Monday, November 06, 2017

Parsing penal substitution

Many evangelicals regard penal substitution as the heart and soul of the Gospel. Indeed, on one definition, penal substitution is a definitive feature of evangelical identity. Yet many Arminians reject penal substitution. Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholics typically reject penal substitution. Some objections are philosophical. I've addressed philosophical objections. In this post, I'd like to focus on some prooftexts for penal substitution. Because these texts share a common theme, I won't repeat the same comments on every text. What I say about one text is often applicable to another. 

I'm going to focus on the most straightforward passages. I'll resist the temptation to include the Johannine doctrine of the atonement (e.g. Jn 1:29; 11:51-52; 1 Jn 2:2), in part because there's no one compact verse that summarizes the Johannine doctrine. Rather, it's strung out in several different passages, so a proper treatment needs to study these in combination. That merits a separate treatment. By the same token, I'll resist the temptation to include Rom 3:21-26, in part because that's a very complex passage, with some loaded terms. So that, too, merits a separate treatment. In addition, Rom 3:25 and 1 Jn 2:2 employ the controverted term hilasmos. That also merits separate analysis.  

One hermeneutical consideration to keep in mind is that Scripture isn't written in a technical way that absolutely excludes every conceivable interpretation but one by process of elimination. If it were written that way, it would be impossibly cumbersome and inaccessible to most readers. Instead, the style of Scripture is designed to convey a general impression to the implied reader. 


Vicarious atonement

A vicarious or substitutionary relation or transaction involves one agent acting on behalf of another. He does or undergoes something so that a second party won't have do it or undergo it. A one-to-many relation is a common clue for a vicarious or substitutionary action. 

Penal substitution

That's a special case of the general principle (vicarious atonement). In this type of transaction, one agent suffers punishment to spare a second party. 


The recipient has ascribed status, as if he personally performed the meritorious or demeritorious action, when, in fact, that's the result of a second party.


This is sometimes presented as an alternative to substitution. Yet representation is typically substitutionary: an agent acting in the interests of another. Acting on their behalf by doing something for them, instead of their doing it themselves. 


This is sometimes presented as an alternative to substitution. Christ suffers with us rather than suffering for us. 

That, however, is a false dichotomy. It's quite possible for an agent to share in the suffering of another, yet switch places. Take the famous case of Fr. Kolbe, who volunteered to die in the stead of a fellow inmate. 

1. Exodus 12

5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. 7 “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it...13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

The pascal lamb dies in place of Jewish firstborn males. By slaughtering the lamb and painting its blood on the door jam, their life is spared. 

2. Leviticus 16

21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

i) The vicarious symbolism of the transaction is transparent. 

ii) By itself, that falls short of penal substitution. But from a counterfactual standpoint, what would be the fate of Israelites if they didn't have the sacrificial system to atone for their sins? Admittedly, it doesn't actually atone for their sins. It functions as a placeholder. But it defers eschatological judgment until messiah redeems his people. 

3. Isaiah 53

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.

i) The passage can't be a personification of Israel, for the passage contains a sustained contrast between the one acting for the sake of others. 

ii) Guilty Israel can't be a guilt offering. 

iii) Some scholars think the innocent victim was the prophet or some long-forgotten individual. However, Isaiah depicts the servant in Yahwistic terms, indicating that the Suffering Servant is no less than Yahweh in disguise (Isa 52:13; cf. 6:1; 33:10; 57:15).

iv) In the Assyrian deportation and Babylonian Exile, Israel did suffer for her sins, so this oracle has reference to a different kind of suffering: Israel wasn't spared historical judgment, but due to the actions of the Redeemer, will be spared eschatological judgment (i.e. damnation). 

iv) This doesn't mean every Jew will be saved. And it's not restricted to Jews. Rather, it's what Israel represents in this passage. Israel stands for sinners, whom the messiah redeems. Of course, someone can evade this by denying the prophetic character of the text, but that's a separate issue.

4. Mark 10:45

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

i) The preposition (anti) implies substitution. However, the vicarious nature of the transaction doesn't turn on the particular nuance of a particular preposition. For the one-to-many relation implies substitution, apart from the preposition.

ii) Likewise, a ransom takes the place of the slave/captive(s). The text is using a payment substitution metaphor. 

iii) That he dies for the sake of others suggests he will die in their place. 

iv) If the death of Christ in Mark has a penal character, then that's penal substitution. Cf. 14:24–which alludes to Isa 53: 11-12, as well as the sacrificial cultus (e.g. Lev 4:7,18,25,30,34).

v) In the Mosaic cultus, redemption of the firstborn spared the firstborn. 

vi) The verse is arguably a summary of the suffering servant prophecy (esp. Isa 53:12).

5. Romans 5:6-8

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Here we have a dual contrast:

i) One dies for many

ii) A sinless redeemer dies for sinners

(i) already indicates a vicarious principle, while the contrast in (ii) reinforces the vicarious nature of the transaction. Taken in combination, it clearly enunciates vicarious atonement. 

Moreover, the context is forensic, so it has the more specific import of penal substitution. 

6. Romans 5:15-21

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

i) The one-to-many relation between the redemptive act of Christ and those he redeemed is necessarily vicarious. He acted in their interest. They accrue the benefit. It's not a random benefit, but designed with them in mind. 

ii) There's an exchange. Christ dies as a consequence of their sins, while they are saved as a consequence of his redemptive death. 

iii) Since death is a penalty for sin (cf. 6:23), vicarious atonement implies penal substitution.  

7. 1 Corinthians 15:3

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.

i) This is implicitly vicarious. A sinless Redeemer dies for sinners. He didn't die for his own sin. And they won't die for their own sins in the sense of eschatological judgment, for Jesus takes the burden of their sin upon himself. 

ii) Isa 53 lies in the background of 1 Cor 15:3. Cf. S. Gathercole, Defending Substitution, 64-68. That explains what Paul means by Christ's death as the fulfillment of OT Scripture.

8. 2 Corinthians 5

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised...19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation...21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

"One died for all" is a substitutionary principle. They died vicariously in his redemptive death on their behalf. Likewise, there's the exchange between his righteousness and their sin. Their guilt is transferred to him while his righteousness is transferred to them. Their guilt is extrinsic to Christ while his righteousness is extrinsic to them. And this is penal substitution because their transgressions will not be held against them due to his sacrificial death. 

It maybe that Paul is alluding to Isa 53:10, where the messiah is a sin offering. Cf. G. K Beale, "The Old Testament Background of Reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5–7 and its Bearing on the Literary Problem of 2 Corinthians 6.14–7.1," NTS 35/4 (October 1989), 550-581.

9. Galatians 3:10-14

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

i) The "curse" alludes to the ominous curse sanctions in Deut 27-28. Jesus assumes the penalty on their behalf and in their stead. 

ii) There's some dispute about the identity of those whom Christ redeems. In context, does it have reference to Jews or gentiles? Arguably, the immediate sample concerns the recipients of the letter. The Galatians would naturally assume that Paul is talking about them. Not exclusively, but certainly inclusively. 

iii) According to one commentator, the action is not vicarious:

The substitutionary meaning ("in our place" or "in our stead") would imply that Christ took upon himself a penalty that ought to be imposed on human beings. For Paul, however, human beings apart from Christ are already under a curses (v10a); the issue is redemption from this already-existing situation…The idea is not that Christ became the curse from which "we" are then granted an exemption, but that Christ shared "our" predicament in order to liberate "us" from that predicament, along with himself. M. De Boer, Galatians, 211-12. 

i) That's overly subtle. Yes, there's a sense in which sinners already stand under a curse, but the vicarious dynamic involves Jesus taking over their curse. He takes that out from under them by taking that upon himself. They are no longer under a curse due to his redirecting the curse from them to himself. He draws their fire. 

ii) Unlike ordinary humans, who are born into that predicament, Christ doesn't simply find himself in that predicament, but volunteered to enter into our plight. 

iii) Of course, the death of Christ isn't vicarious in the sense that if he dies, we won't. What sets his death apart and makes it vicarious is the penal, sacrificial character of his death. His death absorbs eschatological judgment. It's not about life and death in the here-and-now, but about the kind of afterlife that awaits Christians in virtue of the atonement. They no longer face damnation. 

iv) In Romans and Galatians, Paul uses Hab 2:4 is a prooftext for sola fide. That leaves some commentators scratching their heads, because they think that's not what Habakkuk meant (e.g. Richard Longenecker's commentary on Romans). According to the conventional objection, the Hebrew word (emuna) means faithfulness rather than faith. So they think Paul's appeal to Habakkuk is off the mark. 

However, "faithfulness" doesn't fit the context of Habakkuk. In the Prophets, faithfulness typically has reference to fidelity to the Mosaic covenant. Doing what the law commands or avoiding what the law forbids.

We need to distinguish between the meaning of words and the meaning of concepts. It's an oracle about deliverance through judgment. Impending military judgment to punish Israel. But in reference to a future event, there's nothing for you to do. Nothing to obey or disobey. In the original setting, it can't have reference to law-keeping or Torah observance

Rather, it's about waiting rather than doing. So Paul's appeal to Habakkuk is right on target. In context, Hab 2:4 is dealing with the concept of faith: trusting in God to preserve people despite the horrific threat of military invasion and loss of life. An attitude rather than an action. 

That dovetails with Paul's accent on faith. Attitudes about the future are necessarily trustful or distrustful. Optimistic or pessimistic. Hopeful or fearful. In this case, trusting God's wisdom and benevolence, despite a terrifying oracle.

v) Another conventional objection is that Habakkuk doesn't say that those who are justified by faith shall live but rather that the justified shall live by faith. So how does that prove sole fide?

Yet in context, justification is not a reward for Torah observance or legal fidelity, since that's not what's in view–but trusting in God's promises. 

So that's consistent with Paul's position that justification is a gracious status contingent on faith in God, rather than a reward for obedience (works of the law). 

In addition, Hab 2:4 is probably alluding to Abraham's justifying faith (Gen 15:6), which circles back to Paul's position.

vi) Vicarious atonement and justification by faith go together. Vicarious atonement and penal substitution preclude self-justification, for one agent acting on behalf of and in lieu of another is the antithesis of individuals doing it by and for themselves.  

10. Philippians 3:9

not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ [or the faithfulness of Christ], the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

i) Scholars dispute whether the phrase should be rendered "through faith in Christ" (e.g. Fee, Silva), or "through the faithfulness of Christ" (e.g. O'Brien, Bockmuehl). Either way we render it, the relation is still vicarious. "Faith in Christ" involves trusting in the actions of another on your behalf rather than trusting in your own actions. "The faithfulness of Christ" implies that his action is determinative–in implicit opposition to your own.

But conceptually, I think it's a better balance to have "depends on faith" complement the "faithfulness of Christ". Justification is still on the basis of faith. Implicit is a double antithetical parallel:

a) Not our own righteousness, but Christ's righteousness

b) Not our own fidelity, but the fidelity of Christ

"Depends on faith" then represents self-resignation rather than self-justification, as you pin all your hopes on the efforts of another, acting for you and without you. Paul presents these as mutually exclusive alternatives. To have Christ's righteousness is opposed to having one's own righteousness, or vice versa.  

iii) It's sometimes objected that the text refers to the righteousness of God rather than Christ, but in context, the righteousness of God is mediated in the person of the Incarnate Son (Phil 2:6-11).

11. 1 Peter 2:21-24

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

i) Taken by itself, v21 isn't necessarily vicarious, since Christ is setting an example which Christians are expected to follow. So it's a repeatable action. 

ii) There are, however, discontinuities as well as continuities between his action and theirs. Christ is sinless, Christians are not. So his sin-bearing act (v24) is unique. 

iii) Peter's statement is studded with imagery and allusions from Isa 53. Cf. K. Jobes, 1 Peter, 194. If Isa 53 illustrates penal substitution, or if that's how Peter understood Isa 53, then his own summary of Isa 53, which uses that messianic oracle to gloss the work of Christ, is penal substitutionary in character. 

iv) V24 alludes to the curse sanction in Deut 21:23–something 1 Peter shares in common with Romans and Galatians. That seems to be a general part of the apostolic kerygma. 

12. 1 Peter 3:18

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.

i) The contrast between an innocent agent ("just") acting for the benefit of guilty agents ("unjust") is vicarious. Their guilt disqualifies them from acting on their own behalf. "Christ is in the 'righteous' category all by himself. 'Unrighteous' refers to everyone else," G. Forbes, 1 Peter, 122.

ii) That's reinforced by the unrepeatable feature of Christ's suffering. A once-for-all-time action. The finished work of Christ. 

iii) The "righteous" standing of Christ probably alludes to Isa 53:11 (LXX), especially since Peter already made extensive that oracle in 1 Pet 2:21-24. This echoes that earlier discussion. 

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