For centuries, the church has affirmed that penal substitutionary atonement stood at the heart of the gospel. Yes, the cross also demonstrates the love of God, his hatred of sin, and his commitment to ransom his people. But behind all of these ideas stands the logic of the cross, in which an innocent substitute is offered in place of the guilty, bearing both their guilt and shame, suffering their punishment and rejection, and so securing their forgiveness and acceptance by God.
But lately, penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has fallen on hard times. It’s come under fire as a cold, dry theological construct, inspired more by Western legal concepts than the biblical God of love. It’s been rejected as a monstrous distortion of the Father as a cosmic child abuser. And it’s been crowded out by more appealing stories of the cross as our ransom or our model of sacrificial love. These critiques have a lot of emotional power. People are “woke” to the fact that Western ways of thinking masquerading as Christianity have done a lot of damage. They’re aware of the horrors of child abuse that has ravaged so many of their friends, relatives, or even themselves. And they long for an explanation of the cross that is inspiring, not logical, empowering, not embarrassing.
These are as much emotional barriers as they are theological, and if we’re going to teach and defend PSA as the heart of our salvation, we’ll need more than the dry logical arguments of systematic theology. After all, if it’s just a “theory” or logical construct, perhaps a better theory can be devised, a less emotionally charged construct developed. Thankfully, we have what we need in biblical theology. God has wired us for stories that speak to the heart as well as the head. And when we tell the biblical story of PSA, two things happen. Our minds begin to grasp that PSA is central to the entire storyline of Scripture. But just as importantly, our hearts begin to grasp that PSA is the story of God’s love.
NOT A THEORY, BUT A STORY
Where does the story of penal substitution begin? It begins in Genesis 3. God had said that the day Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die. And God was true to his word. When they disobeyed, they died spiritually, under the curse of God. But they didn’t die physically, at least not right away. Instead, two animals died, and God used their skins to fashion clothes to cover the shame of their nakedness (Gen 3:21). Nowhere is the language of sacrifice or substitution used, but the picture is unmistakable. Substitutes died physically to cover their physical shame.
Fast forward to Genesis 22. God has entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants, guaranteeing that covenant in Genesis 15. With an oath God promised that should he fail to keep the covenant, God himself would suffer the penalty of death. But now God has asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son to the Lord. Is it because Abraham has sinned and broken the covenant? The text does not say. We’re simply told that Abraham obeyed. But at the moment he was about to slay Isaac, God not only stopped him, he provided a substitute in the form of a ram caught by his horns in a thicket. If it wasn’t clear before, substitution was now inescapable. Isaac lived because God provided another to take his place.
It all comes to a climax at the Passover in Exodus 12. An unblemished lamb is slain, its blood spread on the doorposts, so that the family inside is spared the judgment of the angel of death. The people inside would eat the lamb, symbolizing their identification and participation with it and its fate. And from that point on, penal substitutionary atonement stands at the center of Israel’s relationship to the Lord. In every sin offering and every guilt offering, the worshipper lays hands on an unblemished animal, signifying that this animal represents this worshipper (Lev. 1, 4). The animal is slain, its blood is poured out on the altar, and the worshipper is accepted and reconciled to God.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, these sacrifices were offered. And once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, representing the entire nation, would offer a sacrifice for himself and a sacrifice for the people (Lev. 16). But unlike Passover or fellowship offerings, neither the priest nor the people would eat these sacrifices. They were whole burnt offerings. God alone would symbolically consume the sacrifice and the sin that sacrifice represented.
NOT A PROBLEM, BUT A SOLUTION
Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the penal substitution of an animal sacrifice stood at the center of Israel’s relationship with God. On the basis of those sacrifices, shame was covered and guilt removed. Because the animal took the punishment they deserved, they not only lived another day but were accepted by God. Until the next time they sinned. Until the next Day of Atonement. Then the process would have be repeated. And it’s in that endless repetition that we realize the story of PSA was not finished. The problem is not that these sacrifices were brutal or unworthy of God. The problem is that they were ineffective. “In the sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:3–4).
And yet, substitutes were what God had been providing from the beginning. From the death of animals to cover Adam and Eve’s shameful nakedness, to the substitute for Isaac, to the unblemished Passover lamb and the Temple sacrifices, these partial, temporary, and ultimately ineffective substitutes were meant by God to teach us something. They were types and shadows of the perfect substitute that was to come. Isaiah spoke of this subsequent substitute in Isaiah 53. One whose blood could take away sin and cover shame. One whose death could secure the acceptance of the worshipper once and for all. One whose substitution was fully appropriate because he was fully human. One whose substitution was fully adequate because he was fully divine.
NOT LOGIC, BUT LOVE
The author of Hebrews brings all the threads of this story together in Hebrews 10. Quoting Psalm 40 as if spoken by Jesus, he writes, “You did not desire sacrifice and offering, but you prepared a body for me. You did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings. Then I said, ‘See—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.” Animal sacrifices did not delight God, because animals could not finally represent humans in their sin.
And so, God the Father prepared a body in the Incarnation for God the Son. Animals were unwilling and unthinking substitutes. But the Son declares that his sacrifice is both voluntary and wholly obedient. “I have come to do your will.” Animals could only be physically unblemished. But the Son was morally unblemished (Heb. 9:14). Animals had to be sacrificed repeatedly. But the Son “after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” Animal sacrifices and the priests who offered them had no enduring life to give anyone. But the Son’s priesthood is “based on the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16), and his sacrifice was vindicated in resurrection to eternal life which he gives to all those who are called (Heb 9:14–15).
The entire storyline of Scripture, the history of redemption, is the story of God providing substitutes for his people to cover their shame and bear the judgment they deserved so that they might be accepted by him. That alone is a story of undeserved grace and amazing love. But all along, God’s plan and purpose was not only to provide that substitute, but to be that substitute in the person of his Son, bearing in himself the punishment we could not bear and the shame we could not overcome. Penal substitutionary atonement is no mere logical construct, nor a monstrous degradation of the character of God. And there is no more compelling story. For the story of PSA is the story of the passionate expression of God’s love. It is the pinnacle of his glory. Lose penal substitution, and we not only lose the story of redemption, we lose the love and glory of God.
So pastors, let’s tell people that story. Not all at once, necessarily. But wherever we are in Scripture, don’t miss the opportunity to point out the hints and shadows, the preparation as well as the fulfillment, of the substitute God provided to take our place. As our people learn to see this story, they’ll also learn to recognize it for what it is—the greatest love story ever told.