Pierced ‘That I Might’ Praise: The Worship Only Penal Substitution Creates


For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
— 2 Corinthians 5:21 —

For Christ also suffered once for sins,
the righteous for the unrighteous,
that he might bring us to God,
being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
— 1 Peter 3:18 —

In and around the church, there has always been a group of theologians and pastors willing to question or deny penal substitution—the evangelical doctrine that affirms Christ’s death as a payment of penalty for sinners who trust in Jesus. Like Peter objecting to Christ’s prediction of suffering and death (Matthew 16:21–23), liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albert Schweitzer, and Adolph Von Harnack, along with modern authors like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and William Paul Young (author of The Shack) have maligned the blood of the cross.

Unfortunately, such denial of penal substitution depends upon a denial of Scripture, a defamation of biblical authors, and twisting of biblical words. At the same time, making Christ a mere model, teacher, or prophet, follows the lie of Satan (Matthew 16:23); it effectively denies the deity of Christ and God’s plan of salvation, foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. But aside from the theological considerations—which are considerable—denying penal substitution  steals glory from God’s work and praise from the believer’s heart. Continue reading

Beholding Christ at the Lord’s Table: Penal Substitution (Old Testament)

altarAnd can it be, that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
— Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”

Substitution stands at the heart of cross—the innocent dying in place of the guilty, the righteous for the unrighteous, the sinless for the sinful. English hymnody is filled with this truth, because the Bible repeats the emphasis—Jesus Christ, sinless son of God, laid down his life in the place of his beloved. But hymnody is not the only place in Christian worship where Christ’s substitution is proclaimed; when we come to the Lord’s Table we also remember his death in our place.

In recent years, there has been no little debate about this truth. More than a few books have been penned arguing against penal substitution. Negatively, some have said penal substitution posits an angry, blood-thirsty God. Others, more constructively, argue that Christ came to defeat the powers and principalities (Christus Victor) and give a moral example of love in his death. To the latter, we can whole-heartedly affirm—Jesus did come to defeat the devil (1 John 3:8) and provide an example of holy love (1 Peter 2:21). But he did so by nailing his people’s sin to the cross, disarming the devil (Colossians 2:13–15) and providing an atonement for those who would imitate him (read the context of 1 Peter 2:21, esp. v. 24).

Therefore, to pit penal substitution against any other aspect of the cross obscures the necessity and beauty of Christ’s death in our place. In fact, it is by remembering Christ’s substitution that we rightly understand God’s love (1 John 4:8–10), and how a holy, triune God reconciles sinners to himself. Therefore, when we approach the Lord’s Table, we must remember see how the meal portrays his substitution.

Today, let us consider three Old Testament passages which teach penal substitution and which prepare our hearts to worship the Son of God who gladly took our sin on his shoulders and died in our place. Continue reading

Beware of ‘Airy Nothings’: Hugh Martin on the Atonement

Anyone who has spent time studying the nature of the atonement knows that there is much debate around the unpopular notion of  penal substitution.  Even in the last few decades, “crucicentric” evangelicals have begun questioning the atonement and its penal nature, along with its substitutionary role in salvation. In its place have arisen a bevy of Christus Victor and Christus Exemplar theories.  Thus, a defense of penal substitution is always needed.  Yet, sometimes the best defense comes not from our own day, but from centuries gone-bye.

Such is the case with Hugh Martin.  In his work entitled simply, The Atonement, Martin, a Scottish Presbyterian from the nineteenth century, does a masterful job unpacking the biblical presentation of the cross “as it relates to the covenant, the priesthood, and the intercession of our Lord.”  He argues for penal subtitution and particular redemption and presents a robust understanding of the cross.

In a world of competing theories of atonement, Martin’s biblical logic is much appreciated and instructive.  While many like Steve Chalke, Denny Weaver, and Thomas Finger offer a reductionistic approach to the cross, Martin incorporates all the biblical data and secures it to the penal substitution of the cross.  He argues that if you “get” the primary nature of the cross, you will be able to keep the other secondary and tertiary benefits; but if you misunderstand penal substitution, you will let go of everything else too.  His quote is worthy of consideration and meditation.

(1) It was by the atonement of a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, satisfying Divine justice, that Christ had scope for that unmurmuring patience by which He left us an ‘Example’ that we should follow His steps (1 Pet. 2:21-24)

(2) It was by dying a substitutionary and atoning death that He underwent ‘Martyrdom’ as a witness for the truth (John 18:37).

(3) It was in setting His face as a flint to go to Jerusalem, there to fill up with antitypical reality all Jerusalem’s priestly services, by offering Himself without spot to God a curse-bearing sacrifice for sin, that He denied Himself and took up His cross, and commended ‘Self-denial’ to His followers.

(4) It was when he proffered Himself to the sword of offended justice, awakened against Him, according to His own covenant arrangement, by the Father, that He illustrated ‘Self-surrender.’

(5) With Him, ‘Self-sacrifice’ was specifically sacrifice for sin, a satisfaction and a reconciliation.

(6) There is indeed in His Cross a ‘Governmental Display.’  It ‘declares the righteousness of God for the remission of sins;’ but only because Christ is there ‘set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood’ (Rom 3:25).  And it declares, manifests, [and] displays the love of God; but only in that God ‘sent forth His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).

(7) A ‘Moral Influence,’ also, undoubtedly flows from the cross of Jesus.  But it is a fountain of moral influence; — moral influence without spiritual power were needlessly exerted on men dead in trespasses and sins; — it is a fountain both of Moral Influence and of regenerating energy to turn us unto righteousness, only because He there gave Himself in justice-satisfying substitution, ‘the just for the unjust, that He might bring us unto God’ (1 Pet 3:18).

Secure the intrinsic and essential nature, and the primary and direct design of the atoning death of Christ, and all the secondary results—flitting otherwise as mere shades in dream-land, vainly claiming the reality of fact—become real and true, and are secured.  But when they claim to be of the essence of the atonement, they fight against their realization… In the hands of those who plead them as explanations of the cross, they are at the best but ‘airy nothings;’ ‘their local habitation,’ and only home of life—their source of truth, reality, and power—is just that same old doctrine which they malign and would subvert.  As if sunbeams revile the sun! (The Atonement [Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1997], 69-71).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss