Did Jesus Affirm Penal Substitutionary Atonement?


Vincent Taylor wisely conceded, “The attempt to say how Jesus interpreted his death is an ambitious inquiry. No apology is needed if it is accomplished only in part.” [1] Let me add my hearty “Amen” to Taylor’s concession as I invite you to explore with me the significance of Jesus’ death in his own words.

To be sure, Jesus’ words are at times opaque, but they are nevertheless full of meaning—meaning that is made clearer when interpreted in the context of his entire ministry and when connected to the reverberating echoes of the metanarrative of the Bible. Theologians have variously defined the meaning of Jesus’ death. This article will contend that Jesus expressed his death in terms of a penal substitutionary atonement. [2] Simply put, this means, “On the cross Christ took our place (substitution) and bore the equivalent punishment for our sins (penal), thereby satisfying the just demands of the law and appeasing God’s wrath (atonement).” [3]

This article will survey Jesus’ words from his youth to the cross in an attempt to demonstrate this thesis.

1. As an adult, Jesus embraces his missional life for his Father. (Luke 2:40–52)

The boy Jesus’ words to his mother and Joseph when he stayed behind on their Passover pilgrimage are stunning: “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you [plural] not know that I had to [out of absolute necessity because of my spiritual responsibility] be in my [not “our”] Father’s house?”

By using an inclusio, a literary device in which the author opens and closes a passage with the same words (in this case, references to Jesus’ maturation, 2:40 and 2:52), Luke points the reader to the focus of the text. This inclusio alerts the reader to what Mary misses and to what Jesus implies by what he says: He had grown up! He was fully accountable to his Father. In so many words, Jesus is reminding his mother that his Father sent him to take on the fullness of humanity in order to accomplish a mission. So Jesus consistently says things like . . . “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34 [c.p., John 17:4]). With this focus, Jesus enters and continues his preaching ministry.

2. Jesus reveals his identity as the Servant in his inaugural sermon. (Luke 4:16–21)

I hope that in the new heaven and the new earth there’s a way to see the awesome events in biblical history in high definition. I’d love to see the parting of the Red Sea, and I’d wait all day in line to see the faces of the people in the synagogue when Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah 61:1–2:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I’d love to see how they respond when he concludes, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

Jesus claims to those in the synagogue that he is the prophesied, God-anointed agent of salvation. His claim implies that he is the One who will bring the gospel; he will bring deliverance; he will undo the curse; he will overthrow the enemies of God; he will bring the promised blessings. No doubt the confusion in his hearers’ minds was as palpable as the tension in the air. Whether the Servant of God was the strong conquering right arm of God (Isa 49), the suffering Servant of God (Isa 53), or both, his hearers were left pondering the meaning of his words.

But there can be no doubt that to Jesus, his work and identity as the Servant of God was clear. By identifying himself as the divine Son of Man (Matt 26:64), Jesus is consciously affirming that he would accomplish the prophesied and promised work of salvation (Dan 7:13-14)—the establishment of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15–16).

Essential to his teaching about the accomplishment of this mission is what He taught about His death.

3. Jesus reveals his mission: to die a substitutionary death.

The Gospel writers did not put the theology of atonement in Jesus’ mouth. At times, they admittedly confessed they didn’t understand Jesus’ teachings on his death and resurrection (John 2:19, 22). They even rebuked him for saying that he would die (Matt 16:22). It’s clear that the disciples were unclear on the need for the Servant of God to suffer in order to secure their salvation (Luke 24:25–26). A Son of David who conquers through suffering was apparently incongruent to them (Mark 9:12), but this is precisely how Jesus said he would accomplish his mission.

The Christian faith is an exclusive faith in Jesus’ atoning work, not in spite of him, but because of him. As a rabbi, Jesus taught the disciples what they had not perceived. Through his post-resurrection appearances and his gift of the Holy Spirit, they would later come to understand his message and his work as the Good News.

From his first sermon until he yielded his life to the Father on the cross, Jesus expressed that he came to die. In His words, He came for that hour (John 4:21; 5:25, 28; 12:23; 16:32). The crowning achievement of his ministry would be the cross: “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12:27).

Jesus boldly stated the purpose of His death: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Furthermore, he claimed that the purpose of his death was to save his sheep from the consequences of sin—death. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death” (John 8:51). The cross, in Jesus’ words, is summed up eloquently by John Owen: “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”—and all of it for his sheep.

Many Jesus scholars dispute that Jesus taught his death was a substitutionary atonement. However, Mark records Jesus as saying, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for [4] many” (Mark 10:45). One cannot dismiss these words without directly attacking the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Furthermore, Jesus declared that he would send the Holy Spirit to the apostles for the express purpose of causing them to remember his teachings: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). From the beginning, Jesus spoke about his death. However, toward the end of his ministry, he emphasized its significance more and more .

4. Jesus reveals that his death was propitiatory.

Finally, let me suggest two lines of thinking that support that Jesus saw his own death as propitiatory, that is, as bearing the wrath of God.

First, Jesus taught that the wrath of God was against sinners, not just against sin. Jesus taught that God should be feared because he was able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). Jesus furthermore taught, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). It seems fair, then, to conclude that according to Jesus, those who sin will face God in his righteous wrath, and that is a terrifying prospect.

The second line of reasoning, I would suggest, is Jesus’ agony in the Garden.

Jesus prophesied that “The Son of Man must suffer many things” (Luke 9:22). He knew that he would be rejected by his Father. He knew that he would have to endure unimaginable suffering. He also knew that his suffering would come from more than the hands of men. Luke records Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden:

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41–44)

Both Jesus’ words and actions in the Garden of Gethsemane are completely shocking. The divine Son of God is seen trembling while sweating drops of blood at the prospect of drinking the cup of God. The strain on the eternal love relationship between the Father and the Son can only be attributed to that which was in the cup—the cup that the Father requires the Son to drink in full.

What’s in the cup? The Old Testament alludes to such a cup, and Jesus’ agonizing plea leads the reader to conclude that the cup must be the cup that is filled with the wrath of God against sinners. “Upon the wicked he will rain snares; fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup” (Psa. 11:6 [c.p., Ps 75:8–9; Isa 51:17–23]).

The horror of the cross isn’t what wicked men did to Jesus. The horror of the cross is witnessing Jesus pay the debt that we owed to the Father. Jesus stood in the sinner’s place, condemned to suffer the wrath we deserved. As he yielded up his Spirit to his Father, he exclaimed that he had now paid our sin-debt in full: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). The Father had heard the cry of his Son—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—and as he suffered in our stead, the Father answered with acceptance and favor.


With Vincent Taylor’s concession as a backdrop, this article aimed to answer with Jesus’ words, “Why in the world was the sinless Son of God dying a criminal’s death on a cruel cross?” It concludes that it is not a fair reading of the Gospels to suggest that the penal substitutionary death of Jesus has been theologized by the Gospel writers and then put back into the mouth of Jesus. While it’s right to acknowledge that there are limits to what we can know about the inner conscious mind of the Son of God, it’s also true that believers can and should learn what Jesus said and by faith believe it, teach it, and defend it.

In Jesus’ own words, God would bring about a profound reversal of fortune. Through his atoning penal substitutionary death, the crucified Son of Man accomplished exactly what he said he would at the beginning of his ministry. He accomplished the redemption of his people, was exalted as Lord of all, was granted all power in Heaven and earth (Matt 28:18–20), and in the eschaton he will make all things new (Rev. 21:5). Therefore, we can by faith embrace and teach from Jesus’ words what he taught—God’s glorious good news, the gospel—that is all about who Jesus said he is, what he said he would do, how he said he would do it, and what he actually accomplished.

[1] Vincent Taylor The Cross of Christ (London; McMillan & Co LTD, 1956), 11.

[2] Central to Jesus’ work on the cross is His penal substitutionary atonement, but it is not limited to that. Jesus speaks of His death in other motifs as well such as cosmic, and battle. See the concluding paragraph.

[3] Bruce Demarest The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton; Crossway Books, 1997), 159. Parentheses are mine.

[4] Crucial in Jesus’ teaching about His death is how He used the prepositions anti, “for” (Mark 10:45) and hyper, “instead of” (John 10:11). They both express substitution.

Bobby Scott

Bobby Scott is a pastor of Community of Faith Bible Church in South Gate, California.

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