atonement: penal substitution

penal substitution

Stop snickering. This is the theory that probably 99% of the Christians in evangelical America believe, if not most of the protestant world. You can be pretty confident you're talking about this when somebody uses the word "propitiation," since it implies regaining favor, and penal substitution is all about Jesus appeasing God's justice for our sin. It was first clarified by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century as "substitutionary atonement" though like all theories he didn’t invent it so much as clarify a way of understanding atonement that was already present. From the Reformation, it grew to the penal substitution most would recognize today. Anselm's substitutionary atonement was different enough from the norm to get noticed, but not so foreign it was heresy. Prior to his formulation, a ransom theory reigned.

The logic should sound familiar enough; God is perfectly holy and even our smallest sin dishonors him, requiring satisfaction. The problem is that we cannot pay what we owe (!), for an infinite payment is due when infinite glory is dishonored. Mercifully, God sends his son to pay what we could never afford so that he might be glorified even more and have relationship with us. In this, God's honor is upheld and the Son glorifies himself by his sacrifice. The emphasis is on the defended honor of God, and it gets talked about in legal terms, such as a "forensic justification."

A subtle point here is that substitutionary atonement is not necessarily the same thing as penal substitution. Christ pays the wages of sin for us (death) by taking our place, but why that penalty needs to be paid varies according to who's doing the talking. With penal substitution, it is always God's justice that demands His glory is satisfied. You don't, after all, want a God who can neither properly value things nor defend himself. And so Christ defends God’s honor by paying the price for us and we are restored to relationship with God.

It might seem like a bunch of theological mumbo-jumbo, but the difference can be significant to some. Some would say if you believe that penal substitution is the best explanation of Christ's work then you believe in a God who kills his kids. That should be a wee bit troubling, if only for apologetics, of course, as it looks like we believe in just another Greek god. Having settled on this point, the evangelical world has since been set free to move on to debates about justification and sanctification.

saved from: God’s Justice

verse: Isaiah 53:10

"Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand."
next up: moral influence


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