The Beauty of Penal Substitution


Not long ago a helpful book regarding the problem of mass incarceration was shared around our community–Dominique Gilliard’s work, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores. His writing does a noble job of highlighting many of the tragic dynamics shaping what I tend to think of as the “Incarceration Complex.” I commend the work to you. That said, there is one significant detail within Gilliard’s book with which I take exception, and that relates to the matter of penal substitution.

In short, penal substitution is the theory that to satisfy the just demands of a holy God who has been affronted by the sinfulness of humanity, and so that God might then offer pardon, Jesus, by his own volition, was punished in the place of, or as a substitution for, sinners. Jesus’ death in the place of sinners is foundational to redemption. God made clear to Adam that the death was the penalty for sin (Genesis 2:16-17). Consider the following from the Word of God:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)

“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of people.” (Hebrews 2:17)

These passages, along with still others (see, for example, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10), underscore that it was God’s purpose that his Son, Jesus Christ, would die in our stead as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. God is infinitely holy, and sin, therefore, requires a response that recognizes the magnitude of God’s holiness–a punishment fitting for the crime. Only the sinless, righteous Jesus–fully God and fully man–could provide the perfect, penal sacrifice sufficient to match the demands of God’s holiness. Penal substitution is essential to the forgiveness of sinners. Its significance cannot be minimized.

Gilliard, suggests, however, that penal substitution “fails to hold in tension the wrath and love involved in God’s justice. Retribution, in isolation, is incapable of breeding true transformation; it merely induces vengeance and retaliation” (p. 159). Gilliard offers that penal substitution is problematic because “punishment was needed for reconciliation to transpire. It then says that Christ took on flesh not because of love (as John 3:16 says) but to endure punishment in our stead. This is significant because it not only disputes a foundational biblical truth–God’s love inspired the incarnation–it reduces or eliminates the significance of Jesus’ incarnation and emboldens penal substitution to covertly function as gnosticism (a disembodied faith which teaches that our spirits alone truly matter)” (p. 159). He adds that “penal substitution is most problematic because it makes God’s response to sin too much like our own. It is a sort of recasting of God in our own image, as opposed to allowing the divinely inspired Scriptures to speak for God’s motives.” Quoting Christopher Marshall, Gilliard envisions, “‘restoration, not retribution, is the hallmark of God’s justice and is God’s final word in history'” (Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, on p. 160 in Gilliard’s work).

Gilliard’s is not an uncommon criticism; from the perspective of mankind penal substitution can feel cruel and, therefore, unwarranted. Other theories of the atonement, such as Christus Victor, rightly affirm that Jesus’ death secures victory over sin and death and the devil in that those forces were defeated with his death on the cross–their eternal power and reach stripped away. While this is legitimate it is, however, not enough. Certainly we are delivered from these forces by a triumphant and victorious Savior. But that still does not deal with the reality that we are sinful beings who have affronted an infinitely holy God. Penal substitution is requisite.

Gilliard is rightly giving attention to the abuses of the Incarceration Complex. For him the theological premise of penal substitution seemingly justifies a system that he perceives is not working and stands in the way of the prospects of rehabilitation and hope. It seems to justify punishment, and yet bearing the penalty (thus, penal) for sin is necessary for the establishment of pure and full justice. Our society certainly does not do this perfectly. There are, for sure, systems and structures in place that that are not working well, in which punishments are far out of proportion to crimes committed, and so forth. But we must remember that any offense against God has infinite ramifications because his holiness is infinite in scope. No small measure is sufficient to satisfy him, and mere rescue from the domain of dreadful enemies such as Satan and sin-bondage is not enough.

A punishment has to be made to satisfy the just demands of a holy God. Only Jesus’ death on Calvary’s Tree suffices. And the wonderful beauty of this for us sinners is that all our guilt is removed, having been borne by the Suffering Servant, Jesus.

Praise the Lord!