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The notion that Christ died as our sin-bearing substitute who bore the curse for our sakes is considered, by some, too primitive, too violent, and too narrow. Penal substitution is only a theory of the atonement, just one idea among many, maybe not even a good theory, at the very least not the best or the most important once. I would argue that texts like Isaiah 53, Mark 10, Romans 3, 2 Corinthians 5, Galatians 3, and Philippians 3 demonstrate that Christ is not only our wrath-sustaining Savior, he is also the Lord our Righteousness. The Son’s propiatory sacrifice for sinners is the best news of the good news, the biblical truth that holds the gospel together.

But besides the testimony of Scripture in support for penal substitution, I would point to the history of our hymnody.

Man of Sorrows! What a Name
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinner’s gain:
Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with they favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended
Who was the guilty who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.

Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed
Was it for crimes that I had done he groaned upon the tree!
Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!

Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
Tell me, ye who hear him groaning, was there every grief like his?
Friends thro’ fear his cause disowning, foes insulting his distres;
Many hands were raised to wound him, none would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load;
’tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.

What Wondrous Love is This
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

A Debtor to Mercy Alone
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with your righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

And Can it Be That I Should Gain
And can it be, that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!

Without penal substitution there is no salvation. And there isn’t nearly as much to sing about.

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19 thoughts on “What You Can’t Sing Without Penal Substitution”

  1. anaquaduck says:

    True enough….Christ’s death was gruesome for sure, such as this world even today. Check out a few medical programs when people are under anaesthetic & see what tools are used to battle death & decay. From a purely emotional perspective in this day & age I can appreciate why people struggle with God’s solution to a sin cursed world…but that’s the remedy. Without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22), somehow it’s tied in with justice.

    It’s much easier to identify with a soldier laying their life down, police, or a parent protecting a child, a shop keeper… etc. Looking past the momentary gruesome display on the cross to the life & words of Christ, who himself spoke about & prepared his disciples for what would take place is where it’s at, the mystery of the ages is eventually revealed. Education or an App is not enough to fix the problems of human/sinful nature; something much more is required to overcome…

    Sometimes you’re the windscreen; sometimes you’re the bug fades into insignificance when words such as these fill the air…When I Survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died.

  2. Paul janssen says:

    Not making any comment on penal substitution…but you might want to say there’s not much for a western Christian to sing about. Western Christianity isn’t all of Christianity.

  3. David Strunk says:

    Another great one:
    “Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness”

    “Jesus thy blood and righteousness
    my beauty are, my glorious dress.
    Though born in sin, in these arrayed,
    with joy shall I lift up my head

    Bold shall I stand in thy great Day,
    cleansed and redeemed no debt to pay
    fully absolved in Jesus’ name
    from sin and fear, from guilt and shame

    When from the dust of death I rise
    to claim my mansion in the skies
    even then this shall be all my plea
    Jesus has lived and died for me”

    I fully suggest looking up the Zac Hicks version on iTunes. It’s a blast.

  4. ian says:

    Those hymns certainly present a substitutionary atonement, but few of them specify a penal aspect. Generally it is the penal part (God taking out his wrath on his son) that creates the disagreement, not the substitutionary part. Few would disagree that Christ suffered as a substitute for us.

  5. Clayton says:

    Not one of those passages you list supports the penal substitution theory of the atonement, at least not in the sense of retributive justice that I assume is meant in this post. None of those passages are about Jesus being a “wrath-sustaining Savior”. The only passage that could be interpreted that way is Romans 3:24 – 25, but only if the Greek “hilasterion” is mistranslated as “propitiation” instead of “expiation” (meaning cleansing).

  6. Sarah says:

    Interesting post you have here. I certainly agree that there are some songs that you can’t sing if you do not believe in penal substitution, such as the modern song “In Christ Alone” which states:

    Till on that cross as Jesus died
    The wrath of God was satisfied.

    However, I’m not sure anyone who disagreed with penal substitution would have trouble singing any of the hymns you listed. While these hymns do proclaim substitution, they don’t acknowledge the retributive wrath that God places on his Son. That is the part that people usually disagree with.

    In addition, you call this the “history of our hymnody”, yet the oldest of these hymns was written in 1100 AD and most were written in the 17 and 1800’s. Thus, there are at least 1000 centuries of Christians singing about Christ and they did just fine without these hymns. In fact, they had plenty to sing about. Take this beautiful hymn, for instance, sung by the early church (originally sung in Latin or Greek, of course):

    Past the cross with all its shame,
    All its grief and gloom;
    Past the solitude of death
    In the silent tomb:
    Lo, the Victor from the strife,
    Giver of Immortal life.

    Stands He there on Olivet,
    With an outstretched hand,
    Calling His last blessing down,
    On His faithful band,
    Ere He mounts the azure height
    Past the range of mortal sight.

    Bow, ye heavens, in reverence low;
    Clouds, a pathway clear;
    For the Christ, who came to earth,
    Mounts the glowing sphere;
    Stand, ye heavenly gates, aside,
    For He enters to abide.

    Angels look with wondering gaze,
    As their Lord draws nigher;
    Why these wounded hands and feet?
    And that stained attire?
    Hail! the God-man from the strife,
    Wins for man immortal life.

    All alone, the faithful gaze
    Towards the silent skies;
    For the Christ hath passed beyond
    Love’s enquiring eyes;
    But our flesh is knit to His
    Where the ascended God-man is.

  7. Sarah says:

    Sorry, 1000 years, not centuries :)

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  9. Lois Westerlund says:

    A number of posts have talked about “western” theology. I would think the use of this term reflects a person’s view of the Reformation. Are the Reformers and their theological heirs formulating a new theology, or recovering a true Biblical theology, obscured by the organized church? N. T. Wright says in “What Saint Paul Really Said” that the church has gotten it wrong for 500 years. My study of the Word of God says otherwise.

  10. Lois Westerlund says:

    Would someone who does not believe in penal substitution explain clearly, and as succinctly as possible, how substitution saves, if it is not penal?
    What did it accomplish? Thank you.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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