In referring to opponents of Penal Substitution theory, I'm referring specifically to those who view it as a false view of the Atonement, not merely that it is incomplete (eg those who hold to alternative theories of Atonement may assert their theories are more holistic, but will not necessarily deny that penal substitution is a contributing element within them).


... the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. - Nahum 1:3b NIV

Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent— the Lord detests them both. - Proverbs 17:15 NIV

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. - Exodus 23:7 NIV

If Christ doesn't bear the penalty or punishment for our sins by taking our guilt upon himself, where does the condemnation and punishment go? What is the specific mechanism by which, a sinner can be saved from their sins without making nonsense or lies of the preceding declarations?

  • The specific mechanism is called Baptism and Confession. Baptism (happens once) is when you become an Orthodox Christian, birth or later. Confession is on demand, the more the better, usually in the longer yearly fasts. PS: Reading the OldT without understanding it's mostly superseded by the NewT, is a great source of mislead. Instead of reading the Bible, better read the Holy Fathers' interpretation of The Scriptures first and also lighter books of doctrine and faith or the lives of Saints.
    – CodeAngry
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 17:47

4 Answers 4


The following answer shall be largely influenced by my Roman Catholic faith, so be aware of such a fact while reading. With that said, here we gooooooooo!!!

Penal Substitution And Its Failures

The problem with the penal substitution theory is that it confuses many points that need distinction in order to understand the nature of Christ's sacrifice. For example, under the penal substitution theory there is a reduced consideration of the theological specifications between original sin, committed by our first parents, and actual sin, committed by the individual. The supporters of penal substitution theory simply hold that Christ died for all of our sins, and bore the punishment due to each and every sin. Another point of distinction that is necessary to make that penal substitution theory seems to overlook is the difference between satisfactory punishment and penal punishment. Satisfactory punishment is voluntary and not necessary for the individual undergoing it to undergo it. It thus earns penitential merit for the individual, a merit that by its nature has the opportunity to be shared (hence the Catholic understanding of a Treasury of Merit). An example of what satisfactory atonement theory proponents would hold to be satisfactory punishment is the punishment that Christ went through on the cross and in His death. Penal punishment is not voluntary, for it is accorded by God to souls for a sin that was specifically committed. It thus has no merit opportunity, for it is solely serving to bring about God's justice. It is penal insofar as it is necessary for the sinful soul to undergo the punishment. An example of penal punishment is the fall of man following original sin. Another example is eternal damnation accorded to actual sin that is mortal. These distinctions being stated, it might be easier to understand satisfactory atonement theory more clearly, and to specifically understand its proponents when they state that Christ could not undergo penal punishment.

The major problem with proposing that Christ underwent every single punishment for every single sin is rather obvious; if such were the case Christ would be suffering eternally in hell right now, for the punishment of actual sin is eternal damnation. Penal substitution theory also holds, as you might have guessed, a penal consideration of the nature of Christ's sacrifice. In other words, under penal substitution Christ 'became' a sinner and 'became' the guilty in the eyes of God the Father. An obvious objection to this idea is in the fact that if Christ were to be considered a sinner in the Highest Courts, God would be divided against Himself. Christ could not justly be condemned, for as you said yourself in Proverbs 17:15, God detests condemning the innocent. Also, Christ suffering such punishment would achieve no merits anyway, since as we have discussed penal punishment brings about no merit opportunity. So the matter of Christ's sacrifice thus is not in Christ the innocent being condemned by the Father, which suggests a division within God Himself and no merit opportunity, but in Christ the Perfector of the human race offering some value to humanity that every human, bound by original sin, could not offer. Satisfactory atonement theory proponents suggest that what Christ offered is a satisfactory, or voluntary, penance for original sin. Original sin is understood to be the prison by which all mankind was (is) held, for it was (is) an inescapable inclination to commit actual sin, which condemns men to hell. While we could pay penance for actual sin, it was meaningless without the penance of the more primary matter of original sin. So satisfactory atonement theory holds that Christ offered perfect penance (which included suffering, since penance is a punishment by nature) for original sin. Since this perfect penance was satisfactory, it produced merits that could be shared by those who share a love with and for He who obtained them. Christ suffering a satisfactory punishment for original sin, which implies He remained perfect before the eyes of the Father and that He did not as such suffer every conceivable punishment for every sin, in no way takes away from the glory or power of Christ's Passion. It simply upholds the consistency of God and the coherency of sin and punishment.

I think I have addressed the verse of Proverbs that you used in pointing out that it actually supports satisfactory atonement theory more than penal punishment theory. Now on to the other two verses.

Nahum 1:3

The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.

To suggest that this verse supports an entire theological theory is perhaps incorporating a bit of question begging. But to answer to the objection, I might note that the verse in no way specifies what it means by 'punishment', and my guess is that it doesn't mean 'punishment' in the way that is going to add up to a feasible defense for penal substitution theory. The problem with this line of argumentation is firstly in its assumption regarding those who don't hold to penal substitution theory. Most would not reject the notion that all men are punished for their sins. But we must accept the notion that not all men are punished in the way they could be, or to the full extent that they could be. But for the sake of argument let's assume that this verse is speaking of the full extent of punishment being unavoidable. The second assumption read into it by penal substitution theory supporters is what is meant by 'guilty'. The 'guilty' could very well mean those who are opposing God's will, in which case the matter becomes difficult to address how this correlates to Christ. For Christ would certainly not be opposed to God's will. More so Christians would not be considered 'guilty' because they have faith in Christ, even though they were opposed to God's will at certain points. Obviously Christians do not suffer the 'full extent of God's wrath' so long as they are faithful and justified in their deeds. So we can see with close analysis that this verse truly doesn't get past being relativistic, especially if you try to bend it to a certain position. The better biblical approach is to not pull verses out of context but rather read them as they are.

Exodus 23:7

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

Again, this verse seems to resonate the verse in Proverbs that you posted. As I noted in Proverbs briefly, this verse seems to be not supporting penal substitution, for it notes that God detest condemning the innocent while sparing the guilty. How much more so is it improbable that God would detest Himself, who is the Highest Good and Innocence? The notion that He would suffer a penal punishment as though He were a sinner, at His own bidding mind you, has rather obvious problems, one such example being proven in the verses you posted. To post verses that presuppose satisfactory atonement theory I might add the following:

Leviticus 17:11

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life

Genesis 4:4

...and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering...

Genesis 22:2

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."

Proverbs 21:3

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

All of these verses support the idea that a sacrifice is firstly focused on the notion of offering something to God, albeit amending a debt, that is meant to cleanse us. I might also note that Cain and Abel offering a sacrifice is interesting because it only further interlinks the closeness of sacrifice (penance, punishment, etc) with original sin. It was only after the fall, and probably for the fall, that these sacrifices came to be, carried out for the old notion that we as a race owe something to God. But God does not 'require' sacrifices in a legal sense. This fact is seen in the last Proverbs verse. The nature of these sacrifices are an embodiment of the perfection that is owed to God but that is not achievable through fallen man. Thus is it that we see God being more pleased with more meaningful sacrifices; these sacrifices were predecessors to the true and perfect Sacrifice of Christ, who offered full penance in His perfection for original sin.

  • 3
    Welcome to Christianity.SE! And thanks for offering such a full answer to this question. I hope we'll see more of you here! For a quick introduction and orientation to the site, please do take the Site Tour. About this specific answer, though it becomes clear along the way that your answer is given from a Roman Catholic perspective, it would be a good idea to make that explicit. This site is generally about what whole groups and denominations of Christians believe, rather than what individual Christians belief. But great answer! Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 14:18
  • 1
    No need for a "disclaimer." Just identify the denominational perspective at the beginning or end of the answer. That will actually make it a stronger answer for this site. Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 14:32

This answer is given from the perspective of the "Swedenborgian" or "New Church" denominations that accept the Christian theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Swedenborg rejected penal substitution as completely false and contrary to the plain teachings of the Bible.

The primary question is:

How do opponents of Penal Substitution explain God's declaration that He "will not leave the guilty unpunished"?

However, this and the other verses provided are among the reasons why Swedenborgians reject penal substitution.

As quoted in the question, Proverbs 17:15 says:

Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the Lord detests them both.

And Exodus 23:7 says:

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

And yet, under the penal substitution theory of atonement, that is precisely what happens: the guilty (sinners) are acquitted, and the innocent (Christ) is condemned; an innocent and honest person (Christ) is put to death under a false charge, and the guilty are acquitted.

We do not have to look any farther than these verses to see why the penal substitution theory of atonement is completely false and contrary to the Bible. It violates God's will and God's principles of justice as clearly and explicitly expressed in the Bible itself.

The main verse quoted in the question itself is from Nahum 1:3:

The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.

This, too, is violated by the penal substitution theory. In the penal substitution theory, the guilty (sinners) are left unpunished.

In short:

Penal substitution theory completely violates all three of these Bible verses. It is the penal substitution theory itself that makes "nonsense or lies of the preceding declarations."

The secondary question is:

If Christ doesn't bear the penalty or punishment for our sins by taking our guilt upon himself, where does the condemnation and punishment go? What is the specific mechanism by which, a sinner can be saved from their sins without making nonsense or lies of the preceding declarations?

The Biblical solution for sin is repentance. This is the clear message of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Here are a few key passages in the Old Testament:

From King Solomon's speech at the dedication of the first Temple:

"If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; yet if they come to their senses in the land to which they have been taken captive, and repent, and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned, and have done wrong; we have acted wickedly'; if they repent with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies, who took them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their ancestors, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name; then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you; and grant them compassion in the sight of their captors, so that they may have compassion on them." (1 Kings 8:46-50, italics added)

Excerpts from Isaiah 1, which is all about sin and repentance:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
    (Isaiah 1:16-20)


Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
    and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
    and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
    (Isaiah 1:27-28)

From Ezekiel 18, which clearly spells out God's laws on sin and repentance:

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die. (Ezekiel 18:21-24, italics added)

And here are a few among many similar passages in the New Testament:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)

"Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." (Luke 17:3-4)

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:45-48, italics added)

Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38, italics added)

The New Testament affirms and teaches the same principle stated in Ezekiel 18:21-22 (as also quoted above):

If the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live.

In short, the principle stated in the Bible is that God holds humans guilty of current sins that we continue to commit, not of past sins that we have repented of.

"The specific mechanism by which a sinner can be saved from their sins without making nonsense or lies of the preceding declarations" is "repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).

When we have believed in Jesus, and heeded his call to repent from our sins, and no longer commit them, but to live a righteous life instead, giving God the glory rather than claiming it for ourselves, God then forgives our sins, and none of the transgressions that we have committed are remembered against us.

In short, the Biblical mechanism for saving sinners from their sins is the call to repent of our sins, no longer commit them, and begin a new life of love for God and love for the neighbor. We are then no longer guilty because we are no longer sinning; and due to our current righteous life (which is the life of Christ in us, not our own life) God forgives us for all of our previous sins.

This is the clear teaching of the entire Bible, both Old Testament and New.

For a contemporary presentation of penal substitution as a false doctrine that is contrary to the teachings and message of the Bible, and also contrary to the most basic principles of justice, see my article, Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?


I am about to reveal the truth of the Cross of Christ or the gospel that has not been known to the entire church on earth. I will declare the truth as briefly or as succinctly as possible, although I have written down in book form a number of articles proving this and showing how the Scriptures in their entirety declare the truth of the following.

Let me first say that the penal substitution idea is not mentioned at all in the entire Bible (that is, the perfect Authorized King James Bible). The very idea is most abominable and it is the very denial of why Jesus died; for it denies the meaning of the atonement. Punishing the innocent so that the guilty can go free is a lunatic idea. The church must have come under enchantment to believe this nonsense, for the idea itself is a bewitchment away from the truth. Paul did say to the Galatians regarding them not seeing the truth of the cross of Christ, "who hath bewitched you?" Galatians 3:1 The church has been the victim of sorcery throughout the centuries, and this is why the knowledge of the Bible's Main Point (the cross of Christ), has been stolen from God's people.

Nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned that Jesus paid for our sins or was our substitute. The Bible states that the Son of God was manifested to take away our sins. See 1 John 3:5. Taking away our sins is not paying for our sins. The false idea of Jesus paying for our sins opposes and contradicts the truth of Jesus taking away our sins. For the Bible states that sin is no longer imputed to us through the cross of Christ, because God reconciled the world to himself. See 2 Corinthians 5:19. This is referring to the ignorant world, and not referring to the children of the devil in the world who deliberately delight in evil. See 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 and John 11:49-52. 1 John 3:10 and John 10:26-28.

The atonement is for sins of ignorance. Read Numbers 15:22-36 and you will see it clearly stated. Jesus himself said on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do". See Luke 23:34. Thus Jesus intercedes justifying the people, which means declaring their innocence to God. And Jesus became our high priest and our advocate with the Father to continually prove our innocence to him through the blood of his cross, for the sins of ignorance and weakness of the flesh. See Hebrews 5:1-6 and 1 John 2:1-2. He thus took away our sins in the eyes of God through the cross. Taking away our sins means that our sins are not imputed to us. This is saying that we are innocent. This is God actually saying that we are innocent of all sin through the crucifixion of Christ. And in saying this, God is not declaring something untrue (for he does not lie), but this is what is actually the truth - that we really have not truly sinned. This is the true meaning of justification. We are actually blameless of all "sins of the flesh". It is further stated in Scripture, that we cannot be blameless of sins through the law, but only through Jesus Christ. Believing in him makes us even practically blameless in our actions, because by believing we receive the power to do righteousness. See Acts 13:39. Thus one can be reconciled to God through acts of righteousness by faith, because he has already been reconciled to God even when he did not believe in Jesus, through the atonement. Thus the believer is specially saved from sin through the gift of righteousness (the Holy Spirit in him). See 1 Timothy 4:10 and Romans 5:9-10 and 5:17.

The Scripture saying that our sins are taken away through the atonement is not speaking of us ceasing from sin. For if sins have been done, then just ceasing to do them does not make a person innocent and does not take away those past sins. For, logically, he is still guilty of past sins even if he no longer does them. If sins have been truly committed, then they cannot be taken away and the person who did them cannot ever be innocent. Yet the Scripture says the Lamb of God, on the cross, bore away or took away our sins. See John 1:29 and 1 Peter 2:24.

The point then is that sins of ignorance are not true sins in the eyes of God. But only under the law we appear guilty and as having sinned. However, being guilty isn't the real truth for those who are unmeaning sinners. It isn't the real truth because we have two wills. The flesh sins when the spirit does not. This is why a person can be justified and proven innocent to God. Because he (being a spirit and a child of God in spirit) did not really sin, but only his flesh sinned by the work of the devil against him. See Matthew 26:41 and Romans 7:14-22 and 1 John 3:6-10 and Acts 10:38.

Therefore I show in the following the wondrous way that Jesus reconciled the world to God.

Jesus showed our sins to be acts of righteousness to God, thereby making us acceptable to God. He did this by his act of righteousness in offering himself up to God through what would otherwise be, the very sinful act of crucifying him. For Jesus turned the sin of crucifying him into a righteous offering; because through bearing the sin that was against him, he interpreted the sin to God as man's offering of righteousness in offering up himself. For instead of the sin of ignorantly crucifying him being understood as "sin" to God, this sinful act of crucifying him was interpreted as righteousness to God by Jesus Christ, because he offered himself to God through it, and was representing man in his flesh. This offering up of himself was him interpreting our sins as righteousness to God, or that is, it was him translating our sins into righteousness to God. Thus Jesus made our scarlet sins as white as snow in the eyes of God the Father. See Isaiah 1:18. He revealed the sins of ignorance as acts of righteousness to God, because they were essentially "innocent sins", or had originated in innocence, in intent. Thus this offering placated God (an infinitely emotional being, for God is love) or subdued God's wrath so that he would not unjustly condemn all of mankind for their sins (that is, send us all to an unjust hell). Thus the atonement or propitiation was so that God might be just toward us (because we don't deserve retributive punishment or hell). See Romans 3:23-26. This act of Christ on the cross reconciled man to God. This act of Christ proved mankind's innocence to God (excluding only deliberate evildoers who are the children of the devil). Thus Jesus died to prove our innocence to God. We are "justified by the blood" of Jesus. The blood of Jesus before God is the proof of our innocence. For it is the blood of man and of mankind. By definition, to have "justification" means to have "proof of innocence". And Jesus rose from the dead for our justification. He rose from the dead specifically to be our high priest, and to justify us (that is, prove us innocent) forever by his blood. See Acts 17:26 and Romans 4:25.


By Richard Paulson.

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    Welcome! We're glad you are here, but this answer would be much stronger if you showed, with sources, that it doesn't merely reflect your opinion. I hope you'll take a minute to review how this site is different from others, and better understand how your answer can be supported. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 14:33
  • Hi Nathaniel, I have to disagree with your comment. In the roughly two pages that I have written above, I made 25 Scripture references. So the answer I have given is already very strong. It is in fact, incontrovertible if you would but take the time to study what I have written, which means looking up the verses and doing more personal study. You could not have done that in such a short time. The Scripture is my only Source. I will not quote outside of Scripture to prove the obvious gospel which only blindness and brainwashing is the reason why people don't see it. Nothing here is my opinion. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 23:20
  • 2
    The reason for my comment is not that your view is wrong or unbiblical, but that it demonstrates a misunderstanding of how this site works. The purpose of this site is not to argue for and identify the "truth," but to describe the teachings of recognizable Christian groups. Advocating for your own interpretations, however correct they may be, doesn't belong here. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 2:04
  • You are right that I am not representing a recognized Christian group. I overlooked the technicality of the plural word in the question, "how do 'opponents' of the penal substitution..." I am one opponent. Personally, however, I don't understand the purpose of sharing if it is not for truth. Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 23:28

God is love. Love causes no harm ... never has and never will. God did not change.

You can accept the Old Testament myths describing a God equal in brutality to the Kings and gods of Egypt, Rome, and Greece at your own peril. Our Father is love (spirit, and light) ... a guide that cannot be reduced to anything that resembles a human idea of a natural being.

Justice has two parts. The first correctly identifies a person who needs help and supervision. The second part is the weightier part of mercy which enables someone in need to get help and self-discipline to set things right. Punishment is harm and has never been a part of loving justice. Punishment bias is a blindfold that prevented people from appreciating that punish is always abusive, unpredictable, counterproductive, and unnecessary.

The fallacy of Substitutionary atonement is the belief that punishment by a loving God will ever be necessary or ever was necessary. The New Testament explains that we punish ourselves when we sin. God rewards us and will reward us for all the love we do. This is judgment by the perfect law of freedom. If you don't love according to you means you are only hurting yourself. Why would a loving God wake you from unconsciousness to cause hell fire pain after it is too late to change. That image may be acceptable to cavemen and barbarians but it was false. Jesus Christ said, "Those who belong to the truth listen to my voice".

There is no punishment in the Kingdom.

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