Preaching and Defending Penal Substitution (Part 1)

Michael Cooper, Jr. Pastor of Grace Community Church in Mabank Texas.

The cross of Jesus Christ stands at the center of redemptive history. As a result the nature of the atonement is pivotal in Christian theology and subsequently the Christian life. Throughout Church history there have been many proposals concerning the “center” of the atonement. As pastors we must give ourselves to preaching and defending this primary doctrine of Scripture. However the doctrine must be defined properly. The following definition provides us clarity:

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” [1]

Two primary theological ideas form this doctrine: 1) Jesus suffered as a substitute in the place of sinners; 2) Jesus suffered the penalty of human sin, which is death, on the cross. J.I. Packer claims that the atoning work of Jesus gives full expression to the justice of God in relationship to human sin while simultaneously revealing the depths of God’s love for humanity.[2]

The position holds that Jesus acted as a willing substitute in the place of sinners on the cross. Packer argues that the very idea of a “substitute” is expressed in the New Testament, specifically with the phrases, Christ died for us”, “Christ redeemed us…having become a curse for us”, and “to give His life a random for many.”[3] Biblically the reason is because a fallen humanity is under the reign of sin (Romans 3:9) and is internally corrupted by sins (Romans 1:18-32). At the heart of substitution is the reality that the One who knew no sin, was made to be sin in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21).[4] To say that Jesus died “in the place” of sinners does not mean that Jesus actually became a sinner on the cross. Jesus did not deserve to die since He was innocent. Rather He suffered for sinners as the “covenant representative and substitute.”[5] As Frame states, “If He was not a substitute, His death was an act of injustice.”[6]

This substitutionary act is nuanced by the idea of “penal”, meaning penalty.[7] Scripture states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Since God is holy He must punish sin. It is maintained by scholars that Jesus paid the exact penalty for human rebellion, namely death.[8] As opposed to the other views, this specific perspective claims that in the death of Jesus, God through Christ satisfies His own demands for human sin.[9] The punishment for sin – death – is satisfied in Christ (The Divine Son) in the place of sinners. This is in order to make atonement through Christ, who paid the penalty of sin and removed God’s wrath from those who would trust in His sacrifice.[10] Therefore, the main issue for humanity is not necessarily Satanic oppression but enmity with God because of sin (Romans 5:8). According to Scripture, the death of Jesus is viewed as a sacrificial offering to God and not Satan (Hebrews 9:14).

The Penal Substitutionary death of God’s Son clearly reveals the love of God (Romans 5:8). Wellum maintains, “It was God through Christ who substituted Himself in the place of sinners, resulting in divine love triumphing over divine wrath by a divine self-sacrifice.”[11] Furthermore, it was out of love that God gave His Son (John 3:16). It is only the Penal Substitutionary view that can adequately detail the specific nuances of God’s love for sinners and God’s wrath against sin.


[1] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 21. Emphasis is mine in order to highlight the two primary theological components of this view.

[2] J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution” in In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement, ed. J.I. Packer and Mark Dever (Wheaton, Crossway, 2007), 53-81.

[3] Ibid, 69. Also see Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 15.

[4] Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation, Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997) , 174.

[5] Stephen J. Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior, The 5 Solas Series,ed. Matthew Barrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 210.

[6] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 904.

[7] Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve”, 77.

[8] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 121-123.

[9] Wellum, Christ Alone, 212

[10] D.A. Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, & Practical Perspectives, ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 129-135.

[11] Stephen J. Wellum, Christ Alone, 116.


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