Why Penal Substitution is Essential to the Atonement

Throughout the centuries, many different theories of the atonement have been put forward by Christian theologians. The church father Origen taught that Jesus ransomed himself to Satan on the cross in order to trick the devil into releasing his dominion over sinners. He said that Jesus offered himself to Satan in exchange for the lost world, but escaped his clutches through the resurrection which Satan did not expect. Aspects of this theory are seen in C. S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan offers himself to the White Witch in exchange for Edmund. It does not take much reflection on this theory to conclude that it is completely contrary to the Word of God. The Atonement is not offered to Satan, but to God as an act of propitiation. Hebrews 9:14 says that Christ, “offered himself without blemish to God,” not to Satan. Many other theories of the atonement have been put forward including that of Christus Victor, the governmental theory of the atonement, the moral influence theory of the atonement, and the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. I will explain in this article why penal substitution is essential to the atonement of Christ and why the other theories fall short of giving a comprehensive explanation for how the death of Christ saves us.

The Christus Victor theory states that Christ saves us by conquering Satan through his cross. There are many passages of Scripture that speak of Christ’s death as the defeat of Satan. One example is Hebrews 2:14-15 which says that Jesus destroyed Satan in his death and set free those who were held by him. But Christus Victor by itself cannot explain why we are freed from the penalty for our sins. Even with Satan defeated by the cross, our sins would still condemn us if they were not dealt with on the cross (Col 2:14). If our sins were not paid for on Calvary, then Satan would still have a basis for accusing us. He is called “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev 12:10). But our accuser has been conquered “by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 12:11). Since Christ has paid the penalty for our sins (1 Pet 2:24; 3:18), Satan no longer has a basis to accuse us before God because the penalty has been paid and we are now clothed in the garments of Christ’s righteousness (Zech 3:1-5). Christus Victor by itself without Penal Substitution presents us with a god who can forgive us of our sins without his justice being satisfied. God would then be an unjust judge because he would justify the wicked without punishing them in his Son (Prov 17:15; Rom 4:5). But God can justify us even though we are wicked and deserve to die because he punished his innocent Son who did not deserve to die for our sins (Isa 53:10; 2 Cor 5:21). Without penal substitution, there can be no Christus Victor.

The governmental theory states that Christ did not pay the penalty for our individual sins on the cross, but made a change in God’s moral government by his death allowing God to forgive us by making salvation possible for everyone. I recognize that there is more than one model of the governmental theory so I am painting it with a rather broad brush. This theory states that Christ died for every category of sin on the cross by suffering as an example of what sin deserves. In this theory, every kind of sin was laid on Christ and he was treated as if he committed every kind of sin that can be committed without having every individual sin of those who are saved imputed to him on the cross. For example, the sin “idolatry” was charged to Christ’s account on the cross, but not my individual idolatry. The governmental theory is popular among Arminians because they believe that it enables them to avoid universalism since everyone cannot be saved if Christ did not pay the penalty for everyone’s sins. But 1 Peter 2:24 says that, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”  Isaiah 53:5 says that the Messiah, “was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” And verse 12 says that, “he bore the sin of many.” The governmental theory of the atonement falls short of Scripture by denying that Christ died for our individual sins.

Another unbiblical theory of the atonement is the moral influence theory which states that Christ’s death saves us as an example which we imitate and so achieve salvation. This was the view of the heretic Pelagius who said that we can merit eternal life through good works. Contrary to the previous theories of the atonement that I have listed, this theory of the atonement is directed toward man whereas the others are directed to either God or Satan. And there are many passages in Scripture where we are called to imitate the life and death of Christ. Jesus says in Matthew 16:24 that, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Peter says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). But like Christus Victor, it fails to take into account the many passages of Scripture where the death of Christ is presented as a propitiation or sacrifice of atonement that removes the wrath of God (Rom 3:25-26). We are called to follow Christ, but it is not our following of Christ that saves us, but Christ himself. Following Christ is the result of justification, not the cause of justification (Eph 2:8-10). If we could merit eternal life, then there would be no reason for Christ to die at all (Gal 2:21).

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