Staying on the Subject: Penal Substitution

If you read this blog much, you know how much I dislike the doctrine of penal substitution. Not only does it justify a Christian living as an enemy of Jesus, but it makes a monster out of God.

Proving penal substitution false is easy if it’s properly defined.

Penal substitution means that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. Sin requires death, so Jesus died in our place. Therefore, all sins are now paid for.

If you pay attention, you will see that they are not really forgiven. The penalty has been paid. If a murderer is put to death for his murder, he is not forgiven. Due justice has been had.

Thus, penal substitution removes all mercy from God. There is no mercy involved. Instead, there is the fulfillment of justice.

We know that this cannot have happened, though, because there is plenty of reference to both Christians and non-Christians having to face penalties for their sins. 2 Corinthians 5:10 tells us that we will all stand before the judgment seat of the King, and we will receive the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad. Whatever punishment you think we might receive for those bad deeds, they are a penalty. If Jesus had really paid the penalty for those bad deeds, they should not come up. Justice has been done, the evil deed should be off the books.

Some take the idea of penal substitution so far as to say that the unrighteous are punished not because of their sin, which has been paid for, but because they do not believe in Jesus. The Bible directly contradicts this, mentioning sexual immorality, uncleanness, and greed, then saying, “Because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).

Galatians 6:7-9

This passage is critically important concerning all the things evangelicals say about faith and works. The problem lies in the fact that verse 9 is almost never included with verses 6-8.

Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that will he reap. He who sows to the flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but he who sows to the Spirit will reap everlasting life from the Spirit. Let us not grow tired in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not lose heart.

I highlighted a couple important phrases for us. We are warned not to be deceived about this. There are several passages important to the evangelical view of faith and works that are preceded this way (e.g., Eph. 5:6; 1 Jn. 3:7).

Second, notice the word “reap.” What possible context could reap have here?

I argue that it is obvious to the unbiased reader that Paul is equating sowing to the Spirit with not growing weary in doing good, and that what is to be reaped is eternal life. Thus, if you want to reap eternal life, you need to continue to do good without getting tired.

This is further justified by Paul’s statement in Romans 2:7 that God will reward eternal life to those who “patiently continue to do good.”

In this post, we are not talking about faith and works, however, but penal substitution. Clearly, if we need to do good without growing tired in order to reap eternal life, and if we are going to reap corruption for sowing to the flesh, then all our sins have not been paid for. We are reaping a penalty for sowing to the flesh, which is stated again in Romans 8:12-13.

Paul is very consistent about contrasting eternal life for spiritual living versus corruption or death for carnal living. There are those who interpret this death and corruption as being mere physical death. I consider this grossly inaccurate, but it’s irrelevant to penal substitution. No matter what penalty is meant by “death” and “corruption,” there is a penalty, which means the penalty has not been paid.

Jesus Paid

A quick searh for the phrase “Jesus paid” will show us that it occurs in the Bible exactly zero times. Those two words are a catch phrase among the evangelicals, but the the only purchase that the Bible itself ever hints at is Jesus’ purchase of us (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). The response Paul suggests when he mentions this purchase is far different than what evangelicals suggest when they mention Jesus paying a penalty.

Paul says, “Therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:21).

Trying to Justify Penal Substitution

I have asked for verses on penal substitution, and since there are none, usually none are provided.

Today, someone provided a whole list of verses supposedly supporting penal substitution. I’m just going to show you one of them.

In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Eph. 1:7)

The list had several other verses, most of them even further from addressing penal substitution than this one is, which is my point. In what way does this verse suggest that Jesus suffered a penalty equal to that demanded by God for every sin ever committed, past, present, or future, which is what penal substitution teaches?

It doesn’t. It says that our redemption was accomplished through Jesus’ blood, which includes the forgiveness (not the satisfied justice) of sins.

Jesus’ blood was indeed shed for our sins. The Bible says that over and over again, and Ephesians 1:7 is just one example. We celebrate the fact that Jesus’ blood is “the blood of the New Covenant” whenever we gather in his name and eat the Supper in his name.

To transform that great truth into the troubling idea that God does not—or worse, cannot—forgive sins without demanding justice is an incredible insult to God, is it not? Am I taking it too far to say such a thing?

The rest of the verses that were given to me were the same, saying nothing at all on the subject of penal substitution. Instead, each verse taught only that Jesus’ blood had everything to do with our salvation.

Jesus’ blood does have everything to do with out salvation. It is the blood of the New Covenant. But let’s not transform that truth into the falsehood of penal substitution, nor let anyone else make that transformation.

I’m being treated for lymphoma, and I just received my third round of chemotherapy. I was released from the hospital yesterday to “stew” for a couple weeks. The chemo is still kicking around, getting stronger in my body. Please forgive any poor wording or writing today, as I am slightly “muddled.” I think the point I am making is easy enough to understand that I am going to leave the post like this after one edit to correct spelling.

God bless you, and may all of you who have believed the Gospel that Jesus is Lord honor and glorify him with your lives, knowing what a great price he paid to purchase you and make you his own.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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23 Responses to Staying on the Subject: Penal Substitution

  1. paulfpavao says:

    You make a good point about people having no choice. It’s penal substitution or nothing. Thank you.

    I am beginning to think that we can have a much more comprehensive understanding of the atonement than I previously imagined. That is fueled by reading a lot of early writing–second century–on the subject over the last couple days. Nonetheless, anything God does is always going to be higher than our thoughts, beyond our understanding. I really hope to lay a new foundation in either a booklet or blog post soon. Maybe I’ll do a general, shorter blog post, on which I would love to have your input specifically, then get some feedback, then do something more comprehensive in a booklet.

    • Jim says:

      I always thought it odd the way the Creed worded the Atonement. They simply stated:

      “We believe in one Jesus Christ…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;”

      That is it! They simply stated that Jesus Christ was crucified, and suffered and buried for our salvation. They didn’t feel the need to fully explain the atonement in the creed. It was enough to believe that Jesus came to earth and was crucified, was buried and rose again for our salvation.

      • paulfpavao says:

        I’m sorry I couldn’t answer this comment more quickly. I will give you that the Creed does not thoroughly explain the atonement. Still, though, the people who formulated the creed did spend time trying to explain the atonement, and even saying it’s important. I think the “penal substitution” theory is so bad that, like you with Calvinism, it must be addressed. My contention would be that PS is used to justify half-hearted Christianity, or even empty-hearted Christianity, on a mass scale. In fact, I just heard Tim Hawkins use it this morning to encourage his audience to let loose a bit. He said something to the effect of, “Go ahead. Grace. Jesus paid for it.”

        That is the problem, and I think we need to address it … no, eradicate it.

  2. Jim says:

    Thought provoking post!

    I will say right out of the gate that I am not sure about the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement any longer. (PSA)

    It was the only theory of the atonement taught to me in Seminary and the only one I was ever really exposed to. Every single one of the many theology books on my library only mention the other views with a paragraph or two, essentially to dismiss them. The evangelical sheep can be forgiven for thinking this is the only possible way to think about The Cross because it is all their leaders feed them.

    However, PSA is really the new kid on the block and it is the product of Calvin and the Reformers. There are other theories about what the Atonement actually accomplished and they go back to the early church. Calvinism depends on PSA being right, so it isn’t any wonder that PSA is championed and fought for to the death. Disprove this and you knock all the force out of the argument.

    For example Limited Atonement: I always thought this was the strongest point of Calvinism. If Jesus paid the price for every human beings sins, then what would they be judged for at the Judgment, since their sins had already been paid for by Christ on the cross? That could not be the way it is, so therefore Jesus only died for the elect.

    That problem goes away when you consider the views of the Atonement that the early church held.

    The church has always embraced the Atonement. We just don’t know EXACTLY what it all entails and or means.

  3. Ruth says:

    paul, in the context of todays message, which I get, can you say what is ratified by the blood of Jesus? I have wondered if it is that the life that was in the first creation is poured out so we can receive the new life of the Holy Spirit. ” as no covenant is ratified except by the death of the testater.” badly quoted and badly worded and i am not under the influence of chemo. prayers for clarity

    • paulfpavao says:

      Hi Ruth. We do need prayers for clarity. I only hope I understand what you are saying. You asked a question about what is ratified by the blood of Jesus, and then you answered it by quoting a Scripture So, because Scripture says so, I would agree that he ratified the New Covenant by his death/blood.

      We agree on that, so let me guess at what you were saying in the middle. Are you saying that Jesus became man, poured out in death the life that was in the first creation, then rose and raised a new creation, with a new life for us to enter into? If you’re saying that, I do think that is part of what his death did. It’s kind of cosmic, but the crucifixion and resurrection was a cosmic event. Let me know if you meant something else.

      • Ruth says:

        cosmic is good we need cosmic I was wondering if the old covenant was fufilled by His death, we sin we die…and that he. the last Adam, a perfect man goes through death and is victorious over it giving us who are united in His death the same victorious life he has …

        • paulfpavao says:

          It’s sort of odd, the way Paul deals with this idea. He does say that by becoming a curse for us, Jesus redeems us from the curse of the Law. He “took it out of the way,” nailing it to the cross.

          However, in Romans 7, the reason he gives for us being freed from the Law is that we died. We were bound to the Law like a living spouse, but then we died, so that we no longer have obligation to it.

          I think Paul used any argument he could to say, “We are not bound to the Law.” So he approached it from both perspectives.

  4. paulfpavao says:

    You have a “seems to me” right in the middle of this, which is just the point. Evangelicals have an incredible amount of false beliefs that “seem to them” to be true because they have adopte penal substitution. The question is not what “seems to us,” but what the Scripture says. I don’t mean to pick on you, but it is amazing to me that over and over I point out that the Scriptures never say Jesus paid for anything with his death except us. He purchased us, so that now we are his slaves. Nonetheless, they don’t respond to me with Scripture, but with things that “seem to them” to be true.

    I pointed out in this post that no one provides Scripture for the “paid penalty” theory because there are no Scriptures. I hope that someone is noticing that the pattern is continuing.

    • Anna says:

      “Surely he took up our pain
      and bore our suffering,
      yet we considered him punished by God,
      stricken by him, and afflicted.
      But he was pierced for our transgressions,
      he was crushed for our iniquities;”

      That doesn’t sound to you like Jesus is enduring the suffering that is rightly ours because of our transgressions?

      What does “atoning sacrifice” or “propitiation” mean, if not a sacrifice/penalty/suffering that is offered by Jesus to God to make restitution for our sins?

      Or does what I say here sound different to you than the penal substitution language of “paying the price for our sins”? I’m not sure how much of the difference between what you and I are saying is semantic and how much is a difference in content.

      Incidentally, I agree that Jesus does not pay the full penalty of our sins; the Bible does still speak of punishment that we must endure.

      • paulfpavao says:

        Hi, Anna. Let me ask you, can you not read that passage from Isaiah 53 any other way than “Jesus paid for our sins, death for death, so that we are no longer liable to penalty for our sins”?

        I can read it several other ways. Just because you can interpret a passage that can be interpreted multiple ways in a way that verifies our tradition does not mean it ought to be interpreted that way. I gave two or three reasons “penal substitution” cannot be true. I gave a definition of what I meant by PS.

        Personally, I think the problem is that no one wants to mess with tradition, so when I carefully define something, then carefully show why it cannot be true, no one wants to look at what I said. Instead, they look for a slightly different definition, like you are asking for here. I am talking about the definition I gave, which is surely the majority view among evangelicals, and I gave reason it’s impossible. I’m not talking about some other definition, just that one.

        From Isaiah 53, I see Jesus coming to rescue us from our slavery to sin. To do that, he became a man, obeyed in everything, even humility, then went through suffering and even death so that he could overthrow death by rising from its clutches. That description fits perfectly with the passage you quoted in Isaiah 53, but it has nothing to do with “paying” a penalty.

        • Jim says:

          “Personally, I think the problem is that no one wants to mess with tradition, so when I carefully define something, then carefully show why it cannot be true, no one wants to look at what I said.”

          Paul, I think this is quite true. To be fair, the very Gospel we believe is grounded in PS, not as a theory but as a non-negotiable, untouchable and unassailable fact. Thanks to our leaders. Questioning this for some, would be the equivalent of questioning the Trinity.

          One can not even consider it might not be true without causing a major shake up in one’s faith. So faithful followers of Christ, like Anna, can not even entertain your suggestion. It has to be wrong or else our Gospel is wrong and our Gospel is NOT wrong.

          Before one can really seriously entertain embracing a different view of the Atonement, they have to know what the early church taught and embrace it as the norm. Have you found that to be true?

          • paulfpavao says:

            Honestly? No. What I have found to be true is that a person has an emotional break with their church that leads them to reject the church, its leaders, and its doctrines. Then, while they are ready to find something new, I can use Scripture or the early Christian writings to show them something new. If there is not first an emotional break, then it is a rare bird who will listen to anything from the early churches or the Scriptures that violates their tradition.

          • paulfpavao says:

            Your point about it being a non-negotiable is accurate, though. I’m not sure what to do about that. The answer surely isn’t to say nothing.

        • Anna says:

          In fairness, I’m not steeped in an Evangelical tradition. I haven’t heard Catholics talking about “penal substitution”, and “Jesus paid the price for our sins” is not common, either. Since I’m coming at this as an outsider, the full context around the sentence, “Jesus paid the price for our sins” isn’t there for me, and it’s not immediately obvious to me that what is meant by that statement is contradictory to Scripture or my own beliefs. (Left to myself, I would probably start talking about sins incurring both eternal punishments and temporal punishments, and Jesus’s death saving us from the eternal portion of our punishments, but we still have temporal punishments to endure, in this life or the next.) If you say that what I suggested is not what is meant by Evangelicals, I will take your word for it; it was just me trying to find common ground.

          • paulfpavao says:

            Thank you for this comment. You completely threw me with the previous one. I was wondering if you were really Catholic! Next I wondered whether I knew what Roman Catholics taught. I started wondering if Rome taught penal substitution. I knew, however, it could not be so, as there is no concord between penal substitution and purgatory.

            So, let me inform you that “Jesus paid the price for our sins” is a buzz phrase in evangelical Chistianity. It almost always means that all sins can be forgiven if we believe that Jesus died for our sins. Thus, I can be a drunkard or even a murderer and go to heaven anyway because “Jesus paid the price.” There is no penalty due me, according to this popular evangelical doctrine, because Jesus paid the penalty. In this way, they wipe out and ignore the warnings that are all over the New Testament.

            It’s pretty embarrassing.

            • Anna says:

              “Thus, I can be a drunkard or even a murderer and go to heaven anyway because “Jesus paid the price.” ”

              My impression is that, in practice, Evangelicals are quick to condemn anything in their midst that they see as unChristian behavior. Don’t they really just believe that drunkards and murderers can be forgiven, not that there won’t be damnation if you keep being a drunkard or murderer? Because I agree (and I think you do, too?) that drunks and murderers can be forgiven, even if my litmus test for if and under-what-circumstances that forgiveness happens doesn’t match Evangelical’s.

              • paulfpavao says:

                No, Anna. Welcome to the bizarre world of evangelicals where any Scripture can be twisted into any form without apology. I’m afraid that in many evangelical circles, being an unrepentant drunk cannot have anything to do with damnation. “It’s by grace,” they say, not having any idea what grace is. Or they say, “It’s not by works,” not having any idea what “it” is that is not by works, nor distinguishing between obedience to Jesus and the works of the Law. Pentecostal groups are the exception, as well as a couple others. However, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others will do anything to avoid saying that if you “keep being a drunkard or murderer” you will inherit “damnation.” If you back them into a corner so that they feel silly saying “not by works” in the face of dozens of Scriptures that say the final judgment is by works even for Christians, then they will proceed to argue that the person was never saved. Therefore, they aren’t condemned for their drunkenness, but for never being saved.

              • Anna says:

                Do you think that their bizarre verbal justifications affect how much pressure they put or don’t put on people to behave correctly? And/or do you think that people work less at overcoming their sins, despite social pressure to stop, because they feel it won’t affect their salvation?

              • paulfpavao says:

                I am absolutely convinced, from decades of experience, that they work less at overcoming their sins–or even at learning what their sins are–because they feel it won’t affect their salvation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Who do you think you are, the Holy Spirit? Don’t you know it’s by grace?” There are some disciples. They given themselves to Jesus because they believe and love him. But there are more goats, whose service to God is lip service, and yes, some of them are convinced they are saved by the “believe in the atonement” gospel. I don’t think that is rare. I think there are millions of “Christians” like that.

  5. Anna says:

    Sin doesn’t take place in a vacuum; sin is an offense against another (human, God, or both). In other words, sin isn’t about just what the individual has done; sin is about wounded relationships. Justice requires making the relationship whole again. I would say that experience shows there are two parts to restoring a relationship and “fixing” sin… not just forgiveness, but also restitution.

    If someone has truly sinned, then they cannot make up for what they did. As either C.S. Lewis or Chesterton put it, once you get past all the excusable parts, there’s the inexcusable part left. No action or attempt at restitution on the sinner’s part will give them a right to the victim’s renewed relationship. Thus the need for forgiveness.

    We usually stop there, and think that forgiveness is enough. But I have found that in practice, forgiveness by itself doesn’t restore the relationship to what it was. For that, the sinner has to make some sort of act of love (and a sacrificial element is almost always present in one way or another). If I yell at my kids, they feel hurt until I give them a hug and tell them how much I love them. They’re not holding a grudge, but the relationship isn’t restored until I do something to make up for what I did. If my husband does something inconsiderate, and I forgive him, I still feel a sense of distance between us until the next time he goes out of his way to show he still loves me. It’s not the anger or resentment, the turning away, of unforgiveness. It’s just the emptiness or distance of something, a love, missing that should be there… and until the offender pays that restitution, it remains missing.

    So with all that in mind, it seems to me that God does freely offer us His forgiveness. And that Jesus also paid restitution, to God, on behalf of all mankind.

    Talk about penal substitution doesn’t very often sound like what I’ve said here, and I share much of your objection to it (that it makes God sound like a monster and neglects the aspect of God restoring us to glory) but I think its proponents are, at least some of the time, trying to get at something valid. Isaiah 53:5… the “propitiation” of 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10, and Romans 3:35… the image of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb, with all the Jewish history behind that of offering animal sacrifices to God for His forgiveness. It does point to, at the least, something *like* penal substitution, albeit not all the popular conceptions of such.

  6. This is a very narrow and slipshod approach. “The rest of the verses that were given to me were the same, saying nothing at all on the subject of penal substitution. Instead, each verse taught only that Jesus’ blood had everything to do with our salvation.

    Jesus’ blood does have everything to do with out salvation. It is the blood of the New Covenant. But let’s not transform that truth into the falsehood of penal substitution, nor let anyone else make that transformation.”

    JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT DEATH AND BLOOD ARE ABOUT? look at the Old Testament sin offering, where an animal dies in the place of the sinner. the NT is a continuation of the OT and its fulfillment.

    God’s redemption of us in Jesus is an act of LOVE not monstrousness, and remember that Jesus HIMSELF received the Sacrifice, the whole Trinity received the Sacrifice on the Cross.

    At present, though in His mercy God may do healing for our bodies, the salvation, though it applies to body and soul and spirit, applies to our souls and spirits, and the salvation of the body itself as well as soul is made apparent at the general resurrection of the dead. After that, the whole creation “a new heavens and a new earth” is the outworking of all this. St. Athanasius the Great put it quite well in the Divine Dilemma chapter of On the Incarnation. that God having decreed death for sin, could not just take back His word, and disregard Adam’s sin, or He would violate His own integrity, unthinkable. Equally unthinkable was letting His creation fail. The solution was that God would become a man and pay that penalty for all mankind, and lay the groundwork for the future renewal of all creation, which had fallen under a curse along with Adam.

    St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. John Cassian in explaining why prayers are offered at the sixth hour, also teach that our sins were paid for by the Crucifixion.

    God is both love and justice, and there is no real conflict between them. We get the forgiveness, since we don’t have to pay the eternal price. In a certain sense, all are saved from death, because all will be resurrected, in immortal indestructible yet physical bodies, what we call “salvation” is living throughout eternity in a nice condition.

    Baptism wipes away previous sins, repentance the sins after that. A lot of preachers twist this to mean grace lets us do whatever, which is not the same thing.

    I can’t understand how God is seen as a monster instead of infinitely loving in all this. “His mercy endures forever.”

    • paulfpavao says:

      To be honest, my guess is that you didn’t read the definition of penal substitution I gave, or that you ignored it. As a result, it would be impossible to see why I would say Jesus dying for our sins makes God a monster. I didn’t say that, however. I said penal substitution makes God a monster, and I explained it. In reply, you made a bunch of assertions, said some vague things about sin offerings, asked me to assume that if someone died for someone else, then that’s penal substitution. You also threw out vague, unreferenced opinions from people I’m pretty certain reject penal substitution.

      Conversations are two way streets. If you had read mine, or paid attention to it, I suspect you could have understood why I said what I said, then given an answer that applied.

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