Sundoulos - Winter 2011

The Moral Plausibility of Penal Substitution

by Steve L. Porter

In the midst of a class session on atonement theology, a student towards the back of the room hesitantly raises her hand. She says, “I know I have always been taught penal substitution and I have just assumed that it was true. But as I think about it now, it doesn’t make sense to me. Do we have to believe this?” To my mind, this is a wonderful question. Of course, in an ideal world this student would thoroughly under- stand penal substitution and be completely convinced of the truth of it. But given that this ideal is not yet reality for her, she is responding precisely as she ought: she is honestly assessing and humbly admitting her limited understanding. Instead of dismissing her question as a “lack of faith,” it seems better to receive her question as a confession that she is of “little faith” (Matt 6:30).

To one degree or another, of course, we are all of “little faith.” That is, we are in need of having greater and greater confidence (bigger and bigger faith) in God and the truths of his word. We too can often say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And so we pray for ourselves and for those to whom we minister that we would “be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:9–10).1 And yet coming to this kind of knowledge, insight, and understanding can be difficult, particularly when the plausibility structures of our day are often at odds with traditional Christian teaching.2 For instance, many of the doctrines that are being challenged afresh (e.g., a literal hell and the exclusivity of salvation) are initially questioned on moral grounds (i.e., “why would a good and loving God do such a thing?”). For many objectors to penal substitution, the seeming moral implausibility of the doctrine either precedes or eclipses discussion of the biblical evidence.3

No doubt this is what was going on in the mind of the student in my class. What did not make sense to her was not so much how one arrives at penal substitution from the relevant biblical passages. Rather, she strained to get her mind around the gravity of the penalty due sinners, the necessity of God exacting that penalty, and the notion that Christ took on that penalty in his suffering and death as the basis for God’s forgiveness of those who place their trust in him. These notions easily trickle off the tongue in our contemporary worship choruses (e.g., “from the earth to the cross, my debt to pay”) and most veteran evangelical churchgoers can just as easily trot out the gist of the doctrine (e.g., “he died so you won’t have to”). But nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that persons have a moral framework in which the main features of penal substitution appear plausible.

The Folly of the Cross

Unfortunately, for some Christians the seeming implausibility of penal substitution becomes an argument against the truth of the doctrine. For others it is a good reason to push language of God’s wrath, punishment, atonement, and forgiveness to the background of Christian teaching and evangelism. Still others insist on the truthfulness and centrality of penal substitution, but do not think that there is any need to defend the moral adequacy of the view beyond marshalling the requisite biblical passages.

But if the objections to penal substitution are partly fueled by moral qualms, then along with reiterating the biblical case for penal substitution, it will be helpful to many believers to address those places where the doctrine seems counterintuitive. For while our best interpretations of Scripture are our highest and final authority in the formation of our theological beliefs, careful reflection on our interpretations can aid in bringing
us to a deeper understanding of what Scripture teaches. For instance, Paul encourages Timothy to, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7). The Spirit’s illumination of the word of God is meant to work in cooperation with human reflection on the word of God. Thomas Aquinas states that the purpose of discussing theological claims is:

...less to push error out than to lead listeners into the truth they strive to understand. Accordingly they must be carried by reasonings in order to get to the root of the matter, and helped to see for themselves how what is asserted is true. Otherwise, if the appeal is merely to bare authorities, then all the teacher does is to certify to his listeners that such in fact is the answer to the problem; apart from this they have gathered no reason for it and no understanding, and so go away empty.4

Could it be that many Christ-followers know the biblical passages that point to penal substitution and even profess the truth of the doctrine but have not been carried to the root of the matter in order to see for themselves how what is asserted is true? Could it also be that this limited or even distorted understanding is the staging area for those who gradually depart from the doctrine of penal substitution? Perhaps too the lack of a deep grasp of penal substitution creates in some believers a tendency towards fear and defensiveness when confronted with those who question this important doctrine.

If something like that is right, I would like to suggest the following strategy: as we marshal the biblical evidence for penal substitution, we must listen carefully to the objections
or questions that arise from those we minister to and attempt to offer a thoughtful response. While God’s ways/thoughts
are higher than our ways/thoughts (Is 55:8; cf. 1 Cor 1:18–31), it does not follow that there are not better and worse ways of understanding God’s ways/thoughts. Our thoughts can still be to varying degrees closer or farther from the truth even if the ultimate truth is beyond us. There is certainly some discontinuity between our thoughts and God’s thoughts, but there is just as certainly some continuity. As the Psalmist says, “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me” (Ps 25:4). We should seek to understand as much as God intends for us to understand—no more than that but also no less.5

Avoiding a Reductionistic Gospel

With this strategy in mind, it is important to first take into consideration that some of the recent pushback on penal substitution is due to reductionistic presentations of the gospel that diminish the person of Jesus to his death on the cross and reduce salvation to the mere forgiveness of sins. For instance, one critic of penal substitution writes:

The greatest theological problem with penal substitution
is that it presents us with a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution for sin that flows from his wrath against sinners...This approach reduces the whole gospel to a single sentence: “God is no longer angry with us because Jesus died in our place.” Indeed, that is exactly why evangelistic presentations based on penal substitution often do not even bother to mention the resurrection: for them, it serves no direct purpose in the story of salvation.6

Without denying the centrality of Jesus’ death and the essential importance of divine forgiveness, it is also vital to insist on the other significant features of Jesus and his salvific work. Jesus’ central message was that the loving and life-giving reign of God is available to human sinners through his incarnate life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, ongoing intercession at the right hand of the Father, and eventual ushering in of his kingdom in its fullness. Jesus’ death as the basis of God’s forgiveness of sinners is an essential part of the good news, but there is more to his person and work than just that. There is confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but there is also abiding in him, walking in and being filled with his Spirit, dying to self, learning to obey his commands, and so on.7 There is no question that salvation is more than the cross and the cross is more than penal substitution. Understanding and emphasizing the fullness of Jesus’ person and salvific work prevents us from putting undue pressure on the doctrine of penal substitution as if the totality of salvation in Christ can be summed up in Christ’s work on the cross. And yet, while we certainly don’t want to reduce salvation and the cross to penal substitution, we must also not make the opposite mistake of overly minimizing the role of the cross in salvation and/or the presence of a penal substitutionary element to the cross.

Three Crucial Questions

In order to get at some of the potential challenges to the moral plausibility of penal substitution, it can be helpful to distill the doctrine into three questions:

  1. Do we deserve punishment for our sins?
Is it necessary for God to exact that punishment?
  3. Does it make moral sense for Christ to take on that punishment in our stead?

First off, apart from Christ, do we deserve punishment for
our sins? Scripture seems manifestly clear on this point. The penalty for Adam and Eve’s sin was spiritual death (Gen 2:17). God’s anger and judgment against sinners is a repeated theme in Scripture (e.g., Mic 5:15). Jesus teaches that “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36; cf. Mark 3:5). And Paul makes
it apparent that all persons are under God’s just condemnation (e.g., Rom 1:18–20; 3:23; 5:18–19; 6:23; Eph 2:3; 2 Thess 1:8–9). It is quite evident from the biblical text that human sinners do not deserve physical life on earth in loving communion with God. Rather, apart from Christ, all persons deserve both physical and spiritual death.

But here it is important to stress that God’s anger, judgment, and punishment are quite different from human expressions of anger, judgment, and punishment. All too often we hear of or experience first-hand expressions of human anger, condemnation, and punishment that are unjust, distorted, and abusive. This is why we are to leave vengeance to God—he can handle
it in a manner that we cannot (Rom 12:19–20; cf. Eph 4:26; James 1:19–20). God’s judgment of sinners is always fair and his anger and condemnation towards them goes hand-in-hand with his continuing to value and love them (cf. 2 Pet 3:9). There is a sense in which we deserve God’s wrath and punishment precisely because he loves and values us so highly. So while apart from Christ we deserve punishment for our rebellion against God, we must be sensitive to the fact that many persons do not easily associate being loved and valued by a Father with being under the anger and judgment of that same Father.

In order to clarify the idea that human sinners do deserve punishment, it might be helpful to think of little Johnny pushing his sister Susie to the floor in disgust during their playtime just because he feels like it. Let us imagine that Johnny knows better but repeatedly chooses to push Susie to the floor causing her pain and sadness. What does Johnny deserve as a response to his wrongdoing? Clearly he does not deserve to be rewarded for his malevolent choice, nor does he deserve to be treated in
a neutral manner. He deserves, no doubt, some sort of correction or rebuke. Punishment can be understood as the forcible withdrawal of certain rights and/or privileges in response to the intentional misuse of those rights and/or privileges. When we punish, we take away from the wrongdoer, by force if necessary, the right and/or privilege that has been intentionally abused. So, Johnny’s mother may stop his playtime and verbally remind Johnny of the importance of respecting his sister. That Johnny has to stop and that he is being reprimanded is exacting a certain loss from his privilege to play with Susie. All quibbles aside as to what precisely Johnny deserves, it seems clear that he deserves some sort of punishment.

How then do we deserve punishment from God? By dim analogy with Johnny, we know better too and yet we repeatedly push aside God’s gracious offer of friendship to pursue gods of our own choosing just because we feel like it (cf. Jer 2:13). Just as Johnny doesn’t deserve playtime, it seems that we do not deserve the continued opportunity to live out our physical existence in loving communion with God. Indeed, we deserve to have that opportunity taken away. In other words, we deserve physical and spiritual death.

But even if we do deserve such punishment for our sins, why must God execute that punishment? Just as merciful and gracious human persons do not always demand their just deserts, wouldn’t an infinitely merciful and gracious God also forego punishment? What can be said in response to question (2): is it necessary for God to exact the punishment due sinners?

Theologically we rightly turn to God’s holiness and justice as the ground for God’s having to exact the punishment due sinners. As Paul argues in Romans 3:21–26, God offers salvation through faith in Jesus who was put forward as “a propitiation (hilasterion) by his blood” so that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”8 God’s holiness makes punishment appropriate and God’s justice demands that the punishment be exacted (Ex 34:7).

But it is important to stress that God’s goodness and love also necessitate that the punishment due sinners be exacted. In our insistence on the objective side of the atonement, there is a danger of neglecting the subjective side of the atonement. That is to say, it is good for us that God exacts the punishment.

Consider Johnny. If Johnny repeatedly pushed Susie to the floor and the mother was aware of the offense but did not respond punitively, there would be a miscarriage of justice. This is precisely because in the absence of punishment Susie would be given the message that there is nothing wrong with being demeaned by her brother and that her mother does not value her enough to put a stop to the mistreatment. And Johnny would be given the message that how he acts towards his sister is unimportant and that his mother does not take him and his actions seriously. In other words, in the absence of punishment, the victim of wrongdoing is devalued and the wrongdoer and the wrong done are trivialized. But when mother suspends Johnny’s playtime, the value of Susie and the importance of treating her in accordance to her value is objectively affirmed. Moreover, Johnny and his choices are taken with due moral seriousness.9

In the case of God and sinners, we too repeatedly push aside living in communion with God. If God does not respond with the penalty we deserve, he would not be treating himself according to his own value and he would be trivializing human persons and their sinful choices. In contrast, when God demands that the punishment due sinners be exacted, he makes clear that he takes human persons and their acts seriously and he objectively reaffirms the value of the Godhead that is devalued in human sin. There is something right and good about punishment being exacted, not simply due to God’s holiness and justice, but also due to his goodness and love towards us. God would be devaluing himself and trivializing persons and their relationship with him if he passed over the punishment due human sin. James Denny writes: “God, no doubt, would not do justice to Himself if He did not show His compassion for sinners. But, on the other hand... He would not do justice to Himself if He displayed His compassion for sinners in a way which made light of sin, which ignored its tragic reality, or took it for less than it is. In this case He would again be doing Himself injustice.”10 It seems, then, that there are good reasons for God to exact the punishment due sinners.

But some might object that the claim that punishment is a necessary response to wrongdoing is inconsistent with Je
sus’ commands to forgive those who have harmed us without seeking retribution (e.g., Luke 6:27–30; 17:4). The necessity of punishment would also be in apparent tension with the cases in which Jesus forgives and no punishment is exacted (e.g., Matt 9:22; cf. Luke 15:21–24). But again, consider Paul’s statement in Romans 12:14, 19–21:

Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse... Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord.’ Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

According to this text, we do not seek retribution precisely because we can trust that God will bring about justice. We are called to practice mercy because we do not stand in the place
of God (cf. Gen 50:19).11 It appears that Jesus also, in his first coming, did not come as judge: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Jesus’ forgiveness was extended to others precisely on the basis that whatever punishment was due their sins would be atoned for (cf. Rom 3:25). In fact, Jesus had a unique right to forgive sin because he was the one who would make the atonement for those sins.

This point turns us to the third and final question: does it make moral sense for Christ to take on the punishment due sinners? That Jesus was in some sense a substitute or suffered vicariously “for our sins” is evident in Scripture. John the Baptist announces, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Or as Paul puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21) and “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged
on a tree’” (Gal 3:13). Or Peter, alluding to Isaiah 53, writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). Paul sums up the message that he received and delivered to others, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3; cf. Rom 4:25; 1 John 2:2; 1 Pet 3:18).

So there is no doubt in the biblical witness that Christ voluntarily went to the cross because of human sin—on this point most biblical scholars agree. But does it make moral sense
to think that he went to the cross to take on the penalty due sinners?12 There is much to say in response to this question.
For now it may be helpful to simply point out that in Christ’s voluntary submission to physical and spiritual death on the cross, he dies the type of death that human sinners deserve. If one purpose of exacting the punishment due sinners is to objectively demonstrate the seriousness of human sin, the significance of the divine-human relationship, and the value of the one wronged (in this case, God), then Christ’s experience of physical and spiritual death on the cross for our sins takes human sinners and their sin with utter seriousness and objectively expresses the value of the Godhead in response to the devaluing of the Godhead expressed by human sin. By looking to the cross, we too can perceive the importance God attaches to us as human persons, the gravity of our offense, and the right valuing of the Godhead. Moreover, because our punishment is paid by God in Christ, there can be no question that God no longer holds our sin against us. On the basis of the cross, we are declared righteous before him and freed from fear, guilt, and shame.


What a wonderful privilege to come alongside those who are honestly wrestling with the great truths of the Christian faith. Whether around the dinner table, the church social hall, the classroom, the office, or numerous other places we are privileged to listen carefully, and with gentleness and respect offer a reason for the hope that lies within us. I am thankful that the young woman in my class shared her disquiet with penal substitution. May she “be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:9–10).


1  All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

2  Plausibility structures are the governing assumptions and background 
beliefs such that a particular claim either seems plausible or implausible to a person or group of persons. For a classic discussion of plausibility structures from a sociological perspective, see Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), 154–167.

3  I have yet to find an opponent of penal substitution who finds the doctrine morally sensible and only thinks it biblically unsupported. Rather, the claim is typically that the doctrine is morally inadequate and only then
the claim is made that it is not taught in Scripture. For instance, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker first raise suspicions with the moral concepts required for penal substitution and then go on to question whether penal substitution is grounded in Scripture. See Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 24–30.

4  Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae, R. M. Spiazzi, ed. (Turin and Rome: Marietti, 1949), 4.18.

5  Some recent biblical investigations of penal substitution can be found in Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001); I. Howard Marshall, “The Theology of the Atonement,” in Derek Tidball et al., eds., The Atonement Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008); Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, eds., The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004); Steven Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2007); and Thomas R. Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” in James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 66–98.

6  Steve Chalke, “The Redemption of the Cross,” in Derek Tidball et al., eds., The Atonement Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 34–45.

7  Perhaps no one has sought to make this point more clear than Dallas Willard. For instance, see Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 42-50.

8  For a thorough exposition of this passage, see D. A. Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21–26: ‘God Presented Him as a Propitiation,” in Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, eds., The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 119–139.

9  This has been termed the “expressive value” of retributive punishment.
See Jean Hampton, “The Retributive Idea,” in Jeffrey G. Murphy and Jean Hampton, eds., Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 111-61; John E. Hare, The Moral Gap (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 243–59.

10 James Denny, The Death of Christ, R. V. G. Tasker, ed. (Wipf and Stock, 2008), 189.

11 But this biblical principle does not negate the principle that certain authorities (rulers, parents, elders) have been positioned by God to exact punishment (cf. Rom 13:1–7).

12 See Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 240–249 for a treatment of this issue. Also, for a fuller discussion of some of the views I present here, see Steve L. Porter, “Rethinking the Logic of Penal Substitution,” in William Lane Craig, ed., Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2002), 596–608; Steve L. Porter, “Swinburnean Atonement and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution,” Faith and Philosophy 21:2 (April 2004), 228–241; and Steve L. Porter, “Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution,” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, eds., Contending with Christianity’s Critics (Broadman and Holman, 2009), 233–248.

Steve L. Porter Steve Porter (Ph.d., University of Southern California) teaches theology and philosophy for Talbot’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and at Rosemead School of Psychology. His areas of interest include theological methodology, the doctrine of sanctification, philosophical theology, and the integration of psychology and theology. Steve and his wife Alicia live with their son Luke and daughter Siena in Long Beach, Calif.

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