Online Articles

Online Articles

Penal Substitution


“Penal Substitution” refers to someone or something replacing another person or thing with the goal of removing the punishment due them and placing it upon themselves.  It is Christ that is the very fabric of the discussion.  He is the “someone” that has supposedly been our “substitute”.



Some claim penal substitution has origination in some of the earlier churches, but there is no evidence of that.  Instead, the doctrine more clearly was defined by men such as Anselm, Archbishop of Catebury, in his work “Cur Deus Homo” (Why God became man - 1093).  The majority of writers through the 2nd century up until the 11th century did little but quote scripture.  Even wikipedia recognizes that “In scholarly literature it has been generally recognized for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church (”.  Generally speaking, this in itself should give us good reason to strongly consider whether the truth can be found in the doctrine.


Anselm’s ideas were later adapted into what we currently have today known as “penal substitution” by men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin in the Reformation Movement.  William Clarke, a Baptist Theologian of the Colgate Theological Seminary says this about the Reformation changes regarding Anselm’s position:


“At the Reformation, this doctrine (of Anselm, MB) was modified by the introduction of the analogies of criminal law. In this view, the satisfaction that was due to God consisted in punishment. It was now held that Christ actually took the place of sinners in the sight of God, and as their substitute suffered the punishment that was due to them, including, as many of the Reformers taught, the sufferings of hell. Upon him fell all the punishment of all the sins of all the men for whom he died; against them, therefore, penal justice could have no further claim,” An Outline of Christian Theology, p. 319.


There are serious implications involved with such a doctrinal position.  Some of you are familiar with John Calvin and his doctrine, from which many today have fallen from the truth.  He was a large contributor in creating the modern day version of the Penal Substitution Theory (PST).  In his book Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin says this about Christ’s sacrifice:


Our acquittal is in this that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God, (Is. 53: 12.) We must specially remember this substitution in order that we may not be all our lives in trepidation and anxiety, as if the just vengeance which the Son of God transferred to himself, were still impending over us (Inst. II.xvi.5) (underlines added by me).


Calvin emphasizes that not only did Christ take our punishment, but our guilt also.  After such a sacrifice, he believes the vindicated sinner no longer will fear the possibility of sinning because in fact the sinner cannot sin because Christ has already done away with all sin when it was imputed to Him.


One unknown writer on the “Grace To You (GTY)” website put it thusly (my underlines).


And here again I say is the heart of the Christian gospel. The great doctrine of substitution, that is that Christ was our substitute in dying is basic to our faith. In fact, we could safely say that all other elements of salvation merely surround this great core truth.  One of my favorite writers is now with the Lord, a man by the name of Leon Morris, you do well to read anything he ever wrote. Leon Morris writes, "Redemption is substitutionary for it means that Christ paid that price that we could not pay, paid it in our stead and we go free. Justification interprets our salvation judicially and as the New Testament sees it, Christ took our legal liability, took it in our stead..…"Was there a price to be paid? He paid it. Was there a victory to be won? He won it. Was there a penalty to be borne? He bore it. Was there a judgment to be faced? He faced it,"





Defining the Positions


1)  Penal Substitution (Penal Substitution Theory - PST)

Christ died and took the penalty of our sins upon Himself.  All sins of all mankind were imputed into Christ when He died on the cross and they literally became His own.   Some say Christ literally became sin, so exceedingly sinful that Christ was said to have been separated from the Father at the point of death as was befitting of a sinner.  Christ died as our “substitute, “in our place”, or “in our stead” (none of which are found in scripture).

2) Christ The Propitiation

Christ died for  us, or on our behalf.  That is, Christ was the determined sacrifice that was necessary to remove the sin from us and make us no longer the target of God’s wrath.  Our sins were not made to be His, nor did he pay any penalty that we were deserving, but rather, by the rules instantiated by God that blood from a perfect sacrifice is sufficient to remove our sins, He Himself stood to be our sacrifice (and the only one able to do so).


Do you see the difference?


If Christ had the sin from all men from all time periods imputed to Himself then: What penalty is left to be suffered?  The answer? THERE IS NONE!  Martin Luther and John Calvin came to this exact conclusion.  Are there those of you are familiar with the TULIP concept of  Calvinism?  The “P in TULIP stands for:  Perseverance of the saints!  They taught that the saved could not fall away (known as “once saved always saved”) and that the saved do not have to fear sinning because the Holy Spirit selected them as the “saved” and sin can no longer be applied to them with its consequences because Christ already PAID IT ALL. To them, God cannot hold us accountable for sin, in fact, sin is not even possible because Christ has already taken ALL of its consequences upon Himself.  If all sin was imputed to Christ, what is leftover?  Would God be just if He held man accountable for something which Christ already “paid in full”? NO!


Some might ask:  “Wouldn’t that mean that ALL of mankind is saved because all sin was done away (Universal Salvation)?”  That is where the ‘L’ in TULIP comes from.  Limited Atonement!  Just as it sounds, limited atonement means that atonement did not apply to all men, it was selective in its reach.  Christ’s blood did not apply to all men, it only applied to those who were predetermined to be saved, “the elect“.


I hope I have made the point that this doctrine is heavily intertwined with the Calvinist stance on scriptures. 

Now it is not fair to say that some doctrine is incorrect just because one, or many men believed it that coincidentally believed other erroneous things, but the fact of the matter is, that this pulls at the very fabric of some of the principal beliefs that the churches of Christ have held since the first century churches were established.  In the following parts of this article I will dive into the very scriptures that are used to attempt to support this doctrinal position.  For now I ask the reader to familiarize themselves with these passages:


1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 53:3-6