August 2019 Credo

To the question “How does Jesus save on the cross?” the classical answer “by taking upon himself the penalty due for our sins” is increasingly being challenged, even within the home of evangelical Christianity where the answer has traditionally been well nestled and received.

Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (hereafter abbreviated PSTA) — the technical name given to this particular explanation of how Jesus saves us through the cross — gained traction during the time of the Reformers.

Martin Luther emphasised the ‘substitutionary’ aspect when he highlighted the ‘wondrous exchange’ that took place on the cross whereby our sins were imputed onto Christ. John Calvin emphasises the ‘penal’ context when he stated: “This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God.” (Inst. II.16.5, 1559 ed.)

PSTA soon found its footing as an established explanation of how Jesus saves us on the cross through the Evangelical Revival of the 1730s to the 19th century. Contemporary theologian Stephen Holmes in fact suggests that PSTA was so entrenched during 1845–1920 that one could find in the evangelical writings of that period an insistence on penal substitution as the only correct way of talking about the atonement.

Yet, this widely accepted explanation is increasingly being challenged in recent times. Some of the more forceful criticisms include:

  • Doesn’t PSTA distort our view of the divine nature in upholding wrath as the ‘supreme’ attribute?
  • Is substitution morally right (getting an innocent party to pay for a guilty party) or possible (can guilt be transferred and substituted for) in the first place?
  • Why can’t God just forgive sin but in forgiving, must punish sin (and in equal proportionality)?
  • Does the central tenet of PSTA where Jesus the Son bears the Father’s wrath constitute a form of ‘cosmic child abuse’?
  • Does PSTA inevitably promote a sense of distributive justice which in our cultures could foster vindictiveness?
  • Given that PSTA is so culturally-laden to a culture surrounded by the forensic law, is it the best way to understand the atonement in other cultures which might be dominated by other non-legal forms?

In response to the criticism, I wish to defend PSTA as a valid, in fact crucial, explanation of how Jesus Christ saves us through the cross. I argue that PSTA is essentially a sound theory, although I concede that a consideration of some of the criticisms listed above reveals certain nuances as to how the theory should be presented. Three aspects of PSTA will be considered as part of my defense of the theory.

First, I would like to reaffirm my conviction that in this theological day and age where bulk of the criticism against PSTA is directed against its punitive foreground, the ‘penal’ in PSTA should be retained.

The strongest objections and criticism have come from the camp espousing non-violent theories of the atonement. Their accounts tend to present Jesus’ death as accidental, one that was not in the Father’s will for him (even though God uses the occasion to make a valuable lesson point out of it).

Granted their insights, I cannot help but wonder how non-violent theories of the atonement account for the fact that Jesus knew it was the Father’s will for him to go to Jerusalem where he must suffer, be betrayed, die and rise (Mark 8:31, 9:30-31, and 10:33-34). Furthermore, Jesus maintains that he had to enter that passion. In other words, Jesus saw his suffering of the passion — including the violence underwriting it — as central to his death bringing about atonement. Within this ‘necessity of violence’ surrounding Jesus’ death, the penal context provides a coherent and satisfactory explanation.

The penal dimension is augmented when we further consider that one valid and crucial expression of the divine attribute of God’s justice and righteousness is that he cannot leave sin and wrongdoing unpunished. Recall God’s central proclamation of his name and his glory: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6) PSTA retains the picture of us as perpetrators of our own sins and wrongdoings, whereas non-violent theories of atonement tend to be one-sided in their presentation of sin, reducing us to merely victims of larger systemic institutionalised sin.

Second, I agree that although the penal aspect must be retained, the idea of ‘penal substitution’ needs to be carefully presented. So, certainly, simplistic presentations of PSTA need to be rejected, e.g. the operator discovering that there is a fault with the rail tracks and choosing to save the passengers on board the ill-fated train by diverting the train to another rail track, except that he realises his young son is on the alternate rail track playing away, or the British soldier who admitted to doing wrong when he was innocent so as to save his fellow POWs from the punishment inflicted by their Japanese captors. The two stories make great rousing sermon illustrations but I am afraid as presentations of PSTA they take us further away from the truth of what happened on the cross.

Penal substitution should not be presented as one party appeasing another party, or even as one party who through his or her death satisfies another party’s wrath. Instead, if anything, I am inclined to present ‘penal substitution’ as God satisfying his own wrath; God entering into and dealing with his own wrath in the event of the cross. After all, atonement is an act of the one triune God, the single divine subject. The bearing and doing away with sin is a Trinitarian event through and through. Remembering the Trinitarian context of the atonement rebuts any charge of the cross being a form of ‘cosmic child abuse’.

Going further, as Adam Johnson has shown, it might be better to present the love of God as that which is satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross rather than the wrath of God. Wrath, after all, is not an inherent or intrinsic mode of God’s divine life but is only an ‘alien’ mode of God’s divine life in relation to his creatures. This means, as Johnson has shown, that “penal substitution, first and foremost, should focus on the love of God, witnessing to the reality of divine wrath only within this greater scheme.”

The relegating of the wrath of God to be under the love of God as that which is satisfied through Christ’s death is what we see in the penal substitutionary accounts of theologians like Karl Barth and P. T. Forsyth (“Holy Love of God”).

Third, although important and crucial, PSTA should not be presented as if it was the only or even the main explanation as to how Jesus saves us through the cross. This was certainly the approach of many of the earliest proponents of PSTA, e.g. John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards etc. Their keen maintenance of a rigorous PSTA was done amidst many other explanations of the saving efficacy of the cross.

I believe that is also the position where Scripture and our theological considerations lead us to. Guilt deserving punishment, although important, is but one of the things that our Lord has come to save us from. There are a host of other things equally important: death, corruption, bondage, slavery, shame, failure to live to the fullest of God’s intentions for our created life, to name a few.

In fact, whether PSTA is gloriously upheld or rigorously challenged depends on the wider culture the doctrine of the atonement is articulated in. Drawing an analogy: if the different theories and explanations of the atonement could be likened to retailers of a shopping mall in a neighbourhood suburb, PSTA would function as an anchor tenant within this ‘mall of the atonement’ in suburbs rooted in a strong law-based and judicial culture. This is not to deny the fact that other theories or explanations of the atonement focusing on other aspects of what Jesus came to save us from — shame, oppression by demonic forces and principalities, death, uncleanness, loneliness resulting from our dysfunctional relationality etc. — might serve as better ‘anchor tenants’ in other neighbourhood suburbs which do not share in the law-based and judicial culture that PSTA thrives on.

PSTA should certainly be maintained. In my opinion, calls for its abolishment as an explanation of how the cross of Christ Jesus saves us stand on specious ground. However, if PSTA is maintained in such a manner that it is proffered as the only valid explanation of the cross of Christ, then we would have failed in our theology and grossly reduced the ineffable glory and beauty of the cross from that of a diamond into a monolithic stone.


Rev Dr Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.