A reader has a question about the notion of “penal substitutionary atonement”

A reader has a question about the notion of “penal substitutionary atonement” June 25, 2019

He writes:

I just read your article “Taking apart the false theory of penal substitutionary atonement

Isn’t this a direct contradiction of the teaching of the Catholic Church from the Catechism? The Catechism states the following:

Jesus substitutes his obedience for our disobedience

615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”443 By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin“, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.444 Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.445

Jesus consummates his sacrifice on the cross

616 It is love “to the end”446 that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life.447 Now “the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.”448 No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.

Some background.  First, the piece I posted is not my work.  I found it interesting and beautiful and thought (and think) it deserved attention.  As we shall see, I don’t think it contradicts the Catechism at all and I have no problem with it.  But it does not address the paragraphs the reader is asking about.  I will address them in a moment.  In the meantime, when I chatted with Deacon Steven Greydanus about this he, to my great surprise, went out, did a bunch of research, and compose this amazing response that I thought was so good it would be a shame not to share it with you.  Steve writes:

While “substitution” is a common term in Catholic theology of atonement, “penal substitution” is not. You will notice that the term “penal” does not appear in the excerpt from the Catechism you cited (nor do cognate terms such as “punishment”).

“Penal substitution” is one of several competing theories of the atonement: namely, that God the Father literally punished his Son Jesus in our place.

The Catholic Church has not solemnly defined any one theory of the atonement as the correct theory (see below).  However, the theory of penal atonement, which is largely though not exclusively a Protestant theory, has generally been found wanting.

For instance, the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Doctrine of the Atonement critiques the theory of penal substitution in connection with Protestant error. Note especially the second bullet point.

In their general conception on the atonement the Reformers and their followers happily preserved the Catholic doctrine, at least in its main lines. And in their explanation of the merit of Christ’s sufferings and death we may see the influence of St. Thomas and the other great Schoolmen. But, as might be expected from the isolation of the doctrine and the loss of other portions of Catholic teaching, the truth thus preserved was sometimes insensibly obscured or distorted. It will be enough to note here the presence of two mistaken tendencies.

  • The first is indicated in the above words of Pattison in which the Atonement is specially connected with the thought of the wrath of God. It is true of course that sin incurs the anger of the Just Judge, and that this is averted when the debt due to Divine Justice is paid by satisfaction. But it must not be thought that God is only moved to mercy and reconciled to us as a result of this satisfaction. This false conception of the Reconciliation is expressly rejected by St. Augustine (In Joannem, Tract. cx, section 6). God’s merciful love is the cause, not the result of that satisfaction.
  • The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His Atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins.

If you search the Vatican website for the term “penal substitution,” you will find it is mentioned only in this 1995 study of the International Theological Commission, which mentions it only to critique it:

In some versions of Protestant, and even Catholic, pulpit oratory, the penal substitution theory depicted God almost as a vengeful sovereign exacting reparation for his offended honor. The idea that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty seemed incompatible with the Christian conviction that God is eminently just and loving.

This ITC study highlights the important distinction between “punishment” and “satisfaction,” a distinction made by Anselm, who holds that Christ makes satisfaction for us but is not punished by God. This was precisely the distinction the Reformers failed to make, according to the CDF.

Among contrasting theories of atonement, the ITC positively notes the “theory of representative headship,” which it contrasts with penal atonement in this way:

Without being personally guilty or being punished by God for the sins of others, Jesus lovingly identifies with sinful humanity and experiences the pain of its alienation from God.

In addition to the above, let me add a bit of commentary of my own:

Jesus Offered Himself Every Second of His Life, Not Just on Good Friday

We have a tendency to try to chop Jesus up and throw away the bits we don’t like.  Some of us like the “Savior” part, not the “Lord” part.  Correspondingly, some of us talk about Jesus offering himself on the Cross, but forget that he offered himself in the cradle, and in Joseph’s workshop, and when he had to endure his disciples’ stupid questions, and when crowds would not give him a minute’s peace, and in quiet moments when he gave thanks for his daily bread, and when he was perplexed by the hatred of his enemies and grateful for the love of his friends, and when he was asleep, and when his muscles ached from long journeys, and every step of the way he took toward Jerusalem on his final Passover pilgrimage. His death on the Cross was the crowning act of an entire human life ceaselessly and wholly offered to God in complete perfection.  That is why the New Testament sees in Jesus’ entire life the fulfillment of Psalm 40:6-8:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book.” (Hebrews 10:5-7)

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

We spoke above of the fact that we, not God, were the authors of Christ’s agonies.  And yet, a profound mystery still remains which we must not merely explain away. To say that we and not God are the authors of Jesus’ sufferings is not to neatly tie things up in a bow, because the depths of abandonment Jesus endured for us had to include the full agonies, not merely of the good man wrongly rejected by a mob of fools and bullies, but of the truly evil man—think of a Hitler or a Stalin—who has willfully cut himself off from all love, light, and hope and who now faces an unthinkable eternity bricked up in a furnace of his own making, imprisoned in his own hate, terror, and spite, his mind, soul, and heart destroyed by himself–all hope of relationship with God or man forever lost by his own willful choice.  This is death in the truest and deepest sense—what Scripture calls the “second death” (cf. Revelation 2:11; 20:6; 20:14).  And it is this death, as well as the death of the body, that Jesus endures for us as well, because he is dying for our sins.  It is this that Paul means when he says Jesus “became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

What that meant for Jesus, we can never even begin to comprehend.  G.K. Chesterton strives and fails to describe Christ’s final moments this way:

There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.[1]

What it means for us is complete and utter reconciliation with God and the incredible hope that, really and truly, no sin is beyond the reach of mercy if we but seek it and all we have ever really desired and hoped for (and infinitely more) may be ours.  In really and truly assuming our humanity in all its fullness and all its broken freakish evil, he is able to redeem it all. Precisely because he has not sinned:

[I]n the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Ps 22:2; cf. John 8:29) Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”, so that we might be “reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 8:32; 5:10). (CCC 603)

So we do indeed speak of Jesus’ death “reconciling” us to the Father and even of it “satisfying” him. But it is not the satisfaction of a sadist hungering for blood (that was our sad part in the drama).  It is the satisfaction of the Father’s love.  As Pope St. John Paul II puts it:

[W]e do not forget even for a moment that Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, become our reconciliation with the Father. He it was, and he alone, who satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of creation, and making him “little less than God”, in that he was created “in the image and after the likeness of God”. He and he alone also satisfied that fatherhood of God and that love which man in a way rejected by breaking the first Covenant and the later covenants that God “again and again offered to man”. The redemption of the world–this tremendous mystery of love in which creation is renewed–is, at its deepest root, the fullness of justice in a human Heart–the Heart of the First-born Son–in order that it may become justice in the hearts of many human beings, predestined from eternity in the Firstborn Son to be children of God and called to grace, called to love. The Cross on Calvary, through which Jesus Christ–a Man, the Son of the Virgin Mary, thought to be the son of Joseph of Nazareth–“leaves” this world, is also a fresh manifestation of the eternal fatherhood of God, who in him draws near again to humanity, to each human being, giving him the thrice holy “Spirit of truth”.[2]

The Unique and Definitive Sacrifice

The New Testament teaches that Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26) and thereby secured an “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). The Old Testament is, of course, replete with sacrifices too.  But the point of those sacrifices is, paradoxically, that they cannot take away sin for the very good reason that they are merely the sacrifices of cattle, sheep, and goats.  These symbolic sacrifices point to the need for Christ’s redemptive death on our behalf, but could not themselves supply it.

The prophet Jeremiah saw this centuries before the Incarnation, saying:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, and I showed myself their Master, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

This New Covenant, “restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28; cf. Exodus 24:8; Leviticus 16:15-16; 1 Corinthians 11:25) (CCC 613).

In uniting himself to our human nature “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).  His deity, in union with our humanity, conforms our human nature perfectly to the divine will so that he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). In so doing, he offers the perfect and final sacrifice for sin.  He culminates the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament that was pointing to him in offering that perfect and final sacrifice.  Nothing can equal it since it the sacrifice of the God-Man and nothing can be added to it since it is indeed perfect.  As Jesus himself says at the moment of his death: “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

[1] Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.

[2] Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis 9, March 4, 1979.  Available online at as of February 7, 2019.


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