What is penal substitutionary atonement and is it biblical?
Few things are as important to think about and understand and be prepared to defend as what Christ actually did on the cross. We can defend the truthfulness of the Christian worldview and that God exists and all of that, but if Christ didn’t actually die to save sinners and accomplish that on the cross then all that other stuff really doesn’t matter. What’s Paul’s declaration in I Corinthians 15? If Christ is not raised then we are still in our sins. Now, he kind of leaves out a step there because what he’s saying is when Christ died and rose from the dead he actually paid for sin for sinners.
If that didn’t happen, if Christ didn’t do that work on the cross, then we’re just wasting our time with all this other worldview stuff and with going to church and caring about how we live; we should just live for ourselves. We’re to be pitied, in fact, he says. All of that hinges on what Christ did on the cross, and of course if the cross and the resurrection are actual historical events. But they’re only important as historical events because of what happened on them and in them.
Let’s talk about something called penal substitutionary atonement. That’s a really big term. Often you’ll hear it called the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. That word theory is not used like, “Oh well, it’s a guess.” It’s used in terms of saying it’s a systematic understanding of the atonement and multiple aspects of it from a biblical point of view. It doesn’t mean it’s just an educated guess, it definitely has biblical support. That’s what we’re going to look at today.
First let’s actually define what it is. Penal substitutionary atonement. We’ll take that from the end. Atonement means to pay for sin, to atone for it, to take away wrath, those types of ideas. Substitutionary means in place of another, a substitution. It’s kind of like on The Big Bang Theory when Sheldon and his friends go to the Chinese restaurant and the guy say, “No additions, no subtractions, no substitutions.” No substitutions, you can’t swap something for something else in that restaurant. That’s what a substitution is, one thing in place of another.
So far we’re talking about atoning for sin in the place of another and then we have penal. That word deals with punishment. For instance, Australia was a penal colony for Britain, that’s where they sent prisoners. Penal substitutionary atonement refers to someone being the substitution to take the punishment for sin and turn away God’s wrath. That is what we say Jesus did at the cross, he was our penal substitutionary atonement. That’s a really big term and I’m trying not to use it too much but it’s actually a really important thing to understand.
Now, some people say that God punishing an innocent person in the place of other people is actually immoral or it’s cosmic child abuse. We’ve talked about that a little in the past. What I want to focus on today is actually how we can make the case for supporting penal substitutionary atonement from the Old Testament. Now, yes this is something we’re talking about that happened in the New Testament. Jesus’ work on the cross was definitely a New Testament work. I want to show you how it’s actually supported, it’s not a new type of thing because it happened in the Old Testament too.
Basically, fundamentally what we’re looking at is two types of things. One is that God does judge sin. He has wrath towards sin; he has a punitive type of justice. Now, yes there are other facets to justice but some people today would even deny that there is a retributive aspect to God’s justice, that he punishes sin and sinners yet what do we see in the Old Testament? You can’t read the first three chapters and not see that God actually displays wrath and punishment towards sinners. What is the first divine judgment for sin? Death. That is what Adam and Eve are told. “If you eat from this tree you will surely die,” and they do.
It’s not an instant type of thing, in one way. In a very immediate sense, yes, they died spiritually when they ate from that tree and were severed from communing with God. They will ultimately go on to die too. Without God’s divine intervention or grace in saving them they would die a third death in hell which is an everlasting type of death of eternal punishment. My point there is, death is actually a divine judgment for sin, God does judge sin in that way. We see all throughout the Old Testament this type of paradigm. For instance, in Numbers 16 we see a judicial execution of Cora and fellow rebels as a result of God’s divine wrath. They sinned against God and he kills them.
In Deuteronomy 29 we see divine judgment fall on Sodom and Gomorrah because of God’s holy wrath. That’s a retributive type of justice, he punished them for their sin. According to Leviticus 17 the Old Testament requires blood for atonement. We see this when we read in verse 11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you on the alter to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” To sum that up, it is blood from life that leads to atonement, to turning away God’s wrath. That’s extremely important, it required a blood sacrifice.
In Numbers 35 we see that blood pollutes the land and no expiation, which would be something that removes wrath, can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it except by blood of him who shed it. This is awkward syntax but it’s basically saying that the murderer of someone in order to make atonement has to be killed himself so the punishment falls on the one who committed the crime. They’re actually punished for it in a retributive sort of way. It’s not just restorative, we don’t just get back to neutral, no. It costs them something above and beyond for the crime they committed.
We see all the way back in Genesis 9 God instituted the death penalty and basically said, “When an image bearer of me is murdered, blood must be spilled from the person who murdered that person to pay for it. That’s exactly what we see here in Numbers 35. No turning away of wrath can be made except by the one who committed the crime. Death of the murderer is made for atonement.
Then, Paul picks this type of thing up in Galatians 3:10. He cites Deuteronomy 27:16 and he talks of the curse falling upon those who trust their salvation tp their good works, which would be the works of the Law of Moses. The curse is plainly a punishment here. A curse is a punishment, that’s kind of a common sense type of idea. It’s a penalty for disobedience, in other words.
Galatians 3:13 further makes this clear where it says, “Christ purchased us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” In other words, Christ was our substitute on the cross. He bore the punishment, the penalty for the curse of mankind’s disobedience to the law, and that is penal substitutionary atonement. Christ bore a punishment for other people. You have a substitution, Christ instead of us. You have a penalty, what he paid on the cross which we deserved. You have an atonement, it turned away God’s wrath. Well, that’s penal substitutionary atonement. Paul was picking this up in Galatians from the Old Testament in Deuteronomy where this type of thing was already understood to take place.
We’re going to keep going through a little bit of the Old Testament here because I think there’s more to be made plain. Honestly, seeing how the bible fits together with these themes is incredibly important.
Let’s talk about the day of atonement, Yom Kippur, in the Old Testament. The high priest would offer a sacrifice for the sins of the nation. In Leviticus 16 we see a description of the laying on of hands on the head of a goat. This depicted outwardly a transference of sins from Israel to the living goat. The goat was their substitute, in other words. It was then condemned to die in the wilderness isolated from Israel.
This was a scapegoat, it carried, “All of the iniquities” we see, in verse 22, “Of the Israelites.” It was their substitute. The penalty for their sins was put upon the goat. We see in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, penal substitutionary atonement. A penalty, which Israel deserved, was put on a substitute, the goat. By sending it away God’s wrath was averted for that time.
Now, there’s a big difference between Yom Kippur, the goat, and Jesus. Jesus perfects, we see in Hebrews 9, the people that his sacrifice is offered for; they don’t have to continually represent it. That’s very different from Old Testament sacrificial system where the sacrifices had to continually be presented. Christ’s work was once for all, Old Testament sacrifices were not, but nonetheless they were still penal substitutionary atonements, punishment by a substitute that turned away wrath.
Perhaps the most clear Old Testament example is Isaiah 53. You may read this or hear this at Christmastime, in fact. I think it’s an excellent passage for Easter and any other time of the year and so let’s read through that. Tis is a prophecy about Christ. It says
He was despised and rejected by people, one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness. People hid their faces from him, he was despised and we considered him insignificant. He was lifted up for our illnesses.
I do think that’s a foreshadowing of being lifted up on the cross. As an aside, when the New Testament speaks of lifting up Jesus it’s talking about crucifixion. When we say in church, “If Jesus is lifted up he’ll draw everyone to himself,” we’re talking about the crucifixion there whether we realize it or not. Anyways…
He was lifted up for our illnesses, he carried our pain even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God and afflicted for something he had done.
What’s being said here? No, he wasn’t attacked for what he had done; he was being attacked for what we had done. In verse five it continues,
He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, he was crushed because of our sins. He endured punishment that made us well. Because of his wounds we have been healed.”
Well, that is substitution pure and simple right there. All of those things that the author says were due to us were put upon Christ. The punishment for us was put upon him. His wounds lead to our healing, they turned away God’s wrath from us. Penal substitutionary atonement. Let’s keep reading.
All of us had wandered off like sheep, each of us had strayed off on his own path. The Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him.”
Some translations might say, “Be laid upon him.” It was our sin that was put upon him, not upon us, as a substitute. Verse seven:
He was treated harshly and afflicted but he didn’t even open his mouth. Like a lamb lead to the slaughtering block, like a lamb silent before it shears, he didn’t even open his mouth.”
I think this lamb imagery is extremely helpful because what did we just see in the Old Testament about the date of atonement? It was a lamb who bore the sins of its people.
Jesus is referred to as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of his people, further emphasizing this atonement motif, this penal substitutionary atonement motif. It further goes on to say,
He was lead away after an unjust trial but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living. Because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded.”
Once again, substitution.
”They intended to bury him with criminals but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb because he had committed no violent deeds nor had he spoken deceitfully.”
This punishment was not his; this is made clear. He was innocent. The punishment he got was because of us.
Though the Lord had desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made he will see descendants and enjoy long life and the Lord’s purpose will be accomplished through him. Having suffered, he will reflect on his work and he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. My servant will equip many for he carried their sins.
There are many things here I want to point out. One, he will reflect on his work. Jesus knew he was doing a work in going to the cross. He wasn’t conscripted, he wasn’t forced or coerced, it was a choice to go to the cross. He did a work, that is why he came. It was not unjust for the father to punish him because he also was punished willingly.
What did it say here? “He carried their sins,” their being our sins. It continues.
“I will assign him a portion with the multitude, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful because he willingly submitted to a death and was murdered with the rebels. When he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.
That is a straightforward description of penal substitutionary atonement. So many times in there … Substitute, he took on things that were not deserved by him but were deserved by us. He did that and turned away God’s wrath. He took a punishment. All of that: penal substitutionary atonement.
That is how Paul can say in Galatians that Christ purchased us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He was our substitute on that cross. That is why defending the resurrection is important, not because of history’s sake, not because it proves Christianity true in that way or theism to be accurate but because of what he accomplished on the cross. The historical event doesn’t do anything without Christ actually accomplishing what he did for sinners on the cross.
Just to quickly sum up, numerous times throughout the Old Testament we see that God actually punishes sinner, not just in a restorative type of way but in a retributive type of way. It is wrath poured out toward sin. In fact, death was the first divine punishment for sin. Then we see numerous times where God does this to people, justly, I would add. More than that, we also see that the sacrificial system was based on something being a substitute to turn away God’s wrath and pay the punishment for their sin. The day of atonement just pictures this beautifully and we see that the lamb bore the sins of Israel and took them away. Christ does the same thing at the cross, he’s our passover lamb in that way.
There are many parallels in the Old Testament and the New Testament we haven’t even explored. My point is that penal substitutionary atonement is a biblical doctrine that we should praise God for, that he actually did that for us. That he purposed to come to earth to pay for our sin for us, to take our punishment. It wasn’t a mistake, he didn’t just somehow get captured and stuck on a cross just to show us how violent or brutal we are as some people would say. No, it was part of his plan from the very beginning and that’s why we defend the truth of the resurrection and all of that. We ultimately want to get to talk about what Christ actually did in his work on the cross.
Well, I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.