How Does Penal Substitution Relate to Other Atonement Theories?


Trying to capture all that our Lord Jesus Christ achieved in his glorious work is not easy given its multi-faceted aspects. John Calvin sought to summarize the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work by the munus triplex—Christ’s threefold office as our new covenant head and mediator—prophet, priest, and king. What Calvin sought to avoid was reductionism, the “cardinal” sin of theology. Although it’s dangerous to prioritize one aspect of our Lord’s work, Scripture does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt 1:21; 1 Cor 15:3–4). And given the centrality of Christ’s cross, it’s crucial that we explain it correctly.

A variety of atonement theologies have emerged throughout church history. In fact, unlike the ecumenical confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon that established orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, no catholic confession exists regarding the cross. From this fact, some have concluded that no one view of the cross should be privileged—a conclusion I reject. Despite the lack of an ecumenical confession, all Christians have agreed that Christ’s death secures forgiveness of sins resulting in our reconciliation with God. Yet, admittedly, as with other doctrines, the church’s understanding of the atonement clarified over time. Specifically, during the Reformation and post-Reformation eras pastors and theologians began to recognize that penal substitution was the best theological explanation for why the cross happened and what it achieved.

Recently, however, some have challenged that claim. We are told repeatedly that penal substitution is reductionistic, that it doesn’t account for the richness of the cross. We’re told that what’s needed is not one view but multiple views. But is this correct? My thesis is that it is not, and for at least two reasons. First, views other than penal substitution fail to grasp the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God. Second, from another angle, other views stress various legitimate entailments of the cross but without penal substitution as their foundation, these entailments alone cannot explain the central problem of our sin before God. Before developing these complementary points, I will first describe various atonement theories over against penal substitution.


First, recapitulation was one way of explaining the cross, a view often associated with Irenaeus and even Athanasius. Christ’s redemptive work was interpreted primarily in terms of his identification with humanity through the incarnation.

By becoming human, God the Son reversed what Adam did by living our life and dying our death. Adam’s disobedience resulted in the corruption of our nature and the deprivation of Godlikeness. Christ reverses both of these results in his incarnation and cross-work. Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality is restored to us as well as reconciliation with God. This view emphasizes several biblical truths. Christ’s work is presented in representational and substitutionary terms. But its central focus is on sin’s effects on us and Christ’s restorative work, not on our sin before God and the need for Christ to satisfy God’s own righteous demand against us by paying for our sin.

Second, Christus Victor, a view often associated with the ransom theory to Satan, views the primary objects of Christ’s death as the powers—sin, death, and Satan. By his work on the cross, Christ liberates us from these powers. In the Patristic era, the Fathers focused on Christ redeeming us from Satan, while modern adherents focus more on liberation from the powers of sin and death.

Like recapitulation, Christus Victor captures a lot of biblical data, especially Christ’s defeat of the powers (Gen 3:15; John 12:31–33; Col 2:13–15; Heb 2:14–16; Rev 12:1–12), but unlike penal substitution, God is not viewed as the primary object of the cross.

Third, the example or moral influence view has been promoted within non-orthodox, liberal theology. It had its roots in the theology of Peter Abelard (AD 1079–1142), but became prominent with the rise of liberal theology (18th–19th centuries). It taught that God’s love is more fundamental than his justice and that God can forgive our sins apart from Christ satisfying divine justice. God, then, is not the primary object of the cross. Instead, Christ’s death reveals God’s love and sets an example for us.

Fourth, the governmental view arose in the post-Reformation era and is often identified with Hugo Grotius, John Miley, and the Arminian tradition. Contra penal substitution, this view denies that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him. Instead, God, as the moral Governor, can choose to relax the demand of the law (since it is external to him) similar to a human judge, thus forgiving us by his mercy.

And yet, God cannot overlook sin; he governs the world justly and reveals the serious nature of sin. So Christ’s cross upholds the moral governance of the universe allowing God to forgive us without a full payment of our sin, and it reveals God’s hatred of sin thus motivating us to repent and believe in Christ.

Finally, penal substitution had precursors in the early church and even in Anselm. It came to fullness in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras. Penal substitution does not deny the multi-faceted aspects of Christ’s death such as the restoration of what Adam lost, the defeat of the powers, the revelation of God’s love, and so on. Instead, it contends that central to the cross is God the Son incarnate acting as our new covenant representative and substitute to satisfy fully the triune God’s righteous demand against us due to our sin.

Apart from this central achievement of the cross, there is no restoration of humanity, there is no defeat of the powers, and there is no love revealed. Why? Because at the heart of penal substitution is a specific understanding of the God-law-sin relationship—or better, a specific theology proper. Penal substitution takes seriously the fact that the triune God is alone independent and self-sufficient. Specifically, in relation to the moral law, this entails that God does not adjudicate a law external to him; instead, he is the law. This is why, in relation to sin, God cannot tolerate sin (Hab 1:12–13; Isa 1:4–20; 35:8); he must act in holy justice against it (Gen 18:25) because he cannot deny himself.

And yet, how does God demonstrate his holy justice and covenant love, given his free decision to redeem us (Gen 3:15; Hos 11:9)? In this regard, the Bible’s storyline reveals a tension that’s rooted in who God is vis-à-vis sin. This tension is central to the why of the cross. Since God is the Law, he cannot forgive us without the full satisfaction of his holy and righteous demand (Rom 3:21–26; Heb 9:15–22). To justify the ungodly (Rom 4:5), the triune God must take the initiative to provide a Redeemer who can pay for our sin and act in perfect obedience for us. Christ must not only be our victor and substitute, he must also be our penal substitute. Ultimately, satisfying God’s justice is central to the cross, and other views of the atonement fail to stress this vital point.


Let us now return to my thesis. Various atonement theologies emphasize many biblical truths and entailments of the cross. But unlike penal substitution, they fail to grasp the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God.

Every atonement view stresses something biblical about the cross. Recapitulation rightly grasps the Adam–Christ relationship across redemptive history (Rom 5:12–21). In the first Adam, God demanded covenantal obedience, yet Adam disobeyed and brought sin and death into the world. What is needed is the incarnation of God’s Son, the last Adam, to live and die for us, and thus restore us to the purpose of our creation (Heb 2:5–18). But too often, this view doesn’t emphasize enough that our triune God requires perfect covenantal obedience from us, and the need for Christ to be our representative in life and penal substitute in death. It rightly stresses many biblical truths but fails to grasp adequately the God-law-sin relationship.

Similarly, Christus Victor also emphasizes many glorious truths. It underscores the need for the Son to become human to crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15) and defeat sin and death. And yet, it doesn’t make central the God-law-sin relationship. In Scripture, sin, death, and Satan are only powers over us because of our sin before God (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23; Heb 2:14–15). How are the powers defeated? Furthermore, why did the divine Son have to die to defeat them? Why did the Son not merely exert his divine power? Because it is only when our sin is paid for that the powers are destroyed (Col 2:13–15; 1 Cor 15:55–57). Our greatest problem is not the powers but standing justified before God. Christus Victor without penal substitution hangs in mid-air.

Scripture also presents Christ and his cross as the supreme moral example of love, obedience, and suffering (John 13:12–17; Eph 5:1–2, 25–27; Phil 2:5–11; 1 Pet 2:18–25). But the cross only functions this way because of who dies and what he achieves, namely the full satisfaction of God’s holy demand against our sin, which is the very demonstration of divine love (1 John 4:7–10).

Also, it’s never enough for Christ merely to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live. Solidarity is not atonement, only its prerequisite. We need more than a mere example to redeem us. What we need is for the divine Son to live and die for us. Our problem is not merely that we need a great teacher to show us how to live. Our problem is sin before the triune holy God, and this problem requires the enfleshment of God’s own Son to live for us and to die for us as our penal substitute. It’s only as our propitiatory sacrifice that God’s own righteous demand is fully met, and we, in Christ, receive all the glorious benefits and entailments of his new covenant work.

Of all the atonement theologies, only penal substitution best captures the God-centered nature of the cross. The alternatives either minimize or deny that God’s holy justice is essential to him, why our sin is first against God(Ps 51:4), and why Christ as our penal substitute is central to the cross. Before we can speak of the horizontal entailments of the cross, we must first speak of the vertical—namely the triune God, in his Son, taking his own demand on himself so that we, in Christ, may be justified before him (Rom 5:1–2).

Other atonement views either miss or undermine this point. For them, the object of the cross is either our sin (forms of recapitulation), or Satan (ransom theory), or the powers (forms of Christus Victor). But what they fail to see is that the primary person we have sinned against is our great and glorious triune Creator and Lord, and as such, the ultimate object of the cross is God himself.

The Bible’s presentation of the cross is rich and multifaceted—like a beautiful gem that can be looked at from many angles. And yet, the very center of Christ’s cross-work is that he has come as our mediator and new covenant head to offer himself before God on behalf of sin. Penal substitution best accounts for why the divine Son had to die, and why he alone saves. With Paul, may we alone glory in and preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23).

Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum is a Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

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