Thoughts on Penal Substitution

Thoughts on Penal Substitution June 22, 2012

This post is by Morgan Guyton, and it has enough in it along our themes today to help our conversation along.

I’ve often wondered if the same thing that makes violent video games appealing is why young evangelical guys are so infatuated with penal substitution theology. I figure a scary bad-ass God is cool for the same reason that the loud wet smack of a linebacker knocking the wind out of a quarterback is cool (I was that linebacker once, believe it or not).

I recognize that some guys need to have a God who likes to say “RAWR!!!” but in their zeal over penal substitution, some cringe-worthy and not entirely Biblical assertions are being made. There is a theologically responsible account of penal substitution; it’s part of the mystery of the cross. But I wanted to examine four of the more obnoxious assertions that I’ve heard in what I would call popular penal substitution theology (in places like a recent Steven Furtick sermon I listened to).

1) God is allergic to sin

A pillar of popular penal substitution theology is that God cannot tolerate the presence of sin. I think it’s more accurate to say that sin cannot tolerate the presence of God. The consequence of understanding things the first way is that the cross becomes God’s inoculation for His sin allergy. Ironically, one of the main points of Jesus’ incarnation was to prove that God is not distant and untouchably pure, but rather someone who “eats and drinks with sinners.” Now this doesn’t mean that sin is not allergic to God. People reacted to Jesus’ perfect love and holiness either by repenting of their sin like Zacchaeus did or by lashing out defensively and crucifying Him like the Pharisees did.

It was not that Jesus couldn’t tolerate imperfection but rather that His perfection was intolerable. In John 3:19, Jesus summarizes the relationship between sin and God’s presence: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” God is light; He doesn’t need the cross to protect Him from our darkness; we need the cross so we can survive entering into God’s light.

2) God sees Jesus instead of us when He looks at us

In the Steven Furtick sermon that motivated this blog post, he said that the reason God gives us His “approval” is because He doesn’t see us when He looks at us but sees Jesus instead. That’s not approval; that’s deception. I can’t understand how anyone could possibly be encouraged by that. God doesn’t need our true selves to be hidden from His view to love us infinitely. His rage against the sin that oppresses us is part of that love. It’s true that Paul tells us to “put on Christ” and says that “in Christ we become the righteousness of God,” but Jesus isn’t a mask that we wear to cover ourselves up; He’s a body in which we become ourselves.

Popular penal substitution theology perverts Paul’s theology because it cannot recognize the sacramental character of the body of Christ from its modern individualist ontology. Jesus is not just our brother who stands in for us before God; He is also the one in whom “all things hold together.” So the substitution Christ provides is really one-to-many rather than one-to-one.

The phrase “in Christ” cannot be understood correctly without recognizing that Christ was already the source of our being as the one “in whom all things were created.” We are not truly ourselves outside of Christ; we are accidental constructions of our social context. It is only when we are “swallowed up” (2 Cor 5:4) by the life that Christ has provided for us that we gain the freedom to be what God has always seen in us. God doesn’t need to see a Jesus mask over our faces to approve us; His unconditional prior approval of us is the reason He sent His Word made flesh to empower us for holy living through our incorporation into His body.

3) Since God is infinite, He is infinitely offended by the slightest of our sins

The legacy of penal substitution theology can be traced to a book called Cur Deus Homo that was written by 11th century theologian Anselm to explain why Jesus needed to be both divine and human. Being from a medieval honor-based society, Anselm thought the primary problem resolved by the cross is the offense that sin inflicts on God’s honor as a king. This became the satisfaction theory of atonement which evolved into penal substitution. Anselm reasoned that because God is infinite, someone who is also infinite (Jesus) had to become fully human to pay the debt owed to God’s honor by humans. Hence the God-man.

When I read Cur Deus Homo, I noticed an interesting phrase that Anselm used to explain why it had to be this way. He says in several places, “It is fitting.” He doesn’t say for whom it is “fitting” that Jesus pays our debt to God. Does God need it to happen or do we? I think popular penal substitution theology conflates satisfying God’s honor with appeasing God’s anger. They are absolutely not the same thing.We need for God’s honor to be satisfied through Jesus’ blood because otherwise we would not be able to bear the shame of looking into His face.

It is not that God is infinitely unable to understand the moral complexity that is behind our sin. He sees all the mitigating circumstances; He sees the good that we tried to do even in situations where we were ultimately in the wrong. The problem is not that God is an infinitely sanctimonious doosh bag who needed His Son’s blood to get over His pickiness; then it would be a lot easier to make peace with the dishonor we have shown Him. The problem is that we will be convicted and sorrowed to the point of eternal torture to stand in the presence of perfect love and truth without the assurance of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. The peasants need the king’s honor to be satisfied; otherwise they live in terror; and that’s why the king Himself paid the price for their sin against Him.

4) God poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross

The word wrath in Greek is οργή, the root for our word “orgy” in English. When you look at how this word is actually used in the Bible, it’s more mysterious than you might think. It’s not just a synonym for “anger.” Paul tells the Ephesians that they were “formerly by [their] nature children of wrath” (which the NIV theologically edits to say children deserving of wrath). To be a child of wrath according to Paul is to be owned by “the desires of our flesh and senses” (Eph 2:3). It has nothing to do with God being angry.

In Romans 1:18, Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” If wrath were simply “anger,” we could expect Paul to elaborate on this statement by cataloguing a series of natural disasters with which God responded to punish humanity’s sin. Instead what we find is an account of the degeneration of humanity through the innate consequences of their sinful behavior. God “hands them over” to their lust, idolatry, etc, but He is not actively punitive independent of these innate consequences in His response to sin. This seems to suggest that God’s οργή is the proliferation of sin itself.

When I read these texts, I wonder if we ought to think of wrath as describing the poison that fills the air and curses the ground when God is dishonored rather than an emotion experienced by a God whom we probably shouldn’t presume to have the same kinds of emotions that we do. In any case, what happened on the cross is that God the Father did not prevent God the Son from being killed by the Jewish religious authorities. He let Him drink the cup of (His/our?) wrath which He came to Earth to drink. But this in no way means that the Father was the executioner of the Son for the sake of His own anger management. When we talk about the Father “pouring out His wrath” on His son, we make Him look like a drunken child abuser.

I cannot find anywhere in scripture that makes the Father the primary agent in His Son’s crucifixion. The closest is Isaiah 53:4 which says, “We considered him stricken by God.” But this is more a statement about the perception of Isaiah’s “we” than anything else. In the following verse, it says “upon him was the punishment that made us whole; by his bruises we are healed.” Notice the purpose of the atoning punishment and bruises is not to give the Father a place to put His anger, but to heal those who behold it.

We are children of wrath; we are born into a world that sweeps us into dysfunctional cycles of pain and guilt. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). I just don’t see the cross having anything to do with God’s anger though it absolutely does rescue us from the οργη that describes the innate consequences of rebelling against God’s plan for us as creatures.

I really think that these problems in popular penal substitution theology are probably a reflection of whatChristianity Today has called the “juvenilization” of American evangelical Christianity. When church becomes youth group for adults, explanations that are age-appropriate to teenagers become the norm for everybody.

When I was a teenager, the purpose of being a Christian was to avoid punishment. I expected the rules to be arbitrary and incomprehensible. So it made sense to me to accept a savior who would rescue me from the clutches of the infinitely picky and thoroughly uncompromising High School Principal of the universe. That was the salvation I received when I asked Jesus back into my heart as a 16 year old (after I had already done believer’s baptism at age 8).

But I experienced the metanoia that is true repentance when God spoke to me in 1998 through a little girl selling dolls in the square of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. He told me I could never be a tourist again. That was when I gave my life to His kingdom. That was when my heart was filled with wrath against all the ways that the world dishonors a God whose image was reflected to me through a barefoot indigenous girl. I need God’s honor to be satisfied. I need the cross not only for the sake of my personal relationship with God but because I want to live in a world where the crucified are resurrected. Penal substitution is part of the rich mystery — just not in the oversimplified, canned version that has come to predominate our youth group-shaped church.


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  • At this very moment I’m in a Church History class learning about Anselm and his Cur Deus Homo. I think Guyton is nailing it; we find ourselves limiting God (making Him non-omnipotent) if we think He wants to forgive us, but just can’t without sacrifice.

    God is always making the first move: He walked towards the first couple in Eden (they were the ones that hid); he called Abraham before the circumcision; he redeemed Israel out of Egypt before Sinai; Jesus was incarnated, symbolically dismantled the temple, died for us, and was resurrected “while we were still sinners.”

  • EZK

    #4 is the one that drives me crazy. I hear that all the time in sermons and in discussions, and it just doesn’t make sense. The Book of Revelation tells us what it looks like when God’s wrath is “poured out.” Jesus suffered and died in the same manner as many other people at that time–horrible, yes. But it doesn’t look like the suffering of accumulated wrath of all believers past and present.

    Also, why do atonement theories leave out the ruler of the world: the Evil one?
    What do you think of the idea that we were bought at a price of the blood of Christ? Bought from whom? We are children of wrath, children of Satan, basically. He is the ruler of the world, right? So perhaps Satan required blood sacrifices. And God sent Jesus to be the blood sacrifice to redeem his children from the evil one?

  • Bam! Nailing it Morgan.

  • Luke Allison

    I’m especially interested in the notion that “young evangelical guys” love talking about wrath and substitution in a particular way. This was the hump I had to get over a little while back. Why was I so attracted to this picture of God?

    In my experience, young people don’t respond to the “God punched Jesus instead of you” formulation of atonement, and they definitely don’t respond to “God sees Jesus instead of you because you are wearing a Jesus-blood suit” idea. We need to present something more compelling when we talk about substitution.

    I recently had a pastor counsel me by saying: God loves you infinitely beyond what you can imagine. And it has way more to do with Jesus than it does with you.

    Which is sort of encouraging….I guess…..

  • One reason I enjoy reading Paul so much is that I sometimes get to witness him struggling to identify/explicate the solution to the problem he is addressing (i.e. marriage vs celibacy). I am seeing a real human being struggle with the unimaginable – namely God.

    In the same way, attempts to make sense of Jesus sacrifice on the cross leads to ever evolving and replicating atonement theories. Frankly, I chuckle at some of the attempts to nail down God. While it is useful and important to reflect on these things, thinking that we can wrap it up neatly in a bow is hubris of the worst kind.

    If understanding Atonement theory is essential to salvation then God has fore-damned those to whom he has granted gifts OTHER THAN intellectual fire power. That would raise a whole set of other intellectual conundra! 😉

  • RJS

    This is a very helpful post.

  • I think Isaiah 53, so central to NT atonement theology, needs to be read more holistically than appears to have been done here; it is not just verse 4, but the final stanza, that identify Yahweh as the one who crushes the servant. There is the risk of an overreaction (and yes, I’m sure my Britishness comes through here) against PS on the basis of some popular misapplications of the idea; it is possible to keep the baby but throw out the bathwater.

  • Nate

    The idea of covering over the sinner is not one to be taken so lightly, see point 2 above. The word commonly translated “atonement” comes from the hebrew verb “to cover.” After the first sin, God kills an animal to cover over the shame of Adam and Eve. The blood of the lamb covers the doorframes of the houses as the Israelites prepare for the Exodus. The execution of two individuals in numbers 25 by Phinehas “covers” the sins of the Israelites, and the plague stops. Perhaps, the issue is not with the covering itself, bur rather what God sees. God sees us covered by or clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It is a bit sloppy, as you point out, to say that God sees Jesus. God sees the sinner covered over by Jesus. And that makes all the difference.

  • Kristin

    Very helpful post.

    #1 is obvious to me. We wouldn’t say that light is ‘allergic’ to darkness; rather, it’s darkness that is allergic to and overruled by light.

  • Luke Allison

    Nate #8

    Actually, the argument is much more complex than you’ve put forward here, although I would suggest that a large swath of Christianity articulates atonement exactly as you’ve described it.
    Read this:
    Just came across this yesterday and it’s the perfect example of thorough study to help us discern better what these concepts mean.

    There is nothing to suggest in the Scriptures that God primarily sees his creation as sinners or failures or disgusting or horrible or any other pejorative we can think of. The fact that they may be all of these things does not change the fact that God’s interaction with humanity is far more complex than the typical theological formulations explain.

    My point is that if we constantly tell people that God wouldn’t even be able to look at them if it weren’t for Jesus’ blood, we are stepping outside of the text and piecing something together that is not at all obvious. And that is not good Bible study.

  • Very helpful thoughts. #3 was the most useful for me. We can retain Anselm’s insight about the God-man without having to see God as infinitely angry about the smallest sin. Rather you could say that we become infinitely needy once we have sinned against God, and that is what the God-man needed to heal.

    I do also echo what Andrew said regarding #4. God is definitely the actor in Is. 53, placing the punishment on the shoulders of the Suffering Servant. In some sense God “bruised him,” “put him to grief,” willingly, and was even “pleased” to do it. But not because he had a bunch of anger he needed to pour out! Because by this act of the God-man dying and rising again he would accomplish the salvation of all who would believe.

  • Jeremy

    “I just don’t see the cross having anything to do with God’s anger though it absolutely does rescue us from the οργη that describes the innate consequences of rebelling against God’s plan for us as creatures.”

    Yes, but why/how does it rescue us apart from some kind of penal substitution? I agree with much of what he says regarding the emphasis put on God’s wrath, but whenever I read stuff like this I can’t help but come away from it thinking that, if true, the cross isn’t nearly as significant as I thought it was…

    “I cannot find anywhere in scripture that makes the Father the primary agent in His Son’s crucifixion. The closest is Isaiah 53:4…”

    I’d say Acts 4:27-28 is even closer than Is 53. Just sayin’…

  • Percival

    Andrew #7,
    The Isaiah 53 prophecy is instructive, but it is instructive as OT prophecy. That is, it is a shadow of the reality that is revealed in Christ. I think the NT should lead in our formulations of doctrine. So I guess I am wondering if Isaiah is indeed central to NT atonement theology or is it merely illustrative?

  • Percival

    I think the atonement language (the language of ‘covering’ sin) should be looked at from the perspective of covering shame. The shame of sin in the Bible is a bigger issue than what we westerners usually acknowledge or understand.

    It is not that God does not see something that is covered. Rather, it is that He will not bring it up or use it against you. Love covers a multitude of sins.

  • T

    I am very intrigued by this string of posts on this topic. This is all relatively new to me. Scot, I’d appreciate hearing you weigh in more on this as it seems more truly technical, and within your area of expertise. If all this is in your Atonement, I’ll just buy it, but if not, help a brother out!

  • Gary C

    I don’t know who these “penal only” folk are. My experience in a church with Acts 29 and Gospel Coalition (two places where penal soterianism are said to reign) connections has not
    fit Guyon’s description. Would say more but I’m late to work.

    Gary C

  • JohnM

    I’m not going to argue atonement theories with anyone right now, but where did we get the idea “young evangelical guys” in particular are “infatuated with penal substitution theology”? What theory do old evangelical guys prefer? Or evangelical gals?

  • Dawn

    Yes and yes.

    Also, to Comment #14: As an Asian-American, your comment about covering shame resonates. That’s a way of looking at it I hadn’t articulated before.

  • Dana Ames

    Put this up on another string, will repeat here.

    Note: In “Orthodox-speak” the term “divine economy/oeconomy/economia” as used in this paper means “what God is up to in order to bring everything back to the way he meant it to be from the beginning”.


  • Morgan, thank you for putting your thoughts into writing. I’m so in tune, especially, with #4 because it frustrated the daylights out of me that translations (not paraphrases!) continued to use “wrath of God” when only “wrath” was in the Greek. IIRC, the verse you cited (Rom. 1:18) is the only one with ὀργὴ θεοῦ in the entire epistle. Wrath – here, from fellow humans & our own brokenness, exponentially magnified in human systems (principalities & powers) – seems to be what we need salvation from. The resurrection enables us to see that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the path of salvation is not found in perpetuating the brokenness, not even to “save” ourselves.

    You wrote, “I wonder if we ought to think of wrath as describing the poison that fills the air and curses the ground when God is dishonored rather than an emotion experienced by a God whom we probably shouldn’t presume to have the same kinds of emotions that we do.” That’s exactly how I understand Paul’s “vice lists” — not as an enumeration of sins to avoid as “purity tests”, but as Paul pointing to signs within the world where our false worship garlands emptiness and vanity.

  • Dianne P

    Thank you Dana. I was wondering when someone would present the EO perspective on atonement, which of course is so very different from the discussion here. Interestingly Father Stephen had a recent post on this, which is a shorter read than Dana’s link. If it doesn’t come through and you want to google it, it’s “What’s at Stake in the Atonement”.

    I’ve never done a link on here, so will give it a try…

  • “Penal substitution is part of the rich mystery”

    No, it is not.

  • Amanda B.

    I really appreciate this article and the way it calls to attention what the Bible actually says about the atonement of the Cross, rather than what evangelical sermon illustrations say. But I agree also with Andrew Wilson (comment #7) that we ought to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    For instance, I don’t think God is “allergic to sin”, as Guyton so brilliantly put it. But I do think He is angered by it. It’s not the petty offense of a medieval ruler, though–it is the zeal of a God who is ultimately going to set right every injustice in the earth. It is because sin is such a poisonous, toxic thing that He hates it so much, and why He must oppose anyone who unrepentantly proliferates it.

    Yet at the same time, He loves His enemies and desires all to be saved, so it is not accurate to say that He wants to wipe out every sinner in a blind fury (otherwise, why even have the Cross in the first place?). He is patient and tender with us weak, fallen, broken people, even as He burns with zeal against the sin that ravages His creation. But it must be maintained that He genuinely loves righteousness and hates wickedness, even as we marvel at His kindness and mercy towards us, and His longing to save us from our own predicament.

    It seems to me that part of what gets us, the broad Christian community, stuck on this issue, is that we begin treating the Atonement like a philosophical concept, unintentionally glossing over the real, personal Triune God who has real emotions, thoughts, and desires at stake in the matter.

  • ‘we ought to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

    The problem is that if you modify penal substitution until it is acceptable to Christians, it is no longer penal substitution. It’s just substitution. So there’s really no point in calling it penal substitution anymore.

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Thanks for this interesting post. I concur with Nicholas (#24)–once penal substitution is “corrected” to mitigate the “distortions” identified here, do we still have PENAL substitution? In fact, I question whether the four points identified here are actually distorting versions of penal substitution. As I show in my extensive examination of penal substitution in my book–Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012)–variations of these four points are standard elements in even respectable presentations of penal substitution.

    I do agree that substitution–God “for us” in Christ–is essential to the biblical presentation of the cross. And I agree with the writer here that this “for us” relation is one-to-many, not one-to-one (as Paul puts it, “one has died, therefore all have died”; as Mark puts it, Jesus gave his life as “a ransom for many”). Yet, as I show in my book, the internal logic of penal substitution requires the “for us” relation to be one-to-one (i.e., exclusive place-taking) rather than one-to-many (inclusive place-taking). So, I would argue, recognizing this leads us toward a non-penal understanding of substitutionary atonement–an understanding, I would suggest, that is much closer to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as I explore in my book.

  • Then why write the book, Darrin, if others have already written it?

  • Ben Thorp

    Thanks for a helpful and thought-provoking post. For me, though, it has been slightly tainted by your railing against “young evangelicals” at the opening and closing. Your points are strong enough on their own without having to “call out” and “tut” at others.

  • Excellent, excellent post. I’m glad to have read it this morning. I deeply appreciate the cadence, tone, and theological direction. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • SJ Park

    Well done!!! It is really helpful to understand the atonement theories from reformed perspective.

  • Jeff

    While there may be actual ” penal substitution only” people out there, I suspect they are such a small number as to be completely irrelevant. The truth is, the doctrine of the atonement is rich and deep, containing several facets from a variety of theories. Because one believes that scripture contains language that points to penal substitution doesn’t mean we cancel out the other facets of the atonement. Jesus died to forgive and cleanse His children of their sins- YES! Gloriously, yes! Jesus WAS an example for His children, revealing His commitment to doing Gods will even into death. However, leaving out the propitiatory nature of the cross removes a huge part of the essence of the cross. Redefining ” orge” empties it’s meaning. No amount of word gymnastics can take away the truth of the term- ” orge” is always used as a term for anger. It’s not an ordinary anger. It’s not uncontrolled human anger that looks for someone to beat up, satisfying his rage. It’s justifiable anger from a perfectly Holy God against arrogant, prideful persons created to worship God but instead thumb their noses at Him. Rejecting and suppressing God they go about their days essentially hating the One who created them. Again, removing the doctrine of penal substitution from the atonement empties the meaning of the cross.

  • Avo Adourian

    Thank you so much. I’ve been wrestling with this topic for years, and though I didn’t get an ultimate answer here, it’s good to know that there are other ways of look at this issue.

  • edwardfudge

    Thanks for this provocative post. Lending support to its conclusions is the way the Septuagint (LXX) uses the Greek word that the NT translates as “atonement’ or

    “propitiation.” Further, while the contexts of relevant LXX texts suggest the idea of appeasement in a few instances, there is no hint of “appeasement” in almost all LXX texts that use the Greek word for “atonement” or “propitiation.” See paper at

  • fika_nofa

    on God pouring out his wrath
    The “Cup of the Wrath of God” narrative, running down through the OT, culminating in Getshemane, and then going back in the book of Revelations suggest otherwise, I mean it’s not passive, God is depicted (in Revelations) as pouring out the full extent of His wrath (as opposed to ‘watered down’ version of the same in the OT)
    and hey, Isaiah 53:10, God is the primary agent as far as my reading go.

    My point: I don’t think it’s passive