Tag Archives: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

A Survey of the Cross: The Atonement, Part 2

[Warning: This is going to be another long post]

The posts over the last several weeks have generally all been focused on the cross of Christ (and rightly so), namely His atoning death and the penalty He took which was due to sinners.  The reason for this focus was that I became aware some months ago that my knowledge of the cross was shamefully lacking.   This isn’t to say that I now have it all figured out, but to simply highlight the importance of knowing what the Bible has to say concerning Christ’s death.  Since it is central to the Christian faith, I want to encourage you to likewise study deeply on the cross of Jesus because it magnifies the character of God, it amplifies the love that He has for His children, and it puts on display who Jesus is and how truly amazing it is that He would die for sinners.

I would encourage you to take a few minutes to review some of the other posts on Atonement before reading this one. Survey of the Cross, Part 1,  SA – A Response, SA – A Response Part 2, Suffering Servant, A Tension at the Cross

In the first post of this series we examined the meaning of Atonement first from several helpful definitions and then from a biblical perspective, primarily through Leviticus 16, where we saw the high priest Aaron was instructed to perform specific duties as God outlined the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to Moses.  Recall in that passage that the practices on this day were to be repeated every year.  In addition to the daily sacrifices made by priests, this day was set aside as a holy day of rest or Sabbath (Leviticus 23:26-32).  As we read through the passage from Leviticus, three important duties were defined for Aaron: 1) He was to sacrifice a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household 2) He was to sacrifice a goat as a sin offering for the people of Israel 3) He was to “transfer” the sin of the people onto a “scapegoat” that would then take the sins of the people outside the camp and into the wilderness.  These high priestly duties were taken very seriously and it was with great fear, reverence, and deliberation that they were performed exactly as instructed.  Now, as promised we need to look at how this relates to Jesus, specifically His atonement which we will include as part of His “work” on the cross. 

Jesus the High Priest

In the Book of Hebrews, we are provided with an excellent account of not only the Old Testament work of the high priest, but also the High Priestly role of Jesus Christ.  We get our first look at Christ’s fulfillment of this position in Hebrews 2:17 as the author is describing the supremacy and incarnation of Jesus, “Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”  Without going into the details of this passage (perhaps in a future post), let’s look at a second passage describing Jesus as High Priest,

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; 6 as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.’” Hebrews 4:14-5:6

First, let’s note in this passage, as well as the one above it from Hebrews 2:17, that we read of Jesus’ humanity in His role as High Priest, “made like His brothers in every respect” which means made into human likeness.  Likewise we read of the impeccability of Jesus’ human nature, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Why is it significant that Jesus should be fully man and that His sinless humanity should be so emphasized?  Note Hebrews 4:16, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God”.  The high priest was chosen from among men to act on behalf of men.  This is important because Christ fulfills the role of High Priest as a man interceding for men, therefore giving great significance to the biblical truth of the necessity for Jesus, the Son of God, to be fully man. 

But note here the second truth to which we’ve just alluded, Jesus’ divinity, i.e. the Son of God.  Hebrews 5:5, “So also Christ did not exalt Himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by Him who said to Him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’”.  This language should be familiar to us as it reminds us of Matthew 3:17, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” and also John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….” John 3:16 (NKJV) It was likewise a necessity for the office of High Priest to be filled by Jesus because He is not only fully man, but fully God.  Read again what Hebrews 5:2-3 says about the previous high priests, “since he [the high priest] himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.”  Because Jesus is both fully God and fully man, He does not have this same “weakness”, namely sin, that the other high priests had and He therefore did not have to make a sacrifice for His personal cleansing.  This brings us to the first function of the high priest that we talked about at the beginning of this post, the requirement to make a sacrifice for himself and his family.  Since Jesus was sinless, He had no need to make a sacrifice for Himself.  He is holy and blameless and therefore He alone can make the sacrifice which is sufficient to save.  The cleansing, personal sacrifice made by the high priest was necessary to bring the priest into a right relationship with God.  This restoration was unnecessary for Jesus because He IS God and the Trinitarian relationship with His Father  is perfect, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me” (John 14:10)  Hebrews 7:26-27 offers an excellent summary of this point, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.  He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” 

Next, we need to look at the other sacrifices made by the high priests, namely the two goats.  Remember, the first one was killed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat for the forgiveness of the Israelites sins (Leviticus 16:15-16).  The mercy seat, as we learned in part 1, covered the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Law (think 10 Commandments).  How then does this relate to Jesus’ role as High Priest?   As High Priest, the sacrifice that Jesus made was Himself.  It was His own blood, poured out “on the mercy seat”, as it were, that made propitiation for the sins of His people.  Think about this, the blood of Jesus was able to procure mercy for His people because it satisfied the justice of God, namely His wrath towards ungodliness.

This is an amazing role accomplished by Christ, as not only did He serve as High Priest to make intercession for the people and atonement for their sins, but was Himself the sacrifice!  Just as in the Old Testament priests sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice onto the mercy seat, thereby making atonement, Jesus likewise, by way of His own blood poured out, made atonement for all those who by faith place their trust in Him.  The blood of Jesus, infinitely purer and holier than that of an Old Testament sacrifice is the only thing sufficient to purify us from our sins.  Note the following passages:

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Hebrews 9:22 This passage highlights the necessity of bloodshed required for the forgiveness of sin, therefore Christ’s death was a necessary requirement.

“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:4  Here we see that the blood from the animal sacrifices of old were insufficient for the actual removal of sin.  Jesus’ death was infinitely superior and sufficient. 

“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.” Hebrews 9:13-14 Now the transition from the imperfect, insufficient Old Testament animal sacrifices to the all-sufficient sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

At this point, it’s important to make several connections.  This “sacrifice of atonement” that Jesus made, namely Himself is the word propitiation.  Note the translations below:

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith….” Romans 3:25 NIV

“Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” Romans 3:25 ESV

Through His sacrificial and willing bloodshed, Jesus Christ was a propitiation, literally appeasing the wrath of God that was bent towards sinners (John 3:36, Romans 5:1, 5:9-10, Ephesians 2:3).  Let there be no misunderstanding here, God the Father and God the Son were not at odds with one another, thereby a loving Son placating the wrath of an angry Father.  No, look at what the passage above from Romans says, “Whom God put forward”.  It was the work of a loving Father (John 3:16), in concert with the love and willingness of the Son to satisfy the legal demands held against sinners. (Colossians 2:14)  In doing this, God the Father propitiated or satisfied His own wrath, through the propitiation He provided, namely His Son Jesus.  “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Romans 5:9 Lord willing the next post in this series will attempt to better explain the idea of propitiation.

Continuing with our discussion of Jesus’ High Priestly role, remember that the Levitical high priest also placed his hands on the live goat, transferring the guilt and sin of the Israelites and then sending the “scapegoat” outside of the camp into the wilderness.  This is the term expiation, the second part of propitiation which we just looked at.  It too was accomplished through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus as He removed the guilt from His people.  Like the goat of Leviticus, the sins of those who place their faith in Jesus have been “imputed” to Him and have been removed “into the wilderness” or as Psalm 103:12 states, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” never to return again. 

There is SO much more that could be said about Jesus’ role as High Priest (for more, read from Hebrews chapters 5-10).  The biblical truth is that Jesus fulfills the office of High Priest and that it is He that mediates the New Covenant between God and man, “…there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).  This should serve as a stark warning to those religions or movements that feel man needs an earthly priest to make intercession (or confession to) or that somehow the virgin Mary serves as intercessor.  An assumption that an earthly priest is necessary is a direct assault on the sufficiency of Christ’s completed work as High Priest.  Dear friends, it is Christ alone.  He is the only one who can intercede and He alone is sufficient to fulfill that duty.

As High Priest, Jesus not only made the necessary sacrifice, but gave Himself as that sacrifice.  Being fully God and fully man, He was the only one that could make that sacrifice.  The awesome love that God displayed on the cross in giving His own Son as a propitiation, to appease His own wrath, should be enough to make you bow down and worship.  If you are an unbeliever, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what God has done in Christ, yet unless you repent (turn from your sins) and trust in Christ, then you cannot experience it.  Believers, look to God’s Word and examine all that He has done for you.  Your response is to live your life in worship completely devoted to Him.


“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”  Hebrews 10:12-14

Just and the Justifier

“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.” Romans 3:26

By Charles H. Spurgeon

Being justified by faith, we have peace with God. Conscience accuses no longer. Judgment now decides for the sinner instead of against him. Memory looks back upon past sins, with deep sorrow for the sin, but yet with no dread of any penalty to come; for Christ has paid the debt of his people to the last jot and tittle, and received the divine receipt; and unless God can be so unjust as to demand double payment for one debt, no soul for whom Jesus died as a substitute can ever be cast into hell. It seems to be one of the very principles of our enlightened nature to believe that God is just; we feel that it must be so, and this gives us our terror at first; but is it not marvelous that this very same belief that God is just, becomes afterwards the pillar of our confidence and peace! If God be just, I, a sinner, alone and without a substitute, must be punished; but Jesus stands in my stead and is punished for me; and now, if God be just, I, a sinner, standing in Christ, can never be punished. God must change his nature before one soul, for whom Jesus was a substitute, can ever by any possibility suffer the lash of the law. Therefore, Jesus having taken the place of the believer-having rendered a full equivalent to divine wrath for all that his people ought to have suffered as the result of sin, the believer can shout with glorious triumph, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” Not God, for he hath justified; not Christ, for he hath died, “yea rather hath risen again.” My hope lives not because I am not a sinner, but because I am a sinner for whom Christ died; my trust is not that I am holy, but that being unholy, he is my righteousness. My faith rests not upon what I am, or shall be, or feel, or know, but in what Christ is, in what he has done, and in what he is now doing for me. On the lion of justice the fair maid of hope rides like a queen.

Why Is the Doctrine of Penal Substitution Again Coming Under Attack?

I found this to be a well written article by D.A. Carson.  It can be somewhat dense at times, but worth reading and thinking through.   A review will be forthcoming on both Carson’s book Scandalous as well as the book he recommends below, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach.


By: D. A. Carson

A book could usefully be written on this subject. To keep things brief, I shall list a handful of developments that have contributed to this sad state of affairs.
(1) In recent years it has become popular to sketch the Bible’s story-line something like this: Ever since the fall, God has been active to reverse the effects of sin. He takes action to limit sin’s damage; he calls out a new nation, the Israelites, to mediate his teaching and his grace to others; he promises that one day he will come as the promised Davidic king to overthrow sin and death and all their wretched effects. This is what Jesus does: he conquers death, inaugurates the kingdom of righteousness, and calls his followers to live out that righteousness now in prospect of the consummation still to come.

Much of this description of the Bible’s story-line, of course, is true. Yet it is so painfully reductionistic that it introduces a major distortion. It collapses human rebellion, God’s wrath, and assorted disasters into one construct, namely, the degradation of human life, while depersonalizing the wrath of God. It thus fails to wrestle with the fact that from the beginning, sin is an offense against God. God himself pronounces the sentence of death (Gen 2-3). This is scarcely surprising, since God is the source of all life, so if his image-bearers spit in his face and insist on going their own way and becoming their own gods, they cut themselves off from their Maker, from the One who gives life. What is there, then, but death? Moreover, when we sin in any way, God himself is invariably the most offended party (Ps 51). The God the Bible portrays as resolved to intervene and save is also the God portrayed as full of wrath because of our sustained idolatry. As much as he intervenes to save us, he stands over against us as Judge, an offended Judge with fearsome jealousy.

Nor is this a matter of Old Testament theology alone. When Jesus announced the imminence of the dawning of the kingdom, like John the Baptist he cried, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 4:17; cf. Mark 1:15). Repentance is necessary, because the coming of the King promises judgment as well as blessing. The sermon on the mount, which encourages Jesus’ disciples to turn the other cheek, repeatedly warns them to flee the condemnation to the gehenna of fire. The sermon warns the hearers not to follow the broad road that leads to destruction, and pictures Jesus pronouncing final judgment with the words, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (7:23). The parables are replete with warnings of final judgment; a significant percentage of them demonstrate the essential divisiveness of the dawning of the kingdom. Images of hell–outer darkness, furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, undying worms, eternal fire–are too ghastly to contemplate long. After Jesus’ resurrection, when Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost, he aims to convince his hearers that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that his death and resurrection are the fulfillment of Scripture, and that God “has made this Jesus, whom you crucified [he tells them], both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). That is every bit as much threat as promise: the hearers are “cut to the heart” and cry, “What shall we do?” (2:37). That is what elicits Peter’s “Repent and believe” (3:38). When Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, the climax of his moving address is that in fulfillment of Scripture God appointed Jesus “as judge of the living and the dead”–and thus not of Jews only. Those who believe in him receive “forgiveness of sins through his name”: transparently, that is what is essential if we are to face the judge and emerge unscathed. When he preaches to the Athenian pagan intellectuals, Paul, as we all know, fills in some of the great truths that constitute the matrix in which alone Jesus makes sense: monotheism, creation, who human beings are, God’s aseity and providential sovereignty, the wretchedness and danger of idolatry. Before he is interrupted, however, Paul gets to the place in his argument where he insists that God has set a day “when he will judge the world with justice”–and his appointed judge is Jesus, whose authoritative status is established by his resurrection from the dead. When Felix invites the apostle to speak “about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24), Paul, we are told, discourses “on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (24:15): apparently such themes are an irreducible part of faithful gospel preaching. Small wonder, then, that Felix was terrified (24:25). The Letter to the Romans, which many rightly take to be, at very least, a core summary of the apostle’s understanding of the gospel, finds Paul insisting that judgment takes place “on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom 2:16). Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds us that Jesus “rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess 1:10). This Jesus will be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thess 1:7-10). We await “a Savior from [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ”–and what this Savior saves us from (the context of Philippians 3:19-20 shows) is the destiny of destruction. “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Eph 2:3), for we gratified “the cravings of our sinful nature . . . following its desires and thoughts” (2:3)–but now we have been saved by grace through faith, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph 2:8-10). This grace thus saves us both from sins and from their otherwise inevitable result, the wrath to come. Jesus himself is our peace (Eph 2; Acts 10:36). “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18). But God presented Christ as a propitiation in his blood” (3:25), and now “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (5:1-2).

Time and space fail to allow reflection on how the sacrifice of Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews is what alone enables us to escape the terror of those who fall into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire, or on how the Apocalypse presents the Lamb as the slaughtered sacrifice, even while warning of the danger of falling under the wrath of the Lamb.

This nexus of themes–God, sin, wrath, death, judgment–is what stands behind the simple words of, say, 1 Corinthians 15:3: as a matter of first importance, Paul tells us, “Christ died for our sins.” Parallel texts instantly leap to mind: “[Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). The Lord Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4). “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:2, “By this gospel you are saved.” To be saved from our sins is to be saved not only from their chaining power but from their consequences–and the consequences are profoundly bound up with God’s solemn sentence, with God’s holy wrath. Once you see this, you cannot fail to see that whatever else the cross does, it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly set aside God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing.

(2) Some popular slogans that have been deployed to belittle the doctrine of penal substitution betray painful misconceptions of what the Bible says about our Triune God. The best known of these appalling slogans, of course, is that penal substitution is a form of “cosmic child abuse.” This conjures up a wretched picture of a vengeful God taking it out on his Son, who had no choice in the matter. Instead of invoking the Triune God of the Bible, this image implicitly pictures interactions between two separable Gods, the Father and the Son. But this is a painful caricature of what the Bible actually says. In fact, I do not know of any serious treatment of the doctrine of penal substitution, undertaken by orthodox believers, that does not carefully avoid falling into such traps.
Consider Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This verse is coherent only if Christ himself is God. The cross is not Christ’s idea alone, conjured up to satisfy his bad-tempered Father. The Triune God, our Creator and our Judge, could have, in perfect justice, consigned us all to the pit. Instead, the Father so loved us as to send his Son, himself God, to bear our sins in his own body on the tree. Moreover, the Bible speaks of this mission not only in its bearing on us lost sinners, but also in its reflection of inner-Trinitarian commitments: by this mission the Father determines that all will honor the Son, even as they honor the Father (see John 5:16-30): where does this insistence fit into crass language about cosmic child abuse?

(3) In recent years there has been a lot of chatter about various “models” of the atonement that have appeared in the history of the church: the penal substitution model, the Christus Victor model, the exemplary model, and so forth. The impression is frequently given that today’s Christians are free to pick and choose among these so-called “models.” But for any Christian committed to the final authority of Scripture, this approach is methodologically flawed. It allows historical theology to trump Scripture. Surely the right question to ask is this: Which, if any, of these so-called “models” is exegetically warranted by the Bible itself? For instance, are there passages in which biblical writers insist that Christ in his death triumphed over the powers of darkness? Are there passages in which Christ’s self-sacrifice becomes a moral model for his followers? Are there passages in which Christ’s death is said to be a propitiation for our sins, i.e. a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God? If the answer is “Yes” to these three options–and there are still more options I have not mentioned here–then choosing only one of them is being unfaithful to Scripture, for it is too limiting. Christians are not at liberty to pick and choose which of the Bible’s teachings are to be treasured.

(4) There is another question that must be asked when people talk about “models” of the atonement. Assuming we can show that several of them are warranted by Scripture itself, the question to ask is this: How, then, do these “models” cohere? Are they merely discrete pearls on a string? Or is there logic and intelligibility to them, established by Scripture itself?

One recent work that loves to emphasize the Christus Victor “model”–Christ by his death is victor over sin and death–somewhat begrudgingly concedes that penal substitution is found in a few texts, not least Romans 8:3. But this work expends no effort to show how these two views of the atonement should be integrated. In other words, the work in question denigrates penal substitution as a sort of minor voice, puffs the preferred “model” of Christus Victor, and attempts no integration. But I think it can be shown (though it would take a very long chapter to do it) that if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is, as we have seen, grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. The way Christ triumphs over sin and death is by becoming a curse for us, by satisfying the just demands of his heavenly Father, thereby silencing the accuser, and rising in triumph in resurrection splendor because sin has done its worst and been defeated by the One who bore its penalty. Moreover, in the light of such immeasurable love, there are inevitably exemplary moral commitments that Christ’s followers must undertake. In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.

(5) At least some of the current work on the atonement that is proving so scathing of penal substitution reflects discouraging ignorance of earlier theological study and reflection. Few interact any more with standard works by J. I. Packer, John Stott, and others–let alone classic works produced by earlier generations. But a new generation is rising, forcing readers to take note that historic Christian confessionalism will not roll over and play dead. I heartily commend the recent book by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.