What is Penal Substitutionary Atonement and why is it the most important doctrine?
In the simplest possible terms, the biblical doctrine of penal substitution holds that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross takes the place of the punishment we ought to suffer for our sins. As a result, God’s justice is satisfied, and those who accept Christ can be forgiven and reconciled to God. Let me give you a succinct, one sentence explanation of Penal Substitutionary Atonement and then we will look at the doctrine in more detail: Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of sinners, thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins.
The word penal means “related to punishment for offenses,” and substitution means “the act of a person taking the place of another.” So, penal substitution is the act of a person taking the punishment for someone else’s offenses. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is Substitute, and the punishment He took, at the cross, was ours, based on our sin (1 Peter 2:24). You may notice that this sounds very judicial and reflects the language of a courtroom and you would be correct in noticing that. Judicial terms are not foreign to the Christian; we speak of justification, reward, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Great White Throne Judgment of the Wicked and others so it is sensible to speak of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
According to the doctrine of penal substitution, God’s perfect justice demands some form of atonement for sin. Humanity is depraved, to such an extent that we are spiritually dead and incapable of atoning for sin in any way (Ephesians 2:1). Penal substitution means Jesus’ death on the cross propitiated, or satisfied, God’s requirement for justice. God’s mercy allows Jesus to take the punishment we deserve for our sins. As a result, Jesus’ sacrifice serves as a substitute for anyone who accepts it. In a very direct sense, Jesus is exchanged for us as the recipient of sin’s penalty.
Objection: Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a Calvinist Doctrine. Answer: Of course it is. Penal Substitutionary Atonement follows, naturally, with the flow of the Doctrines of Grace. Total Depravity lays out the case against us as sinners and Particular Redemption identifies those for whom Christ was the substitute and the Perseverance of the Saints explains the efficacy and durability of the Atonement.
Objection: Penal Substitutionary Atonement is unbiblical.
Answer: (Quoting Got Questions Ministries) Penal substitution is clearly taught by the Bible. In fact, much of what God did prior to Jesus’ ministry was to foreshadow this concept and present it as the purpose of the Messiah. In Genesis 3:21, God uses animal skins to cover the naked Adam and Eve. This is the first reference to a death (in this case, an animal’s) being used to cover (atone for) sin. In Exodus 12:13, God’s Spirit “passes over” the homes that are covered (atoned) by the blood of the sacrifice. God requires blood for atonement in Exodus 29:41–42. The description of Messiah in Isaiah 53:4–6 says His suffering is meant to heal our wounds. The fact that the Messiah was to be “crushed for our iniquities” (verse 5) is a direct reference to penal substitution.
Word Wealth: Kaphar/To Make Atonement: Kaphar, literally, is to cover over or purge. Kaphar and expiate (offset/take away) are the two glorious halves of what happened on Good Friday. Christ, the suffering Lamb, covered over our sin with His precious blood and in so doing removed the filthiness of our sin from the sight of the Father.
During and after Jesus’ ministry, penal substitution is further clarified. Jesus claims to be the “good shepherd” who lays down His life for the sheep in John 10:10. Paul, in Romans 3:25–26, explains that we have the righteousness of Christ because of the sacrifice of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, he says that the sinless Christ took on our sins. Hebrews 9:26 says that our sins were removed by the sacrifice of Christ. First Peter 3:18 plainly teaches that the righteous was substituted for the unrighteous.
Penal substitution derives from the idea that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice, that is, that God is not willing or able to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction for it. It states that God gave himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for our sin.
Important theological concepts about penal substitution depend on the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who believe that Jesus was himself God, in line with the doctrine of the Trinity, believe that God took the punishment upon himself rather than putting it on someone else. In other words, the doctrine of union with Christ affirms that by taking the punishment upon himself Jesus fulfils the demands of justice not for an unrelated third party but for those identified with him. If, in the penal substitution understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ deals with sin and injustice, his resurrection is the renewal and restoration of righteousness. Key biblical references upon which penal substitution is based include:
- Isaiah53:4-6, 10, 11—”Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all … It was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin … By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.” (RSV)
- Romans3:23-26—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (NRSV)
- 2 Corinthians5:21—”For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (RSV)
- Galatians3:10, 13—”All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ … Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.'” (RSV)
- 1 Peter2:24—”He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”(RSV)
- 1 Peter3:18—”For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (RSV)
Now that we have explained what Penal Substitutionary Atonement is, let us look to some shadows of the Atonement in the Old Testament.
The Burnt Offering: A Shadow of the Cross
Leviticus 1:3-9 (HCSB)
1 Then the Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting: 2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When any of you brings an offering to the Lord from the livestock, you may bring your offering from the herd or the flock. 3 “If his gift is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to bring an unblemished male. He must bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted by the Lord. 4 He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. 5 He is to slaughter the bull before the Lord; Aaron’s sons the priests are to present the blood and sprinkle it on all sides of the altar that is at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 6 Then he must skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. 7 The sons of Aaron the priest will prepare a fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Aaron’s sons the priests are to arrange the pieces, the head, and the suet on top of the burning wood on the altar. 9 The offerer must wash its entrails and shanks with water. Then the priest will burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.”
The first thing we want to see is where the instruction took place. In Exodus, the Lord spoke from the burning mountain, which is a picture of His holiness and the fact that He is apart from the creation. The picture of a forbidding God speaking from a burning mountain also invokes the awe, reverence and fear that are due Him. Here, though, the Lord, Himself, calls Moses to the entrance of the Tabernacle (also called the Tent of Meeting in some translations). Before, the Lord was apart from His people, now He is in their midst; the giving of the Law was essentially, a marriage between God and the People of Israel. In Leviticus, God lays out the ground rules for the marriage; He lays out the obligations of the People as His bride and His role as the husband in this covenant marriage.
Let’s look at a few points in overview and then we will discuss, in earnest, what they mean and what they show is yet to come…
- The Burnt Offering is a Freewill offering.
- For those that can afford it, the animal sacrificed is to be from the herd or the flock (verse 2) and for those that cannot afford it, the animal must be a turtledove or young pigeon (verse 9)
- The animal must be without blemish, i.e. no physical defects such as a limp, blindness, or the like.
- The offerer will lay both hands on the head of the animal. In the Amplified Version it points out the fact that this symbolically transfers the guilt of the penitent onto the animal to be offered.
- The penitent person kills the animal before the Lord (that is, in His Presence) Aaron and his sons, the priests will present the blood to the Lord and then dash it upon the altar.
- The animal will be skinned and cut into pieces. (This particular passage does not prescribe a set number of pieces.)
- The entire animal, minus the skin, is laid upon the altar and burned
The giving of a Burnt Offering can occur in one of two contexts, a sin context such as when Noah offered Burnt Offerings after the Flood (Genesis 8:20), or a praise context, such as in Psalm 66:3 when the Psalmist offered costly burnt offerings in gratitude for the Lord’s deliverance. Here, we are looking at the Burnt Offering as a covering (atonement) for sin.
Aaron and his sons do the burning of the offering because they are symbols of the Lord. The Lord so hates sin that he must utterly, completely, and totally destroy it and by doing the burning, they picture the Lord destroying the sin. I used three synonyms to demonstrate the superlative hatred that the Lord has for sin. The animal that is burned in its entirety, of course, symbolized the sin that was being destroyed. By bringing the offering the penitent person shows that he recognizes that sin must be destroyed and that he is appealing to the Lord’s mercy, which is what allows the animal to be destroyed in the place of the sinner.
So how, in the world, does this picture the cross? To answer that we need to be sure that we have a clear understanding of what happened at the cross.
- Jesus, who knew no sin became sin; he took our sin upon Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- The Son of Man gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28)
- The Lamb of God took away the sin of the world (John 1:29, John 1:36)
- Christ was made a curse for us (Galatians 3:13)
- Jesus became our High Priest, Himself purged our sins, and sat down at the Right Hand of Majesty on High (Hebrews 1:3, 2:9, 2:17)
- The payment of our sin is FINAL (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12-15, 9:19-20, 9:24-28)
The Law was a shadow of things to come (Hebrews 10:1-20) and the destruction of sin that we see in the burnt offering was made complete on the cross. In the very instant that Jesus cried out that God had forsaken Him (Matthew 27:46) the destruction of sin was made complete through the suffering of Jesus in order that Jesus might bring many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10).
Because of His obedience and atoning sacrifice, YHWH, God the Father has restored unto Him the name at which every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge, Lord. (Notice Philippians 2:10 does not say at the name Jesus but at the name of Jesus, which means a different name and it is Lord.) Only a sinless life could satisfy the wrath of God and only God, having humbled Himself, and come as a man (Philippians 2:6) could live a sinless life and satisfy all that His holiness required.
The sinless animal stood in the place of the Son of Man until He came and when He did, the picture from the sacrifice became the reality of the cross…
The Sin Offering (from Got Questions)
“A sin offering was a sacrifice, made according to the Mosaic Law, which provided atonement for sin. The Hebrew phrase for “sin offering” literally means “fault offering.” The sin offering was made for sins committed in ignorance, or unintentional sins. The ritualistic method of the sin offering and the animal to be offered varied depending on the status of the sinner. For example, a high priest who sinned unintentionally would offer a young bull. A king or a prince would offer a young male goat. People in the private sector would sacrifice a young female goat or lamb, unless they were too poor, in which case they were only required to offer two turtledoves or pigeons. Full details of the sin offering and the requirements associated with it are enumerated in Leviticus 4 and Numbers 15.
Again, the sin offering was sacrificed when a person sinned unintentionally by breaking one of the Lord’s commandments and later realized his guilt (Leviticus 4:27). Sin offerings were also part of the ceremonies on the Day of Atonement, as the high priest made two sin offerings: a bull for himself and a young male goat for the congregation (Leviticus 16:11, 15). Unlike some other offerings, the sin offering was not eaten. The live animal was brought to the altar and the sinner was required to lay his hand on the head of the animal (Leviticus 4:29). Then the animal was killed, at which point the priest would take some of the blood and put it on the horns of the altar (verse 30). In some cases, some of the blood was also sprinkled inside the tabernacle (verses 6 and 17). Then all the rest of the blood was poured at the base of the altar (verse 34). The fat of the sin offering was removed and burned on the altar. But all the rest of the carcass was taken “outside the camp to a place ceremonially clean, where the ashes are thrown,” and there the carcass was burned “in a wood fire on the ash heap” (verse 12). “In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven” (verse 35).
The sin offering was a poignant picture of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. He was a “lamb without blemish” (1 Peter 1:19; cf. Leviticus 4:32) whose precious blood was spilled after being publicly slain. Jesus was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem, just as the sin offering was to be burnt outside the camp (Hebrews 13:12; cf. Leviticus 4:12). Just as the sacrificial lamb makes atonement for unintentional sins, Jesus’ blood made atonement for the sin of any person who realizes his guilt before God and asks for that atonement to be applied to him (John 3:16; Ephesians 1:7). “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
Every person has broken the Law of God in one way or another, whether we realize it or not. Humanity is sinful, and we are all guilty before God (Romans 3:23). It must have been painful for sinners under the Mosaic Law to slaughter an innocent animal when they knew they were the ones who had done wrong. In the same way, it is painful for us to admit our guilt and to know that the innocent and holy Son of God took the punishment for our sin. But this salvation God has provided, and it is the only way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Praise the Lord that sin offerings are no longer required, because we have been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).”
Beloved, there is so much more we could discuss. Had we 20 lifetimes, we could not plumb all the riches of the Atonement. But this being Resurrection Sunday, we need to ask, “What does all of this have to do with the Resurrection?” Simple, the Resurrection is God’s seal of approval on the Atonement.
Did you notice that Jesus used a banking term when He cried out from the cross? Yes, tetelestai means “it is finished,” but in its cultural context, tetelestai was used in banking, specifically loans which gives it the connotation of being paid in full. And isn’t that amazing, that Christ Himself paid the wages of sin on our behalf? The wages of sin is death and you can be sure that those wages will be paid. They were either paid at the cross or they will be paid for all eternity. The Resurrection is our receipt, if you will, that our sin debt is paid in full. Just as nothing can ever keep Jesus in the grave, nothing can keep our sin debt from being satisfied by His atoning death and resurrection.
It is this, Beloved, that causes us to break forth in jubilant exultation at the Name, Jesus. All of our sin, everything that separates us from God was broken at the Cross and sin’s power forever destroyed by the Resurrection. If that doesn’t make you wanna shout nothing will.