We all have assumptions when we read the Bible. When interpreting Scripture, the key for us is not getting rid of assumptions or biases; that’s impossible. Instead, we need to expose them so that we can intentionally examine them. Only then can we consciously accept what we’ve implicitly assumed.
Why mention this? Because certain assumptions continue to plague discussions about Christ’s atonement. Consider the following quotes, which are representative of popular views of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).
A Common Assumption of PSA Proponents
Each person attempts to explain why God’s justice demands that he punish all sin. Daniel Hyde asserts,
Because God cannot cease to be either merciful or just, His justice requires that each and every one of our sins we have committed against His infinite majesty be punished with temporal and eternal punishments of soul and body.
Stephen Wellum adds,
… God, who is the law, cannot overlook our sin. God’s holy justice demands that he not only punish all sin, but also, if he graciously chooses to justify the ungodly (Romans 4:5), he must do so by fully satisfying his own righteous, holy moral demand.
Many people share the view of John MacArthur who explains,
Penal substitution says God is so holy that every sin will be punished. Every single sin in the life of every Christian believer through all of human history was punished. All sin must be punished. Either the sinner will bear that punishment eternally, or Christ took that punishment on the cross. The only thing that protects the pure, righteous holiness of God is that sin is punished.
That’s penal substitution. If you remove that part of the cross, then how does God reconcile His holiness with wishing sin away without a punishment? There has to be a punishment for God to maintain His justice. That punishment falls on His Son.
Do you see the fatal assumption that underlies popular versions of PSA? Many people presume that God must punish every sin.
A Fatal Flaw in the Assumption
Let me say now that, yes, God does punish sin. God’s justice requires this (cf. Romans 3:5-7. However, how exactly he does so is often misunderstood.
1. A Philosophical or Biblical Assumption?
First, we should state out loud what should be obvious but isn’t to numerous people: The Bible never says that God’s justice demands that he punish every single sin. That might or might not be true, but we must be honest enough to admit what the Bible actually says (or does not say). That silence, of course, does not refute the claim that God’s justice demands that he punish every single sin.
I simply want us to own the fact that the Bible itself does not explicitly assert the point, and so we must test to confirm whether we’re justified in making the claim. Until it’s proven from Scripture, the assertion (“God’s justice demands that he punish every single sin”) is a philosophical assumption. With that, we’re ready for a second observation.
2. Two Types of Sin
A flawed supposition of much PSA thinking is buried in the phrase “every sin.” The problem is that we can speak of two types of sin. First, there are sins that God has forgiven. Second, there are sins that are not forgiven. Nothing profound here. So, what’s the problem?
Many proponents of penal substitutionary atonement assume God even punishes every sin that is forgiven.
Unless God punishes sin, they say, he can’t forgive sin. God only forgives those sins that he has punished. They then surmise that any sin that has been forgiven was already punished. Sin is forgiven because God punished people’s sins by punishing Jesus on the cross. In short, forgiveness and atonement (more broadly) necessitate punishment.
What does God punish?
Several passages demonstrate that atonement does not always require that people receive the death penalty as retribution. For example, check out Exodus 21:29-30; 32:30-32; Leviticus 5:11-13, 16; 10:17; Numbers 16:44-50; 31:48-51. Other texts outside the Pentateuch are also worth looking at (e.g., 2 Kings 12:16; Proverbs 6:34-35; 13:8). I do a deep dive on this point in The Cross in Context (chapters 8-9)
What is demanded? Some sort of payment. However, interpreters frequently overlook an important point; namely, ransom (or payment) and punishment are distinct ideas.
I’ll offer an example. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the story of an unforgiving servant. Concerning the servant, 18:25 says, “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.” Yet, the master shows him mercy. Still, the servant then ungraciously treated another man who owed a smaller debt. So, in 18:34-35, Jesus says,
“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Did you catch the connection? If the man pays his debt, the master will remove the punishment.
Unfortunately, people routinely conflate debt and punishment. They say Jesus paid our debt, but their meaning is Jesus paid our punishment. But again, this confuses the metaphors. Jesus distinguishes three ideas: anger, debt, and punishment. In his parable, paying a debt removes or alleviates a punishment.
It’s also worth noting that this metaphorical way of speaking applies even to our relationship with God. Debt precedes punishment. Therefore, paying the debt alleviates or removes wrath. Thus, we no longer suffer punishment.
What then do we conclude? Whereas PSA claims that punishment is the mechanism that secures God’s forgiveness, punishment, in fact, is the consequence of God not forgiving sin. (If you want more support for this conclusion, read chapter eight of The Cross in Context.)