The Cold, Hard Truth of Penal Substitution


“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, 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.” – Isaiah 53:5-6 (ESV)

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” – 1 Peter 2:24 (ESV)

Penal substitution is a 16th century Reformed doctrine that is an extension of Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement. The doctrine of penal substitution states that Christ bore the sins of God’s elect in His own body on the cross, thereby not merely making atonement for sin, but also appeasing God’s divine wrath over those sins (propitiation). We see this expressed well in Isaiah 53:5-6 (ESV): “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace…All we like sheep have gone astray…and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Look also at Romans 5:6,8 (ESV): “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Likewise in 1 Peter 2:24 (ESV), “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

I’ve often heard fellow Christians describe the result of Christ’s death on the cross as the divine judge declaring us “not guilty” or that it’s “just-as-if-I-never-sinned.” When I hear it, as I did in a Christian song earlier this evening before I thought about writing this article, I cringe. As I posted on my Facebook page a couple of days before I started writing this article, “penal substitution doesn’t mean that we were declared ‘not guilty,’ but that we were declared guilty and Christ bore our punishment for us. It isn’t ‘just-as-if-I-never-sinned,’ it’s ‘I was, from the moment of conception, a totally depraved sinner deserving of eternity in the lake of fire, but Jesus was punished in my place.'”

Jesus was punished in my place. He bore my sins in His body on the cross. Without Christ, I – from the very moment I was conceived in my unmarried mother’s womb – was totally depraved and utterly deserving of eternity in the lake of fire, for Adam’s sin that was imputed (charged to) me (because I sinned in Adam), for my sinful nature that resulted from Adam’s sin, and for my own innumerable sins. Penal substitution means that Jesus was punished in my place, that my sins were placed upon Him just as the sins of Israel were placed on the sacrificial lamb under the Law of Moses (see Leviticus 4). Worse, He who knew no sin, He who was utterly sinless, was made the very personification of sin so that, in Him, I could be made righteous (see 2 Corinthians 5:21) through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (see Romans 5:18-21).

The heretical “God-declared-me-not-guilty-and-it’s-just-as-if-I-never-sinned” doctrine eliminates the penal nature of Christ’s death on the cross and makes God out to be a liar. In order for God to declare us “not guilty,” it would have to mean that we really were without sin, that we really were “not guilty.” That, of course, makes God out to be a liar because His word says that we’re guilty. Worse, if we were really “not guilty,” then there’s no basis for Christ to bear our punishment for us, no basis for His death on the cross – meaning that He died in vain. And, no, we don’t go from being “guilty” to “not guilty,” but from “guilty and condemned” to “forgiven, justified and made righteous.”

The cold, hard truth of penal substitution is that we humans have been, since the moment Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, totally depraved and entirely deserving of eternity in the lake of fire. We were guilty and stood condemned (see John 3:18 and Romans 3:9). We were without hope and “without God in the world” (see Ephesians 2:12). We would still be condemned, still be without hope and without God in the world, had it not been for Christ bearing our sins on the cross – the innocent being punished for the guilty. If we insist on using the courtroom analogy that so many like to use, it isn’t that the judge declared us “not guilty,” but that the judge declared us “guilty” and condemned us to die an eternal death in the lake of fire (see John 3:18, Romans 3:9 and Revelation 20:15). However, instead of God’s elect being hauled away to bear that punishment, we have been set free. Why? Because Jesus Christ – God’s only-born Son – was punished in our place. While we were still sinners, still on our way to that eternal lake of fire (as we were ever since Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden), Christ died for us (see Romans 5:6-8).

If we’re going to insist on using the courtroom analogy, then here’s the order of events: the entire human race was declared guilty, both because of Adam’s sin and our own. Then Jesus was punished in the place of His elect, the innocent for the guilty. Then, at the sentencing phase, God’s elect are told that the punishment they so rightly deserve was borne for them and that they are no longer subject to that punishment. Instead of punishment (that Christ bore in their place), they receive His righteousness.

That is the cold, hard truth of penal substitution.

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