Problems with Penal-Substitution:
A Critique of Reformed (Calvinist) J.I. Packer’s article,
“The Logic of Penal Substitution”
I will go through Packer’s article, selecting the most relevant points, and briefly showing what classical Protestantism teaches about the Atonement and why it is unacceptable both Biblically and morally from a Catholic perspective. The classical Protestant view of the Atonement is commonly known as either Penal-Substitution or Vicarious Atonement. The terms ‘substitution’ and ‘vicarious’ are equivalent and essentially mean to take the place of something, while the term ‘penal’ means punishment.
In Chapter 1, Packer presents a brief historical background of Penal-Substitution:
The two main historical points relating to this idea are, first, that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it and, second, that the arguments brought against it in 1578 by the Unitarian Pelagian, Faustus Socinus, in his brilliant polemic De Jesu Christo Servatore (Of Jesus Christ the Saviour)1 have been central in discussion of it ever since. What the Reformers did was to redefine satisfactio (satisfaction), the main mediaeval category for thought about the cross. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, which largely determined the mediaeval development, saw Christ’s satisfactio for our sins as the offering of compensation or damages for dishonour done, but the Reformers saw it as the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice). What Socinus did was to arraign this idea as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Giving pardon, he argued, does not square with taking satisfaction, nor does the transferring of punishment from the guilty to the innocent square with justice; nor is the temporary death of one a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and a perfect substitutionary satisfaction, could such a thing be, would necessarily confer on us unlimited permission to continua in sin.
The first significant issue to note here is that Penal-Substitution was first envisioned by the early Protestant Reformers. The classical Catholic theological concept of “satisfaction” meant essentially “offering of compensation for dishonor done” but this was redefined by the Protestant Reformers to mean substitutionary punishment. In other words the Protestant Reformers understood this to mean Jesus got punished with the punishment our sins deserved. More specifically, God’s Wrath was poured out onto Jesus (who was innocent) rather than onto guilty sinners.
The Second significant issue is to note the position taken by Faustus Socinus who was strongly against the view of Penal-Substitution. Socinus claimed Penal-Substitution was unacceptable morally and rationally. (Packer’s claim that Socinus was a “Unitarian Pelagian” is irrelevant in this discussion and has no bearing on Socinus’ claims.) What is interesting here is that almost nothing is said here or elsewhere in the article about the Catholic objections to Penal-Substitution, which stemmed from redefining a Catholic concept to something it never meant. Catholics would agree with the stand taken by Socinus against Penal-Substitution.
Morally and rationally, the view fails because it entails an innocent individual, Jesus, receiving a punishment. Punishment, especially one coming from a just God, cannot be inflicted on the innocent, nor can a punishment be transferred. A just judge can rule that a guilty individual either be pardoned or punished, but the guilt can never be transferred. Because sin is first and foremost a personal offense to God, the option to pardon or punish is entirely His. See Appendix 1 at the end of this article for a brief overview of the Catholic view of the Atonement.
It also should be noted that Catholics also object to Penal-Substitution on the grounds that the concept is not only not found in Scripture, but contrary to Scripture. The theological ramifications of Penal-Substitution cannot be overstated, from a Catholic point of view Penal-Substitution is both blasphemous and heretical. God the Father punishing God the Son, for whatever reason, is unacceptable theologically (whether the Protestant adherents realize it or not). It introduces disunity and animosity among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Further, the fact is if the sinner deserves eternal punishment in hell that would mean Jesus would have had to be eternally damned and suffer eternal hellfire in place of that sinner, Jesus would have had to be cut off from God forever. The very fact Jesus did not do this strongly undermines Penal-Substitution.
… in trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game, Reformed theologians were conceding the Socinian assumption that every aspect of God’s work of reconciliation will be exhaustively explicable in terms of a natural theology of divine government, drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought. Thus, in their zeal to show themselves rational, they became rationalistic.4 Here as elsewhere, methodological rationalism became in the seventeenth century a worm in the Reformed bud, leading in the next two centuries to a large-scale withering of its theological flower.
Here, and throughout his article, Packer claims that Socinus’ criticism of Penal-Substitution is unfounded because it was too “rationalistic” and based on a 16th century Western view of government. The problem with this argument is that it simply isn’t a fair characterization of Socinus’ (and Catholic) criticisms, in fact with this attitude Packer virtually brushes the moral and theological problems aside in this article.
Packer spends a substantial amount of chapter 1 and following chapters making a case that the issue of the Atonement cant be neatly explained and comprehended, and is a theological mystery just as the Incarnation and Trinity are. There is truth to this claim, but it does not excuse the moral and theological problems that Penal-Substitution introduces. The Christological heresies in the early Church were inexcusable, even if the Incarnation and Trinity couldn’t be neatly and exhaustively expounded. Given this fact, Packer cannot simply dismiss these valid criticisms on the grounds that the Atonement is too theologically complex.
In chapter 4 Packer says this of the term “Penal” and “Substitution” joined together:
Thus is forged a conceptual instrument for conveying the thought that God remits our sins and accepts our persons into favour not because of any amends we have attempted, but because the penalty which was our due was diverted on to Christ. The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory.
I include this passage and others to drive home the point that Penal-Substitution entails God’s Divine Wrath was “endured and exhausted” by Jesus in place of sinners. Again, from a Catholic perspective it must be made clear this view is unacceptable on moral and theological grounds. Why classical Protestantism requires Penal-Substitution is directly related to the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ and is discussed below (it is also discussed in my Justification Article)
Later in chapter 4, Packer goes onto say:
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; and the primary function of the concept is to correlate my knowledge of being guilty before God with my knowledge that, on the one hand, no question of my ever being judged for my sins can now arise, and, on the other hand, that the risen Christ whom I am called to accept as Lord is none other than Jesus, who secured my immunity from judgment by bearing on the cross the penalty which was my due. The effect of this correlation is not in any sense to ‘solve’ or dissipate the, mystery of the work of God (it is not that sort of mystery!); the effect is simply to define that work with precision, and thus to evoke faith, hope, praise and responsive love to Jesus Christ.
I consider the reasoning presented above to be ridiculous and irresponsible. The Atonement, just as any doctrine, must be grounded in principles that are morally and theologically sound. What we see above is more of an appeal to emotion and downplaying of genuine criticism rather than proving his case fairly and genuinely on moral and theological grounds. Sadly, this is a common theme/defense throughout this article.
Later on in chapter 4, Packer continues with four “insights”:
Insight one concerns God; it is that the retributive principle has his sanction, and indeed expresses the holiness, justice and goodness reflected in his law, and that death, spiritual as well as physical, the loss of the life of God as well as that of the body, is the rightful sentence which he has announced against us, and now prepares to inflict.
Insight two concerns ourselves: it is that, standing thus under sentence, we are helpless either to undo, the past or to shake off sin in the present, and thus have no way of averting what threatens.
Here the punishment due to us is again stated, spiritual and physical death are what the sinner deserves. Again, it should be obvious that Jesus did not and could not undergo this punishment because He was innocent, and especially not in place of another guilty individual. Most significantly is the “spiritual” death aspect just mentioned, this is nothing short of suffering in hell, and under the Penal-Substitution model Jesus (God the Son) would have had to undergo this punishment as well! What is really troubling here is that the blasphemy and heretical ramifications appear to escape Packer and most other adherents to the Penal-Substitution system.
Insight three concerns Jesus Christ: it is that he, the God-man of John 1:1-18 and Hebrews 1-2, took our place under judgment and received in his own personal experience all the dimensions of the death that was our sentence, whatever these were, so laying the foundation for our pardon and immunity. …
Two things are worth noting here: First, again we see Packer affirm Jesus took our punishment including “all the dimensions of that death”. Second, that Packer has, so far, still not produced any Scripture clearly supporting his Penal-Substitution claims.
Insight four concerns faith: it is that faith is a matter first and foremost of looking outside and away from oneself to Christ and his cross as the sole ground of present forgiveness and future hope. Faith sees that God’s demands remain what they were, and that God’s law of retribution, which our conscience declares to be right, has not ceased to operate in his world, nor ever will; but that in our case the law has operated already, so that all our sins, past present and even future, have been covered by Calvary. So our conscience is pacified by the knowledge that our sins have already been judged and punished, however strange the statement may sound, in the person and death of another. …
Here the reason why Penal-Substitution is required begins to emerge. For the Protestant Reformers, ‘justification by faith alone’ entails the sinner believing that Jesus met all God’s requirements in their place, and that all that is needed to recognize and grasp Christ’s ‘finished work’ is faith, alone. To Protestants ‘peace of mind’ means believing that God wont (and cannot) judge you for your sins because Jesus was judged and punished in your place. For a Catholic, this so called ‘peace’ is not taught in Scripture and in fact not peace at all. Ironically, Packer says this notion may sound strange, and a Catholic would follow up by stating that it sounds strange because it in fact is. But it is more than strange, it is disturbing. It is recognizing the disturbing fact that God would (could) punish an innocent person and that God’s wrath will not (cannot) be satisfied unless someone, anyone, even His Beloved Son, feels that wrath unleashed on them as a substitute.
This analysis, if correct, shows what job the word ‘penal’ does in our model. It is there, not to prompt theoretical puzzlement about the transferring of guilt, but to articulate the insight of believers who, as they look at Calvary in the light of the New Testament, are constrained to say, ‘Jesus was bearing the judgment I deserved (and deserve), the penalty for my sins, the punishment due to me’ — ‘he loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). How it was possible for him to bear their penalty they do not claim to know, any more than they know how it was possible for him to be made man; but that he bore it is the certainty on which all their hopes rest.
This is a very ridiculous and irrational approach to theology. Basically, Packer is saying here the use of the term “penal” is not there to provoke theological insight and questions, but to state what is in fact true (in his opinion) and this “fact” consists in believing Jesus was punished with the punishment he as a sinner deserved. As it should be painfully obvious by now, to Catholic ears this is utter blasphemy and cannot be the work of a theology guided by the Holy Spirit.
Anticipating the rationalistic criticism that guilt is not transferable and the substitution described, if real, would be immoral, our model now invokes Paul’s description of the Lord Jesus Christ as the second man and last Adam, who involved us in his sin-bearing as truly as Adam involved us in his sinning (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45ff.; Rom. 5:12 ff.). Penal substitution was seen by Luther, the pioneer in stating it, and by those who came after as grounded in this ontological solidarity, and as being one ‘moment’ in the larger mystery of what Luther called ‘a wonderful exchange’
[Luther quotation in endnote:]‘This is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s: and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied himself of his righteousness that he might clothe us with it, and fill us with it: and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them . . .
Packer once again deflects away the same criticism raised but not answered throughout his article. Neither Jesus being the “last Adam” nor those Scripture quotes teach or allude or logically result in Penal-Substitution. The most important part about this quote can be seen in the endnote quoted above about this “wonderful exchange”. This “wonderful exchange” is at the heart of ‘justification by faith alone’, if the reader can remember and understand that they have understood the central pillar of the Protestant Reformation. Faith in Christ’s work results in the sinner receiving Christ’s righteous status imputed to them and the punishment for their sins endured by Christ in their place, on this ground the sinner is justified (declared righteous), and this is by faith alone. If Penal-Substitution is removed (or found to be false) then the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ collapses. At this point it should become clear why the criticisms were ignored and deflected, because the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ must be preserved and guarded at all costs (regardless of what the costs are, sadly, including Jesus getting punished). The heart of the Protestant Reformation hangs in the balance.
Here now is a further reason for rejecting the proposal — namely, that it misses or muffs the point that what Christ bore on the cross was the Godforsakenness of penal judgment, which we shall never have to bear because he accepted it in our place.
It is not entirely clear what Packer means by “Godforsakenness”, but it appears to be saying the punishment of being literally forsaken by God, which theologically translates into hell. To say that Jesus was “forsaken by God” in the sense of divine punishment is nothing short of a Christological heresy.
Rationalistic criticism since Socinus has persistently called in question both the solidarity on which substitution is based and the need for penal satisfaction as a basis for forgiveness. This, however, is ‘naturalistic’ criticism, which assumes that what man could not do or would not require God will not do or require either. Such criticism is profoundly perverse, for it shrinks God the Creator into the image of man the creature and loses sight of the paradoxical quality of the gospel of which the New Testament is so clearly aware. (When man justifies the wicked, it is a miscarriage of justice which God hates, but when God justifies the ungodly it is a miracle of grace for us to adore [Prov, 17:15; Rom. 4:5].) The way to stand against naturalistic theology is to keep in view its reductionist method which makes man the standard for God; to stress that according to Scripture the Creator and his work are of necessity mysterious to us, even as revealed (to make this point is the proper logical task of the word ‘supernatural’ in theology); and to remember that what is above reason is not necessarily against it. As regards the atonement, the appropriate response to the Socinian critique starts by laying down that all our understanding of the cross comes from attending to the biblical witnesses and learning to hear and echo what they say about it; speculative rationalism breeds only misunderstanding, nothing more.
The plan to deflect and downplay any criticism continues. There is a clear attack on reason here as well, with terms like “rationalistic” and “naturalistic” being used in a negative sense with “paradox” and “mystery” being championed instead. This level of “reasoning” is unacceptable and a clear attempt to shift the focus away from the genuine criticisms. (Just for the record Dr. Packer is a well respected Reformed theologian and professor.) The two verses he introduces above to try and create a “paradox” fails because, as it should be abundantly clear, his understanding of justification is wrong. The fact is, and this is a fundamental Christian concept, that our morality and God’s morality are based on the same principles. What God reveals as unacceptable behavior for men is likewise unacceptable behavior for God. Man should not tell lies, God does not tell lies. Man should not murder or punish an innocent person, God cannot and would not murder or punish an innocent person.
The real danger here is the agenda to defend ‘justification by faith alone’ at any and all costs. Scripture, Church History, Doctors of the Church, and even common sense itself are all expendable if a conflict arises between them and Sola Fide (Faith Alone). I’m not saying these things to be mean, but that is the only logical conclusion I can think of.
So far our analysis has, I think, expressed the beliefs of all who would say that penal substitution is the key to understanding the cross. But now comes a point of uncertainty and division. That Christ’s penal substitution for us under divine judgment is the sole meritorious ground on which our relationship with God is restored, and is in this sense decisive for our salvation, is a Reformation point against Rome37 [footnote 37: Cf. Anglican Article XI: ‘We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.’] to which all conservative Protestants hold. But in ordinary everyday contexts substitution is a definite and precise relationship whereby the specific obligations of one or more persons are taken over and discharged by someone else (as on the memorable occasion when I had to cry off a meeting at two days’ notice due to an air strike and found afterwards that Billy Graham had consented to speak as my substitute). Should we not then think of Christ’s substitution for us on the cross as a definite, one-to-one relationship between him and each individual sinner? This seems scriptural, for Paul says, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). But if Christ specifically took and discharged my penal obligation as a sinner, does it not follow that the cross was decisive for my salvation not only as its sole meritorious ground, but also as guaranteeing that I should be brought to faith, and through faith to eternal life?
Here we see, clearly, that this whole issue revolves around ‘justification by faith alone’. The red highlights above cannot be any more obvious as to the driving force behind accepting Penal-Substitution.
Also, they have to give up Toplady’s position. ‘Payment God cannot twice demand, First from my bleeding surety’s hand, And then again from mine’ — for it is of the essence of their view that some whose sins Christ bore, with saving intent, will ultimately pay the penalty for those same sins in their own persons. So it seems that if we are going to affirm penal substitution for all without exception we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, deny the saving efficacy of the substitution for anyone …
Now a new, but equally significant, doctrine emerges: the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement. It is the teaching that Jesus didn’t die for everyone and that God doesn’t love all but that Jesus only took the punishment of a select few. This certainly is the “logical conclusion” to Penal-Substitution, but again valid criticisms remain that are ignored as in an attempt to salvage Sola Fide at all costs.
Further, while it might be hard to see at first, the above passage teaches what is popularly known as ‘once saved, always saved’ (‘Eternal Security’) which is the teaching that salvation cannot be lost once it is gained. Because God cannot punish the same sin twice, if Jesus already endured the punishment for a Christian, the Christian cannot (and wont) be punished for their sins at the end of their life. Apart from the fact Penal-Substitution is wrong, the Bible is abundantly clear that salvation can be lost, so that is one more criticism classical Protestantism must either deal with or ignore. What is ironic here is that while reason is pushed aside when it comes to criticism of Penal-Substitution, especially Packer’s idea that God doesn’t play by the same moral principles as humans, it makes one wonder why God cannot or would not punish the same sin twice, with that type of reasoning in play He very well could.
Here are some quotes by famous Protestants giving their no nonsense views on the matter of Penal-Substitution:
Owen stated this formally, abstractly and non-psychologically: Christ, he said, satisfied God’s justice ‘for all the sins of all those for whom he made satisfaction, by undergoing that same punishment which, by reason of the obligation that was upon them, they were bound to undergo. When I say the same I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all accidents of duration and the like . . .’43 Jonathan Edwards expressed the thought with tender and noble empathy: ‘God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of his dreadful wrath. This made all the sufferings of Christ the more terrible to him, because they were from the hand of his Father, whom he infinitely loved, and whose infinite love he had had eternal experience of. Besides, it was an effect of God’s wrath that he forsook Christ. This caused Christ to cry out . . . “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This was infinitely terrible to Christ. Christ’s knowledge of the glory of the Father, and his love to the Father, and the sense and experience he had had of the worth of his Father’s love to him, made the withholding the pleasant ideas and manifestations of his Father’s love as terrible to him, as the sense and knowledge of his hatred is to the damned, that have no knowledge of God’s excellency, no love to him, nor any experience of the infinite sweetness of his love.’44 And the legendary ‘Rabbi’ Duncan concentrated it all into a single unforgettable sentence, in a famous outburst to one of his classes: ‘D’ye know what Calvary was? what? what? what?’ Then, with tears on his face — ‘It was damnation; and he took it lovingly.’ It is precisely this love that, in the last analysis, penal substitution is all about, and that explains its power in the lives of those who acknowledge it.
Here are two respected Reformed theologians, Owen and Edwards, who lay down clearly what Penal-Substitution entails. What you have just read here is what Packer never denied in this whole article, and what any knowledgeable Calvinist would not deny, but there is a strong attempt to sugar coat it and deflect attention off of it when genuine critcism is brought forward. In all of those quotes, each of them is saying that Christ underwent the equivalent punishment of hell. One more issue to point out regarding these quotes is how God could unleash His wrath on an individual and yet not be angry at that individual is one more serious criticism that needs to be explained but, sadly, will likely be placed in the ‘paradox’ category. Without really needing a cue from me, it should be again obvious these quotes are simply blasphemous and heretical.
[FOOTNOTE 44:] Luther: ‘Christ himself suffered the dread and horror of a distressed conscience that tasted eternal wrath;’ ‘it was not a game, or a joke, or play-acting when he said, “Thou hast forsaken me”; for then he felt himself really forsaken in all things even as a sinner is forsaken” (Werke, 5. 602, 605); and Calvin: ‘he bore in his soul the dreadful torments of a condemned and lost man’ (Inst. 11. xvi. 10). Thus Calvin explained Christ’s descent into hell: hell means Godforsakenness, and the descent took place during the hours on the cross.
Packer includes quotes from the two leading Protestant Reformers who make their views just as clear. It should also be pointed out that they misinterpreted “Jesus descended into ‘hell’” in the Apostles Creed to be in reference to Divine Punishment. The problem is historically that has been interpreted as Jesus freeing the OT Saints (Lk 16:19-31; 1 Pt 3:19), not hellfire, and the Creed places this descent after Christ’s burial not at His Passion. This truly is the most damnable heresy of all time because it annihilates the Trinity and Hypostatic-Union. It attacks and undermines the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all at once. Even Arius can be excused to an extent, but this blasphemy is inexcusable. God the Son being forsaken “as a sinner is forsaken” by God the Father and Jesus tasting the Father’s wrath are heretical (the first undermines the Hypostatic-Union, the other undermines the Holy Spirit which proceeds as the mutual love of the Father and Son) .
The ingredients in the evangelical model of penal substitution are now, I believe, all before us, along with the task it performs. It embodies and expresses insights about the cross which are basic to personal religion, and which I therefore state in personal terms, as follows:
(1) God, in Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.
(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.
(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.
(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.
(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’
Here is essentially a summary of the whole article. How he can appeal to a conscience and maintain an innocent individual was punished and that Jesus suffered hellfire are beyond my understanding. All I hope is that the reader has finally understood the big picture and how everything ties into Sola Fide.
In drawing the threads together, two general questions about the relation of the penal substitutionary model to the biblical data as a whole may be briefly considered.
(1) Are the contents and functioning of this model inconsistent in any way with the faith and religion of the New Testament? Is it degrading to God, or morally offensive, as is sometimes alleged? Our analysis has, I hope, served to show that it is not any of these things. And to have shown that may not be time wasted, for it seems clear that treatments of biblical material on the atonement are often influenced by prejudices of this kind, which produce reluctance to recognize how strong is the evidence for the integral place of substitution in biblical thinking about the cross.
Notice how he calls reasonable objections to his view “prejudices” when he doesn’t even realize it is his own view with the prejudices, and all to preserve Sola Fide at all costs. Not once does he explain how an innocent person can be punished, not once does he explain how the Father can unleash Divine Wrath on the Son. He has brushed off the criticisms each time they come up.
(2) Is our model truly based on the Bible? On this, several quick points may be made.
First, full weight must be given to the fact that, as Luther saw, the central question to which the whole New Testament in one way or another is addressed is the question of our relationship, here and hereafter, with our holy Creator: the question, that is, how weak, perverse, estranged and guilty sinners may gain and guard knowledge of God’s gracious pardon, acceptance and renewal. It is to this question that Christ is the answer, and that all New Testament interpretation of the cross relates.
Sadly it appears that the “answer” to how weak, perverse, estranged and guilty sinners are reconciled to God is by an equally weak, perverse, estranged and guilty system called Penal-Substitution. This all revolves around fear as well because unless these Protestants have a system in place that ‘guarantees’ them assurance of Heaven, regardless of how they arrived at that ‘guarantee’.
Second, full weight must also be given to the fact that all who down the centuries have espoused this model of penal substitution have done so because they thought the Bible taught it, and scholars who for whatever reason take a different view repeatedly acknowledge that there are Bible passages which would most naturally be taken in a penal substitutionary sense. Such passages include Isaiah 53 (where Whale, as we saw, [n. 36] finds penal substitution mentioned twelve times), Galatians 3:13, 2 Corinthians 5:15, I Peter 3:18; and there are many analogous to these.
Why is Packer appealing to a “history” which he admitted earlier in this article was invented by Luther, who didn’t have centuries of Church History espousing this view? Next, the phrase “because they thought the Bible taught it”, is dangerous because every heresy came about by a misreading of Scripture. Did not the Arians read, “the Father is greater than I” and other “passages which would most naturally be taken” in an Arian sense and come to some not so Christian conclusions? Also, those passages do not clearly teach penal substitution: 2 Cor 5:15 and 1 Pt 3:18 are some very weak attempts to garner credibility, they don’t come close. Isaiah 53 is the closest to such a notion, but when read carefully does not result in Penal-Substitution either, especially considering the few direct NT references to Is 53 (53:4, Mat 8:14-17; 53:5-6, 9, 1 Pt 2:18-25; 53:7-8, Acts 8:30-35; 53:12, Lk 22:37, Mk 15:27-29*) don’t teach Penal Substitution at all, quite the opposite in fact. The NT is abundantly clear the cross was an act by wicked men, NEVER is it said to be a point where Jesus suffered Divine Wrath.
The second quotation picks up comments on what, by common consent, are Paul’s two loci classici on the method of atonement, 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13. On the first, Hunter writes: ‘Paul declares that the crucified Christ, on our behalf, took the whole reality of sin upon himself, like the scapegoat: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul sees the Cross as an act of God’s doing in which the Sinless One, for the sake of sinners, somehow experienced the horror of the divine reaction against sin so that there might be condemnation no more.
‘Gal. 3:13 moves in the same realm of ideas. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.”’ (I interpose here my own comment, that Paul’s aorist participle is explaining the method of redemption, answering the question ‘how did Christ redeem us?’, and might equally well therefore be translated ‘by becoming a curse for us’.) ‘The curse is the divine condemnation of sin which leads to death. To this curse we lay exposed; but Christ on his cross identified himself with the doom impending on sinners that, through his act, the curse passes away and we go free.
2 Cor 5:21 is certainly a Protestant favorite, but it doesn’t quite say what Protestants think. I deal with this in another paper so I wont go into it here. For now it will be enough to state that Christ didn’t literally become sin, thus this passage is figurative. Gal 3:13 is a bit more tricky, but again we cant say Christ literally “became a curse” or was literally cursed, rather what this is saying is that Christ endured the most humiliating form of death (“became obedient to death, even death on a cross!”-Phil 2:5-11). This quote comes from Deut 21:22-23 which makes it clear this punishment is for those who committed sins worthy of death, but this says nothing about transferring this punishment. This punishment is clearly seen in places like Joshua 8:28-29 and Joshua 10:25-27 where the intended effect is the highest form of humiliation and shock. The New Testament references explicitly say this “hanging on a tree” was caused by the hands of wicked men, not about suffering Divine Wrath, and these passages contrast these evil men’s actions with the Father raising Jesus (Acts 5:30; 10:39-40; 13:28-30). Lastly it is worth pointing out that while Packer mentions the “scapegoat” in the above quote, the truth is the Bible doesn’t talk about the scapegoat in that way. (See Appendix 2 for information on the scapegoat and Passover Lamb)
I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new. I would like to thank all of those people who taught me about these issues and how to recognize and explain them, as well as all those who encouraged me to write this article.
Feel free to Email me with any comments or suggestions:
APPENDIX 1: A Brief Catholic view on the Atonement.
Catholics view the Atonement very differently than the classical Protestant view presented in this article. First of all God could have forgiven mankind outright, but God’s plan for forgiving by way of the cross was the most beneficial. Here is what St Thomas Aquinas teaches:
Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ's Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man's salvation. In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says (Romans 5:8): "God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners . . . Christ died for us." Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man's salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): "Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps." Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later (48, 1; 49, 1, 5). Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: "You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body." Fifthly, because it redounded to man's greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): "Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ's Passion than simply by God's good-will.
The Passion was not strictly necessary nor the only option, but it was in fact the best plan God chose to reconcile the world by as the above quote should make clear. The plan for the Passion was driven by love and forgiveness, not revenge, not to transfer guilt, and not to punish Jesus. Here is how the Catholic understands Christ’s Passion:
He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured, as stated above (46, 6). And therefore Christ's Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
Now it is the proper effect of sacrifice to appease God: just as man likewise overlooks an offense committed against him on account of some pleasing act of homage shown him. Hence it is written (1 Samuel 26:19): "If the Lord stir thee up against me, let Him accept of sacrifice." And in like fashion Christ's voluntary suffering was such a good act that, because of its being found in human nature, God was appeased for every offense of the human race with regard to those who are made one with the crucified Christ in the aforesaid manner
Christ is not punished in this case, but rather offers something up that is pleasing to God. He lived a life of perfect love and obedience and this appeased God’s wrath against sin by pleasing God with what He likes to see in all men: Love and Obedience. Rather than someone being punished, whomever unites themselves to Christ has the charges against them dropped and the channel for grace to flow into their souls was restored to them. Because Christ is the “Head” of His Body, the Church, all those united to Christ reap the benefits of the graces Christ merited.
APPENDIX 2: The Passover Lamb and Scapegoat
Two famous Old Testament sacrifices will briefly be examined to see whether they fit (so that they can prefigure) the Penal-Substitution understanding of the Atonement or not.
The first is the Passover Lamb. St Paul says, “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7) so there is no doubt that the Passover Lamb prefigured Christ. The instructions for the first Passover occur in Exodus 12:1-13 (an important passage to read). They are commanded to do two things with the unblemished lamb: Eat it, and sprinkle its blood on their doorframes. By obeying these rules the faithful Jews would be spared of God’s wrath on those who remained in disobedience. Christians would interpret these events as both the command to partake in the Eucharist (the actual Flesh and Blood of Christ) and to have the merits of Christ’s Blood be applied to our souls, cleansing them and making them righteous and acceptable in God’s sight (1 Jn 1:7-9). Regarding the issue of Penal-Substitution, nowhere is the Passover Lamb said to be ‘punished’ or wrath poured out on it, rather it is to act as something that brings the faithful together and the ‘merits’ of the lamb are applied for nourishment and protection/reconciliation.
The second is the Scapegoat. The proper rituals for the scapegoat are presented in Leviticus 16: 7-10. When we think of the term “scapegoat” we often think of someone who takes the fall or punishment when something goes wrong and someone has to be blamed. However, the Bible says something different: “the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat”. For Penal-Substitution to work the scapegoat would have had to have been punished (slaughtered) for sin, but this passage says just the opposite, instead of getting punished the scapegoat is kept alive and sent off into the wilderness and only in that sense could the sins said to be “taken away”.