Why I Am Not a Fan of Penal Substitution

Atonement theories are a hot topic for debate. In some circles a particular view of the atonement is a shiboleth for orthodoxy. In a few extreme cases, a particular view of atonement has become conflated with the Gospel itself (to understand the difference between atonement and the Gospel see here). Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory is a particular view of how Jesus’ crucifixion deals with human sin, which has adamant supporters, and very vocal critics. In some circles, to reject, or even challenge penal substitution is to reject Christian orthodoxy. Obviously not all PSA advocates take such an extreme view, and I certainly don’t want to attack the whole of those who hold this view because of the wrong-headedness of some of its advocates. But I do want to engage critically with a view which is common in my “tribe” (both specifically Canadian Baptists, but also more broadly, those who identify as “evangelical”- a term with complicated associations and debated relevance).

I am not a fan of the penal substitution theory. But I need to clarify what I mean by that. This isn’t to say that I believe it’s unbiblical. A case can be made from a few passages. However, I would say that PSA cannot claim exclusivity, or even predominance, and I see a lot of tensions coming from how PSA is used and articulated by some. PSA as it was initially understood can be helpful, but cannot hold absolute sole place, or primary place in our soteriology. While his critique of modern usage of PSA doesn’t go far enough in my mind, Patrick Franklin provides this helpful warning:

penal substitution is a legitimate and relevant representation of the biblical doctrine of atonement. The problem with this metaphor is not primarily its formulation (although certain qualifications need to be made), but its application. In particular, problems arise when the penal substitution metaphor is viewed in isolation from other atonement metaphors, when it becomes a dominant or controlling metanarrative, or when it is converted mechanistically into a methodology for evangelism.[1]

PSA can be helpful in articulating a particular facet of soteriology, but it ought not become definitive of the Gospel proclamation (since it’s completely absent from the proclamation of the Gospel recorded in Acts), or even the doctrine of atonement. It is one “metaphor” of atonement, but is it the only, or even the central one? No. It is, in my opinion, a footnote in the biblical depiction of atonement.

Like all metaphors, PSA can be pushed too far, and clear problems emerge. When expressed in its best ways, by its best advocates it can be relevant tool (or to use the analogy in McKnight’s lecture on atonement linked to above, it can be one golf club in our bag), but it cannot be imposed on everything as some have done. As the cliche goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. PSA is often read into not out of texts.

The reason I say this is because within popular articulations of PSA the inherent limitations of even the best arguments become more clear. So as I critique, it can easily be argued by those who disagree with me that I’m attacking the weakest versions of PSA not their best. That is not my intention. Instead I am warning what can happen when PSA is worked out as the sole or primary atonement theory, and the defining hermeneutical lens for reading all salvation texts.

Personally, I find the Christus Victor (CV) atonement theory (especially as expressed in the thought of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen and others) to be far more convincing (which isn’t to say it’s the only or even the best theory, but simply that it makes sense of a large bulk of the relevant soteriological texts, particularly the Pauline ones; e.g. Rom. 3-8, Phil. 2:5-9, Eph. 2, Col. 1, 1 Cor. 15). I am also quite intrigued by the work of Michael Gorman on this front. His recent book on atonement, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant focuses on the covenantal notions, and his Inhabiting the Cruciform God touches on atonement theory stuff among other things, arguing for a participation/union New Covenantal form of atonement, which I think has a lot going for it. I’d also note the cosmic reconciliation view of J.R. Daniel Kirk who tweeks CV to tidy up some issues and expand it’s scope. Athanasius, one of the most important theologians of the early church, argues that in the incarnation Christ and humanity are brought together, as Christ as fully God and fully man participates in and possesses both divinity and humanity (the hypostatic union). In the person of Christ as representative, the sinful human nature is put to death, nullifying the powers (sin, evil, death, Satan) which enslave humanity, and the impassible God enters death and thus dispels death as light introduced to a dark room dispels the darkness. As Christ is raised from death, all powers, even death itself are subject to his victory. Thus, sin is expiated and the Spirit pours into us so that the sin nature might be healed. The CV view, as expressed by Athanasius and others focuses not as much on the penalty for sin, but the condition of enslavement to sin and its consequence, namely death. We are not just declared righteous because our penalty has been meted out on a substitute, but we become his righteousness by participating in, and being united to the Righteous One (2 Cor. 5:21).

In PSA, there is a heavy focus on the penalty for sin. We, as sinful people, are under condemnation and wrath because we have sinned against God. We deserve punishment. That penalty must be paid in full or we remain under God’s condemnation. On the cross, our sin is imputed onto Christ as our substitute, who suffers our punishment, bearing the judgment and wrath of God. We are declared “not guilty” because Christ has borne our penalty in himself. God’s wrath is satisfied because the punishment has been poured out.

No advocate of CV denies we are under condemnation because of sin (Romans 3 & 8:1-4). We are guilty. However, when I read the New Testament, the problem I see jumping off the page is that man is “subjected to futility” along with the creation because sin has usurped God’s reign, and is destroying God’s good creation. Humanity was made in God’s image but live according to sin not according to the likeness. Atonement, therefore, has to do with restoring and healing the image of God to humanity, and reconciling us to God (2 Cor. 5:18-19). When Jesus speaks of the meaning of his death, he does so in the language of “ransom” (Mark 10:45)- that is a price paid to liberate someone from enslavement.

This is the assumption I work from, but I am open to be led by the text where it is trying to get me. But, as I read PSA arguments, I get the sense that God’s great act in the Christ event is described in a truncated, and, I believe, problematic way. What follows is meant to summarize some of the problems in a very non-comprehensive way.

What are we Saved From?

In the Christus Victor view, sin entangles us, enslaves us, and reigns over us, but Christ’s death and resurrection breaks the power of sin, and places all things under Christ’s reign (see esp. 1 Cor. 15, Eph. 1-2). In the PSA view, Christ pays the penalty for our sin. Our sin is imputed to Jesus, so that the wrath of God and condemnation against sin falls on Jesus on the cross. This seems to suggest that Christ, who is fully God, is receiving the redirected wrath of God onto himself. This means that (and I admit that this is an oversimplified caricature, but still in an important sense reveals an important issue) in essence, God is saving us from God by an internal transaction within the Trinity. He wants us as his people, but he requires blood. He can’t forgive or release or save people without pouring out wrath on someone. The “debt” has to be paid from somewhere or else his wrath won’t ever go away. God’s love is pitted against his wrath. While PSA rightly articulated does not fit the common accusation that the Father is a “cosmic child abuser” who violently punishes either us, or Jesus in our place, that exaggerated accusation is a caricature of a very real tension in PSA. God kills Jesus to appease his wrath and meet his legal requirements. The death of Jesus is necessary to change God’s disposition towards humanity, rather than an act which demonstrates or embodies God’s loving disposition towards humanity (see Romans 5).

If we dig into soteriological passages, particularly in Paul, we see far bigger things to salvation than a transfer of guilt to Jesus, who is crushed by the Father’s wrath (Calvin certainly saw this, and articulated an incredible understanding of union with Christ, while still presenting PSA as one part of the ordo salutis, but many of those who claim the mantle of the calvinist tradition have reduced his soteriology considerably). E.P. Sanders, Michael Gorman, Daniel Kirk and others have noted how many soteriological texts focus on this idea of participation. That Christ’s death for all (2 Cor. 5:14) invites all to participate in that death, so that our sin nature may die, and we live now in Christ, and live in hope and confidence we will participate in Christ’s resurrection, and be raised with Christ (see for e.g. Rom. 8:9-11, Gal. 2:19-20, Phil. 3:7-11).[2]

Dependence on a Particular Understanding of hilasterion

PSA advocates often put a large emphasis on Romans 3:25, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (NIV). The phrase “a sacrifice of atonement” is the key here. In Greek it is hilasterion, which is a tricky word. In other translations (e.g. KJV, ESV) it is translated as “a propitiation”. The best translation is still somewhat debated (hence the NIV, NRSV leaving it somewhat ambiguously as “a sacrifice of atonement” without further specification). In classic Greek literature hilasterion often refers to a sacrifice offered to cover the person(s) from the wrath of the deity, to hide/cover their sin(s), or to placate an angry god (that is, to “propitiate”). The verb form is hilaskomai which typically in the LXX means to have mercy on, to pardon, or to forgive. So it is certainly possible to read Romans 3:25 in a different way. In reading Jesus as a propitiation, it is said Jesus has died in sinners’ place, in order that those covered by his death would not receive the wrath and penalty due to them, which has instead been received by Christ on the cross. This is one possible reading of hilasterion. But it is a poor one for this context. The other option fits the context better.

In Romans 3, it is God who presents the hilasterion. Thus, God is the subject. In a propitiation, like the one suggested by PSA advocates, the sacrifice is offered by the sinner to the angered/offended deity. The person who needs propitiation presents something of cost to him/herself (thus the deity is the object of the hilasterion and one seeking to placate is the subject). In Romans 3:25 the roles are reversed. God presents Jesus as the hilasterion, without an object specified; to whom is the offering given? By offering/presenting Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, God is somehow doing something to deal with our sin, but how is that working? Is this God offering Christ to appease his own wrath, making God both subject and object? This would seem very strange indeed. This means that it is God who kills Jesus on the cross (or at least who hands him over to execution) to avert his own rage against mankind’s sin which forced God to bring about the execution of his own Son. And somehow this satisfies God’s wrath, and reveals his justice/righteousness?

This is part of the reason the translation of hilasterion as propitiation is much debated. Is God trying to avoid inflicting his wrath on humanity by performing a transaction within the godhead to placate his own wrath? In the early Church, it was not read that way- nor could it be read that way given their understanding of the Trinity. It was read not as propitiation, but an act of compassion and mercy and love (again, see Romans 5); of removal of the sin nature and healing of sinful mankind. In some Eastern Orthodox theology, the term expiation (God performing a sacrifice so that our sin is removed and we are healed, thus God is subject and the object is left somewhat unclear) is preferred (in some cases, folks aren’t even completely comfortable with that). In this sense, the cross becomes an altar where the sacrifice is killed, not to placate a vengeful deity, but as facilitating a liturgical act, into which we are invited to participate and receive healing and reconciliation. This is not without problems, but makes better sense of the Old Testament imagery which Paul is steeped in. Because, when we approach hilasterion, we must remember that Paul is not a classical Greek thinker, but a Jewish one. Although certainly familiar with Hellenistic culture, and swimming in that cultural pool, Paul is steeped in the Jewish tradition, and the literature which defines his terminology is primarily the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint.

The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) used the Greek word hilasterion to depict God’s act or place of mercy, and more specifically, frequently it was used in the way it is used in Hebrews 9:5 (the only other place hilasterion is used in that form in the New Testament; the related word hilasmos is used twice in 1 John 2:2 & 4:10). There hilasterion refers to “the mercy seat”, the lid of the ark where the blood of the sacrifices on Yom Kippor are sprinkled, where God and man meet and are reconciled. Should we understand hilasterion in the way it is used in classical pagan Greek texts, or the way it used in the Septuagint and the only other place it is used in the New Testament? Maybe Paul is using hilasterion to mean propitiation. But that seems highly unlikely. It makes more sense to conclude otherwise. But if Paul is using hilasterion the way the translators of the Septuagint do, Christ’s death cannot be understood to be a sacrifice of propitiation (at least not in Romans 3:25).

This brings us to another important point.

Confusion of the Old Testament Imagery of Sacrifice

Often, PSA advocates draw attention to the Old Testament sacrificial system to explain how Jesus dies in a substitutionary way, dying vicariously having taken on himself the penalty and guilt of sin. But, in many cases there has been a bit of a bumbling of the imagery from the Old Testament sacrificial system.

Jesus is described as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Does this point to penal substitution? Is Jesus a substitution bearing the guilt of humanity and thus the “Lamb of God”? Well, no. For more than one reason, this is a problematic reading of that epithet. First, lambs are not used as atoning sacrifices or sin offerings. Goats and bulls were the prescribed offering for sin. The sacrifice of lambs were used for liturgical acts which had nothing to do with atonement. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippor) the atonement liturgy uses two goats. Onto one, the priests would lay hands, and symbolically “transfer” the guilt of all of Israel. But that goat who bore the sins of Israel was released into the wilderness (Lev. 16:1-22). Sin is not brutally punished in the substitute. It was the other, spotless, unblemished animal which was killed and had it’s blood sprinkled on the mercy seat (hilasterion in Hebrews 9:5). Above the ark is where God’s glory was said to dwell. The blood which was presented to God there was not the blood of the one onto whom the sin was laid. The blood presented in the holy of holies was from an offering without blemish.

That place of meeting with God, the hilasterion, is not hidden behind the curtain in the holy of holies anymore, but was displayed in public view as Jesus was crucified. The hilasterion, the place of God and man meeting in reconciliation, is no longer the lid of the ark, but the Lamb, looking as if slain, but who is the Lion of Judah who has triumphed over death and sin, which is now cast out to perish in the wilderness (Rev. 5).

More broadly, what is the purpose of sacrifice in the Old Testament? When sacrifices are offered, is it an animal dying in place of the person offering it? In other words, is it propitiatory? Sacrifice has multiple forms and purposes, but propitiating is actually not part of that. Eastern Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon argues:

in those places where Holy Scripture does speak of propitiating the anger of God, this propitiation is never linked to blood sacrifice. When biblical men are said to soften the divine wrath, it is done with prayer, as in the case of Moses on Mount Sinai, or by the offering of incense, which symbolizes prayer. Because blood sacrifice and the wrath of God are two things the Bible never joins together, I submit that authentic Christian theology should also endeavor to keep them apart.[3]

In other words, God’s wrath against sins is not assuaged by the blood of substitutes (see for e.g. Psalm 51, Hos. 6:6). Forgiveness of sins is not achieved through sacrifice, but is offered to those who belong to him in covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34). A few quick thoughts from N.T. Wright in this video are helpful on this front. This of course leads to the next point.

The Problem of Forgiveness

The New Testament tells us that by the blood of Christ, our sins can be forgiven. If our punishment/debt is paid, forgiveness is no longer required. In the Christus Victor view, Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection defeats the power of sin, and the Father’s forgiveness is able to do its work in us, releasing us from the guilt of past sin. In PSA, forgiveness becomes something which looks quite strange. In PSA our sin was imputed onto Jesus and the punishment was poured out in fullness on Jesus as he suffered on the cross. The punishment due, the debt owed, is provided for. Thus, our sin has been dealt with, the punishment meted out, penalty paid. So how can we say God forgave sin? If the penalty has been paid, there is nothing to forgive.

Let me use an analogy; on several occasions now, I have “purchased” a new vehicle. By “purchased” I mean I borrowed from a bank, and over the next several years paid that money back. I incurred a debt and made payments to bring that debt to an end. Now, if someone else were to give to the bank what I owe, my debt would be paid in full. If I were to claim the bank “forgave” my debt, I would be misspeaking. The bank forgave nothing. They received exactly what was due, just from another source. If Christ’s death pays the penalty for sin, my debt is paid, and need not be forgiven. To forgive is to loose or release. It recognizes the debt and/or penalty is outstanding, but will be erased with no further obligation. The Hebrew word kipper means to cover over. God covers over our sin, wipes it away, disposes of it.

Consider Mark 2:1-12. In this pericope, a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus, but the crowds prevent the man’s friends from getting to Jesus, so they make an opening in the roof (vandalizing personal property! Gasp!) and lower their friend in front of Jesus. Jesus, admiring the dedication decides to heal the man. 2:5 is the key: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'” This man is released from his sin. His guilt is declared gone. He will not bear punishment for his sin. No propitiation has been offered. No penalty paid. No blood shed. The debt is simply cancelled. God is perfectly capable, and willing to forgive past sins (see also Luke 7:36-50). To insist that God cannot forgive sin without consequence is to put restrictions on God which the text of Scripture doesn’t.

The notion that God cannot tolerate sin to remain in his presence is an odd assertion, since all things are in his presence, and is based on one text, Hab. 1:13, in which Habakkuk prays that God can’t look upon sin, but God never affirms Habakkuk’s assertion. Jesus intentionally sought out sinners and had fellowship with them. Yes, he challenges sinners to leave their sin. But we really need to be careful not to push beyond the text. We must remember that when Jeremiah describes the new covenant he declares that all will have personal knowledge of God, God will write the Torah on their hearts, and they will be his people, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer. 31:34) The realities of the new covenant are available because sins are forgiven. No mention is made of substitutionary atonement or some mechanism required for forgiveness to take place.

At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup, and declared “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25). Forgiveness of sin is declared by Jeremiah to come as God initiates a new covenant. Blood was used as the seal of the new covenant. In a mirrored fashion, in Exodus 24, the covenant with Israel is confirmed;

Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Notice a few things: a) the bulls are sacrificed as fellowship offerings, not meant for propitiation; b) it marks the people as belonging to the covenant, thus Jesus’ blood is meant to declare the person as belonging to God’s forgiven people; c) half the blood is splashed on the altar (which needs no propitiation certainly), thus designating this act as a liturgical act. Liturgical acts (sacrifice in the OT, baptism, eucharist, and the “sacrifice of praise” in the new) draw us into participation in spiritual realities. In baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). In the eucharist, we participate in Christ’s body (1 Cor. 10:16). And we participate in covenant.

The Depiction of God as Bloodthirsty

In Paul’s thought, the sinful nature seems to be a much bigger concern for Paul than the wrath against individual misdeeds. It is the sin which dwells in us which places us under condemnation. This isn’t to reduce the seriousness of sins, but to realize their source. We need transformation not propitiation. When our focus is directed at the sins committed in our past which require  severe punishment, either to us, or Christ as our substitute, the picture of God can become skewed, making God look more like a shrewd debt collector, or bloodthirsty tyrant than a compassionate father.

As I read arguments for PSA, however graciously worded, I can’t help but ask, what kind of God demands blood as the only means of making things right? Is this what God the Father does? Does the God who died for his enemies do so because his wrath is such that someone must die? Does God look at humanity with such fury that he has to inflict suffering and pain and shed blood, and he is no longer concerned whose blood and will accept the blood of his own, innocent Son as satisfaction for the requirements of justice?

Jesus’ death is meant to be the outworking of God’s justice (Romans 3:25). But is it justice if an innocent man dies for the sins of others? Most PSA advocates will say that Christ, as fully God, is setting himself in our place as an act of mercy. But why has the Father so arranged things that such a situation is required? Why has God bound himself to needing bloodshed? Is this a God who can properly be called benevolent?

The focus on the Crucifixion to the degradation of the Resurrection

PSA focuses on the cross. This is not entirely problematic, unless the adherence to PSA leads one to play up the penalty being paid on the cross to such an extent that the incarnation and resurrection are played down. When we look to the Gospel summation texts (e.g. Acts 2:14-36, Romans 1:1-6, 1 Cor. 15:1-8, 2 Tim. 2:8) the resurrection is not just there, but I would argue is the focal point. It is Jesus’ resurrection which makes our redemption from sin possible (1 Cor. 15:17-20). If our soteriology, and our Gospel proclamation is cut off at the point of Christ’s death, our soteriology is incomplete. While I don’t think any responsible advocate of PSA would declare the resurrection irrelevant or unimportant, in the preaching and writing of some PSA minded folks, the resurrection takes a back seat. For instance, in Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel (an unashamedly pro-PSA book), in the chapter on Christ, the resurrection is not mentioned at all. Salvation, and the Gospel, is made up of Christ being the one who receives in himself the full wrath and punishment of God on the cross. Any temptation to do this must be resisted.

The Problem of Historical Theology

What many people forget is that PSA, as it is typically presented in evangelical circles, is a relative newcomer in the historical discussion of atonement. It was not until the Reformation that the Church began to think in this way. While we obviously appeal to Scripture and not tradition as the authority, and I hold to more than one doctrine which is not the majority opinion in tradition (e.g. believer’s baptism and conditional immortality) in those cases, there is considerable evidence of those views in the Early Church Fathers. With PSA there are few signs of it being developped into a full model of atonement before the 16th century. There are references to satisfying the demands of the law in the work Tertullian, Augustine, and Gregory the Great which may be precursors for PSA, and of course PSA owes much to Anselm’s notion of satisfaction. But the language usually cited as evidence of PSA in the Fathers is cherry-picked sentences which don’t actually show a developped understanding of PSA. It seems to me, that the rise of PSA is heavily influenced by the shifting of eras in Western Europe, away from feudal hierarchies towards constitution based law. After all, the Eastern Orthodox Church never adopted PSA, with many of its adherents under Ottoman or Imperial Russian rule while the Reformation was taking place in Western Europe. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most important advocate for a fully developped penal view of atonement which focuses on legalpenal, forensic language was, prior to becoming a preacher and theologian, a practicing lawyer. In much the same way that many have critiqued Anselm’s satisfaction theory as being rooted in the assumptions of medieval feudalism, it may be worth our while to further investigate the connections between the rise of early modern constitutionalism as well as Calvin’s legal background as formative on PSA.

Tensions Created for Systematic Theology

PSA creates some problems for systematic theology, as it creates some strange dynamics within the Trinity. How does the Father’s wrath and Son’s death relate to one another? How can the Father killing the Son, who shares his own nature, appease wrath? The righteousness of the Son imputed to the believer is said to create a situation in which the Father looks upon us and sees his Son’s righteousness. So has the Father worked with the Son to create a means of self-deception?

Further, if Jesus’ death pays the penalty for sin- in other words Jesus receives the full punishment we deserve- and in the mind of most PSA advocates (but not all), the final punishment for our sin will be eternal torment, how can that be? Jesus suffered for a limited time, and died for our sins. If our sin will lead to an eternity in hell, then Jesus did not receive the penalty we are to receive, because he did not spend an eternity in torment in hell. And if it is Jesus’ death which pays the penalty, then the penalty must be death, not torment. Of course, the notion of eternal conscious torment in hell is one I reject. But in my opinion, PSA is incompatible with any notion of eternal torment. That tension is somewhat smoothed over if one embraces the conditional immortality view of final punishment, because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).


PSA has it’s place. The notion that Christ received in himself the punishment for sin is one metaphor used by the New Testament authors to convey some sense of what Christ’s death means (e.g. Rom. 8:1-4). Jesus in a very real sense “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). He certainly shared in our lot, represents us in death, which comes as a result of sin. Yes, I affirm this. But, is it propitiation? Do the New Testament authors speak in this way? Or, are PSA readings the result of PSA being assumed before reading the text? The same could be asked of all doctrines. Do we allow the meaning to come out of the text, or do we find confirmation of our preconceived notions because we’ve read the text through a PSA filter?

Even if PSA can be drawn from a handful of verses, should it become our guiding hermeneutical principle, and our Gospel proclamation? I would argue no. PSA has significant limitations, especially when it becomes too big and too central. We need a more expansive and rounded view of atonement, justification, salvation, and union with Christ. I like Christus Victor, but not in a rigid, dogmatic way. I think it captures a broader vision of what God has accomplished in Christ, but even that view is still limited in some ways. As we read the broad sweep of Scripture we see a description of humanity created in God’s image, corrupted by sin, and in need of healing, deliverance, forgiveness, and resurrection. This has come to us in Christ.



[1] Patrick Franklin.”Penal Substitution in Perspective. MJTM, 10 (2008) 22.

[2] See for e.g. E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977. 463-468; Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform GodKenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 49-69.

[3] Patrick Reardon. “Expiation, Blood and Atonement”. Journey to Orthodoxy. (blog) June 5, 2010. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2015.



Greg Boyd. “The Christus Victor View of the Atonement” ReKnew (blog). Jan. 8, 2008.

— “The Penal Substitution Atonement”

Bruxy Cavey. “We Believe, Episode 5: Soteriology 1” Sermon, The Meeting House, Oakville, ON. July 6, 2014.

Patrick Franklin.”Penal Substitution in Perspective. MJTM, 10 (2008).

Michael J. Gorman. The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement. Eugene: Cascade, 2014.

— Inhabiting the Cruciform GodKenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Stanley Grenz. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994.

J.R. Daniel Kirk. “Cosmic Reconciliation” (lecture). Fuller Seminary, What Did Jesus Do?: The Atonement Symposium. November 7, 2012.

— Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Scot McKnight. “Gospel and Atonement” (lecture). Fuller Seminary, What Did Jesus Do?: The Atonement Symposium. November 7, 2012.

— The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977.

John R.W. Stott. The Cross of Christ. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1986.

4 Comments on “Why I Am Not a Fan of Penal Substitution

  1. I thought this gave a fair and clear objection to giving undue primacy on penal subtitutionary atonement as well as being watchful for some of its most gross caricatures. Have you read this by Derek Rishmawy? I found this to be by far my favorite post on the beauty in PSA as well as distancing itself from some of the common issues you bring up here.


  2. Thanks Stephen. I have that post by Derek Rishmawy. I disagree on a few points, but overall he presents one of the better ways of viewing PSA. But he reads a lot of Vanhoozer who does a lot of integration of various atonement metaphors.

  3. Hi,

    Thank you so much for the insight!

    I am a Greek Cypriot from the island of Barnabas. I’m not affiliated to any specific religious group. My background is Greek orthodox and I came to know the Lord through a near death experience while studying for a master’s degree in Southampton, UK.

    I always had difficulties with PSA theory but counted on His grace to reveal to me the deeper mysteries while couching the typical backup story of the Judge who sentenced the lawbreaker to prison, only to step down and pay the penalty himself, in an attempt to explain both the notion and the applicability of how God is both just and loving. My journey for genuine truth kicked off the day I heartedly decided to strip off my maturity mantle, step way back and seek pure milk. At the end of the journey I came to realize that the theory or at least the perception of it had its own flaws.

    Christians agree that punishment of sin has already taken place through the consequence of humanity’s Fall that led to death. Once the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was consumed, man died that exact day (Gen 2v27), so did everything under his rule. The world died to God and lived in sin as sin entered through one man and all died. The death sentence, sometimes referred to as separation of man from God, was the inevitable outcome of man’s corruption and captivity in sin. In the spiritual realm, the penal demands of the law were met that same day man was cast out of the Garden of Eden.

    The concept of divine justice is best understood in God’s plan for man’s salvation, not of man’s judgment. This distinctive reality is fundamental for believers to acknowledge. The plan was conceived right there, in the Garden of Eden, the day sin entered man. God’s justice required that man not only be cast out of the Garden of Eden, for this is only the first part of the story, but more importantly to make it possible for him to return. The rest of the whole bible is dedicated on this hope. It’s only rational to imagine that man needed to be saved; be set free from what had enslaved and corrupted him at first place. God let man know this. He prophesied that Eve’s seed will crash the head of the prince of sin and then, in powerful symbolism, He illustrated the cleansing from sin through the covering of sinful flesh by a garment made of skin.

    Soon, prophesy was fulfilled. Jesus walked out of the “Garden of Eden”, clothed in our mortal humanity in the likeness of sinful flesh (Ro 8v3, Heb 2v14) and shared in our punishment as He entered our world ruled by evil, became vulnerable under the persistent abuse of the enemy and in the exposure of its insidious snares and endured the consequences of the Fall, even death. That was the only way to confront the enemy and strip off its power (Col 2v15), cleanse and set man free from the corruptive nature of sin and its mastermind– the father of lies- and bring peace through reconciling him back to God (Is 53v5).

    This being clarified, the problem with the mainstream theory is that God’s plan of Salvation is understood in terms of judgement being served through debt paid to God instead of through liberty from sin and death earned at a price. The primary focus of penal substitution theory tends to sidestep the essence of Jesus’ mission of atonement; to lay down His life so as to set the captives free and restore God’s kingship on earth, “His Kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This mission could only be accomplished once He became exposed under the buckshot of the exact same weapon the enemy used against Adam and Eve, only this time to obliterate its power.

    While He suffered in everything (Luke 24v26, Heb 5v8), was tempted in everything (Heb 2v18, 4v15) and at every opportune time (Luke 4v13). His unending ordeal, the cup He was to drink (Luke 22v43) served the divine purpose to ultimately trample over the enemy’s weapon – sin which begets death to men (I Co 15v55-56). He even took the enmity of man on his own flesh to the point of being disfigured and marred beyond human likeness (Is 53v54). While reviled did not revile in return, while suffered did not threaten, neither was deceit found in His mouth (I Pt 2v23). He overcame every trial and persecution and while resisting every temptation no matter the circumstance, became perfected (Heb 2v10, I Pt 2v22-24) as He was found, all the way to the end, without blemish or spot (I Pt 1v19, Heb 9v14).

    Being the Son of Man, He conquered sin which the apostle Peter describes “sting of death” when prompted to cry out “where death is your sting”. Death’s sting has indeed lost its dominion over men (Gal 5v24) so was death as Jesus disarmed the author of its power (I Co 15v54-57, Col 2v15), set man free (Heb 2v14) and bestowed God’s righteousness on him (Ro 3v22).

    It’s obvious that Jesus, by taking our humanity, inevitably bore the consequences of our sins and suffered the penal demands of the law as all men do. Once perfected through trials, persecutions and subsequent temptations while found to be without sin, he conquered both sin and death. His victory was bestowed in all men who received Him as their Savior.

    While to undermine the significance of God’s Justice and Holiness is wrong, the misconception that Jesus stepped in to sit on trial by God the Judge, being incriminated for man’s sin and to propose that this is why He offered His life in man’s place is equally erroneous. It implies that man was to be set free from God’s judgment and not from sin that brought about the judgment. Although is true that Jesus ultimately liberates man from God’s judgment, this being nonetheless the evident byproduct of sin’s power being trampled and death being conquered (Is 25v8, I Co 15v57).

    God’s forgiveness, made known through Jesus to all men and women, constitutes an integral part of divine justice. This aspect of critical importance is also frequently overlooked by most penal substitution theory advocates. The proposition that “divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice” is molded by man’s bent view of justice. It should rather read: “divine justice must satisfy divine forgiveness”. The prophet Isaiah comprehended this when affirmed that:
    “Because the Lord is a God of justice, He shall wait that He may be gracious to you and therefore He will be exalted that He may have mercy on you” (Is 30v18).

    God’s forgiving nature is an integral part of His unchanging nature. It’s mistaken to suggest that God is not able or willing to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction from it. The satisfying payment is God’s manifest forgiveness in the person and in the Life of His Son, offered unconditionally to all men but received conditional to man’s desire to accept it. God is satisfied in this because He is good and desires all men be saved (I Tim 2v4).

    God is both willing and able to forgive. It is man who is not willing or able to receive forgiveness. The problem is not that God’s forgiveness is contained for certainly isn’t but it is in man’s inability to repent so as to receive His forgiveness and walk free from the tentacles of sin. For this reason man is wretched as the apostle Paul neatly puts it forward:
    “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Ro 7v18-19).

    The Good News is that the manifest power of God’s love can change all that. Love made known to all men in the person of Jesus (Titus 3v4-5) who pleaded not for His life but for the life of such wretched men and asked His Father to forgive them while he had all power to step down from the Cross and save Himself. He chose instead to exchange man’s animosity with peace, man’s hatred with loving-kindness (Ro 2v4).

    Only such precedence of Love, being manifested in both the life and the sacrificial death of Jesus in such a profoundly overwhelming demonstration (1 John 4v9-10) and being extended to all men could touch the wretched sinner, pierce through the hardness of his heart, pave the way for genuine repentance and set him free (Ro 7v25).

    This is Justice in its totality; man is unjust, therefore dead but Jesus is just by way of overcoming sin unto death, therefore worthy in terms of sin being defeated and capable in terms of drawing the wretched man back to God.

    In conclusion, i believe that:

    1. Jesus sets the believers free from the penal demands of the law not because man is indebted to God but because the sinner is in bondage to sin, the sting of death.
    2. It is not forgiveness per se but the manifestation of forgiveness that necessitates payment and this is not because of God’s unwillingness or inability to extend it but of man’s to receive it. In other words, it is liberty, not forgiveness that demands payment or else forgiveness renders merited, even if payment is made by another.
    3. Forgiveness is indeed unmerited but made manifested to all men, at a price. The price is His precious flesh and blood, paid neither to God nor to the enemy but to the sinner. It is a gift to men and those who receive it are born into a new life.

    ”He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6v54).

  4. “For 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 righteous.” Rom. 2:13 I think you need to find the law Paul is referencing and obey it.

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