What is Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

I am thankful for our wonderful hymns of the faith that articulate the rich truths of Christianity. “There is power in the blood…” “Alas and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die…” “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins…” “What can wash away my sin, nothing but the blood of Jesus…” “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…” “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died…”

Christianity is a bloody religion which focuses on the atoning death of Christ on a cruel cross for sinners who are under God’s righteous wrath. But our culture today often mocks the idea of the blood of Christ.  Some liberal theologians have decried the cross of Christ as “divine child abuse”. The doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of our Lord is under vehement attack today. And yet it is one of the most crucial truths we can embrace as those who claim to be Christ-followers.

What exactly is penal substitutionary atonement?

Let me briefly define these three words and hopefully give a comprehensive definition. First of all, the word “penal” means that the death of Christ was a punishment inflicted upon Him due to the horrible nature of sin. Sin has to be punished, paid for, and dealt with. A holy and righteous God cannot let sin go unpunished, so He punished His Son for our sin.

Secondly, the word “substitutionary” means that Christ suffered and died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. He died in the place of God’s people as both their representative and substitute. We as sinful humans could not pay this tremendous debt of sin. Nor could an animal sacrifice fully cover our sins. Our sin can only be paid for by the God-Man Jesus Christ who died in our place on behalf of His people.

Thirdly, the word “atonement” means to cover our sins by the shedding of blood. Only a blood sacrifice by the infinite Son of God could cover or forgive or wipe away our sins. Therefore, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ stands at the center of evangelical Christianity.

And yet there are many voices today who argue that this is a product of a barbaric human culture and not from the heart of God. They say that the idea that God would exact payment and pour out His wrath on His only Son is retributive violence that contradicts Jesus’ message of peace and love.  They don’t want to admit that God is a holy and righteous Creator who demands ultimate perfection from His creatures and as sinful rebels we are in His cross hairs and under His divine condemnation. Without the shedding of blood of a substitute in our place who actually absorbs that penalty in His body and actually obtains our eternal redemption, there is no hope of salvation.

We find great insight into a tiny little preposition in the Greek language called “huper”. This little word “huper” is translated “on behalf of, in the place of, or as a substitute for”. And this little preposition clearly gives us the wonderful truth of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. So we must ask the question: Does the Bible teach this glorious truth? Let us allow the Bible to speak for itself.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake (huper) he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (huper) In Galatians 3:13 Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” In Ephesians 5:25 he says this, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, (huper) Again, 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 reads, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us (huper) so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Paul speaking of Jesus in Titus 2:14  says he “who gave himself for us (huper) to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

I pray that we never forsake proclaiming, embracing, loving, and relying upon the “Old Rugged Cross” on which Christ our Lord died in the place of sinners bearing God’s wrath, forgiving our sins, and sacrificing Himself as a penal substitutionary atonement for all who would come to Him in repentance and faith.


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