Is penal substitutionary atonement central to the gospel or just one of many metaphors?

Some scholars and church leaders argue that penal substitutionary atonement—the doctrine that when Jesus died on the cross God punished him for the sins of his people, in whose place he stood—is at best one scriptural metaphor among many. Such teachers argue that we should push penal substitution to the sidelines of the gospel message.

Should we therefore de-emphasize, de-centralize, or even lay aside this doctrine in favor of a
more balanced presentation? Not if we want to be faithful to Scripture. While the Bible does use other images and ideas to describe Christ’s work on the cross (such as healing, reconciliation, and victory over Satan), penal substitutionary atonement is central to the gospel in at least two ways.

  1. It’s by far the most common biblical explanation of Christ’s work on the cross. Christ was pierced for our transgressions (Isa. 53:5). The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6).Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3). We’re justified by the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9). God set forth Christ as a propitiation—a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath—so that those who believe in Christ would be declared righteous (Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2). All of these verses and plenty more (take a look at the book of Leviticus!) speak of God pouring out on Christ the wrath we deserved for our sins. Penal substitution is inescapably central to the Bible’s teaching about the gospel.
  2. Penal substitutionary atonement is what makes all of the other images “work.” Christ triumphed over Satan on the cross by bearing God’s wrath in our place and so freeing us from Satan’s power and claims (Col. 2:14-15). Christ healed us by bearing the wounds we deserved (Isa. 53:5). Christ reconciled us to God by satisfying God’s wrath against us (Rom. 5:9-11). According to Scripture, our biggest problem is God’s wrath due to us for our sin. In providing for our greatest need Christ accomplished everything else we need for salvation.
9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.