Penal Substitution Debate - Affirmative Rebuttal Essay
By Turretin Fan
Matthew 20:28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Jerome (circa A.D. 347-420) writing about Matthew 20:28 stated: “He does not say that he gave his life for all, but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.” Because he has given his life as a penal substitute for the elect (an equivalent group to those who will believe), all the elect will live. This concept of particular redemption ties into the doctrine of penal substitution rather than the alternative of pure undirected commercial payment.
Nick has provided a very thoughtful and well-organized constructive essay. One advantage to the reader from this organization is that I have attempted to provide parenthetical indications back to the appropriate section of the constructive essay, to show how each section is addressed. While it was well organized, it appears to have a large number of unsupported assertions. In the case of many verses that are referenced, it seems that the attempt has been to find verses to deny penal substitution, without a thought to the consequences of what those verses would mean if they denied penal substitution. Where the verses seem important to the debate, I have tried to address them as thoroughly as possible, so that it should be clear what the relevant Scriptural teachings are.
The Mosaic sacrifices did operate in a penal substitution framework (cf. NC1).
This can be seen in the very first sacrifice appointed by Moses, the Passover (cf. NC1d). In the Passover, the lamb was slain so that the firstborn son would not be slain. The lamb was killed and its blood drained. The blood was then sprinkled (using a hyssop branch) onto the side posts and top of the door way of the house. The point of this should be clear. The angel of God was coming, if there was no blood on the door, there would be blood on the floor: the firstborn would be killed. If there was blood on the door (which showed, thereby, that the lamb had been killed, for the life of the flesh is in the blood, Leviticus 17:11), the LORD would pass over that door, and not permit the destroyer to kill the firstborn. The lamb was not just killed, though, it had to be roasted specifically with fire (fire is the usual metaphor for God’s wrath, see, for example, Exodus 22:24 and 32:10, and especially Psalm 21:9), and eaten completely, with anything uneaten being burnt up. Thus, the wrath of God came upon the Egyptians, but not on the Israelites. The lamb was a penal substitute. The lamb died so that the firstborn would not die. It took the place and bore the penalty of the firstborn (in that it bore the penalty, not in a matter of exact correspondence: after all, we are not told precisely how God killed the firstborn of the Egyptians).
This can also be seen in the annual “day of the atonement” sacrifices (cf. NC1c), which were a focal point and a high holy day in the Old Testament administration, and are especially relied upon as showing Christ to be the better high priest, in Hebrews. The ceremony involved is quite elaborate and is set forth in Leviticus 16. In the first place, the high priest (Aaron initially) had to make atonement for himself, through the burnt offering of a ram, and a sin offering of a young bullock. Once Aaron had removed his own sins, he then took two goats. Randomly, one goat was selected to be a burnt offering, and one goat was selected to be a scapegoat. The first goat was killed, and then Aaron laid his hands on the head of the live goat, confessed all of the sins of Israel, putting them on the head of the goat (Cf. Leviticus 16:21 and NC1a), and then that goat was taken outside the camp of the Israelites into a desolate place and abandoned. The sacrificed goat, whose blood had been placed on the horns of the altar, was likewise taken outside the camp and the entire remaining animals (the skins, the flesh, and even the dung – the fat having been burnt on the altar) were completely burnt up. God’s wrath against sin is graphically portrayed as being satisfied in these two goats, the one being separated from the presence of God, the other being killed, its blood spilled and finally its body consumed by fire. Again, we see the punishments for sin being exercised upon the sacrificial victims in the place of the beneficiaries.
The same penal substitution can be seen in the hand/head mode of transference used in the Mosaic sacrificial system (cf. NC1a). As noted above, this mode was used on the live goat in the day of atonement sacrifices. It was also used in the sacrifices to hallow the priests (Exodus 29:10, 15, and 19), the voluntary individual atonement sacrifices (Leviticus 1:4), the individual peace offerings (Leviticus 3:2 (cow), 8 (sheep), and 13 (goat)), the congregational sin offerings (Leviticus 4:15), the king’s sin offerings (Leviticus 4:24), the individual sin of ignorance offerings (Leviticus 4:29 (goat), and 33 (lamb)), and we could continue on with further examples, if space permitted.
In case, it is not clear that “upon the head” symbolism related to punishment of sins, this may be confirmed from 1 Kings 2:33, which employs the same symbolism, clearly showing the penal sanction/guilt relationship especially contrasted with peace: “Their blood shall therefore return upon the head of Joab, and upon the head of his seed for ever: but upon David, and upon his seed, and upon his house, and upon his throne, shall there be peace for ever from the LORD.”
Even in the case of the grain offering of fine flower (cf. NC1b), one can see the penal substitution taking place. There is no head upon which to lay hands, and there is no blood to spill, but a tenth is consumed with fire, just a similar proportion of an ordinary offering would have been. The idea of bread standing for flesh should come as a surprise to no New Testament reader (see, especially, John 6:51).
Nick makes reference to the fact that sometimes the sacrifices are described as having a “sweet savour” (KJV) or “pleasing aroma” in a more modern phrasing (cf. NC1e). Nick, however, does not seem to understand why this would be something that would please God. The smell of the burnt offering (Genesis 8:21, Exodus 29:18, and many more) is described as a “sweet savour” to God, but this should be understood to be because the smoke shows the consumption, the punishment of fire being executed.
The New Testament likewise connects Christ to this burnt offering, showing that believers are accepted on behalf of the savour (pleasing aroma) of Christ’s sacrifice (2 Corinthians 2:14-16 and Ephesians 5:2). Christ’s love for us is exhibited in his death that was pleasing to God as a propitiation for the guilt of our sins.
Without passing sentence on the quotations from the various authors cited by Nick (Cf. NC2), I would address very briefly the issues raised. Even if, as Nick suggests (Cf. NC2a), Christ only suffered physical pain and death (and not any spiritual agony), still the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23) and Christ suffer the punishment of death. The punishment of death is one expression of God’s wrath, as expressed at Psalm 78:31, “The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.” This also addresses the false dichotomy Nick raises between physical death and hell (NC2b): physical death is also an expression of the wrath of God. Furthermore, Jesus statement “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mat 27:46), is reasonably understood to show for us that Jesus felt the wrath of God upon him on the cross (Cf. NC3f). Jesus’ own words, therefore, also contradict Nick’s argument that the Father turning his wrath on His Son is unthinkable (NC2c).
I appreciate that Nick has done some of my work in identifying some of the relevant passages that demonstrate penal substitution (NC3).
Isaiah 53 is one of the clearest passages in this regard (Cf. NC3a). That this passage refers to Christ is confirmed by the New Testament and admitted by Nick. One should read the chapter to see how it flows and fits together. There are several places where the fact of penal substitution can be seen. First, in verse 4, it is stated that he has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” These things are punishments given to men on account of sin. Jesus did not have sin, and therefore when Jesus suffered griefs and sorrows during his life, he was doing so on our behalf, on account of our sins. He was being punished for us.
Verse 5 continues this theme more explicitly saying states that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. It is hard to imagine how the concept of penal substitution could be expressed more clearly than that. Verse 6 likewise states that the LORD has laid on Christ the iniquity of all of us. This is explained, in context, by Christ being oppressed, afflicted, and led like a lamb to the slaughter (vs. 7) and into prison and ultimately to death like the wicked, although he hadn’t done anything wrong (vss. 8-9).
Verse 10 continues by pointing out that it pleased the LORD to bruise and grieve him (recall verses 4-5), thereby making him an “offering for sin.” This will be a successful offering. God saw (as prophesied) the travail (the suffering) of Christ and was satisfied with that. By knowledge of him, Christ will justify many (the elect), because he bears their iniquities (because he suffers in their place).
Finally, verse 12 is the capstone, sealing the discussion, pointing out that Christ achieves victory through his death, bears the sins of many, and makes (and will make) intercession for them. This ties into the discussion of Christ in Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25.
Galatians 3:13 is another great verse that demonstrates the reality of penal substitution (Cf. NC3b).
10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The curse of the law is the punishment that comes from the law, namely death. This “curse” as can be seen from verse 10 is the punishment for failing to keep the law. Christ kept the law perfect, but was cursed for us – he received the curse of the law in our place. It is true that this was role of Christ was obedience on his part. We (Reformed theologians) generally use the two categories of active and passive obedience. The labels aren’t the best, but “active” obedience is obeying the moral law of God, whereas passive obedience is obeying the will of God with respect to suffering humiliation, suffering, pain, agony, and death. Those sufferings are the punishment for sin. Christ had no sin of his own, however. Thus, those sufferings are for our sins. They are Christ serving as our penal substitute. He is punished so that we are not punished.
Another verse that clearly demonstrates the fact that Jesus is the penal substitute of the elect is 1 Peter 2:24 (Cf. NC3c).
1 Peter 2:21-25
21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: 22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: 23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: 24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. 25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
While 1 Peter 2:21 might seem to sound like Christ’s suffering and death were merely exemplary (it is an example to us – see also 1 John 3:16), verse 24 makes clear that he bore our sins (that is to say, the punishment for their guilt) in his own body on the cross. He died for sin, and thus we are dead to sin. He was whipped, and by his blood we are healed. Notice how Peter makes reference to Isaiah 53:5 here (which we’ve already discussed above).
Nick seems to argue that Peter is speaking about the value of us enduring unjust suffering. Nick seems to suppose that because this is the case with us, that it cannot be different for Christ. In fact, however, Christ’s death (which is set forth as an example to us in our suffering) is distinguishable in that it is vicarious. When we suffer for doing what is right, we are not bearing the sins of others.
Nick also notes that the term “bore” doesn’t necessarily automatically mean imputed guilt. The only other senses that Nick identifies, however, physically carrying and offering a sacrifice, are not applicable to the context. The sins are not being physically carried or offered as a sacrifice. Instead, the punishment of the sins was endured by Christ.
A fourth passage that demonstrates penal substitution is 2 Corinthians 5:21 (Cf. NC3d), which states:
2 Corinthians 5:18-21
18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.
2Co 5:21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
God reconciled us to himself by Christ on the cross. He has not imputed our trespasses to us, but to Christ instead. That demonstrates a vicarious atonement. Although Nick asserts that imputation (the word, at least) is not in the verse (in verse 21), the word is in the immediately preceding verse, which is a better context than Romans 8:3 and 2 Corinthians 8:9. It is important to note that Christ’s work is not exhausted by the concept of penal substitution. That is to say, the sacrifice of Christ is also an example of love (as noted above) and it is a sin offering and satisfaction for sin (as Nick has admitted).
Matthew 26:39 references the cup of God’s wrath (Cf. NC3e), but this doesn’t necessarily establish penal substitution by itself. It should be noted that there is more than one “cup” mentioned in the New Testament, although Nick seems to want to treat them all as one.
Nick presents (NC4) what he believes is the Roman position (he calls it “Catholic” but I respectfully disagree with using that label for Rome). The concept of satisfaction is not necessarily by good works – in fact the Biblical view of satisfaction is not that of good works. Satisfaction is justice being satisfied. Justice is satisfied when a debt is paid – when a crime is punished. The view of satisfaction is merely a debt to be paid by good works is a view of satisfaction that might be characterized as a “purely commercial” view. This is in contrast to the Reformed view, which embraces both the commercial and the penal analogies. The primary analogy, however, as can be seen from the weight of the Mosaic ceremonies, is the penal analogy.
Nick cited Numbers 25:1-13 as allegedly an example of this commercial satisfaction view (NC4a). In Numbers 25:1-13, however, the only “good deed” done was for Phinehas to exercise justice against one of the couples of those who had been involved in the Moabitish fornication/idolatry. It seems more reasonable to suppose that God’s justice was satisfied by the execution of the death penalty rather than the execution being an otherwise counter-balancing good work.
Nick cited Deuteronomy 9:16-21 as another alleged example of a commercial satisfaction (NC4b), and calls his act an atonement. The Scriptures, however, do not use that description, although they do speak of Moses turning away God’s wrath. How did he do so? He did so by making intercession for them, and begging for mercy. Psalm 106, which Nick references for this verse and the previously considered verse, explains that the examples provided in the Psalm are examples of God showing his mercy and power (Psalm 106:8 Nevertheless he saved them for his name's sake, that he might make his mighty power to be known.)
The same may be said of Nick’s argument from Numbers 16:42-49 (NC4d). In that case, God showed mercy, but there was no commercial satisfaction. It seems better, indeed, to view the incense mentioned in the text as serving to God as a reminder of the sacrificial system. In any event, as already noted:
43 Many times did he deliver them; but they provoked him with their counsel, and were brought low for their iniquity. 44 Nevertheless he regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry: 45 And he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitude of his mercies.
Nick references Job’s intercession for his friends (NC4c), but of course, these were sacrifices being offered. The idea that God would only accept the sacrifice at Job’s hand relates to the fact that the priest himself must first be pure in God’s sight before he can offer a sacrifice that God will accept for others. God’s insistence that Job offer the sacrifice is God’s vindication of Job against the revilings of his friends, not an issue of the righteousness of the person being considered a merit.
Nick’s translation of Proverbs 16:6 is rather odd (NC4e). A better translation is:
Proverbs 16:6 By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.
This verse is one of numerous verses in Proverbs that form couplets: that is to say, the same thought is expressed in slightly different ways, twice. Thus, we can see that the “purging” going on here relates to a person’s character – how his life is improved. It relates to sanctification rather than justification.
Proverbs 16:14 is in a little different context:
12 It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established by righteousness. 13 Righteous lips are the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh right. 14 The wrath of a king is as messengers of death: but a wise man will pacify it. 15 In the light of the king's countenance is life; and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain.
The point of the proverb relates to speaking what is right in the ears of the king, to gain his favor. How is this done?
Proverbs 15:1 A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.
Nick’s penultimate argument is that the idea that salvation can be lost is inconsistent with Penal Substitution (NC5). While this is a little bit of a rabbit trail, Nick argues that if Penal Substitution is correct, then salvation cannot be lost. The problem with Nick’s argument is that there are some verses that make clear that Christ will raise up all those that Father have given to him, for example:
38 For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. 39 And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. 40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
Augustine (circa A.D. 354-430) expressed it well: “Surely his mercy must be unlimited and his good will must know no bounds if he redeemed us with the blood of his Son, when our sins had reduced us to nothing. He certainly made something great, when he created man to his own image and likeness. But we wanted to become nothing by sinning, and we derived mortality from our first parents, and became a lump of sin, a lump of wrath, and yet he decided in his mercy to redeem us at such a great price. For us he gave the blood of his only Son, who was born in innocence, lived in innocence, died in innocence. After redeeming us at such a price, he will scarcely wish those he has bought to perish. He did not buy us to destroy us; he bought us to give us life. If our sins are too much for us, God does not disregard the price he paid. It was a very great price he paid.”
What Augustine is expressing could frankly be applied as well to the commercial view or simply the commercial aspect of the Reformed view (since redemption is a commercial analogy). This demonstrates that the issue of perseverance of the saints is mostly a moot point. Whether the atonement is a penal substitution or a merely commercial accumulation, it should be intuitively obvious that God would not waste such a great price that was paid.
When we combine that fact with the truth expressed by Jude, at verse 24 of his catholic epistle, “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy … .” God is able to keep his elect from falling, and his very sending his Son was on account of his love for them (see John 3:16). Therefore, we have good reason to believe that the elect will preserve, because God both loves the elect, seeks their salvation, and is able to assure it.
Nick’s attempted texts to the contrary can variously classified. Some are mistaken interpretations of proverbs or analogies (5a, d, i, and f), some are based on false assumptions about the range of meaning of Greek words (5b, j, and k), some are based on an assumption that what is taught is works righteousness (5c and perhaps 5l), 5e seems irrelevant to the matter, some infer that salvation was lost in an historical situation when the text does not say so (5g, 5h, and 5p), and the remainder are based on warnings (5l, 5m, 5n, 5o, 5q, and 5r) that Nick seems to believe have (1) true believers as the ones warned and (2) eternal damnation as the consequence, with the assumption that if God uses these warnings to preserve the elect from doing the warned-against thing, that somehow the warning is pointless.
If this debate were on the perseverance of the saints, it would be worthwhile exploring each of these verses separately. As this is not on that topic, it should suffice to note the general responses above, and a brief discussion of
Nick claims that 5j is something than which “I cannot think of a stronger thing Paul could have said against Penal Substitution.” Nick notes that in 1 Corinthians 8:11 it is stated “And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” Nick assumes that this is a reference to perishing in hell for all eternity, but the context suggests something a lot less severe. The next verse says: “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.” The perishing involved with someone’s conscience being wounded doesn’t seem to be exactly the same as someone burning in hell. Thus, if this is the strongest passage Nick has, we may rightly conclude that the others are even less conclusive.
Nick further claims that 5o “is one of the strongest passages against Penal Substitution.” He claims that it says that if “Christians keep on sinning ‘no sacrifice for sin remains’ and that they can expect damnation,” in Hebrews 10:26-29. There are several problems with Nick’s claim. First, the passage does not simply say “keep on sinning” it says “sin willfully.” Second, the passage refers to those with a “profession of faith” (vs. 23) not “faith” per se – a profession of faith is a broader category. Third, the verses say that the people involved in this heinous sin will be “worthy” of worse punishment, but it does not say they will receive it. Fourth, the verses are phrased as a hypothetical, but it is not said that this hypothetical will be fulfilled rather than serving as an effective warning. Finally, a commercial satisfaction cannot handle an understanding of the passage that would be problematic for the penal substitution view.
Finally, Nick presents a collection of miscellaneous objections (NC6). The first objection (NC6a) is that vicarious substitution is not in any genuine justice system. This could be disputed historically, but the Scriptural response is to note the existence of the concept of a “surety.” A surety is someone who makes good for another. This category is recognized in Scripture.
Second (NC6b), Nick objects that the idea that God cannot forgive without punishing someone is illogical. Nick, however, has failed to consider that Justice requires punishment and God is just. Nick has also overlooked that it can be (and is) forgiveness to the sinner, even while it is payment by Christ.
Nick next objects that is blasphemous for Christ to pre-pay for sins that haven’t been committed yet (NC6c), and further claiming that the sin would have to be carried out to balance the books. The death of Christ, however, is a penal substitution. It would have to be endured to save one sinner, or more sinners than there are atoms in the universe. It is not a pure commercial satisfaction (this much for that many). If it were (and isn’t that Nick’s claim), then perhaps Nick’s objections would apply, although how Nick arrives at “blasphemy” from the idea of pre-payment of sin is hard to follow, since he doesn’t explain.
Finally, Nick objects that a logical result of Penal Substitution is eternal forgiveness (NC6d). Nick, however, has failed to distinguish between what the redemption accomplished within the Trinity (especially as between the Father and the Son) and the application of that redemption in time. Although all the elect were redeemed on the cross (then was its accomplishment), that redemption was applied in time.
In conclusion we can see that there is no Biblical reason to deny Penal Substitution. It is the clear message of the sacrificial system that Christ fulfilled. It is the clear message of the apostles as well. Finally, it can be harmoniously understood with the rest of the Scriptures. That it seems to have been the view of at least many of the fathers is just icing on the cake, as they are not our rule of faith.
Nevertheless, I’ll let Ambrose (circa A.D. 339-97) have the last word : “Great, therefore, is the mystery of Christ, before which even angels stood amazed and bewildered. For this cause, then, it is thy duty to worship Him, and, being a servant, thou oughtest not to detract from thy Lord. Ignorance thou mayest not plead, for to this end He came down, that thou mayest believe; if thou believest not, He has not come down for thee, has not suffered for thee. “If I had not come,” saith the Scripture, “and spoken with them, they would have no sin: but now have they no excuse for their sin. He that hateth Me, hateth My Father also.” Who, then, hates Christ, if not he who speaks to His dishonor? — for as it is love’s part to render, so it is hate’s to withdraw honor. He who hates, calls in question; he who loves, pays reverence.”