Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Matters for Counseling


I was a murderer.

When I was twenty-five I became pregnant. Unsaved, unmarried, and raised in a church that taught that babies weren’t human until they were born, the solution to my “problem” was nauseatingly simple. So, I made an appointment, had the procedure, took a few days off from work, and went back to life as usual.

It was only after the Lord saved me that I realized the weight of what I’d done. The sin was so heinous and irreparable, and the guilt and shame were so overwhelming, that it was nearly ten years before I told anyone other than my husband what I had done. I believed that God had forgiven me of my sin of abortion, and yet my guilt and shame lingered.

What I lacked was an understanding and application of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. My lingering guilt and shame were a result of not really understanding that, in addition to forgiveness, my salvation also brought me justification and a right standing with God. The wrath of God that I justly deserved has been completely satisfied by Christ; therefore, God removed the guilt of my sin and granted to me the righteousness of Christ (Ps. 103:12, Rom. 3:21–22).

Understanding penal substitutionary atonement is essential to every believer’s life because knowing that we are right with God affects how we think about and relate to him, ourselves, and others. Penal substitutionary atonement is also vital for counseling, since some of the difficulties that often lead to our need for counseling stem from wrongly thinking about or failing to rightly apply this doctrine to our lives. As counselors, we must help our counselees see that because of Christ’s substitutionary atonement they can have relief from guilt and shame, a proper view of forgiveness, and access to the Father.


Like I was after my abortion, many of my counselees are burdened with guilt and shame over their sins. These sins may be recent or go back as far as their childhood, and even though they have confessed them to God and sought reconciliation where needed, they still find themselves tormented by guilt.

Whether this torment comes from the counselee’s flesh or the enemy, the solution is the same. Their guilty and shameful thoughts must be taken captive and they must begin to think on what is true about their sin in light of Christ’s work on the cross (1 Cor. 10:5; Phil. 4:8). As their counselor, it’s my job to help them do so by applying the truth about substitutionary atonement to their lives. As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Col 2:13–14).

Through Christ’s work on the cross, God has forgiven us, justified us, and cancelled our sin-debt. So, lingering thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame are out of place and may arise from unbelief. Who, including ourselves, can condemn the one whom God hast justified? (Rom. 8:33–34)


But not every counselee seeks out counseling because of guilt or shame. Some come because they’ve been sinned against—often in grievous ways—and forgiveness seems impossible to them. I believe that understanding penal substitutionary atonement helps these counselees in a couple significant ways.

First, it helps them to understand the magnitude of God’s hatred for all sin. Because God is holy and just, his wrath against sin is not easily satisfied and his forgiveness is not easily obtained. In fact, all sin is so heinous to God that his forgiveness could only be obtained by the shedding of his Son’s blood (Heb 9:22). If Christ didn’t bear their offender’s sin, then the offender will bear it in hell for all of eternity. Vengeance is the Lord’s, and we can trust him to repay.

Second, penal substitutionary atonement helps them to extend forgiveness. Understandably, those who have been grievously sinned against can struggle to forgive. But if left unconfessed, unforgiveness can turn into the sins of bitterness, anger, or even revenge. Nothing helps the believer forgive others like an understanding of the price Christ paid in order for us to be forgiven! Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Ephesians:

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:32).

By understanding and applying this great truth, we can help our counselees find strength to forgive, and to keep on forgiving.


Access to the Father is perhaps one of the sweetest and most comforting implications of penal substitutionary atonement. The struggling counselee needs to be reminded that the door to the Father has been flung wide open for them by the death of Christ! Peter puts it this way:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Pet. 3:18).

Gone is the wrath we justly deserved, absorbed by Jesus’ death, and in its place is a warm invitation to come. Because of the sacrificial work of Christ, the writer of Hebrews encourages us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Substitutionary atonement matters for counseling because it’s vital to living out the Christian life. And as a counselor, I find it deeply encouraging to know that because of Christ’s work of atonement I can with confidence go with my counselee to our Father and find the help we need.

Patti Withers

Patti Withers serves as the Women’s Ministry Director at Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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