What Is Penal Substitution?

This theory of the atonement or the significance of Christ’s death on the cross has come under attack of late. And maybe some sermons and illustrations of it have been out of line. But this theory of the atonement is still biblically valid. Here’s why.

First a quick definition. Christ was our substitute on the cross, where we deserved to die, and took the penalty of our sin that leads to death, hence penal substitution. (The words penal and penalty are related.)

Atonement means at-one-ment or brought together as one. It is reconciliation between God and humankind. The penal substitutionary theory fits under the doctrine of the atonement.

Now let’s see if we can understand this valuable doctrine in five steps. Most of the Scriptures are placed in the Endnote section, at the end.

First, God built into the moral order of the universe–the world of humanity–rewards and punishment. When people keep the moral law or the much-later law of Moses, life goes well for them.[1] Social harmony and respect for the dignity and liberty and life of all humans increase. The reward is natural and positive. In contrast, when people break moral or Mosaic law, with acts like promiscuity and murder and stealing and massacres and child abuse, then the social fabric is torn up. People become miserable. In a just society the law-breaker has to be punished.[2]

See the posts:

What Is Moral Law?

The Law Teaches Virtue and Restrains Vice

The most egregious, recent example is Hitler. No need to rehearse his well-known, awful atrocities, but suffice it to say that the Allies stopped him. He was punished. Peace ensued and is better than chaos. Christians say God put in humans reason and conscience and the capacity to draw the right conclusions from experiences–unless the conscience is so seared that a person cannot perceive right and wrong at all. The moral universe is built on justice, and we humans better figure it out soon. Fortunately many have.

But most have not figured it out. For example, if humanity’s rebellion continues–as it happened to Israel after hundreds of years–the loving and merciful God will rise up, put on his judge’s robe and wig, and ascend to the bench of judgment. He will evaluate the facts of the case and make law-breaking humans undergo the consequences.[3]

An example: if our sense of justice is anything like God’s, though dimmer, this reward and punishment system is seen in the household. If the boy obeys the household rules (the moral order of the household), then peace prevails and he gets rewarded, or perhaps virtue is its own reward. For sure his parents are proud of him, and he gets more privileges as he grows older. However, if he breaks the household rules, then he suffers punishment in some way: he is scolded or grounded or sent to a corner or perhaps even gets a swat when he is little. The father still loves his son, but the consequence of causing moral disorder has to be paid. We know all of this by reason and conscience and experience.

What if the father were to step in and stand in the corner for the son and take the punishment? In this comparison, let’s briefly transition to doctrine. It’s the mystery of the Trinity. The two persons of the Father and Son are so united in essence, that God himself stood in for us and took the just punishment, out of his great love.

See this post about the Trinity:

The Trinity: Three Persons Together in the New Testament

God is love, true, but he is also just. He constantly evaluates humanity to find out whether they stay within his moral law, because it is his gift to keep them safe. Moral law is an act of love. Providing safety and protection is a loving act. So moral law fills out God’s love more clearly.[4]

Second, however, sin itself is built into humanity.[5] Some people just ask God to forgive them, and depending on their heart and sincerity, he does. If they are outside Israel or biblical revelation, God takes special notice. He is willing to forgive true repentance.

See my post with lots of Scriptures:

What Happens at Judgment to People Who Never Heard Gospel?

However, I have argued that our being sinful comes from our being human mammals, so the problem runs much more deeply than mere daily sins here and there, now and again. There are two theories as to how we have our sin nature. One is that it is imputed to us from Adam, by virtue of his being our federal head. We are in Adam, and he is in us. The second is that it is imparted to us from our parents through genetics, from Adam (or humankind, for the Hebrew word adam means humankind), to now. Sin is in our genes.

In this second point for this specific post, I prefer the second theory.

See my post with lots of Scriptures:

Is Our Sin Nature Embedded in Our Mammal Nature?

In other words, we share a common mammalian humanity, and often our animal impulses drive us to commit sins and crimes. Human nature itself is liable for punishment, according to the moral order that God “baked in” to the world of humanity. Humanity as a whole has to be punished because of its sin nature; they do not measure up. (See the passage from Isaiah, below.)

However, if God made us with a mammal nature, why should we be held accountable when we act like mammals? Because he also made us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), and now we are in an inner fight for our lives. Yet we don’t muster enough strength to succeed every day and over a lifetime. Even the best of people by outward behavior cannot escape themselves, their mammal / sin nature. True, their good behavior leads to social harmony, but contrasted with God’s perfect and awesome (and even terrifying!) glory, they fall short of entrance into his eternal kingdom after judgment.

For example, Isaiah was a holy man, obedient to God, but when he saw God in his awesome glory and holiness, he said:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:1-5, ESV)

Paul loved the book of Isaiah. Surely he had that above passage in mind when he wrote: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Who can stand perfect in the presence of God’s overwhelming and awesome glory and holiness? No one.

What was God’s solution for Isaiah? In his mercy, God acted by taking away guilt and atoning for Isaiah’s sin:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Is. 6:6-7, ESV).

That was God’s solution for Isaiah specifically. What is God’s solution for humanity generally in its sinfulness? In his mercy God also acted. Let’s finish Rom. 3:23 with vv. 24-25:

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. (Rom. 3:24-25, ESV)

Third, in his great mercy and love, God intended to make us right with him.[6] Recall that atonement means at-one-ment or reconciliation between God and humankind. To bring humanity in fellowship with himself, someone had to pay for our sin nature. We must pay the consequences for our being sinful. Who would suffer the consequence? It could be us individually as we stand before a thrice-holy God. But would we survive judgment on our own merits? Isaiah tells us we would not. Or a sacrificial animal on the Day of Atonement could stand in the place for the entire nation of Israel, each year (Lev. 16), or some sort of sacrifice (whatever it might be) for the entire global race of people.

So what could this sacrifice be? Someone else, a special someone else. Rom. 3:24-25 spells it out. God himself chose his Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, to become man and to die in our place. The Father and the Son, in eternity past, held a conference (so to speak), and both agreed that the Son would go to earth, suffer unjustly at the hands of men, and be crucified instead of us[7]. He took our place on the cross in an act of self-sacrificial love. Yes, he was our substitute who took the just penalty of our being sinful by nature. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2, ESV). Now we don’t have to dread God’s glory as Isaiah did; we can hope for it joyfully and expectantly because we have been reconciled and put in right relationship with God.

See my posts:

The Trinity: What Are His Roles in Creation and Redemption?

The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 from a NT Perspective

Fourth, therefore, far from being cosmic child abuse by a mean, angry, heavenly Father, Christ’s death on the cross was the perfect act of love for humanity and to maintain his Father’s justice.[8] Justice demanded that humanity undergo the consequence of being sinful and doing sinful acts and thinking sinful thoughts, if they were to survive final judgment and even to live a peaceful life right now. When God sent his Son to become the God-man, he sent the sinlessly perfect and obedient person to stand in our place.[9] Love and justice collided in his full dual nature of God and man. Only the God-man could atone and pay the just consequence of our sin.

So was an angry God appeased and satisfied? Not quite in those terms. It is better to say that his justice has been satisfied. Or maybe we can indeed say the author (God) of the moral and Mosaic law has been satisfied. He is just, and his wrath has always been judicial, so it has been satisfied, paid in full. (So the satisfaction of the theory is valid too, under the penal substitution theory). And now that I think of it, a just God was appeased. So there is nothing wrong with that element in the redemptive story.

In other words, God’s judicial wrath is not like this:


But like this:


That is a picture of God in judgment, showing his protective judicial wrath and love for his people.

See my posts with lots of Scriptures:

The Wrath of God in the New Testament

The Wrath of God in the Old Testament

Do I Really Know God? He Shows Wrath

Fifth and finally, through the atonement generally, we can be born again. We may not have our sin nature removed when we surrender to Jesus’s Lordship, but the penalty of our sin nature has been redirected to Jesus on the cross. So once again that is why penal substitution is called what is it. He was our substitute for the penalty of our sin. And the power of sin over our lives has been removed. Sin no longer dominates us.[10]

See my posts with lots of Scripture:

Sanctification: Past, Present, Future

Sanctification: Can Christians Achieve Sinless Perfection Now?

Bible Basics on Sanctification and Holiness


The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). That is our ultimate penalty and punishment for our disobeying moral law and being sinful in ourselves. So Jesus took that penalty and punishment by dying in our place in his self-sacrificial love, so we won’t die in the afterlife (and we can also have eternal life, beginning at the moment we are born again). And without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Heb. 9:22). In a sense Jesus paid for our just death penalty by suffering an unjust death penalty. Death for death; his life for our new life in him. And now his resurrection enables us to have our own resurrection. He was victorious and hence we are too. Christus Victor (Christ the Victorious One), as one theory of the atonement says!

On the cross, Jesus Christ took our earned, merited, and deserved judicial wrath of God. However, it is wrong to see this sacrifice as divine child abuse, because God himself was on the cross in the person of his Son. So his whole motive was self-giving love, as he suffered and paid the punishment for our individual sins and the penalty for our sin nature. He lovingly took our sins on himself. He became a sin offering in our place (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21)

Why did Jesus take our just punishment on himself, in an act of sacrificial love as God incarnate? God made the moral universe with consequences built in. Law is connected to his justice, which is best seen in a legal or judicial context. If people break the moral or Mosaic law, then someone, like the lawbreaker or a substitutionary animal on the Day of Atonement or someone else, will have to undergo the just punishment. More deeply, it was the perfect act of love in order to satisfy the moral order of the universe that flowed from God’s love and justice. Recall that the gift of moral and Mosaic law embodies safety and protection, and safety and protection is an act of love.

As a whole, however, humanity stomped on it. God himself in the person of Jesus was on that cross, paying the consequence of people’s stomping on the moral order and for being sinful in themselves. So again to answer the question directly, Christ’s death on the cross was not cosmic child abuse; it was pure love.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

So on the cross, where Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, took God’s correct and justified judicial wrath against humanity, he offers humanity his love and grace, which for humankind’s part is unearned, unmerited, and undeserved. But this offer expresses the love and grace of God.

Therefore, in light of all the five previous points:

The Cross = Love

Rom. 5:8 says:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, ESV)

John 3:16 says:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16, ESV)

Please believe in him and receive God’s love, so you can enjoy eternal life now and after you die.


The Burnt Offering from a NT Perspective

The Grain Offering from a NT Perspective

The Fellowship Offering from a NT Perspective

The Sin Offering from a NT Perspective

The Guilt Offering from a NT Perspective

The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 from a NT Perspective

Christ’s Death on Cross = Cosmic Child Abuse?

That last article is a slight rewrite of this one.


[1] Moral law: Rom. 1:19-23; 28-32; 2:12-16

[2] Rewards and punishments: Ps. 62:12; Prov. 11:31; 24:12; Rom. 2:6-11; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:12.

[3] God’s judgment on Israel: Deut: 28:15-68; 2 Kings 17:6-23; 25:1-21; 2 Chron. 36.

[4] Love and justice / righteousness combined: 1 Kings 3:6; 10:9; Pss. 33:5; 40:10: 45:7; 85:10; 89:14; 101:1; Is. 16:5; Jer. 9:24; Hos. 2:19; 10:12.

[5] Our sin nature: Rom. 6:6, 18; 7:13, 25; 8:3; Gal. 5:19; Col. 2:13.

[6] Reconciliation: Rom. 3:35; 5:1, 11; 2 Cor. 5:18-21; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20-21; 1 John 4:10.

[7] Christ was called to be slain before foundation of the world: 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8;

[8] God was moved by love: Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:8, 8, 10, 16.

[9] Jesus was sinless: 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:21-22; Heb. 4:15, 7:26; 1 John 3:5.

[10] Sin no longer dominates us: Rom. 6:5-14; 8:2-11; Gal. 2:19-20.

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