The Necessity of Penal Substitution (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I presented evidence from Scripture for Penal Substitution as a primary view of what happened at Calvary.

But what about other theories of the atonement? Aren’t they more plausible and less offensive to the dignity of man? Here we review two other theories of the atonement to see if they are better suited to explain what happened on the cross. These two other theories are called the Ransom Theory and the Christus Victor Theory.


The first alternative theory of the atonement is called the “Ransom Theory”. This is “the view, developed by (the theologian) Origen, that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan since he held mankind in bondage.”[12] In other words, God sent Jesus Christ as a ransom to pay to Satan in order that Satan would release human beings from his grasp. The blood of the Lamb of God therefore was the “currency” that was paid out to the devil for us.

At first glance, this might seem somewhat plausible. Jesus did say in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in the last days the heavenly host is even going to sing about how Jesus ransomed people, “And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” (Rev. 5:9). However, there are a few problems with Origen’s view.

R. C. Sproul explains why this theory in its original phrasing is not widely held today, “If the ransom is paid to Satan, Satan laughs all the way to the bank…But when the Bible speaks of ransom, the ransom is paid not to a criminal but to the One who is owed the price for redemption-the One who is the offended party…it is God the Father. Jesus as the Servant, offers Himself in payment to the Father for us.[13] If we view the Ransom Theory in this light it makes much more sense. While it does not displace the Penal Substitution theory, it may supplement it and even add to its validity because if God is the one who is still the offended party and God is the one to whom the ransom is paid, then Christ as our penal substitute, and Christ as our ransom are two sides to the same gem.

The second theory is called the “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement. This view was made popular in the 20th century by Gustav Aulen.[14] It states that one of the main reasons Jesus went to the cross is to obtain victory over sin and Satan. There is also scriptural support for this view. In Genesis 3:15, God promises to send the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent. And many times, the gospels and new testament letters state that Jesus has victory over the devil as well (See John 16:11; Matthew 4:1-11, 12:29; 1Corinthians 15:54-57).

This theory of the atonement has many merits, and one can see how it is legitimately held, however it does not negate the fact that penal substitution is still a main component of what occurred at Calvary. Even though there are many who would currently like to see the Christus Victor theory displace penal substation, the Bible, tradition and reason do not give grounds for it. In fact, there are many great Christians throughout history that have proudly held the doctrine of Penal Substitution as a precious truth, even though there are people today who would make the claim that this doctrine is a recent development. From as far back as Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), the authors of the book “Pierced For Our Transgressions” cite a plethora of famous Godly theologians who believed in penal substitution. People like Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and many others.[15] So it is not for lack of scripture or lack of history that some deny this crucial doctrine, instead it could stem from the scandalous nature of the cross itself. In the next section we shall see the reason behind the necessity of penal substitution.


In discovering why penal substitution is needed in the first place, we must delve deeply into both the character of sinful man and the character of the Holy God. Part of the reason why penal substitution is rejected by some people is the offense that it necessarily brings to the pride of man. In other words, penal substitution says that man’s sin is so bad that Jesus Christ had to leave the courts of heaven and come down to earth to bear the punishment that everyone of us deserves from the Holy God. This doctrine crushes the pride of the man who wants to think that he has some meritorious goodness within himself, that his sins are not so bad, and that God is not Holy. Only penal substitution displays how heinous sin really is and also how holy and gracious God really is!

There is therefore a close relationship between the concept of propitiation and penal substitution. Leon Morris says, “The wrath of God is real and…we must reckon with that wrath. Unpalatable though it may be, our sins, my sins, are the object of that wrath. If we are taking our Bible seriously we must realize that every sin is displeasing to God and that unless something is done about the evil we have committed we face ultimately nothing less than the divine anger.”[16]

In this light, we see that Jesus is our substitute who takes the righteous wrath of God on our behalf as our propitiation. This is what God has done about the evil we have committed! Wiersbe continues this thought, “In His holiness, (God) must judge sinners; but in His love, He desires to forgive them. God cannot ignore sin or compromise with it, for that would be contrary to His own nature and Law. How did God solve the problem? The Judge took the place of the criminals and met the just demands of His own holy Law!”[17] Reasonably, the question begs to be asked, “why does God consider sin to be so bad that He would need to send his Son to die on a cross as a penal substitute?

Jonathan Edwards illustrates four propositions about why sin is so sinful: First, that every sin or crime deserves a punishment in proportion to the heinousness of the sin/crime. Second, A sin/crime is more or less heinous according as we are under greater or less obligation to the contrary. Third, Sin against God, being a violation against infinite obligation, is infinitely heinous. Fourth, Persons who sin against God are infinitely guilty and worthy of infinite punishment.[18]

Perhaps this could be stated in a simpler way with an analogy. A man is sitting around a table with some of his personal acquaintances and one of them says something that offends him, so the man hauls off and slaps his acquaintance. It might be that nothing would happen, the acquaintance simply shrugs it off. The man is so angry when he leaves that he speeds in his car on the way home and when the police pull him over he slaps one of them, now he will definitely go to jail. While he is in jail he keeps thinking about his court date when the judge will see his point and let him go, but when that day comes, the judge sentences him to another year. The man is even more angry than before, so he walks up to the judge and slaps him. The next time he is sentenced, it is for 10 years instead of 1. Finally, after stewing in jail for 10 years, the man thinks that it is the president’s fault that jail sentences are so harsh so he finds the president at a rally and slaps him! If the Secret Service does not kill the man, he will probably spend the better part of his life in prison. The penalty is incrementally greater, and the sin worse for the same act because as Edwards says, “sins committed against anyone must be proportionately heinous to the dignity of the being offended.” God is infinitely worthy of our love, worship, devotion, honor and obedience, and the natural man does the opposite of these things. It is no wonder that he stands infinitely guilty and thus deserves the infinite punishment which is eternal hell. It is here that the doctrine of Penal Substitution becomes all the more glorious in our sight! Jesus took the infinite punishment for our sins that we deserve, and in return, he imputed his righteousness to us!

Christian Experience and Application

Penal substitution has had a great impact in the history of the church. What other doctrine more forcefully proclaims the Love of God for sinners than that He sent his Son Jesus to take the penalty for our sins as our substitute? The evangelical gospel preacher must have this doctrine in his heart and on his tongue every time he preaches the gospel. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Is there anything greater than this, that God should take your sins and mine and put them on this own Son and punish his own Son, not sparing him anything, causing him to suffer all that, that you and I might be forgiven? Can you tell me any greater exhibition of the love of God than that?”[19] Oh how wonderful is the Love of God! The doctrine of penal substitution should lead all Christians to say with Horatio Spafford, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”[20]

[12]Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Revised ed. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008. 626.

[13] Sproul, R. C.. Saved from What? . Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. 66-67.

[14] Hebert, Gustaf; A.G., and trans. Aulen. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

[15] Jeffery, Steve, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 2007.

[16] Morris, Leon. The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984. 176.

[17]Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Comforted. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1996, c1992 (An Old Testament Study), S. Is 53:10

[18] Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” in Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, 2nd ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005)

[19] Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. Great Doctrines of the Bible: God the Father, God the Son; God the Holy Spirit; The Church and the Last Things. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 2003. 335.

[20] Spafford, Horatio. It Is Well With My Soul. Celebration Hymnal. orchestration ed. Nashville, TN: Word Entertainment Music, 1997.


  1. David, thanks for submitting this nice pair of articles.

    I like the way you presented evidence from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience: the good old Wesleyan quadrilateral.

    In my limited experience, penal substitution is the primary way that modern evangelical Christians understand and present the gospel. That was certainly the way it was presented to me in UBF Bible studies and messages, and it is what I have mostly heard in other churches and in Christian media. I had never heard of Ransom Theory as a serious competitor; the weight of biblical evidence is against it. I never thought of Christus Victor as an alternative theory of atonement; I thought it was simply what the Bible teaches. When Christ ascended to heaven, he sat down at the right hand of the Father and began to rule the heavens and the earth. That is the punchline of the first evangelistic message by Peter in Acts 2:36: Jesus is Lord and Christ. I think it is possible to preach an evangelistic message without explicitly appealing to Penal Substitution. However, a balanced understanding of the gospel must certainly include Penal Substitution. And it should include other ways presented in the Bible, such as the message of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus in the synoptic gospels.

    Thanks again. God bless.

  2. David, thank you for this excellent summary of such an central and essential Christian doctrine.
    Similarly to Joe, i have to say that i never heard of the “ransom theory” being actually taught and preached somewhere. The only time i came across this theory was when i was reading through commentaries on Mark 10:45.

  3. Thanks guys, praise God. Actually the ransom theory of the atonement was very popular with some of the early church fathers. And interestingly, in C. S. Lewis’ book “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” it is portrayed as well (with some slight variation). If you remember, Aslan offers himself as payment to the witch who then lets Edmond go in exchange.

    • Yes, David, you are correct; in fact, as I first read what you wrote about Ransom Theory, my mind immediately went to C.S. Lewis and Aslan. I guess if some early church fathers and C.S. Lewis found it compelling, I shouldn’t just dismiss it out of hand. There does seem to be some validity to it. As I read the accounts of the crucifixion, it seems as though Jesus, while submitting himself to the Father, was allowing evil men and Satan to do whatever he wanted, at least for a time. And there is certainly a lot of language in the Psalms about this. But ultimately, I believe we are free because God freed us, not because Satan allowed us to go.

      Thanks again for this article and this discussion; I learned a lot from it.

  4. Actually, I’ve heard the “ransom theory” taught in our sermons without calling it the “ransom theory.” The analogy used was regarding freeing the American hostages in Iran during the time of former President Carter. Supposedly Iran wanted U.S. dollars in exchange for the hostages, while Satan demands a blood payment to release his captives, and only the blood of Jesus is able to pay the ransom price to set us sinners free.

    But as Dave pointed out, Satan is not the controlling factor, and more importantly the most offended party is God himself, who needs Jesus to be a propitiation for our sins, to satisfy and appease and absorb God’s wrath that we sinners deserve.

  5. This doctrine shows the heinousness of sin and the marvelous grace and mercy of God.

    God is infinite. We are finite sinners. We could never “work off” one little sin that we commit against God. God could punish all the sinners for eternity in hell; however, there would be less justice displayed in the punishment of sinners than in the death of Christ. Jesus bore the full measure of God’s wrath to satisfy God’s infinite hatred of sin. We are forgiven; we are counted as righteous, all because of the penal substitution of Jesus Christ.

    Why would he want to save wanton sinners like us? We are on par with Gomer, the rebels who died alongside Jesus, the Geresene demoniac, Barabbas, Jezebel and Ahab. Would any of us want to save any of those people? Jesus left his righteous and holy throne to be with sinners. He was punished as a rebel in our place. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died to save us!

  6. Great post, David, and great discussion.

    I have not heard preachers use the “Ransom Theory,” exactly, but I do recognize that there is a general confusion about the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice, and I appreciate such a thoughtful explanation. It’s so easy to be imprecise.

    Reading it makes me praise God and thank him for the wonderful cross, where all my sins were forgiven. I remember again the great relief of knowing that I am helpless but that his blood covers me completely.