Penal Substitution Theory (PSA)

Synopsis

For most Protestants today their ideas on the atonement have been  shaped by a theory known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). This theory has so dominated the protestant world that it is simply taken for granted by most. The PSA view teaches that God, being perfectly just, is unable to simply forgive man’s sins. His justice requires absolutely that sins be punished. Thus God devised a plan in which Jesus became incarnate as a man in order to bear the sins of humanity and be punished (penal) in our place (substitution). Since God’s wrath against sin was vented on Jesus Christ, the way is then clear for the elect to be reconciled to God.

In this view the cross was an act of cosmic justice in which God poured out punishment and wrath for all the sins of the elect on Jesus.

History

Penal Substitution is a variant of the larger category known more generally as Substitutionary Atonement. This view is a relative late comer to the Christian world. The theory of Substitutionary Atonement was first proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century AD. Prior to St. Anselm the dominant view of the Atonement was a combination of two views, one known as Ransom theory and the other as Moral Influence theory.

Though there were a number of variations on Ransom theory the key idea was that as sinners, we were under bondage both to sin itself and because of sin, to the Devil. Jesus then came to Ransom us out of bondage with his life.

Within Ransom theory ideas began to develop that sinners were literally, legally the rightful property of Satan. As such God had to purchase sinners back by giving a rightful payment to Satan. Some people, including St. Anselm found the idea that sinners rightfully belonged to Satan, and the idea of God owing anything to Satan to be repugnant and unacceptable. As a result St. Anselm formulated his Substitutionary “Satisfaction” theory as an alternate to Ransom theory.

The key idea in St. Anelm’s theory was that the debt of sin was owed not to Satan but to God. Because of sin, Man had offended God’s dignity and honor. As a result Man owed a debt to God that absolutely required “satisfaction”. The term satisfaction in this context means restitution, the restoring, repairing, or repaying of what was wronged or lost. In this view, St. Anselm became the first person to suggest that our debt to God absolutely required satisfaction. In other words, God was not simply able to forgive the debt of sin. The debt must absolutely be repaid.

The theory of Substitutionary Atonement was next picked up and developed further by St. Thomas Aquinas. He expanded upon, and better defined the foundation that St. Anselm had laid. Notably, while St. Anselm focused on sin as an offense against God’s honor, St. Thomas focused on sin as an offense against God’s justice. As a result of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching, the Substitutionary Atonement view became the dominant view of the western Church.

The Penal Substitution variation began during the Reformation. Some of the Reformers, most notably John Calvin, took up St. Thomas’ ideas and ran with them. Calvin and his followers reinterpreted Substitutionary Atonement in the context of their own theological views creating significant differences in PSA theory from the original Substitutionary view of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas.

Since the Reformation PSA theory has become the dominant view of the majority of the protestant world. PSA view in its original form is distinctively Calvinist and it is essential to Calvinist doctrine and theology. Those denominations and groups which do not hold to Reformed/Calvinist theology may have removed or muted certain aspects of the full PSA view, yet most still hold some aspects of PSA in their understanding of the Atonement.

Analysis

While the original Substitutionary Atonement theory is sound, there are a number of problems with the Reformed variation of Penal Substitution (PSA). Adherents of PSA theory believe that this view is very well supported Biblically, but much of this support is either the result of reading their own preconceived assumptions into scripture, or the result of ‘logical’ inferences based upon their assumptions.

Where Substitutionary Atonement has got it right are primarily in the areas of the theory that were formulated prior to the Reformation. Sin does create a debt of Justice to God that man cannot repay. Our wickedness and our evil deeds are an offense against God’s honor that justly invokes his wrath. We are incapable of repaying that debt.

The idea that God must receive satisfaction of this debt is more open to debate. While this idea may seem simply a given, and beyond question to many today, it was actually not known in Christian thought until it was proposed by St. Anselm. Even then this idea was controversial and it was rejected by many of the best teachers of that age. This idea is not actually found in scripture, and it is an example of one of the logical inferences that we make based on our concept of justice.

The question then becomes, is our understanding of justice correct? Do we understand justice as the bible presents it? Or are we holding the Bible, and ultimately God, to our standard, rather than holding ourselves to God’s standard? I will examine this question more fully later and hopefully come to an answer.

The problems with the post-reformation PSA theory begin with the idea that sin must absolutely be punished. At first glance this might seem to be the exact same question posed in the paragraph above, but there is actually a key difference. Satisfaction of a debt and punishment are not necessarily the same thing. The original theory of Substitution was based on the idea of satisfaction, not necessarily punishment. The difference is in the concept of restitution.

Biblically the concept of justice revolves around making restitution. As stated earlier, restitution is the idea that the person who did wrong, rights the wrong that they did by repaying or restoring the damage done. For example if you stole your neighbor’s cow, or if you killed your neighbor’s cow, restitution requires that you either replace the animal with one of equal value, or you pay the value of the cow in money, etc.

Punishment itself, it could be argued, was seen as a kind of restitution. It is essentially the last resort in the case of a person who cannot, or will not make restitution by normal means. In such a case payment would be extracted from their person. For example, in some cases when a person could not make restitution, they might be sold as a slave or indentured servant to pay off their debt. In the case of murder no restitution is possible both since the victim is dead and because the criminal cannot restore equal value. As a result the life of the criminal is forfeit. In other words, they must pay with everything they have, their very life.

The point here is that debts of justice do not automatically require punishment as the only form of payment. In fact, in the bible restitution through payment of something valuable is preferable to simply punishment. This points to a deeper and very important difference in the concept s of justice involved. In the view of many people today, and in the PSA view, justice is purely about punishment. In this case justice is defined as bringing harm to the transgressor. Biblically, on the other hand, justice is primarily about restitution. In this case justice is not about harming the transgressor, rather it is about restoring the damage done to the victim. Punishment, or bringing harm to the transgressor, only becomes necessary when that person cannot or will not make restitution.

The previous examples dealt primarily with the concept of justice between men, but what about justice between man and God? How does one make restitution to God for moral transgression? Interestingly in the Mosaic Covenant God recognizes different classes of sins against the Covenant and requires different responses. Specifically there were some sins for which a person could offer up a sacrifice and receive forgiveness, and there were other sins referred to as “High handed sins” or “defiant” sins for which no offering could be made. In the case of a high handed sin the person was simply cut off from the covenant (Numbers 15:30). This reflects the same principle that in some cases restitution can be made, but in others restitution is not possible.

It must always be kept in mind that in terms of sins against the covenant, the goal was always to restore the sinner to good standing in the covenant. The reason that “High handed” sins can’t be atoned for is precisely because the person who commits such an act is unrepentant. They are unwilling to make true restitution. As a result the only option left is that they must suffer the punishment of being cut off. The phrase “high handed” sins refers to cases in which people sinned deliberately and flagrantly against God’s law. The person in this case is willfully, deliberately defying God. This principle corresponds to what John says in his epistle regarding sin that is mortal and sin that is not mortal (1st John 5:16-17).

It is also pertinent to this topic that the sacrifices given for sin in the Old Testament are often referenced with the language of atonement. For example Leviticus 4:35 states “The priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he committed, and he shall be forgiven” The atonement spoken of was a sacrificial offering. This leads into the next problem with Penal Substitution.

Because the Penal Substitution view of Justice demands that all sins be repaid by punishment, it results in a mistaken understanding of sacrifice. In the Penal Substitution view sacrifices for sin are necessarily understood to be vicarious acts of punishment. In other words, when a lamb was sacrificed as a sin offering, the lamb was being punished with death as a vicarious substitute for the sins of the people. This view is not found in scripture, however. In fact I would argue that this view is contradictory to the scriptural understanding of sacrifice.

First, there is only one instance in scripture where the sins of the people were symbolically transferred to an animal. This instance is the so called “scapegoat” on the Old Testament feast of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. It is important to note, the scapegoat that symbolically carried the sins of the people was not sacrificed.

Many people point to the ritual act of the priest laying his hand on the head of the animal as an act of transference of sin. There is, however, no biblical basis for this idea and there is good reason not to assume this. It is more likely that the act of laying a hand on the animal was an act of dedication to God.

Under the Old Covenant sacrificial system, God mandated specific sacrifices for sins (Leviticus 5:5-13). Specifically if a person sinned they had to bring a lamb for sacrifice. If they could not afford a lamb, however, they could bring two pigeons, and if they could not afford two pigeons, the sinner could instead bring a bag of flour. This makes no sense if the point of sacrifice was vicarious punishment of sin. How can sins be transferred to a bag of flour? How can a bag of flour be punished?

This clearly fits into the idea of satisfaction or restitution, but not into Penal Substitution. In other words, the purpose of sacrifice was not punishment, but rather to offer up something of value to God. This is also supported by the fact that throughout the Law, sacrifices are referred to as “an aroma pleasing to the Lord.” The whole point of sacrifice is not punishment of sin, but rather offering up something worthy to God.

Throughout the bible sacrifice is virtually synonymous with worship. You could almost go so far as to say that there is no such thing as real worship without sacrifice. Even our praise and thanksgiving are regarded as sacrifices. Sacrifice was always offered as an act of worship, and worship always involves some form of sacrifice. Changing the understanding of sacrifice to be a form of vicarious punishment does immense harm to the entire relationship between God and man throughout scripture.

Sacrifice, Biblically is always understood as the act of offering up something of value to God. Further, the scriptures clearly teach that what God values in the act of sacrifice is the heart of the person desiring to give their best to God. After all, what need has God of flour, or pigeons, or lambs, or gold and silver? God does not need any of the things we offer in sacrifice. What is pleasing to him is the heart that offers itself up. This is why it was viewed as a sin and a shame to offer sacrifices that cost you nothing. It was not that sacrifice was meant as punishment. On the contrary, the point was to demonstrate, or to actualize the desire of a person to offer their whole self, up to God. For that reason sacrifice had to be costly. It had to be the best you could give.

The reason that blood was the primary sacrifice was because nothing is more precious than a pure life. God makes very clear in the Old Testament that the reason the Israelites were forbidden from drinking blood was the same reason that God considered blood to be a sacred offering for sin, because the life is in the blood. This should not be understood as an act of giving death in punishment. On the contrary it was an act of giving life in worship.

The English word worship literally means to ascribe worth. The fundamental act of worship is that we ascribe worth to God. We recognize his worthiness. This is also the reason that sacrifice is virtually synonymous with worship. Offering up things we value, things that are costly to us, and things that God desires, is the ultimate statement of God’s worth to us. He is worthy that we should give to him all that we value, and all that he desires.

Earlier I referred to the interesting case of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The ritual prescribed by God on this day also strikes a blow against the idea of sacrifice as punishment for sins. There were a number of sacrifices offered on Yom Kippur, but the main ritual revolved around two lambs. The lambs had to be identical. They were brought before the high priest who would then cast lots on the lambs. One lamb would be designated by lot as the “lamb for Yahweh”. The other lamb would be designated as the “lamb for Azazel”.

The full meaning of this ritual is not clearly explained in scripture and as a result there has been a flurry of speculation about the meaning of “Azazel”.  This word appears nowhere else in the bible. It has usually been translated as “escape” or “disappear” and thus the phrase “lamb for Azazel” has been rendered as “scapegoat”. In fact this is how the term scapegoat was brought into the English language.

Azazel, however, is a proper name and in extra biblical Jewish literature, specifically the Book of Enoch, Azazel was the leader of the angels who rebelled prior to the flood and spread evil upon the earth.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of what Azazel means, the rest of the ritual is clear. Once the lambs were designated by lot, the sins of the people were confessed by the high priest over the goat for Azazel. The sinless lamb for Yahweh was then taken and sacrificed to God. The goat for Azazel, however, was not sacrificed. Instead it was taken outside of the city, out into the desert and let go.

Traditionally the so called scapegoat was killed in the desert to prevent it from wandering back into civilized lands. However in scripture its death is not actually mandated. It is simply stated that the goat must be taken into the wilderness.

Regardless of how you understand the meaning of Azazel, this ritual clearly does not fit with what we would expect based on Penal Substitution theory. On Yom Kippur the sinless lamb is offered to God as a sacrifice, but the scapegoat who bears all the sins of the people is not sacrificed. In fact the scapegoat is specifically designated as not for Yahweh and though the scapegoat was traditionally killed, its death is not prescribed as part of the scriptural requirement.

The sacrifice of the lamb for Yahweh on the Day of Atonement cannot be understood as vicarious punishment because the sins of the people were transferred to the scapegoat, not the lamb. The lamb was offered up, as all sacrifices were, and are, as an offering of something pure and pleasing to God.

Here again we see the same opposed views of justice at work. One view holds that sacrifice was vicarious punishment. This reflects the idea that justice requires harm be done to transgressors. The other view holds that sacrifice was and is an act of worship. It was the offering up of something valuable and pure to God. This reflects the idea that justice is really about restitution. It is not about harming the transgressor, but rather about repairing the damage that was done and restoring what was lost.

There is still a notable misunderstanding of sacrifice that I should comment on here because it has profound implications for understanding divine justice and sin. The error that many Israelites made repeatedly in the Old Testament was that they became focused on the idea of offering something to God as though God needed the things. They forgot that the real point of sacrifice was that in the act of sacrifice they offered up their own heart. This points out a truth that is present in all of God’s interactions, commandments, and laws for mankind. They are made for our sake, not for God’s. Though we must make restitution to God, it is not for his benefit, but for ours. God is not harmed by sin. The damage of our transgression is not done to God, but to ourselves. As a result it is we that need to be restored and repaired. Thus in the act of sacrifice, in the act of making restitution, we are the ones being restored and repaired.