The Necessity of Penal Substitution (Part 1)

In the 19th century, the hymn writer Philip Bliss penned the following lyrics regarding Jesus Christ: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; Sealed my pardon with his blood. Hallelujah! What a Savior”[1] This sublime hymn clearly articulates one of the key aspects of the Christian faith, namely the significance of the death of Jesus Christ. Understanding the meaning of the death of Jesus is crucially important for every person. Why indeed did Jesus have to die?

In contemporary culture, there are so many opposing responses to this question that it is hard for many to get to the heart of the answer. For some, the death of Jesus was a tragedy that should have been avoided. For others, it was the most loving act of self sacrifice in history, and an example that we should follow. There are those who believe that the death of Jesus was a necessary ransom to pay to the devil in order to free mankind from his grasp. Still others believe that, “Calvary may be an episode in God’s government of the world…as the argument goes, God, being holy, deemed it necessary to show to the world His hatred of sin, and so His wrath fell on Christ.”[2] And yet, there is also a current “reclaiming” by many in the Christian faith of the most wonderful doctrine of the cross, called Penal Substitution.

The great reformer Martin Luther described Penal Substitution like this, “Christ took all our sins upon him and for them died upon the cross. Therefore, it was right for him to be ‘numbered with the transgressors’…Christ bears all the sins of all people in his body. It was not that he himself committed these sins, but he received the sins that we had committed; they were laid on his own body, that he might make satisfaction for them with his own blood.”[3] This is the glorious doctrine of Penal Substitution. As another hymn writer named Isaac Watts once wrote: “Was it for crimes that I have done he groaned up on the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown and love beyond degree!”[4]

The doctrine of Penal Substitution is at the heart of the Cross itself. Of course, penal substitution is not the only way to look at the death of Christ; in fact the Bible employs many different pictures of what occurred at Calvary. However, the overall picture would not be complete without it. In order to perceive how necessary this doctrine is, one must understand its relevance in scripture, tradition, reason, the Christian experience, and how it is personally applicable to all followers of Christ.


There are many biblical passages from both the Old and New Testaments which proclaim the doctrine of Penal Substitution very clearly, even though this doctrine has many detractors. In his book, “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Mark Baker writes, “In the end, a penal satisfaction presentation of the atonement can too easily lead to a situation in which we might conclude that Jesus came to save us from God.”[5] This same book also features an author who is on record as saying that the concept of penal substitution is nothing less than Divine child abuse! This is certainly a straw-man argument against the theory of penal substitutionary atonement for reasons we shall henceforth see.

As early as Exodus chapter 12, we see penal substitution imagery displayed in the Passover, where a lamb was to be slain and its blood smeared on the door posts of the Israelites for their deliverance. About this event, Mark Dever writes, “God does not say that the Israelites were exempt from judgment just because they were Israelites… If they would be saved, it would not be because God’s justice had no claim against them; it would be because when God saw the blood on the doorframes, the blood of the sacrificial substitute, he would in grace pass over that house as he judged”[6] (emphasis mine). It is an interesting correlation that when John the Baptist first saw Jesus in John 1:29 he proclaimed, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” This is a clear reference to the substitutionary work of Christ which came to fulfillment on the cross when he “…was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.”[7]

Indeed, throughout the whole Old Testament we see type after type, and shadow after shadow and even prophesy after prophesy about the substitutionary nature of the Messiah of Israel. In Leviticus 16 the “Day of Atonement”, or Yom Kippur is described. This was the day when the sins of Israel were atoned for and in order for that to happen, there had to be a blood sacrifice. Verses 11, 15-16, and 21-22 give the basic summary of what occurred:

“Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household…He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bulls blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been…He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites…and put them on the goat’s head…the goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.”

Here is basic penal substitution illustrated. The bulls and goats had not intrinsic guilt of their own but they were appointed to carry the guilt of the sins of the nation on themselves. In particular, verse 22 explicitly says that the “scape goat” is the one who carries the sins on its own head. In our vernacular the term “scape goat” is usually used to describe a person who is blamed for something that someone else did. In Leviticus 16 the scape goat is “blamed” for the sins of the people and he is released into the wilderness to die as the penalty for those sins vicariously. In the same way Jesus Christ is like our scape-goat, he is legally blamed for our sins, and in return we are pardoned! The Tyndale Bible Dictionary says, “Israel understood that to bear sin meant enduring the consequences, or penalty, for sin (cf. Nm 14:33). The same penal substitution is evident in the working principle of the Messiah’s atoning sacrifice. He is the victim’s substitute to whom is transferred the suffering due the sinner. The penalty having been thus borne vicariously, the suppliant is fully pardoned.”[8]

In Leviticus 17, God is busy giving his Law to Moses, when a most important statement is made about how He is to be reconciled to man in verse 11, “…the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the alter; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” That word “atonement” is similar to the word “reconciliation.” In fact, the word “atonement” can be divided by its syllables to understand its meaning, “at-one-ment.” In other words, when atonement is made, reconciliation is made. The two become one again. “Objectively and once for all, Christ achieved reconciliation for us through penal substitution. On the cross he took our place, carried our identity as it were, bore the curse due to us.”[9] As Galatians 3:13 explicitly says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” The curse of the Law was laid on Christ who Paul says, became a “curse for us.” The apple of God’s eye became a rotten apple so to speak, so that other rotten apples could be made whole again.

Perhaps the most graphic and prominent portrayal of this concept of Penal Substitution is in Isaiah 53:5-6, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (emphasis mine). These verses could not be more evident about the fact that the Messiah’s role would be one of bearing the punishment that others deserve!

The Apostle Peter would later write about Jesus Christ that, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” And also…”For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit…”[10] These verses emphasize “the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. He “sufferedonce for all concerning sins, the just for the unjust.” Again the note of innocent suffering is sounded: He was righteous and thus suffered not for any misdeeds of His own but as a substitute for those who were unrighteous, who justly deserved punishment for sin.”[11]

[1] Bliss, Philip. Hallelujah! What a Savior. Celebration Hymnal. orchestration ed. Nashville, TN: Word Entertainment Music, 1997.

[2]Evans, William ; Coder, S. Maxwell: The Great Doctrines of the Bible. Enl. ed. Chicago : Moody Press, 1998, c1974, S. 73

[3] Luther, Martin. Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries) (Crossway Classic Commentaries). 1st British ed ed. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 1998.151.

[4] Watts, Isaac. At The Cross. Celebration Hymnal. orchestration ed. Nashville, TN: Word Entertainment Music, 1997.

[5] Baker, Mark. Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006. 22.

[6] Dever, Mark. It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 2010. 19-20.

[7] Hebrews 9:28

[8]Elwell, Walter A. Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Tyndale Reference Library). Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008. 888.

[9] Packer, J. I.. Concise Theology (sc). Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

[10] 1Peter 2:24, 3:18

[11]Zuck, Roy B. A Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1994. 443.


  1. Thanks Dave, for writing on “penal substitution,” (ps) which I had not heard, nor did I understand for the longest time (several decades since I became a Christian), because the words “penal” and “subtitution” are not in the Bible, even though “penal substitution” is clearly taught in both the OT and the NT, which you showed quite clearly.

    Perhaps, a word that is more familiar to most Christians is “justification,” (j) since Paul uses the verb “justified” countless times, especially in Romans and Galatians. Though the definition of “ps” and “j” is different, the former enables or results in the latter.

    Nonetheless, until recently, I had not emphasized nor taught “j” nor “ps” in my Bible studies and sermons, because teaching them seemed to me to be “impractical,” and seemingly without any “practical application.” It was a lot “easier” for me to teach imperatives, such as “love God,” “love your neighbor,” “deny yourself,” “take up your cross,” “make disciples,” “feed sheep,” etc.

    But it’s noteworthy that Martin Luther says that “j” is “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” Surely, I will need to begin to digest and apply these central biblical teachings of “j” and “ps” more intentionally from now on. Thanks again for this post.

  2. Joshua Brinkerhoff

    Thanks David for this posting. I’m eagerly awaiting the second part!

  3. Thanks Dr. Ben and Joshua, Soli Deo Gloria! I agree with J. I. Packer who said, “As I grow old I want to tell everyone who will listen: ‘I am so thankful for the penal substitutionary death of Christ. No hope without it!'”

  4. I remember reading the ransom theory in Documents of the Christian Church. That theory doesn’t quite cut it. The theory fails in its doctrine of God since it makes God a debtor and a deceiver.

    You and Dr. Ben are right–this theory is all over the Bible! The Passover, the scapegoat, of course JESUS!

    Do you think Moses was trying to offer himself as penal substitution in Ex. 32? They had made a golden calf. Moses then called the Levites, and those who were with God killed three thousand people. Afterward, Moses went before the LORD and asked for God’s forgiveness.

    He said, “32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

    33 The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.”

    God refused his offer. God instead would blot himself out. He who had no sin would become sin for us. He left his throne and place of glory to be among people who did not recognize him, and who worshiped and served created things that would perish. He did this so that we could be with him, and worship the True God for all eternity. Jesus is the better Moses, the better lamb, the better scapegoat. I’m so thankful for Jesus. He stood in my place, shedding his own blood for my sin.

    • Thanks Ben. I had not “seen” that God refusing Moses’ offer to blot himself out, as God who would one day blot himself out through Jesus. Nice. Indeed, Jesus is the better Moses.

      I realize that our terribly sinful human default is to expect others to “die” for us and our cause in one way or another. (For instance, everyday I subconsciously default to thinking that my wife should be nice to me, instead of how I should be nice to her!) Only God did not demand that we die for him, and He instead died for us! Thank God for penal substitution and justification.

  5. david bychkov

    thanks for nice article, David. Thanks Jesus for Penal Substitution. May God help us to keep this doctrine in the very center of our beliefs and life and churches all our days. Soli Deo Gloria!