The Doctrine of Penal Substitution is a theory, an understanding, and a teaching developed within the Reformed traditions of the Church of Christ relating to the Atonement for sin.
The Doctrine of Penal Substitution explains that Jesus Christ offered himself to be punished in the place of us sinners, as a substitute for us. By doing so, Jesus met the price demanded by the justice of God the Father, so that God can justly forgive our sins. In this substitutionary atonement which Jesus paid for us, Jesus incurred a substitutionary death, as he undertook a substitutionary punishment.
Penal substitution originates from the Reformed understanding that God’s forgiveness can only be given when the demands of divine justice have been met. In other words, God cannot just simply forgive a sin, unless a price has been paid for that sin.
Thus, in the Reformed tradition, we understand that God gave himself in the person of his only begotten son, Jesus Christ (who was both wholly God and wholly man), to suffer the punishment, the curse and the death which was due to all the generations of fallen humanity, for our sins against Him.
The Doctrine of Penal Substitution is premised on another Reformed doctrine, that of the Doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine believes that Jesus Christ was fully God, as well as being fully man. Thus, in the penal substitution of Jesus, God was punishing himself, there being no other person in the whole of creation worthy to pray the price of mankind’s sin. Moreover, because the doctrine of Union with Christ,* which says that sinners are right with God because of what Jesus did on our behalf, Jesus fulfilled God’s requirement for justice, but not for an unrelated third party, but for those who are identified with him.
As a result, in the Reformed understanding of Penal Substitution of atonement, we can see that the death of Jesus Christ on a cross at Calvary, deals with all sin and injustice, past, present and future, and His resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb, is the renewal and the restoration of righteousness.
To put this concept into simple English, let us imagine a destitute man coming before a court of law where he is accused of a misdemeanour which carries a fine he has no money to pay. The man has heard of the reputation of the judge and pleads guilty. As the destitute pleads guilty, the judge recognises him as a childhood companion to whom he was once very close. As soon as the man’s guilty plea leave his mouth, the judge declares him guilty and sentences him to the maximum fine allowed by law. The judge then stands up, walks around to the court clerk and pays the fine in full for his friend. Returning to his bench, the judge declares his old friend justified before the court and free to leave.
How does this work for us in Christian theology and doctrine? Actually much the same. We are all called before God to be judged for our sins. At the point, before the sentence is handed down, our Lord and Saviour who sits at the right hand of God the Father will intervene for us, saying to the Father that on the Cross of Calvary, He paid the price of our sin. As First John 1:7 says “… if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Penal substitution is based a number of scriptures throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament, including the following:
Isaiah 53:4-6 and 10-11“Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was on Him; and with His stripes we ourselves are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, each one to his own way; and Jehovah has laid on Him the iniquity of us all…. Yet it pleased Jehovah to crush Him; to grieve Him; that He should put forth His soul as a guilt-offering. He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the will of Jehovah shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the fruit of the travail of His soul. He shall be fully satisfied. By His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify for many; and He shall bear their iniquities.”
Romans 3:23-26“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness through the passing by of the sins that had taken place before, in the forbearance of God; for the display of His righteousness at this time, for Him to be just and, forgiving the one being of the faith of Jesus.”
Second Corinthians 5:21“For He has made Him who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Galatians 3:10 & 13“For as many as are out of works of the Law, these are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the Book of the Law, to do them.’ …. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone having been hanged on a tree’)”
First Peter 2:24“He Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that dying to sins, we might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed…”
First Peter 3:18“For Christ also once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, indeed being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit…”
* The Doctrine of Union with Christ
The Reformed Church doctrine of Union with Christ says simply that sinners are right with God because of what Jesus did on our behalf. In other words, we are accredited with, we are imputed with, the righteousness of Jesus Christ because of our union with Jesus as stated in Ephesians 3:13-19. This means that because Christians are in Christ, all of the redemptive blessings and mercies which Jesus secured at his resurrection, are now ours also. This includes, as described above, our righteous standing before God the Father as the New Adam. This legal accreditation of our redemption is critical in our union with the risen and vindicated Christ, who now sits at the right hand of God the Father. As a result, our justification, our being found not guilty before God the Father, is a direct function of our oneness with Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 3:16-19“… that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.”