I had the privilege of virtually attending the 2020 Together for the Gospel conference this month. Normally, this conference is held while we’re doing our Praise Share on-air fundraiser with my full-time job at Encouragement Media Group. Due to COVID-19, the conference was changed to accommodate social distancing.
During the conference, a couple of speakers mentioned the phrase “penal substitution.” My wife asked what that meant, so I thought I would share the meaning, as well as why this idea is being mentioned again.
First of all, Wayne Grudem provides this definition of penal substitution:
The view of Christ’s death presented here has frequently been called the theory of “penal substitution.” Christ’s death was “penal” in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a “substitution” in that he was a substitute for us when he died. This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment of the penalty for sin (see below).
This view of the atonement is sometimes called the theory of vicarious atonement. A “vicar” is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another. Christ’s death was therefore “vicarious” because he stood in our place and represented us. As our representative, he took the penalty that we deserve. 1
If you have grown up in the church, you probably wonder what is the big deal? Of course this is what Christ has done for His people. The reason it is being brought up again, is that recently, some theologians or preachers are downplaying the idea of penal substitution. It comes in the form of trying to separate the God of the Old Testament, from the New, by saying, “Christians need to unhitch from the Old Testament.” This is not just a difference of opinion, from what Grudem calls orthodox Christianity, this is actually an old heresy. For more information on that, view this article at The Gospel Coalition.
A proper understanding of penal substitution links all of Scripture and glorifies God in Christ. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He had wrath against sin (pre-cross flood, etc. and the cross), has wrath against sin (Rom. 1) and will demonstrate wrath against sin forever (existence of hell). I actually deal with this idea in the Matthew 28 Project.
The wrath of God against sin had to be satisfied by Christ on the cross for the benefit of His people. This is the only way His people could avoid the wrath of God and be made right (aka justified, Rom. 5:9; Eph. 2:3-5). Jesus, the Righteous, had to serve as a substitute for His people who were unrighteous, or His wrath would consume us. There is no path to righteousness, except through the Righteous One being penalized in our place.
We cannot ignore God’s wrath and properly appreciate God’s love. If we do, the cross makes no sense (Isa. 53:5; 1 Jn 4:10), nor does the eternality of hell (Mark 9:43-48; 2 Thess. 1:9).
We cannot ignore God’s wrath and properly appreciate God’s love. If we do, the cross makes no sense, nor does the eternality of hell (Isa. 53:5; 1 Jn 4:10; Mark 9:43-48; 2 Thess. 1:9).Click to tweet
I pray this helps you understand the idea of penal substitution, but more than that, I hope you continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Chrsit and for His glory,
Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 579). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
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