Explaining Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Our Personal Evangelism
That Jesus died for our sins is the most common, and perhaps most basic, statement of the Christian gospel. The Apostle Paul described his evangelistic proclamation in much the same way: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).
Behind Paul’s concise statement stands a robust theology (in accordance with the Scriptures) which includes, among others, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). This article will not seek to articulate that doctrine. Rather, it will consider the role of explaining PSA in our evangelism as we seek to make sense of the bloody cross, the vanguard of our Christian gospel.
PATTERNS IN APOSTOLIC EVANGELISM
When considering the priority of Jesus’s death for sin in evangelism, we must acknowledge at the outset both complexity and tension in the biblical record. The epistles, which provide the best defense of penal substitution, are not necessarily a representative sample of early Christian evangelism. They’re letters written to churches or individual Christians and would more accurately be categorized as discipleship material. Meanwhile, the book of Acts—our best example of apostolic evangelism—makes almost no reference to substitution or sacrifice for sin. To be sure, we see the apostles evangelize with boldness, making arguments from sweeping Old Testament exegesis. But we don’t necessarily find them focusing on the cross. Instead, witness in Acts tends to emphasize the resurrection and future judgment for all who fail to repent.
Of course, the death of Jesus does appear in Acts. But the accent usually lands on the suffering of the innocent Messiah at the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:23; 3:14–15; 13:27–28), not the death of a righteous Savior in place of the wicked. We’re only given hints at PSA. Some may suggest that the exchange of Jesus for guilty Barabbas is an analogy to PSA (Acts 3:14). But that makes for a tenuous defense. A bit clearer reference might be the Ethiopian’s reading from Isaiah, followed by Philip’s explanation—which we assume included an exposition of the Lamb who bore our iniquities (Acts 8:35; cf. Isa. 53:4–11). But we can only speculate. One more piece of evidence is the church’s understanding that Jesus’s death was God’s plan, which raises the question, “Why would God punish the guiltless?” (Acts 4:27–28). But Acts doesn’t provide penal substitution as an answer.
What then are we to make of this tension? Paul says that Jesus’s death for sins was a priority in his preaching, but Luke’s record of apostolic witness doesn’t appear to stress a sin-substitute. At this point, it might be tempting for those committed to PSA to look elsewhere to bolster their perspective. But we must be careful. We can’t automatically appeal to epistolary literature to resolve this tension. Letters written to believers don’t necessarily represent the content of initial gospel proclamation. Whereas the apostles articulate a theology of atonement in their writings, it doesn’t follow that all or even most of their evangelism comprised a thorough formulation of PSA.
Two lessons emerge at this point, one hermeneutical and one practical. First, Luke doesn’t tell us everything. Acts doesn’t supply an exhaustive account of early evangelistic encounters. Furthermore, Luke likely had his own theological emphases and practical purposes in writing. Much like the occasional nature of an epistle, and like other history, Acts is both interpretive and instructive. So we shouldn’t press the apparent under-representation too far, as if what Luke records is opposed to Paul’s self-described priority. Their perspectives can be complementary.
Second—and here is a potential corrective—even though Jesus’s death for sins truly is of first importance, it may not be the first thing we talk about in evangelism. While Paul does state that he endeavored to know nothing except Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), we have good reason to understand such as hyperbole. Paul’s own pattern of preaching, seen through Acts, clearly included a defense of Jesus as Messiah and King, reflections on God’s powerful creation and gracious providence, and declarations of Jesus’s resurrection and return in judgment. Paul’s evangelism didn’t always or only focus on Jesus as the substitute for sin. Interestingly, Paul didn’t even include a requirement (in Romans, no less!) to believe that Jesus died for our sins in order to be saved (Rom. 10:9).
EXPLAINING AND PROVING THE CROSS
In what sense, then, can we affirm Paul’s statement that Jesus’s death for sins truly is of first importance? And what role, if any, does explaining PSA have in our evangelism? To give an answer, we can consider two more incidents of Paul’s preaching from Acts which provide hints to his approach.
First, at the climax of his evangelistic sermon at Pisidian Antioch, Paul announced that forgiveness of sins is now available through Jesus. He said that all who believe in him are justified (translated as “freed” in the ESV) from that which the law could not justify (Acts 13:38–39). Paul’s reasoning in those verses sounds strikingly similar to his argument in Romans 3:21–28, a passage significant for our understanding of PSA. In short, we can deduce that Paul articulated to his Antiochian audience a clear explanation of Jesus’s work on the cross. In bringing the good news that God was fulfilling in Jesus all that was promised (Acts 13:32–32), his message likely included how the new covenant hope of forgiveness was available through Jesus’s blood. He perhaps explained how those who were condemned by the law could now be justified apart from it, by the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21–22).
A second example of Paul’s method, and one perhaps clearer in relation to PSA, is found in his preaching at Thessalonica. There we’re told Paul’s custom was to enter the synagogue and reason “from the (OT) Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2–3). This Lukan summary echoes Paul’s own statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4. Paul’s characteristic message in the synagogue was to defend and describe the necessity of the cross from the OT.
How did Paul prove that the Messiah must suffer? What OT texts did he employ in Thessalonica? Here, I think it’s appropriate to consult Paul’s epistles. Writing later to the same Thessalonians, he recalled how they had been delivered from the wrath to come because they received his gospel (1 Thes. 1:10). We know Paul understood the law as a curse to the lawbreaker. But Jesus took that curse for us on the tree (Gal. 3:10–13; cf. 1 Pet. 2:24). Paul viewed Jesus’s death as the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice, bringing redemption (1 Cor. 5:7). Our sin-debt was canceled at his cross (Col. 2:14). Paul taught that Jesus became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Justification by God and deliverance from his wrath through the sin-bearing, debt-canceling sacrifice of Jesus is the heart of PSA. And we have good reason to believe this good news was the priority of Paul’s apostolic preaching, first by his own admission, but also in the summarized record of his gospel ministry throughout Greece, Macedonia, and Asia.
HOW WE CAN DO THIS
If explaining and proving the cross was the priority for Paul’s gospel proclamation, how might we follow his example in our own witness? Here I would offer three proposals.
1. Emphasize Fulfillment
First, our evangelism should, like Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15, emphasize fulfillment. It’s extremely unhelpful to preach the gospel in a way that disconnects the cross from God’s promise and plan. If we merely tell people (even children) that “Jesus died for your sins,” it means almost nothing. We can’t simply preach Christ and him crucified as if the gospel exists in a vacuum. The death of Jesus only makes sense within the context and framework of OT expectations.
There are many approaches to connect the cross to the OT. One way is by exploring how the first sin separated us from God, but how the gospel is a story of restoration through sacrifice. This happens progressively, first through prescribed animal sacrifices which provide temporary and limited access to God. But the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus brings us near, providing permanent reconciliation (1 Pet. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:16–21). Taking this approach can help non-Christians see the purpose of penal substitution as relational and restorative (beyond courtroom forensics) while grounding it in the grand narrative of Scripture. The goal in this or any presentation, as Paul prioritized, is to present the good news of Jesus according to the Scriptures.
2. Demonstrate the Cross’s Necessity
While the death of Jesus was necessary in accordance with OT prophecy (Acts 3:18), the NT emphasis is not on the cross’s mere inevitability. The death of Jesus was predetermined for a specific purpose. Also, when Paul explained and proved the death of Jesus, he wasn’t making an argument for the cross’s historicity. Instead, he demonstrated its necessity (Acts 13:27–33). Like Jesus before him, Paul established from the law and prophets the theological reasoning why Messiah must suffer (Luke 24:25–26). Jesus had to die because righteousness wouldn’t come through any other means (Gal. 1:21). In our evangelism, we must explain that it’s only through Jesus’s atoning death on the cross as a substitute sacrifice that we are forgiven, reconciled to God, and delivered from the present evil age (Gal. 1:4).
This is particularly important to emphasize when people don’t feel the evil of their own sin against God. In Western cultures where moral relativism reigns, or in Eastern cultures where dynamics of honor and shame prevail, evangelists should carefully expose from Scripture the need for the cross because of our guilt and condemnation. If people don’t have categories for judgment or righteousness, our response should not be to ignore such biblical concepts. The very idea of “explaining and proving the cross” assumes that many of our hearers will not intuitively understand its meaning. We must show them why the death of Jesus was needed: because we have dishonored and disobeyed our Creator.
3. Remember the Resurrection
Sometimes those of us who would emphasize PSA in evangelism forget the significance of the resurrection. In our attempts to tell others about Christ’s work in our stead (PSA), we overlook his place as our representative head. As we explain the unique and exclusive nature of Jesus’s death for us (Rom. 5:8), we miss the inclusiveness of our death and resurrection with him (Rom. 6:8). So we should speak both of Christ’s substitution and his representation in our evangelism.
But that doesn’t mean that the resurrection has nothing to do with PSA. Since Jesus was condemned in our place, for him to remain in the grave would spell our demise: we’d be left in our sins. But the good news is that Christ has been raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). His resurrection is not the icing on the cake, but a primary ingredient within the gospel. When he was vindicated on the third day, we were as well.
According to the apostles, the resurrection of Jesus is proof of his innocence and our justification. It’s also confirmation that God will judge the world. As such, the resurrection is both the basis of our right standing with God and the impetus for sinners to repent. So we must remember the resurrection in our evangelism, explaining and proving it as integral—of first importance—to the good news of Jesus for all who will believe.