Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Living Christ

(This article has been revised and republished under the title “The Spiritual Charlantry of Substitutionary Penal Atonement”)

“The glorification of the Son of God is the glorification of the human race,
for the glory of God is the glory of man, and that glory is love!”
~ George MacDonald

Good Friday is almost upon us. In three days Catholics and Protestants, and Orthodox only a week later, will contemplate the atoning death of Jesus Christ. What was its purpose? What did it accomplish? Many Protestants, particularly within the Reformed and evangel­ical traditions, have a ready answer—penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). On the cross God the Son bore the wrath of the Holy Trinity against sin. Given that I have been away from the Protestant literature on this topic for a couple of decades, I’m hesitant to offer a sum­mary of the position. Instead I quote the respected evangelical Anglican J. I. Packer:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.

This succinct statement captures, I believe, the gist of PSA. All the benefits of salvation flow from Christ’s substitutionary act. The wrath of God has been poured out upon the Lamb once offered. Justice has been done, and the way is now open for “forgiveness, adoption and glory.” Packer concludes his essay with this amplified statement:

1) God, in [James] Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

Packer eschews the crude pagan account of an angry deity who needs to be placated and appeased. The atonement of Christ is propelled by the eternal love of the Father and the Son for humanity. But God is also just. Our sins deserve his condemnation. The divine wrath must be mollified before humanity’s salvation can be achieved. Solution: the Son becomes Man and on the cross offers “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfac­tion, for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer).

I cannot deny the power of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It speaks to our conscience. We know we are sinners. We experience the divine wrath in our daily lives (at least we assume this wrath is divine). And several biblical texts, interpreted in a particular way, can be invoked to support the doctrine. Yet three questions continue to nag:

  • How does Jesus’ death redirect and remove from humanity the “destructive divine wrath”?
  • What is this penalty and debt that must be paid before our salvation can be effected?
  • Why couldn’t God just forgive outright and skip the horror of the crucifixion?

George MacDonald was raised in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and reacted violently against it at an early age. In his novel Robert Falconer, which may reflect the Scotsman’s own youthful wrestling with the Reformed faith, we find a fascinating conversation between Robert and his grandmother:

“And we have no right to say we know God save in the face of Christ Jesus. Whatever is not like Christ is not like God.”

“But, laddie, he came to satisfy God’s justice by suffering the punishment due to our sins; to turn aside his wrath and curse; to reconcile him to us. So he couldn’t be altogether like God.”

“He did nothing of the kind, grannie. It’s all a lie that. He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children; by making them see that God was just; by sending them weeping home to fall at his feet, and grip his knees and say, ‘Father, you’re in the right.’ He came to lift the weight of the sins that God had cursed off the shoulders of them that did them, by making them turn against them, and be for God and not for sin. And there isn’t a word of reconciling God to us in all the Testament, for there was no need of that: it was us that he needed to be reconciled to him. And so he bore our sins and carried our sorrows; for those sins coming out in the multitudes—ay and in his own disciples as well, caused him no end of grief of mind and pain of body, as everyone knows. It wasn’t his own sins, for he had none, but ours, that caused him suffering; and he took them away—they’re vanishing even now from the earth, though it doesn’t look like it in Ragfair or Petticoat-lane. And for our sorrows—they just made him weep. His righteousness just annihilates our guilt, for it’s a great gulf that swallows up and destroys it. And so he gave his life as a ransom for us: and he is the life of the world. He took our sins upon him, for he came into the middle of them and took them up—by no sleight of hand, by no quibbling of the lawyers, about imputing his righteousness to us, and such like, which is not to be found in the Bible at all, though I don’t say that there’s no possible meaning in the phrase, but he took them away; and here am I, grannie, growing out of my sins in consequence, and there are you, grannie, growing out of yours in consequence, and having nearly done with them altogether by this time.” (Part 3, chap. 5)

In the gospel God has revealed himself as Love. He loves, and has loved, to the nth degree. The Father has never needed to be reconciled to humanity. He is not the problem; we are. We are the ones who have alienated ourselves from our Creator. We are the ones who need to repent and be reborn in the Spirit. We are the ones who need to hear the gospel and partake of our Savior’s Body and Blood. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconcil­iation” (2 Cor 5:19). MacDonald repudiates the Reformed claim that Jesus vicariously endures the retribution due to our sin. The divine justice is restora­tive, not punitive. When God chastises, he intends to persuade the sinner of the futility of sin: “Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement.” There is, therefore, no penalty that must first be paid before God can forgive and save; and it would make no difference to MacDonald’s position if we were to specify, with Packer, that God has gra­ciously provided his own suffering as the propitiation of his wrath. The love of the Father is his justice. As Robert tells his grannie: “He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children.”

MacDonald elaborates on his rejection of penal substitutionary atonement in his sermon “Justice”:

Their system is briefly this: God is bound to punish sin, and to punish it to the uttermost. His justice requires that sin be punished. But he loves man, and does not want to punish him if he can help it. Jesus Christ says, ‘I will take his punishment upon me.’ God accepts his offer, and lets man go unpunished—upon a condition. His justice is more than satisfied by the punishment of an infinite being instead of a world of worthless creatures. The suffering of Jesus is of greater value than that of all the generations, through endless ages, because he is infinite, pure, perfect in love and truth, being God’s own everlasting son. God’s condition with man is, that he believe in Christ’s atonement thus explained. A man must say, ‘I have sinned, and deserve to be tortured to all eternity. But Christ has paid my debts, by being punished instead of me. Therefore he is my Saviour. I am now bound by gratitude to him to turn away from evil.’

I do not know if Packer would accept MacDonald’s formulation of penal substitutionary atonement—I imagine he might object to the use of the word “torture”—but I do not doubt that he is accurately describing the doctrine as it was popularly taught. As MacDonald remarks: “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject; the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.” What else was the crucifixion, what else is eternal perdition, but torture? Here the “destructive divine wrath” is displayed in all of its fury.

MacDonald does not object to punishment per se, if it is directed to the sinner’s repen­tance. But he rejects the claim that the divine justice requires suffering as satisfaction: “Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin.” It cannot atone for wickedness, for it neither recompenses the victim nor transforms the wrongdoer (cf. “Righteousness“). To inflict retribution is to exact vengeance, nothing more, nothing less; but as the Scotsman memorably states: “The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.”

Penal substitutionary atonement, though, goes yet further: it asserts that the suffering of an innocent—and specifically, of the innocent and holy Son—can substitute for the deserved suffering of the wicked:

If there be no satisfaction to justice in the mere punishment of the wrong-doer, what shall we say of the notion of satisfying justice by causing one to suffer who is not the wrong-doer? And what, moreover, shall we say to the notion that, just because he is not the person who deserves to be punished, but is absolutely innocent, his suffering gives perfect satisfaction to the perfect justice? That the injustice be done with the consent of the person maltreated makes no difference: it makes it even worse, seeing, as they say, that justice requires the punishment of the sinner, and here is one far more than innocent. They have shifted their ground; it is no more punishment, but mere suffering the law requires! The thing gets worse and worse. I declare my utter and absolute repudiation of the idea in any form whatever. Rather than believe in a justice—that is, a God—to whose righteousness, abstract or concrete, it could be any satisfaction for the wrong-doing of a man that a man who did no wrong should suffer, I would be driven from among men, and dwell with the wild beasts that have not reason enough to be unreason­able. What! God, the father of Jesus Christ, like that! His justice contented with direst injustice! The anger of him who will nowise clear the guilty, appeased by the suffering of the innocent! Very God forbid!

One hears in these passionate words MacDonald’s indignation and outrage. Instead of believing in the sheer forgiveness of the Father, theologians have invented a legal mecha­nism—the preacher calls it “a piece of spiritual charlantry” and “grotesquely deformed absurdity”—that permits God to forgive:

Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his father-heart, for that they found impossible. They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing, as an offset to their sin; they could not believe in clear forgiveness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified; so they invented for its justifica­tion a horrible injustice, involving all that was bad in sacrifice, even human sacrifice. They invented a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God. He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father. What satisfac­tion was needed he made himself in what he did to cause them to turn from evil and go back to him. The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit.

Atonement for MacDonald begins with the unconditional love of God and terminates in the concrete reconciliation of sinners. Love and justice are one.

But, some object, MacDonald has compromised the finished work of the cross. Evangelical faith cleaves to the announcement that the Crucified has accomplished our atonement once and for all; otherwise assurance would be impossible. In his sermon “The Truth in Jesus,” MacDonald rejoins that there is a crucial difference between believing in a theory of atonement and believing in the living Christ:

To make my meaning clearer,—some of you say we must trust in the finished work of Christ; or again, our faith must be in the merits of Christ—in the atonement he has made—in the blood he has shed: all these statements are a simple repudiation of the living Lord, in whom we are told to believe, who, by his presence with and in us, and our obedience to him, lifts us out of darkness into light, leads us from the kingdom of Satan into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. No manner or amount of belief about him is the faith of the New Testament … What I insist upon is, that a man’s faith shall be in the living, loving, ruling, helping Christ, devoted to us as much as ever he was, and with all the powers of the Godhead for the salvation of his brethren.

Faith is not a matter of assenting to a doctrine about what Christ achieved for us in the past. Faith is trusting in the glorified Savior who is present to us now, who speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, who indwells our hearts and pours out his Spirit, who establishes us “in absolute oneness with God and all divine modes of being, oneness with every phase of right and harmony” (“Life”). Atonement is not truly finished until sinners have been brought to perfect unity with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Though MacDonald does not frequently address the resurrection of Jesus, clearly all of his preaching and teaching presupposes it. Easter lies at the heart of his faith, not as a doctrine but as spirited relationship. MacDonald demonstrates little interest in doctrine. He knows how easily it can become a substitute for, and obstacle to, faith—hence his focus on obedi­ence. Why obedience? Because it is the key to personal union with our Creator: “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation” (“Truth in Jesus”). Did MacDonald believe in the atonement? There can be only one answer: he believed in nothing but atonement! “With all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind,” he confesses, “I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God” (“Justice”).

The Crucified lives!

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16 Responses to Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Living Christ

  1. Benjamin Martinez says:



  2. brian says:

    Modern folks are puzzled by the equation of freedom and obedience to the Father. MacDonald is one of those voices that helps reorient are understanding of all those terms. The mystery of the Good is identical to the mystery of the Father. Get the Father wrong and you will never glimpse the surprise of justice which is the surprise of the gospel.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’ve been taught a mixture of this. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the differences.

    I know that MacDonald is right, it just seems all muddled.

    A thought that it is all in the parable of the Prodigal Son occurred to me so I must think on that. ________________________________

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Garreth ashe says:

    I think the words of nietzche are telling from his book the antichrist because he also understood the crucifixion through the lens of penal substitution:

    It was after this that an absurd problem emerged: “how could God permit it!” The troubled minds of the little community found an answer of truly frightful absurdity:God gave his son for the remissions of sin, as a VICTIM. All of a sudden it was the end of the Gospels! EXPIATORY sacrifice of the INNOCENT for the sins of the wicked! What horrifying PAGANISM!

    And all this coming from the very thinker who endorsed the pagan god Dionysus against Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Someone on Twitter just directed me to MacDonald’s reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, “Hears of Heaven and Earth.” Here is a passage when he comments on penal atonement:

    All good news from heaven, is of truth–essential truth, involving duty, and giving and promising help to the performance of it. There can be no good news for us men, except of uplifting love, and no one can be lifted up who will not rise. If God himself sought to raise his little ones without their consenting effort, they would drop from his foiled endeavour. He will carry us in his arms till we are able to walk; he will carry us in his arms when we are weary with walking; he will not carry us if we will not walk.

    Very different are the good news Jesus brings us from certain prevalent representations of the gospel, founded on the pagan notion that suffering is an offset for sin, and culminating in the vile assertion that the suffering of an innocent man, just because he is innocent, yea perfect, is a satisfaction to the holy Father for the evil deeds of his children. As a theory concerning the atonement nothing could be worse, either intellectually, morally, or spiritually; announced as the gospel itself, as the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the idea is monstrous as any Chinese dragon. Such a so-called gospel is no gospel, however accepted as God sent by good men of a certain development. It is evil news, dwarfing, enslaving, maddening–news to the child-heart of the dreariest damnation. Doubtless some elements of the gospel are mixed up with it on most occasions of its announcement; none the more is it the message received from him. It can be good news only to such as are prudently willing to be delivered from a God they fear, but unable to accept the gospel of a perfect God, in whom to trust perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In general I do resonate with MacDonald (in just about everything he writes). However, I am cautious when it comes to substitution even while I do reject PSA, precisely because it overdevelops the notion of substitution that under-girds the entire concept of the kiuppur/atonement/expiation word group in the Hebrew Scriptures, which the New Testament picks up on without substantial modification. The verb kpr does not entail substitution, from what we can tell it means to ‘wipe on or off’ in its non sacral usage it can refer to applying paint to a wall, or to clean off a surface. In the sacral usage it refers to the wiping away of sin (expiation), however the sacrificial lamb (used either in the feasts or in sin offerings) were the substitutionary instruments through which this expiation occurred. There was no penal development here, or even satisfaction, but there was substitution. To be more precise it was expiation through substitution. I think this is the most consistent way to look at it, and PSA is adding a component to atonement that simply isn’t present in the biblical witness.

    Athanasius does a great job of highlighting the constellation of themes happening in Christ’s Passion in On the Incarnation, and I think he is a great guide when it comes to a well developed theology (he doesn’t over-cook the egg so to speak). Where I see the value of MacDonald is in his affective appeal, which should not be dismissed. Essentially his theological and moral intuitions are more or less spot on.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Substitution can also be developed along the lines of Thomas F. Torrance’s view of Christ’s vicarious humanity, without invoking PSA. I’m quite sympathetic to TFT on this point.

      Liked by 3 people

    • From my reading, MacDonald does not so much deny Substitution (there are passages in his writings where it is just under the surface, if not plain, to my reading), but he does deny Penal Substitution, which appears to be the only “Substitution” with which he was ever familiar by that name. (I will hold that Penal Substitution is hardly Substitution at all, but a farce.)

      By His righteousness, Jesus wipes away our sin! By His life, He fills our death with life so that all is life and death is dead! He is in us and we are in Him. That’s it, but not it, for the Glory, the Mystery, is more than words can ever say: that is, than any word but the Word can ever be.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Iain Lovejoy says:

    There are to my mind two more logical problems with penal substitution as well as the three outlined above.
    The first is that the logic of it requires denying the Trinity. It requires that the Son and the Father be in opposition to each other. If God were one, all sins against the Father would be against the Son also, and if the Father to be just cannot forgive sins without applicable penalty, then no more can the Son in justice offer mankind free forgiveness by giving himself. It also creates the absurdity of God punishing himself to satisfy his own need to punish. The whole theory assumes Jesus is not God but some other being negotiating with him.
    The other further problem is that it leaves unpunished mankind’s greatest sin: the crucifixion itself. The only condign punishment for the crucifixion of Christ would, by the lex talonis, the crucifixion of a Christ in return. At best, the crucifixion atones only for itself, leaving all other sins unatoned-for; at worst it atones only for all mankind’s other sins, leaving mankind still owing God one crucifixion to be fully quit, a debt which could never be paid, since a second crucifixion would only leave this fresh sin to atone for, and so on ad infinitum.
    The doctrine is absurdly illogical, as well as blasphemously obscene.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Tom says:

    R. C. Sproul gives a poignant summary of PSA:

    “…the Father had imputed to [Jesus] every sin of every one of his people…the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse… It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you,” because that’s what it meant to be cursed and under the anathema of the Father… [and] every person who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      What happens to Spoul’s formulation if we reconceive the curse from being God’s just hatred of wickedness to the curse of original sin, i.e., the fact that we are born into a world of mortality and disorder that inevitably leads to our becoming sinners?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tom says:

        I wouldn’t call ‘mortality’ per se a ‘curse’. So I’m interested in viewing the Cross as Christ facing mortality (without despair and misrelation that involves sin). But you don’t view mortality-as-curse in ‘penal’ terms anyhow (so you could be saved!)


    • ____ ultimate obscenity.

      I’m sorry. How can people write these things? How can we live while such things are written? It seems like the blasphemy of it ought to kill us all outright!

      Lord, have mercy!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Garreth ashe says:

    PSA for me just doesnt add up with the life and ministry of Jesus that is depicted in the gospels, especially when he was revealing the Father to us. If the depiction of the Father is correct in the sense of how he had to turn his back on his son Jesus on the cross because of his holiness in relation to sin but lets be honest is this how Jesus as the Fathers image relate to sinners?

    For me this is what nietzche meant in my earlier quote of how ” this was the end of the gospels” simply this understanding of the cross went contrary to the gospel message Jesus proclaimed, simply because as Nietzche claimed “horrifying paganism”.

    And as i said somewhere else if the cross is understood in the PSA theory how was it possible that Jesus was forgiving sinners before the cross if the Fathers holy law had not been fulfilled simply because Jesus had not yet died on the cross to fulfil it. Hence again the PSA theory is totally divorced from the ministry and life of Jesus recorded in the gospels.


  10. Garreth ashe says:

    After thinking more about the reasons why PSA is incompatible with the good news of the gospel the main reason is that death is the enemy of God as David Bentley hart put it in the Doors of the Sea

    “As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy.”

    But does not PSA then not make death a necessity in the work of our salvation rather than claiming that Jesus sets his face to the cross to trample death down so it no longer has any dominion over us because by raising Jesus he Fathers deathless love is reveals to be for us all.


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