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What is Penal Substitution Atonement?

It is often alleged that a Penal Substitutionary model of the Atonement (PSA) is convoluted and wrong-headed. Its critics allege “the scripture does not tell us of an angry retributive Father forsaking and smiting his Son. People everywhere just don’t get how you can hold a theory that condones a father killing his son as a condition for forgiving people.” Others use more inflammatory language, calling the doctrine of the atonement “Cosmic child abuse,” or “a hat-tip to the cult-like practice of human sacrifice.”

When Abraham offered Isaac, God showed his disapproval of the practice of sacrificing humans, saying that He himself would provide the sacrifice.

It is easy to criticise a theory when it is characterised beyond recognition. This is nothing but a straw man, constructed by its opponents to easily tear down. The result is it leaves the real PSA model untouched.

According to the penal substitution theory of atonement, Christ dying on the cross bore the penalty of sin that we deserve, so that the demands of God’s justice are met and we may be forgiven and our guilt removed.

Controversial is the statement among penal substitution theorists that “God punished Christ.” It is better to say that Christ bore the suffering that, had it been inflicted on me, would have been the punishment of my sins. This still counts as penal substitution.

Notice in this definition there is no emotive language describing God’s anger, neither towards his Son or at sin. There is no forsaking nor smiting. Even the term punishment may be unduly emotive. None of these are necessary for PSA.

What is necessary for PSA are that Christ’s death be (1) vicarious, or on-behalf-of — the substitutionary part, “Christ died for our sins” and (2) punitive — serving for the penalty or compensation — thats the penal part; a legal transaction. These are both expressed in the following verses.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-3

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

1 Peter 3:18

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of the your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our tresspasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Colossians 2:13-14

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