Penal Substitution Debate
Negative Constructive Essay
Penal Substitution is grounded on the Protestant notion that justification is a legal event. As such, God must deal with sin in a legal manner, which (to Protestants) means sin cannot go unpunished without violating the very integrity of God's Holiness and Justice. God's Wrath (due to sin) must be legally satisfied (i.e. sin cannot go unpunished) in order for sinful man to be forgiven and justified. The “penal” aspect consists of both the temporal and eternal punishments due to sin which are to be punished in the guilty party, while the “substitution” aspect consists in the sinner's guilt being imputed (transferred) to the account of another, a substitute, in this case Jesus Christ, who then receives the punishment the sinner deserved. The Resolution of this debate sums up this concept: God imputed the guilt of the sins of the elect to Christ. In other words, the Wrath the elect deserved for their sins was instead poured out by the Father onto Jesus.
The following arguments I will present will show that Penal Substitution is unreasonable and un-Biblical.
1) Contrary to popular belief, the Mosaic sacrifices did not operate in a Penal Substitution framework.
1a) Nowhere does the Mosaic Law indicate the punishment for sin was transferred to an animal or God's Wrath being poured out upon it.
1b) Places like Leviticus 5:5-13 talk about what the guilty must bring for a sacrificial sin offering. In this description, the Law teaches that if the sinner cannot afford a lamb he must bring two pigeons. However, it continues, if he cannot afford two pigeons he must bring a bag of fine flour. If Penal Substitution were in mind here, allowing a bag of flour instead of a animal is illogical.
1c) The “scapegoat” was part of one of the most important ceremonies for the Israelites, the Day of Atonement, described in Lev. 16. The term “scapegoat” often conjures up images of an innocent party taking the blame and suffering the consequences for the sins of a guilty party. Yet, the description of the scapegoat in Lev. 16 (vv7-10 & 20-22) shows that this goat is never the object of wrath but instead released out into the wilderness. This is quite contrary to the notion of Penal Substitution.
1d) The Passover was a very important event in Jewish history, and St Paul tells us that Jesus is the Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Moses gives the instructions for the Passover to the Israelites in Exodus 12 (esp. vv1-13). Rather than being an object of wrath, the eating of the lamb and applying its blood to the door fame of the house is what turned away God's wrath. This directly corresponds to us partaking in the Eucharist and having Christ Blood applied to our souls, making them pure and pleasing in God's sight (Heb 9:14). It was the blood (merits) of the Lamb, not the death itself, which turned away God's wrath. This also does not fit a Penal Substitution framework.
1e) All through Leviticus (which deals heavily with sacrifices) there are numerous references to sacrifices being described as “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (e.g. Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2). These sacrifices are pleasing to God because they are prepared 'the way He likes it,' He is pleased when such things are done in obedience to His teachings. It is no mistake that the sacrifice of Jesus is also described as a “fragrant aroma,” because He acted in love and obedience (Eph 5:1f). This is obviously not Penal Substitution, for this appeasing and pleasing God is not done by unleashing wrath but on account of obedience. Also, Eph. 5:1f calls Christians to imitate Christ's sacrifice, yet Penal Substitution is specifically intended so Christians wont have to imitate Christ's example of sacrifice.
2) The following quotes are from various Calvinist authors describing Penal Substitution as it unfolded at the Cross (emphasis mine):
We should remember that Christ's suffering in His human nature, as He hung on the cross those six hours, was not primarily physical, but mental and spiritual. When He cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," He was literally suffering the pangs of hell. For that is essentially what hell is, separation from God, separation from everything that is good and desirable. Such suffering is beyond our comprehension. But since He suffered as a divine-human person, His suffering was a just equivalent for all that His people would have suffered in an eternity in hell.
(Boettner, Loraine. “The Reformed Faith.” Chapter 3.)
To [Jesus] was imputed the guilt of their sins, and He was suffering the punishment for those sins on their behalf. And the very essence of that punishment was the outpouring of God's wrath against sinners. In some mysterious way during those awful hours on the cross, the Father poured out the full measure of His wrath against sin, and the recipient of that wrath was God's own beloved Son.
In this lies the true meaning of the cross.
(MacArthur, John. “The Murder of Jesus.” Page 219.)
Christ died in our place and in our stead - and He received the very same outpouring of divine wrath in all its fury that we deserved for our sin. It was a punishment so severe that a mortal could spend all eternity in the torments of hell, and still he would not have begun to exhaust the divine wrath that was heaped on Christ at the cross.
This was the true measure of Christ's sufferings on the cross. The physical pains of crucifixion - dreadful as they were - were nothing compared to the wrath of the Father against Him. The anticipation of this was what had caused Him to sweat blood in the garden. This is why He looked ahead to the cross with such horror. We cannot begin to fathom all that was involved in paying the price of our sin. It's sufficient to understand that all our worst fears about the horrors of hell - and more - were realized by Him as He received the due penalty of others' wrongdoing.
And in that awful, sacred hour, it was as if the Father abandoned Him. Though there was surely no interruption in the Father's love for Him as a Son, God nonetheless turned away from Him and forsook Him as our substitute.
( Ibid., Page 220-221)
Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God's anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. ... ... Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. (Calvin, John. “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Book 3:Chapter 16:Section 10)
There are significant theological and Biblical problems with these descriptions, explained below.
2a) According to adherents of Penal Substitution, Christ suffered more than just a bodily death and physical tortures at the hands of men. The Gospel accounts are very clear what Christ endured was physical and emotional, no mention of spiritual punishment. It is very odd that the quotes say the physical death was nothing compared to experiencing the Father's wrath, yet the Gospel accounts say nothing of this 'more important' and 'invisible' issue.
2b) Theologically speaking, only God has the power to inflict divine punishments; men can only kill the body, while God can kill the soul in hell (Mat 10:28). This is very problematic for Penal Substitution because the Bible never talks of God the Father unleashing His Wrath on Jesus and corporal death alone is not enough.
2c) The Father could never turn His Wrath upon His Son, such a notion should make anyone cringe. The Father could never forsake His Son in a spiritual 'divine punishment' sense, nor could Jesus feel or experience what a condemned sinner before God feels, nor could Jesus experience the equivalent of an eternity in Hell, that is pure blasphemy and a form of Nestoriansim (if not worse).
3) Now to some popular Protestant proof texts for Penal Substitution. I will show that these passages, when read in context and without presumptions, don't unequivocally support the Protestant side, and in some cases actually contradict it.
3a) Isaiah 53 is one of the most popular OT passage Protestants turn to as support for the doctrine of Penal Substitution. I believe we should let the New Testament be our main guide, to see how OT revelation unfolds. When we see how the NT interprets Isaiah 53, it will be clear it is not teaching Penal Substitution. I will do a summarized verse by verse commentary on this chapter:
Verse 4a is directly quoted in Mat 8:16-17, and has nothing to do with Penal Substitution.
Verse 4b is when the Jews considered Jesus to be under God's displeasure because God would not save Him (Mat 27:40-43).
Verse 5a is talking about the crucifixion where Christ was physically pierced and beaten.
Verse 5b does not use the Hebrew term “punishment” but rather “chastisement” (H4148) and is in reference to suffering that will correct a wrong (eg Job 5:17), which is not the same as a Penal Substitution which is concerned with the death penalty and eternal punishments.
Verses 6 and 7 are alluded to in 1 Pt 2, which I address later.
Versea 8 and 9 are talking about the way Jesus was treated like a criminal, unjustly tried, and murdered.
Verse 10 when it says it was the “Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer” it is interpreted by Catholics (eg St Thomas Aquinas, ST 3:47:3) as God Providentially planning the Passion. For example, God delivered Jesus into the hands of wicked men (eg Acts 2:23; Rom 8:32), though the Father never dumped His Wrath on Jesus, it was the wicked men who did the actual torture. A good example of God foreordaining a 'bad situation' but without any intent of punishing the individual is Joseph in Gen 50:20. Next verse 10 mentions that Christ's Passion was a “guilt offering” (or “offering for sin”) which is “asham” (H817) in Hebrew (and occurs frequently in Leviticus). Yet this is the same type of offering mentioned in Section 1b earlier in this essay, where if someone couldn't afford an animal then a bag of flour would work, yet Penal Substitution with a bag of flour doesn't make much sense, indicating the sacrifice was not of that nature. The same type of offering is made in 1 Sam 6, but the offering is obedience and gold, not something to kill.
Verses 11 and 12 talk of “bearing sin” which 1 Pt 2 alludes to, which I address later. The phrase “numbered with the transgressors” is in reference to the humiliation of being crucified among thieves (Mk 15:28KJV). Lastly, the verse says Christ will “make intercession” for the sinners, yet making intercession is not the same as Penal Substitution. Making intercession involves turning away the wrath, not diverting it.
3b) Galatians 3:13 talks about Jesus being made a “curse” for us and quotes Deuteronomy 21:22-23. This might sound like God the Father spiritually cursed His Son Jesus, but taken in that sense is quite blasphemous and not what Deut 21 was saying. Deuteronomy 21 is talking about the most humiliating form of death, crucifixion, and is described as a curse because the Jewish understanding was that someone had to be really bad to deserve that kind of death. The OT actually sheds valuable light on this understanding, two specific passages demonstrate this clearly:
Joshua 8: 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. 29 He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.
Joshua 10: 26 Then Joshua struck and killed the kings and hung them on five trees, and they were left hanging on the trees until evening. 27 At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day.
These passages show clearly that hanging someone on a tree is a form of grave humiliation, especially for a king. Notice how the passages indicate the bodies were taken down before sunset, this is according to the command in Deut 21 when this form of execution is carried out. Also, the bodies were thrown into a cave and covered with rocks. The parallels here to Christ's crucifixion are very clear, but this is not Penal Substitution because with this in mind passages like Phil 2:8 say Christ “became obedient unto death even death on a cross,” and thus the message is that Christ's perfect obedience (willing to undergo the worst humiliation) is what is carries the true value (towards making satisfaction), not the torture itself.
3c) 1 Peter 2:24 says Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree.” Protestants look to this as clear evidence that the guilt of the elect was imputed to Jesus and punished in Him. However, the context paints quite a different picture:
18Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 20But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
The context clearly indicates the theme of Peter's teaching is enduring unjust suffering, and that suffering unjustly at the hands of others for doing God's will is what is meritorious in God's sight. This context is definitely not Penal Substitution. This is in fact Peter's theme throughout most of this Epistle (eg 3:3-4; 3:9-14; 3:17-18; 4:12-16). What is even more significant here is that 1 Pt 2:22-25 quotes and alludes to Isaiah 53 (esp verses 5, 6, 7, 9, 12) more than anywhere else in the NT, thus it should be the main guide for interpreting Isaiah 53. Because 1 Peter 2 is not teaching Penal Substitution then Isaiah 53 cannot be teaching it either.
As for the term “bore” in “bore our sins,” that word in Greek (G399) means to 'take up' or 'offer up' either physically (Mat 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 24:51) or as a sacrifice (Heb 7:27; 9:28; 13:15; 1 Pt 2:5; James 2:21). In 1 Pt 2:5 it says “offer up spiritual sacrifices.” Given this, this phrase does not automatically mean imputed guilt, rather it can mean taking the burden of making satisfaction for the sins upon His shoulders, similar to how a father takes the burden of raising a family upon his shoulders.
3d) 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a very important NT passage in Protestant soteriology, especially Penal Substitution.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Protestants see the “Great Exchange” encompassed in this passage. The classic interpretation is that though Jesus was not actually a sinner, the sin of the elect was imputed to Him and He received the Wrath they deserved, while the Christian (who lacks righteousness before God) has God's righteousness imputed to them. The main problem is a lot must be read into that one verse. This interpretation is gratuitous at best, not to mention nowhere is the term “impute” used. Using the principle of having Scripture interpret Scripture, it is best to consult similar passages when trying to interpret this one.
Regarding Romans 8:3, Jesus being sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” means Jesus took on human nature, and thus “made sin” could easily be taken as sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” The phrase “for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” I interpret as being made a sin offering and made satisfaction for sin. Next, in 2 Cor 8:9 there is a clear parallel with 2 Cor 5:21. Christ doesn't become poor by infusion or imputation, rather He becomes poor in the sense of Phil 2:5-9 where Jesus humbled Himself to take on human flesh and become obedient unto death, and through His merits heal us and raise us up.
Also, the word “sin” in “made sin” can mean “made a sin offering,” and this is because Paul knew that in the OT some Hebrew words could mean both “sin” and “sin offering,” even in the same context. The Hebrew word Chattaah (H2403) is translated, in the KJV, 182 times as “sin” and 116 times as “sin offering.” Places like Leviticus 4 translate the word both ways in the same context:
Lev 4: 28Or if his sin, which he hath sinned, come to his knowledge: then he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he hath sinned. 29And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering.
The highlighted words are the same word in Hebrew. This is a very similar situation to 2 Cor 5:21 in which the first occurrence of “sin” refers to actual sins, while the second occurrence refers to a “sin offering.” There is simply too much read into the text (without support) when Protestants interpret “made sin” as having guilt imputed to Christ and punished in Christ.
3e) Jesus asks the Father if the “cup” can be taken from Him (Mat 26:39). Some say this was the “cup of God's Wrath” which Christ must drink. However, earlier on in Mat 20:22-23 and Mark 10:38-39 Jesus asks if the Apostles can drink from this “cup,” and they say yes, and Christ says they will. This is impossible if the cup of God's wrath is in view and the purpose is Penal Substitution. Thus those texts can only mean enduring physical persecutions.
3f) When Jesus is on the Cross, He says “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat 27:46). Some Protestants mistakenly think this refers to some divine (spiritual) punishment being inflicted on Jesus (see the quotes in section 2), but that is blasphemous. Rather, Jesus was quoting Psalm 22 and applying that Psalm to Himself. The “forsaken” is clearly explained as God not providing rescue from Christ's attackers, not about a divine punishment being inflicted on Christ's soul. Reading the entire Psalm, it has nothing to do with Divine Wrath.
4) The Catholic position, popularly called “satisfaction” in Catholic documents (or even a “satisfactory punishment” in older works), basically consists in appeasing God's Wrath by good works rather than redirecting it onto someone else to endure. The next important issue is whether there are clear examples in Scripture of men turning away God's wrath by intercession and appeasement, without the hero having to undergo God's wrath in place of the guilty.
4a) Numbers 25:1-13, also quoted in Psalm 106:30-31, describes a situation in which the Israelites turned to immorality and God struck them with a plague. During that time, Phinehas – being zealous for maintaining God's honor - stepped in and turned away God's Wrath which stopped a plague and was said to “turn away God's anger” and “make atonement for the Israelites.” Phinehas undeniably foreshadowed Jesus, yet Phinehas did not have to bear God's Wrath in place of others.
4b) Deuteronomy 9:16-21 (Ex 32:30), also quoted in Psalm 106:19-23, recalls the situation where the Israelites made a golden calf idol, which greatly angered God. In this situation, Moses interceded for them, making atonement by laying on his face for 40 days and ate no food, and because of this God's wrath was turned away and listened to Moses to spare the people.
4c) Job 42:7-9 deals with the fact God was angry at the attitudes and actions of some of Job's friends. God said He required a sacrifice for their folly, but that He would only accept it if Job His Servant offered the sacrifices. Job's actions carried weight and were meritorious in God's sight because Job pleased God.
4d) Numbers 16:42-49 describes a rebellion in which God sent a plague to wipe out many Israelites. Moses and Aaron make atonement and turn away God's Wrath by appeasing Him with incense, but neither of the heroes are forced to endure God's Wrath instead.
4e) Proverbs 16:6 says: “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for,” and 16:14 says, “A king's wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it.” Both passages use the same Hebrew term for “atone” used in some of the previous passages. In both cases, Penal Substitution is not required to atone.
5) One of the most devastating truths against Penal Substitution is that the Scriptures are clear that salvation can be lost. Calvinists are the most logically consistent in this regard, recognizing that Penal Substitution and losing salvation are mutually exclusive concepts. The following passages will demonstrate that salvation can be lost, and thus Penal Substitution must be false.
5a) Mat 18:23-35 is of the unmerciful servant who is forgiven but wont forgive others and as a result is forced to suffer what is in effect eternal torments. Jesus concludes this parable by telling His Apostles the same thing will happen to them if they don't forgive.
5b) Mat 24:12-13 teaches that as the world becomes more wicked “the love of most will grow cold,” while those who persevere will be saved. The “love” here is agape love, the highest form and only available to Christians by God's saving grace. Yet here it states it will grow cold for many of them, and thus they will fall away and not be saved.
5c) Mark 9:43-47 has Jesus teaching us that it is better to remove temptations in your life and enter into Heaven having “missed out” on those things rather than indulging in them and being damned.
5d) Luke 8:13 is the parable of the sower, and in this case the individual “believes for a while” but later falls away due to temptation. The person was a believer, and thus saved, and yet fell away.
5e) John 12:42-43 informs us that there were Pharisees who did believe in Jesus, but because they feared persecution they would not publicly affirm their faith.
5f) John 13:8 is when Jesus washes the disciples' feet and it is Peter's turn. Jesus tells Peter that if He doesn't wash him, Peter will have no part with Jesus. Jesus put Peter's salvation on the line, proving that salvation can be lost, otherwise it was a false threat (a lie in fact).
5g) Acts 8:9-24 describes the story of Simon Magnus. In verse 12-13 it says he “believed and was baptized” (cf Mk 16:16), and yet later on in the story Simon tried to bribe Peter and Peter told him he had lost his salvation.
5h) Romans 4:6-8 talks about David repenting of sin in Psalm 32, and Paul says this was a moment of justification. The only logical answer here is that David lost his salvation earlier on (and only recovered it upon repenting).
5i) Romans 11:19-22 describes the Vine of salvation, yet Paul says, in the past tense, that “branches were broken off” because they stopped believing (though they can be grafted back in if they turn and believe again). Paul also applies this warning to Christians, which would all be illogical if salvation could not be lost.
5j) 1 Cor 8:11 describes a situation in which we should not lead our Christian brothers into temptation. In this example, the Gentile Christian struggles with idolatry, and yet being tempted back into idolatry will cause that brother to fall away. Paul says this brother is someone “for whom Christ died” and yet he “perishes.” I cannot think of a stronger thing Paul could have said against Penal Substitution, in the same breath he says Christ died for him and yet he parishes.
5k) Galatians 5:4 talks about a person “falling from grace” and becoming “alienated from Christ,” which is impossible if the person was never saved.
5l) Galatians 5:19-21 shows Paul specifically warning the Christians if they engage in grave sins they will be damned.
5m) 1 Timothy 3:6 talks about the risk of a Christian becoming prideful and falling “into the same condemnation as the devil,” which is clearly losing salvation.
5n) 1 Timothy 5:8 says if a Christian father abandons his family he has “denied the faith” and is “worse than an unbeliever.” Both notions are impossible with Penal Substitution.
5o) Hebrews 10:26-29 is one of the strongest passages against Penal Substitution. It says if Christians keep on sinning “no sacrifice for sin remains” and that they can expect damnation. There is no way Hebrews could have advocated Penal Substitution and yet said something like that.
5p) 2 Peter 2:1 mirrors Jude 1:4 and says men whom Jesus ransomed will deny Him. Being ransomed obviously means salvation, yet these men will fall away.
5q) Revelation 2:19-22 has Jesus warning that if a group of Christians don't change their ways they will be damned. It makes no sense for Jesus to be talking to and warning people who are not even saved.
5r) Revelation 22:19 warns against having one's “share in the tree of life” and “holy city” removed, this can only be talking about salvation.
6) Other Philosophical and Theological problems with Penal Substitution.
6a) The notion that someone can receive the death penalty in place of another does not fit into any genuine justice system. It makes no sense from a justice standpoint for someone other than the actual offender to receive the death penalty.
6b) The notion that God cannot forgive without punishing someone is illogical. It cannot be “forgiveness” if God still inflicts the punishment. The Bible teaches we must forgive without retaliating, so it makes no sense for God to dump His wrath on someone else and call that forgiveness of another.
6c) Another significant problem is that Penal Substitution, in a sense, teaches that Christ pre-paid for sin. For a sin that has not actually occurred yet, for Christ to take the punishment for it is blasphemy. Worse yet, the sin would actually have to be carried out to 'balance the books' so to speak.
6d) The notion that a Christian is “eternally forgiven” (doesn't need to repent in the future) is a logical result of Penal Substitution, but that contradicts the passages in Scripture which call for regular repentance (eg the Lord's Prayer), and never says anything but past sins are forgiven (eg 1 Jn 1:9; 2 Pt 1:9)
After all is said and done, it should be very clear that the doctrine of Penal Substitution has no place in any justice system, nor is it a doctrine clearly and honestly derived from Scripture.