I have been looking at different models of the atonement and am currently looking at penal substitutionary atonement. While I can see the substitution, I'm struggling somewhat with the idea of Jesus taking the penalty for our sin.

So, what is the Biblical basis for the "penal" in penal substitutionary atonement?

  • Are you seeking strictly a Biblical basis, or do you want an answer if it doesn't directly involve the Bible, too?
    – Flimzy
    May 23, 2016 at 14:42
  • @Flimzy I guess a non-Biblical answer might be useful, even if limited by not be Bible based. Thank you. May 23, 2016 at 14:55
  • I was thinking of asking this myself. It seems to me that most of the opposition to penal substitution and most arguments for it are instead about propitiation - which is related but distinct.
    – curiousdannii
    May 24, 2016 at 4:37
  • 1
    @curiousdannii I'd quite like to hear what you have to say about the distinctions regarding PSA and propitiation. It might not fit this question exactly - shall I ask a separate question? May 24, 2016 at 7:56
  • Wrath and propitiation could take place in a non-judicial context, and we can conceive the Father demanding a punishment even though he was not personally offended (though that kind of proposal has lots of problems, which is why we go for PSA.) But as I said, most discussions over PSA that I hear are really about God being genuinely offended and angered by sin, not about Jesus bearing our punishment (which must be distinguished again from bearing the consequences of our sin.) I think all of these things should be affirmed, but wonder if we're mixing up the categories sometimes.
    – curiousdannii
    May 24, 2016 at 8:10

4 Answers 4


The 'penal' in penal substitution is based on the idea that sin brings about punishment under the curse of the law. The curse of Adam's sin is death, which is a punishment. Punishment = the curse under the law for sin.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (NIV Galatians 3:13)

For Christ to become a curse is the same thing as saying he became guilty for our sin, or more emphatically became our actual sin making the Law execute him under its wrath:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NIV 2 Corinthians 5:21)

To say the holy Son of God is 'sin' and is 'cursed' must presume at the same time that he deserves to be punished for us, otherwise these appellations have no actual meaning and are blasphemy.

What you will find in reviewing different theories of atonement is that there are actually only two. These theories either support what is called a forensic justification by faith, or a denial of such a thing. The penal theory is actually just a natural result of affirming the reformed doctrine of Justification by faith. Anyone else when using the term 'justification' merely mean an initial point of sanctification. They mean some sanctification is necessary involved in producing justification. Justification to them means more of an initial 'full sanctification' making a person personally and inwardly righteous. The reformers just call this justification by works under the gloss of fake grace. Just legal righteous to serve the self righteous desires of those who deny the full curse of original sin.

The reformers denied any kind of inner righteousness having any involvement in justification in any sense. Therefore while the penal theory supports a means whereby an absolutely evil person can be declared righteous apart from any work whatsoever, non penal theories focus on some infused righteousness as a result of Christ's death and our faith in him. The result is they avoid the penal aspect clearly spelled out by Paul and look for other subjects such as moral improvements, fatherly relationships, mystical unions, spiritual redemption....or any other focus that would allow some righteous ability of a person to cooperate with the Spirit and somehow retain some kind of human goodness. In other words the penal concept come from both the doctrines of original sin and justification apart from works.

Historically the penal idea is simply the acceptance of Pauline legal arguments as a necessary result of abandoning humanity to an absolutely hopeless sate under original sin. When man is absolutely lost and no method to relieve his 'guilt' or deserved 'punishment' under the Law, someone must pay before any sanctification can occur. This order of Justification before any sanctification, is the 'forensic' or 'external legal' doctrine of justification.

What I am trying to say is that although scriptures that I have quoted explain the origin of the penal theory it is actually the entire New Testament doctrine of original sin, the Incarnation, the death of Chris itself and all of the Epistles, especially that of Paul's 'legal arguments' around justification that forced the penal theory out of the reformation.

Basically is is Paul the Apostle who insisted on it at first. By keeping justification 'apart from works', 'justification' must necessarily come before sanctification. Sanctification must be the immediate but separate result of being externally justified apart from previous or combined inner just qualities. Once justification has at least conceptualy been separated from sanctification there can be no moral improvement in the sinner involved in atonement (accept as the resulting reconciliation of the sinner). Therefore, to get rid of sin someone else has to take it as their own along with any curse and punishment sin deserves. So you see it's doctrinal. If justification comes first apart from works (sanctification) then to deny a penal substitution is simply to deny that sin should ever be punished.

In other words:

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV, Romans 8:3-4)

To a reformer of course God the Father punished / condemned sin in Christ as a sin offering for us. This with us initially and inwardly 'outside of the legal transaction', other than of course our own guilt and sin being legally transferred to Christ, in order to make him guilty for us and punished for us.

So if Christ is to be made sin, made a curse, to be condemned in the flesh for our sin, what idea could ever possibly arise that would make one attempt to avoid the 'penal' implications!?


The Biblical basis for the penal requirement comes from a prophecy by Isaiah.

Isa 53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him (Jesus); he (The Lord) hath put him (Jesus) to grief: when thou (the Lord) shalt make his soul (Jesus') an offering for sin, he (the Lord) shall see his seed (Jesus), he shall prolong his days (Bring Jesus back to Life), and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 He (the Lord) shall see of the travail of his (Jesus') soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

  • Penal means: relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.

the Jews had a legal system called the 10 commandments, some crimes were punishable by death, others require payment of money. see the book of Leviticus for a list of laws, and if broken, the severity of the penalties attached.
a Just judge must see that a guilty criminal is punished. if the Judge lets the guilty criminal off the hook without the punishment then he is not fair, just, or worthy to have the honor of a judge.

Some people reason when they meet the God of the universe the great judge they reason that they're good enough to get into heaven and that their Good deeds Will outweigh their bad deeds. But if this line of logic will not work with an honest human judge, How then do you expect it to work on The perfect all knowing judge of the universe?

Rom 3:26 says To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Romans 3:26 is telling us that God is fair, and that he is able to make sinners into born again saints, by declaring them righteous, but he doesn't overlook our sins, he doen't sweep sin under the rug. no, The Lord remembered to punish all our sins, 2000 years ago, when his beloved son hung on an old rugged cross. and when he sees we have faith in the blood of Jesus, when we believe that Jesus was punished for our sins, he saves us.

The gospel is defined as this in 1 Cor 15, that Jesus died for our sin, , was buried, and rose again the third day.

1 Cor 15:3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:


If you stood before a human judge, guilty of a crime and reasoned thus with him. “Oh your honorable judge I've done so much good, doesn't that take care of my bad deed and my crimes. Why must I be punished? You haven't even considered how much good I've done. Can't you let me off? I'm am very sorry.” simply put an Honest Judge cannot let a guilty person off the hook on account of their good deeds, Neither can the Lord God.

The proposal that Jesus makes to each of you is this. Jesus says. I will “pay your fines for sinning, I will do your time for sinning” I will allow my self to be put to death for the capitol offenses you have committed, I will lay down my life to be punished for all of your crimes. So Jesus took up his cross and laid down his life, and bore all our sins on the cross.

Jesus in essence said “I will be the penal substitutional sacrifice for your crimes against God, because I love you so much, I will shed my sinless blood so that your sins can be punished and the Law can be satisfied.

Final Illustration:

The substitutionary character of the Atonement of Christ on the Cross is beautifully illustrated in the story of Barabbas in Matt 27:15-26 it was customary to liberate some notable criminal on Passover. They chose Barabbas, and Jesus was turned over to the Officers of the Law for death by crucifixion. by his death, as a substitute for Barabbas, Jesus, who was innocent, satisfied the “Law” and Barabbas was freed. the Penal substitutional Atonement is the Scriptural view of the Atonement. If Barabbas, after his liberation, had gone out to Calvary to witness the Crucifixion, and had been informed as to who it was that had taken his place on the central cross, he would have known five things


  2. That Jesus was an INNOCENT SUFFERER.

  3. That, Jesus, an ‘Innocent Sufferer’ had taken his place

  4. That he HAD DONE NOTHING TO MERIT (earn) THAT SUBSTITUTION; he didn’t deserve what he got

  5. That Christ's substitution in his place satisfied the LAW

IF Barabbas had gone to the site of the Crucifixion to witness it and others had said, there is the robber Barabbas, Arrest Him!!! Barabbas would have said, "that Centurion cannot arrest me. It was that very same centurion who set me free this morning and told me that Jesus of Nazareth was to take MY place on the Cross, and his death SATISFIES THE LAW FOR ME; and I am free." Barabbas was the first man to have a practical experience of the penal substutional Atonement

  • IF Jesus had not hung on the Cross, then Barabbas would have had to.

There was at least one man in Jerusalem that day who understood,the meaning of Jesus’ death, and experienced its saving power: and that man’s was Barabbas.


At the risk of being obvious (too obvious, perhaps, such that I'll get a bunch of downvotes!), the penalty aspect of Christ's death was just that: DEATH!

"The soul that sinneth shall die," the Scriptures say (Ezekiel 18:4)). "In the day that you eat thereof, you will die" (Genesis 2:17). (We know, of course, there are two kinds of death: spiritual and physical. Jesus experienced the latter but not the former.)

The penalty for sin is death, the separation of soul/spirit from body.

And Jesus said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23:46).

In the OT sacrificial system, the animal that died hadn't done anything worthy of death. The animal was "innocent," and perhaps more significant the animal was without defect. Who better, then, to bear the sins of the world than the innocent, perfect, spotless, defect-free Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36)?

In conclusion, Jesus obviously had neither committed sin nor had he done anything worthy of death, either in the eyes of the Law of God or in the eyes of the law of man. Nevertheless, he willingly died as our substitue, thereby making a double imputation possible: our sins imputed to him, and his righteousness imputed to us (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).

  • 2
    But OT sacrifices were not viewed as penal substitutions, which is the key part of the question--where does penal come from in PA?
    – Flimzy
    May 25, 2016 at 6:51
  • Thanks for your answer, @rhetorician. Doesn't the Romans 3:23 verse you mention, but don't quote, read: "The wages of sin is death ..." Rather than "penalty" as you state it. (Of course versions may phrase it differently and I may have remembered a dodgy version). But if "wages" is correct then death is what we earn, not what we are punished with. Does that make a difference to your points? May 25, 2016 at 10:05
  • @MichaelVincent: At this point in my thinking, I suggest you may be putting forward a false dichotomy. Yes, I agree with you that Romans 3:23 cites "wages" as sin's reward (so to speak!). The Lord God's warning to our first parents, however, indicates that death is the penalty for disobedience. In other words, death is both a "reward" and a punishment. Don May 25, 2016 at 13:40
  • Thank you, @rhetorician. Indeed I may be. One thing I'd like to pick up on your comment: wasn't death the result rather than the penalty of disobedience? The difference being that God applies the penalty, whereas death as a consequential action does not require action on bt God. Does this make sense? May 26, 2016 at 8:47
  • @Flimzy Re: your comment above, can you answer this question?
    – Andrew
    May 31, 2016 at 18:33

Romans 5 is a great chapter for this topic.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Also, Hebrews 9:22 is an excellent complement to Romans 5:

Hebrews 9:22

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins

In a historical context, it is a continuation of the OT tradition of sacrifice. God demands that wrongs be paid for; in the OT through animal sacrifice (which was really just an artificial outworking of repentance) and in the NT through the one-time sacrifice of Christ. There isn't much of a reason for Christ's coming to die other than that He loves us and it is part of His plan.

Does that answer your question? I'd be happy to expand if you have a specific doubt/confusion.

  • 2
    Neither of those passages explicitly explain why Jesus bore a penalty or punishment.
    – curiousdannii
    May 24, 2016 at 4:38
  • @JKlemm Thanks for your answer. I do have doubts, not about the substitutionary nature of Jesus' death, but about God having wrath towards humans that was taken out on His Son. In the UK this was questioned in a book by Steve Chalk some 10 years ago - I'm just picking it up now. May 24, 2016 at 8:02
  • @MichaelVincent You might want to look at my question on the wrath of God. We have other questions on propitiation as well.
    – curiousdannii
    May 24, 2016 at 8:13

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