Penal Substitution Theory Explained

Penal Substitution Theory Explained

A short explanation of the Penal Substitution Theory

These are just some notes a friend of mine took many years ago during our lectures. So they are not an extended explanation but just a brief overview.

Penal (that Christ satisfied the penalty of the law, as the righteousness of the Father demanded) substitution (that he underwent this penalty in our place)

“Penal substitution is at the core of the gospel” – Sinclair Ferguson clip (less than 2 mins) – could we start with this and then go from there??

The view is outlined by Joshua Tongol see 1:50-3:21 in his clip on You tube in Bibliography.

The Theory

  • Dominant view in evangelical circles – “The theory of penal substitution is the heart and soul of an evangelical view of atonement” (Thomas Schereiner in Belousek 2011: 83). He goes on to say that in the eyes of some of its apologists to not agree with this view is to reject evangelical Christian thinking.

  • J. I Packer said that Jesus “secured my immunity from judgement by bearing on the cross the penalty which was my due” (Belousek 2011:84)
  • “On the cross Jesus suffered in our place the death penalty that God had decreed as just retribution for our sins; in this way, Jesus propitiated God’s righteous wrath and satisfied God’s absolute justice thereby making it possible to forgive the sins of humanity, in accord with God’s law.” (Belousek 2011:85).
  • John Piper’s view of the cross– “sin killed itself when it killed Jesus” (see 1:53 mins of 1st clip by Piper in bibliography overleaf) also said its “all about God’s wrath…” ( see 2:27 mins of 2nd John Piper’s clip in bibliography)

In favour of the theory

  • Key Proponents in History – Apostle Paul appears to write most, Origen spoke of ‘ransom paid to Satan’ and Anselm (brought in idea of debt repayment) so could argue that it is not newly expressed with the reformation (though those ‘against’ argue it is).
  • There is a huge scripture scriptural backing for it– Revelation 22v 18-19,Romans 3v25-26,Romans 5v8, Romans 8v32, Romans 12v19, Galatians 2v20 and Galatians 3v 10-14, Col 2v14, Isiah 53, 2 Corin 5v12, 1 Pet 2v24
  • It explains well why Jesus had to die – other theories like Moral Theory gloss over need for Jesus death if just about Him being someone we can morally emulate.
  • You could argue that thought C Victor view opens it out, Penal substitution is still at the heart of the cross and CV cannot deny that.

Against the Theory

  • There is more to say about the atonement than what is encapsulated in Penal substitution (e.g. Christus Victor view).
  • It focuses purely on his death and some say its emphasis is brutal – rather than focusing on loving nature of God.

(Modern day radical feminist theologians Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker have gone so far as to speak of “divine child abuse,” and to argue that the model’s image of Jesus voluntarily submitting to innocent suffering contributes to the victimisation of women – As Kim Fabricius says – “how can the Spirit-anointed Jesus of Nazareth, who rejected the way of violence and vengeance, have a violent and vengeful Father?”).

  • Some would say that Bible passages have been misconstrued to fit this view – in below U tube clip Joshua Tongol has some key examples (esp Isaiah 53 showing that the portrayal of Jesus is one of meekness not violence).
  • It depends on certain cultural frameworks – legal language of reformation i.e. it finds its expression in Calvin (1509-64) who was a lawyer and uses legal language added to Anselms theory. Calvin’s doctrine requires the additional idea of the “transfer of penalty” – and this theory “requires the addition of an Anselmian view of debt repayment and a Roman view of criminal law” (Paul Fiddes in Kim Fabricius article below). However you could counter this argument by saying that Paul used lots of references to ‘the law’ so could argue not just Calvin’s language (see ‘against the theory).
  • The use of ‘paying our debt’ – there is a problem with this analogy – you can’t follow it through to some examples e.g if someone murdered you can’t repay that debt like a fine; its already been done!
  • This theory comes across as Old testament understanding of God and ‘eye for an eye’ but this is different to the message Jesus portrayed (prodigal son example of true justice rather than retribution)
  • Even if Penal S view has its truth many would say the emphasis is still too much on the wrath of God and not his love. Mennonite Theologian Ted Grimsrud “God does not come in wrath in the end. God comes in suffering, persevering love. Justice for this God is about healing, not about retribution.”(page 92 Belousek).
  • This theory is based on the Reformation theory, before that, for many centuries there was a completely different view of the cross. How do we account for that?

Catalysts for change in Church History

  • The Reformation – Calvin, some say, emphasised the ‘legal language’ of Penal Sub and its theory.
  • The Christus Victor view in the 1950’s
  • More recently there has been big controversy in evangelical circles. Particularly since Steve Chalk brought his book out ‘the lost message of Jesus’ (2003). John Piper (a key supporter of the theory) in many ways reacted by bringing out “Pierced for our transgressions: rediscovering the glory of penal substitution”. This has made the whole thing come up again and really brought divides in evangelical circles on the issue.
  • Some say that in recent years people have used penal substitution to back up wrong uses of violence (see in Tom Wright You tube clip about Apartheid).

Contemporary Relevance to the Christian faith of this doctrine

  • Contemporary people who took this view– Dietrich Bonheoffer, John F McCarthur, Mark Dever (Belousek 90), J I Packer, John Stott, John Piper.
  • The debate has become so strong in recent years that even the BBC produced something on it- 2007 by Jeffrey John
  • Book the Shack – shocked readers because it “says nothing of how we may be saved from the sin that pollutes us” (Boesek 2011:93)
  • Song – “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” (Thanks for that John!)
  • Song by P P Bliss,
    “Bearing shame and scoffing rude
    In my place condemned he stood,
    Sealed my pardon with his blood-
    Hallelujah! What a Saviour!”


Book – Atonement, Justice and Peace by D W S Belousek (2011)

Kim Fabricius entry


Piper supporting Penal Substitution

First Clip: See 1:53 mins

Second Clip: See 2:27 mins

YouTube – Joshua Tongol Contemporary Preacher on the subject

(he includes clips explaining many of the ‘against’ bits on the theory which I outlined above so instead of saying them we could use his clip)

BBC Website – Jeffrey John debates against Penal Substitution

(non Christian chap arguing the case)

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