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.