Pieces of the penal puzzle

sacrificed-animal-clipart-7Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering ‘instead of us’ (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just ‘punishment’ (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins (death as well as the despair of estrangement from God).

I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is through one of the following ways:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

He concludes:

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.

That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note also that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises, the third prop in each set.


The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation. God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.

A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” But this is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.

There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. More importantly, if the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to our choosing, by definition they aren’t the kind of thing that can be borne by another. We also should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us (in part) in consequence of our evil, and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers the consequence of our sin.

Lastly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are his concern. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Heb 10.8, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law.

The list could go on.

My own sense is that God works within the sacrificial system because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.

lambI suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.

One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”

Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.

Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. But where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary. It is to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from its death to expose once and for all its failure and impotence.

Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.

11 comments on “Pieces of the penal puzzle

  1. Mike H says:

    Good stuff Tom.

    Another thought. In what way is it even meaningful to refer to the benefits of the “payment” of the cross (whether that payment be pain, or death, or forsakenness or some combination of them) as “forgiveness”? The two seem mutually exclusive… unless you really play with the words. Sticking with the forensic/economic language, a paid debt isn’t being “forgiven”. That wouldn’t make sense in literally any other context in which we’d reference “forgiveness”.

    That sort of hole in PSA theory (and there are many others) is enough to deconstruct it, but a deconstruction isn’t really enough. By itself it doesn’t inspire faith. Saying what IS happening is key, and the directions you go here strike me as really really good.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Matt Wright says:

    Tom, as always thank you for your perspective. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the justice argument that is also at the heart of PSA advocacy, which goes something like “If there is no punishment/penalty for sin, then God is not just and the moral fabric of the universe erodes…(etc.)” From a human perspective, this makes sense (which is a big reason why I think PSA remains so prominent), because retributive justice is baked into our humanity. In fact, it’s so deep-seated in us that many Christians see it as part of the image of God in us.

    But what right do we have to think our ways are necessarily God’s ways? I thought of Isaiah 55:

    6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
    7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
    Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

    8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
    declares the LORD.
    9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    I don’t see anything about punishment-as-justice there, or blood sacrifice, or guilt offering. In fact, the flow of the passage directly links God’s mercy and “free pardon” in response to our repentance with the distance between His thoughts and ours. Thank you for lending your voice to this conversation so clearly and consistently, Tom!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike H says:

      I agree Matt.

      It kinda drives me nuts how the “higher ways” part is often torn from it’s context – generally in support of wrath and the sacrificial principle. From the typical usage, you’d think that humanity is the non-violent bearer of free forgiveness and grace, but God (whose ways are mysteriously “higher”) is the harsh and “just” one. “Higher” becomes descriptive of…well…potentially anything.

      I see the exact opposite in Isaiah 55. It’s not God’s ineffability or legal right to demand satisfaction on display here – it is the “he will have mercy on them…he will freely pardon” that is the higher ways. These are the “my thoughts” that are contrasted with “your thoughts”.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Good point, Matt.

      We ought to say that if there are no “consequences” for our choices (consequences fitting the nature of the choices, evil or loving, etc.), the moral fabric of things erodes. That much seems clear. But it doesn’t follow that such consequences must be a “punishment.”

      “Justice” of course is a non-negotiable. God certainly isn’t “unjust.” But justice is often equated with punishment, and that doesn’t follow. Justice should entail ‘consequences’, yes. But consequences needn’t be punitive to be just.

      In forgiving us, God is not avoiding justice. He is ‘just’ in forgiving us.



    • Excellent, Matt.
      God is not a moralist- God is gratuitous love. God is not offended by sin. Rather God is grieved when we walk in unlove.
      God calls us to love.
      Encouraging love not punishing sin is God’s concern.


  3. Ted Grimsrud says:

    This is excellent, Tom.

    Another angle is to say that PSA is inherently supersessionist and as a consequence is blind to the presence already in the OT of everything needed for forgiveness and salvation. As you say, forgiveness precedes the cross.

    God simply is not a punisher.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. josiahmacrae says:

    excellent article!


  5. Tom says:

    OK, so given what Scot says about the unavoidability of penal-sub atonement, read this:


    Here he agrees that the notion of satisfying divine wrath is foreign to the NT.

    Doesn’t seem consistent.



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