By Francine Grace Tan, Class of ’19
No theology is genuinely Christian which does not arise from and focus on the cross.
– Martin Luther
To the outsider, it must seem odd that Christians commemorate, contemplate and celebrate the death of their Savior Jesus Christ. Crucifixion—the brutal execution method devised by the Romans has become the symbol of Christian faith. One might think surely there is nothing appealing about dying on a cross. Yet one particular crucifixion is beautiful. In the midst of this vicious death some 2000 years ago, we peer into the very heart of God. The discussion of the penal substitutionary atonement unfolds in two parts; the first part provides background and context for Christ’s sacrifice in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The second part reasons a theological necessity for Christ’s sacrifice and how it is thoroughly biblical, not humanly contrived, and essential to personal salvation.
Before exploring the penal substitution of Christ’s work on the Cross, penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of His son, Jesus Christ to suffer and die in the place of sinners in order to bear the full penalty for sin. Jesus was punished (penalized) in our place (substitution) so that we could be forgiven (atonement). The perfect obedience God required from us, Jesus fully gave and His death was accepted by God as satisfaction in place of the penalty due to us. Consideration of the concept of penal substitution must begin with the Old Testament (OT) understanding of the word “penal”. The OT not only reveals the reality of divine wrath, but it also tells us of God’s divine righteousness, holiness and justice require divine retribution. Without divine retribution, divine mercy becomes nothing more than a vestigial appendage without purpose.
Levitical sacrificial system
The OT’s Levitical sacrificial system laid the basis for penal substitution in awaiting Isaiah’s coming Messiah. The book of Leviticus takes its theme of holiness because Yahweh, the Holy One, resides in the Temple and the people of Israel must be holy in honor of their Lord. However, the problem with this is, of course, sin. For the people to commune with God, atonement for their sin must be achieved by the means of sacrifices, namely the whole burnt offering, grain or cereal offering, peace offering, sin offering and guilt offering. According to Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement”, therefore, atonement in the OT requires blood.
The offerings in Leviticus 16 are substitutionary, for each animal is accepted in place of the people’s sins, as illustrated in the Day of the Atonement when the sins of the people are placed on the head of the goat that goes to its death and it shall bear all their iniquities on itself (Leviticus 16:21-22). The scapegoat symbolized the removal of the sins of the people to allow them to enter the presence of a holy God. Nonetheless, the person who cannot afford a sacrificial lamb may bring a pair of doves or a pair of pigeons; the person who cannot afford these may bring a small amount of flour. While Leviticus reveals the bad news that God’s holiness cannot allow for sinful human beings to have access to Him, the Levitical sacrificial system also presents the good news that God provides a means for sinners to atone for their sins and enter His presence. Thus the Old Testament system was founded upon a principle of penal substitution to propitiate the wrath of God in judgment for sin.
The second main Old Testament text (Exodus 12) presented the first clear picture in which God graciously spared the Israelites through the deaths of animals substituted for firstborn in each household. The Lord instructed Moses to tell the congregation that every man shall take an unblemished lamb according to their fathers’ household (Exodus 12:3). The Lord executed judgment as He passed through the land of Egypt, those who obeyed and applied the blood of the slaughtered lamb to the doorposts of their houses would escape that judgment and the Israelites escaped death (Exodus 12:13-30). Did the Israelites merit death? Absolutely not. The Passover lamb is both substitutionary and propitiatory, as it nullifies God’s wrath against sinful people because it satisfies God’s holiness. All throughout the OT, God had ordained a sacrificial system that resulted in the incessant flow of blood and all of it was looking forward to and depicting the ultimate ratification of the covenant that would come in the blood of Jesus Christ. This is because the old system was inadequate, as “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. All 24 orders of priests had to sacrifice animals over and over again because the old system could never provide a final and ultimate provision for sin (Hebrews 10: 1-11).
Christ’s sacrifice once and for all
Since no man can be made holy by an animal sacrifice, no matter how many religious activities or works he or she engages in, Jesus Christ–our perfect high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16)–offers a perfect, complete and sufficient sacrifice. The book of Isaiah foreshadows the coming substitutionary death of Christ as penalty for His people’s sins, as stated below (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:13):
- “He has borne our griefs” (Isaiah 53:4)
- “He has carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4)
- “He was pierced for our transgressions”(Isaiah 53:5)
- “He was crushed for our iniquities”(Isaiah 53:5)
- “And with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5)
- “And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6)
- “He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8)
- “He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11)
- “Yet He bore the sin of many (Isaiah 53:12)
Christ’s sacrifice not only replaced the old inadequate system but it is also better because it sanctifies the believer. All the best works of the Levitical system couldn’t do it, but by the death of Jesus Christ we are set apart from sin. By His sacrifice we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:10). The words “we are sanctified” in the Greek text is a perfect participle and a finite verb showing in the strongest way the permanent and continuous state of salvation in which the believer exists. Jesus accomplished it once for all. Our sins are removed and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. And that is the remarkable reality of the sacrifice of Christ.
While the Old Testament revealed the shadow of the coming Messiah, the Gospels displayed the substance and the epistles in the New Testament unveiled the substantiation of the penal substitution in Christ’s atonement. Three main texts on the Gospels that illustrate this truth are seen from Christ’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; cf. Psalm 22:1) Second, in the last supper Christ taught his disciples that the bread symbolized “[His] body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) and finally, Christ also taught that the cup represented “[His] blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). Paul, the author of Hebrews, Peter and John also provided vigorous substantiation of the inseparable element of penal substitution in Christ’s atonement. Because sin is intolerable to God, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13a), and “God presented Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice, through faith in His blood” (Romans 3:25). The sacrifice of Christ provided an eternal forgiveness so that we may truly live, freeing us from the shackles of sin and death. Through the blood of Christ, we are justified, reconciled to God, and covered with the righteousness of Christ. (Ephesians 1:7, Romans 5:9, Colossians 1:20).
Besides biblical evidence from the Old and New Testament for the penal substitution of Christ’s atonement, there is also a theological necessity that needs to be understood. Consider the following theological facts:
- God’s inviolable holiness and justice.
- Mankind’s innate sinful nature with no true solution.
- Mankind’s need for ransomed redemption to restore a right relationship with God and obtain God’s pardon for sin that results in eternal life.
Since God is holy, righteous and just, He must punish sin. However, God is also loving and merciful and He does not want to punish us. So, how can this be accomplished? We find the answer culminated on the cross when God the Father, out of His infinite love, grace and mercy provides the ultimate sacrifice—Jesus Christ. By dying on the cross, Christ cancelled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands (Colossians 2:14). Therefore the penal substitution is the demonstration of God’s equal demands of justice, holiness and love.
Leon Morris eloquently reasoned this truth as such:
“To put it bluntly and plainly, if Christ is not my Substitute, I still occupy the place of a condemned sinner. If my sins and my guilt are not transferred to Him, if He did not take them upon Himself, then surely they remain with me. If He did not deal with my sins, I must face their consequences. If my penalty was not borne by Him, it still hangs over me. There is no other possibility. To say that substitution is immoral is to say that redemption is impossible. In the process of salvation God is not transferring penalty from one man (guilty) to another man (innocent). He is bearing it Himself. The absolute oneness between the Father and the Son in the work of atonement must not for a moment be lost sight of. When Christ substitutes for sinful man in His death that is God Himself bearing the consequences of our sin, God saving man at cost to Himself, not at cost to someone else. In part the atonement is to be understood as a process whereby God absorbs in Himself the consequences of man’s sin.” (Morris, 1955).
Although these do not represent the totality of the biblical evidence for the penal substitution of Christ’s sacrificial atonement, it is evident that the death of Jesus Christ was the atoning sacrifice for sins because God averted His wrath from us. Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18). He is indeed the ransom price by which we have been redeemed and the condemnation of the spotless Lamb to justify the guilty. We can lean for all our time and eternity on the sacrifice of Christ for eternal salvation. The penal substitutionary atonement of Christ is so perfect that nothing can be added to it and all we are ever asked to do is believe in it.
This, the power of the cross:
Christ became sin for us,
Took the blame, bore the wrath:
We stand forgiven at the cross.
(Getty and Townend, 2005)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version
Leon Morris, “Atonement, Theories of the,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker 1984) 100-102. See also Roger Nicole, “Postscript on Penal Substitution,” in Hill and James, The Glory 445-52.
Stott, J. (2006). The cross of Christ (1st ed.). Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.