What is Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

Adrian Warnock has posted his definition of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), and also the definition in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions. But these definitions are by no means the only ones; for example Bishop Tom Wright‘s understanding is quite considerably different. Much of the recent unfortunate controversy has in fact been based on misunderstandings, because different people are working from different understandings of this doctrine.

I can happily and wholeheartedly endorse most of Adrian’s definition, including phrases like

Jesus died to take our punishment or penalty … and to turn away the wrath of God


he has punished sin in Christ.

For I understand “take our punishment” in the sense “take away our punishment” rather than “be punished by God with the punishment we deserve”. The only real problem I have is with

He could justly be punished for sin.

Now if Adrian means that Pilate could justly punish him, “justly” seems inappropriate; but if, as is more likely, he means that God could justly punish him, I reject that. Note the distinction I am making: Pilate punished Jesus, unjustly; God punished sin in Jesus, or better, God in Christ punished sin, which was just; but God did not punish Jesus, which would have been unjust.

As for the Pierced for Our Transgressions definition:

The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.

The problem I have here is with the word “suffer”, used twice here. Yes, Jesus suffered pain. But I don’t accept that he suffered punishment and wrath if that is taken to mean that God punished him and was wrathful towards him.

Just to clarify that this is my understanding. Whether anyone allows it as a variant of PSA is up to them. But it seems to me to be in clear agreement with the Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith and I think with PSA as described by Wright and by Packer. None of these say that God punished Jesus. Indeed my understanding is even compatible with that of Jonathan Edwards, as quoted by Packer:

God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of his dreadful wrath.

Note “as if … as though”. It may have looked as if God was angry with Jesus and punishing him. But, as the more careful scholars have always realised, that cannot have been really and objectively true, because it would imply a breach in the Trinity. And even Isaiah, who didn’t know about the Trinity, realised the problem, which is why he wrote (as translated) “we considered” and “But” in the following:

… we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities; …

(Isaiah 53:4-5, TNIV).

So, what does Bishop Wright have to say about PSA? Well, he writes:

this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. … [The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions] seem to assume that all references to propitiation, penal theories, substitution and so forth are basically saying the same thing, so that to affirm one is to affirm all, and to question one is to deny all.

This is indeed a key point, which applies to these authors and to many others who have condemned people like Steve Chalke: they have simply failed to realise that there is great variety in what different people mean when they talk about PSA. Indeed they show their confusion when, in blog comment after blog comment, they simultaneously accuse Chalke of describing a straw man caricature of PSA and condemn him for rejecting PSA. Well, make up your minds, guys: if what Chalke condemns is PSA as you understand it, then it cannot be a caricature; and if it is a caricature of PSA which you don’t accept, then you are agreeing with him!

Meanwhile, while Wright gives some interesting pointers to his own view of PSA (and refers to his book where he has gone into this in more depth), in place of a definition he offers the following:

when Jesus was going to his own death, … to help his disciples get the full meaning and benefit of what was about to happen, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. That meal … contains in itself not only all the various meanings of ‘atonement’ that are worth considering, but also the means by which theories can be turned into real life.

0 thoughts on “What is Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

  1. Part of the problem is that people seem to be considering Jsus’ death in isolation from his life. In ‘Post-Christendom’ Stuart Murray points out that it is importat, not only to ask ‘Why did Jsus die?’ but also ‘Why did they kill him?’ Human agency in killing Jesus is clearly affirmed in the early chapters of Acts when over and over again the apostles’ sermons use the phrase ‘Whom you crucified’. The stress in those chapters in on human agency in the cross and divine agency in the resurrection.

    It is a characteristic of Christendom thinking to ignore the anti-establishment nature of Jesus’ death – he was crucified by the religious and political establishment for his faithfulness to God, but in the resurrection God vindicated him. Reading Stuart Murray has helped me to see that this debte is shot through with Christendom assumptions.

  2. Thanks for clearly expressing your own view of the cross. Much of the current problem is caused by lack of clarity by those who reject PSA. Unfortunately in the specific case of Chalke, he does not say that he rejects the charicature of PSA- instead he clearly states that it is PSA that he rejects. Possibly he has responded to a charicature (certainly the way he describes PSA does charicaturise it) but in doing he has definitely “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” particularly in the follow up article he wrote which seems to be his last public statment on the matter

  3. Your dilemma seems to me to be a false one:

    if what Chalke condemns is PSA as you understand it, then it cannot be a caricature; and if it is a caricature of PSA which you don’t accept, then you are agreeing with him!

    I haven’t read the blog posts you’re talking about, but here’s what I suspect they’re saying (because it’s what I’d say). They’re saying is the following. He has described a caricature of penal substitution to tear down, and then he has ascribed that view to all who accept penal substitution by simply calling that view penal substitution (which he very clearly does in the “cosmic child abuse” passage, with absolutely no indication that people might hold to penal substitution while denying the view he’s criticizing).

    Therefore, he has set up a straw man and torn it down. It is a caricature that he has pretended is not a caricature, and he has thus insulted and criticized all who hold to penal substitution while giving an argument that doesn’t actually apply to all who hold to penal substitution.

    I see nothing illegitimate about making both of those complaints. They in fact seem to me to be accurate about what he said and right in what they complain about.

  4. Thank you, Peter, for saying so clearly and succinctly what I have been unable to. I agree entirely with what you say, and have been struggling to clarify these thoughts into words for several years. Thank you!

  5. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Illogical condemnation of Steve Chalke

  6. Dear Peter,

    Just a few thoughts to share with you on PSA. At the heart of this doctrine is the justice of God. God cannot punish someone else for our sin. It is against the principles of justice to do so, as God himself declares in Ezekiel chapter 18, that one will not be punished for another’s sin. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (vs.20) God judges justly. “the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (vs.20). In Isaiah, God calls himself a “just God and a Saviour” (45:21). The way that God forgives us must be a just way, because He is a God of justice. I John 1:9 says that He is “just to forgive”.

    And so, I believe that the scriptures teach that God’s forgiveness does not violate justice. So that, in our redemption, God does not work out some ‘new meaning’ of what it means to be just.
    If a man offered himself to be executed in the place of a criminal, that would indeed be a noble act, but would the courts allow it? No. Why? Because the court does not fulfill its role (meteing out justice) by simply punishing ‘someone’, but in punishing those in particular who deserve it – the guilty. Two injustices would be involved in allowing someone to take a condemned persons place. The first injustice is that the guilty party goes unpunished. The second injustice is that an innocent party is punished. Any way that we look at this as a good and merciful act, we are forced to admit that justice was not served to either the criminal or the one who took their place.
    So the question is, does God committ two injustices and deem it justice in his sight, or does he hold true to what the rest of scripture teaches about God’s justice, namely in Ezekiel 18?
    God’s Just requirements are upon us. We have sinned, so we must die. We are reqiured to live a perfect life of conformity to God’s law. The good news of the gospel is that the Son of God took on a sinless human nature, and lived a perfect human life, died a human death, arose as a human, and ascended into heaven as a human. Believeing this Gospel entails my believing INTO Christ, so that by faith, Christ’s Humanity Substitutes for mine, and becase this is true, God’s justice is served. How? I am a sinner – must die. I did die. How? Because Christ is my life and He died. I am required to be righteous, but am not. I am righteous. How? Because Christ is my life and Christ is perfectly righteous. The new ‘I’ is Christ. God justly accepts my righteousness for ‘I’ earned it. God justly punishes my sin for ‘I’ died on a cross. God’s justice is thereby glorified by substitution, so that He is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
    So God punishes the guilty on the cross (me, the fleshly part of Christ) – this is justice. The Son of God, who is eternal, inherently pure and holy beyond all our imagination, becomes our sin bearer in the sense that he took on a sinless human nature. The human part of Jesus is the new creation of God, and is something added and joined to Him, but not the Son in Himself.

  7. Thank you, David. I agree with much of this. But I am a bit concerned that there is no concept of forgiveness in what you write. If as Christians we continue to sin, do we continue to die? It seems to me that there are more questions that need to be answered about this approach. Nevertheless it does seem to be a model of the atonement which is at least to some degree helpful.

  8. Dear Peter;
    Nice to meet you. The Scripture verse I referenced in the first paragraph (I Jn 1:9) says in full, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NKJV).
    The point is that God’s forgiveness of us involves His justice. God never forgives one sin by simply overlooking it, but because He is just and holy, He must punish it. As Christians, we definitely continue to sin, and we continue to confess that we are sinners in and of ourselves (Rom7:18). But we also contine to acknowledge that the real ‘I’ is now Christ by faith, who is perfect, and has been punished already, for all of my sin. It is a continual looking away from ourselves to Christ our Substitute. God graciously commands us, as Christians, to think in this manner, that Christ is our life: “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:11).
    The greek word for ‘indeed’, men, indicates an affirmation or concesion of fact (Strongs Dictionary). We know that we sin, and that to deny that we sin is to deny the truth (IJn 1:8,10). So this verse then, has only one other possibility if it is not telling us to reckon (consider) ourselves to be inherently dead to sin, and that is, to think of ourselves as being dead to sin, in fact, in Christ. This is our subjective realization of our objective forgiveness – the continual lifting of our conscience to be cleansed by the blood of Christ. Our conscience demands our punishment, we look to Christ and find our punishment in Him. We don’t continue to die, but continue to acknowledge that we already died with Christ. In writing the Colossians, Paul told them, (who had already believed the gospel, and were still alive) “you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). And Paul told the Galatians something similar when he said “I have been crucified with Christ” (2:20).

  9. Thank you, David. Your position is certainly more attractive and biblical than the crude idea of God punishing his innocent Son and letting off the guilty which Steve Chalke and others rightly reject.

    Actually Sproul’s professor was right and Sproul was wrong, parallel lines meet at infinity, and eternity is infinity at least in time. But I would call the predestination and free will orthogonal, i.e. perpendicular, rather than parallel. See my later post on that issue.

  10. Dear Peter,
    You’re welcome. No, I haven’t expounded it in more detail elsewhere except in personal letters and study. The Lord used the writings of C.H. Spurgeon in my conversion. But besides him, I would have to say that the Lord used the union language of the New Testament and a small book by Horatias Bonar entitled “the Everlasting Righteousness” (hope I got the title right) in my understanding of substitution.
    By the way, thank you for your ettiquette and polite manner. In all honesty, I am forced to admit the truth that some one else cannot be punished for my sin, as I believe that to be the clear teaching of Ezekiel 18:20. In a court of law, this can never take place, because the court must execute justice. In fact, in every way of life, we understand that we are individually accountable for our actions. If I am to say that God that God can decide to punish someone else for my sin (for instance, in the case of Christ) and that that is just, and at the same time say that if someone else is punished for my sin (as in the case of Ezekiel 18:20) that that is unjust, where is the meaning of justice? It is lost.
    I don’t believe that God reserves the right to Himself to change the meaning of words at His leisure, for if He did, and excercised that right, we could ultimately have no trust in the Word of God. We could arrive at the Pearly Gates on judgement day having trusted in the gospel’s message only for God to say, …sorry, I changed the meaning of justice. Of course the objection could be raised that even if God changed the meaning of words at His leisure we could still trust His goodness. But here, the same problem presents itself, for God is also free to change the meaning of what goodness is. What we think to be virtue, God could ultimately deem vice.
    And so if we use the word justice, it must keep its meaning. That God can punish an innocent person, and let a guilty person go free is not justice any way we look at it. Kind of like one of Dr. R.C. Sproul’s professors who said that predestination and freewill are two parrallel lines which meet in eternity, and Dr. Sproul’s response that if they are truly parrallel lines, they won’t meet in eternity, or Pittsburgh or anywhere!
    So for God to forgive me in a just way, I must be punished for my sin. And for God to declare me righteous, I must perfectly obey. By faith in the gospel (which is the good news of who God is and what He has done in Christ) the human life of Christ substitutes for mine, not metaphorically, but literally, which is the only way a sinner can come into contact with a holy God. God punishes me, because the me, by faith is the humanity of Christ. God declares me righteous, because the me, by faith, is the humanity of Christ. And so God punishes the guilty on the cross, not the innocent and the meaning of justice is never changed (which by the way, if it were, the whole fabric of reality would be changed also).
    When a marine gives his life in Iraq for his country, we say that he died “for” his country, and what we mean is that he did something great for us (sadly, this is all some think of the death of Christ). But no one would ever say something as absurd as, “well, we know that because he died ‘for’ his country, that his country died also”. Or if that marine gave his life for a fellow marine, we would say, “he died ‘for’ him”. But no one would set forth this proposition, “since he died for his fellow marine, therefore it follows that his fellow marine died also”. Something quite different is meant then, with the word “for”when it is used to describe Christ death for us, because the “absurd” logic given in the above mentioned examples is precisely what is appealed to in II Cor 5:14, “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died”. That is the language of substitution, appealing to the truth that whatever Christ did, we did, because Christ is literally our Substitute, and since that is true, God’s justice is ratified. Substitution itself brings clarity to the ‘how’ of God is “just to forgive” (I Jn 1:9).

  11. Dear Peter;
    I’m just getting up on the whole Steve Chalke business, but after reading the excerpt from his book posted on Adrian’s blog, I whole heartedly disagree with him. His comment, “If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil”. This scenario which he apparently repudiates, I wholeheartedly embrace. In fact, he has done quite a good job of describing the atonement in saying that God committs an act of violence toward mankind that is borne by His Son.
    The wrath of God will fall on every sinner (the soul who sins shall die). If I come into Christ, it graciously falls upon me in His sweet substitutionary flesh. If I reject Christ, it will fall upon me for an eternity in hell. Everywhere and without exception, the wicked will perish.

    “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God”(Matt 5:8). In substitution, our conscience is cleansed by the blood of Christ, and we behold the sweet glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor 3:18;4:6).

  12. David, in your understanding is there a difference between an act of violence and a judicial punishment? And is the Son not himself God, not an agent of the atonement himself, but simply an innocent victim? Also who is actually punished in the atonement, the sinner or Christ? I think your answers to these questions will distinguish your position from the one which Steve Chalke condemns. But if you end up agreeing with that position, I will have to part company from you, but at least you will have refuted the view of some commenters that that is a straw man position which no one really holds.

  13. Dear Peter,
    Those are some great questions! In answer to the first, yes, there is a difference between “an act of violence” and a “judicial punishment”, and I regreat agreeing to the particular word “violent” because of its negative definitions and connotations, even though there are definitions of violence which are amoral, such as “intensity or severity” or “Vehemence; fervor” (Am. Her. Dictionary, 907). It is within these amoral definitions only that I will concede to the particular word, “violent”, and do so because I suspect the use of the word “violence by Steve Chalke was meant with a moral connotation of evil. But I understand that “violence” is commonly held with evil connotations, and so is also condemned in scripture (Gen 6:11-13). And so it would be better to use the biblical word “wrath” (Jn 3:36;Rom5:9). That Mr. Chalke has chosen to use terms such as “violence” and “perpetrated” (which are loaded with morally evil connotations) in describing God’s actions in PSA, makes me think that he understands the position clearly, but argues against it by using such descriptive words which elicit morally evil images. If that is the case(and I’m not saying it is) then that is no well-reasoned argument for rejecting PSA. Perhaps the strawman spoken of is stuffed into these two particular terms, “violence” and “perpetrated”.
    My answer is this -I believe God’s judicial punishment is wrath. When we execute justice against evil persons it is “judicial punishment”, but when God executes justice against sinners it is “wrath”. Wrath is God’s judicial punishment (Rom 2:2-5;4:15). The wrath of God is divine and must be intrinsically pure and just. And for the definitions and connotations of this word, I refer to the hebrew and greek words translated as such in scrip[ture.
    In answer to the second, yes, the Son is Himself, God (Jn 20:28-29;II Pet 1:1;Heb 1:8).
    In answer to the third, yes, the Son is an agent of the atonement in the sense that He willingly layed down His life (Jn 10:18). And it goes without saying, that if the Son is Himself God, then He is not merely innocent, but intrinsically holy and incapable of sin, and therefore no victim, for God cannot die, and God cannot punish Himself for sin, for God cannot sin. It is in this sense (the sense of Divinity) that J. Edwards’ quote given earlier in your blog becomes relevantn – “God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of divine his dreadful wrath.” I don’t know the source from which this Edwards’ quote is taken, but I would practically put my life on the line to say that the “him” Edwards speaks of is the Son of God WITHIN THE HYPOSTATIC UNION. And if he were to speak of the humanity within the hypostatic union, he would have said something akin to, “He was exceedingly angry with him, and he was the object of his dreadful wrath” -which brings us to the question of who is actually punished in the atonement.
    In answer to the fourth, we have just proven that God cannot punish Himself for He (in all three Persons) is perfectly and eternally sinless and also cannot die. So that, within the hypostatic union, on the cross, it is not the Son, in His Diety, but the humanity He joined to Himself that was punished. The confusion comes because He is One Person and to say “Him” in a general sense refers to both natures, hence the union language of the New Testament. And so having eliminated the possibility of the Divine punishing the Divine, the question is no longer, who is actually punished in the atonement, the sinner or Christ?”, but, ‘who is punished, the sinner or the humanity of Christ? And here I feel the climax of our discussion of this precious truth of substitution – that the sinner, and the humanity of Christ become one by faith (God’s free, gracious gift), so that the sinner says, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20) “I no longer live” – the sinner is punished by death on the cross – “but Christ lives” – Christ is now the new “I”, our new life. And the soul is now “in” Christ, in union with the sweet, holy Son of God forever (Hos 2:19).

  14. Perhaps the strawman spoken of is stuffed into these two particular terms, “violence” and “perpetrated”.

    Perhaps. But is the stuffing just straw? Although I don’t think anyone would actually present their own view of the atonement as an immoral act, there are plenty of people who present the atonement in terms which would be immoral if applied to any other death. Indeed you have said, I think, that it is immoral for God to punish an innocent person. So when preachers say (and they really do) that God punished Jesus although he was innocent, with no clear qualifications about how he may have have taken our sin within him, then these preachers are attributing to God an act which you, rightly, consider immoral. Chalke’s position here is similar to yours, and he expresses it, understandably but perhaps inadvisedly, with words with clear connotations of immorality. His is not a clearly reasoned argument, but it was not intended to be.

    As for the “wrath” of God, if this just means “judicial punishment”, perhaps we should drop the confusing word “wrath” which is generally understood as meaning more like “uncontrolled anger and rage”.

    The Edwards quote was taken from Packer’s 1977(?) article. Maybe you can find the reference there. But I think you are breaking the hypostatic union, and doing violence at least to Packer’s understanding of Edwards, to claim that God punished the human Jesus but only seemed to punish the divine Son of God. Also, if God punished the human Jesus, that implies either that God was unjust or that the human Jesus was a sinner. By factoring out the divine Son of God, in a manner which I consider illegitimate, you seem to be making things more difficult rather than less in terms of explaining how we humans can be united with a merely human Jesus. So it seems to me that your valiant attempt to explain the atonement is just another example of human proud wisdom which is bound to fail.

  15. DearPeter,
    What you say is true if preachers leave the gospel message with an innocent person dying on the cross. They must go on to explain how he bears our sins. And this is the point I’d like to focus on, the implication that Jesus was a sinner if God punished Him. That is precisely the gospel, that somehow, in some sense the human Jesus had to have real sin for God to punish Him. If I may quote John Piper from his video clip..”who’s sin? My sin. Whose flesh? His flesh”. The point made here is that although the human Jesus is in Himself sinless, that by faith, my sinful person comes into his flesh and is punished. His humanity substitutes for mine, literally, and since I, a sinner, come into His flesh which is in union with His holy Diety, I must neccessarily die. So that although the human part of Jesus is sinless, if I a sinner come into His flesh by faith, there is real sin there – me – And I am punished for it by death in accordance with God’s Justice. “For he hath made him sin FOR US {substitution} who knew no sin” (II Cor 5:21). “Who knew no sin” refers to the fact that the human nature of Jesus never commited the slightest sin. “Made him sin for us” refers to the fact of substitution whereby my sinful soul with all its sin comes into the substitutionary humanity of Christ and is punished. “Whose sin? my sin. Whose flesh? His flesh.” Yes, God seems to punish the Divine Son in Christ, yet He is not angry with His Son, but us, the wicked. God, because of His great love, comes and takes on a sinless human nature and “bears” their punishment in the sense that He feels all their torment and the dregs of the cup of God’s wrath. But it is not the Son Whom God is truly angry at, but us, in Christ’s humanity, who are wicked. Because of God’s love and wisdom, He found a way to punish us (substitution) and uphold His justice without us ever feeling in ourselves one drop of His Divine wrath. And we receive nothing but grace and the benifits of union with the Son of God.

  16. “And for your life blood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” Gen. 9:5 NIV

    Actually “made him sin for us” does not mean sin in place of us it means he is a sin for us to repent of. God’s set purpose for each man is to give him an account in regard to one man’s life that has been lost by bloodshed. For the man who refuses to willingly give God this account it is a sin of disobedience hence “made him sin for us.”

  17. Peter you have seen it before. Must have escaped your memory.
    The points of injecting God’s statement in Gen.9:5 NIV into this discussion are for clearly defining God’s set purpose for each man and clearly defining that regardless of the circumstance whenever any human male’s life is taken by bloodshed there is always the residual requirement to give God a direct account. However it is only relative to Jesus’ crucifixion that an exponential component has been added to the offense of taking his life by bloodshed. No natural born man will be allowed into the kingdom of God by not confessing directly to God that he is sorry Jesus was crucified and be baptized into this Way for the forgiveness of ALL sins. For only relative to Jesus crucifixion has the law of God been changed to make it a unilateral requirement that each man must account for the sin of Jesus’ crucifixion or he sins again by refusing to do so. It is the law.
    “It is not those who hear the law who are
    righteous in God’s sight, but it is those
    who obey the law who will be declared
    Any other explanation about Jesus’ crucifixion is false for there is no other Way possible for his crucifixion to be a benefit.

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