The beauty of penal substitutionary atonement

“…where the idea of the wrath of God is ignored, there also will there be no understanding of the central conception of the Gospel: the uniqueness of the revelation in the Mediator.”

Emil Brunner The Mediator p.152

I had not intended to write anything about Easter (which is why I’m horribly late to the party!) but as I read and reflected on this significant part of the year I became increasingly aware of how fashionable it is becoming for modern Christians to have a go at penal substitutionary atonement (from now on PSA).

I was reminded of the debate between evangelicals and progressives by watching the discussion between Andrew Wilson and Steve Chalke on ‘Unbelievable’ a few weeks ago and since have found numerous Christian bloggers defending Chalke’s view. I was finally compelled to write something after hearing one Christian blogger declare:

What saves us is not that Jesus died for us.”

Jim McDermott Why Good Friday is too often like a bad Indiana Jones movie (April 2014)

Now of course not all who disagree with PSA are willing to go that far in their language but there is certainly one particular meaning of that phrase they are rejecting.

[I apologize in advance because this is going to be a long post. This represents at least five years of wanting to say something on this subject and if it’s too much for one sitting that’s fine. It took me about twenty sittings to write it. I do hope that you will read it to the end though – especially if you disagree with me! I am not claiming to say anything new but rather to explain why PSA is often misrepresented. There are clearly some serious problems, for those who take a high view of Scripture at least, if PSA is dropped in terms of explaining many biblical passages and the doctrine of the justice of God but I will have to save those problems for another time.]

I don’t know about you but when I read a modern Christian disagreeing with PSA I always end up feeling they don’t really understand the doctrine they are disagreeing with.

A classic example of this would be Steve Chalke:

“How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed.”

Steve Chalke and Alan Mann The Lost Message of Jesus (2003) p.182

Here are the complaints from self-proclaimed ‘post-evangelical’ Dave Tomlinson:

“…the cross did not bring about forgiveness – this existed already; but rather, Jesus enacted and represented the forgiveness which has always been there in the heart of God. His attitude does not change toward us; instead our attitude towards him changes as we see forgiveness acted out before us.”

No wonder just a few sentences later he asks:

“Does it [that is to say his reading of the theology of the cross] exalt love at the cost of righteousness?”

Dave Tomlinson The Post-Evangelical 1995 p.100,1

Or more recently by Brian Zahnd:

The Bible is clear, God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was offered as a sacrifice in that the Father was willing to send his Son into our sinful system in order to expose it as utterly sinful and provide us with another way. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in that sense. But it was not a sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to Justice.”

How does “Dying for our sins” work? (April 2014) [Emphasis authors.]

Yet all these sentiments are a far cry from the doctrine expressed within evangelical scholarship. What Chalke, Tomlinson and Zahnd all have in common is that they appear to misconceive how PSA is expressed by those who hold to it, they fail to engage with the scholars they are disagreeing with, and they also completely ignore the passages in the Bible which have traditionally been taken to be teaching it. Obviously, I’m not the first person to notice this. In a classic treatment on the subject Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach complain:

9781433501081“…the most pressing reason why this book is necessary is that the misconceived criticisms of penal substitution show no sign of abating, and the resulting confusion within the Christian community seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. As Carl Trueman remarked, ‘The classical evangelical position on atonement has fallen out of favour over recent years, often rejected on the basis of a theologically caricatured and historically inadequate understanding of what exactly the position entails.'”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.31

In this post I wish to clarify what PSA is generally considered to be by those who hold to it and to dispel a few modern myths about it. I am under no illusion that I will be able to convince a progressive Christian to believe it but I think that is because of a deeper issue which separates us and that is the question of what gets to be the final arbiter of Christian doctrine.

You will notice that the theologians I am most influenced by on this matter are John Stott and Leon Morris. If you are a Christian who takes the authority of the Bible seriously and yet you completely disagree that the Bible teaches PSA I would highly recommending both of them. My piece also relies heavily on the book by Jeffery, Ovey and Sach who, I think, have compiled a fantastic summary of the doctrine in their book just referenced.

What is PSA?

“The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.21

At first glance that might appear to be saying what the progressives cited above are criticizing but I think a deeper look at the doctrine reveals how misunderstood it is. It does not hold that God suddenly reacted in an emotive fashion to our sins (as expressed by Chalke). It is quite obviously not a form of child abuse. As I will point out in the next section, this is to completely misunderstand how the doctrine of the Trinity relates to the doctrine of PSA. It is also not suggesting that there is some higher standard of justice which God is himself answerable to (as expressed by Zahnd).

God the Father (and the ‘pagan’ comparison myth)

One thing I find to be so profoundly annoying among those who argue against substitutionary atonement is that they so frequently get the role of God the Father wrong in their criticisms. In their parodies the Father is either inactive in salvation or he is merely angry (in the sense of being in some emotional state) and Jesus manages to appease his feelings of anger almost against his will. [1] Some even make him seem like he reluctantly participates in the plan of salvation. But this is a seriously deficient view of the doctrine.

As Leon Morris notes:

“The atonement is not basically an impersonal affair nor a sole concern of the Son. It is rather something in which the persons of both the Father and the Son are exceedingly active. It is not an affair in which Christ takes a firm initiative while the Father adopts a passive role. In every part of the New Testament that we have so far examined the fact that the atonement proceeds from the loving heart of God has been emphasized.”

Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament (1976) p.220,1

The point is also made by Ladd:

“Clearly, atonement is not an affair in which Christ takes the initiative while the Father adopts a passive role. Paul does not differentiate between the love of God and of Christ. Both are seen in the cross. Indeed, the love of Christ is the love of God, and vise versa.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (Revised 1994 Edition) p.465

And again:

“The idea that the cross expresses the love of Christ for us while he wrings atonement from a stern and unwilling Father, perfectly just, but perfectly inflexible, is a perversion of New Testament theology.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (Revised 1994 Edition) p.465,6

Guthrie makes it clear how this is far removed from pagan notions of appeasement:

“What Christ did was a substitutionary act by which God shows that his anger is turned away, so that men are now freed to come into a relationship with him. This is very different from the appeasement idea, in which the worshipper was obliged to adhere to certain rituals to persuade the god to change his attitude. In Christian thought it is God himself who takes the initiative.”

Donald Guthrie New Testament Theology (1981) p.470

So too, Carson:

“This marks the fundamental difference between pagan propitiation and Christian propitiation. In pagan propitiation, a human being offers a propitiatory sacrifice to make a god propitious. In Christian propitiation, God the Father sets forth Jesus as the propitiation to make himself propitious; God is both the subject and the object of propitiation. God is the one who provides the sacrifice precisely as a way of turning aside his own wrath. God the Father is thus the propitiator and the propitiated, and God the Son is the propitiation.”

Don Carson Scandalous p.64,5 (Emphasis authors.)

This approach is far more in line with the orthodox doctrine of the trinity as he explains:

“God presenting Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice is not an instance of “cosmic child abuse” in which God beats up on his kid… God demonstrates his love in that Christ died for us. You must not think that God stands over against us while Christ stands for us, as if Father and Son are somehow at odds, so that the Father takes it out on his Son. God desmonstrates his love by sending Christ. This is bound up with the very nature and mystery of the incarnation and the Trinity. This is the triune God’s plan. It hurts the Father to lose his Son, but he does it because he loves us.”

Don Carson Scandalous p.69 (Emphasis authors.)

Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach have a good passage on this too:

“From a historical point of view, it is important to recognize that the Old Testament rituals that form much of the biblical background to the New Testament teaching about Christ’s sacrificial death were radically different from many of the pagan practices of other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s people received detailed, lengthy descriptions of precisely how to conduct their sacrifices (see especially Lev.1-7; also Exod.29-30; Num.15,28-29), and were explicitly forbidden from imitating many of the rituals of other nations (eg. Deut.12:4,31; 18:19; Lev.18; 2 Kings 17:15-17; 21:2; 2 Chr. 33:2), particularly the appalling practice of child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31; 2Kgs 17:17; 2 Chr. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:5, Ezek. 20:31). The mere fact that the other nations also performed sacrifices should therefore not be allowed to obscure the huge differences between those practices and the Old Testament sacrificial system.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.227,8

John Stott notes two very key differences between pagan notions of substitution and the Christian doctrine:

1. God’s wrath is not volatile or erratic (contrary to the supposed comparison by Chalke and Mann).

2. The propitiation is not made by us but by God himself.

This makes the idea of propitiation completely different in Christian theology to ideas found in pagan practices.

Contrast all of that with what Brian Zahnd claims:

“Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!”

[See previous link.]

Notice how Zahnd tries to poison the well by already asserting that the Christian doctrine is akin to the pagan practice. Then he, falsely, uses a comparison with child sacrifice which is repeatedly outlawed in the Old Testament. I suppose Zahnd, Chalke, Mann, and others like this comparison because it works on an emotive level. Who in their right mind will agree with child sacrifice? But this is to falsely conflate the meaning of the word ‘child’ with the word ‘son’. Adults can be sons. In fact, all historical scholars agree that Jesus was an adult at the time of his crucifixion and therefore the idea that one has a direct comparison with ‘child sacrifice’ here is absurd.

It also misunderstands the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who think that holding to substitutionary atonement commits one to two different types of God (one found in the Father and the other in the Son) are making a false accusation. Those who hold to the doctrine of PSA have a very strong doctrine of the unity of the triune God working his purposes of redemption through the Son. The triune God is the instigator of the plan of atonement, the triune God is active in the atonement, and the triune God’s expression of love for humankind is found in the punishment all three of them suffer in the divine separation which takes place on the cross. The Son was not only separated from the Father but the Father was also separated from the Son. We ought not forget that.

God the Son

Another serious deficiency among critics of PSA is the role of the Son. It’s common for detractors to claim this understanding of the cross indicates some abuse toward the Son and yet this criticism monumentally fails to take into account the participation of the Son in the plan of atonement for sin.

In commenting on the beginning of Isaiah 53 Jeffery, Ovey and Sach state:

“The Servant consented to, and actively participated in, this ministry of sin-bearing and substitutionary death, in accordance with the will of God to afflict him in the place of others. Isaiah carefully guards against the false idea that God inflicted punishment against the Servant’s will; indeed, ‘God’s responsibility for the Servant’s vicarious role is articulated explicitly after the Servant’s acceptance of suffering has been established in 53:4a.’… If we step back for a moment and reflect on the way that this text speaks of the ministry of Christ, then we find in this solidarity of purpose a wonderful testimony to the unity of Father and Son within the Trinity.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.59

Those who claim that PSA suggests that God the Father is being unfair on God the Son appear to fail to notice that this charge can be leveled at them as well and perhaps even more so. Let us suppose that the cross is only about God demonstrating the extent of his love for us. We could criticize this idea in the same way PSA is criticized. Only, in this case, there is no objective reason for the Son to die. There is no need for it. Surely God could have demonstrated his love in many other ways? Why did the Son have to die? And even if you can find a reason for Jesus needing to die, why then was a separation between God the Father and God the Son necessary? Why does that take place? Once you reject PSA from your understanding of the cross there really is no substantial reason for Jesus to die and it makes his death seem a rather unnecessary gesture and his separation from the Father appears to be unnecessary suffering (ironically thereby making the Godhead look rather abusive). The very criticism leveled at PSA applies to an even greater extent once you reject PSA and I find critics of PSA completely fail to notice this.

In the context of addressing the view that the primary message of the cross is God’s love John Stott writes:

“The cross is the epitome of Christ’s love and the inspiration of ours. But the question we desire to press is this: just how does the cross display and demonstrate Christ’s love? What is there in the cross which reveals love? True love is purposive in its self-giving; it does not make random or reckless gestures. If you were to jump off the end of a pier and drown, or dash into a burning building and be burnt to death, and if your self-sacrifice had no saving purpose, you would convince me of your folly, not your love. But if I were myself drowning in the sea, or trapped in the burning building, and it was in attempting to rescue me that you lost your life, then I would indeed see love not folly in your action. Just so the death of Jesus on the cross cannot be seen as a demonstration of love in itself, but only if he gave his life in order to rescue ours.”

John Stott The Cross of Christ (1986) p.220

In the context of atheists asking about the moral fairness of the sacrifice of the Son in some legal sense as being morally appropriate Alvin Plantinga points out:

“If God considers human beings guilty because of the sins they commit, then human beings are indeed guilty. If God approves, as no doubt he does, of his accepting the sacrifice of his son on the cross as a propitiation for human sin, then that arrangement is morally impeccable. If God is willing to accept the death of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, as restoring the moral balance, then indeed the death of the second person of the Trinity restores the moral balance.”

Alvin Plantinga Comments on ‘Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ’ (in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.114

Is penal substitutionary atonement something new?

It is unfortunately all too common to hear some critics of PSA suggest it is a doctrine which only extends as far back as the Reformers or, at the very earliest, Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033-1109). Oxford theologian Alister McGrath suggests the origin of this myth can be traced back to a book called Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen in 1930:

“In a brief and very compressed account of the history of theories of the atonement, Aulen argued that this highly dramatic “classic” theory (Christus Victor) had dominated Christianity until the Middle Ages, when more abstract legal theories began to gain ground. The situation was reversed through Martin Luther, who reintroduced the theme. However, the scholastic concerns of Protestant orthodoxy led to its being relegated once more to the background. Aulen argued that this approach could no longer be allowed to be the victim of historical circumstances; it demanded a full and proper hearing.

Historically, Aulen’s case was soon found to be wanting. Its claims to be treated as the “classic” theory of the atonement had been overstated. It was indeed an important component of the general patristic understanding of the nature and mode of procurance of salvation; nevertheless, if any theory could justly lay claim to the title of “the classic theory of the atonement,” it would be the notion of redemption through unity with Christ.”

Alister McGrath Historical Theology (1998) p.286,7

Many have already shown how long and illustrious the tradition of penal substitutionary atonement is so I will merely cite sources you could look up to investigate this ridiculous claim. Chapter 5 ‘Surveying the Heritage: the historical pedigree of penal substitution’ from the book Pierced for our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach is the thesis you need to refute in order to suggest that PSA is a recent doctrinal development. [2]

Penal substitutionary atonement is usually held alongside other motifs

Those who suggest that PSA ought to be dropped often appear to suggest that there can only be one primary understanding of the cross or they suggest that proponents of PSA hold it to the exclusion of other motifs. This is clearly not the case. Again here are some examples just from what I can find on my bookshelf:

“Of course the idea that Jesus died in the place of sinners, bearing the punishment of God’s wrath due to them on account of their rebellion, is not the only thing the Bible teaches about the crucifixion. We find also, for example, that the cross was the means by which Jesus triumphed over evil powers (Col.2:15), that it offers and inspiring example to those who suffer unjustly (1 Peter 2:21-23), and that it brings about a decisive end to our old life of sin, that we might live as new people (Rom.6:6). The biblical portrayal of the atonement has many facets.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.33

N.T. Wright has said:

“I want all of the theories of Atonement because I think that they all ultimately do fit together, but if you just take one of them, say Penal Substitution, and take it out of its biblical context, the danger then is that you do just have a picture of God as a sort of bullying headmaster who because the rest of the class have been bad he picks on his own son and he beats him up and says, ‘Well that’ll do.’ And I dread to think that there are some Christians who really think that that’s what the story is like.” [3]

Both Stott and Ladd also make it clear there are other motifs:

“…Gustav Aulen was right to draw the church’s attention to the cross as victory, and to show that by his death Jesus saved us not only from sin and guilt, but from death and the devil, in fact all evil powers, as well.”

John Stott The Cross of Christ (1986) p.229

“Full recognition of the propitiatory, substitutionary character of the death of Christ must not permit us to overlook or to underemphasize the companion teaching that the death of Christ as a demonstration of divine love is designed to kindle a loving response in the hearts of human beings.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (Revised 1994 Edition) p.473,4

Even Don Carson, who sees PSA as a more important theme than the others, does not deny other models:

“With all due respect to those who insist that penal substitution is just one gospel metaphor of many, propitiation is in fact what holds together all the other biblical ways of talking about the cross.”

Don Carson Scandalous p.67

Christian philosopher John Hare, in the context of talking about understanding Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, notes:

“This is only one of the pictures presented in the New Testament. Colin Gunton stresses that the various pictures are required to supplement each other, and no one of them should be taken in isolation. Nonetheless, he thinks sacrifice is “the very centre of the doctrine of the atonement.” “

John Hare Forgiveness, Justification, and Reconciliation in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith edited by Paul Moser and Michael T. McFall p.87

Those who hold to PSA frequently make it clear that it can, and ought, to be held alongside other understandings which arise when considering what the full understanding of the cross. If there are proponents of PSA out there who hold that PSA is the only way in which the cross can be understood I’ve never read them. Who are they exactly and where do they say it? Until that evidence is provided this appears to be a criticism based on a myth.

Biblical justification for penal substitutionary atonement

When N.T. Wright makes it clear on video (as he has done in his writings also) [4] that he does hold to PSA he suggests the most obvious places to begin finding it in the New Testament are Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:1-4:

“Paul says that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. That is penal because it’s condemnation, it is substitutionary because what happened there in the flesh of Jesus Christ means that therefore there is now no condemnation… Romans 8:1-4 really says it all…”

Wright has felt the need to make it clear since some have suggested that Wright does not hold to PSA. This is a rather stunning misrepresentation since he has made it clear in his writings he does. Wright has said:

“No clearer statement is found in Paul, or indeed anywhere else in all early Christian literature, of the early Christian belief that what happened on the cross was the judicial punishment of sin. Taken in conjunction with [Romans] 8:1 and the whole argument of the passage, not to mention the partial parallels in 2 Cor. 5:21 and Gal. 3:13, it is clear that Paul intends to say that in Jesus’ death the damnation that sin deserved was meted out fully and finally, so that sinners over whose heads that condemnation had hung might be liberated from this threat once and for all.”

N.T. Wright The Letter to the Romans NIB 10:574,5

No wonder then that Michael Bird exclaims:

“How can one read this statement by Wright and then say, as I heard one “theologian” declare on a weekly podcast show, that N.T. Wright does not know “what to do with the cross”? That simply baffles me.”

Michael Bird Evangelical Theology p.406

Hare writes:

“We must be careful, it is true, not to impute to God’s justice what is true only of interhuman affairs, but the idea of separation from God, and so death in various forms, as consequence and punishment for what we do and are against God, is both deeply embedded in Scripture and part of a typical Christian conception of divine justice.”

John Hare Forgiveness, Justification, and Reconciliation in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith edited by Paul Moser and Michael T. McFall p.90,1

The New Testament scholar Leon Morris begins his discussion on this topic by saying:

“Repeatedly Paul says that Christ died for sin and that he died for men. For the first point let us notice that He was ‘delivered up for our trespasses’ (Rom.4:25), that He ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor.15:3), that He ‘gave himself up for our sins’ (Gal.1:4), that ‘the death that he died, he died unto sin once for all’ (Rom.6:10), that God sent Him ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin’ (Rom.8:4).”

Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament (1976) p.217

“If Jesus allowed himself to be crucified at Passover time subsequently to instituting the eucharist, he inevitably proclaimed in the contemporary culture an understanding of it in this kind. I conclude that the claim of many New Testament books, that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, originated in the teachings of Jesus.”

Richard Swinburne Was Jesus God? p.107

The first third of Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach’s book is an extended look at the biblical justification for finding PSA in the Bible and is such a strong case I would highly recommend it for anyone who doubts. [5]


One of the biggest problems for those rejecting PSA, for those who take the Bible seriously, is what do do with the biblical narrative of salvation. From the fall of Adam and Eve, the covenants God makes with man, the Exodus, the Law, the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system, the judges, the Exile, the Prophets, the teachings of Jesus, and right up to the writings of Paul the problem is what to make of the fact that the Bible portrays God as angry at sin and requiring a punishment for it. For myself, I cannot see how someone can take the Bible seriously and yet attempt to lose the doctrine of PSA.

What I do hope is that critics of PSA will take more time and care to understand the doctrine they are claiming to disagree with. Too often it appears to be the case that they don’t bother and instead attack a straw man their opponents simply do not hold to. I think the genuine doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is a beautiful doctrine without which one will struggle to make sense of the biblical narrative and the very character of God.

As Alvin Plantinga says, in the context of a propitiatory understanding of the cross:

“This story of atonement is the greatest story ever told, indeed, the greatest story that could be told…”

Alvin Plantinga Comments on ‘Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ’ (in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.112

“Amazing love! How can it be

That thou, my God, should’st die for me?”

Charles Wesley’s And can it be


[1] Here is Christian theologian Greg Boyd doing just that:

Boyd does not like the idea of there being violence at the centerpiece of God’s plan of redemption. But I don’t see how rejecting penal substitution solves that fact. The violence is still there if you reject PSA but now you have the even bigger problem that Jesus didn’t really need to die for our sins in any legal sense. So now the violence appears to be far more arbitrary and unnecessary. Does God really need to die in that fashion to demonstrate his love for us? Could he not have chosen some other equally valid ways?

Then Boyd attempts to discredit the idea merely because pagans had some primitive intuition about this (and he calls it a “demonic intuition”). But this is merely an attempt to discredit an idea by associating it with some group we would otherwise disagree with in order to attempt to make it less attractive and that is not a sound argument to make. Just because Nazis had an interest in ancient archaeology does not make doing ancient archaeology demonic. This is just mud slinging. Also he cites the example of ancient people’s sacrificing children to the gods to appease them but this is a practice which those who hold to PSA firmly disagree with since Scripture is so clear on it being wrong. The PSA model is not suggesting anyone but God himself can be such a sacrifice for sin.

Boyd is just horribly wrong when he asserts that if the PSA intuition is right then the intuition that children should be sacrificed to the gods is also right. This is just grossly mistaken and highly illogical as an argument. That’s akin to arguing that if I advocate for voluntary organ donations I must therefore advocate involuntary organ removals from unwilling (or unknowing) victims as the logical outworkings of my view on voluntary organ donation. That is, frankly, an absurd inference. I have a lot of time for Boyd but that ‘argument’ was just horrible. I think it’s because he was making a quick rant of a video rather than a carefully considered argument.

[2] Penal Substitution In The Writings Of The Church Fathers

Chapter 5 ‘Surveying the Heritage: the historical pedigree of penal substitution’ of Pierced for our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach.

N.T Wright (though not agreeing with everything in the book still) says:

“…it firmly and decisively knocks on the head an old canard which is repeated yet again in a letter in the Church Times (20 April 2007, p. 13): that ‘penal substitution’ was invented by Anselm and developed by Calvin, and that it excludes and even contradicts other ideas, not least the ‘Christus Victor’ theme. Over against this, J, O and S offer a catena of passages from Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas.”

The Christian philosopher John Hare also makes note of this in his paper Forgiveness, Justification, and Reconciliation (in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith ed. Moser and McFall) pp.77-96.

See also: Stott’s The Cross of Christ Chapter 5 ‘Satisfaction for sin’.


[4] See: N.T. Wright on Penal Substitution and The Cross and the Caricatures by Tom Wright.

Philosopher Richard Swinburne on the need for objectivity in theories of the atonement:

[5] They begin in the Old Testament with an extended look at the meaning of the passover, the Day of Atonement, and the sacrificial system of Leviticus. A strong case is made for the Hebrew term kipper taking the meaning of ‘averting God’s wrath’ in many places (eg. Numbers 16 and 25). They then proceed to find the concept in the Psalms and the Prophets. They offer a substantial interaction with the Servant Songs in Isaiah and offer critical replies to those who have attempted to claim that PSA cannot be found in Isaiah. They also explain the New Testament use of Isaiah and how it is applied to Jesus. They then turn their focus to the gospels and make a specific study of Mark and John. They then address the writings of Paul and Peter.

This Old Testament background understanding of propitiation for sins is crucial for understanding this doctrine.

Old Testament scholar, Willem VanGemeren notes:

“The death of Christ is a part of the gospel message. Jesus ‘died for our sins’ in fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices and priestly system (Rom. 3:24-26;8:3). His death satisfied the wrath of God, evoked by our sinful condition (Rom. 5:9). The death of the Christ was thus victorious; he died for us rather than for himself (Gal. 3:13; Eph. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:10; Heb. 9:11-10:18). The death of Christ was foreshadowed by the expiatory offerings in the Old Testament (the sin and guilt offering) and is efficacious for salvation and sanctification (13:10-13).

Jesus fully identified with the human condition in his incarnation in that he took God’s judgement of sinners on himself (Gal. 3:13). In his death for others he, as the last Adam, represented the human family so that he in his life might bring the benefits of his substitutionary death to all who are in him (Rom. 5:12-6:14).

The effect of Christ’s sacrifice is nothing less than what God had promised to his Old Testament people: covering of the sin, forgiveness, and cleansing. In the Old Testament the priestly system, the regulations of holiness and purity, and the sacrificial system foreshadowed the death of the Christ. The Old Testament people of God truly experienced forgiveness, cleansing, and the joy of their salvation because the wrath of God was propitiated in anticipation of the final work of our Lord.”

 Willem VanGemeren The Progress of Redemption: From Creation to the New Jerusalem (1988) p.405



About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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34 Responses to The beauty of penal substitutionary atonement

  1. Well said. I think leaving off PSA results in a weak understanding of sin and it’s consequences, contributes to certain spiritual weaknesses in our hearts, and thus the response of God overall when He returns may shock some people.

  2. jmac19 says:

    This writer reduced what I tried to make a thoughtful argument and struggle with our belief in Jesus’ death for our sins to one convenient pull quote.

    Reader beware.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Well I think people can decide for themselves. This is why I put the link to your article immediately underneath so they can read the context for themselves.

      I don’t think that what you wrote after that sentence really reduces the shock of that statement to be honest.

      You’re still saying that it’s not Jesus’ death which saves us. Nothing you write after that suggests the sentence on its own is revoked or needs interpreting in some sophisticated way. It appears that you really do mean what you say in that one sentence.

      Of course, if you are now suggesting that there is some sense in which Jesus’ death DOES save us then I don’t think you make that clear enough in your piece. Please notice that I only quote you as being the writer who prompted me to write on this topic. I do not suggest what your relationship to PSA is and the reason I did not cite you as one of those authors misrepresenting PSA is because you don’t say enough about it in your post for me to know. I’m just pointing out that it was hearing a fellow Christian say that Jesus’ death did not save us is what led to me writing this piece.

      But, as I said, I put the link there so people can read you and make up their own minds about what it is you’re saying. I hope you can see that as fair treatment?

      All the best.

    • Your quote…
      “What saves us is not that Jesus died for us.”

      1 Cor. 15.1-3(ESV)
      Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…

      I’ll stick with the latter please.

  3. kangaroodort says:

    Very nice. How would you understand this separation in the Godhead that you speak of (and many proponents of PSA hold to) without doing violence to the eternal nature of the Trinity? I don’t think Christ’s cry on the cross is enough to establish such a concept, as it can easily be understood in other ways. What do you think?

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Thanks. Well I don’t think it’s just the cry of Jesus on the cross which establishes that. I think it is also from the way in which Jesus is described as being made sin and a curse for us and the fact that God cannot look upon sin. This is very nicely explained in both Stott and Morris much better than I could here.

      I’m not sure what you mean by this idea “doing violence” to the doctrine of the Trinity. I would say that is the scandal of the cross. The unimaginable takes place and Father and Son, in some sense we cannot possibly comprehend, lose contact with each other. This is the scandal of the cross and indicates the severity of the suffering Jesus took on our behalf.

  4. kangaroodort says:


    The doctrine of the Trinity is typically expressed in a way such that God is three persons eternally co-existing. That is the definition of who God is as revealed in Scripture. So how can the Son be separated from the Father and the fundamental nature of God as Triune remain? I’m just trying to understand. I do think there can be some sort of disruption of relationship on the cross between the Father and the Son, but not a wholesale separation as that would indeed threaten the definitional nature of the Triune God. I just don’t see how we can claim that the Father and Son were separated and still maintain the integrity of the Trinity doctrine. Feel free to explain.

    I also don’t see that Jesus being made a curse or a sin offering leads to one needing to come up with the idea that God the Father was totally separated from the Son on the cross. There are other ways to understand that, and at present, those other ways are preferable to what I personally see as an inescapable conclusion of the claim that the Father and Son were fully separated at the cross- a definitional distortion of God’s self revelation as eternally Triune.

    I also think there is plenty of scandal in the crucifixion without needing to hold to this idea of separation between the Father and Son at the cross. I also think that 2 Cor. 5:18, 19 and John 16:32 (cf. 8:29) challenge this idea of separation. I’m not trying to give you a hard time, just voicing a concern with the claim, a concern I have not personally been able to work out or accept as fully Biblical based on my own study and understanding of the Trinity.

    God Bless,

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Ben,

      No problem. I know your intentions are genuine. Don’t worry about that. I quite like having people give my opinions a hard time. Every time that happens it’s an opportunity to think more.

      I think the first way in which I would answer your concerns is to reflect on the fact that we probably already agree that the Son had a very different relationship with his Father during his incarnation. Would you not agree with that? What I mean is that it does not seem that Jesus could have been enjoying the presence of the Father to the same degree he had been from eternity while being a man. The NT makes it clear that he laid aside his divine nature (and what a mystery that is while not being illogical) so it hardly seems controversial to suggest his intimacy with his Father was certainly different and some passages would appear to indicate it was certainly qualitatively different. You have Jesus being tempted by the devil (and others). Surely that was not possible for the Son in eternity. You have Jesus needing to be comforted by an angel in the garden. Again – this is unthinkable for his eternal relationship with the Father in heaven. So I think that, even before the cross, there are already clear indications that there is a difference in the closeness of relationship between the Father and the Son during the incarnation.

      Now when you ask me to “explain” how this qualitative difference in relationship can work I feel that’s a little unfair. As far as I am aware, no Christian theologian / philosopher has even attempted (much less succeeded) in doing any such explanation. But what most of them have accepted is that there was some serious temporary distance between the Father and the Son. Some Christian theologians have gone so far as to suggest this needs emphasizing to the point of declaring that Jesus even went to hell in order to stress the separation from the Father. I do not hold to that view myself but I do think that the doctrine of Jesus becoming sin and Jesus’ cry on the cross (if it is to be really meaningful) must mean that Jesus was forsaken by the Father at that moment. If not then I have no idea what Jesus means when he asks the Father why he has forsaken him and it also means the Father can look on sin.

      Now there may be some other ways of understanding that but I have not read any which convince me. I’m afraid I don’t think either of those passages challenges the idea of separation. In John, Jesus is simply saying the Father is with him. That does not rule out the possibility of a moment when he would not be. There are just so many passages which speak to the PSA understanding of the cross I cannot see how anyone can think it’s not there in the Bible.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Thanks for this. I appreciate the time you took to get it down. There are some good things here that I need to study on.

    (You just read this book this year? This book you lean on so heavily. I wonder how you held on prior to its publication.)

    The most admirable parts of your position – to me – are the bits that talk about the utter heartbreak and cataclysm of the Son being separated from the Father. There might be something there for me. But how is this possible? How is the Trinity divisible? (I’m suppose I’m OK with filing that under ‘mystery’.)

    I still don’t know what you do with the torture of Christ. What is that all about? Was that really necessary?

    You’re absolutely right, though. I remain unconvinced. God is not violent. God forgives. Anything that attempts to cover over any kind of violence at all as just or righteous or ordained is wrong. That’s the lie that has confused humans from the beginning. That’s what I believe anyway. Not everyone agrees.

    Indeed, Christ died to save me from sin. The sin of violence and dominion over others. That model doesn’t work anymore. How do feel about your own culpability in the death of Christ? Do you even go there?

    And I’m still vexed by why PSA adherents think this is important. I mean how – and why – do you weave these violent concepts into your life as an example of Christ? How do you help someone relax into the love of God with these confusions in mind? Where is the love and forgiveness?

    This is a love based on exclusion. “I love you, so I will expel your victims/enemies.” I can only see this theory being useful in keeping people out of love, defining the ‘other’ in our lives and as a cover for doing violence in the name of God.

    Sorry. But thanks. Again.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Steve,

      Yes I am just finishing off the whole book but I had read three of the chapters a while back as papers. As I say, however, the biggest influences on my thinking have come, not from that book but, from Stott and Morris who are possibly some of the first theologians I read during my early undergraduate studies. Guthrie and Ladd were also an influence so that is how I “held on” until the Jeffery/Ovey/Sach book. 😉 There’s actually not that much that’s new in that book but what it is helpful in doing is summarizing some of the more recent attacks on PSA and dispelling some more modern myths.

      As for the question about the divisibility of the Trinity please see my response to Ben. I think that’s akin to asking how God could become man and lay aside his divinity.

      As for the torture of Christ I think we’re all in the same boat there aren’t we? I don’t know if you are but you might be thinking I’m some sort of theistic determinist so I would just like to make it clear I’m not.

      You say that God is not violent but I guess that depends what you mean. Some take violent to mean having some angry disposition or doing bad things in anger. If that’s what you mean then I agree. But if by violent you mean doing anything at all which harms people or ends their life then I cannot agree. The God of the Bible kills people. You don’t even have to go to the Old Testament for that either (Ananias and Sapphira). God is forgiving but he clearly does not forgive everyone. As many scholars have pointed out, Jesus talks about hell more than anyone else in the Bible and he does so in very graphic and strong terms. Now it might well be that you do not hold the Bible as being authoritative in matters of doctrine, but anyone who does could not possibly fail to see that God kills people in the Bible and he punishes them and warns them to avoid his punishment.

      You ask how I “weave these violent concepts into your life as an example of Christ” but I fear that is to miss the point that God clearly has authority to do things I do not. As I said, the example of Jesus, is to warn people about the reality of hell. But just because God (Jesus) will determine who goes to hell does not mean I share in making that judgement. I don’t have the right to do that. God has the right to end someone’s life but I do not. I am required to forgive but the Father is perfectly just and he will not. Imitating Christ certainly does not extend into all matters of his being and duties. We are required to follow his teachings to us. So it does not follow that if God is going to punish people (and clearly if you hold to what Jesus said some will) that I am called to punish people now. That would be very faulty logic indeed.

      Thanks for taking the time to read it and I hope, more than anything, that it inspires you to read some theologians who hold to PSA.

      Kind regards,

  6. kangaroodort says:


    Thanks for the response. First, I firmly hold to PSA, so my concern is not about that at all. I do agree that there was a difference in the relationship between the Father and the Son while the Son was on earth, but Jesus emphasized again and again that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him, so there is no need to think their was a significant disconnect that would change the fundamental nature of the Trinity (not that you were suggesting that).

    Second, a minor point, but I would disagree that Jesus “laid aside His divine nature.” I don’t find that in the Bible. I think you mean that He laid aside His divine rights in the incarnation, but Jesus was certainly fully divine while on earth. He just relied on the Father and the Spirit, rather than on His own divinity. There may be more to it than that, but we need to be careful not to go too far with it either, when Scripture doesn’t do that.

    Third, I understand that some say He was separated in such a way that He experienced hell too, but that doesn’t help much. Obviously, I disagree with that as well. I will just say that Jesus’ physical death as a common criminal on the cross was sufficient to make atonement and satisfaction for sin. I simply do not see in Scripture any idea that Jesus had to be wholly separated from the Father in order to make atonement. That is an idea that some have read into it, but I have yet to see that taught in Scripture.

    You say that God cannot look on sin (referencing Habakkuk 1:13 I assume), but I think that is obvious poetic hyperbole to underscore His holiness (God is so pure and holy that He cannot ever look on sin approvingly). God looks on sin all the time. It is because He looks on us as sinners that He sent the Son to make atonement. Do you really think that God never sees us when we sin? Doesn’t He judge our hearts because He knows our hearts? Doesn’t He then fully know the sinfulness of our hearts?

    I do think John 16:32 is relevant as Jesus seems to be making the point that while the disciples will abandon Him, His Father will not. And 1 Cor. 5:18, 19 seems to underscore this in saying that God was in Christ (God the Father in context) reconciling the world to Himself. Well, when did that happen precisely? It would be very hard to argue that it didn’t happen at the cross.

    As far as other explanations, I don’t think they are too challenging. Since Jesus had such a close relationship with the Father, this was the first time the Father seemed distant to Him. It was the first time that Jesus could relate to our feelings of being distant from God, even though He is with us. This was a human experience that Christ might not have experienced up till that point. I think it also was a deliberate statement to point to His fulfillment of Psalm 22 as the crucified Messiah. In fact, Psalm 22:24 would seem to suggest that while it seemed to Jesus that God was far off, He wasn’t. In that case, His cry would indicate both His feeling of being alone and His confidence that He was not alone (much like us in that we often feel God is far off, while we know He is near).

    But even if we hold your view, surely Christ knew that He would be separated from the Father and why. So even on your view, we need to wonder why Jesus would ask why the Father forsook Him, when He certainly knew why.

    Anyway, it is not a big deal if you disagree with me on this. It is not essential to PSA. I personally see no reason to hold to the idea as I do not find it necessary and find that it creates unnecessary difficulties, especially with regards to the Triune nature of God.

    By the way, Christian philosopher Thomas H McCall has written a book on the subject, arguing against the separation view ( I believe). I haven’t read it myself (though it has been on my wish list for some time), but you might want to check out:

    God Bless,

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Thanks Ben,

      Yes I’ve been meaning to read that book by McCall myself for a while now. Thanks for clarifying your position in that you do hold to PSA. I certainly agree that it’s possible to hold to PSA while having doubts about some interpretations of separation. Indeed, as I said myself, I disagree with some interpretations of separation (the Jesus went to hell idea for example).

      The mystery I am making reference to is Philippians 2. The idea that God could make himself nothing and take the form of a servant is profoundly mysterious. If someone asked me logistically how that works then I wouldn’t be able to. It’s mysterious. I would say the same of the separation between the Father and the Son.

      I think our difference is one of degree rather than of kind. You appear to agree that Jesus really did not feel the Father was with him on the cross. All I am suggesting is that this feeling reflects a truth. When Jesus asks the Father why he has forsaken him he is not merely expressing a feeling, or citing the Psalms (and clearly he is doing both of those) but he is telling a truth. I cannot make much sense of that cry unless it was actually true. Of course Jesus knows the answer to the question but that would not stop one asking it existentially in the moment.

      I think the “look on” sin issue is, of course, an anthropomorphism. Of course I don’t think God does not ‘see’ sin in the sense that he’s not aware of it but I think the language is expressing the view that God cannot be in the presence of sin. There is real distance between God and sin.

      Having said all that I don’t consider your view to be too different from my own and it’s certainly not a distortion of the cross as portrayed in the NT (unlike those who attempt to completely throw out PSA). I will try to get hold of that book some time.


  7. kangaroodort says:

    BTW, I would say that Christ bore our sin on the cross in that He paid the penalty for sin that we deserved and He did not. So I would not say that Christ literally had sin all over Him or something like that. Rather, He bore the punishment that our sins deserved. Likewise, He became a curse in that He bore the curse on our behalf. Many commenters see the reference to His becoming sin for us as becoming a “sin offering” and not literally sin (which would seem to indicate He was no longer “blameless” at that point, which is in plain contradiction to other Scriptures).

  8. labreuer says:

    Once you reject PSA from your understanding of the cross there really is no substantial reason for Jesus to die

    Christus Victor doesn’t provide a sufficient reason? I’m reminded of CS Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan’s death and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe, whereby the rules are changed. I’m still very much in the middle of trying to understand the atonement; the fact that no fiction I know of has captured it very well indicates to me that there’s a lot left to understand!

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      I agree with Christus Victor but, yes, I do not think that, on its own, it makes enough sense of the cross. If God wants to show he’s victorious over death there are many ways he can do that. Raising Lazarus. Raising all human beings. These would show he has power over death. On its own, it does not make enough sense of the cross in my opinion. Sorry.

  9. kangaroodort says:

    Thanks for the response. I know you are probably ready to agree to disagree, but I wanted to address your points.

    I do hope you will read McCall’s book, and I hope I will too 🙂

    I understand that you were referencing Philippians 2. I preached on that passage a few weeks ago. It is a wonderful and mysterious passage. I was just saying that it doesn’t say that Jesus “laid aside His divine nature.” It says He emptied Himself and became a servant, submitting Himself to death, even the most humiliating death possible-death on the cross. But what does “he emptied Himself” mean? It certainly doesn’t need to mean that He laid aside His divine nature in any other way than that He did not rely on His divinity or expect to rule or be worshipped as His deity and authority would normally dictate (in His coming to earth to die a servant rather than rule as the King of Kings). That seems to fit with His not considering equality with God something to be grasped or latched onto. He was equal with God- in very nature God, so it has to be a reference to how that would translate into His earthly ministry of submission and service.

    On God not looking on sin, I think we basically agree. We just disagree that Jesus actually became sin. Again, that creates major theological difficulties. It means that at that point Jesus was not holy. How can the Son of God not be holy? You keep referencing the Father needing to be separate from sin, but what about the Son? He is fully God as well. How is it that the Son can become sin, but the Father cannot even look on it? As I noted in my follow-up post above, Jesus can bear our sins without becoming sin in that He bears the punishment our sins deserve. He was a blameless and holy innocent suffering the punishment that He did not deserve, but we did (Hebrews 7:26; 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19). That is scandal enough and fits with all of what Scripture says about God as triune and holy and Jesus being the blameless and perfect sacrifice for our sins. The separation view creates numerous unnecessary and, in my opinion, insurmountable theological difficulties. They can’t just be dismissed by referring to scandal. Calvinism has “scandal” all over it, and yet we reject it as unbiblical.

    You write,

    You appear to agree that Jesus really did not feel the Father was with him on the cross. All I am suggesting is that this feeling reflects a truth.

    What truth? That the Son can be wholly separated from the Father? How is that possible given the nature of the Triune God? Again, if we read the whole Psalm, we see that there is confidence expressed that God is with the suffering Messiah even though He feels abandoned. This is bolstered by John 16:32 and 1 Cor. 5:18, 19. Consider this. Jesus repeatedly says in His ministry that the Father is Him and that He is in the Father and that He and the Father are one, and then we see this same reality being expressed in 1 Cor. 5:18, 19 with regards to the cross. Even at the cross the Father was in the Son, actively reconciling the world to Himself. There is a further point here that you seemed to try to highlight with the idea of separation in the first place- that the Father was not uninvolved in the Son’s suffering. Indeed, the Father was “in the Son” in His suffering, and so in a very real sense shared in that suffering. I think this makes that point even stronger than the separation view (without creating disunity in the Trinity- an obvious theological absurdity in my opinion)

    When Jesus asks the Father why he has forsaken him he is not merely expressing a feeling, or citing the Psalms (and clearly he is doing both of those) but he is telling a truth.

    But why can’t expressing a feeling be telling the truth? It is expressing the truth of one’s feeling in the midst of intense suffering and confusion. Again, you say He is expressing a truth, but what about His actually knowing why the Father has forsaken Him at that moment? Don’t you see the difficulty in suggesting that Christ was asking the Father why He was doing something when Christ knew exactly why He was doing it? I think any way you address that difficulty would support my contention as well. In other words, I don’t see that any difficulty in my view is any less problematic than the difficulty present in your view. So I think mine is clearly preferable in that it doesn’t lead to the major difficulties this creates for the Trinity.

    Of course Jesus knows the answer to the question but that would not stop one asking it existentially in the moment.

    Likewise, while Jesus knew the Father was with Him, His feelings that are contrary to His knowledge can also be expressed “existentially in the moment.” We could also say that Jesus was expressing the reality of being abandoned to death. In other words, it could be that He was asking why God did not rescue Him, but completely abandoned Him to His suffering (without actually abandoning Him). You could object that Jesus knew why He was being abandoned to death at that moment and the Father didn’t rescue Him, but then I can just respond as you have here in saying that while He knew why, He could still legitimately ask the question “existentially in the moment.” So why not prefer this approach in that it doesn’t create the major Trinitarian problems that the separation view does?

    All that to say that there are no passages that dictate the separation view. All such passages that are used to express it can be just as well understood in other ways, ways that do not create major problems with other claims in Scripture. So I personally see no good reason to hold to the separation view and every reason to “abandon” it 🙂

    God Bless,

  10. kangaroodort says:

    Noticed this typo, corrected with brackets: “Jesus repeatedly says in His ministry that the Father is [in] Him and that He is in the Father…” Didn’t want to give the impression of oneness doctrine there.

  11. Dan O'Brian says:

    I’ve had many questions about the PSA lately, though not by design. The subject just kind of fell into my lap. Since then, I’ve been more interested in it. But, my question that I would like to put to you, since I have respect for your writings, is: If God is immutable, meaning that he is changeless, how can the Son be separated from the Father? From eternity past, God had (and has) loving fellowship within himself in the perfect harmony of the Triune relations among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, at the cross, as the PSA narrative goes, all three of the persons of the Godhead suffer in this divine separation. The condition implies a change in a changeless God. It is a break in fellowship that had (and has) always been there, except for this one moment on the cross. God underwent a change. I find it hard to reconcile this change with an immutable God.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the question. I think it all depends on what one means by “immutable” doesn’t it?

      Even those who like to use the term use it in different ways.

      I think the first thing to say is that this is not a specific problem for the separation between the Father and Jesus. IF God does not change at all, in any way whatsoever, then the first problem is the incarnation is it not? Part of the Godhead becoming man appears to be quite a radical ‘change’ I would have thought. Even if you don’t believe the Father and the Son had a separation in their relationship you would still have to admit their relationship changed when Jesus became a man. So I don’t think the separation of Father and Son creates a unique problem for immutability.

      I think the entire Bible challenges the view that God does not change in any way at all. God interacts with humanity. He threatens punishment and then relents. He gets angry and he shows mercy. He sets one particular covenant and then develops another one which is different. Jesus developed the teachings of the OT. etc. etc.

      I think what does not change is the essential character of God. That is what does not change. I think other notions of immutability owe more to non-Christian philosophical assumptions myself.

      Does that clarify? Many thanks.

      • Dan O'Brian says:

        Thank you. I do understand what you mean now by immutability, God’s character does not change. I think then you would agree that God is able to experience different states of being as he is affected by his creation. There is causality from the world to God, yes?

        I just wonder if a Christian can hold to the doctrine of divine simplicity, in other words, changelessness in “substance”, and NOT experience cognitive dissonance if he holds to the PSA as well. Am I compelled to reject PSA if I hold to that understanding of divine immutability?

  12. kangaroodort says:


    I know you haven’t yet addressed my other comments, but in your response to me so far and in your response to Dan, you seem to side step the main objection. Saying there can be a change in relationship as evidenced by the incarnation does not address the issue of separation in the Godhead. God is, by definition, a tri-unity. Three persons who are one God. The unity of Three in One. When you say that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were separated at the cross, how does that not, in that moment, create a tri-theism? Suddenly we have three separate divine persons. Isn’t that three Gods? How are they Three in One without that unity? Again, that is what the Trinity is. It is a Tri-unity. You can’t have separation and maintain the Trinity. You can’t have Three in One when there is no longer a “one”. As a philosopher, I don’t understand how you are not seeing the major problem here.

    Could you please address this specific issue without just appealing to the incarnation? As I said before, even in the incarnation the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and they are one (John 10:30, 38; 14:10, 20; 17:21, 22). So the separation doctrine goes far beyond the issue of incarnation since incarnation retains that vital unity.

    I would also be interested to see if you can produce a single passage of Scripture that explicitly demonstrates this separation or necessarily implies it. I would think that holding to a doctrine that creates such major problems with the Triune nature of God should require at least as much.

    Thanks and God Bless,

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Ben,

      Sorry for the delay. It’s been a very busy week. My students left this week and their exams are coming up soon.

      Again I would simply say that I don’t understand how a separation in the Godhead creates some tri-theism. Those who hold to the Father and the Son’s relationship being seriously disrupted in the sense of them not being in the intimate presence of each other does not, I don’t think, necessitate thi-theism by some logical inference. All it means is that their relationship was temporarily disrupted. It would not imply tri-theism. And I continue to think the incarnation gives us insight here. The relationship between Father and Son was already extremely different due to the incarnation. But this difference in relationship (and even their separation) is not a change of their ontological being. There is still, ontologically, one God and always has been but the relationship of the three persons within the Godhead changed during both the incarnation and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I think that philosophy actually helps to see that there is no problem here. The change is relational not ontological. They can still share the same divine ‘substance’.

      As I said, I think the primary text for this understanding is what Jesus cries from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If someone wants to suggest that Jesus is merely expressing an existential feeling at this point then I think what is being said looses a lot of its force. Jesus could have said “Why do you feel so far away from me?” but he didn’t. The saying makes a lot more sense, in my opinion, if Jesus is absolutely right. Of course it is a echo of Psalm 22 but let us not forget that God’s presence DID leave David. The Holy Spirit did not reside with anyone until Pentecost. David truly knew what it was like to be abandoned by God’s presence but the Psalm is also a great testimony to trust in God despite that real lack of the Father being there.

      Sorry that’s all I have time for now. Busy defending the EA for distancing themselves from Steve Chalke!

      God bless.

  13. credulo says:

    Hello, ‘Rambler’! I am Anderson Torres, a Brazilian, computer-scientist-wannabe, Christian blogger.
    I was passing by your blog, and noted that post. I want to talk about it, because I have some predilection about the subject of Christ’s Atonement Work.

    I am a not so traditional Evangelical Christian, more in line with an “a-denominational” approach. I am an Arminian Molinist, but I believe in certain Roman Catholic distinctives. Focusing on that subject, I believe Penal Substitution (hereinafter, PSA) theory is wrong (and I believe in a mix of Satisfactional plus Incarnational theories).

    I want to use my first comment here, just to present myself and start a light conversation on that subject. In fact, I think some critics presented to PSA above are very cogent. In my next post, I will summarize my objections.
    many thanks in advance!

    Credulo (aka Anderson Torres 🙂 )

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi there Credulo! Thanks for leaving a comment. I have been wondering who is reading my posts from Brazil. Now at least I know one of them! A fellow Arminian/Molinist eh? Nice to meet you. I would be interested to hear why you reject PSA and what you do with the passages in the NT which appear to suggest this understanding of the cross. Thanks again.

  14. Dan O'Brian says:

    My comments before may have given the impression that I reject the PSA. That’s not the case, but it has left me with a lot of questions lately. The PSA has been my understanding of the atonement ever since I was a child. Even as a child, though, I followed the logic of the PSA to odd intellectual places.

    For instance, what it means for all humans to pay the penalty for their sins is to spend eternity in Hell. Realizing that Jesus paid the price for our sins so we could be saved from that punishment, and considering Jesus to have experienced what we would have, I came to think, as a child, that Christ suffered in Hell. And since we would have been there for all eternity, then a part of God must always be in Hell suffering for our sins.

    If Christ did not suffer in Hell like a regular human would, then how could it be said that our penalty was paid in full? If he only spent three days in Hell then he didn’t experience what we would have which still means that our penalty was not paid like a regular human would have paid for it. If a part of God really is suffering in Hell, and Hell is separation from God forever, then how can God be separated from himself?

    This thought process went through my mind when I was about 10 years old. I never voiced it out loud, but it was there. I realize now, that the logic of the PSA took me in odd places. I still have not rejected it, but I am trying to reconcile these ideas.

    I’m not expected you to have an answer to my previous question about the immutability of God and the PSA. I think it’s unfair to ask you to answer for all PSA advocates or even to expect you to have the perfect answer. I really just wanted your opinion. You seem like a person who puts a lot of thought into things and tries to get the understanding of them right. That’s the reason I asked.

    At a certain point, though, it’s exhausting trying to re-invent, or rebuild, every church doctrine. Taking some things on the authority of the church is not always a bad thing or even being intellectually lazy. We should be able to trust that great thinkers throughout history have given these things a lot of thought and have built a reasonable framework that these doctrines and ideas can hang on.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi there again. Sorry if I misunderstood you at all.

      It’s REALLY interesting you remember asking yourself that question because I had those very same questions myself.

      I think the key for me was coming to see that the punishment for sin is not eternal torment but death. And not just physically but spiritually in the sense of being separated from God. Now if that’s the case then Jesus certainly endured that without needing to go to hell for eternity.

      I would agree that I think we ought to stick with what the church has traditionally taught unless there is very strong evidence that it has got it wrong. So I would say the burden of proof is very much on those who wish to dismiss PSA since it has been a key way of understanding the cross throughout Christian history.

      Have you read Stott’s ‘The Cross of Christ’? If not I would highly recommend it. It is a classic treatment and I cannot read it without being driven to worship God all the more.

      Thanks for commenting!

  15. credulo says:

    Well, my main problem with PSA is the idea that God the Father, the Most Righteous being, is punishing Jesus, the Most Righteous man, by something Jesus never did – sin.

    Well, it appears to be a bit emotional – as the above arguments describing a “pagan, angry, blood-thirsty deity”. But I am not using that type of device here.

    I just think the penal punishment of an innocent person is not, in any conceivable way, a righteous thing. If a real-life judge proposed that type of commutation – jailing an innocent life in substitution to a guilty person – it would not be justice at all. Even in the remote hypothesis the innocent man voluntarily accepts to endure some others’ punishment, it would be no justice.

    So, I think the penal metaphors aren’t so good to explain the Atonement. They portrait God the Father as “The Most Righteous Man – except against Christ” (I remember even Sproul explicitly said God punished Jesus and declared it the most unrigheous act ever made).

    Resuming the first point: Punishing an innocent person is not righteous, and God is righteous, then God didn’t punish Jesus on the Cross.

    This is my first “philosophical”, or better, non-exegetical, argument: the “Punishment of the Innocent One” argument (well, I like to nickname arguments 😛 ). I want to know if you or someone have some objection about PIO.

    About the exegesis of the penalized passages, I have some thoughts, and I will use some of them on the next post. One thing at a time!

    Also, many thanks, again!

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Thanks for that.

      No offense but I would classify this objection to PSA as a misunderstanding of the doctrine of PSA. You see, PSA is not saying that it is merely an innocent person who was punished for our sins. What PSA is saying is that the sacrifice for our sins is BOTH innocent but also the party who has been offended by the sin.

      If we miss this point then I would agree that the concept of some innocent person being punished makes little sense and could be argued to be immoral. But this analogy is not biblical.

      The sacrifice for our sins is innocent but he is the main party who has been offended. The crime has been committed against him. He is the one who has ultimately been wronged here. This is why the judge punishing an innocent person is a lousy analogy of what PSA is about. A better analogy would be that it is an innocent person but also the person who was wronged and that they willingly pay the price for the guilty person in order to save them.

      Don Carson has a good passage about this in his book ‘Scandalous: The cross and the resurrection of Jesus’ which I found very helpful.

      Would you agree that this criticism is not a good one if we take this point into account?

      • credulo says:

        You see, PSA is not saying that it is merely an innocent person who was punished for our sins.
        My problem is a Righteous Judge punishing a Righteous Man. It is a contradiction of terms! Or the man is not righteous, or the judge is not righteous.
        Or, a third way: the penal metaphor is not suitable to describe the Atonement.

        What PSA is saying is that the sacrifice for our sins is BOTH innocent but also the party who has been offended by the sin.
        I cant’ see how it deflects the PIO problem. If the innocent one is at the same time the judge and the offended one, and even if the innocent is willing to be punished, it continues to be an innocent being punished.
        Why the “willing to be punished in place of the guilty one” deflects PIO?

        As I have said, it is my concern: the penal metaphor loses completely the sense when applied to the Atonement.

        Also, the things we agree here are at least common to the Satisfactional view.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          “My problem is a Righteous Judge punishing a Righteous Man. It is a contradiction of terms!”

          Why? It’s scandalous for certain but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make a good case for it being a contradiction or some violation of logic. I think it’s worth remembering who the judge is in the book of revelation. It is Jesus. Jesus is the judge. I’m not saying you are but some Christians make it sound like the Father and the Son are two different gods when they criticize PSA. This is why analogies fall so short of explaining the doctrine. It is not that some judge punishes some righteous man – that’s disanalogous. The situation is that the blameless judge himself, who is also the wronged party, takes the punishment upon himself. That’s as close as we can get in analogous speech. So I think the ‘PIO problem’ is based on a false understanding of PSA and a reliance on a false analogy.

          You are saying Jesus ‘satisfied’ something? What was it Jesus satisfied if you are rejecting PSA?


          • credulo says:

            Well, it is my first concern – a violation on ethics: a penal system doesn’t allow punishment for innocent people. Well, I know some systems as commercial imputation, but it is not ‘penal substitution’ at all.

            Maybe it is just by a misnomer: the doctrine is called “Penal Substitution”, but it is not penal at all. It returns to my problem: the penal metaphor is not suitable.

            I have some additional problems, as some Calvinist apologists said things like:

            – Jesus suffered spiritual death
            – Jesus was forgotten by God the Father
            – Jesus was spiritually damned in our place
            – God the Father poured the divine wrath on Jesus

            It just runs in the same problem as above: an unjust punishment.
            In fact, I think a case against PSA can be made using something as your ‘two gods objection’. But I will not develop that point now. I will try to answer your question:

          • credulo says:

            You are saying Jesus ‘satisfied’ something? What was it Jesus satisfied if you are rejecting PSA?

            I think Jesus is acting as the High Priest. He is offering Himself, the perfect Lamb of God, in a pleasing sacrifice to the Father. Then, God the Father is more pleased – satisfied – with the good and perfect atoning sacrifice of Jesus, than with the evil deeds of the whole world.

            Another complementary point of view is based on the Orthodox doctrine of Theosis. Through the Second Person of Trinity, God became more closely bonded to the human race. Irenaeus said something like “God became man, in order to us become god”.

            In fact, Hebrews 4:14-15 sets that issue clearly: Jesus was fully man, even when tempted; and He is fully God. So, Jesus can be the perfect Mediator: He is fully man, then He can intercede for men; and He is fully God, He can intercede before God.

            It sets the role of

            Other important verse to the theory I defend is the Alegory of Vine and Branches in John 15.

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