Pastoring Abuse Sufferers with the Doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement


At the center of the Christian faith hangs a bloody, broken man. Beaten, humiliated, scourged and put to death in one of the most barbaric, cruel punishments devised by men. It’s one of the things that makes the Christian faith so distasteful to unbelievers. But, if people find that hard to swallow, then Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is in another despised category on its own. What is PSA and why is it so controversial?

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment, and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.

PSA is based on the belief that God is simultaneously loving and holy. Because he is holy, he hates sin and must punish it justly. Because he is love, he is not willing that any should perish. Therefore, in Jesus, God becomes man. He lived among us perfectly and sinlessly. He then dies a death on our behalf. In doing so, He received the full, terrible wrath of God that was our due. This is how Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Understandably, this doctrine upsets a lot of people. They cannot begin to comprehend how a loving father could do that to his perfect son. How is this not “cosmic child abuse” on a global, spiritual scale? How can Christians believe in a God who willfully sent his innocent Son to die in such a cruel way?

I understand the reaction. I suffered childhood abuse in all its forms: physical, emotional, and sexual. Furthermore, I live in and minister to communities that bear the deep scars of historic, repeated abuse on a massive scale. (For a closer look at the kind of community I live in, check out this 2011 report on child abuse in the UK.)

As a former victim and as a pastor to the abused, then, I wish to look at some of the practical implications of holding to PSA. I don’t want us to circle in the theological air, but to come into land on the painful, messy runway of our fallen world.


We must first reject the view that sees the cross as an angry father murdering his innocent Son for the sake of guilty humanity. Jesus went willingly to his death. Jesus allowed himself to be taken when Roman soldiers and an angry mob of religious leaders found him in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. Jesus allowed himself to be put on trial—even though he and the Jewish leaders knew it was illegal (the Jews couldn’t try people at night or in secret). Jesus didn’t speak a word in his own defense as he stood in front of Pilate, the Roman governor.

Time and again Jesus warned his disciples that he had come to die. Three times he tells them so in John 10.

  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
  • “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:15)
  • “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.” (John 10:17)

Then comes the real clincher in John 10:18. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Notice what Jesus is saying: “Nobody takes my life from me.”

What Jesus did on the cross, he did willingly. He knew what was coming. He wasn’t manipulated. He wasn’t dragged into it by forces outside of his control. He knew there would be pain, suffering, and humiliation—and, incredibly, he willingly embraced it. On behalf of guilty sinners.

When people today are abused, they are unwilling victims cruelly exploited by evil adults. They are forced into perverted acts they do not fully understand. They are exploited for the gratification of another. So it was in my childhood.

Jesus, on the other hand, died to glorify both himself and the Father as well as to save his people from their sins. The good news for us is that he was innocent. Yet he was not a helpless victim.


What does this mean for pastors and preachers as they seek to shepherd those who’ve faced abuse and terrible trauma?

1. Don’t rush to immediate forgiveness and healing in our preaching and counsel.

Here’s where we so often go wrong in our preaching. We can preach the story of Joseph (as an example) and in our effort to get to the application we arrive too quickly at Genesis 50:20. Here we read of Joseph, standing before his brothers, and telling them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

And so we tell our people, “Go and do likewise.” But in doing so, we strip the narrative of all of its pain, suffering, and great emotional trauma. We fail to take our people on Joseph’s heart-wrenching journey. He didn’t get from a well to the throne room of Egypt in one giant bound. He didn’t go from pain, rejection, and torment to forgiveness in a single day. His story is brutal and heartbreaking. His own family tried to kill him! You would need a lifetime on a psychiatrist’s couch to unpack that alone.

Do you think Joseph sat at the bottom of the well whistling “All I Once Held Dear”? He would have been petrified. He would have been horrified. He would have been angry. He would have felt rejected and abandoned. Do you think, when his brothers decided to sell him to a passing caravan, that he went quietly? Do you think he went without a struggle? Without crying out for his beloved dad? Do you think he didn’t beg his brothers not to do it? That he would change his ways and not be so cocky anymore? That he was sorry? That they could keep the cloak? That he wouldn’t tell anyone what they’d done? Do you think he wasn’t sobbing into his hands, as his home passed far from sight, while being dragged along by strangers to an unknown future?

When he was sold to Potiphar, do you think he didn’t pine for home? That he didn’t lie in his new bed at night and think all sorts of evil about his brothers? That he didn’t replay every detail in his head? That he wasn’t thinking in almost every waking moment of how he would one day pay them back? Do you think he wasn’t crying out for justice?

Do you think that when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him, he didn’t rage at the injustice of it and shake his fist at God? Do you think he did his 10-year sentence in the jail without wondering what his dad was up to? Without wondering what his brothers were doing? Do you think he didn’t scream with frustration into the night? That he didn’t question his worth? That he didn’t wonder about the point of his life? Do you think he didn’t feel shame and humiliation at all that had happened to him? Do you think he didn’t feel powerless as people and forces outside of his control manipulated and destroyed his life? Do you think he didn’t ache with every part of him for justice and vengeance on all who had wronged him?

We so often want to preach our three-point sermons and make the lines clear and tidy. But life isn’t like that. Life doesn’t work in even, logical lines. The great application and comfort for those of us who have been abused is not the grand statement of Genesis 50:20. It’s the 13 chapters before that, as we see and hear and feel the struggles of a man who has been abused, tormented, neglected, used, and humiliated—and yet, because of the grace of God in his life, he came out the other side.

Early on in my ministry in Scotland, a young woman began attending our church. It was clear that she was very disturbed. She rocked and moaned her way through the service, speaking softly to herself the whole time. She had gouge marks on her face. We came to realize later that almost her entire body was covered in scars from self-harming. She told us that she had been in and out of psychiatric holding units for most of her life. She was in a world of pain. She’d been in churches that thought she was demon possessed and that the answer to her issues lay in deliverance. She’d been told by well-intentioned believers to take hold of the promise of Genesis 50:20. She was told that she needed not only to repent of her own sins but forgive those who had hurt her in the past.

As I sat on the steps outside our church building and spoke to her it was clear that she knew that she was a sinner. “But I can’t follow Jesus if it means I have to forgive my abusers,” she told me. “You don’t get to heaven by forgiving your abusers,” I told her. “You get there by repenting of your sins. Forgiveness and healing often come a long time down the road.” I recounted the story of Joseph’s life and the trauma he went through. “His healing came over decades,” I told her. “Just give yourself to the Lord and join our church and we will walk with you through whatever pain it is you are going through.”

It was the beginning of a long, hard road for her. It wasn’t until Christmas, a few months later, that her full story came out. During a carol service at the church she became hysterical and violent—so much so that we had to call the police and ask for her to be sectioned for her own safety. We soon discovered that between the ages of 3 and 16 her father and uncles systematically raped her and forced her to sing Christmas carols while doing so. They’d never been caught, and they’d never been prosecuted. And so she was locked in a world of torment and pain. There were no easy answers and quick fixes for her. We just had to walk with her through her darkest moments and celebrate even the briefest glimpses of light in her troubled life.

She needed the reassurance from us that one day, though it may be far off in the distant future, she may have her own Genesis 50:20 moment. She was nowhere near there yet. And we needed to reassure her that this was okay. She was saved, but she was still in extreme shock. She was still stuck down the spiritual well of abuse, looking up and only seeing the faces of her tormentors. She still felt trapped in the dark dungeon of her memories, thinking dark thoughts and wondering if there was going to be an escape from the hell that was her life.

Fellow pastors, let’s remind ourselves that justification may be instantaneous for a Christian, but healing for deep trauma is often a long and labored process. Some wounds are deeper than others, and forgiveness and reconciliation with past abuse will be slow. Some new believers are going to feel anger for a very long time. They’re going to ache for justice for a very long time.

And somebody needs to tell them that it’s okay to feel that way. That what the abused feel is normal. We’re not second-rate Christians because we haven’t forgiven our abusers—or because we haven’t managed to work through our theology of reconciliation. But, like Joseph, we can come to a point in our lives, where we may not understand why we went through what we went through, but we can at least see some redemptive reason in it. You see, the point of the story is not Joseph. The point of the story is to help us look past him, to a better Joseph. To King Jesus.

We follow a God who loves us and who voluntarily came to earth to be beaten scorned, rejected and humiliated. Why? So that we could live. So that, even if our broken past cannot be restored, our souls can be mended and we can look forward to a glorious heaven without tears or pain. And even though we may be at the start of our painful journey toward the light of God’s love; even if we’re a little farther on in our understanding; even if we’re coming through the other side—only in Christ will we all get there one day. Perhaps never in this life, but certainly in the one to come.

That, my friends, is how we preach the story of Joseph.

2. Teach them PSA in order to show them that God is a God of justice.

PSA brings great comfort to those who have suffered abuse because they begin to understand God’s holy justice. PSA teaches us that God means to punish all sin. In other words, nothing gets swept under the rug. Nothing goes unaddressed. Nobody ‘gets away with it’ so to speak. Abuse sufferers need to know that God takes what happened to them very seriously indeed. In fact, he views the crimes against them as damnable. Literally.

We worship a good and just God and we can be sure that he will address all evil, either at the cross or in the final judgement. There will be no excuses and no escape for the perpetrators of vile acts who may have escaped justice in this life. God will address their sin and his wrath will be terrible to behold.

Remember what I said at the beginning. Our faith centers on a bloody, broken man who was beaten, humiliated, scourged and put to death in one of the most barbaric, cruel punishments possible. Why so horrific? Because that’s how bad sin is. It is a grievous offense to his holy nature. But, we need to comfort our people with the truth that God is not indifferent to their suffering. When they look to Jesus on the cross, he is saying, “I get it. What happened to you is horrible. Such abuse deserves the full hurricane and holocaust of God’s wrath. I and my Father have therefore conspired to both save sinners in love and vanquish such injustice in judgment. Either I shall pay the penalty for it or the sinner shall pay for it.”

Then compare PSA to other views of the atonement, ones which deny that Christ paid the penalty in our place. These views cannot make the same claim—that God means to punish all injustice, and that every injustice will be exhaustively and completely addressed. It would seem that, for all who are saved, any injustices they committed remain unaddressed, unpunished, basically unnoticed. “Love outweighs the offense,” they say. Okay, that may be true, but doesn’t love also insist the offense must be punished? PSA says, “Yes, absolutely.” Other views say no.

PSA gives us both love and justice. That’s what we need to teach our people. It isn’t ‘pie in the sky’ doctrine, nor is it cosmic child abuse. It’s the only view of the atonement which gives them the peace of mind that though their abusers may never face human justice, there will one day be a full reckoning as they stand before God to give account for their evil sins.

3. Teach them that seeking justice is biblical, but vengeance is not.

As I said, PSA reveals to us this God of justice. That’s challenging to believe because most of our abusers never face justice in their lifetime. Their crimes are denied or brushed under the carpet. Abusers and tormentors get away because they do things in the dark: manipulation, deception, and lying.

I have a young man that I regularly counsel who was horrifically abused as a boy. As with the overwhelming majority of cases, it was at the hands of family members. He is now approaching his early thirties and all he feels is rage inside. And the older he gets, the angrier he becomes. All he dreams about is vengeance. All he wants to do is hunt own his abusers and kill every last one of them. He wants to follow Jesus, but this rage consumes him.

As we pastor men and women in similar mindsets, we must be clear to them about this: one day, every terrible deed will be brought into that awful light, and every abuser will give account to Almighty God. Even though we may not see justice on this earth, God will ultimately dispense his perfect justice on that final, terrible day.

I asked him once why he didn’t pursue justice through the courts against his abusers. “Because I’ll look stupid and weak. Because everybody will know my business. Plus, it’s humiliating.” I told him that I respected that. I had great empathy for him. But I also told him that he couldn’t allow bitterness and rage to eat away at his life like this. He needed to understand that if he wasn’t going to pursue earthly justice, then he should entrust the situation to God. After all, God’s justice will ultimately win the day.

At the same time, he had to understand that vengeance doesn’t honor God. “That’s hard,” he said to me. “I don’t care about justice. I just want to kill them.”

He’s right. It is hard. Very hard. I continue to walk with him and pray that one day he will come to place his trust fully in Jesus and lay all his threats of vengeance at the foot of the cross.

4. Never push abuse victims into reconciliation with their abuser(s).

Should we be reconciled to our abuser(s)? That’s not an easy thing to answer. We certainly shouldn’t force sufferers to be reconciled to their tormentors in our pastoral counsel. I’m not saying reconciliation is impossible. I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t force people into things outside their control. Abuse is all about control. We need to give people space and time.

5. Help people to see that there is life after abuse.

Abuse doesn’t have to define us. We become new creations in Jesus. We need to train our brains and our emotions to believe that God loves us. We need to constantly remind ourselves to believe the gospel. We may not be completely healed this side of eternity, but if we stick close to Jesus and his people, we can learn to avoid bitterness and self-pity.

6. Child abusers and rapists can be born again by God’s Spirit.

God’s love even extends to these people. That’s a hard truth to swallow for those of us who have been abused. But it is the gospel. Either they will be punished, or Christ will have been punished in their place, as I said a moment ago. It’s good news, of course, because this is how any of us have hope.

However, this doesn’t mean that an abuser should go to the same church as their victims. This requires discernment and vigilance. Every effort should be made to protect victims at all costs.

7. Don’t downplay people’s pain as they age.

A few years ago, I remember trying to tell my uncle about what happened to me as a child. He responded, “Get over it, Mez. It was years ago.” That’s easier said than done. In fact, the older we become the more it can trouble us. It’s not as easy as just putting it out of our minds. When we reach adulthood and begin to better comprehend what happened to us, the pain and frustration can become all-encompassing. Then, when we have our own children, we wonder how we could have been treated so terribly. Does that mean that we will always feel like this way?

Yes, and no.

Yes, I am afraid there are no take-backs in our lives. What has happened to us has happened to us. The memories will always be there. But no, those incidents don’t have to define us.

By God’s grace, I am not a victim of childhood abuse anymore. But I am a sufferer. What happened to me does not define me anymore because I am a child of God. I view my life and my experiences through the lens of the Bible and the truth of God the Son’s atoning sacrifice on my behalf. I don’t understand precisely why my past occurred, but I trust God enough to handle my future. It’s not an easy walk, but it’s the only one that brings freedom and peace.

Mez McConnell

Mez McConnell is senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is founder of 20Schemes, a ministry that seeks to plant churches among some of Scotland's poorest communities. You can find him on Twitter at @mez1972.

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