The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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The Atoning Work of Christ: Penal Substitution

In this series, I intend to post several blogs in regards to the  different theories of the atonement of Christ. The first blog introduces the most common view among protestants: penal substitution. Let me preface these posts by saying, I know very little. I am in the process of learning so what I post is merely my limited understanding. I trust that through you, the readers, the works of the church, and my community, that over the course of my life time I will gain a deeper understanding of the mystery of the cross.

 What is penal substitution?

We all know it well. It is taught in protestant churches and in most every protestant book written about the gospel.

In his book, Living the Cross Centered Life, the well known author, CJ Mahaney talks about the divine dilemma:

“For God, the divine dilemma comes about because He isn’t indifferent to any of this sinfulness on mankind’s part. He is, in fact, righteously and furiously opposed to every bit of it. He cannot simply overlook or excuse it. In light of His holiness and justice, He has no alternative but to punish sin and punish the sinner (62).”

And yet scripture also tells us that God’s desire is to save. This puts God in a predicament – the divine dilemma.  The only person who can save us is a God-Man, someone who is perfectly sinless and also fully human.  “No one else could do it. Only Jesus Christ, truly God and fully man, could be our substitute and make this sacrifice…He paid the price you and I owed to the innocent offended party, God our Creator and Judge (Ibid, 72).” In order for the wrath and righteousness of God to be satisfied, God imputed the guilt of our sins onto Christ, who then bore the punishment we deserve.

John Stott puts it simply: “Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice (Ibid., 55).”

Where did it originate?

It is generally thought that the atonement theory of Penal Substitution originated in all its grandeur in the work of a theologian named Anselm called Cur Deus Homo (Why God became Man), written in 1098.

In this book he argues that man, in sinning, dishonors God and “[i]t is impossible for God to lose his honor, for either the sinner pays his debt of his own accord, or, if he refuse, God takes it from him. For either man renders due submission to God of his own will, by avoiding sin or making payment, or else God subjects him to himself by torments, even against man’s will, and thus shows that he is the Lord of man, though man refuses to acknowledge it of his own accord (Book 1, XIV).” And as Mahaney also suggests, it is only this God-Man, Jesus, who can pay the debt as a substitute for humanity. Anselm elaborates:

“And this debt was so great that, while none but man must solve the debt, none but God was able to do it; so that he who does it must be both God and man. And hence arises a necessity that God should take man into unity with his own person; so that he who in his own nature was bound to pay the debt, but could not, might be able to do it in the person of God (Ibid., Book 2, XVII).”

What was the cultural context?

Why was it that Anselm held this view of the atonement? Why hadn’t we seen this view to any great extent in previous writings? Well let’s look at the cultural setting from which Anselm arose.

Anselm lived within a feudal society where relationships were based on exchange of holding land for service. A lord was someone who held land and a vassal was a person who would be given possession of the land in exchange for protection of the lord and providing some sort of service.  The vassal was always bound by an oath, made publicly to his master. The relationships between the people can be seen in the graphic below.


Under this system, if a vassal offended his lord by breaking this oath, it was felony and the most series civil crime one could commit ( The vassal would then have to offer something to satisfy the lord. It was seen as “improper if a lord did not demand redress from a guilty vassal or take revenge against another lord who had in some way offended him (Mark Baker, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, 20).”

We can easily see, that in this society, it made complete sense for Anselm to promote an idea where God, being offended, demanded payment for the sin and that He could not merely forgive man without a payment being made. It also made sense that judgment would be necessary if payment was not made.  The one difference, of course, is that the lord (God) made the payment on the vassal’s (mankind’s) behalf by becoming one of us.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

Now, because Christ has paid the price, if you have faith in the crucified work of Christ the God incarnate, you can have your sins forgiven and have eternal life with Christ. Christ died, so that I don’t have to die.

What scripture supports this view?

Hebrews 2:17 – Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Romans 3:24-25 – And are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

1 John 2:2 – He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

All Scripture taken from the ESV

What are some common criticisms?

Here are some of the most common critiques from those opposed to this theory of the atonement:

1. It is not representative of the early church

2. It is based on the culture of that day (feudalism) or the human court system, which is not representative of God’s justice.

3. It makes God out to be an evil child abuser.

4. If the debt was paid – how did God freely forgive, since forgiveness is something that is offered freely with no restitution made?

The next post in this series which summarizes the Moral Influence Theory can be found here.


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