Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement as God’s Act of Righteousness and Grace

The nature of the atonement
[Atonement as “satisfaction” (compensation, reparation) was first used by Anselm (1033-1109) to stress that the death of Christ was a satisfaction rendered to God’s justice and honor. Subsequently, 17th century Reformed theologians taught that Christ (1) satisfies the demands of the law by his active obedience or perfect obedience to the full requirements of the law (2) satisfies the curse and condemnation of the law by his passive obedience or submission to the penalty of death on the cross].

A.A. Hodge draws out the deeper dimensions of Christ’s  work of atonement by setting it in the context of the covenant God made with Adam in which God promised them blessedness contingent upon their obedience to His command:  [The word “satisfaction”] accurately and adequately expresses what Christ did. As the Second Adam he satisfied all the conditions of the broken covenant of works, as left by the first Adam. (a.) He suffered the penalty of transgression. (b.) He rendered that obedience which was the condition of “life.”

5. State the true doctrine of Christ’s Satisfaction
1st. Negatively. (1.) The sufferings of Christ were not a substitute for the infliction of the penalty of the law upon sinners in person, but they are the penalty itself executed on their Substitute. (2.) It was not of the nature of a pecuniary payment, an exact quid pro quo. But it was a strict penal satisfaction, the person suffering being a substitute. (3.) It was not a mere example of a punishment. (4.) It was not a mere exhibition of love, or of heroic consecration.

2nd. Positively. (1.) Its MOTIVE was the ineffable love of God for the elect.—John 10:15; Gal. 2:20.
(2.) As to its NATURE. (a.) Being a divine Person he assumed the legal responsibilities of his people under the conditions of a human being. (b.) He obeyed and suffered as their Substitute. His obedience and suffering were vicarious, (c.) The guilt, or just legal responsibility of our sins, were imputed to him, i.e., charged upon and punished in him. (d.) He did not suffer the same sufferings either in kind, degree, or duration, which would have been inflicted on them, but he did suffer precisely that suffering which divine justice demanded of his person standing in their stead. (e.) His sufferings were those of a divine Person in a human nature.

(3.) As to its EFFECTS. (a.) It was the effect not the cause of God’s love. It satisfied his justice and rendered the exercise of his love consistent with his righteousness, (b.) It expiated the guilt of sin, and reconciled God to us as a righteous Ruler. (c.) It secured the salvation of those for whom he died, purchasing the gift of the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, and the application and consummation of salvation. (d.) It did not ipso facto liberate, as a pecuniary satisfaction, but as a vicarious penal satisfaction its benefits accrue to the persons, at the times, and under the conditions, prescribed by the covenant between the Father and the Son. Its application is a matter of right to Christ, but of grace to us. (e.) Being an execution in strict justice of vicarious punishment it is a most effective and real example of punishment to the moral universe. (f.) Being an exercise of amazing love it produces legitimately the most profound moral impression, melting the heart, subduing the rebellion, and dissipating the fears of convinced sinners.

Biblical Proof of the Doctrine
8. Show that the Scriptures teach that Christ suffered as our Substitute in the definite sense of that term
A substitute is one appointed or accepted to act or to suffer in the stead of another, and his actions or sufferings are vicarious. That Christ obeyed and suffered as the substitute of his people is proved—
1st. The preposition ὑπερ with the genitive signifies “instead of” (John 11:50; 2 Cor. 5:20; Philem. 13), and this construction is used to set forth the relation of Christ’s work to us.—2 Cor. 5:14 and 21; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 3:18.
2nd. The preposition ἀντί definitely and always expresses substitution (Winer, “N. T. Gram.,” Pt. 3, § 47).—Matt. 2:22; 5:38. This is rendered more emphatic by being associated with λύτρον, ransom, redemption price. Christ came as a ransom in the stead of many.—Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6. Christ is called ἀντίλυτρον, i.e., substitutionary ransom.
3rd. The same is proved by what the Scriptures teach as to our sins being “laid upon” Christ—See below, Q. 9. 4th. And by what the Scriptures teach as to the nature of sacrifices, and the sacrificial character of Christ’s work.—See below, Qs. 10 and 11.

9. Do the same with regard to those passages which speak of our sins being “laid upon” Christ, and of his “bearing” sin or iniquity
Sin may be considered (1) in its formal nature as “transgression of law,” 1 John 3:4; or, (2) as a moral quality inherent in the agent (macula), Rom. 6:11–13; or, (3) in respect to its legal obligation to punishment (reatus). In this last sense alone is it ever said that the sin of one is laid upon or borne by another.

1st. To impute sin is simply to charge it to one’s account as the ground of punishment. (1.) The Hebrew word חָשַׁב means to estimate, count, credit, impute as belonging to.—Gen. 31:15; Lev. 7:18; Num. 18:27; Ps. 106:31. (2.) The same is true with regard to the Greek word λογίζομαι.—Is. 53:12; Rom. 2:26; 4:3–9; 2 Cor. 5:19. (3) The Scriptures assert that our sins are imputed to Christ.—Mark 15:28; Is. 53:6 and 12; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13.

2nd. (1.) The Hebrew word סָבַל has the precise sense of bearing, not bearing away, or removing, but in the sense of carrying. Lam. 5:7. This is applied to Christ’s bearing our sins.—Is. 53:11. (2.) Also נָשָׂא as the sense, when construed with “sin,” of bearing sin in the sense of being “penally responsible” for it.—Num. 30:15; Lev. 5:17, 18; 16:22. (3.) The Septuagint translates these words sometimes by ἄιρω, to bear, and sometimes by φέρω and ἀναφέρω, which always means in this connection to bear on one’s self in order to bear away.—Robinson, “Lex.” Compare Matt. 8:17 with Is. 53:4.

12. Prove the truth of the doctrine as to the nature of the satisfaction of Christ above stated from the effects which are attributed to it in Scripture
1st. As these effects respect God they are declared to be propitiation and reconciliation. (1.) ἱλάσκεσθαι signifies to propitiate an offended Deity by means of expiatory sacrifice.—Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2, and 4:10; Rom. 3:25. (2.) כָפַר in respect to sin a covering, and in respect to God propitiation. It is properly translated in our version to make atonement, to appease, to pacify, to reconcile, to purge, to purge away, Ezek. 16:63; Gen. 32:20, 21; Ps. 65:3, 4; 78:38; 1 Sam. 3:14; Num. 35:33; to ransom, Ps. 49:7; to make satisfaction, Num. 35:31, 32. (3.) Καταλλάσσειν, to reconcile—by the death of Christ, not imputing transgressions, justifying by blood, etc., Rom. 5:9, 10; 2 Cor. 5:18–20.

2nd. As these effects respect sin they are declared to be expiation.—Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2, and 4:10; Lev. 16:6–16.

3rd. As they respect the sinner himself they are declared to be redemption, that is, deliverance by ransom.—1 Cor. 7:23; Rev. 5:9; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19; 1 Tim. 2:6; Is. 51:11, and 62:12.

Christ’s work is set forth in the same sentences as (a) an expiatory offering, (b) a ransom price, (c) a satisfaction to the law. Thus we are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” Christ “gave his life a ransom for many.” He “redeemed us from the curse of the law being made a curse for us.” God “hath made him, who knew no sin, to be a sin-offering for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Thus Christ is not said to be a sacrifice and a ransom and a bearer of the curse of the law, but that he is that particular species of sacrifice which is a ransom—that his redemption is of that nature which is effected by his bearing the curse of the law in our stead, and that he redeems us by offering himself as a bleeding sacrifice to God. [A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (Banner of Truth reprint, 1972), pp. 405–411]


Isaiah 53:6. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Geerhardus Vos writes, “Scripture speaks of an imputing of sin, a making to be sin, a laying of sin on Christ (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb.9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24). This is connected to the fact that the word “sin” itself has the specific meaning of “guilt,” reatus [liability]. To make someone to be sin, then, does not mean to actually change him into a sinful being or to transmit the blemishes of sin to him but simply to make him personally responsible for the penal consequences of sin. The same thing is meant by the term “imputation.” It occurs with respect to both the penal guilt that the sinner himself has accrued and the guilt transferred to him from someone else. The biblical words for this concept are in Hebrew, חָשַׁב and in Greek, λογίζομαι; Luke 22:37, “[F]or I tell you that this, which is written, must be fulfilled in me, namely, ‘and he was numbered with the transgressors.’ ” This is a quotation from Isaiah 53:12.”

This raises the question:
Was this imputation of sin to Christ an act of righteousness or an act of grace?

It was both simultaneously:
a) From the side of God, granting a Surety and the taking over of guilt by the Surety was an act of grace. God could have held every sinner personally responsible. As will be shown in more detail, moral guilt always adheres to the person who has committed evil, and the giver of the moral law is not in the least obliged to remove it from him. If we imagine the possibility that man himself would have been able to find a mediator who can fully satisfy for him in the same sense as Christ has now made satisfaction for him and he were to have come before God with this mediator, it would still remain an act of God’s grace to be pleased with this substitution. However, the act of imputation appears to us as an act of grace in a still deeper sense when we consider that here it is not substitution in general but quite specifically self-substitution. God has not imputed guilt to a third party but to His only begotten Son, who is of one being with Him. Therefore, the Socinian objection that there was no grace in the substitution of Christ lacks all force. This objection functions entirely on the Unitarian position in which Christ is actually a third party. On the Trinitarian position, in contrast, the Judge who transfers the guilt and the Surety who assumes the guilt are, with regard to their being, the same God. That God does not spare His only begotten Son and so gives Himself up and sacrifices Himself for our sin constitutes grace. First John 3:16: “By this we know love, that He gave His life for us.”

Vos elaborates,
God did not first need to be made disposed toward being merciful and loving by the Surety and satisfaction of the Mediator. He was that toward His people from the beginning. That He was appears most clearly by the fact that He Himself devised the plan of salvation. God who is angry toward sinners is also the God who Himself ordains a satisfaction for His wrath. Every thought of bloodlust in a wrong sense must be excluded here. It is quite true that God desires blood—not in the mad passion of human anger but rather with the resolute energy of His holy will. He wills to maintain both sides of His being: both His righteousness as well as His love. He had to maintain His righteousness; He could sovereignly withhold or communicate His grace toward sinners as He pleased. The wonder of grace is not that God abandoned His righteousness but that at the cost of His own Son He maintained His righteousness so that it would not strike down man. Scripture itself teaches us to emphasize this truth and consider the matter from this perspective: “God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ”; “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18–19). It has pleased the Father to reconcile all things to Himself through the blood of the cross of Christ. In this work of reconciliation, God is therefore subject and object at the same time. And both must be maintained—the latter so that we may avoid the error of seeking the meaning of satisfaction in something subjective; the sacrifice of Christ above all affected God, not man. We must maintain the former so that grace in its costliness might be preserved for us and satisfaction might be seen to come from God. [Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (2012–2016), Vol. 3, pp. 112–113; 115-116]

Critics of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement as satisfaction failed to see that it is the result of God’s love. God himself provides the atonement wherein the Son bore the judgment of our sins on the cross. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

Relate Posts
Christ’s Death as Expiation-Propitiation (Hilasterion): Appeasing the Wrath of God

Penal Substitution as Anchor and Foundation of Other Dimensions of the Atonement

The Atonement in Isaiah 53