Penal substitution is an aspect of the doctrine of atonement. It is the belief that Jesus died in our place ad a substitute bearing the penalty for our sin. One of the objections to it is that it perpetrates “redemptive violence” so that the violence enacted against Jesus is itself seen as redemptive. Recently in conversation on social media this came up with a friend. They explained that they were open to describing atonement as in some way substitutionary” because Jesus is described as dying on our behalf but not penal because they have heard it suggested that the level of violence used was necessary in order for it to be effective and they cannot find that in Scripture.
My response is that they are right, they won’t find an emphasis on levels of violence needed to pay back the price of sin. This perception has not been helped by the tendency of some talks to emphasise the level of physical torture and films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ similarly putting the emphasis on the violence and bloodshed. In contrast, whilst scripture bears witness to the mocking, beating, crown of thorns and nails piercing his hands and feet, the Gospels are fairyl understated on the physical things.
However, I would want to argue that there is clear reference in Scripture to the penal element of atonement and that this is in fact central. I want to suggest three Bible passages worth considering in relation to this. First of all, have a look at Isaiah 53. There, the prophet describes the chosen servant as “stricken” and “afflicted.” We believed that this done to him by God with the implication that it is just judgement, deserved in some way. However, the prophet in the famous words of verse 5 says “no.” It was not for his own sin that he suffered but rather for ours, pierced and crushed for our sin, he bears chastisement. In other words, he receives punishment.
Secondly, look at Romans 3:25-26. Why is Christ put forward as a propitiation? It is in order that God might be shown to be just and one of the reasons is that he has shown forbearance towards previous sin throughout history. In other words, God’s justice is seen and demonstrated at The Cross.
Thirdly, we have to go back to Genesis 2-3 and there we see that God warns that there is judgement for taking from the fruit of The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That punishment is death. This is important for two reasons. First of all, it emphasises that sin is a wrong against God and deserving of punishment. This is also brought out in Romans 1-2 as well. This is why it important to talk about The Cross as penal. Secondly, it makes clear what the penalty is, that it is death.
The second point is important because it makes it clear that the specific punishment is death. It’s not about a level of pain inflicted, it is about death, the removal of life. It is worth noting that for Adam and Eve, death is experienced immediately in the form of exile from the garden and that the imagery of exile becomes closely linked to punishment and thus to death in the history of God’s people too. This reminds us that the point about calvary is not that Jesus suffered beating and torture but that he died. When Jesus says “it is finished”, it is not that he is saying “now I’ve endured enough pain.” Indeed, given that those alongside him have their legs broken to speed up death, it may be argued that he could have endured more if that was the aim. Rather, he was declaring that atonement was fulfilled and completed in his act of dying.
Now, I have myself argued two things, first of all that part of the act of crucifixion was intended to shame and so I find that a helpful reminder that Christ is the one who is exposed to shame so that our shame might be covered. However, this does not make the mockery and beating central, it is simply a way of emphasising that shame is part of the problem of the fall as well as guilt.
Secondly, I would happily say that the fact that God the Son came to die shows the seriousness of sin. However, the seriousness is not shown in the specific nature of death. Indeed that death was the penalty and thus sin serious was already known. Rather, it is the identity of who comes to suffer and die that shows the seriousness of it, that God the Son turns up, taking on the form of the servant and suffers and dies in our place shows that sin is serious. Jesus was the only one who could do this. No prophet, king or priest could do this for us and we could not do it for ourselves. There have been some horrendous misrepresentations about what Calvary was about but please don’t let them turn you off from the good news that we find at the Cross. “Whilst we were still sinners, Christ died