If the heart of the cross is the atonement, the heart of the atonement is penal substitution.
Christ’s Death as Penal Substitutionary
The prima facie evidence from Scripture supports the case for Christ’s death as penal substitutionary. This is clear from the following verses.
Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6)
Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8)
Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3)
he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21)
who gave himself for our sins (Gal. l :4)
who gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us
(Gal. 3: 13)
who gave himself as a ransom for all (I Tim. 2:6)
and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)
Christ suffered for you (I Pet. 2:21)
He himself bore our sins in his body ( 1 Pet. 2:24a)
By his wounds you have been healed (1 Pet. 2:24b)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3: 18)
These verses confirm beyond dispute that Christ died for us. However, how Christ’s death brings reconciliation between the holy God and sinful man is hotly debated. Some scholars teach that Christ died as our representative who advocates or pleas for us as we are not personally present in the judgment court of God. However for evangelicals, these verses require an understanding of Christ’s death which goes further than Christ dying as our representative – Christ died as our substitute on the cross.
To sharpen the difference between the representative and the substitute – the substitute not only pleas for his client, he takes his place on the dock. He becomes the accused who is condemned as guilty. He takes the place of his client as he is executed on the cross. As he took punishment in our place, we are so to say present in him. The phrases “gave himself”, “bore our sin”, “to be sin”, “becoming a curse”, “as a ransom”, and the interchangeability of statements about Christ’s death “for our sins” and Christ’s death “for us” suggests that Christ suffered the penalty that was due to us. The inseparable link between substitution and penalty demands an understanding of Christ’s death as a penal substitution “for us” and “our sins”.
The penal nature of Christ’s death becomes clearer when we bear in mind the background of the wrath of the holy God against sin (Rom. 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10). These verses which are clustered around the Greek word, ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion and its cognate terms which describe Christ’s death as a placating or averting of the wrath of God.
However, there has been some controversy about the word ἱλαστήριον should be translated. The RSV translates it as ‘expiation’ to dissociate the word from any connection with the wrath of God while the KJV and the ESV use the word ‘propitiation’. The NIV chickens out of the controversy by using the phrase ‘sacrifice of atonement.’
The controversy is fueled by the ambiguities of the English word “expiation” and “propitiation.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives a wide range of meaning to these infrequently used English words. I shall narrow down their definitions to approximate how theologians generally define these terms:
Expiation: The prefix ex suggests that something is taken away. In the biblical context this means offering a sacrifice as a payment of a penalty to take away the guilt of sin.
Propitiation: The prefix pro focuses on the object of expiation. Propitiation signifies the averting of the wrath of God by offering a gift that pacifies, appeases or conciliates. The enmity of God towards sinners is removed and they are restored into fellowship and favor with him.
The ambiguity of the word is cleared if we set the death of Christ against the background of the wrath of God directed at sinful humanity. It then seems appropriate to understand ἱλαστήριον as the ‘propitiation’ needed to appease the wrath of God. This is consistent with the witness of Scripture. The total number of references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament exceeds 580 when we bear I mind that God’s character is displayed not only in words but in his actions. [The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (IVP, 1983), p. 153] God’s wrath is evident when he judged rebellious Israel in the wilderness and when he destroyed Jerusalem and sent Israel into exile in 587BC. The New Testament follows the Old Testament’s lead here, employing ὀργή, orgḗ and θύμος, thýmos (Matt 3:7; Luke 3:7; 21:23; John 3:36; Rom 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; Eph 2:3; 5:6; Col 3:6; 1 Thes 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Heb 3:11; 4:3; Rev 6:16, 17; 11:18; 14:10–19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15).
We may translate the four NT verses accordingly:
Romans 3:25: God “publicly displayed [Christ Jesus] as a sacrifice which would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin [ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion].… ”
Hebrews 2:17: Christ “had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, that he might turn aside God’s wrath, taking away [ἱλάσκεσθαι, hilaskesthai] the sins of the people.”
1 John 2:2: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, and he is the sacrifice which turns aside God’s wrath, taking away [ἱλασμός, hilasmos] our sins, and not only our sins but also the sins of the whole world.”
1 John 4:10: God “loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice which turns aside God’s wrath, taking away [ἱλασμὸν, hilasmon] our sins.”
The Reality of the Wrath of God
However, some contemporary scholars still regard reference to the wrath of God as something embarrassing and to be avoided as they consider wrath to be inconsistent with the love of God. These scholars prefer to translate ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion as ‘expiation’ rather than ‘propitiation’. Their godfather is found in none other than the great NT scholar, C.H. Dodd who wrote,
“Hellenistic Judaism, as represented by the LXX, does not regard the cultus as a means of pacifying the displeasure of the Deity, but as a means of delivering man from sin.” [The Bible and the Greeks, p. 93] He concludes, “the wrath of God” denotes not a hostile attitude on God’s part toward sinners but only the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe, “an almost mechanical scheme of cause of effect”, “sin is the cause, disaster is the effect.” [Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Hodder & Stoughton, 1932), p. 23, 83]
While due respect should be given to Dodd as a great NT scholar, nevertheless in my view Dodd has been decisively rebutted by Leon Morris and Roger Nichole on two counts: (1) Dodd was selective in reading the extra-biblical evidence and (2) he failed to take the full range of biblical teaching related to the subject. [Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Eerdmans, 1965) and Roger Nicole, “C.H. Dodd and the Doctrine of Propitiation” in Therefore Stand (Mentor 2002). See also, See George E. Ladd’s discussion in A Theology of the New Testament 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 470–475]
[Both] Morris and Nichole demonstrate that the idea of the wrath of God is “stubbornly rooted in the Old Testament, where it is referred to 585 times” by no less than twenty different Hebrew words that underscore God’s indignation against sin and evil. They also show that there are numerous times when the verb roots כֶָּפַר, kapar, and ἱλάσκεσθαι, hilaskesthai—employed by the Septuagint to translate כֶָּפַר, kapar—refer to propitiating the wrath both of men (for example, Gen. 32:20; Prov. 16:14) and of God (for example, see Exod. 32:10 with 32:30, Num. 16:41–50; 25:11–13; see also LXX, Zech. 7:2, 8:22, Mal. 1:9). [Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998), p. 637-678]
Morris further points out that Dodd overlooks places in the book of the Maccabees, the writings of Josephus and Philo which refer to the need to placate “the wrath of the Almighty.” He concludes: “Throughout Greek literature, biblical and non-biblical alike, ἱλασμός hilasmos means ‘propitiation.’ We cannot now decide that we like another meaning better.” [Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 349]
G.E. Ladd lays out the evidence against Dodd’s interpretation.
First, the word in nonbiblical Hellenistic Greek authors, such as Josephus and Philo, uniformly means “to propitiate.” This is also true of its use in the Apostolic Fathers. As Morris has said, “If the LXX translators and the New Testament writers evolved an entirely new meaning of the word group, it perished with them, and was not resurrected until our own day.” Second, there are three places in the Septuagint where the word exhilaskesthai is used in the sense of propitiating or appeasing God (Zech. 7:2; 8:22; Mal. l: 9); and Dodd’s argument that there appears to be something exceptional about the usage of the word in these passages is not convincing. Third, if the verb in the Septuagint is infrequently used with God as its object, it is equally true that the verb is never followed by an accusative of sin in the canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament. Fourth, and most significant, while the Old Testament does not speak of appeasing the wrath of God, it is nevertheless true that in many places where the word is used, the wrath of God provides the context for the thought. In many places atonement is necessary to save life that otherwise would be forfeited — apparently because of the wrath of God. [G.E. Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, p. 471]
Dodd’s assertion is negated by the numerous references to God’s wrath in the NT. I give some examples:
1) The anger of God is expressed in the parable of the wedding banquet: But they were indifferent and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest seized his slaves, insolently mistreated them, and killed them. The king was furious [orgizô]! He sent his soldiers, and they put those murderers to death and set their city on fire. (Matt. 22:5-7; cf. Luke 13:34-35; Lk. 21:20-24)
2) But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? [orgê]? (Matt. 3:7; cf. Luke 3:7)
3) The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath [orgê] remains on him. (John 3:36)
4) For the wrath [orgê] of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. (Rom. 1:18)
5) Paul warns the Jews who stirred trouble against his apostolic teaching: They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath [orgê] of God has come upon them at last. (1 Thess. 2:15-16)
6) … All of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath [orgê] (Eph. 2:3).
7) So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath [orgê] of God is coming on the sons of disobedience. (Col. 3:5-6)
The book of Hebrews and Revelation give abundant warnings against falling into the wrath of God.
8) So I declared on oath in my anger [orgê], ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ (Heb. 3:11)
9) They [people] called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath [orgê] has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17)
10) The nations were angry; and your wrath [orgê] has come. The time has come for judging the dead. (Rev. 11:18). Readers may look up Rev. 14:19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15).
Morris is fully justified when he concludes against Dodd: “Wrath has occupied such an important place in the argument leading up to this section [Romans3:21–31] that we are justified in looking for some expression indicative of its cancellation in the process which brings about salvation.” [Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1965/1955), p.201]
Dodd wants to depersonalize the idea of wrath so as to separate it from God. But R.G.V. Tasker disagrees, “It is inadequate to regard this term (wrath) merely as a description of “inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe” or as another way of speaking of the results of sin. It is rather a personal quality without which God would cease to be fully righteous and His love would degenerate into sentimentality. [R.G.V. Tasker, s.v. ‘Wrath’ in New Bible Dictionary (IVP 1982/1962), p. 1263]
Indeed, it is precisely because when the wrath of God is acknowledged as his personal reaction or “holy recoil against what is the contradiction of himself” that we are able to grasp more deeply the magnitude of God’s love. As John Murray explains, “If Christ vicariously bore God’s judgment upon sin, and to deny this is to make nonsense of his suffering unto death and particularly of the abandonment on Calvary, then to eliminate from this judgment that which belongs to its essence is to undermine the idea of vicarious sin-bearing and its consequences. So the doctrine of propitiation is not to be denied or its sharpness in any way toned down.” [John Murray, “The Atonement,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:145, emphasis added]
Appeasing The Wrath of God
Morris’ case against Dodd is strengthened once we realized that the NT describes the salvation of Christ as deliverance from the wrath of God.
1) Jesus … rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thess. 1:9-10)
2) For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:9)
3) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath [orgê] through him (Rom. 5:8-9)
4) They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath [orgê]. (1 Thess. 1:9-10)
5) For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath [orgê] but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:9)
C.E.B. Cranfield corrects the misconception of the wrath of God which has persuaded some scholars to avoid making reference to the wrath of God. Cranfield stresses that while the idea of the averting of wrath is basic to ἱλαστήριον, the wrath of God, unlike all human wrath, is perfectly righteous, and therefore free from every trace of irrationality, caprice and vindictiveness. Furthermore, it is God himself who takes the initiative to initiate the process of averting this righteous wrath. Care must be taken to avoid distortion arising from the use of human analogy to describe the wrath of God.
We shall not understand what Paul means by the wrath of God, until we recognize, first, that, in seeking the measure of help which human analogies can afford, we must look not to the lower, irrational kind of human anger, but to the higher kind, the indignation against injustice, cruelty and corruption, which is an essential element of goodness and love in a world in which moral evil is present; and, secondly, that even the very highest and purest human wrath can at the best afford but a distorted and twisted reflection of the wrath of God, since the wrath of men (our Lord alone excepted) is always more or less compromised by the presence of sin in the one who is wroth, whereas the wrath of God is the wrath of Him who is perfectly loving, perfectly good…It is that we do not see the full meaning of the wrath of God in the disasters befalling sinful men in the course of history: the reality of the wrath of God is only truly known when it is seen in its revelation in Gethsemane and on Golgotha [C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans ICC (T &T Clark, 1975), p. 109-110. Quotations are generously cited for readers who do not have access to theological resources]
Contrary to the pagan understanding of a wrathful and vindictive God, the biblical God loves the objects of his wrath so much that he gave his own Son so that his death on the cross is his provision for the removal of his wrath which turns the “children of wrath” into “children of God.” John Murray brings out the profundity of the biblical teaching of the wrathful God who is loving,
propitiation is not a turning of the wrath of God into love. The propitiation of the divine wrath, effected through the expiatory work of Christ, is the provision of God’s eternal and unchangeable love, so that through the propitiation of his own wrath that love may realize its purpose in a way that is consonant with and to the glory of the dictates of his holiness. It is one thing to say that the wrathful God is made loving. That would be entirely false. It is another thing to say that the wrathful God is loving. That is profoundly true. [John Murray, Redemption Accomplished, Redemption Applied (Eerdmans, 1978/1955), p.31]
Cranfield offers a resolution between propitiation with the wrath and love of God: As such, the wrath of God must not be interpreted in abstraction. Wrath is an expression of God’s judgment against sin not just because God is righteous, but “God’s being righteous. God would not be righteous, if He neglected to show Himself to be righteous: it is essential to His being the righteous, the loving and merciful God, that He should show that He is righteous.” [Cranfield, Romans, 213]
Hence, propitiation required “that God might be righteous even in justifying’, i.e. that He might justify righteously, without compromising His own righteousness.” (Rom. 3:25)
For God to have forgiven men’s sins lightly—a cheap forgiveness which would have implied that moral evil does not matter very much—would have been altogether unrighteous, a violation of His truth and profoundly unmerciful and unloving toward men, since it would have annihilated their dignity as persons morally accountable. The purpose of Christ’s being ἱλαστήριον was to achieve a divine forgiveness, which is worthy of God, consonant with His righteousness, in that it does not insult God’s creature man by any suggestion that that is after all of but small consequence, which he himself at his most human knows full well (witness, for example, the Greek tragedians) is desperately serious, but, so far from condoning man’s evil, is, since it involves nothing less than God’s bearing the intolerable burden of that evil Himself in the person of His own dear Son, the disclosure of the fullness of God’s hatred of man’s evil at the same time as it is its real and complete forgiveness. [Cranfield Romans p. 213-214]
Nevertheless, Cranfield reminds us that it is important to focus on the mercy of God even when we understand ἱλαστήριον to mean “propitiation”. “We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.” [Cranfield, Romans, p. 217]
Understanding Christ’s death as propitiation (hilasterion) vindicates God from any charge that he is negligent against sin. The righteous justice of God must impose penalty for sin. On the other hand it is the tough love of God that provides propitiation to remove his wrath through a substitute who bore the penalty of sin. On the other hand, God who is love sends his Son to deliver sinners from the peril of God’s penalty and offer forgiveness of sin. This the Son accomplishes by his work of propitiation. The death of Christ as God’s propitiation demonstrates the complete congruence of love and wrath of God.
Christ’s Death Includes Both Expiation and Propitiation
The protagonists in debate over ἱλαστήριον hilasterion become polarized when scholars influenced by Dodd reject references to the wrath of God and insist that ἱλαστήριον should mean ‘expiation’ and nothing more. This would require us to choose between ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’.
However, it is inadequate to reduce the understanding of ἱλαστήριον to mean ‘expiation alone. I give an argument to the contrary: Assuming for the sake of argument that ἱλαστήριον means only expiation – what happens to men who died in their sin without expiation? To say ‘nothing’ happens goes against the whole tenor of the Bible which warns sinful men of the judgment or the displeasure of God. However, the good news is that Christ’s death has satisfied divine justice and removed the displeasure of God. This is just another way of saying the object of ἱλαστήριον hilasterion is to propitiate God wrath. The logic is clear, expiation is part of the process leading to propitiation. Propitiation is the goal of expiation while expiation is the means to propitiation. Dodd and his followers are wrong to insist that the meaning of ἱλαστήριον has nothing to do with the wrath of God and should be restricted to ‘expiation’.
On the other hand, while the biblical evidence supports Morris-Nichole in their refutation of Dodd, evangelicals should not fall into the opposite error, that is, concluding that Christ’s death has nothing to do with expiation since ἱλαστήριον pertains to appeasing the wrath of God. There is no need to choose between expiation and propitiation as both terms are needed to capture the full significance of Christ’s death on the cross. A.A. Hodge in his classic, The Atonement sets the precedence of including both expiation and propitiation when he writes, ” Propitiation removes the judicial displeasure of God. Expiation respects the bearing or effect which satisfaction has upon sin or upon the sinner. Propitiation has respect to the bearing or effect which satisfaction has upon God…Propitiation proceeds by means of expiation, or the vicarious suffering of the penalty by a substituted victim.” [A.A. Hodge, The Atonement (Baker 1974/1867), p. 40]. J.I. Packer continues Hodge’s tradition as he puts the whole debate in perspective, “Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away, or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God. Propitiation, however, in the bible, denotes all that expiation means, “and the pacifying of the wrath of God thereby.” [J.I. Packer, Knowing God (IVP, 1973), p.163-164]
Interpreting ἱλαστήριον as Propitiation in Context
It remains for us to demonstrate how understanding ἱλαστήριον hilasterion as propitiation flows coherently in the early chapters of the Book of Romans. [Again full quotations are given for the sake of readers who do not have access to theological resources]
Hilasterion and Wrath in Romans 3:25
Beginning from Rom.1:18 Paul warns the Romans that the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness is his personal reaction to the sin of man. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (Rom. 1:18-19)
While God does not seem to judge men immediately, in reality, he “gave them up” to sin and as a result are merely “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28, 32, 2:5).
F.F. Bruce proceeds to unfold how the need for propitiation or averting of God’s wrath emerges as chapter 1-3 unfold.
“Once justice is done to the initiative of divine grace in the efficacy of Christ’s self-offering, there is no reason for excluding from the meaning of hilasterion the averting of divine wrath, if the context so warrants. And the context does warrant the inclusion of the averting of divine wrath in the meaning of hilasterion in Romans 3:25. Paul has already said in 1:18 that ‘the wrath of God (NEB ‘divine retribution’) is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness’; how then is this ‘wrath’ to be removed? The hilasterion which God has provided in Christ not only removes the ungodliness and wickedness, but at the same time averts the retribution which is the inevitable sequel to such attitudes and actions in a moral universe.” [ F.F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP, 1985), p. 111]
Hilasterion and Wrath in 1 John 2:2
1John 2:2 has not need to mention directly the death of Christ since John as already taught that it is the blood of the Son (death) which cleanses us from sin. John proceeds to describe this death as hilasterion that is a sacrifice that propitiates. (1 John 2:2 and 4:10) After pointing out how both the Old Testament and the New Testament together testifies that the source of propitiation is none other than the love of God, John Stott comments on this verse with characteristic clarity:
There can, therefore, be no question of human beings appeasing an angry deity by their gifts. The Christian propitiation is quite different, not only in the character of the divine anger but in the means by which it is propitiated. It is an appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God. The initiative is not taken by us, nor even by Christ, but by God himself in sheer unmerited love. His wrath is averted not by any external gift, but by his own self-giving to die the death of sinners. This is the means he has himself contrived by which to turn his own wrath away (cf. Pss 78:38; 85:2–3; 103:8–10; Mic. 7:18–19). [John Stott, The Letters of John (IVP, 1988), p. 92]
Acknowledging the reality of the wrath God as his righteous judgment is not a stumbling block to faith. On the contrary, it is engenders a profound sense of gratitude towards God as he himself provides the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As unbelievers, we were “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3; John 3:36), but as believers we are now “children of God”. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:28-29)
Graham Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (IVP, 2009).
Donald MacCleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (IVP, 2014).
Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (IVP, 1983).
John Stott, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 1986)
Charles Hill, The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical and Practical Perspectives (IVP, 2004)
Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey & Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Recovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP2007).
Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1965)
Erasing The Wrath of God from the Cross (in two parts)