Penal substitutionary atonement is the very heartbeat of the gospel, yet it has been, and continues to be, under great assault. For this reason, it is my aim to briefly show in the words below that that atonement is penalty absorbing in nature and efficaciously accomplishes a certain thing for a particular people. Broadly speaking the atonement is, according to John Piper, the “work of God in Christ on the cross in which he completed the work of his perfectly righteous life, canceled the debt of our sin, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation.” More pointedly however, penal substitutionary atonement is “the idea [that] Jesus died in the place of sinners (emphasis added) to pay the penalty owed to God because of their sins.”
To start my discussion, I would like to suggest that God, to some degree, is bound to uphold his glory and honor. In other words, if God was to be a righteous God (which we want him to be, and scripture says he is) then he would have to, in some way, deal with the problem of sin.
Romans 3:25-26 says, “[Christ] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
As we can see from the scriptural quotation above, it was necessary, on Gods part to vindicate his righteousness in justifying the ungodly by faith in the passing over of sinful man. In other words, God had to do something about the atrocities committed against him and others because, although God is “gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, [he] will by no means clear the guilty (Ex 34:6–8).” And that something was the propitiating work of Jesus on the cross. Without Jesus dying and trading places with us, we would thus be left in our sin. But because he died in the place of specific sinners, they can be fully and forever saved. The Westminster Confession of faith 11.3 says it like this:
“Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”
Not everyone agrees, however, on the extent or the efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross. While the position held by this paper’s author is that of penal substitution, there are those who would hold to what theologians call a governmental view of the atonement. The Governmental view, though not held by John Wesley but his followers, teaches that Christ suffered simply as a representative. This view was first articulated by Arminius’s student Hugo Grotius in which he claimed “Jesus did not receive the specific punishment due our sins. Rather, his death was in the interests of Gods moral government and provided a powerful example of God’s hatred for sin.” In other words, Christs death was simply didactic in nature and not actually redemption purchasing. Thus, it was done for all people in the same way.
Another way to interpret the governmental view is to say, that in the atonement, God didn’t save anyone – but rather made all people savable. But if this line of thinking were true (that he died to make all people savable) then Christ’s death did not remove the sentence of death and did not create and guarantee new life in the spirit for anyone, but rather, created a possibility. If God died for everyone then, in my estimation, he died for no one.
To misunderstand the atonement in this way it to completely neuter the gospel of its beauty and power. For the atonement to make sense it would have to be purposeful, actual, and permanent. It is the only way to affirm that faith and repentance (being a Christian) are blood bought gifts to the sinner that demand worship.
Regardless of the logic behind such conclusions, the Bible paints a clear picture that the critics of penal substitution are dead wrong. For instance, the idea of penal substitution is littered throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. In Genesis 8:21, Noah builds an alter to the Lord to cover his sins and the “aroma was pleasing to the Lord”. Peterson makes clear, that the Hebrew adjective translated pleasing (nihoah) comes from the root rest and therefore would be translated as “soothing,” “pacifying,” or “quieting.” In other words, the word used in Genesis 8 suggests that there is a divine uneasiness to God that is quieted by sacrifice.” Thus, sacrifice both appeases Gods anger and cleanses mankind. Theologically speaking, it propitiates and expiates.
As we finger through the pages of the Old Testament we see other overt overtones as it pertains to penal substation. In Exodus 12:13, the Passover lamb was slain to cover the sins of God’s people Israel. Here a “blood ritual” of sorts was instituted that was “apotropaic [averting evil] force that protected the Hebrew families from the wrath of the destroyer of the firstborn throughout the land. Here the blood sacrifice being the averting agent is clear. Other Old Testament texts include but are not limited to Leviticus 16:21 (the day of atonement) and Isaiah 52:13 (the suffering servant).
Penal imagery continues into the Old Testament with Mark 10:45, where Jesus claims that the “Son of man came to give his life as ransom for many.” The analogy should not be lost on us that the imagery used in the word ransom is that of an exchange, a deliverance by purchase. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we have what Martin Luther called the “happy exchange”, wherein God made him [Jesus] to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here we can see that God gave up his son to save sinners. His righteous and clean life for our sin stained existence. Galatians 2:13 even goes as far to say that Jesus was cursed in the hanging of his body on the cross. What is becoming a curse if not being punished? And if Jesus lived a perfect life then why was he to be punished?
From what I have said so far it is easy to conclude that God had a specific purpose in sending Jesus. That purpose being this: to save those whom he would indeed cover with his blood, to become a curse for them, and to impute (or give) his perfect life to them as a free and forever gift. Thus, sealing and propelling a people with his atonement. It is important to conclude such things, as Williams has said, “substation [then] is not a “theory of atonement” nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself”.
Even so, many liberal scholars and radical feminists see penal substitution as, and I quote, “divine child abuse”. Many people believe that the violent nature of the atonement is antithetical to God being love. Others see it as a product of western individualism or a negation of forgiveness (for if a person is punished forgiveness is not needed). Some even claim that penal substitution pits the members of the trinity against one another and/or obscures their harmonious salvific effort, and most scarily, neglects the life and ministry of Jesus. But to this last point, I would simply say the opponents of penal substitution have set up a false dichotomy. There is no valid reason to separate the life and ministry of Jesus, for God came to earth with one mission. Therefore, Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection are all bound up in one big gigantic and divine ball. There is no need to assume that they are divorced from one another.
In closing I think it’s important to note that penal substation is strange for Americans and “civilized societies”. We don’t usually sacrifice animals, and when we do its not to cover our blatant sin against God. But I would like to suggest that this was not a problem for the original authors and hearers of the biblical message. The idea of death needing to be the agent by which we appease God for our sin starts in the book of Genesis and is woven into the redemptive storyline all the way through, and up to, Revelation. The beautiful truth of the Gospel is that God died in our place for our sins and it pleased God to crush him (Isaiah 53:10). And he did this in love.
 Piper, John. Five Points. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013, 37
 Peterson, Robert A. Salvation Accomplished By The Son. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012, 362
 Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 68–69.
 Why I Am Not an Arminian, Peterson and Williams (199)
 Salvation, Peterson 363
 Peterson, Robert A. Salvation Accomplished by The Son. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012, 360