The Penal Substitution Theory: On the Mark
- A Pastoral Soteriology: Introduction
- The Basis for Salvation: Man is Sinful
- The Wrath of God
- Unsound Theories of Atonement
- More False Atonement Doctrine: The Moral-Example Theory
- The Mystical Theory of Atonement
- The Necessary-Satisfaction Theory of Atonement
- The Penal Substitution Theory: On the Mark
- Atonement in the Old Testament Law
- Yom Kippur – The Foreshadowing of Christ
- Jesus: The Fulfillment of the Law
- The Elements of the Gospel: Grace
- The Elements of the Gospel: Faith
The Penal Substitution Theory
While all atonement theories examined thus far have failed at producing a biblically-based portrayal of the doctrine of salvation, Anselm had at least gotten close with his Necessary-Satisfaction Theory. Building upon some of those very principles, the Penal Substitution Theory, proposed by John Calvin (1509-1564), rightly aligned the missing theological puzzle pieces to present an accurate depiction of the work Christ completed on the cross.
Primarily, atonement theories are intended to illustrate how atonement was produced from Christ’s death on the cross. As such, a sound theory must not only make some valid assertions concerning the nature of Christ’s work, but must illustrate the entire historical revelation of the atonement as defined in scripture. Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory does that with great skill.
A proper understanding of the Penal Substitution Theory requires a holistic approach to God’s revelation of atonement throughout scripture. Jesus did not merely show up on the playing field and create something new. Rather, he realized and fulfilled what God had already established; a substitutionary system of atonement. As Jesus noted,
Matthew 5:17-18 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Clearly, Jesus himself understood his work to be complimentary to what had already been established. His work was to be that which would fulfill the law and the prophets rather something entirely new and unrelated. No system examined in this series thus far has expressed atonement in terms that related it as a fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. The Recapitulation Theory disregards the Law almost entirely. The Ransom Theory has God paying off Satan, which is dramatically opposed to the Old Testament Law in which God himself receives (or rejects) man’s sin offering(s). The Moral Example Theory completely disregards the punitive nature of the Law; attempting to implement a works oriented salvation which disregards the penalty of former sins. The Mystical Theory, in addition to being just plain weird, offers absolutely no hint of vicarious atonement as outlined in the Law. And, the Necessary-Satisfaction Theory, while working off of good principles, still misappropriates certain legal aspects of atonement as depicted in the Law.
A good atonement theory must adequately illustrate how God’s program of redemption in the Law was systematically fulfilled and completed by the work of Christ! Otherwise, Christ cannot be understood as having fulfilled the Law.
Calvin’s theory connected the proper dots.
Details of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law will be examined over the next several posts, yet at this point it should at least be noted that what Jesus “fulfilled” was a substitutionary system of atonement: the sacrificial system of the Old Testament Law.
Overall, the Penal Substitution Theory can be understood as a more comprehensive fleshing-out of Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. Anselm had the basic idea, but missed key points which Calvin properly illuminated.
The Essence of the Penal Substitution Theory
The Satisfaction Theory rightly articulated that a debt was owed to God by mankind. This debt required that satisfaction be attained by God. Yet, it incorrectly defined man’s offense as the defilement of God’s honor. While surely God’s honor became diminished in man’s eyes because of sin, it is not God’s honor which is in need of satisfaction according to the scriptures. Rather, it is God’s wrath for sin which is in need of satisfaction, as has already been illustrated. Jesus noted,
John 3:36 (NIV)
36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
And Paul exclaimed,
Ephesians 2:3 (NIV)
3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
Understanding the problem of sin properly- that it invokes God’s wrath- is key to understanding the nature of the satisfaction Jesus secured in the atonement. It was God’s wrath over sin which was in need of satisfaction. The atonement is oriented toward the securing of justice rather than honor. God’s law had been broken, invoking his wrath. And, being a just God, he demanded that payment be rendered for the broken Law. Such payment is not a mystery in the biblical narrative. God prescribed his punitive decision prior to the offense, clearly noting in the Garden of Eden that,
Genesis 2:17 (NIV)
17 … you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
With justice as a defining attribute of His nature, God cannot simply overlook one’s sin. Sin is an offense to his Law; an illegal (penal) action requiring a just sentence, which God prescribed to be death to the offender. What Jesus did on the cross was to quite literally apply the payment to God for the crimes of humanity.
Romans 6:23 (NIV)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God had always upheld the wages of sin. They have never – nor will they ever change. And, God’s sense of justice demands that wrongdoing be punished and that the offended party (himself) be compensated. Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished both. The sins of man were paid vicariously (more on that in coming posts) and God’s justice was upheld.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The atonement was penal in nature, because it provided the means of payment for the breaking of God’s Law which man had engaged. It was substitutionary in nature, because the payment was obtained vicariously by another: Christ.
Romans 3:22-26 (NIV)
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
The substitutionary nature of Christ’s death will be examined in more detail in the following weeks. One cannot truly understand how Jesus fulfilled the Law without first understanding the nature of the Law itself. Suffice it to say at this point, however, that the Law provided a means of restitution for man’s sin through vicarious (substitutionary) means. God, in his graciousness, offered a system of atonement by which an acceptable animal could be sacrificed on man’s behalf, thus paying the required death sentence. Such is the nature of the Law; as it details the processes and requirements of such penal substitutions to be made. When Christ fulfilled the Law, he became the final perfect sacrifice for sin; rendering the Law utterly completed. Thus, “not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
The Penal Substitution Theory of atonement rightly identifies the critical components of redemption by faith in Christ Jesus. God’s wrath was invoked by man’s sin. His justice demanded restitution. In grace, he provided a substitutionary system of atonement, which Christ completed – once and for all.
Isaiah 53:5-6 (NIV)
5 … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.