Retrieving the Reformed Doctrine of Penal Substitution

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During the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church had rejected the notion that justification is by faith alone. Challenging this notion, Martin Luther championed the doctrine of justification by faith (among other things!). And during the fray, Luther and other Reformers had to clarify how God forgives us in Christ. For if we deserve the punishment for our sins, then how can God freely forgive?

The Reformed answer included the explanation that Christ bore our sin and the punishment of death in our place (Isa 53:5–6). Put another way, Christ took the curse of God in our stead (Gal 3:13).

This doctrine eventually became known by the phrase penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). And while the doctrine maintained a tight grip on evangelical churches for some time, recently many have challenged the doctrine.

So given its historical, biblical, and contemporary import, we need to return to the genius of the Reformers to retrieve and reaffirm the truth that Christ bore our sin and died in our place. One way to do that is to define the doctrine and observe how key Reformers spoke of it.

Penal substitution defined

In 1974, J. I. Packer published an article that changed my life. I still remember reading it all those years ago during my time at University. God opened my eyes to the wonders of my salvation. The title of the article was What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution.

And in it, Packer defines penal substitution in this way:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity (Packer, 1974: 25)

At the heart of it, Christ endured “divine judgment” for our “forgiveness, adoption, and glory.”

Christ experiences this divine judgment at the cross. And by faith, we can experience forgiveness because Christ bore our iniquities and received the just punishment for sin in our place.

We can receive forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness through uniting to Christ by faith. Our union with Christ, then, provides the basis by which his righteousness can be ours and our sin can be his (See Packer, 31).

This same teaching exists in the teachings of John Calvin, Peter Vermigli, and Martin Luther.

John Calvin (1509–1564)

When Geneva had sent John Calvin away in 1538, the Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadolet attempted to win back Geneva to the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote a letter to the city on March 18th, 1538. Calvin, having read the letter, responded to it on September 1, 1538. And in this letter, he lays out his theological convictions about justification by faith.

Calvin argues that the doctrine works this way. First, someone examines himself and discovers his iniquity and considers the “strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners” (“Reply by John Calvin,” 1844: 41).

“Then,”  Calvin explains, “we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions ; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger ; by his blood, washed away our stains ; by his cross, borne our curse ; and by his death, made satisfaction for us” (Calvin, 42).  By this, a person can be reconciled to God, and that through faith or union with Christ (Calvin, 42).

For Calvin, Christ’s sacrifice appeases divine anger, washes away our stains, bears our curse, and makes satisfaction. And all of this belongs to us by faith which unites us to Christ.

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562)

Within his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Peter Vermigli lays out his understanding of the order of our justification. First, he argues that God justifies by his mercy and promises (The Peter Martyr Reader, 1999: 143). Second, he avers that Christ “merited for us this mercy of God and promise of salvation, while he bore for us the penalty which we ourselves were going to suffer” (143).  Third, Vermigli reasons that faith becomes the tool that we use to “grasp Christ” through whom we receive God’s mercy and promises, “whence we are justified” (143). Lastly, he notes that justified people do good works (143–144).

Within the doctrine justification itself, therefore, penal substitution plays an integral role. In the Reformed idiom, God justifies because of his mercy and promises, which Christ merited for us while bearing our penalty. And faith itself constitutes the means by which we unite to Christ and thereby receive God’s mercy and promises through which we have already been justified. And those who are justified then do good works.  

Martin Luther (1483–1546)

In his commentary on Galatians, Luther highlights the penal nature of the atonement. Speaking of the burden of sins, he writes, “remember that they are translated and laid upon Christ, whose stripes have made thee whole [Isa. 53:5]” (110). Put more economically,  he says, “thy sin is his sin” (131).

Referring to Galatians 2:20 and 3:13, he writes: “And this is no vain speculation, that Christ was delivered for my sins, and was made accursed for me, that I might be delivered from everlasting death” (132).

On the cross, Luther maintains that Christ deserved to be hung because “he sustained the person of a sinner and a thief, and not of one, but of all sinners and thieves” (134). Luther continues: “For we are sinners and thieves, and therefore guilty of death and everlasting damnation. But Christ took all our sins upon him, and for them died upon the cross: therefore it behoved that he should become a transgressor, and (as Isaiah saith, chap. 53) ‘to be reckoned among transgressors’” (134-135).

Luther further states that Christ “hath and beareth all the sins of all men in his body, that he might make satisfaction for them with his own blood” (135).  Citing Isaiah 53:6, he notes that Christ bore the iniquity and was therefore punished (136) and later explains, “For God hath laid our sins, not upon us, but upon his Son, Christ, that he bearing the punishment thereof might be our peace, and that by his stripes we might be healed [Isa. 53:5]” (137).

For Luther, this doctrine touches the centre of the Christian faith. He explains:  “if Christ be made guilty of all the sins which we all have committed, then are we delivered utterly from all sins, but not by ourselves, nor by our own works or merits, but by him” (138).  

Retrieval and Sola Scriptura

Reformed theology lays its doctrine at the foot of Scripture and states it through the eyes of the Spirit. And so merely summarizing the doctrine of penal substitution does not prove or disprove anything (that will have to happen in another article).

Yet it does show a certain beauty or coherence to the doctrine itself. God is good and beautiful and just (Ps 27:4; Mark 10:18; Rom 3:26). So his teachings and works must be too. And so it is with penal substitution. It speaks to a reality that we all must confront: we sin and our sin demands a just penalty.

Yet God loves us so much that he, instead, takes our punishment upon himself by incarnating and bearing the divine judgment in our place. He is both just to punish sin and justifier because he makes many righteous at his cross (see Rom 3:26).

We must retrieve this doctrine for the health of the church today since it is true and since it glorifies God. Certainly, we can learn from the Reformers here. But ultimately we need to heed their call to return to the Scriptures which are the ultimate authority for life and doctrine. So seek out the truth where it may found, even while learning from the Reformers on the way.

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