The Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement a necessary conclusion of Scripture? Does the reading of the Old Testament and the interpretation given by the New Testament bring us to this conclusion? And how does this doctrine to be understood theologically? At the ETS in 2018, William Lane Craig gave a lecture in defense of penal substitutionary atonement. The doctrine of the atonement is one of the most important doctrines in Christian theology. At the heart of this doctrine is the understanding about what happened on the Cross and what happened to those who believe in Christ because of the Cross. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is also one of the important doctrines that distinguish Reformed theology.

When we consider this doctrine we should consider what Luis Berkhof stresses. First, the atonement is objective. Secondly, it is a vicarious atonement. Thirdly, it includes Christ’s active and passive obedience.

Penal Substitution can be defined in one way as Craig helpfully summarized in his lecture,

“Christ voluntarily took upon himself the suffering that we deserved as punishment for our sins thereby releasing us from our liability from punishment.”

There are a number of ways to interact with the various atonement theories (Moral Influence, Example, Governmental, Mystical, Vicarious Repentance, etc.) But in this post I only want to bring a simple Biblical text to view and then summarize how we can interpret what the Bible is telling us about the event of the Cross.

Probably one of the clearest passages that teach about Messiah punished on behalf of his people is found in Isaiah 53. In this chapter we can observe rather easily, the sufferings, of the Messiah are considered to be substitutionally for others.

  • Is. 53:5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;  upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
  • Is. 53:6 …and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
  • Is. 53:8 …stricken for the transgression of my people?
  • Is. 53:10 Yetit was the will of the LORD to crush him;
  • Is. 53:12 … yet he bore the sin of many

Craig, citing and agreeing with other scholars, rightly states that,

Substitutionary punishment is expressed several times in this passage and should undoubtedly be seen as its dominant and central theme.

And when we look to the New Testament, we learn from that the apostolic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was pointing to and being fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus.

  • 1Pet. 2:23  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten,  but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
  • 1Pet. 2:24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.By his wounds you have been healed.

We can think about this theologically with the help of Berkhof. First we observe that the atonement is objective. In other words, the atonement is to satisfy the one who has been offended and not the offender. We rightly understand that Christ satisfies God and as a result God has been reconciled to the sinner. Scripture does speak about sinners being reconciled to God,

Rom. 5:10 For if  while we were enemies  we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by  his life.

But we should be clear on what we mean. We weren’t reconciled to God because God did something to satisfy us rather God has provided a means by which God can be satisfied. God has been reconciled and justifies the sinner who accepts the reconciliation, and by the work of the Holy Spirit repents of their sin and trust wholly on the perfect work of Christ.

Because the atonement is objective and accomplished by Christ, the church now has the duty and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to the world. So that sinners would respond in repentance and faith. But this response is secondary and only possible because God has first been satisfied, and this is key.

Secondly it is a vicarious atonement. We understand that in Adam we have all sinned. And as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states in question 17, “the fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.” And in this estate we are unable to repay God, we can only suffer for our sin, which is the penalty for sin. And if God only possessed strict justice and had no love for us, this is what would happen. We would be in a place of inability liable to a holy God. Yet God’s kindness is shown in appointing his Son to take our place. He atones for sin and obtains redemption for all of his people. In this regard, Berkhof highlights a few things.

  1. The atonement is personal because the sinner has an atonement to provide. Yet it is vicarious because it has been provided by God who was offended. 
  2. Mercy is shown in the vicarious aspect of the atonement, whereas if it was exclusively the personal atonement of the sinner to God, there would be no mercy.
  3. If atonement were only provided by the sinner, this personal atonement would take forever and would never accomplish redemption. But as the atonement is vicarious, it is leading to reconciliation and eternal life.

Thirdly it includes Christ’s active and passive obedience. We often speak about the difference between the active and passive obedience of Christ. Yet in speaking about these different types of obedience we must be careful to never separate them. They are present throughout the life of Jesus and it isn’t that one is primary and the other subordinate. In his active obedience, Christ subjects himself to the penalty of the Cross as we are told in John

John 10:18  No one takes it from me, but  I lay it down  of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and  I have authority to take it up again.  This charge I have received from my Father.”

The life of Jesus was the life of a servant. He does not come in judgment, because we are already judged, but he comes in the form of a lowly servant. He comes washing the feet of disciples, healing diseases and setting the captives free. His active and passive obedience are part of what he was doing throughout his earthly ministry. Through the active and passive obedience of Christ we have his righteousness and his satisfactory work that paid for the penalty of our sin. Thus it is in the active and passive obedience of Christ that we have the merit for the forgiveness of sin, acceptance with God, adoption as children and eternal life.

The initial question was asked, “If the doctrine of penal substitution was necessary?” The answer has to be without question , “yes.” It was foretold in the prophets and also in the law. It was hinted at in the garden of Eden and given in the garden of Gethsemane. Finally on Calvary we have the fulfillment of what we looked for as a human race since the fall, reconciliation and communion with God forever.