Atonement: Penal Substitution Theory (Part 1)

Posted · Add Comment

Penal Substitution

The penal substitution theory of atonement was popularized among Protestants during the Reformation and remains the paramount Evangelical view of atonement. This view of atonement sees the death of Christ as vicarious in nature. The required punishment for sin was suffered by Christ for believers, while His perfect righteousness was transferred to believers. In this post we will define what the penal substitution theory teaches and examine the biblical support for penal substitution. In next week’s post, we will sketch the historical development of penal substitution.

Defining Penal Substitution

The first element of this theory is substitution; sometimes the word “vicarious” is used synonymously. These words do not simply mean that Christ did something “on behalf of” another, but that He did something “in the place of another” (Hodge, 2002).

That word [vicarious], according to its signification and usage, includes the idea of substitution. Vicarious suffering is suffering endured by one person in the stead of another, i.e., in his place. It necessarily supposes the exemption of the party in whose place the suffering is endured. A vicar is a substitute, one who takes the place of another, and acts in his stead (Hodge, 2002, Part III).

In the present case, Christ, as the substitute, has two important aspects. Firstly, Christ is the substitute for sinners by taking the punishment due for sin upon Himself. Jesus’s death was penal, in that, it was given as a required punishment, and substitutionary, in that, it was paid by Christ rather than the sinner. This theory rests on the assumption that God, because of His holiness and justice, requires a penalty for sin. There are some alternative views of atonement that deny this is true. Those who espouse a penal substitution view believe that sin is law breaking and must be paid for in a forensic sense. When crucified, Christ took the sin of humanity upon Himself and paid the penalty for that sin. Thereby, the sin of man is expiated and the wrath of God is propitiated. Secondly, Christ is the substitute for sinners by providing perfect righteousness. God’s holiness demands not only that sin be punished, but that those adopted into the family of God be totally righteous. Since no human, save Christ, has ever been able to achieve perfect obedience to God’s law, no human, save Christ, has achieved perfect righteousness. When Jesus becomes the believer’s substitute He exchanges His righteousness for their sin. A transaction takes place which moves guiltiness to Christ and righteousness to believers.

Sinners would not have been ready to come before the holy God had not some fitting way been found by which it could truthfully be said that sinners had satisfied the requirement of the law—a seemingly impossible requirement. Christ provided this way by fulfilling the law in our place, in order that sinners who repent and receive by faith this vicarious fulfillment of the law might be accounted righteous before God (Oden, 2009, p. 410)

When speaking of this exchange of sin and righteousness, theologians often use the word “imputation”.  This term is used in forensic sense to denote a legal transaction as in a court of law. The sinner is declared to be righteous before God, because of the vicarious life and death of Jesus Christ.

To impute (logizomai) is to credit as a virtue to another or to charge as a fault to another. The New Testament makes frequent use of the bookkeeping analogy: imputing or crediting to another’s account. God’s grace ascribes to our account what we do not deserve (Oden, 2009, p. 594).

This imputed righteous should not be confused with actual righteousness. The reformers taught that a person is made simuliustusetpeccator-300x288righteous in a legal sense, but will continue to struggle with sin until they are glorified after death. That is not to say that sin is excused or accepted in Christians, but that it is to say that sin cannot be totally eliminated. Believers do long for and peruse holiness. Indeed, as they mature in Christ and surrender to the Holy Spirit, they will become progressively more righteous. Final and total holiness, however, is not achieved until after death.  The reformers made a distinction between declared righteousness and actual righteousness that the Catholic Church does not share.  Some Protestant in the Wesleyan Tradition also have a divergent view on sanctification.

Biblical Support

Entire volumes have been written on the biblical case for penal substitution and room does not permit anything close to a full discussion of the case here. The following his a brief review of the most relevant scriptures.


The basis for penal substitution is found very early in the biblical record. In Exodus 12, the Israelites put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and the plague of death on the firstborn passes over those homes with the blood.

Exodus 12:12-13  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.  (13)  The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

Although not stated explicitly, the lamb acts as a sacrificial substitute taking the place of the first born sons of Israel. It is also important to note that the Passover event is ritualized by God and becomes a key landmark in the history of God’s chosen people. The New Testament writers make the connection between the Passover and Christ’s death more explicit. In the Gospels it is during the Passover that Christ is taken captive. At the Passover meal Jesus shared with His disciples he points out the connection Himself. The body and blood of the meal are His body and blood. Jesus is the Passover lamb.

Mark 14:22-24  And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (23)  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  (24)  And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

By the time of the Apostle Paul the connection is stated outright –

1 Corinthians 5:7  Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (emphasis added)

One of the latest books written was the Revelation of John. In Revelation John repeatedly refers to Christ as the “lamb” of God. This title, without doubt, harkens back to the sacrificial system of the Jews and that sacrificial system harkens back to the Passover event.

Sacrificial System

The sacrificial system is absolutely integral to the Old Testament and Jewish worship of God. Most scholars would agree that the Old Testament sacrificial system is substitutionary by its nature.  Not all the sacrifices detailed in Leviticus are intended to atone for sin, but the sacrifice offered once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement was intended for exactly that purpose and it is the focus of Leviticus 16.  The Hebrew word kipper occurs 16 times in Leviticus 16, and in the ESV is usually translated as “atonement”.  The meaning of kipper has been debated by language scholars, but it undoubtedly has to do with cleansing and dealing with the sinfulness of people.  The base meaning of the word may simply be “to cover” (Nicole, 2004). One of the most important and clear uses of kipper is found in Lev. 17:11, which reads:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

It seems clear that some sort of substitution was involved here, and if here, in all the sacrificial system. The blood was given “for you” and “to make atonement for your souls” (Jeffery, Sach, & Ovey, 2007). The most natural reading seems to be that the animal’s life is being offered as a substitute. In some way the loss of the animal’s life atones for sin. People seem to innately understand that life has great value. The penal nature of the substitute is not nearly as clear in the Old Testament, but it is not completely missing either. Throughout the Old Testament God judges and punishes sin. The ancient Jewish people understood and accepted that God would punish sin, and also accepted the rightness of sin being punished. Based on this, it seems logical to say that the life of the animal was given as a punishment for sin in place of the people of Israel being punished.  Certainly, the heart of the worshiper was also important. Psalm 51 pointedly reminds us that contrition and brokenness are also part of atonement, but penal substitution is a part of the Old Testament record. Jeffery, Sach, and Ovey give several examples of penal substitution in the Old Testament in their excellent book “Pierced for Our Transgressions”. Due to space constraints we will look at only one more in this post. In Numbers 25 God is angry with Israel for its sexual illicitness with Moab and, as usual, worshiping idols. While Moses was rounding up the most egregious offenders a man brazenly brought a Moabite women  openly into the camp. Before Moses, or anyone else, could react the priest, Phinehas, grabbed a spear ran both of them through! Most modern readers would be quick to condemn Phinehas’s action, but God is very pleased.

Numbers 25:10-13 And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

The text says explicitly that Phinehas’s action “turned backed” the wrath of God. In New Testament terms we could say that God was propitiated. In verse 13 the text says that Phinehas “made atonement”.  This is an example modern readers may not like, but it confirms God’s wrath toward sin, God’s demand for punishment, and God’s willingness to accept a substitute for punishment. Jeffery, Sach, and Ovey provide several other examples from the Pentateuch books that build a strong case for penal substitution in the Old Testament.

From the writer of Hebrews we know that the New Testament church saw Christ has the ultimate sacrifice for sin who replaces the sacrifice made on the Day of Atonement. Hebrews chapters 9-10 focus on this aspect of Christ’s death.  Space does not permit such a long quotation, but note the following verses from Hebrews 9:11-14, and 10:11-14:

9:11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

10:11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ[b] had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified

Isaiah 52-53

Now, we can’t move into the New Testament without some discussion of the prophet Isaiah. In these famous verses it seems clear that the Suffering Servant, whom we know to be Christ, is suffering in a substitutionary role. Let’s take a closer look at some of the clearest verses from Isaiah:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
4yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(Emphasis Added)

Even a cursory reading makes it abundantly clear that the Servant pictured in these verses is a penal substitute. He bore “our” griefs and was pierced for “our” transgressions. Verse five, especially, reinforces a penal aspect of the substitution.  It was in His “chastisement” or in modern terms “punishment” that provided us with peace. Verse six goes so far as to say that “our” iniquity was “laid on Him”.  The text doesn’t even need to be explained or defended. The vast majority of unbiased readers would agree that these verses teach exactly the type of penal substitution the reformers were teaching.  Otfried Hofius, a scholar that does not like penal substitution, finds it so obvious here that even he admits that penal substitution is exactly what the author of Isaiah had in mind (Jeffery, Sach, & Ovey, 2007).

Some mention of the Gospels have already been made regarding the Passover, but some additional comments are warranted. For example, Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Cleary the life of Christ is the ransom being given and it is being given for others.  At the very least we have a clear substitution taking place.

As mentioned earlier, the Apostle John often uses the title “lamb of God” when speaking of Christ. We see this title used by John the Baptist in John 1:26 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!””  John also records the powerful words of Caiaphas in 11:49-52:

49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation,52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Jesus death was “for” the nation. The implication is clear- if Jesus had not died then the people would have perished. His death was in the place of their deaths.


In his epistle to the Romans Paul has a lot to say on our present subject. The first few chapters establish the wrath of God that is upon sin.  Romans 1:18 states that, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” This is only one represented verse, but the opening chapters paint a pretty full picture of the effects of sin on humanity.

Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 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. 26 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.

There is a lot that can be unpacked in this text, but let’s focus on only a couple of points. Notice that man, because of sin, needs to be justified. That much is accepted by virtually everyone, but how is this accomplished? Verse 25 is key – Jesus was a “propitiation”. Propitiation is a theological word that means “to turn aside” or “satisfy” the wrath of God (Jeffery, Sach, & Ovey, 2007). So, the righteous God was angry with the sin of humanity and man stood condemned. Somehow Jesus satisfies the wrath of God’s holiness. The Apostle Paul does not leave us guessing about how Jesus accomplished this, but clearly says the propitiation was “by his [Jesus] blood.” Just as the sacrifices of the Old Testament appeased God; the blood of Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin.  Man was guilty and deserved judgment, but Jesus blood was a means of “redemption”. These verses seem to spell out the very definition of penal substitution.  There are a multitude of verses in Romans that support this position. Note Romans 5:8-11:

8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

This text says much the same thing as Romans three, but adds a new element. Not only are we reconciled to God by the death of Jesus, but we are saved by His life.  The same idea is expressed in Romans 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  When a thing is “imputed” it is credited to the account of one who did not earn it. Believers are “made righteous” by having the perfect righteousness of Christ “imputed” or “credited” to them. Romans 4:5 read, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”. So, the Christian has not earned the righteousness credited to him, but is given it based on faith. Where does credited righteousness come from? It is the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.  In this way the holiness, justice, and love of God are all equally honored. Some theories of atonement emphasize one of God’s attributes over another, but penal substitution is able to honor all of God’s attributes.

I Peter

In his short epistle Peter introduces the topic of atonement almost immediately by referring to “the sprinkling with His blood” in verse two.  This phrase immediately calls up all the rich imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in the minds of its readers (Felix, Fall 2009).  This phrase alone establishes the substitutionary nature of atonement, but Peter has much for to say on the topic.

1:18-19 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

By pointing out that the price of the ransom was blood Peter is establishing the penal nature of the substitute. I. H. Marshall makes this point very well in “Aspects of the Atonement”:

A ransom need not imply substitution of one person for another. It may simply be a monetary payment. Peter,however, makes the point that we were ransomed with blood (cf. 1 Pet. 1:18-19). There is the clear implication that the price is of infinite worth so that it avails for all people; the principle that the death of this particular One is able to ransom many sinners is manifest. Since, as we have seen death is the ultimate consequence of sin, and Christ suffered death,it would seem to me to require special pleading to argue that his death was anything otherthan a bearing of the death that sin inflicts upon sinners so that they might not have to bearit. (as cited in Felix, Fall 2009, p. 183).

In chapter two of his epistle Peter again returns to the topic of atonement. I Peter 2: 24 states, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”  This verse contains both substitution and penal elements. Jesus “bore our sin” in what sense? The most obvious way to read that phrase is to understand that Jesus bore the penalty of our sin. The phrasing comes from Isaiah 53:12, where the Suffering Servant bore the sins of many. Jeffery, Sach, and Ovey, (2007) argue convincingly that the Hebrew phrase carries the idea of bearing punishment as well as guilt. By pointing out that the penalty was paid on a tree he recalls Deut. 21:23 to mind.  Death on a tree was considered a curse. So, by His death on a tree Jesus becomes accursed and the cursing of Christ provides righteousness to believers.   Paul has the same message in Galations 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. Both Peter and Paul are making the same point – Christ death is our penal substitute (Felix, Fall 2009). I.H Marshal sums it up as follows:

The principle of one bearing the consequences of sin for the many is present. Here the procedure of the Old Testament criminal law is used to explain Jesus’ death, and the element of penalty is conspicuous. This is one of the clearest examples of Christ taking the place of sinners by occupying the accursed position and dying. The law, we remember, is God’s law and therefore, ultimately it is God who imposes the curse.


Although we have not even come close to looking at all the verses in the Old and New Testaments that teach both substitutionary and penal elements of atonement, we have looked at several strong examples. Other theories of atonement, as we have seen, also have some biblical basis, but any view of atonement that lacks these two elements is leaving out integral pieces. A theory of atonement can no more stand without these elements than a building could stand without its foundation.

Works Cited

Felix, P. W. (Fall 2009). Penal Substitution in the New Testamnet: A Focused Look at First Peter. The Master’s Seminary Journal , 171-197.

Hodge, C. (2002). Systematic Theology. Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

Jeffery, S., Sach, A., & Ovey, M. (2007). Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.

Nicole, E. (2004). Atonement in the Pentatuch. In C. E. Hill, & F. A. James III (Eds.), The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, theological, and Practical Perspectives. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Oden, T. (2009). Classic Christanity. Harper One.