The Penal Substitution View of Atonement


The dominant view of the Atonement among modern Evangelicals is the Penal Substitution view. Simply defined, this view says that God the Father, because of His immeasurable love for humanity, sent His Son to die to satisfy the demands of his justice. In doing so, Jesus Christ took the place of sinful humanity and once and for all was the atonement for all our sins. There are several key elements that support this theory but at its core is the notion that sin results in the just penalty of death (Rom 6:23) and that, in love, Christ died in our place (Rom 5:8). His death took the penalty for our sin (Rom 3:25-26) satisfying the demands of the Father’s justice.

Historical Development of the View

Early church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Athtanasius included the idea of vicarious sacrifice in their understanding of the atonement but it was Augustine who synthesized the various themes into a comprehensive view of the Atonement. The penal substitution view became fully developed with the Protestant Reformers starting with Luther and then Calvin who formalized the ideas of Augustine into a cohesive whole.

We can use Calvin’s structure to understand the different aspects of vicarious sacrifice as he organized the idea through the use of three key theological concepts. Propitiation portrays Christ’s work in its Godward aspect. Through His sacrifice as our substitute Christ satisfied the demands of a just God: “The meaning, therefore, is, that God, to whom we were hateful through sin, was appeased by the death of his Son, and made propitious to us.” (Ref Rom 5:11 Calvin, Institutes II, xvii, 3). The idea of redemption encapsulates the humanward focus of Christ’s work on the Cross. (“Death held us under its yoke, but he in our place delivered himself into its power, that he might exempt us from it. This the Apostle means when he says, “that he tasted death for every man,”” (Heb. 2:9) ibid, II, xvi, 7). Lastly, to speak of reconciliation is to bring into view both the Godward and humanward aspects of Christ’s work. His death and resurrection serves to reconcile those who were previously separated by enmity and unholiness. (“These words (1 John 4:10) clearly demonstrate that God, in order to remove any obstacle to his love towards us, appointed the method of reconciliation in Christ.”, ibid II, xvii, 2).

Calvin also made a significant contribution to the understanding of atonement through his exegesis of Christ’s mediatorial work in the three offices of prophet, king, and priest. (cf. Institutes II 15:1-6) As prophet, Jesus proclaimed the grace of God and He assists the Church in her proclamation of the gospel message. Jesus the King rules over, guides, and protects the Church and as Priest, He expiated her sins by His sacrifice and even now intercedes on her behalf. We must remember that Calvin’s use of Church represents the New Testament view of the Church as the whole body of redeemed believers and not the organization itself. To those outside of the Church, he represents these three offices in name only.

The Necessity of Sacrifice

The violence of this view of atonement has been a challenge to theologians through the centuries and many, especially in modern times, have tried to posit alternative theories that move away from the theory. Why sacrifice was needed by God is necessary to understand in order to grasp penal substitution and this section will outline the conditions that form the answer. First, one must accept the sinfulness of humanity and how seriously God considers that sin. All humanity is sinful and in rebellion toward God (Rom 3:23). How seriously does God view our repeated failures, regardless of severity? Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for one sin because His standard is perfection. James 2:11 reminds us that we are evaluated in the same light; a single sin brands us as a lawbreaker (cf Gal 3:10). Humanity requires atonement because of our sin and the fact that it makes us the enemies of God.

Cannot God simply forget about sin? To answer this question requires that we view sin correctly, as an affront to the very character of God. Our sin is not impersonal. The requirements of holiness are not externally imposed. Rather, the norms of the law express God’s character, the beauty and holiness of His person. Because sin violates God’s law (1 John 3:4) it is so heinous because it is personal rebellion against the person of God. To restate this idea, your sin is a personal attack against the person of God, not just an infraction against an arbitrary set of rules that He composed. The personal nature of sin defiles the holiness of God and it requires retribution. His judgment of sin represents His personal anger at sin (Jer 2:13) and human rejection of His lordship.

Sin, by its personal nature, must be atoned for by sacrifice. Therefore, if humanity is to be redeemed there must be a penal substitute if we are to avoid the punishment our sin invites. Into this world, God sent Jesus Christ to be the sacrifice that would take on our sins (Isa 53, cf. Lev 16:21-22 to view the substitution in practice.) Only the appropriate sacrifice is acceptable to the Holy demands of justice and Christ alone fulfills that requirement (Rom 3:25-26) and removes the curse of sin (Gal 3:10-14). Through His sacrifice believers are redeemed (Mk 10:45).


Penal substitution does not represent all that needs to be said about atonement but it is often seen as the foundation of all other theories of atonement because it focuses its attention Godward. It seeks to explain how human beings are reconciled to God and the reasons for the initial discord. God is holy and righteous and must judge the rebellion of those who sin against His Lordship. His love desires to redeem them but his justice requires payment of the appropriate penalty. Christ is the only appropriate substitute unless we are to stand for judgment on our own merits.

Atonement – The Greatest Human Need


“But how can a mortal be righteous before God?” Job 9:2

“The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith. Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.” Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament

For many, bringing up the doctrine of atonement leads to a discussion of whether or not its scope is limited or unlimited. Atonement as a theological topic often ends there, though occasionally the mention of alternative view leads to a vehement exhortation that penal substitution is the only acceptable view on the matter. For something so critical to the Christian life, there is scant consideration of the depth and breadth of views on how and why Christ performed this sacrificial task on our behalf.

My next set of doctrinal posts are going to explore the wide range of views that the Church has held at various times in its history on the doctrine of atonement. Many people will discover that there numerous ways that Christians have understood atonement beyond the most commonly expressed view of Evangelicals, penal substitution. It is important to keep in mind that the various emphases and approaches to understanding atonement may differ on their constructions they all come to the same conclusion: the work of Jesus Christ on the cross reconciled a sinful people and a holy God.

Atonement, in all of its theories and views, is specifically the reconciliation with God over the problem of sin. 1 John 2:1-2 summarize the idea well:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

As reconciled people we are at peace with God rather than continuing to be His enemies. Christ’s death has removed the enmity between us and has appeased the wrath of God. The propitiation full satisfied every one of the righteous demands of God, a necessary transaction as His holiness does not allow God to simply overlook our sin. As redeemed humans, Christ has purchased us out of bondage to sin and we become His servants. His sacrifice was the act that allowed us to be declared righteous, pardoning us and ending our separation from God. As John Wesley wrote, “Nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of atonement.”


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