Posted by: stpowen | October 23, 2017

The Theological and Biblical Basis of Penal Substitution

Isaiah 53:6. ‘We all like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, into his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’

Galatians 3:13. ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.’

First, a definition: ‘The doctrine of Penal Substitution states that God gave Himself in the Person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty of sin’ (Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach. IVP. ISBN 978-1-84474-178-6).

The doctrine of Penal Substitution  has encountered much opposition over the last several years.  Having debated it extensively on a discussion forum recently, I thought it would be a good idea to write my thoughts out in depth and present them here.  The temptation is simply to quote Isaiah 53:5-6 and finish there since these verses seem perfectly clear and comprehensive to me. However, since more evidence seems to be required, I give it below. This is quite a long post but I make no apology for that; the doctrine is so vital for the proper understanding of the Christian faith that it is worth spending some time upon it.

Penal Substitution is rooted in the character of God as He revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding with goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty.”  Immediately the question arises, how can God be merciful and gracious, how can He forgive iniquity, transgression and sin without clearing the guilty? How can He clear the guilty if He abounds with truth—if He is a ‘just Judge’ (Psalm 7:11)? How can it be said that, ‘Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed’ unless God can simultaneously punish sin and forgive sinners?   The answer is that ‘God……devises means, so that His banished ones are not expelled from Him’ (2 Samuel 14:14). Those means are Penal Substitution. “Learn ye, my friends, to look upon God as being as severe in His justice as if He were not loving, and yet as loving as if He were not severe. His love does not diminish His justice nor does His justice, in the least degree, make warfare upon His love. The two are sweetly linked together in the atonement of Christ” (C.H. Spurgeon).

Right at the start of the Bible (Genesis 2:16-17) we have a direct command to Adam, Adam, the ‘first man’ (1 Corinthians 15:47): ‘And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”’ The command is accompanied by a penal sanction– death.  Yet we know that in the Bible death is not restricted to simply the end of existence. ‘….It is appointed to men to die once, but after this the judgement’ (Hebrews 9:27).

In Genesis 1:28, we see that God blessed His creation; marriage, child-bearing and work are specifically mentioned in that verse as part of this blessing. But at the Fall in Genesis 3, the blessings are turned to curses. Childbirth is marked by pain, the marriage bond is marred, and work becomes hardship and struggle, with death as the final inevitable result (Genesis 3:16-19). These are penal sanctions by God; they are His righteous response to sin. Sinful men and women are not going to live in a perfect environment; every aspect of it has been marred by sin. ‘For the whole creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope’ (Romans 8:20).

So both our lives and our deaths are subject to the curse because of sin. We learn from Romans 5 that Adam was our federal head—what he did, we have done in him. Therefore just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned…..’ (v.12). God’s curse extends to mankind because we are every one of us sinners (e.g. 2 Chronicles 6:36). We read in Psalm 7:11 that ‘God is a just Judge [therefore whomever God punishes for sin must be guilty of sin], and God is angry with sinners every day,’ and in Proverbs 17:15 we learn that ‘he who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to God.’

 So we come to the necessity of Atonement. We must be very careful in saying that God cannot do something, but the Scriptures tell us that God ‘cannot deny Himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13). In the light of Proverbs 17:15, God surely cannot become an abomination to Himself by justifying guilty sinners without a penalty for sin! Be it said that God is under no obligation to show mercy to sinful humans; the angels who sinned had no Redeemer but were ‘cast down to hell and delivered into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgement’ (2 Peter 2:4). But if God, ‘according to the good pleasure of His will’ (Ephesians 1:5), has decreed mercy and salvation for certain sinful men and women, it surely cannot be at the expense of His justice. Someone must pay the price and satisfy God’s justice and His righteous anger against sin.

In the Scriptures we have the concept of the mediator, one who might fill up the gap between the outraged holiness of God and rebellious man (Isaiah 59:2). Job complained, “For He is not a man, as I am, that I should answer Him, and that we should go to court together. Nor is there any mediator between us who may lay his hand on us both.” But mediation requires a satisfaction to be made to the offended party. We see this is the book of Philemon. Here we have an offended party, Philemon, whose servant has run away from him, perhaps stealing some goods as he went; an offending party, Onesimus, and Paul who is attempting to mediate between them. Onesimus needs to return to his master, but fears the sanctions that may be imposed upon him if he does so. Paul takes these sanctions upon himself: ‘But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay…..’  (Philemon 18-19). Whatever is wanting to propitiate Philemon’s anger against his servant and to effect reconciliation, Paul the mediator willingly agrees to provide. In the same way, the Lord Jesus has become a Mediator between men and God (1 Timothy 2:5).

In 2 Corinthians 5:19, we learn that God does not impute trespasses against His people; in Christ; He has reconciled the world [believing Jew and Gentile alike] to Himself. How has He done this? Through the Mediator Jesus Christ. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us….’ (v.21). The Lord Jesus has taken our sins upon Himself and made satisfaction to God for them. Therefore the message of reconciliation can be preached to all.

A similar concept is that of a surety. This is someone who guarantees the debts of a friend and must pay them in full if the friend defaults. There are several warnings in the Book of Proverbs against becoming a surety (Proverbs 6:1-5; 11:15; 17:18), since one is making the debts of one’s friend effectively one’s own, yet we read in Hebrews 7:22, ‘By so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant.’ More on that verse presently.

In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were made to God for the sins of the people. We read over and over again that creatures to be offered had to be without blemish (Leviticus 1:3 etc., etc.). ‘It must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it’ (Leviticus 22:21). Given that He is the fulfilment of the O.T. sacrifices (Hebrews 9:11-15 etc.), the physical perfections of the sacrificed animals speak of the moral and spiritual perfections of Christ. 1 Peter 1:18-19 speaks of ‘….the precious blood of Christ as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.’ So it was necessary for the Lord Jesus to live the life that Adam failed to live– the life of perfect obedience to the Father’s will (Psalm 40:8). And this ‘Active Obedience’ is not a notional thing; it had to be lived out in the most practical way. Hence, ‘immediately’ after His baptism, ‘the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness’ (Mark 1:12-13) for an encounter with Satan. He must succeed where Adam fell.

God’s law makes two inexorable demands: ‘Do this and live’ (Leviticus 18:5; Galatians 3:12), and ‘The soul that sins shall die’ (Ezekiel 18:4). The first demand our Lord has met in His perfect obedience. He was made ‘under the law’ (Galatians 4:4) and fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). His obedience has been placed to the credit of His people (Romans 5:19) and they are now made ‘the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

For the second demand, we need to look again at Hebrews 7:22: ‘By so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant.’ Christ is specifically designated in Scripture as ‘the last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45) and we are told that the first Adam was a ‘type [or ‘figure’] of Him who was to come’ (Romans 5:14). ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15:22). All those in Adam perish in their sins; all those in Christ are united to Him in His perfect righteousness.

Who are those ‘in Christ’? Those He came to save; those who were given to Him by the Father before time began. “Christ came not to strangers but to ‘brethren’ (Hebrews 2:11-13). He came here not to procure a people for Himself, but to secure a people already His” (A.W. Pink).  There are many supporting texts for this, e.g. Matthew 1:21; John 6:39; 10:27-29; 17:2, 6; Ephesians 1:4. Christ is united federally to His people. They are ‘chosen in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:4), ‘Created in Christ’ (Ephesians 2:10); ‘circumcised in Him’ (Colossians 2:11) and ‘made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). But as Surety, the Lord Jesus must also pay the debt of His people, and if they are to be freed from their debt, He must pay the very last penny (Matthew 5:26).

So we come to the concept of the cup of God’s wrath. In Gethsemane, our Lord prayed, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). What was this cup which the Lord Jesus dreaded so much to drink? It is the cup of God’s wrath. ‘For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red. It is fully mixed and He pours it out; surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth drink’ (Psalm 75:8; c.f. Isaiah 51:17, 22; Jeremiah 13:13; 25:15; Ezekiel 23:32-34; Revelation 14:9-10 etc.). It represents God’s righteous judgement against a wicked world. This cup the Lord Jesus must drink down to the very dregs. All the wrath and punishment due to those whom He came to save was poured out on Him. ‘And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:6). ‘Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree….’ (1 Peter 2:24). ‘It pleased the LORD to crush Him; He has put Him to grief’ (Isaiah 53:10). Why would it please the Father to bruise or crush His beloved (Luke 3:22 etc. ) Son? Because by His suffering, the Son magnified God’s law and made it honourable. Sin was punished in full, so that God ‘might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26).

We learn in the Scriptures two things that the Lord Jesus became on our behalf. He became sin ‘for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21), and He became a curse ‘for us’ (Galatians 3:13). First, He became sin. ‘For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ So God the Father made the sinless Christ to be sin on our behalf. What does this mean? Well, it does not mean that Christ was made a sinner; He was never that! It means that all the sins of God’s elect were imputed to Christ– that is, laid to His account (c.f. Isaiah 53:6), and He has paid the penalty for them (Isaiah 53:5). At the same time, His perfect righteousness and obedience to His Father’s will are credited to us who believe.   This is what Luther termed the ‘Great Exchange.’ The sinless One made sin, and sinners made righteous through the cross.

It has been suggested that Christ was not made ‘sin’ in 2 Cor. 5:21, but a ‘sin offering.’ There are three reasons why this suggestion should be rejected:

Firstly, hamartia, the Greek word translated ‘sin’ never means ‘sin offering’ in the New Testament, though it sometimes does elsewhere.

Secondly, hamartia occurs twice in the verse, and it would be strange if it had two meanings in one sentence; but to say, “God made Him who knew no sin offering to be a sin offering for us” makes no sense.

Thirdly, in John 3:14, the Lord Jesus declares, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up……” The reference is, of course, to Numbers 21:8-9, where Moses made a ‘fiery serpent,’ lifted it up on a pole, and everyone who looked upon it was cured of snake-bite. The serpent is clearly some sort of type of the Lord Jesus, but what sort? Well where do we see in Scripture a red, fiery serpent? Well in Revelation 12:3, we are introduced to ‘A great fiery red dragon’ who, in verse 9, is seen to be the serpent, alias Satan himself. So how is Satan a type of Christ? He is a type of Christ made sin for us. The Lord Jesus manifested to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 2:8). The primary satanic work was the luring of mankind into sin. Christ was made the very epitome of sin for us, figured by the brazen serpent, and paid the penalty of His people’s sin in full, so that ‘the accuser of our brethren…..has been cast down’ (Revelation 12:10). Satan can no longer accuse Christians of sin because Christ has taken away their sin debt, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14) marked tetelestai, ‘Paid in Full’ (John 19:20; c.f. Matthew 17:24). Therefore ‘Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is he who condemns?’ (Romans 8:33-34).

Next, we come to Galatians 3:10-13. God’s law pronounces a curse on law-breakers: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’ (v.10; c.f. Deuteronomy 27:26; James 2:10).  We ourselves are cursed, for none of us have continued in God’s holy law. But, ‘Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law….’ How has He done that? ‘…..having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”’ (v.13; Deuteronomy 21:23). In God’s law it is written, so, as Luther says, ‘Christ hung on a tree; therefore Christ was accursed of God’ (Luther: Commentary on Galatians).

So what does it mean to be ‘accursed of God’? Let Paul answer first: ‘These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power’ (2 Thessalonians 1:10).   And then the Lord Jesus: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4-5; c.f. Matthew 25:41). So what does hell feel like? Well, we may think of darkness, pain and, according to Paul, separation from the presence of God, save perhaps for His abiding wrath. We may add, perhaps, the mocking and abuse of others (c.f. Isaiah 14:10-11). All these things came upon the Christ. Of the pain it is hardly necessary to speak, save to note that it could not be diminished in any degree. Our Lord was offered wine mixed with myrrh, but He would not take it (Mark 15:23); it was an analgesic, but He must suffer the full agony of sin and the wrath of the Father against sin.

Of the darkness, we note that, ‘When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour’ (Mark 15:33). By this time I suppose that the two thieves had fallen silent; the crowd had dispersed; even the Pharisees had got bored with mocking and gone home, and John had taken our Lord’s mother into his own house (John 19:27). The Lord Jesus hung alone—so utterly alone that about the ninth hour He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Hitherto, He had enjoyed the closest imaginable relationship with the Father (Mark 1:11; 9:7; John 8:29; 16:32). Even in Gethsemane, when He was almost overcome with the prospect of the horror that was approaching Him, the Father sent an angel to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43). But now, on the cross, His greatest extremity He must endure alone. He was ‘made sin’ and the Father, whose eyes are too pure to look upon sin, turned away from Him. I know that some people find this hard to accept, but it must be true because the Holy Spirit has preserved His words for us. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent” (Psalm 22:1-2). Although it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it was the ‘night season’ for darkness had fallen upon the land, as if to hide the shame of the God-man made sin. For those hours, as a Man, He was quite literally God-forsaken.

But at the end of the ninth hour, the sun came out again. God’s outraged justice had been satisfied; propitiation had been made, save for the actual act of dismissing His spirit which followed almost at once. God could now be ‘just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus’ (Rom. 3:26). The way to heaven was now wide open, the veil was torn asunder, the one acceptable sacrifice for sin had been made.

One question remains to be answered: how could Christ’s suffering, which lasted just a few hours, pay an infinite price? How could an infinite punishment be borne in a finite time? The answer is that an ordinary person, even if their sacrifice were acceptable to God, which is isn’t, would indeed need to suffer for an infinite period. But the Lord Jesus Christ was not an ordinary person. Just as sin against God is especially heinous because of His infinite worth and goodness, so Christ’s propitiation is of infinite value in the eyes of the Father because of His own infinite worth. Therefore the sufferings of Christ were infinite in value because He is infinitely worthy. Scripture attests that ‘by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified’ (Hebrews 10:14). Finally, the Father’s satisfaction with Christ’s atonement is proved by the fact that He raised Him from the dead.





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