Penal-Substitution as Heart of Christ’s Atonement and its Accomplishments

Why do Christians call the day of the crucifixion of Jesus “Good Friday”? How can an execution that results from a miscarriage of justice be good? The Christian proclamation throughout history is that it is Good Friday because on the cross of calvary, Christ took the sinner’s place (Greek: ἀντί anti, ὑπέρ huper) /1/ in bearing the guilt of man’s sin and suffering the divine punishment as our substitute in order to satisfy divine justice and bring reconciliation between God and man. “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…Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53: 6, 10). Penal-substitution is the heart of the atonement, Christ’s work of salvation.

In recent times, some theologians have highlighted alternative theories to the penal substitutionary death of Christ. I shall only focus on two of the more influential alternative theories today – the moral influence theory and the Christus Victor theory. The problem with these theories of atonement is not that they are entirely wrong. They rightly explain some aspects of Christ’s death. However, they are in reality attempts to avoid the stumbling block of penal-substitution which causes offence to modern sensibilities. These theories are deficient since they emphasize on secondary features or by-products of the atoning death of Christ in order to evade penal-substitution which is the heart of atonement.

We shall in this post demonstrate why it is impossible maintain logically these alternative theories once they are severed from penal substitutionary atonement which provides the spiritual and moral foundations for any acceptable theory of atonement.

1) The Moral Influence or Example Theory of Atonement
According to this theory, the purpose of Christ’s death is not to satisfy divine justice; it displays an exemplary death to influence sinners to forsake their sinful lives. It is agreed that Christ’s death on the cross is an exemplary act of sacrificial love (1 Pet. 2:21-24). But Christ’s death must be for a right reason if it is to be exemplary. Suppose someone walks pass me when I am enjoying the sunset at a pier. He tells me that he loves me and to prove his love, he throws himself into the sea and drowns. This person would be ridiculed as both foolish and suicidal. But suppose this person jumps into the water when he sees me drowning. Somehow he manages to push me to cling safely to one of the legs of the pier but he becomes exhausted and drowns in the process. This person is rightly honored as a hero who died sacrificially while saving a person in a dire situation. Likewise, if Christ just dies for me for no good reason, it would be a foolish and wasteful death. It will not serve as an exemplary death which influences me to repent from sin. Clearly, the Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement provides no proper basis to esteem Christ’s death as exemplary.

In contrast, Christ’s atonement demonstrates the love of God and exerts moral influence only if Christ dies as the divine substitute, the one who bears in the place of the sinner the burden of inescapable and horrendous penalty for sin. As Paul writes in Rom. 5:8 “God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Only then are sinners influenced and inspired to repent from sin and return to God.

2) Christus Victor Theory of Atonement
Recently, N.T. Wright seeks to revive Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor Theory of Atonement which emphasizes the element of victory in the redeeming work of Christ. According to Aulen and Wright, the main purpose of our Lord’s death and resurrection is to accomplish a decisive victory over powers that have long held man in captivity: sin, death, and Satan. Christ released man from bondage by destroying these evil and enslaving forces and achieved reconciliation between God and man. In a Premier Christianity podcast, Wright likens the popular understanding of substitutionary death of Christ to be an “almost pagan view of how a God might behave” or a “bulling God,” Instead, he asserts that “the primary thing about Jesus’ death is the Messianic victory over the powers…Everything else flows out from there, representative substitution…Paul said that God condemned sin in the flesh of the messiah” (Wright does not explain what the phrase “God condemned sin in the flesh of the messiah” means). Wright describes the consequences of Christ victory: Jesus rescues us dark Powers which prevents us from fulfilling our true vocation of participating in the new creation. The proof of Christ’s victory is that by God’s Spirit new things happen in the world, the kingdom of God goes out and change lives and communities. It is clear that for Wright, the idea of representative substitution is not the same as penal substitution, since for Wright it is sin and not Christ which is punished. Substitution, if any, should be subsumed within the greater context of Christ’s victory over the Powers.

We agree that Christ’s death and resurrection constitutes a decisive victory over sin and death. But the condition under which Christ achieved victory and its significance is truly understood only if Christ suffered punishment of sin on the cross as a substitute for sinners. If on Wright’s terms, the crucial matters is the divine victory of the powers of darkness – sin, death and the Devil – the incarnate Son of God could have confronted and defeated them sooner without having to suffer the agonies of the cross and succumb to the power of death. We would condemn a mighty warrior if he suffers defeat because he simply restraints his powers for no good reason. His death is unnecessary although he deserves it. In contrast, Jesus suffers ‘defeat’ and death (albeit temporarily) according to a divine purpose. As Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep…For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10: 15, 17-18). It is precisely because Jesus is the divinely appointed substitute to bear the guilt and punishment of guilty sinners that he brings into focus his ultimate victory over the powers of sin. Jesus conquers sin and “sin is the sting that results in death.” (1 Cor. 15:56).

How then do we compare penal-substitutionary atonement with Moral Influence and Christus Victor theory of Christ’s death? First, Christ’s death is reduced to an example of needless suicide unless it is penal and substitutionary for a good and necessary reason. Second, Christ death is a superficial ‘victory’ unless Christ effectively paid the ultimate penalty of sin which is death. Contrary to Wright, (penal) substitution does not “flow from Christus Victor” but penal-substitution is the foundation of Christ’s victory sin and death, that is, Christus Victor theory. While we should keep in mind the many-sidedness of atonement, penal substitutionary is at the heart of it. Penal-substitution is also the necessary and sufficient condition of atonement and all the other accomplishments of the atonement, including its moral influence and victory over the Powers.

/1/ It would be rash to find here a doctrine of the Atonement; yet the preposition used (anti, “instead of” ) clearly implies substitution, as the echoes of Isa. 53 imply representative and redemptive suffering’ (A. M. Hunter, Work and Words of Jesus (SCM, 1956), p. 98).

Murray Harris elaborates, “The preposition ἀντί regularly expresses a substitutionary exchange (see ch. 5 E), “in the place of,” while ὑπέρ usually indicates representation (“on behalf of”) or advantage (“for the benefit of”). Any of these three meanings may be latent in the ambiguous English preposition “for.” Of the two Greek prepositions, ὑπέρ is the broader term, for sometimes the context will show that the manner in which a service is rendered for a person is through assuming their place. That is, sometimes the benefit comes through substitution; ὑπέρ may occasionally express both ideas. Ἀντί is the narrower word, normally confined to expressing substitution, but only implying representation or benefit.” Murray
Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis (Zondervan, 2012), p. 215.


Heavenly Father,
Help us never to lose sight of the pain and suffering of Christ on the cross, and all that Christ was willing to endure in our place, so that we could be set free from the guilt, bondage and penalty of sin, and receive forgiveness and the gift of eternal life in God’s Kingdom. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).

Related Posts:
N.T. Wright’s Non-Traditional Theory of Substitutionary Atonement

One thought on “Penal-Substitution as Heart of Christ’s Atonement and its Accomplishments”

  1. Not quite related to the main focus of the article, but someone asks in Facebook whether healing is in the atonement of Christ.

    My brief answer :
    Complicated and controversial question which requires long answer. Not suitable in Facebook chat. Will only give a short comment.

    The imagery of physical illness the servant’s willingness to carry their illnesses (v. 4) resulted in their being healed. Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here.

    The servant is willing to carry his people’s illnesses (v.4). More importantly, he will bear away their sins. vv 11-12 clarifies that illness and pain are used as metonymy (perhaps metaphors?) for sin and its effect. Regardless, the consequence is that his people will experience healing and well-being (shalom). Note that the passage is more than just about physical healing; the whole passage is dealing with redemption from sin – arguably healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here.
    But does the Servant’s achievement include physical healing? Or as many Pentecostals claim – Isn’t healing in the atonement? The Pentecostal’s approach would suggest [wrongly] that the Servant guarantees physical healing for every believer NOW, but…

    I agree that the Servant guarantees ultimate healing (both physical and spiritual). But as G.E. Ladd famously taught (& rightly emphasize), in God’s eschatological timetable, we are living in between the times (inaugurated eschatology) – “the already and not yet” victory and blessings in Christ.

    There will be final deliverance of the Servant’s followers from illness, since illness is one of the consequences of sin. But presently, this is not immediately so in every case even though there are occasions when God answers prayers for healing. Remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh and his illness in Galatia? Believers are no less mortal than unbelievers in suffering illness and death at the present. We need to be more measured in claiming healing on grounds that it is included in the atonement. For sure the Servant/Christ has conquered death, but we will experience and enjoy the full benefits of Christ’s atonement (which includes deliverance from illness and death) only at the Parousia.

    Meanwhile we continue to struggle with the consequences of the Fall, being strengthened on those occasions when God in his mercies and wisdom answers prayers for healing and comforted by the hope of receiving full deliverance from illness and death when Christ returns in glory.

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