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Pierced for our Transgressions

Category Book Reviews
Date March 9, 2007

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach have together written an explanation and defence of the doctrine of penal substitution under the title Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, March 2007). Here they explain briefly the background to the controversy, and give a few examples of the kinds of arguments with which they engage in the book.

Doctrinal controversy has plagued the church from the earliest days. Debate raged about the deity of Christ in the fourth century, about justification by faith alone in the sixteenth, about the credibility of miracles in the first part of the twentieth.

In recent years, dissenting voices have been raised against a central aspect of the atonement, namely penal substitution ““ the doctrine 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.

Although there had been murmurings for a while, opposition to penal substitution burst onto the popular evangelical scene in 2003 with the publication of Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s book The Lost Message of Jesus, which likened the doctrine to ‘cosmic child abuse’.[1]

A storm of protest about the book prompted the Evangelical Alliance (EA) to organise a public debate in London in October 2004, attended by several hundred people. The following year the EA hosted a symposium at which proponents of penal substitution, including I. Howard Marshall and Simon Gathercole (Aberdeen University) and Garry Williams (Oak Hill Theological College, London), debated with Steve Chalke and a number of other critics of the doctrine from both sides of the Atlantic, including Stuart Murray Williams (UK Anabaptist Network), Steve Motyer and Graham McFarlane (London School of Theology) and Joel Green (Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky).

Although the EA’s own research showed that the vast majority of those present at the symposium affirmed penal substitution, there is nonetheless an increasing number of people who claim the label ‘evangelical’ while openly denying a doctrine once described by J. I. Packer as ‘by and large […] a distinguishing hallmark of the worldwide evangelical fraternity.'[2] Others have had their confidence shaken or are simply bemused that something so much taken for granted in our gospel proclamation could now be denied.

Many of the negative assessments of penal substitution resort to caricature. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s “child abuse” image is perhaps the most notorious, but it is far from unique. Colin Greene claims that the combination of an exclusive him-for-us swap with the notion of punishment makes ‘Christ [“¦] the whipping-boy who appeases the wrath of God,'[3] while Joel Green and Mark Baker argue that ‘the popular model of penal substitution [“¦] represented in songs and sermons’ suggests a ‘startling drama in which God takes on the role of the sadist inflicting punishment, while Jesus, in his role as masochist, readily embraces suffering.'[4] These misleading images perpetuate serious misconceptions about penal substitution, and create more heat than light.

Yet objections of this kind are merely the tip of the iceberg, for opposition to penal substitution is rooted in the scholarly academy, where far more extensive and cogent critiques have been gathering pace for many decades. We found ourselves thrown off balance by the force and sophistication of some of them, and realised that the theological ammunition we had to hand was not up to the job of defending the traditional view.

It was not enough to point to the atoning sacrifices in Leviticus, for some are arguing today that the very vocabulary of atonement does not mean what it has been assumed to mean. It was not enough to argue that God must punish sin in order to uphold his justice, for some have argued that for God to punish a third party in our stead would be a worse injustice than punishing no one at all. It was not even enough to appeal to penal substitution as the traditional view, for some have argued that it was a late addition to the pages of Christian history.

A far more substantial response was needed; without it, the criticisms of penal substitution would rumble on, bolstered by the liberal scholarship that underlies them, and unperturbed by the traditional replies. Reassuringly, careful study did provide satisfying answers, and our confidence in penal substitution has been strengthened as a result. We have space in this short article to give only a few examples.

Historical objections to penal substitution

Many critics argue that penal substitution was virtually unknown in the early church, but arose out of a very particular (and not necessarily biblical) conception of justice prevalent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This view is supported by many of the standard works on church history. For example, L. W. Grensted asserts that, ‘Before the Reformation only a few hints of a Penal theory can be found’,[5] and J. F. Bethune-Baker insists that ‘in the earliest centuries… the sufferings of Christ were not regarded as an exchange or substitution of penalty, or as a punishment inflicted on him by the Father for our sins.'[6]

If true, these charges would be weighty: it would be hard to maintain that penal substitution is taught clearly in Scripture if it had remained undiscovered for nearly 1500 years.

However, an examination of the original writings of the Church Fathers reveals this view to be entirely mistaken. Penal substitution was taught by many of the leading theologians of the early church as far back as the beginning of the second century, including Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus and Gregory the Great.

To focus on one example, Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation contains a persuasive argument for penal substitution based on Genesis 2:17 ““ a text largely ignored by recent studies of the atonement. Athanasius reflects on the fact that Adam’s sin seems to place God in a dilemma:

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption… what, then, was God to do?[7]

Notice that God cannot ‘simply forgive’ people in such a way that the judicial consequences of sin are waived: in the light of his promise in Genesis 2:17, that would make him a liar. But nor can his creative purpose be allowed to fail. The only solution, according to Athanasius, was for the Son of God ““ ‘the Word’ ““ to take upon himself a human body and allow God’s promise of death to be fulfilled in him as our substitute, whilst at the same time overpowering the corruption of death through his resurrection.

The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.[8]

Thus the penal substitutionary death of Christ, according to Athanasius, was central to the purpose of the incarnation, and was absolutely necessary in order to vindicate God’s truthfulness and his creative power. Given that Athanasius was writing in the fourth century, the recent scholarly consensus regarding the doctrine’s supposed lack of ancient pedigree seems rather difficult to defend.

Exegetical objections to penal substitution

John Goldingay, a well-known Old Testament scholar who identifies himself as evangelical, denies that the sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus was concerned with averting God’s anger at sin:

The question of propitiating God’s wrath [“¦] has little place in Leviticus itself. The word anger hardly appears. The languages of atonement-propitiation-expiation and of anger do not come together [“¦] Sacrifice does not directly relate to anger.[9]

If this were true of the Old Testament sacrifices, then it might be possible to argue the same for Christ’s death, which fulfils them. The biblical basis for penal substitution would be seriously undermined.

At first glance Goldingay’s exegesis of Leviticus appears reasonable. Nowhere does the book contain a straightforward statement that ‘if you offer such-and-such a sacrifice, the Lord’s wrath will thereby be turned aside.’ Nor does the language of ‘atonement’, so prominent throughout Leviticus, by itself imply this: although the underlying Hebrew verb kipper can refer to propitiation, several other meanings such as ‘forgive’ and ‘cleanse’ are possible depending on the context.

What, then, are we to conclude? Goldingay has missed the point that Leviticus reveals the propitiatory significance of the OT sacrifices not by explaining their significance when they are performed correctly, but by describing what happens when they are misused. In Leviticus 10, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu approached the Lord in an inappropriate way ““ ‘they offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord’ (vv. 1″“2). A few verses later, it becomes clear that these deaths were a manifestation of God’s wrath, as Moses warns Aaron and his stunned family about their conduct, lest something similar should happen again, ‘and the Lord will be angry with the whole community’ (v. 6). The fiery deaths of Nadab and Abihu contrast markedly with the fire that ‘consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar’ (Leviticus 9:24) during the successful sacrifice recorded a few moments earlier.

Significantly, these events are referred to again in Leviticus 16:1, at the beginning of the instructions concerning the Day of Atonement. This deliberate allusion serves to juxtapose the danger of God’s wrath with the prescription for atonement that follows: God’s anger at sin must be overcome in order to draw near to him, and only by performing the sacrifices in the correct manner is this possible. Within this context, the propitiatory overtones of kipper (a word found sixteen times in Leviticus 16) are unmistakeable.

In response to Goldingay’s specific criticism, God’s wrath would be seen in Leviticus far more often were it not for the successful operation of the sacrifices set forth by God to avert it. It is precisely because sacrifice does relate directly to anger that we see the latter so rarely!

Theological objections to penal substitution

Some claim that penal substitution makes God guilty of injustice, inflicting punishment on an innocent man. Such a doctrine, they say, plainly contradicts the Scriptural teaching that guilty people, and only guilty people, should be punished: ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent ““ the Lord detests them both’ (Proverbs 17:15).

Some who believe in penal substitution have replied by pointing out that Christ suffered willingly, or by noting that God gave himself in Christ to suffer in our place. But while these things are gloriously true, neither actually answers the objection. If guilty sinners are acquitted and an innocent third party is punished, then irrespective of his willingness an injustice has been committed, and it is unthinkable that God would do such a thing.

How are we to respond? The flaw in the argument is the unstated premise that Christ is unrelated to the believer, an unconnected third party. This is not true, for believers are in union with Christ ““ he is in us, and we are in him, indwelt by his Spirit (e.g. John 17:21; Romans 6:5; 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 1:27; Philippians 1:1). It is for this reason that the imputation of our guilt to Christ and his righteousness to us, his punishment and our acquittal, are just in the sight of God. The apostle Paul captures both sides of the exchange in a single verse: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

This article first appeared in the Oak Hill Yearbook 2007. Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach are grateful to IVP for permission to include material adapted from their forthcoming book, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. For information and reviews see

[1] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 182.
[2] J. I. Packer, ‘What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution’, in Celebrating the Saving Work of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp. 85″“123 (p. 85), previously published in Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974), pp. 3″“45.
[3] Colin Greene, ‘Is the Message of the Cross Good News for the Twentieth Century?’, in Atonement Today, ed. John Goldingay (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 222″“239 (p. 232).
[4] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 30.
[5] L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press / London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1920), p. 191.
[6] J. F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methuen, 1903, reprinted 1933), p. 352.
[7] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), sections 6″“7, p. 32.
[8] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, section 9, p. 35, italics added.
[9] John Goldingay, ‘Your Iniquities Have Made a Separation between You and Your God’, in Atonement Today, ed. John Goldingay (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 39″“53 (p. 51).

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