Skip to main content

Open arms, pierced hands: How and why can you believe in Penal Substitution?

On Saturday I was part of Justin Brierley's Unbelievable show on Premier radio.  Listen here the discussion of What Happened on the Cross?

Essentially Steve Jeffery argued for a multifaceted view of the cross including Penal Substitution while Alan Molineaux wanted to omit Penal Substitution and keep Christus Victor at the centre. Greg Boyd and I offered pre-recorded additional perspectives.

I found Steve helpful and while I disagree with Alan I appreciated and learned from his wresting with the issues. We're unfinished people and I have plenty of questions that I wrestle with too.

Controversy can open up divisions and I'm nervous of that. Controversy is also a great opportunity to gain clarity. At risk of being a Church Gossip Column, observing spurious trends I think it's fair to say that penal substitution has been a matter of some controversy in the last decade for some in the UK church. What isn't! For me, further reflection is an opportunity to hear God and to let big words describe beautiful reality and lead me to worship.

I'm thankful for the bigger picture - for the global church and the wider church in my own nation... I'm thankful for men and women more godly, wise, experienced and thoughtful than me - in my generation and those long past. I'm concerned for knowing God for myself, my family and my neighbours - I want to be a bringer of good news. That has to mean being a messenger of the cross in my life and my words. But what can and should we say? Jesus died but what did and does and will that mean?

The cross is the heart of the gospel message and penal substitution among other facets catches the warm sunlight of the glory of God. From it we can draw lines to reconciliation, expiation, victory and many things too wonderful for words.

Justin asked me why I find Penal Substitution compelling? I find the cross compelling and confounding in every way - this particular facet... essentially my answer is, as the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith puts it...
The atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross: dying in our place, paying the price of sin and defeating evil, so reconciling us with God.
Penal Substitution says that Jesus paid the price of sin (penal) and died in our place (substitute). I find this persuasive not because I want to impose a system on the Bible but because I read it from the narrative of the Bible. Inevitably I'm blinded by my biases but I hope I'm seeking to draw Christ from the text. I believed the doctrine before I knew the terminology saints long before me used.

We could look at Genesis - that begins with the prophecy of a bruised victor, through whom flesh it put to death and resurrected. We could look at the gospel narratives of Jesus' life, and of the gospel accounts of the cross. Or to the story of Exodus - perhaps, The Greatest Prophecy of the Cross. 

Exodus tells of the Father demanding the release of his enslaved son Israel (a relational story) whom he is calling to himself. If the Serpent of Egypt will not let Israel go there will be a penalty of death on Pharaoh and his people. IThe story is penal. What follows is a dramatic de-creation of Egypt culminating in the Passover. That night, as The Jesus Storybook Bible says, the people would remember: The Lamb died instead of us. The death penalty falls upon Egypt's firstborn sons but there is a provision for God's people. A lamb dies in their place. The story is substitutionary.

Paul commentates: Jesus our passover lamb. And Jude adds: Jesus who led his people out of Egypt. The Lamb dies to bring people to the Triune God - so that their High Priest (also Jesus) can carry them into the presence of the Father on his heart (as the ascended Jesus now does!). Free from accusation and filled with the Holy Spirit.

As we read on - into the divine speech of Leviticus - we find every sacrifice pointing towards Jesus. They remain enslaved even in their freedom - free from Serpent Pharaoh but enslaved to the sin in their own hearts - needing a penal substitute who can liberate them once and for all. Every burnt offering, taken apart and consumed, pleasing to the LORD, is a beautiful picture that interprets the darkness of Jesus' crucifixion and tells the story of God's love written in blood.
11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Leviticus 17:11) 
Penal Substitution takes my sin seriously and it takes God's love seriously. Both/and. It says love burns against sin - the LORD is jealous for his people, for his son, for his image in this world. And the opposite of love isn't wrath but indifference. It's good that love burns against sin. But it's good too that this love, strong as death, doesn't just burn against sin but wins against it through the grace-filled purpose of the God who puts himself in our place and pays for us. Love burns. Love wins.

Aside: If you teach that the father in the parable of the sons in Luke 15 is God the Father you get atonement-less reconciliation taught by Jesus on the road to the cross... But, the woman, the shepherd and the father are all pictures of Jesus. His searching and the going out to find are the picture of the out-going Saviour who came to save us even to the shame and cost of his own death for us. His open arms are the cross and are where repentance happens. Just sayin...

Putting all the pieces together it is Christus Victor by self-giving love. It's victory through the weakness of the penalty-bearing death of a substitute in our place. Weak and beautiful. As my former colleague Dan Peterson quotes from FF Bruce:
Calvin (not to be automatically confused with later Calvinism and its implications) kept it clear 500 years ago saying
“We do not admit that God was ever hostile to his son, or angry with him. For how could he be angry with his beloved son in whom his soul delighted. Or how could Christ by his intercession appease the Father for others if the Father were incensed against him? But we affirm that he sustained the weight of divine severity; since being 'smitten and afflicted of God' he experienced from God all the tokens of wrath and vengeance."
John Stott re-iterated this persuasively in his The Cross of Christ in the mid-80s. The Trinity conspires together in salvation and the Son experiences divine severity that we should face for our betrayal. The Father forsakes his Son yet loves him. The Son is no uninvolved bystander, he's fully God and fully man. He's Trinity and he's us. His life, death, resurrection and ascension matter. He brings us into his life - what he assumed he redeemed, he became man to make us God, and other allusions to the early church fathers. This is a doctrine rooted in Trinity, in union with Christ, in the incarnation. More precious beautiful things.

Justin also asked me what difference penal substitution makes to my life...

The Christian life is faith in Christ's cross from beginning to end so what we believe about the cross shapes the Christian life entirely. Assurance, pastoral care, care for the poor, evangelism and everything else flow from our understanding of the cross.

For me, it makes a difference that Christ bore the penalty in my place. I don't meditate on the term "penal substitution" so much, but I know what it means for me.

There is no penalty for me. No accusation against me. When I suffer it's not God against me because God is for me. Propitiation - the other word used around penal substitution tells us of wrath averted - it tells us of propitiousness secured. It's the reality of God's love for sinners. He is for us. He loved so he sent. He loves and will always love me.

And substitution means that Jesus has been where I am. He put himself in my place. He became an Israelite. He became a Human Being. He became one of us. He's able to sympathise. He's been is worse places than I find myself. And if he'd do that for me, let me go for others. Penal Substitution offers me a life I could not win for myself. God helps those who help themselves? No - God helps those who can't help themselves. His heart is for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant...

Not so much, My God is so big so strong and so mighty there's nothing that he cannot do... What place does such a theology of power and glory have for any interpretation of The Cross. No, sing more My God is so small, so weak and so loving, he died on the cross for me. There is tender mercy in the love of the Triune God - bruised and broken and yet triumphant.

I'm a son in my father's arms because of what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done for me. And I live in hope of a renewed world where all sin and evil and pain are gone and where I dwell with my God forever. "...I am his and he is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ."


  1. The end of your penultimate para sums it up well. Christ is victorious though bruising and brokenness. Just like we are, and just like the Church is. Not only does a rejection of penal substitution gut the OT of meaning or beauty (because - hello - those lambs were neither victorious nor sympathetic) but it also leaves us with a Jesus who is harder to worship.

    There's not much pure victory in the world for Christians, but through the confusion and the difficulty we can see our sins removed and say 'my Beloved is mine.'


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Big eyes full of wonder"

Books. Fiction. Libraries. Second only to churches as are the best gateways in your community to ultimate reality and new possibilities.

Our local library has just re-opened after refurbishment, and I love that our boys have spent several mornings there during the summer holidays, discovering some wonderful new stories.

I realised a few months back that I wasn't reading enough fiction. My work necessitates reading a lot of non-fiction, a mix of historical and contemporary thinking, biblical studies and theology. But fiction is the cinderella. Easily overlooked, and yet able to awaken my imagination and show me the way things are meant to be.

So I've picked up a few more lately - bought and borrowed. Not every book attempted flies, and that's ok. These have been winners though.

Ink. This is Alice Broadway's debut novel. It's young adult fiction and tells the story of Leora who lives in a world where the events of your life are tattooed on your skin. Nothing gets hid…

Uniquely Matthew

Reading gospel accounts in parallel is sometimes used to blur the differences in perspective between the evangelists, seeking to harmonise the texts and find a definitive historical account of what happened. No such thing exists because every account is biased and limited. You simply can't record everything. You have to hold a vantage point. And that's not a problem.

Matthew, Mark and Luke take a very different vantage point to John who was of course an eyewitness himself of the events. Comparing the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke across the death and resurrection of Jesus yields two steps.

Firstly, the common ground. All three accounts tell of...
Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross…. · Jesus labelled as King of the Jews…. · Criminals crucified with Jesus… · Darkness in the daytime… · Jesus' loud final cry… The women who witnessed Jesus death, and Jesus' burial… · The tomb lent to Jesus by Joseph of Arimithea… · The women who went to the tomb on the morning of the…

Songs we're singing in Church

Christians are a singing people, it's part of what we do when we gather.

Our church meets morning an evening on a Sunday - normally using 5 songs in each service. So, over the year that's about 520 song-slots available. The report from the database system we use ( tells us that in the past year we've sung about 150 different songs.

Our current most used song has been sung 11 times in the last year, just under once a month. Our top 10 are used about every 6 weeks. By #30 we're talking about songs used every two months. The tail is long and includes loads of classic hymns from across the centuries, plus other songs from the past 40 years, that we have used around once a term or less.

1. Rejoice - Dustin Kensrue

2. Come Praise & Glorify - Bob Kauflin

3. Man of Sorrows - Hillsong

4. Cornerstone - Hillsong

Rejoice was a song I didn't previously know, along with a couple of others that have quickly become firm favourites for me: Chri…