Thursday, April 4, 2013

What does it mean to say Jesus "died for" us? - More problems with Penal Substitution

Calvinists insist that Penal Substitution is proven by the fact the Bible often says that Jesus "died for" us (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3), thinking that this means that Jesus 'took our place' in God's divine 'electric chair'. While that claim is understandable, that is not automatically what we should assume, since to do something "for" another commonly just means "on their behalf," not necessarily in their place. For example, to "pray for" your enemy (Mt 5:44) does not mean you prayed what they were supposed to pray in their place. Rather, it just means you prayed on their behalf (cf Acts 12:5). 

When I looked up the term "for" in Greek, of the 170 times it was used it most often meant something along the lines of "on behalf of," and rarely did it mean "in substitution of" another person.

Consider some of the following texts: 
  • Peter says he will lay down his life for Jesus (Jn 13:37) 
  • Paul is willing to die in Jerusalem for the name of Jesus (Acts 21:13)
  • Christians suffer for the sake of Jesus (Acts 9:16; 15:26; Php 1:29)
In each of these cases, the term "for" can only mean "on behalf of" (2 Cor 12:10), and not "in place of." None of these people were suffering or dying so that some suffering/death legally due to Jesus will instead be inflicted on them. 

In fact, it is a Christian's duty to lay down their life "for" their fellow Christians: 
  • No greater love than to lay down your life for you friends (Jn 15:13)
  • Paul subjects himself to prisoner for the Ephesians (Eph 3:1)
  • Christians pray for other Christians (Acts 12:5; Col 4:12)
Again, the notion of doing something (laying down life, being a prisoner, praying) for another Christian does not mean you're doing it as a matter of strict substitution but rather simply "on their behalf." 

This is made even more clear when the Bible says we should emulate Jesus: 
  • Love your wife, as Christ loved the church, gave himself for her (Eph 5:25)
  • Christ suffered for you, leaving an example, that you might follow (1 Pt 2:21)
  • He laid down his life for us, so we lay down our lives for others (1 Jn 3:16)
If Jesus is taking the death penalty for us, then these passages calling us to follow his example make no sense. It would mean the husband takes the death penalty for his wife and Christians take the death penalty for other Christians. The only thing that works here is "on behalf of," meaning you donate your time, energy, even health for the sake of someone else. 

With that foundation laid, now we can look at some texts describing Jesus' death "for" us to see if they align with the Protestant assumption:
  • The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11)
  • He who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us (Rom 8:32)
  • Christ gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering to God (Eph 5:2)
  • Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6)
  • The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (Jn 6:51)
These texts are important for they show that Jesus was not taking the death penalty nor the Father's wrath in place of His people, since such a notion would ruin the analogies and methods employed. A shepherd doesn't take wrath for sheep; the Father delivers up Jesus to persecutors, not pours down wrath; Christ's sacrifice for us was a "fragrant aroma offering," not laden with guilt so the Father couldn't bear to look upon him; Jesus' life was a "ransom," not a death penalty punishment; and Jesus' flesh was given up for us, shown in the Eucharistic bread, not a punishment but something we partake in. 

And if that was not enough, there are a few other passages that throw a wrench into the Penal Substitution paradigm. Consider the following texts:
50 "Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish." 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation ... It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people. (Jn 11:50-51; 18:14)
Now the whole nation was not on trial by God or by the Romans to be put to death. So Jesus could not have been dying "for" them in the sense of taking their punishment. Rather, John 11:47-48 shows that Jesus' miracles were going to lead to so many conversions that it would start an uprising that would have to be squashed by the Romans. So Caiaphas said it would be better to put Jesus to death rather than let the nation fall into civil unrest. While it is true that this prophecy held a double meaning, the point cannot be lost that a penal substitution was not envisioned.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die - 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5)
Couched right between references saying Jesus "died for" us is verse 7, which gives a human analogy of a person giving up their life "for" a righteous/good person. If someone is giving up their life "for" a righteous person, then the one giving up their life is obviously not taking their guilt (because there is no guilt). Thus, giving up one's life in this context cannot mean taking on their guilt. What the passage is saying is that Jesus gave His life, something precious (1 Pt 1:18-19), for people who truly didn't deserve it. So when 1 Peter 3:18 says Jesus gave his life, "the righteous for the unrighteous," this means that while it would make sense for Jesus to give up His life for someone who deserved it, God's mercy was especially shown to those who really didn't deserve it. 

In conclusion, when someone says Jesus "died for" us means Jesus took the Father's wrath that was going to be dumped on us, they couldn't be espousing a more unbiblical doctrine. The term "for" as it is used in the Bible typically means "on behalf of," which is how I've shown it to be used in reference to Jesus, through various examples, including ones which show we are to emulate Christ's example.


cwdlaw223 said...

It amazes me how many Ps will never, ever question such a pillar of their faith. Penal substitution is another legal fiction created by Ps to make their theology fit. Nowhere in the Bible does it specifically state that Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of the Father for us. Those words just aren't there and yet for someone tied to sola scriptura you would think that would cause them to reject such teaching. (But sola scripture isn't in the Bible nor is it rejected so maybe that is consistent).

Nick said...

They wont question it because most are completely oblivious to the issue, they don't realize what they are saying. Those who do realize what is being said, namely that Jesus was damned in our place, they know that to question or doubt that would force them to abandon Justification By Faith Alone, and they'd rather keep that.

The Bible does say that Jesus "satisfied" the Father's wrath in places like 1 Jn 2:2, but this means something very different than the Father re-directing His wrath onto Jesus in our place. To 'satisfy' in the Biblical sense means to make atonement, such as in Numbers 16:41-50.

cwdlaw223 said...

Nick -

The weird thing is that RC Sproul helped me convert to Catholicism! His series on Catholicism was pro Catholic to a thought provoking mind. His only real objection to Catholicism in that course was with penance which is ridiculous. Sprould didn't want to admit there is a present consequence for our sins. Everything else was pro Catholic.

I keep saying to my Protestant friends that if Christ failed with Rome he was a liar or fraud. They don't want to hear that hard truth. They want to create their own church out of thin air.

Steve Martin said...

Christ hasn't failed with Rome.

Rome has failed with Christ.

Rome has turned the whole thing into a religious ascendancy protect.

Galatians 5L:1 says that "For freedom, Christ has set us free."

I saw precious little of that in my 35 years in the Roman Church.

Nick said...

I don't understand Sproul at all since he seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to Catholicism. He has made public remarks (including in his books) that Thomas Aquinas taught the correct Biblical/Protestant view of salvation, which is either gross ignorance or gross deception. I just don't get why he'd say that.

cwdlaw223 said...

Steve -

If Christ is unable to protect his Church from man (and there isn't any other historical Church other than Rome) then he was a liar and fraud and why believe him at all?

cwdlaw223 said...

Nick -

He also makes up a new definition of semi-pelagianism knowing full well that Catholics do not believe and have condemned semi-pelagianism because man needs grace to come to God. Every month I get his Tabletalk magazine and there is a massive error in each issue. This month he talks about how Rome is correct on abortion and then he cries out for the church (small c) to become the church and stand up to abortion. There's a reason planned parenthood went after Protestantism. Why? Because it's theological relativism.

Nick said...

What's worse is that Calvinism is Pelangian to the core, and this fact has only been starting to receive public attention in the last year or so.

Steve Martin said...

Christ will always protect His Church.

But that is not to say that certain elements won't attempt to put 'man' in the center...and move Christ to the periphery.

That's is why the Church always need to reform. It is in our nature to make a great project out of what God has already handled, on the Cross.

JohnD said...


Your entire critique above is smells a lot like a straw man attack.

You begin with quite the strong claim: Calvinists insist that Penal Substitution is proven by the fact the Bible often says that Jesus "died for" us

However, you do not quote any Reformed theologians to that end.

Also, your main argument seems to be the following:

(1) Christ died "for" us does not necessarily mean Christ took our place.

(2)There are many places in the bible when "for" means "on behalf of" rather than "in place of." Particularly, there are places when "in place of" makes no logical sense.

(3) Calvinists substantiate PSub by insisting "for" must mean "in place of" in many cases.

(4) Belief in PSub and (2) are incompatible.

In reply, I will simply state that (4) is a non-sequitur. Reformed Christians can affirm that Christ died "on behalf of" the elect in one sense (e.g. He mediated in a way that they could not) and that he died "in their place" in another sense (e.g. He took the punishment they justly deserved).

Again, it is not a problem with the Reformed view to say that Christ died for the elect, on their behalf, or that his death would be applied to them.

Nick said...

Hello John,

I did not have any specific Reformed theologians in mind, but I have encountered many Reformed people online who make the "for" argument. A favorite verse they like is 1 Pt 3:18 where is says "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous FOR the unrighteous," and take the "for" as meaning Penal Substitution.

In regards to your laying out of my argument, I don't think you represented me accurately, especially with #3.

My point of the article was basically that one has no good reason to think "for" means "in place of" in the first place. So simply pointing to a passage saying "for" does not constitute proof since it begs the question. I then went and showed that Scripture doesn't really use "for" to mean "in place of," and that many texts are clearly using "for" to mean "on behalf of," which means the Protestant approach is very dubious.

I don't understand your next-to-last paragraph, as it seems you're engaging in equivocation and question begging. You certainly cannot say "for" in a given verse means BOTH "in their place" and "on behalf of," and you cannot even argue "in their place" at all unless this can be plainly shown to be a valid Biblical usage/construct.

So if I were to ask you to point to some Biblical texts that prove Penal Substitution, it is not enough for you to point to verses that say "Jesus died for you" and think the "in their place" matter is settled. I'll bet you that as soon as you list your 5-10 top verses, you'll see that the 'best' Biblical evidence for PSub is severely lacking.

JohnD said...

If all you are saying is that "Christ died for us" does not prove penal substitution, then you are correct. It sounded like you were making much stronger claims. And I apologize if I misrepresented you, that was not my intention.

As far as the 5-10 top verses, there is no doubt that Isaiah 53 is the clearest presentation of PSA.

Also, I'd be interested to how you would respond to Jesus quoting the Zechariah 13 in Mark 14 with "I will strike the shepherd..." and applying the text to Himself as the shepherd. In Zechariah, it is the LORD who strikes the shepherd.

Nick said...

Hello John,

Yes, I was basically saying that "for" does not prove nor demand Penal Substitution, and that in fact there is good reason not to read it that way (e.g. Rom 5:7 & 1 Jn 3:16).

You asked about the "strike the shepherd" OT reference in Mark 14:
"27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same."

Clearly, the "sheep being scattered" refers to the Apostle's abandoning Jesus. When and How did this happen? When the Jews came to arrest Jesus. So the "strike" that "scattered" was not God's wrath redirected onto Christ, but rather the Father permitting the Jews to arrest, humiliate, and beat Jesus. This is confirmed a few verses later, esp 14:50. Anything else is reading/projecting foreign ideas onto the text.

As for Isaiah 53, if you think that's "the clearest presentation of PSA," I'd like to get your thoughts on the Isaiah 53 posts I've done. For example, Isaiah 53:4 is quoted in Matthew 8:16-17, without any PSA connotations whatsoever.

JohnD said...


I am aware you have done a lot of writing on Isaiah 53. I would not want to pontificate about it without first reading your stuff, so when I have the chance in the near future I will read and digest it.

Can you pick a top 1 or 2 posts with the best Isaiah 53 material in your opinion?


Nick said...

The one post off the top of my head is this: