain, 'The Biblical Revelation of the Cross', EAN 9780955102905 Online Edition
  • Leon Morris. The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) Chap. 8 The Cross in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
  • Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
  • J. I. Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998) chap. 8 "What Did the Cross Achieve?" Chap. 9 Sacrifice and Satisfaction.
  • J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downer's Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973) chap.15 "The Wrath of God"; chap. 18 "The Heart of the Gospel".
  • Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) Chap. 17 The Character of the Cross Work of Christ.
  • John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IV Press, 1986).
  • Stephen Sykes, The Story of the Atonement (DLT 1997)

See also

External links

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