The two main charges that some people have brought against the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement are that it is NOT Biblical and that it is a late invention, something not taught during the first thousand years of church history.
If either of these accusations can be found to be true, then there is serious cause to reconsider this theory. So let’s take a look at these charges, beginning with the claim that it was unknown among the church fathers.
An incredibly important theologian of the early church, Athanasius, clearly equates Christ’s death as an answer to the divine law for our human guilt. This is especially important as Athanasius is often cited by opponents of the Substitution theory. Please read and understand. Athanasius certainly accepted the Substitution theory. The quote above could not be more clear.
Barnabas is clearly referring to Old Testament imagery of the blood being offered to God. Jesus bled as our substitute and then serves as our High Priest. This is nothing but Substitutionary atonement.
This is profoundly the language of Penal Substitution. He was punished on our behalf. He became the “cause” of our forgiveness. He transferred to Himself our penalty, punishment, curse, and death. Praise be to God for the great exchange at Calvary! How can honest folk not accept this??? Finally, let’s look at one other quote, from none other than the great St. Augustine of Hippo.
He died bearing our punishment. This is Penal Substitution. While Penal Substitution may not have been the the view of the atonement most usually emphasized in early church history, it was nonetheless commonly held and taught. For people to criticize this view today, saying that it was unknown (or at least absent) to the fathers, is ignorance at best and pure deception at worst.
Next, let’s consider if Substitution is unbiblical. This is the easiest charge to answer, for the Bible reveals a consistent witness of the substitutionary sacrifice for sins – one that satisfies God’s justice and transfers the gift of forgiveness and righteousness to us.
Rather than picking out texts that clearly teach Substitutionary atonement (which are so numerous), I will instead choose several texts that those who promote the other theories use. And I hope to convince my readers that Substitution is there, in each case, as the fundamental foundation of all that is happening.
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.
Admittedly, this text reveals that mankind has fallen prey as victims of fear, death, and Satan. In His coming to the earth, Jesus brought help for our predicament. The question is NOT, “Did Jesus come to give us victory?” but rather, “How does Jesus give us victory?”
In reading and interpreting the Scripture, it is always important to consider the larger context of what you are reading. As we continue to read from the same passage we find ourselves back into Substitution language:
Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Heb 2:17)
We see the enduring foundation of Christ’s atonement here. He became incarnate so that He could provide the blood that satisfies the penalty owed to God. He Himself provided the payment in His own blood. And now in His enduring work as our Great High Priest, He is our only needed Mediator. Notice that Satan is NOT even in the picture. Jesus is not paying the devil a penny. What Jesus did at the Cross was “in things pertaining to God.”
Next let’s look at a key text that promoters of the Influence Theory use, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20:
God’s love is here shown to be a compelling influence. His love convinces us of reconciliation: that God is not keeping a record of our sins and is not angry with us. This is classic Moral Influence theory. Love wins our hearts.
But is this all that this passage teaches? No, not at all. Again, we must look at the larger context. This marvelous text of God’s love is “sandwiched” between clear references to human guilt and Christ’s substitution for us!
Yes, Paul is compelled by God’s love as an Ambassador of reconciliation. But the fact that makes this so urgent to Him is the reality that God is holy and will very soon call all people into judgment. The only way to escape God’s holy wrath is the flee to the Lamb of God who became our Substitute.
21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
It is impossible to truly understand the love of God without appreciating the substitute of Christ on our behalf. He took all our sins and absorbed all of God’s wrath…so that He could give us all His righteousness! Glory to God!
My friend, if you are going to hitch your wagon to just one theory of the atonement, it better be the Substitution Theory. For this is clearly the primary view of Scripture.
But a final word to those who whole-heartedly agree with my position here. Make sure you are giving ample attention to and teaching people about the wonderful truth that is in ALL the theories of the atonement we have looked at in this series. Christ as Victor and Christ as Example are powerful and important. Without them we lose something of the revelation that God wants us to have.
Just don’t get off the great highway of truth to do so! Anyone who dismisses or minimizes the Substitution theory of the atonement is not being faithful to the fullness of the Scriptures.