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Last week, I introduced the topic for this spring’s Gospel Project for Adults and Students. I’ve been hearing from pastors who are leading their congregations through the “Atonement Thread” (in the months of March-May), which helps people put the Bible together to see how the theme of atonement runs from Genesis to Revelation.

For the next several Thursdays, I’ve invited some friends to contribute to a blog series that looks at the beauty of the atonement from different perspectives. Kicking off the series this week is Brandon Smith, who is writing about the mysterious beauty of penal substitution.

Brandon Smith (@BrandonSmith85) is Director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and serves as an editor for the Criswell Theological Review and The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He is proud to be Christa’s husband and Harper Grace’s daddy.

Penal Substitution

As he hung on the cross, Jesus cried out the epic, mysterious words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). What did He mean by this? How could the eternal Son be in any way separated from the eternal Father? Why does it matter?

These questions have perplexed Christians for centuries, but the answer is crucial: the sinless Jesus had God’s wrath toward our sins thrust upon His dying shoulders, temporarily separating Him from the eternal affection and protection of His own Father. He was abandoned in order to experience and absorb God’s anger.

This is called penal substitution: Jesus was punished (penalized) in our place (substitution) so that we could be forgiven.

Sin is so offensive to God that only the blood of a spotless sacrifice will wipe it clean (Isa. 53:5-6; Rom. 3:25; Heb. 10:11-12). So in the greatest mission trip of all time, God the Son entered human history to die a gruesome death to “become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13), even though he was anything but a curse, because we deserve wrath for the sins we commit (Rom. 1:18, 6:23; Eph. 2:3). Jesus Himself said that He came to give His life as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Paul echoed this, saying that Jesus came “to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus paid it all on the cross, once and for all (Heb. 10:12). Because of this, when God looks at us, he no longer sees a sinner destined for wrath; he sees His Son nailed to the cross, shedding His own blood in our place. He died so that we may truly live, free from the shackles of sin and death.

The great hymn “In Christ Alone” describes it this way:

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live

Left to ourselves, God’s wrath would absolutely crush us. Suffering His anger is infinitely more devastating than anything we will ever experience. We simply could not bear the weight. We would be sentenced to death, both physically and spiritually, forever. But God is merciful, and because of the great love He has for us, He sent His Son into the world so that we might live (John 3:16-17; Eph. 2:4-5).

You see, life is more than simply breathing oxygen in and out for a few decades; true life is found in the joy of being known and loved by God. This is a life that is other-worldly yet entirely here, experienced now yet lasting for eternity. And this life is only available through faith in Jesus Christ (John 14:6).

This good news is not only for you or me individually. All of humanity is subject to God’s wrath apart from faith in Christ. As ministers of reconciliation, we are God’s ambassadors to a dead world (2 Cor. 5:18-20). When we look at those who do not know the freeing love of Christ, we should feel absolute sorrow that compels us to share the good news of God’s forgiveness with them. Like prisoners released from years of captivity, we know the immense delight of freedom. May we be propelled into our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools with this life-giving message.

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31 thoughts on “Atonement Thread: Penal Substitution”

  1. Clayton says:

    There seems to be a major flaw with the penal substitution model of the atonement. If we deserve punishment because of our sin, but God punishes His Son in our stead because he loves us, this destroys God’s justice. A judge would not be just to punish an innocent person for a guilty person’s crimes – that’s the opposite of justice. So it’s really just a satisfaction of God’s need to punish, which is not the same thing as justice. I wish reformed Christians would just take the justice aspect out of it.

    1. Nick Horton says:


      How does substitutionary atonement destroy the justice of God? The OT sacrificial system is built on substitutionary atonement, thought not efficacious, yet it points forward to the final and full atonement of Jesus Christ.

      Also, what do you make of Romans 3:26? “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”


      1. Clayton says:

        I did not write nor do I believe that substitutionary atonement destroys the justice of God. I specifically referred to the idea of penal substitution – God the Father punishing is Son instead of us as satisfaction of his wrath. As I said, it is the opposite of justice to punish an innocent person for a guilty person’s crimes. One can believe in a substitutionary atonement without the penal part.

        The passage you point to in Romans 3:21 – 26 does not that the Father poured out his wrath on His Son. It means that God in his righteousness offered His Son as a sacrifice (propitiation) to cleanse mankind of sin and reconcile us to God. This has nothing to do with satiating God’s infinite wrath.

        1. Nick Horton says:

          There is indeed nothing just about punishing the innocent for the guilty, in a human sense. However, Jesus gave consent to stand in the place of sinners and take the punishment they deserve. This would still perhaps be unjust, except that Jesus is God. God sent God to satisfy the justice of God. He is both “just and the justifier.” He is just in his punishment for sin, and he justified those sinners by that punishment.

          Have you read John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ”?

        2. Clayton says:

          As I said, I don’t have a problem with the idea of substitionary atonment – the idea that Jesus willingly gave himself to stand in our place and pay the penalty for our sin. Jesus certainly paid the price so the speak – the natural penalty of sin is death, which he accepted and defeated.

          My concern is in saying that God the Father has a need to satisfy His anger and that somehow He can direct His anger towards an innocent person and be satiated. That is a warped, un-Holy view of the Father.

          1. Nick Horton says:

            I disagree. However, we’ve both stated our positions with charity. (hooray for that!) Thanks, Clayton.

          2. Hey Clayton,

            I don’t want to get into a blog debate and (probably) won’t be back to check on this many times, but two things:

            1) I once denied PSA much like you are, but frankly the text (some of which I directly reference in this post) wouldn’t let me continue to deny it. That’s about all I can say and care to say beyond getting into theological and hermeneutical semantics. Sometimes we play too many prolegomenal games and miss clear textual statements. Maybe I am overlooking clear evidence, right? That’s possible. But we must be able to admit that we could be wrong before we conclude that everyone else is.

            2) A view like PSA that has enough biblical evidence to at least consider (whether you agree or not) should lead you to be more weary of such strong statements as “this makes God this” because if what I wrote here is true, and again there’s a strong biblical that it is, then you’ve directly insulted the God of the universe in a profane manner. Be careful not to create an orthodoxy built off extreme theological nuance and insults that mischaracterize other nuances.

            Blessings on you, brother!

  2. Clayton says:

    I don’t see any nuance in the view of penal substitutionary atonement that you have presented. I view my view, however, as quite nuanced :)

    And considering that not one single patristic father promulgated PSA, I don’t think a rejection of that atonement model can be considerd an “extreme theological nuance”. It is thoroughly orthodox whereas PSA is an innovation and departure from historic Christian biblical interpretation. J.I. Packer says that the reformers were “pioneers” in stating the penal substitutionary atonement model. I don’t want to believe any doctrine that was not pioneered until a millennium and a half after Christ!

    1. Nick Horton says:

      With respect to the early Church Fathers and their knowledge of the Gospel, Ligon Duncan has an excellent message he gave on that at T4G 2010.

      1. Clayton says:

        I have listened to that message before. Best I remember, he pulls a handful of quotes from various Church Fathers to prove that they understood the Gospel in the same way as the reformed tradition. However, none of the quotes directly addresses penal substitutionary atonement. I remember this well because I listened to it at a time when I was struggling greatly with this issue.

    2. Clayton says:

      I realize my first sentence is not very nuanced in and of itself. I should have left that out and let the second part stand on its own. Oh well, no undo button on the blog.

      1. Clayton,

        Thanks for your response.

        I meant that PSA/non-PSA are theological nuances of substitution, not that I gave a nuance of PSA (though nuanced approaches within PSA exist). You treated what I wrote here, and the PSA view in general, as though the Trinity was being denied. It’s a nuance, and certainly not worth discrediting the God who this view may, in fact, describe. If you’re wrong, you’ve taken a big leap with your assertions. Also, if you’re a Protestant, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do in regards to holding to a fully-historic view of the Christian faith.

        You are also stating that PSA is a doctrine only believed for 500 years or so as though it is a fact. Though PSA as we know it now may be slightly more nuanced or popularized during-/post-Puritans, Patristics scholars actually disagree as to whether or not it was believed in some form, even as far back as Justin Martyr(!). It’s not quite — or at all — as settled in the “historic Christian biblical interpretation” as you claim here. So, again, your strong claims do not a fact make.

        I’m out on this discussion as blog arguments are usually eventually unhelpful, but I encourage you to be a little more gracious to other’s views in future conversations. :)

        Thanks for reading and interacting!

  3. Clayton says:

    I’m not sure what I said that was ungracious. Forgive me. I stated that PSA is a new doctrine as a fact because I believe it is a fact. I quoted JI Packer, what more do you want? :)

    The quotes from Church fathers that I have read that supposedly show that they held to PSA reflect a belief in a substitutionary atonement, to be sure, but the idea of the Father punishing the Son as satisfaction of wrath is just not there. If you have one, please share it.

    1. Nick Horton says:

      Dr. Gary J. Williams wrote a paper on it. And that is by no means the whole of evidence, it is but a drop.

      1. Clayton says:

        None of those quotes convince me that the Fathers believed that God inflicted punishment on His Son to satiate His wrath. If there is one you find particularly convincing, let me know and I’ll be happy to comment on it with my perspective FWIW.

  4. Scott Shaver says:

    Uhhh Trevin:

    I’m still trying to figure out how the hymn you referenced implies the modalism in atonement theory that you prefer.

    Any suggestions?

  5. BrianBel says:

    “This is called penal substitution: Jesus was punished (penalized) in our place (substitution) so that we could be forgiven.”

    I, too, echo the concerns of this. God is perfect justice. There would be no greater INjustice that he should punish perfect innocence, namely Jesus. God is incapable of injustice. The notion of penal substitution fails before it gets out of the gate.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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