Penal Substitution and Other Atonement Theologies

Penal Substitution and Other Atonement Theologies

Of all the atonement views, only penal substitution best captures the God-centered nature of the cross. The alternatives either minimize or deny 1) that God’s holy justice is essential to him, 2) why our sin is first against God (Ps. 51:4), and 3) why Christ as our penal substitute is central to the cross. Before we can speak of the horizontal results of the cross (e.g., moral example, inter-personal reconciliation, etc.), we must first speak of the vertical: namely the triune God, in his Son, taking his own demand on himself so that we, in Christ, may be justified before him (Rom. 5:1–2). The other views miss this point. For them, the object of the cross is either our sin (forms of recapitulation), or Satan (ransom theory), or the powers (forms of Christus Victor). But what they fail to see is that the primary person we have sinned against is God, and as such, the ultimate object of the cross is God himself.

Trying to state all that our Lord Jesus achieved in his glorious work is difficult given its multi-faceted aspects. John Calvin sought to grasp the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work by the munus triplex—Christ’s threefold office as our new covenant head and mediator—prophet, priest, and king. What Calvin sought to avoid was reductionism, the “cardinal” sin of theology. Yet, although there is a danger in prioritizing one aspect of our Lord’s work, Scripture does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt. 1:21; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). And given the centrality of Christ’s cross, it is crucial that we explain it correctly.

However, one problem we face is that, throughout church history, there have been a number of atonement theologies. Unlike the ecumenical confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon that established orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, there is no catholic confession regarding the cross. From this fact, some have concluded that no one view best explains what is central to the cross—a conclusion I reject. The truth is that despite an ecumenical confession, all Christians have agreed that Christ’s death “is for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3) resulting in our reconciliation with God.

While conceptual clarity of the doctrine occurred over time, similar to other doctrines, clarity and precision was achieved, as various atonement debates occurred. Specifically, it was during the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, building on the work of people like Anselm, that conceptual clarity occurred in the articulation of penal substitution as the best theological explanation for why the cross was necessary and what it achieved.

Recently, however, some have challenged the claim that penal substitution best explains what is central to Christ’s cross. We are told repeatedly that penal substitution does not account for the richness of the cross. What is needed is not one view but multiple views. Is this correct? My thesis is that it is not, and for at least two reasons. First, views other than penal substitution fail to grasp the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God. Second, from another angle, other views stress various legitimate results of the cross, but without penal substitution as the foundation, the results alone cannot explain the central problem of our sin before God. Before developing these two points, let me first describe the basic atonement views set over against penal substitution.

Atonement Views in Historical Theology

Over the centuries, five main atonement theologies have been given:


First, there is the recapitulation view, often associated with Irenaeus and Athanasius. This view interprets Christ’s work primarily in terms of his identification with us through the incarnation. By becoming human, the divine Son reversed what Adam did by living our life and dying our death. Adam’s disobedience resulted in the corruption of our nature and the deprivation of Godlikeness. Christ reverses both of these results in his incarnation and entire cross-work. Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality and reconciliation with God is restored to us. This view captures much biblical truth. Christ’s work is presented in representational and substitutionary terms. But its central focus is on sin’s effects on us and Christ’s restorative work, not on our sin before God and the need for Christ to satisfy God’s own righteous demand against us by paying for our sin.

Christus Victor (Or Ransom)

Second, Christus Victor is another view of the cross, often associated with the ransom theory to Satan. The primary object(s) of Christ’s death is (are) the powers which he liberates us from, namely, sin, death, and Satan. Like recapitulation, this view captures a lot of biblical truth, especially Christ’s defeat of the powers (Gen. 3:15John 12:31–33Col. 2:13–15Heb. 2:14–16Rev. 12:1–12), but unlike penal substitution, God is not viewed as the primary object of the cross.

Moral Influence (or Example)

Third, the moral influence view was promoted within non-orthodox theology. It had its roots in the theology of Peter Abelard (1079–1142), but came into its own with the rise of classic liberal theology (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries). It taught that God’s love is more basic than his justice and that God can forgive our sins without Christ satisfying divine justice. God is not the primary object of the cross. Instead, Christ’s death reveals God’s love and sets an example for us.

The Governmental View

Fourth, the governmental view arose in the post-Reformation era and it is identified with Hugo Grotius, John Miley, and the Arminian tradition. Against penal substitution, this view denies that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him.

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