Does Atonement Require Payment, Penalty, or Punishment?

Does Atonement Require Payment, Penalty, or Punishment? March 21, 2023

Few things muddle the doctrine of atonement more than when we mix biblical metaphors. One common way people do this is by interchanging terms like payment, penalty, and punishment.

These terms are not synonymous.

To illustrate what I mean, today’s post adapts an excerpt from The Cross in Context. I offer a more robust biblical argument in the book.

(FYI: My first post explains the meaning of atonement. My second post considered a surprisingly common element to atoning sacrifices.)

When Payments Aren’t Punishments

Greg worked in a church for a long time, becoming one of its most senior leaders. His tenure and position gave him many opportunities, including the chance to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church. Before his case went to court, he worked tirelessly but couldn’t gather enough money to repay his debt. Finally, a judge gave him a long prison sentence with little chance of parole. Greg was separated from his wife and kids. He lost numerous friends. But he gained an orange prison suit and massive debt. As an inmate, he earned less than a dollar per hour at his prison job.

His former church insisted on full repayment. Until they received every dime, they wouldn’t petition the judge on his behalf. Just weeks before Greg’s first parole hearing, a friend offered to pay the balance that Greg still owed the church. With his debt paid, the church agreed not to stand in the way. He was released from prison and reunited with his family.

His family friend generously relieved Greg of a heavy burden, a consequence of several years of sin. How did this burden get lifted? Greg’s friend did not take his place in prison. A felony charge was not placed on the friend’s permanent record rather than on Greg’s. This friend simply paid the debt that had led to punishment. When that was paid, Greg was freed.

Distinguishing payment, penalty, and punishment

In my retelling of Greg’s story, the metaphorical distinctions are sufficiently clear. His debt is a burden, but his time in prison is a punishment. Unfortunately, popular theology frequently confuses concepts like payment, penalty, and punishment.

For instance, one hears, “Christ paid our debt,” which is then explained as Christ being punished in our place. This way of speaking scrambles the biblical imagery. The figure below depicts the relationship between three key terms. The word penalty is ambiguous. It can be understood either as a payment or punishment.

The Bible routinely differentiates payment from punishment. People who can’t pay their debt to God will suffer punishment (e.g., slavery, shame, death). This basic distinction between payment and punishment is fundamental to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 18:25,

And, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.

Biblical writers readily make use of these metaphors. In the Old Testament, God’s people are sold into slavery due to sin (see Isaiah 50:1). Paul uses a similar word picture in Romans 7:14 (cf. 6:16-19).

No wonder God’s people make “payments” (i.e., make reparation, fulfill their debt) to avoid a plague. For example, in Exodus 30:12,

When you take the census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. (cf. Hos 13:14; Num 8:19; 16:46-47).

The way biblical writers speak of ransom or restitution payments suggests the need for rethinking our own manner of speaking. Perhaps an additional distinction is needed. If these payments are not punishments, as we’ve seen, what are they?

It seems these payments serve more like penalties than punishment.

By analogy, they’re more like fines and restitution payments than imprisonment or corporal punishment. In this way, the requisite offerings are penalties, which people are obligated to pay as a result of impurity or sin. Without paying the penalty (i.e., payment), they incur punishment.

Christ’s Atonement: A Payment, Penalty, and Punishment?

Is Christ’s atonement a payment, penalty, and punishment? Yes, yes, and yes, but not in the same way. I dedicate much of two chapters (in The Cross in Context) to answering this question more fully. For now, I’ll close with a few thoughts and a story.

By distinguishing penalty from punishment (as we do above), we begin to see how Christ acts as a penal substitute yet without necessarily implying that God the Father punishes Christ the Son. He is a penal substitute at least in this sense: Christ pays the penalty (i.e., restitution) required as a consequence of sin. In making this payment, he acts as a substitute in our place.

As a penal substitute, he appeases God’s wrath. Thus, the repentant, Christ-follower no longer warrants punishment. Penal here need not imply that God punishes Christ rather than sinners. I do a deep dive on this point in Chapter 9 and Appendix B.

A Closing Illustration

The day finally came for my two friends to get married. Decorations welcomed guests, who were arriving early at the wedding venue. To the surprise of the groom, the hour had also come to pay the rest of the rental fee to the facility manager. My friend thought that he already paid the money; instead, he had only given a down payment. Now, the manager threatened to shut down the wedding.

My friend went into full panic mode, knowing he didn’t have that money readily available. He insisted that he already paid the full amount due but didn’t have a receipt to prove it. Now he would pay the penalty, either for not paying the bill previously or for losing the receipt. While he scrambled to come up with a solution, several groomsmen met with the manager. They pitched in to pay the bill, putting the charge on one of their credit cards. The wedding was saved.

My friend had a financial obligation. The consequence (punishment) for not paying his debt was significant— no wedding, public shame, and the loss of funds already spent. However, because the required payment was made, he did not incur the painful consequence that would otherwise follow.

This story from my friend’s wedding day is an imperfect analogy. Still, it can help readers begin to discern how one might distinguish payment, penalty, and punishment in the context of atonement.


This post adapts select paragraphs from The Cross in Context, especially pp. 144-45.

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