Preaching and Defending Penal Substitution (Part 2)

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

Following up from Part 1 on defending substitution, in this post I’ll discuss Romans 3:21-26 as one of the primary paragraphs that highlights this particular doctrine by looking at its semantic function and structure.

Romans 3:21-26 as the Internal Mechanism of Penal Substitution

It is helpful to understand that scholars describe penal substitution as the “internal mechanism” of the atonement.[1] A primary text used to show how Penal Substitution works is Romans 3:21-26. Contextually the argument of Romans 1:18-3:20 demonstrates that all have sinned and are under the power of sin. As a result God, because of His righteousness, is justified in punishing a sinful humanity. However Paul has already mentioned in the discourse of Romans that the “gospel is the power of God unto salvation.”[2]

Thus a dilemma is presented: How can God judge the evil of human sin (justice) and save sinners (mercy) without compromising His character? Moreover, these two truths of God’s justice and mercy seem to be in conflict. Therefore, the paragraph of Romans 3:21-26 functions as the “main principle paragraph” in the semantic discourse of Romans.[3] Allen, following the semantic structure of the text, identifies two main claims of Romans 3:21-26.[4] The first major claim is found in v. 21-24 (God declares sinners righteous through their personal faith in Jesus) while the second major claim is in v. 25-26 (how God can declare sinners righteous while maintaining his righteousness).[5]

Christ satisfies the demands required for humanity and placates God’s wrath by becoming a hilasterion (Romans 3:25).[6] Scholars debate the precise meaning of hilasterion, however, space does not permit a full discussion regarding the linguistic nuances of the word. However it is maintained as Moo argues,

When to the linguistic evidence we add the evidence of the context of Rom. 1-3, where the wrath of God is an overarching theme, the conclusion that hilasterion includes reference to the turning away of God wrath is inescapable.[7]

Murray notes that the aversion to the idea of Christ becoming a wrath bearing sacrifice rests upon a failure to comprehend the necessity of the atonement, specifically the convergence of God’s holiness and justice.[8] Jesus therefore had to bear the wrath of God in the place of sinners because of the demands of God’s justice and holiness against sin. Paul extends the argument by claiming that God remains just and is able to justify those who have faith in Christ (Romans 3:26). Through the death of Christ, God judges human sin and is able to justify sinners who trust in Christ’s atoning work. Thus, God maintains His moral integrity as God and is subsequently able to set sinners right with Himself.[9]

Preaching Romans 3:21-16 following the Semantic Structure of the Text[10]

The following outline is a basic exegetical structure grounded in the discourse analysis theory of linguistic communication. This structure can be fleshed out in a more refined homiletical outline without compromising the integrity of the text. Also this outline does not provide specific exegetical nuances that must be worked through prior to communication. However what is important to note is that taking the 2 major claims together provide the preacher the opportunity to expound the doctrine of penal substitution in a way that is exegetically faithful and theologically nuanced.

I. God Declares Sinners Righteous Through Personal Faith in Jesus (v. 21-24)

(21) Orientation of the Topic: God’s Righteousness is Revealed Apart from the Law and Prophets even though The Law and the Prophets Attest to this New and Dynamic Revelation of Righteousness

(22-24) Major Claim 1: God reveals His righteousness by declaring sinners in right standing through faith in Jesus.

(23) Grounds: There is difference because all are sinners and fall short of God’s glory.

(24) Result: Since all are sinners, as a result, God freely justifies all people who have faith in Jesus, the One who died accomplished redemption for us by dying in our place.

II. God Declares Sinners Righteous While Maintaining His Righteousness (v. 25-26)

(25) Major Claim 2: The means of redemption is the propitiatory work of Christ (explanation of penal substitution)

(25-26) The twofold purpose of Christ’s death: 1) to demonstrate His righteousness because He passed over sins previously committed; 2) to demonstrate His righteousness in the present time so that God could maintain His righteousness character and subsequently set sinners right with Himself.

Expounding Penal Substitution: God Declares Sinners Righteous Through Personal Faith in Jesus and God Declares Sinners Righteous While Maintaining His Righteousness through the means of the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ. These two major claims only make sense if the idea of penal substitution is explained exegetically and theologically.

[1] Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26”, 138.

[2] Romans 1:16-17

[3] David Allen, The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2019), 75.

[4] Allen, The Atonement, 76.

 [5] Ibid, 76-77.

[6] For further discussion see Steven Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 123. Also see Morris’ discussion on propitiation in Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).

[7] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 235.

[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 28.

[9] Robert A. Peterson, Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Wheaton, Crossway, 2012), 87.

[10] Ellis W. Deibler, A Semantic and Structural Analysis of Romans, Semantic and Structural Analyses Series (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1988), 92-95. I’m indebted to Dr. Roy Metts, Greek professor at Criswell College for exposing me to the discourse structure model of linguistic theory.



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