1 Introduction: the doctrine of the atonement
The doctrine of the atonement seeks to understand why God chose, through his beloved and incarnate Son, to ‘reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col 1:20); or how ‘by the love for humankind and goodness of his own Father [the Word of God] appeared to us in a human body for our salvation’, such that ‘the Father works [the salvation of the universe] in the same one by whom he created it’ (Athanasius 2011: 53). While it can be understood more narrowly in relation to specific terms in scripture (e.g. kipper in the Old Testament), the word ‘atonement’ is ‘the portmanteau word used in English to denote the reconciliation between God and the world which is the heart of Christian teaching’ (Gunton 1989: 2), and is therefore an intentionally capacious word, intended to provide conceptual room for a whole range of aspects or dimensions of Christ’s reconciling work. The atonement is thus an expansive doctrine, drawing from the doctrines of God and Christology to explore how God’s purposes for creation as a whole, and humankind in particular – including God’s response to the opposition of sin, death, and the devil – are brought to completion through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Throughout the history of the church, theologians have explored Jesus’ atoning work as a recapitulation, making of a new covenant, sacrifice, revelation, example, substitution, satisfaction, vicarious repentance, defeat of Satan, harrowing of hell, great exchange, restoration of the harmony of creation, act of healing, and more – many of these found in the work of a single theologian. In doing so, they have drawn upon the covenantal, legal, and sacrificial imagery of the Pentateuch, the Exodus/exile dynamic throughout scripture, key moments in the lives of the forefathers (such as Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac), judges and prophets, and Old Testament passages used to interpret the work of Christ in the New Testament (such as the three days of Jonah, various Psalms, and Isa 53), and sought to interpret key passages and concepts from the New Testament. Leon Morris, for instance, considers the concepts of redemption, covenant, lamb of God, blood, propitiation, reconciliation, and justification (Morris 1955). What unites all these views is the conviction that, in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the triune God confronts the multifaceted problem of sin and evil, bringing creation to fulfilment.
‘Jesus as substitute’ is one of the significant concepts in scripture and the history of theology, (alongside others such as Jesus as mediator, representative, and exemplar; Hart 2019), which explore the precise relationship of Jesus to those whom he saves. Specifically, substitution captures the manner in which the work of Jesus is an exclusive work: in certain respects Jesus experiences or undergoes particular things precisely so that others (those he saves) can be spared from them (Packer 1974: 16–25). The interpretation and application of the notion that ‘Jesus is our substitute’ varies widely throughout the history of the church, and has been used to explain a whole range of atonement theologies, such as penal substitution, governmental theories, vicarious repentance, and Christus victor accounts, to name a few.
This article explores the notion of Jesus as substitute by means of a biblical, historical, and theological overview. It also considers a particular form of this doctrine, penal substitution, situating it within a broader set of commitments inside the doctrine of the atonement as a whole.
2 The history of the doctrine of the atonement
Gustaf Aulén indelibly marked twentieth- and twenty-first-century studies of the atonement, arguing in his book Christus Victor for the existence of three main theories of the atonement throughout church history (the classic view of the defeat of Satan, the medieval and Reformation view of satisfaction/penal substitution, and the medieval and modern view of Christ as moral exemplar; Aulén 1951; Spjuth 2017). His work sought to correct the oversight of the classic view and its doctrinal possibilities in the German liberal approach. Beginning with F. C. Baur and Albrecht Ritschl, this approach had initiated formal studies of the history of the doctrine of the atonement, compartmentalizing distinct and competing ‘theories’, each of which attempted to portray the gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner appropriate to, and deeply shaped by, the culture of the day (Baur 1838; Johnson 2021; Ritschl 1872; Rutledge 2015: 9). On this view, substitutionary theories of the atonement take their impetus in part from the medieval accounts of satisfaction. These are found in such theologians as Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, and early Reformers such as John Calvin, and particularly in the work of later generations of Protestant theologians, such as John Owen and Francis Turretin, over against the critiques of Socinus and later Enlightenment theologians, from there becoming a hallmark of Protestant (and particularly Evangelical) thought (Holmes 2005; 2017).
Since the late twentieth century, studies in the doctrine of the atonement have moved in several fundamental directions: (1) the attempt to establish the preeminence, either exclusive or hierarchical, of one of these views (Craig 2020), (2) synthetic attempts to inter-relate them (Gunton 1989; Johnson 2015; McKnight 2007), (3) the attempt to retrieve other aspects of the atonement within the history of doctrine (Hart 2019; Hastings 2019), and (4) the attempt to generate new constructive proposals (Girard 2001; Stump 2018).
Recent studies in the history of the doctrine critique Aulén’s basic narrative (and its grounding in the German liberal approach) for creating unnecessary divisions among aspects of the atonement when these are found dispersed and integrated throughout works by theologians across the history of the church, thus generating an unnecessarily reductionistic and oppositional dynamic within studies of the atonement. While a consensus is far from being reached, and no single narrative has emerged to compete with Aulén’s, it is helpful to think of four broad stages in the church’s thought when it comes to the work of Christ.
The first phase runs from the Apostolic Fathers to the first generation of Reformers, in which theologians draw from a host of biblical images and themes and a range of conceptual resources to give as expansive a vision as possible of the range of motivations, causes, and effects involved in the work of Christ (the work of Burns on Augustine of Hippo and the medieval theologians is typical of the fecundity and spirit of this era; Burns 1975; 2010; Lane 2013). The Apostolic Fathers and patristic theologians demonstrated a wide diversity of thought, great creativity, and depth of insight in exploring the atoning work of Christ (Myers 2015), but often did so occasionally while focusing on other doctrines, or in sermons and commentaries. The length and focus of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is somewhat (though not entirely) atypical of the first thousand years of the church. The medieval and first generations of Reformation theologians continue in this same spirit (contra Packer 1974: 4; Bavinck 2006: 345), while demonstrating a greater propensity towards synthesis, and expound on the work of Christ at far greater length.
From Socinus (1539–1604) until roughly 1830, there was a period characterized by critiques of traditional views, and a corresponding defensive posture, in which Protestant theologians in particular felt compelled to defend their views on atonement against Socinian and Enlightenment critiques (Packer 1974: 5). As a result, they offered narrower, more precise and polemically focused treatments of the work of Christ, emphasizing Jesus as (penal) substitute, eschewing some of the breadth and diversity of the early Reformers, while Catholic theologians distanced themselves from this trajectory (Scheeben 2021). This emphasis on penal substitution proved to be quite diverse within the Protestant tradition (cf. van den Brink’s forthcoming book on antinomianism, Grotius, and Owen), and yielded interesting mediating or constructive positions, such as that of Hugo Grotius’ governmental theory of the atonement.
From 1830 up to the latter part of the twentieth century, through the influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Baur, and Ritschl, there was a highly creative and generative (yet simultaneously compartmentalized) phase in which ‘theories’ of the atonement proliferated. There were distinguishing, developing, and opposing views which, in many cases, had been held in an integrated (though often far less developed) manner in the first 1500 years of the church. Examples are Edward Pusey’s theology of retrieval, Charles Hodge’s argument for the pre-eminence of penal substitution, and John McLeod Campbell’s theology of vicarious repentance. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries are simultaneously generative and fragmented when it comes to the doctrine of the atonement.
The last fifty years may helpfully be thought of as continuing many of the trends begun in the nineteenth century, though with an emphasis on searching (1) for new ways forward, or (2) for reintegration and retrieval (Hart 2019; Hastings 2019; Johnson 2015).
3 Jesus as substitute
‘Jesus is our substitute’ is a nearly-universal teaching of the church (Gathercole 2015: 18–19; Hastings 2019: 209–274; Rutledge 2015: 462–535): Jesus in some sense took our place, did something, underwent some aspect of our fallen condition, so that we would not have to, so that we could be spared. The Old Testament, replete with things which ‘concern’ Jesus (in the sense of referring somehow to him; Luke 24:27), is full of substitution – one member of a group suffering in the place of the group, to their benefit or salvation. God intended Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt, to save his whole family from famine, so that the covenant blessings might be fulfilled (Gen 15:20). Samson, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, delivers Israel from oppression by dying with his enemies (Judg 15). David, suffering the consequences of his adultery with Bathsheba, is spared – ‘but the child who is born to you shall die’ (2 Sam 12:14). Isaiah’s suffering servant ‘was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his stripes we are healed’ (Isa 53:5). All of these stories, in one way or another, provide a framework in which the experience, action, suffering, or death of the individual is God’s means of bringing about the sparing of the community from that same fate, or, put positively, of the blessing of that community (Leithart 2016: 161–166).
This theme continues in the intertestamental period, as in 2 Maccabees when the last of seven martyred brothers says to Antiochus:
I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation. (2 Macc 7:37–38)
While the story is complex, and saturated with representation and other themes, the faithfulness and death of the brothers is hoped to bring an end to the divine wrath justly being poured out upon the nation – the suffering of one (or a few) to the benefit of many.
Substitution plays a role in the New Testament witness in a variety of ways. Caiaphas tells the Pharisees: ‘nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for his people, not that the whole nation should perish’ (John 11:50) – a political and pragmatic decision, but a substitutionary one nonetheless. Paul tells us that Jesus was ‘delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom 4:25), that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age’ (Gal 1:3), and ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Gal 3:13). Peter tells us that ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed’ (1 Pet 2:24). There are subtle and important differences between these different claims – but all presuppose a complex relationship between a chosen individual and the community, wherein the experience, suffering and/or death of the individual is the means by which the community is simultaneously excluded from some evil and blessed.
In exposition of this scriptural trajectory, the church has sought to honour the ways in which Jesus’ work can be said to be substitutionary. Clement affirms that ‘for the sake of the love which he had towards us did Jesus Christ our Lord give his blood by the will of God for us and his flesh for our flesh, and his soul for our souls’ (1 Clem 49:6), and the Epistle to Diognetus affirms the ‘sweet exchange’ of ‘the Holy for the wicked, the innocent for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal’ (9:2–3; Holmes 2006). Justin Martyr quotes Isaiah to the effect that ‘He it is who bears our sins and is afflicted for us […] He was wounded for our wickednesses and suffered infirmity for our sins’ (Justin Martyr 1997: 57–58), and Augustine writes that
it was surely right that the death of the sinner issuing from the stern necessity of condemnation should be undone by the death of the just man issuing from the voluntary freedom of mercy, his single matching our double. (Augustine of Hippo 1991: 155)
Cyril of Alexandria explores how ‘the Only-Begotten Word of God became a man and endured being slain for all, freeing them from any penalty or punishment’ (Cyril of Alexandria 2018: 89) – a theme Athanasius had developed at some length (Athanasius 2011: 63–67). To jump ahead, Maximus tells of how ‘He who by nature is the Blessing of God the Father placed Himself under the curse of Adam, becoming a curse upon the curse’, and how he ‘voluntarily took upon himself the curse’, such that the ‘curse and death of my sin became the curse of my God’ (Maximus the Confessor 2018: 454–455).
In the medieval period, Peter Lombard builds on Augustine, telling us that
He took of what was ours to confer on us what was his and so as to take away what was ours […] He took a single ancientness, that is, the one of punishment, in order to destroy our twofold one, that is, of punishment and fault. (Lombard 2010: 57 [vol. 3])
Similarly, Peter Abelard teaches that ‘with respect to the punishment of sin, which he endured for us in the flesh […] he condemned sin’ (Abelard 2011: 265–266). William of Auvergne writes: ‘The goodness of God, therefore, compelled him to the point that he gave to us through love both himself and everything that was his, and it necessarily made him take upon himself our evils through mercy’ (William of Auvergne 2011: 49, cf. 33–57). Robert of Grosseteste takes much the same line: ‘he carried our sins in his own suffering and took them away from us in the satisfaction that he offered for us’, a satisfaction made by ‘the punishments that he paid for us’ (Robert of Grosseteste 2012: 133). Bonaventure writes similarly: ‘he restores us by enduring the penalty on behalf of his assumed nature, and by infusing re-creating grace that binds us to its source, making us members of Christ’ (Bonaventure 2005: 180). Gregory Palamas affirms that
had He not been human, it would not have been possible for Him to suffer; and had He not been God, and remained impassible in His divinity, He could not have suffered death in the flesh for our sake, thereby bestowing upon us resurrection. (Palamas 2008: 95)
This line of thought comes into far greater prominence in the Reformation and beyond, and can be traced throughout Protestant theology, but is no less present in other branches of the church. John Calvin, Hugo Grotius, John Owen, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, Isaak Dorner, Charles Hodge, Karl Barth – all, with difference nuances, affirmed Jesus as substitute, as did Orthodox and Catholic theologians such as Alphonsus Liguori, Matthias Scheeben, Georges Florovsky, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, to name but a few. That is to say, in some way, shape or form all of these theologians affirmed that Jesus, in some meaningful sense, took humanity’s place, experienced some aspect of the human condition precisely so that we would be spared from this experience, from the reality and consequences of our sin (though these are variously understood).
Recent works exploring the history and validity of substitution are numerous, particularly those exploring penal substitution (Craig 2020; Hastings 2019; Holmes 2007; Holmes 2017; Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach 2007; Rutledge 2015), as are works which critique or provide alternatives to substitutionary accounts (Heim 2006; Jersak and Hardin 2007; Ryliškytė 2023; Stump 2018). In the midst of these discussions there is a considerable amount of confusion concerning both the history and the meaning of substitution, in which substitution in general is often elided with penal substitution. One sees this, for instance, in Thomist discussions about the relationship between Aquinas and Calvin, with some touting the affinity between the two, others lamenting their similarities, and others still drawing a strong contrast between their views, with a whole range of terms in play. Still others develop views that are more or less complimentary to (though distinct from) substitution, which emphasize other aspects of Christ’s relationship to humankind, such as his representative work (Crisp 2022: 175–205; Moffitt 2011).
4 The logic and directions of substitution
Given the breadth of the notion that Jesus is our substitute – that he experiences some aspect of the fallen human condition that we might be spared from it – the key to thinking through this doctrine is its relationship to other doctrines, which give it its particular shape and content. For instance, within a substitutionary account, what divine attribute is being emphasized, and what corresponding account of the sinful human condition does it entail? In patristic theology it was commonplace to explore the way that Christ takes upon himself our corruptibility, so that we might participate in his incorruptibility; a substitutionary account focused on healing. Distinct substitutionary accounts emerge depending on the shape given them by the divine attribute chosen, whether that be justice (and guilt), honour (and shame), or holiness (and uncleanness).
Within this point about divine attributes, it is important to ask: (1) how is a given divine attribute defined (against competing definitions), and how does this shape the ensuing account of substitution? For example, justice is often considered in legal terms in studies of the atonement, with God being considered the law-giver. But different pictures emerge if justice is emphasized in governmental, cosmic, familial, or relational terms, all of which pertain to justice/righteousness in scripture’s canonical vision of the subject. This, for instance, is the impetus behind governmental theories of the atonement building on the work of Hugo Grotius.
A second question to ask is: (2) how does this view of the atonement portray God in relation to sin? Is the account one which is highly emotive or affective (using these terms loosely), emphasizing, for instance, God’s wrath, anger, or jealousy? Or does the account depend on a stronger emphasis on divine impassibility, emphasizing the way that sin brings about a certain set of natural consequences (psychological, relational, sociological, political, spiritual, and environmental)? Or does the account offer some sort of mediating position with regard to the biblical testimony to God’s seeming emotional responses to sin (anger, wrath, jealousy, etc.)? Calvin may serve as a good example here. As a faithful exegete, he writes regularly of God’s wrath and anger – but ‘the word “wrath” stands, following a convention of scripture, for God’s retribution; for when God punishes, he has, as we imagine, the appearance of anger. Thus the word does not signify feeling in God’ (Bouwsma 1988: 105; Murray 2011). With this framework for wrath in mind, there is far less separating Calvin’s account of satisfaction from Aquinas’ (Summa Theologica [ST] III.47.43, repl.obj.41; Aquinas 1981) than is sometimes thought to be the case. These respective accounts greatly shape the nature of a substitutionary atonement theory (Crisp 2020: 98–99).
A third question pertains to the various understandings of punishment: (3) is it reparative or retributive (Farris and Hamilton 2018a; 2018b; Rutledge 2018)? Is punishment in some way necessary, or a freely-willed alternative to repentance, forgiveness, or satisfaction? Is punishment primarily a revelation of God’s character as just, or of his nature as ruler or judge, or is it a matter necessary to God’s relating to the individual sinner per se?
A fourth question considers the mechanism in question: (4) what is the relationship between Jesus and the fallen human condition? How, for instance, might God judge sinful creation in Jesus Christ, the innocent one, the one in whom the Father is well pleased (Matt 3:17)? There are several possibilities here. The idea of imputation establishes a connection between Jesus and sin, which allows for either a weak or a strong meaning. The softer sense of imputation amounts to a ‘reckoning’ or ‘considering’ on God’s part – treating Jesus as though certain things were the case about him (Crisp 2011). A stronger sense of imputation involves a literal change or transfer, wherein Jesus truly takes upon himself or bears our punishment or sin and guilt in some sense. A second view (which can be a form of the first), affirms the headship of Jesus (sometimes through the notion of federal headship): just as the sin of Adam had consequences for all his progeny (all became guilty in or through him) through his unique relation to all humans (not merely as biological progenitor, but in some way the head or source), so Jesus, the second Adam, is the head of those he saves. In this view, Jesus bears or is responsible for human sin not because of a ‘reckoning’ or a transfer, but because of his unique God-given role as the head of humanity or of the church. The governmental view, particularly the moral government view of Edwardsians (theologians following Jonathan Edwards), reveals the diversity within penal substitutionary accounts, for within this view (which is both ‘penal’ and ‘substitutionary’) the goal is not to judge or punish sin in Jesus Christ the sin bearer. It is rather to restore in and through him the moral justice of the universe by proclaiming or manifesting God’s abhorrence of sin, treating Jesus with a punishment equivalent to the proper punishment of sinners (Grotius 1889; Todd 2021). A final family of views, bearing significant affinity to the headship view, is the physicalist or ontological view, which argues that transference of sin is unnecessary because of the nature of the bond between Christ and humankind. A softer (more representational) view posits that through the incarnation Jesus took upon himself our condition, such that he might transform it from within (Anatolios 2020: 380; cf. 216, 419; Maximus the Confessor 2018: 439); a stronger (more ontological) view affirms that to be human is, by definition, to be in Christ (Barth 1988; Scully 2011: 101; Torrance 1992). On this account, sin is Jesus’ in the sense that the sin of the members is the responsibility of the one in whom they are who they are, though Jesus himself did not personally sin.
The account of Jesus’ relation to the fallen condition connects to a similar but distinct question: (5) what is the connection between Jesus’ experience and what we owe to God? Or, rather, in his capacity as substitute, is Jesus offering something comparable to, or identical with, what we owe? Anselm, for instance, posits that God demands either satisfaction or punishment from sinful humankind in order to preserve his honour in creation – his emphasis on Jesus’ representative satisfaction is the reason he doesn’t feature prominently in this article on substitution (Anselm of Canterbury 1998: 289). Lombard, Aquinas, and many other medieval theologians rejected this dichotomy, integrating the two. Aquinas, for instance, writes that the Father inspired the Son
with the will to suffer for us. God’s severity (cf. Rom 11:22) is thereby shown, for He would not remit sin without penalty […] Likewise His goodness (Rom 11:22) shines forth, since by no penalty endured could man pay enough satisfaction. (ST III.47.43 repl.obj.41; Aquinas 1981)
Some substitutionary accounts argue that Jesus, in his Passion, offered to God something equivalent to (or greater than) what we owed, while others speak of him taking upon himself in some way the precise debt or obligation, such that he can pay it exactly (Foster 1898: 610–618).
A sixth question is cultural in nature: (6) how do/should cultural perceptions of the human condition shape our thinking about the atonement? For example: how have changes in the philosophy of law and criminal punishment influenced the doctrine of the atonement, and does current thought on the subject contain promise for developing new theories of the atonement (Baker and Green 2003; Craig 2020; Gorringe 1996; Vidu 2014)? Such questions are complex, for they get at the very basis of theology and the church. Is the theological task based on God’s self-revelation in scripture, are we at liberty to construct theologies on the basis of insight from our respective communities, or is there some mediating position?
Answers to these questions can and do result in substitutionary accounts which vary widely in nature, explaining the pervasive testimony of scholars that substitution, and even penal substitution, is not a single theory, but rather a family of views (Crisp 2020: 97; Mosser 2021). According to Robert Foster there are some fifteen kinds of substitutionary accounts (Foster 1898: 610–618). But all of them affirm that it is in Jesus Christ our substitute that God upholds his self-consistency as the just one who gives and upholds his law, in part by properly punishing human sin. Along these lines, Athanasius explores how Jesus preserves the ‘superlative consistency’ of the Father in upholding the law ‘established by God on account of the transgression’, such that the Word of God took from us ‘that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father’ (Athanasius 2011: 63–67), and Aquinas writes, for instance, that ‘in order that Christ completely shoulder the entire punishment due to sinners, he wished not only to die, but also to descend into hell as a soul’ (Aquinas 1988: 79).
5 Jesus as penal substitute
So far, this article has focused on Jesus’ substitutionary work generally, drawing out biblical, theological, historical, and conceptual nuances, seeking to provide a well-rounded picture of the breadth, diversity, and complexity entailed within this family of views. It will now turn to one of the most contested sub-families of substitutionary theories, penal substitution. In short, penal substitution is a range of accounts of the atonement qualifying the way that, as our substitute, Jesus satisfies the righteousness of God by suffering the penalty for sin in our place, that we might participate in his righteousness (Packer 1974: 25–29). These views vary significantly in their accounts of divine wrath and a host of other nuances. At present it suffices to point out that at one end of the spectrum is the fairly limited claim that Jesus in some way takes upon himself the penal consequences of our sin (e.g. death), while at the other end of the spectrum are far bolder claims that in some way or fashion the Father pours out his wrath upon Jesus. This full spectrum, with all its diversity, is the family of views known as penal substitution.
Arguments abound against penal substitution (Crisp 2020: 100–111; Farris and Hamilton 2021; Jersak and Hardin 2007; Williams 2008). For instance: (1) Its account of divine wrath and satisfaction has more in common with Greek mythology than the God of the Bible (Dodd 1935; Morris 1955: 125–185). (2) It is impossible for sin or guilt to be transferred (Gomes 1990: 47; Kant 1998: 88–89), or it is ‘magical’ to think this can be done (Schleiermacher 2016: 629–637). (3) It is immoral for God to punish the innocent, it is inherently violent, and it leads to grievous (mis)applications in the Christian life (Boersma 2004; McCall 2012; Trelstad 2006). (4) It is a culturally/linguistically situated expression of the gospel that no longer has traction in contemporary culture (Baker and Green 2003: 140–149; Craig 2020: 147–258).
Attempts to defend penal substitution with sufficient depth and nuance to account for such criticisms come not from a single verse (or set thereof), nor from a specific creedal formulation, but from a thorough understanding of the history of the doctrine (Holmes 2008; Mosser 2021), and the conjunction of a varied set of scriptural (Hill and James 2004: 23–208) and dogmatic commitments (Davidson 2011: 7–9; Johnson 2017: 6–7; Marshall 2008). Like the doctrine of the Trinity, it cannot simply be lifted from the pages of the Bible, and requires careful biblical, theological, and historical work. This means, among other things, understanding the overall narrative within which penal substitution plays a role (Leithart 2016: 91–121; Rutledge 2015: 214–570; Webster 2011: 16; Wright 2020: 115, 130).
A fully orbed account of penal substitution emerges from the doctrine of God, the Creator ex nihilo, who gives his creation its respective natures and purposes (Levering 2017: 273–307), who gives and upholds law – who gave Adam and Eve a calling and a commandment, and then began a patient and long-term approach to the problem of their sin, rooted in his plan for the people of Israel in relation to the nations. No single heuristic or framework will do – the exodus, the law, the sacrificial system, Passover, wisdom literature, etc. All these and more form the comprehensive history within which penal substitution has its meaning and role as an explanation of certain aspects of the work of Christ. Within this overall narrative, a number of commitments are essential to a proper understanding, relating to the doctrine of God, Christ, and the nature of sin. First and foremost is the biblical commitment that Jesus’ death (and resurrection) was ordained by the triune God – this was not merely foreseen, tolerated, or experienced in an act of empathetic solidarity (much less a divine apology; Adams 2006: 274–281; Cone 2011: 21–22, 155–156; Moltmann 1993; Stump 2018). Rather, his death on the cross was willed by God: the impetus for the cross, though involving the nature and state of fallen creation and the will and actions of its various kinds of creatures, lies firmly in the will of God (Lombard 2010: 86–87). Creation belongs to God, he is the one who established the laws of creation and its creatures, gave his creatures their respective natures (as fitted to and bound up with those laws), capacities and callings, and he stands over and alongside his creation as the one who governs and conserves, who providentially oversees, who sustains and guides. Though sin is not of his making, creation is – and the energy, the source of the action leading to and resulting in the climax of his relationship with Israel and the nations, rests in God.
The atonement is therefore a matter of the doctrine of the Trinity: the belief that God is one God in three persons, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three gods. What God wills, he wills as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one differentiated will, rather than three separate wills (Johnson 2015: 59–88; Sanders 2017; Vidu 2021: 217–247; Webster 2011: 15–34). ‘The tradition taken as a whole is solidly behind the idea that the cross of Christ is undertaken by the Three persons united’ (Rutledge 2015: 297, cf. 100). Ruled out from the very start is anything related to divine child abuse, or anything less than the one will of the one God, who accomplishes his will in the threefold work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Equally vital is a robust Christology, for the atonement is not simply the work of the triune God, but the work of the Father, incarnate Son, and Holy Spirit. Anytime we speak of the Father and the Son in terms of the atonement, we do so only as we speak of the incarnate Son, the Son within the context of, and under the constraints of, the human nature and condition. The atonement is a work of the triune God, but only under the new conditions established by God through the Son’s incarnation, whereby he is one of us.
To bring to bear the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology within that of the atonement is to affirm that the death of Jesus is God’s solution to the problem of sin and the plight of creation, by means of himself. God uses himself as the means, tool, or resource, by which to deal with his groaning creation (Rom 8:19–23). He becomes, through the incarnation, the point at which the divine will and character intersects with the problem – the sinful condition of his covenantal creatures. Essential, therefore, is a proper understanding of the divine character and the divine attributes, which are the driving engine of the doctrine of the atonement: ‘the history of atonement theories is really a debate about the nature of God’ (Vidu 2014: 236). A natural tendency is to isolate and elevate certain attributes as the means by which to explain the central dynamics of this saving work. Whether we highlight God’s justice, mercy, glory, incorruptibility, love, or something else, every account of the work of Christ builds upon the energy and momentum provided by one or more divine attributes (Irenaeus and Athanasius, for instance, highlight God’s incorruptibility, while the New Divines, or Edwardsians, emphasize God’s glory).
One approach to attending to the role of the divine character within the doctrine of the atonement is via the doctrine of divine simplicity (Duby 2015); or, to put things in a biblical key, to affirm the full biblical testimony to the character of God, rather than artificially elevating some divine attributes while excluding others from consideration. God is one, and this extends to his character: his justice, patience, wisdom, knowledge, etc; these are not at odds with each other. The church is at liberty to explore the doctrine of the atonement from the standpoint of all of God’s attributes – but must do so with an eye towards (a) grounding its knowledge of God’s character in his self-revelation, (b) not creating divisions and dichotomies within the character of God, and (c) noting the way that an account is rooted in one aspect of God’s character, while welcoming synthesis and integration with other faithful accounts (Davidson 2011: 2; Holmes 2011: 38–39; Johnson 2012: 92–132; Oakes 2015; Vidu 2014: 235–272).
This preliminary biblical and theological framework sets the stage for the role of penal substitution within the doctrine of the atonement as a whole. Penal substitution refers to a family of views of Christ’s saving work (Crisp 2020: 97; Mosser 2021: 24–29), which integrate Jesus’ role as substitute with the divine attributes of justice/righteousness and love/mercy, such that Jesus bears our sin (and therefore our judgment and punishment), so that we might receive his righteousness. Jesus is the substitute by means of which God fulfills his work of justice in fallen creation, which includes judging it and holding it accountable for its sin (though this is only the negative part of Christ’s work, which must be complimented with the positive dimensions too; von Balthasar 1988: 242). As N. T. Wright puts it, ‘Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole’. He dies ‘the death of the brigand, the revolutionary, in place of rebel Israel as a whole’ (Wright 2016: 211, 213, 216–217, original emphasis). With that said, there are several main features of this family of views to unpack.
First, penal substitution emphasizes the role of divine justice, but recognizes that justice (or righteousness) is a rich and complex notion in both scripture and the history of theology, as can be seen from Pseudo-Dionysius’ affirmation that
the title ‘Righteousness’ is given to God because he assigns what is appropriate to all things; he distributes their due proportion, beauty, rank, arrangement, their proper and fitting place and order, according to a most just and righteous determination […] It is the righteousness of God which orders everything, setting boundaries, keeping things distinct and unconfused, giving each thing what it inherently deserved. (Pseudo-Dionysius 1987: 113)
Justice has both internal and external features: it is proper to God and his life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for he is a God of justice and righteousness. Because this is so, his creation is a work of, by, and for justice. It is a creation that is designed and intended for patterns of justice which correspond to this attribute of its maker. Furthermore, justice is both positive and negative: justice is a positive and wholesome reality in the life of God and therefore also of his creatures, but justice takes on a new countenance, a new and negative mode of activity, in the presence of sin (Wynne 2010: 109–114). Justice is equally relevant in relation to an unfallen creature, to a victim of wrongdoing, and to a perpetrator of sin – but it will act or relate differently in regard to each. And it admits of what might be called layers or spheres in creation: (a) the order, pattern, and harmony of creation itself is the work of justice, (b) justice plays a role in the kingdom of God and in (c) the kingdoms of his creatures, in smaller societies such as families, and finally (d) in the inner lives of individuals. Anywhere a relation is to be found, justice is at play. Finally (though this list is not meant to be exclusive), justice is both formal and informal: it can be formalized or codified as law, or simply embedded and sustained in relationships through pattern and custom. To get at these distinctions and dynamics within justice, theologians speak of commutative, distributive, rectoral, and other kinds of justice. Implicit within this account of justice is an equally rich account of sin, which ranges from the personal to the cosmic, from the demonic to the physical, from the political to the moral, all of which must be affirmed as part of the rich witness of scripture (Newsom 2020: 82).
To borrow from Paul Anthony Dominiak’s book on Richard Hooker, the root of justice (and therefore law) is located ‘perfectly and simply in God’s self-mediated identity since the “being of God is a kinde of law to his working”’ (Dominiak 2020: 40). The ‘essential ontological plenitude and unity of God’ is the root of justice, and therefore ‘the source and summit of cosmic order’ (Dominiak 2020: 46). Justice is the ordered relating and flourishing of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while law is simply the consistency of God’s self-identity, of God being ‘I am who I am’ (Exod 3:14). Within the economy of his creatures, therefore, God seeks to extend that self-same ordered relating and consistency of identity, in patterns of justice guided by law. Laws and customs, Diotima tells us in Plato’s Symposium, are nigh unto the great sea of beauty itself, which the Republic unpacks in relation to justice. Justice, law, custom – these are the very height of creaturely existence, the realities which give meaning to the whole, emanating as they do from goodness itself, or, as the Christian tradition would put it, from the very life of God.
Such a constructive development of the nature of justice and law may be accepted in some circles, but theological (as opposed to moral or pastoral) opposition to penal substitution comes from two main fronts: (1) the understanding of justice in its negative mode towards sin, and (2) the mechanism by means of which Jesus is connected to our sin, and thereby to justice in its negative mode (the mechanism of atonement). Regarding the former, there is considerable opposition to the idea that God reacts negatively towards sin (on such grounds as divine impassibility or an over-emphasis or misunderstanding of divine love and mercy; Leithart 2016: 125–144; Rutledge 2015: 282). A response ought to take into account the following. First, God reveals himself to be a God of law, a God who gives commands and laws, and who stipulates the consequence of violating his will – a consequence which may be bound up in, but not reduced to, the natural outcome of certain actions due to the God-given nature of things. Second is the host of passages throughout Old and New Testament alike which speak of the wrath and jealousy of God, both eschatologically and in the course of history. The nature and significance of these claims within their contexts demands a rich and thorough account of ways these passages portray God – passages which may be left largely if not entirely devoid of meaning if it is argued that such terms are merely divine accommodations or anthropopathisms. Third (and related) is the pervasive interest in scripture of averting God’s anger or wrath. God is not merely described as being angry or having wrath; the drama unfolds such that the central question in many passages is a matter of God’s covenantal people following the law and commands of God in order to avert his wrath (Packer 2007: 30–37). Fourth, there is the external framework of the covenant in Deuteronomy: while the law itself is largely a matter of purity, the framework of the whole as recapitulated by Moses is a matter of either (a) blessings or (b) curses, pestilence, forsakenness, and horror (Deut 28), a plight rooted not merely in natures and consequences but in the will and direct action of God. Fifth are those passages in the New Testament which speak of propitiation (appeasing a person or deity)/expiation (cleansing or removing sin) – which cannot settle the matter independently of the overall biblical framework sketched here (Morris 1955; Packer 2007: 32–40). Sixth are those passages distributed throughout the New Testament which speak of God’s eschatological judgment upon sin – a matter which bears upon the doctrine of penal substitution through the way eschatology portrays the character of God and his opposition to sin.
Finally, there stands the brutality of the cross (Chapman 2008; Hengel 1977), which Jesus prayed to avoid but ultimately chose as a matter of obeying the Father’s will (Luke 22:42). The cross, as the New Testament authors saw it, was necessary – not merely a necessary consequence, but a matter of the will of God. And Jesus is clear that the cross could have been avoided – he says that legions of angels could come to his aid (Matt 26:53). Political, spiritual, historical, and sociological explanations are necessary, but insufficient. The explanation is, at its very core, theological. It is a matter of the character and will of the triune God, maker of heaven and Earth, covenant Lord of the people of Israel. Why did God will the cross? The answer of penal substitution is that the cross is how God affirms his justice and righteousness, by dealing with the problem of sin and guilt in the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son.
With that said, it is vital to understand the complex history of penal substitution. As mentioned earlier, according to this broad understanding, both Athanasius and Aquinas offer penal substitutionary accounts, though not ones developed at length, and they did not use this term. Neither did Calvin, whose account of Christ’s satisfaction of divine righteousness bears much in common with that of Aquinas (von Balthasar 1988: 292). There are two particularly significant trajectories within the history of penal substitution. First, there is the tendency to move from a holistic account, in which penal substitution plays a role within a broader account of the atonement, to a narrower emphasis on penal substitution as the single or most important explanation of his work. This can be seen, for instance, in the shift from sixteenth-century theology to that of the seventeenth, partly through the influence of Socinian and Arminian thought in Reformed theology, and can also be seen in the history of Southern Baptist theology in the United States (Mosser 2021). Second, there is the shift from penal accounts more rooted in concepts of exchange and satisfaction – where the purpose of the passion was to offer something corresponding or suitably equivalent to the debt we owed – to accounts in which God directly punishes Jesus, the sin-bearer (von Balthasar 1988: 231–316). This shift is seen, for instance, in John Owen (though von Balthasar sees the shift occurring in Luther), who marks a significant innovation in the history of doctrine, which becomes increasingly prevalent (though by no means the only view) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in figures as diverse as Karl Barth and John Piper.
In short, penal substitution is a wide-ranging family of views, held by diverse traditions throughout the history of the church, though it takes particular (and often polemic) shape within particular traditions in ways which can and do result in profound differences and disagreements.
6 Balancing the perspective: substitution and representation
So far, this article has considered the atonement as a work of Jesus as substitute. Such a view includes penal substitution, but is by no means limited to that, as many theologies of the atonement throughout history have in one way or another (and to a greater or lesser extent) included a substitutionary aspect of the work of Christ (though in many cases these were not driven by an account of God’s justice and the corresponding penalty upon sin). For that reason, the article has explored both a broad account of substitution in general, and a narrower account of penal substitution in particular, fully recognizing that the penal aspect of Christ’s substitutionary work is but one aspect of his saving work in the thought of many theologians.
Towards that end, it is helpful to acknowledge the same point when it comes to substitution understood more broadly: according to scripture, and to much of the Christian tradition, substitution in general is but one vital aspect of the work of Christ, alongside other equally valid and significant dimensions in scripture. To establish this point, one need look no farther than the theologian who is often thought to be the father of penal substitution (though he did not use the term): John Calvin. His wide-ranging treatment is broadly recognized by scholars, and includes his account of Jesus as mediator (including the three-fold office of prophet, priest, and king), second Adam, substitute, sacrifice, etc. (Peterson 2008). Though Jesus is in fact our substitute, he is no less our mediator, our representative, and the one in whom all things hold together. For present purposes, this article will focus on Christ as representative, to complement his work as substitute (Graham 2005).
‘Jesus is our representative’, as with substitution, is a nearly universal teaching of the church, dating back to the New Testament’s interpretation of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law and the prophets, up through the main traditions or branches of the church. Just as with substitution, it is part of the witness of scripture, developed by theologians and churches, as a part of a holistic explanation of how a first-century Israelite’s crucifixion has salvific implications for all of creation. Whereas ‘substitution’ affirms that Jesus did or suffered something instead of us, ‘representation’ counterbalances this fact with the claim that we are in Jesus, our representative, and that what is true of him is true of us (Barth 1988: 295–296). Many proponents of substitution affirm the co-validity of these concepts. As J. I. Packer puts it, ‘Along with the other New Testament writers, Paul always points to the death of Jesus as the atoning event and explains the atonement in terms of representative substitution’, citing 2 Cor 5:14–21 as an example (Packer 2007: 109, original emphasis). Simon Gathercole, Peter Leithart, and N. T. Wright all make the same point (Gathercole 2015: 20–21, 109; Leithart 2016: 163). In the words of the latter: ‘Victory through substitution is thus the name of the game; just as substitution itself is based on Jesus’s representative messiahship, as he stands in for Israel and thence for the whole world’ (Wright 2020: 124, original emphasis).
How does this emphasis on representation complement or balance out the perspective afforded by substitution? In short, it explores the logic of God’s covenantal history with his people: Jesus is our substitute, not as an alternative to this history, not simply over and against this history, not merely to deal with God’s anger, wrath, or justice, but to fulfill, to recapitulate, and to bring to fruition that very history.
In him our humanity is lodged […] all humankind consist in him, he is the only one who can really represent all men and women from the innermost centre and depth of human being. He came then, not only as the creator of our race, but as the head of our race, for in him the whole race consists. (Torrance 1992: 126)
This concept increases in power when considered in light of the idea of the covenantal shape of reality, in which the human race as a whole is blessed by Israel keeping covenant in its Messiah. This is the logic of recapitulation, a logic grounded in the biblical minor prophets’ interpretation of the Pentateuch and the apostle Paul’s interpretation of both of these, then given formal structure and language in the thought of Irenaeus – it is the logic that Jesus, as our representative, the one in whom the human race consists, recapitulates our history with God.
The integration of representation and substitution demands a more complex understanding of anthropology. How can humans both be replaced by, and included in, the Messiah? Can we simultaneously affirm these two realities? Is it true that to be a human creature is to be constituted by an ontological relationship to the incarnate Son (since the New Testament teaches that all creation, and therefore we ourselves, hold together in him; Col 1:17) such that he is our representative? And is it true that God’s will for these creatures involves an understanding that we are free – but free in him, not lost in or absorbed by him, rather constituted as the free creatures we are, in him as our substitute? Some such anthropology seems to be necessary, to serve as the backdrop against which Jesus can be our substitutionary representative (Barth 1988: 295–296; Johnson 2018).
7 The telos of Jesus as substitute
The goal in this article is not merely to understand the doctrine of ‘Jesus as substitute’, but to situate that aspect of Christ’s saving work within a broader understanding of the atonement. For that reason, the article has moved from a broad account of the atonement to the narrower one of substitution in general, and from there explored one of the most (in)famous perspectives within that family of views: penal substitution. To properly contextualize that view it was necessary to briefly broaden out to the corresponding aspect of ‘Jesus as representative’. This section will once more broaden the focus, moving from the narrowest emphasis within substitution (penal substitution) to the broadest possible perspective, not with the intent of minimizing substitution, but instead of properly situating it within the fullness of Christ’s saving work.
What is the positive content of penal substitution? According to this line of thought, God did not become man merely to die. God did not create in order to destroy, or make law in order to judge. God is not ultimately or primarily a negative God, one who delights in death or destruction. The telos (goal or purpose) of the incarnation, and therefore the framing of an account of the atonement, should not be fundamentally negative (Hart 2019: 158). The telos of Jesus’ substitution is, as the ancient church Fathers said, that he took what is ours, so that we might have what is his (Athanasius 2011: 167). And what is his? Among other things, justice. If penal substitution begins with the justice of God, it likewise ends with the justice of God – not a neutral state or a generic freedom, but with the very justice of God – what Torrance calls the ‘forward’, as opposed to ‘backward’, reference of justification (Torrance 2009: 129–136). God became man so that (through his substitutionary death) we might be raised in him, established through the gift of his Spirit in the ways and patterns of God’s justice and righteousness. This was so that we might flourish in harmonious self-consistency in regard to ourselves and others, creating patterns and dynamics of justice that allow for personal, local, and systemic flourishing – for the creation of, and free participation, in good and beautiful laws and customs that no longer take the shape of an external threat but are written upon human minds and hearts.
But this too is a part within a larger whole – for, although God is a God of justice, this is only one aspect of his simple character (Johnson 2015: 89–116; Oakes 2015). God is equally as free as he is just, as constant as he is wise, as loving as he is present, as glorious as he is holy. The substitutionary logic of ‘he took of what was ours to confer on us what was his and so as to take away what was ours’ (Lombard 2010: 57) does not stop with justice, though it may begin there. It branches out, in keeping with the riches of God, to incorporate the ways Jesus took on human uncleanness so that humans might be holy as he is holy; also the way that he took on human inconstancy, that in him humans might have a creaturely form of aseity; the way he took human hate and division, that humans might be one as he is one, etc. The atonement, following this logic, is as rich and multi-faceted as is the character of God. No divine attribute can be excluded from a full account of Christ’s saving work; each must be given its due – and one divine attribute can be elevated over the others only as a temporary exercise of faith seeking understanding, since a theology of the atonement must be one just as God is one – a one-ness admitting of richness and diversity, but a one-ness that is ultimately simple as God is simple (Johnson 2015: 89–116).
This brings us to the conclusion of the exploration of Jesus as substitute, as the one who took and suffered what was humanity’s, so that humanity might have and delight in what is his. The goal of this merciful and saving work is that humans, as creatures, might be as God is, that humans might participate in the divine life as sons and daughters of the Father, in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Hastings 2019: 267–273). Scholarship in the last fifty years has offered a powerful corrective to the nineteenth-century view (largely from Baur and Ritschl) that theosis or divinization is a distinctive of the Eastern church, showing rather that it is a shared or common heritage (though it is perhaps more doctrinally developed in the East – see the distinction between doctrine and theme in Hallonsten 2007: 283–284). Divinization is not a separate or distinct explanation of Christ’s saving work, but rather its telos – divinization through the cross (Anatolios 2020; Christensen and Wittung 2007; Davison 2020; Russell 2004). These can be reconciled by saying that the ultimate goal is that ‘human beings become partakers of the divine nature by means of union with Christ via the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Crisp 2018: 85–101). As Andrew Louth puts it, ‘Christ certainly came to save us […] but deification belongs to a broader conception of the divine οἰκονομία: deification is the fulfillment of creation, not just the rectification of the Fall’ (Louth 2007: 34). Deification is what Louth calls the ‘larger arc’ within which Jesus’ atoning work finds its place, and it is the goal of creation which the death and resurrection of Jesus – and his imparting of the Holy Spirit – bring about.
The telos of Jesus as substitute is not that humans may be displaced by him, or even that by his work humans may achieve a neutral, independent standing before him. The completion of Jesus’ substitutionary work is that humans may receive an infusion of divine righteousness and might participate in him, being partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Among other things, the insight of penal substitution is that the work of Christ consists not merely or exclusively in the negative work of bearing and thereby dealing with human sin and its consequences; rather, the constructive and final insight is that in him humans partake of the divine justice and divine righteousness (Rutledge 2015: 502, note 595). ‘According to Calvin, a participation in Christ without a participation in his righteousness (through imputation) is no participation at all’ – but, granted that imputation, the goal is indeed participation in Christ and in, among other things, his righteousness (Billings 2007: 209; cf. Hart 2019: 151–166). And it is precisely that participation in righteousness (and the law of God, written on human hearts), that is seen, for instance, in Hooker’s theology of participation (Dominiak 2020), or in Origen of Alexandria’s vision of a ‘living righteousness […] A righteousness, animate and living. Who is that righteousness? The Only-begotten God’. Christ is righteousness, ‘both living and subsisting righteousness’ (Origen 2020: 96; 2021: 77). This righteousness is at the heart of the logic of the incarnation: ‘For it was foreign to his nature and Divinity to assume blood and flesh; yet for us he assumed those things that were foreign to him so that he might make us family to himself, we who had been made foreign on account of sin’ (Origen 2021: 107).
This article has sought to show that Jesus’ substitutionary work is affirmed throughout the Bible and the Christian tradition, but that this is distinct from the affirmation that Jesus is humanity’s penal substitute. Both substitution in general, and penal substitution in particular, are families of related views, allowing for a wide range of interpretations based on several different factors. Second, it has shown that belief in Jesus as substitute has been held alongside the commitment that Jesus is a representative for humans – and that the church has often sought to understand Christ’s saving work between these two concepts, without reducing its thought to one or the other. Finally, the article has located an understanding of Jesus’ substitutionary work within the broader and fundamentally positive goal of union with Christ, or divinization (broadly construed). The goal has been to emphasize some of the ways in which Jesus’ substitutionary work is not merely a ‘theory’ or emphasis within the Protestant (and particularly Evangelical) traditions, but a family of views which constitute a shared heritage of the church, rooted in the witness of scripture and the thought of its theologians, a significant feature of Christian faith and thought, which nourishes and challenges the church’s understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus.