The heart of the gospel – Christ’s work


The purpose of the present paper is to discuss the doctrine of atonement; specifically, a defense of penal substitutionary atonement.  A brief summary of historical views on the atonement will be followed by sections discussing propitiation and substitution. Throughout, my purpose is to confirm the thesis that penal substitutionary atonement is the most Biblically accurate view. Scope, of course, limits the ability to explain, respond or exposit as thoroughly as one might like. Accordingly, it should be recognized that some slight leaps in discussion will be made to accommodate spacial limitations.

Views on the Atonement

There are, of course, a variety of interpretations of the doctrine. Wayne Northey concludes that there have been 4 major theories developed through the centuries: Conflict-Victory (Christus Victor), Satisfaction, Moral Influence, and Penal Substitution.[1] To that list John MacArthur adds the Ransom theory, and the Governmental theory.[2] In lieu of discussing each of these individually, it may be useful to classify them somewhat more broadly. Alister McGrath differentiates between two approaches to the cross, or the atonement: subjective and objective.[3] A subjective approach contends that we are primarily changed by Christ’s work on the cross, that is, by the atonement. It is not that our predicament changes, but how we understand and view our situation. An objective understanding argues that it is God who is affected by the cross, and thus it is more than simply how we understand our predicament that is changed. As an example of a purely subjective approach, McGrath cites the moral influence theory, whereas a purely objective example would be Christus Victor. He goes on to decry any approach which limits itself to either subjectivity or objectivity, noting that Biblically responsible views should incorporate both.[4] John Stott serves us by elucidating how the two may fit together, even incorporating a third category of victory. He states: “In the ‘objective’ view God satisfies himself, in the ‘subjective’ view he inspires us, and in the ‘classic’ view he overcomes the devil. Thus Jesus Christ is successively the Saviour, the Teacher and the Victor…”[5] It seems to the present writer to be a wise course to refrain from limiting one’s doctrine of atonement to the exclusion of other motifs in scripture. A comprehensive view such as described by Stott seems favorable.

That being said, however, does not negate the need to point out the heart of the matter; the essence of the atonement. Varied theologians have claimed that each of these is, or has been, the dominant theory in the church. Many current liberal or emergent theologians seem to latch onto Gustav Aulen’s claim that Christus Victor was the dominant theme of the church for its first millennium. However, it seems more in line with scripture that penal substitution has always been the norm. A.A. Hodge writes, “With few exceptions, the whole church from the beginning has held the doctrine of Redemption in the sense of a literal propitiation of God by means of the expiation of sin.”[6]


There can be no adequate discussion of atonement without the mention of propitiation. As Hodge noted, this idea has been central since the very beginnings of the church. However, it is this very idea which is so repulsive to many contemporary theologians and Christians. What, then, is propitiation? D.A. Carson explicates the idea: “Propitiation is the act by which someone (in this case God) becomes propitious, that is, favorable. Propitiation is the sacrificial act by which someone becomes favorable.”[7] Carson and others note that it is somewhat startling to find this sort of language in the Bible, being that it is so deeply rooted in pagan worship. No doubt, critics of penal substitution have also noted this, though with disdain. Carson, however, notes for us the main difference between pagan and Christian propitiation:

“In pagan propitiation, a human being offers a propitiatory sacrifice to make a god propitious. In Christian propitiation, God the father sets forth Jesus as the propitiation to make himself propitious; God is both the subject and object of propitiation…God the Father is thus the propitiator and the propitiated, and God the Son is the propitiation.”[8] (Author’s emphasis)

A rejection of or discomfort with the idea of a God who needs to be propitiated is what has led to the use of the word “expiation” in lieu of any mention of propitiation. According to Carson, “Expiation…aims to cancel sin. Expiation is the sacrificial act by which sin is canceled, removed…The object of expiation is sin [itself].”[9] Some authors and writers favor this term more because it lacks the connotation that God is wrathful and demands payment. Sadly, this refusal to speak of propitiation leaves the discussion wounded and inadequate. Propitiation, as J.I. Packer notes, denotes everything which expiation does, plus more; namely, “…the pacifying of the wrath of God thereby.”[10]

Now, in order to take the step forward to substitution, we should first take a step back to gain a bit of perspective as to where we are. To rely on Packer again, we can see the progression of these ideas in the following way. We begin with the given that God’s purpose is to redeem people. How, then, are we actually redeemed by Jesus? God did it by reconciling us; ending alienation; putting away our sins. How, precisely, did Christ reconcile us? He did this by being a propitiation, ending God’s just wrath. How, finally, did the cross and Jesus’ death propitiate God? It was done by effecting a substitution, whereby the sinless Son bore our guilt.[11] Each one of these ideas (redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, substitution) interlocks with those before and after, and we cannot have any without the others. Therefore, any atonement discussion which attempts to speak to how God redeems, while attempting to reject propitiation or substitution, simply and plainly is not Biblical. Packer, referring to Galatians chapter 1, soberly reminds us that a propitiation-less gospel is “another gospel than that which Paul preached. The implications of this must not be evaded.”[12]


Why, then, is substitution necessary? If we follow the logic of the New Testament, we might say something like this: every person alive has sinned.[13] God’s holiness requires punishment for sin.[14] Therefore, every person alive will pay the eternal price for sin…unless there is a substitute. The just wrath of God against sin must be poured out, or else God is no longer just.[15] We must be careful to keep in mind the nature of God’s wrath. As Packer reminds us, “Wrath is not a fitful, petulant, childish thing in God. Wrath is the attribute expressed in righteous judgment. It is holiness rejecting sin.”[16]

Moreover, we as human beings cannot make adequate propitiation even for our own reconciliation, because none of us are righteous. The Psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand?” (130:3) Again, he states “…no one living is righteous before you.” (143:2) Paul the apostle puts this in bleak terms for us in Galatians 3:10. Michael Lawrence points out, “Paul could not be clearer about the result of relying on the law to commend ourselves to God. All who do so are under the curse of God.”[17] In reflecting on the sentence of death which comes with our sin, we see that there is no way we could ever overcome the price which is required of us, because none of us can defeat sin in order to commend ourselves. “No one could vanquish death who had not vanquished sin.”[18]

The point that all of this emphatically makes is this: if there is to be forgiveness and reconciliation between humans and God, it must come from somewhere other than ourselves, that is, there must be a substitute. It’s not as if there is anything new about this idea of substitution. This is how YAHWEH has always dealt with His people. The entirety of the sacrificial system under the old covenant was undergirded by substitution: “man sins and animal dies”, instead of “man sins and man dies”. The animal sacrificial system was, however, never meant to be a permanent solution. Scripture is clear: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”[19] It was necessary, then, for God to provide a better and more lasting sacrifice if humanity was to have true forgiveness. I can think of no better method of representing this point than to quote the classic text of scripture:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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.[20]

God put forth Christ as a substitute to make propitiation on our behalf because we could not stand under judgment ourselves. James Denny reminds us that “…if we can be put right with God apart from [Christ’s death], then, St. Paul tells us, He died for nothing.”[21]Despite the fact that many in our day reject this Biblical truth (and thus blaspheme the sacrifice of Christ), it was the dominant and most widely held teaching in the early church.[22]

So, precisely what is meant by penal substitution? “Penal substitution is the idea that God forgives Christians the penalty due us because of our sins, because Jesus took our place by living the life we should have lived and dying the death that we deserved because of our sins.”[23] Every person alive owes a debt for their sin, and it is a grievous debt. We are utterly condemned by the holiness of God, which burns against unrighteousness. It is important here to be reminded of how we should frame these thoughts. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the nature of God’s wrath as we speak about Him requiring propitiation. We must ground the view of penal substitution in 2 ways, as follows.

First, we must always be reminded that the doctrine is framed with God’s great love. “Penal substitution, therefore, will not be focused properly till it is recognized that God’s redemptive love must not be conceived – misconceived, rather – as somehow trumping and displacing God’s retributive justice…The measure of God’s holy love for us is that ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…’”[24] “Christ’s dying for us as a substitute when we were his enemies…was all for one purpose – to manifest, to show, to set out, to prove, to confirm God’s love for us.”[25] A thorough understanding of this principle would answer and refute much of the accusation that penal substitution depicts a violent and capricious God. It was for love.

Secondly, we must anchor penal substitution in the moral law, personal guilt, and retributive justice.[26] It seems that, if the first grounding point is neglected, this one is hated and denied. What this point reminds us of is that sin, and wrong, and absolute right are real and objective standards. The critique which Anselm gave long ago still holds true, and there are many who must be told, “You have not yet considered the seriousness of sin.” If God’s infinitely holy standard is broken, then our guilt, by even a single sin, is infinite.

This is the primary issue of the atonement – the seriousness of my sin and how I am to be reconciled to God despite it. In rebutting Aulen’s preoccupation with victory themes, J.I. Packer states: “Surely the primary issue with which penal substitution is concerned is neither the morality nor the rationality of God’s ways, but the remission of my sins…”[27] Scripture is clear, there is a due penalty which we bear upon our souls. Leon Morris states it painstakingly succinctly for us: “…there are only two possibilities: either Christ bore the burden of our sin, or we bear it.”[28] He goes on to conclude that if a one denies that Christ was our substitute, then the idea of Christianity being a redemptive religion must be abandoned.


If we are to be true to the testimony of the entirety of scripture; to the historic orthodoxy of the church then we must proclaim and rejoice in the doctrine of atonement by penal substitution. We have no hope unless we have a substitute, but praise God – in His mercy He presented Christ as precisely that! To be generous with our brothers who take pains to reject a wrathful God who requires blood, we must admit that this is not the easiest thing to accept. Our God is a terrible and awesome King of glory, and the frailty of our minds rebels against even the idea of His absolute holiness and justice in punishing sin. However, we cannot budge an inch. It is, as Leon Morris stated, either Christ, or us.

We have briefly noted some various interpretations of the atonement, proposing that penal substitution is the most Biblical and orthodox. We have pursued this thesis by discussing the necessity of propitiation, and in light of that the necessity of substitution. All of this pointed to the necessity and the glory of penal substitution, which was grounded in the bedrock of a Loving and Just God. In conclusion, I simply submit what I consider to be the most powerful verse of atonement in the scripture:

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

[1] Wayne Northey, “The Cross: God’s Peace Work…” In Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, eds. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,  2007), 358.

[2] John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), 194-203.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, What Was God Doing On The Cross? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 87-88.

[4] Ibid., 89.

[5] John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1986), 230.

[6] A.A. Hodge, The Atonement (Memphis: Footstoll, –), 269.

[7] D.A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 60.

[8] Ibid., 64-65.

[9] Ibid., 60-61.

[10] J.I. Packer, “The Heart of the Gospel”. In In My Place Condemned He Stood, by James I. Packer and Mark E. Dever. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 32.

[11] J.I. Packer, “Penal Substitution Revisited”. In In My Place Condemned He Stood, by James I. Packer and Mark E. Dever. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 25.

[12] Ibid., 32.

[13] Romans 3:23

[14] Ezekial 18:20, Romans 6:23

[15] This thought, in particular, is where many critics of penal substitution get hung up. For a poignant example of this, see Jersak, “Nonviolent Identification…”, 26.

[16] J.I. Packer, “Sacrifice and Satisfaction”. In Our Savior God: Studies on Man, Christ, and the Atonement, James M. Boice, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 126.

[17] Michael Lawrence, “Becoming a Curse for Us”. In It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement, by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 184.

[18] James Denny, The Atonement and the Modern Mind (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1903), 106.

[19] Hebrews 10:4

[20] Romans 3:21-26

[21] Ibid., 90-91.

[22] Leon Morris, “The Atonement”. In Basic Christian Doctrines, Carl F. H. Henry, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), 154.

[23] Mark Dever, “Justified by His Blood”. In It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement, by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 145.

[24] J.I. Packer, “Penal Substitution Revisited”. In In My Place Condemned He Stood, by James I. Packer and Mark E. Dever. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 24.

[25] Mark Dever, “Justified by His Blood”. In It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement, by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 157-158.

[26] J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve: the logic of penal substitution”. In In My Place Condemned He Stood, by James I. Packer and Mark E. Dever. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 77.

[27] Ibid., 79.

[28] Leon Morris, “The Atonement”. In Basic Christian Doctrines, Carl F. H. Henry, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), 156.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s