I am not a proponent of penal substitutionary atonement. While considering this question, I considered whether my position is incorrect, and the language of Isaiah 53 necessarily implies penal substitution. I asked myself if a Hebrew father would be reasonable to say something similar to these words while consoling his own son who asked him why they slaughter a sin offering.

It occurred to me that, Christ's atoning sacrifice and the Levitical sacrifices being considered in parallel, if these latter are penal substitutions according to the Old Covenant, I might have to reconsider my position on the matter.

So, my question is:

According to proponents of penal substitutionary atonement, are the Levitical sin offerings in their very nature penal substitutions? If so, what exegetical arguments are given to support that conclusion?

  • Are you specifically interested only in the sin offering, or are other sacrifices described in the Pentateuch fair game if they are used as evidence for penal substitution? Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 5:01
  • @Nathaniel Yes, I am interested specifically in sin offerings, whether spontaneous individual offerings or communal (such as the Day of Atonement).
    – Andrew
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 13:46

2 Answers 2


Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology, 3.7.6) and Herman Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics, v3, III.7) are two Reformed theologians who make a number of exegetical arguments from Old Testament passages to defend penal substitution. I'll focus on their treatments of the sin offering and similar sacrifices, on the following points:

  • Significance of blood (Leviticus 17)
  • Placing of hands and bearing of sin (Leviticus 16)
  • Satisfaction by a substitute (Deuteronomy 21)

The significance of blood

Hodge begins by arguing for the significance of blood in OT sacrifices for expiation, that is, "to cover [sin] from the sight of God’s justice." He cites the prohibition on eating blood in Leviticus 17:10–12, and writes:

The last clause of the verse, which in our version is rendered, “For it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul,” is more literally and correctly rendered, “For blood by (its) soul or life makes atonement;” or, as Bähr and Fairbairn translate it, “The blood atones through the soul.” The latter writer correctly remarks, “This is the only sense of the passage that can be grammatically justified; for the preposition ב after the verb to atone (כפר) invariably denotes that by which the atonement is made; while as invariably the person or object for which is denoted by ל or על.”

Based on this analysis, Hodge argues that this and similar passages cannot be considered mere symbols of devotion or means of reforming a sinner, and must be understood as "giving soul for soul, life for life."

Bavinck cites the same passage to argue that the blood itself achieves atonement:

The idea was not a death for the sake of death but to obtain by it the blood that had to effect atonement. [...] the blood is the bearer of the soul, the carrier of a life that had again been made free from sin after and by the slaying.

The placing of hands and the bearing of sin

Hodge and Bavinck argue that the placing of hands on the sacrifice is significant. Bavinck writes that "by the laying on of hands, the offerer transferred his sin to the animal":

In Scripture the laying on of hands always implies some kind of transmission: of a blessing (Gen. 48:13; Matt 19:13), of a curse (Lev. 24:14), of an office (Num. 27:18; Deut. 34:9), of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17), and so on, and similarly in the case of bloody sacrifices as well as burnt and thank offerings (Lev. 1:4; 3:2) for sin that has been acknowledged and confessed.

Hodge calls special attention to the goats of Leviticus 16, arguing that two goats are needed in order to fully portray the atonement:

In the solemn services of the great day of atonement, the import of this rite is rendered especially clear. It was commanded that two goats should be selected, one for a sin-offering and the other for a scape-goat. The two constituted one sacrifice, as it was impossible that one could signify all that was intended to be taught. Of the scape-goat it is said, “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, . . . . and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited.” This renders it plain that the design of the imposition of hands was to signify the transfer of the guilt of the offender to the victim.

Once transferred, the victims are said "to bear the sin" of the offender. Hodge argues that in this context this phrase must refer to expiation, not spiritual renovation:

In point of fact the words in question [נָשָּׂאצָיֹו;] always refer to bearing the punishment and thus removing the guilt of sin, and never to the removal of moral pollution. This is plain, (1.) Because נָשָּׂא is interchanged with סָבַל which never means to remove, but only to sustain, or bear as a burden. (2.) Because usage determines the meaning of the phrase and is uniform. In Numbers xiv. 34, it is said, “Ye shall bear your iniquities forty years.” Leviticus v. 1, “If a soul . . . . hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness; . . . . if he do not utter it, he shall bear his iniquity.” Leviticus v. 17, “He is guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.” Leviticus vii. 18, “The soul that eateth of it shall bear his iniquity.” Leviticus xvii. 16, “If he wash not . . . . then he shall bear his iniquity.” Leviticus xix. 8; xx. 17; xxii. 9, “They shall keep my ordinance, lest they bear sin for it.” Numbers ix. 13, If a man forbear to keep the passover, he shall be cut off from the people, “he shall bear his sin.” See also Numbers xviii. 22, 32. Ezekiel iv. 4, 5, it is said to the prophet enduring penance, “So shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.” “Thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days.” “Lie thou upon thy left side . . . . according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon it, thou shalt bear their iniquity.” Ezekiel xviii. 20, “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father; neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” In all these, and in other like cases, it is simply impossible that “bearing sin” should mean the removal of sin by moral renovation. The expression occurs some forty times in the Bible, and always in the sense of bearing the guilt or punishment of sin.


For treatment of the idea of satisfaction more explicitly, we must turn to other types of offerings. Regarding Numbers 35:31, Hodge writes:

In Numbers xxxv. 31, it is said, “Ye shall take no satisfaction (כֹּפֶר, λύτρα, pretium), for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death; but he shall be surely put to death . . . . the land cannot be cleansed (יְכֻפַּר; Septuagint, ἐξιλασθήσεται; Vulgate, nec aliter expiari potest) of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.” Here again there can be no mistake. To cover sin, כּפֵּר, is to expiate it by a penal satisfaction; that expiation is expressed, as we have seen, by כֹּכֶּר, which literally magnifies that which covers, and, in such connections, that which covers sin so that it no longer demands punishment.

Here, only the muderer's own blood can satisfy. But in Deuteronomy 21:1–9, when the murderer cannot be found, the death of a heifer can satisfy:

A כֹּפֶר is a satisfaction. This satisfaction must be made either by the offender or by some one in his stead. In the case of murder, if the perpetrator could not be discovered, a victim was to be slain in his stead, and thus satisfaction was to be made. The law in reference to this case makes the nature and design of sin offerings perfectly plain. The elders of the nearest city were commanded to take a heifer which had not borne the yoke, and wash their hands over it in attestation of their innocence of the blood of the murdered man; the priests being present. The heifer was to be slain, and thus expiation made for the offence.

Verses 7 and 8 contain the testimony of the elders:

‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. 8 Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ [ESV]

Hodge concludes, "The removal of guilt by a vicarious death is, therefore, the Scriptural idea of a sin offering."


Bavinck and Hodge are both quick to note that the Old Testament sacrificial system had a number of deficiencies, such as its applicability to only a few sins, the sinfulness of the priests, and its requirement of endlessly repeating sacrifices. Its effectiveness thus ultimately depended on Christ's atonement, but it nonetheless served as a type that pointed to that perfect sacrifice. Thus, they argue that OT indications of the significance of the blood, the transmission of guilt, and the substitute's satisfaction are key elements in Christ's sacrifice, and evidence for the penal substitutionary view of atonement.

                                           **Part 1**

Those who believe in penal substitution mean something along on the lines of this: that Christ was made to have human nature. This was done in order to take the penalty of the law upon himself for other humans (not for angels) as a substitutionary sacrifice. By suffering on their behalf the wrath of God and just punishments of his law are extinguished, provisioning forgiveness for any who accept that work on their behalf by faith.

For example Charles Hodge focuses on the penal aspect when discussing atonement:

The Scriptures, however, assume that if a man sins he must die. On this assumption all their representations and arguments are founded. Hence the plan of salvation which the Bible reveals supposes that the justice of God which renders the punishment of sin necessary has been satisfied. Men can be pardoned and restored to the favour of God, because Christ was set forth as an expiation for their sins, through faith in his blood; because He was made a curse for us; because He died, the just for the unjust; because He bore our sins in his own body on the tree; and because the penalty due to us was laid on Him. It is clear, therefore, that the Scriptures recognize the truth that God is just, in the sense that He is determined by his moral excellence to punish all sin, and therefore that the satisfaction of Christ which secures the pardon of sinners is rendered to the justice of God. Its primary and principal design is neither to make a moral impression upon the offenders themselves, nor to operate didactically on other intelligent creatures, but to satisfy the demands of justice; so that God can be just in justifying the ungodly. (SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, CHARLES HODGE, v2.492)

Or expressing the wider idea more vividly we can sample one of many texts from Luther's commentary on Galatians:

And so this text is clear, that all men, even the apostles or prophets or patriarchs, would have remained under the curse if Christ had not put Himself in opposition to sin, death, the curse of the Law, and the wrath and judgment of God, and if He had not overcome them in His own body; for those savage monsters could not be overcome by any human power. Now Christ is not the Law, He is not a work of the Law, He is not an “elicited act”; but He is a divine and human Person who took sin, the condemnation of the Law, and death upon Himself, not for Himself but for us. Therefore the whole emphasis is on the phrase ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν.

Therefore we should not imagine Christ as an innocent and private person who is holy and righteous only for Himself; this is what the sophists and nearly all the fathers, Jerome and others, have done. It is, of course, true that Christ is the purest of persons; but this is not the place to stop. For you do not yet have Christ, even though you know that He is God and man. You truly have Him only when you believe that this altogether pure and innocent Person has been granted to you by the Father as your High Priest and Redeemer, yes, as your Slave. Putting off His innocence and holiness and putting on your sinful person, He bore your sin, death, and curse; He became a sacrifice and a curse for you, in order thus to set you free from the curse of the Law. (Luther's Works V26 p287)

Now regarding the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, people of this faith (i.e. reformed faith) have always considered those sacrifices as symbolic representations of the future sacrifice of Christ. Therefore when offering those sacrifices it was not merely a factual prophecy (as opposed to a prophecy through words) but a religious rite that could be used to express saving faith in Christ alone. However, many did not have this faith under that covenant and were therefore not actually forgiven (almost everyone, for example, in the first generation after Egypt were slain for unbelief in the desert). But even for the wicked who still followed the ceremony prior to Christ, the sin offerings were figuratively a 'substitute for the penalties of sin'.

That is the background of the whole idea. To go directly to your point I think the answer is found in those core sacrifices related to the forgiveness of sins. The point you would find interested in and which answers your question is that the person offering the sacrifice would put his hands on the head of the beast transferring his guilt and sin onto the animal being put to death for those sins.

There are many sources to go to to verify this undisputed fact. I like Alfred Edersheim, an old Jewish historian and academic. In his book 'THE TEMPLE, ITS MINISTRY AND SERVICES AS THEY WERE AT THE TIME OF JESUS CHRIST' he speaks about the 'laying on of hands':

This meant transmission and delegation, and implied representation; so that it really pointed to the substitution of the sacrifice for the sacrificer. Hence it was always accompanied by confession of sin and prayer. It was thus done. The sacrifice was so turned that the person confessing looked towards the west, while he laid his hands between the horns of the sacrifice, and if the sacrifice was brought by more than one, each had to lay on his hands. It is not quite a settled point whether one or both hands were laid on; but all are agreed that it was to be done ‘with one’s whole force’—as it were, to lay one’s whole weight upon the substitute. If a person under vow had died, his heir-at-law took his place. The only public sacrifices in which hands were laid on were those for sins of public ignorance, when the ‘elders’ acted as representing the people—to which some Rabbinical authorities add public sin-offerings in general,—and the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, on which the high-priest laid his hands. In all private sacrifices, except firstlings, tithes, and the Paschal lamb, hands were laid on, and, while doing so, the following prayer was repeated: ‘I entreat, O Jehovah: I have sinned, I have done perversely, I have rebelled, I have committed (naming the sin, trespass, or, in case of a burnt-offering, the breach of positive or negative command); but I return in repentance, and let this be for my atonement (covering).’ (P116)

Of course the practice of the temple has no valid meaning unless derived from scriptural practice, so it is worth noting an example of where the same practice originated:

“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness. (Lev 16:20)

The formal word generally used for the result made by this substitution is atonement.

11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (NIV Leviticus 17:11)

One must realize this need to be reconciled to God for our sin through substitutionary sacrifice is natural as it was derived from paradise in the shedding of animal skins to cover their nakedness. It started before Moses, but it's typical nature of Christ, when only under Moses was formally laid down in law.

The basic fact is the blood of another life is shed for your blood, symbolic of one life being substituted for yours. The type finding its antitype in Christ, where his soul is sacrificed for yours. If this is not substitutionary I don't know what possibly could be?!

The result of laying ones hands on the beast (transference of sin) , the subsequent death of the beast (substituted shedding of life blood for yours) is atonement or 'covering'.

1 Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. (NIV Psalm 32:1)

Covering (atonement) is the result of the substitution. Or as the historian of Jewish history says:

This idea of substitution, as introduced, adopted, and sanctioned by God Himself, is expressed by the sacrificial term rendered in our version ‘atonement,’ but which really means covering, the substitute in the acceptance of God taking the place of, and so covering, as it were, the person of the offerer. (THE TEMPLE ITS MINISTRY AND SERVICES AS THEY WERE AT THE TIME OF JESUS CHRIST, ALFRED EDERSHEIM, p107)

So you see the sacrifices were as a 'substitutionary-symbol'. They symbolically covered the sins of a guilty party by shedding the blood of another. Of course only as a symbol of the sacrifice of a future Messiah, for "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb 10:1).

                                           **Part 2**

The above part has no conclusive argumentative power unless there is an important assumption maintained: death is penal in and of itself. death is punishment from the law for breaking its threatening demand. (of course by faith in Christ the otherwise penal nature of death upon all men is removed Heb 2:15 but that is the exception to the eternal rule.)

One would be hard pressed to find a theologian holding the penal view, that actually explicitly states this assumption when explaining the meaning of sacrifices as it is deemed self evident and unnecessary to say! Death would not be existent if it were not for sin! Therefore, death is a punishment of breaking God’s law to Adam as clearly as the Sun is a source of heat and light. Therefore, when we speak of a ‘sin’ offering (sin being the cause of all punishment and death) we intend to mean an offering with respect to punishment due for sin. In fact, to the penal view removing the assumption that 'death is a penalty' would make the bible one gigantic and absurd riddle.

However, as it has come to my attention that this assumption, thought to be obvious by reformed theologians, is not assumed by all mankind. Let me just merely show then that this IS the assumption of all those who are reformed and when applied to Part one of the answer, explains the reformed view authentically.

John Owen is probably the most famous theologian in history that most fully argues the penal view of death in all his many writings:

The word death is penal

. 2. Death in the first constitution of it was penal. 3. It is still penal, eternally penal, to all unbelievers. 4. The death of all is equally determined and certain in God’s constitution. 5. The ground of the expiation of sin by the offering of Christ is this, that therein he bare the guilt and punishment due unto it. Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (William H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 19, pp. 504–505).

Physical death, sin, loss of righteousness, spiritual death, eternal death; are all Penal The death wherewith he was threatened stood in opposition to all these, it being most ridiculous to suppose that any thing penal in the Scripture comes under the name of “death” that was not here threatened to Adam;—death of the body, in a deprivation of his immortality spoken of; of the soul spiritually, in sin, by the loss of his righteousness and integrity; of both, in their obnoxiousness to death eternal; actually to be undergone, without deliverance by Christ, in opposition to the right to a better, a blessed condition, which he had. That all these are penal, and called in the Scriptures by the name of “death,” is evident to all that take care to know what is contained in them. Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (William H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 12, p. 151).

Penal death are best represented as painful, bloody, associated with sin, as were the bloody sacrifices of the Aaronic priesthood

Of death natural, which in its whole nature is penal (as hath been elsewhere evinced), there are four aggravations, whereunto all others may be referred: as,—(1.) That it be violent or bloody; (2.) That it be ignominious or shameful; (3.) That it be lingering and painful; (4.) That it be legal and accursed. And all these to the height met in the death of Christ. The works of John Owen. (William H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 12, p. 485).

Even some Jewish Rabbis have recognized the penal nature of all death

The Jews themselves grant that all death is penal: אין מות בלא חטא ואין ייסורין בלא עוין;—“There is no death without sin, no punishment or correction without iniquity.” It is the saying of R. Ame in the Talmud, Tractat. Sabbat., cited in Sepher Ikharim, lib. iv. cap. xiii. And this principle Maimonides carries so high as to deny all יסורין של אחבה, “correction of love,” affirming none to be of that mind but some Gaeonims, deceived by the sect of Muatzali, More Nebuch. pag. 3, cap. xvii. And they who die penally under the curse abide in no other estate than that mentioned. They acknowledge, also, the remainder of the curse on the earth itself on the same account: העולם כלו לא נברא אלא בשביל האדם ואחר שאדם חטא האדמה חסרה שלמותה;—“The whole world,” says one of their masters, “was not created but for man; and therefore after man sinned, it came short of its first perfection.” An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 18, p. 148).

An Expert of Jewish Customs and historical beliefs recognises the sacrifice as penal death

The fundamental idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament is that of substitution, which again seems to imply everything else—atonement and redemption, vicarious punishment and forgiveness. The firstfruits go for the whole products; the firstlings for the flock; the redemption-money for that which cannot be offered; and the life of the sacrifice, which is in its blood, for the life of the sacrificer. Edersheim, A. (1959). The Temple, its ministry and services as they were at the time of Jesus Christ. (p. 107).

Conclusion Combining Part1 one and Part2 here is the summary argument:

  1. Death is punishment for breaking God’s law (i.e. death is penal).
  2. Although some innocent things die for Adam’s sin such as vegetables and trees, this is still as punishment on humanity and is penal.
  3. When an animal is specifically set aside as a sin offering, the transference of sin mandates transference of punishment, otherwise no transfer has occurred. The soul that sin’s shall die if that sin be upon him, so if that sin be upon another so shall it die if it is to be logical. One can’t separate sin from death, and death is penal.
  4. Sin offerings under the Old Testament were both symbols and rites. Symbols; of transference of bloody painful guilty death/punishments, whereby Christ was prefigured. Also a practical rites; to ceremonially cleanse a worshiper so that they could continue to live under the covenant for lesser sins, through ignorance etc.
  5. Sin offerings could not even ceremonially cleanse those sins that the Law demanded capital punishment for, such as adultery, murder etc. They could not actually spiritually cleanse anything but were symbols (Acts 13:39).
  6. As symbols however, believers could express faith in Christ and actually be cleansed from sin through faith alone. In that way the symbol acts as the word to believe in.
  7. Jews someone times did not have faith in the symbols and were often not cleansed spiritually by them in the above manner, so although they practiced the ceremony and were clean for worship they were still under the penal death of the law.
  8. The reason for 'many-many' symbols in the Old Covenant is that they were all weak in representing the full picture of the anti-type (Christ). Even all the sacrifices combined could not even 'ceremonially' cleanse a single sin requiring capital punishment. The weakness in the type does not mean the anti-type could not bear that punishment for that sin. The sin of the whole world could be forgiven when he cried out 'Why have you forsaken me?' in his agonising penal death.

Death is obviously penal. Death is a punishment for sin from the Law that originally threatened to punish Adam if he did sin. Sin and penal death are inseparable joined. If it can be proven that sin is transferred to the sacrifice then penal death has also been transferred. If death has been transferred; punishment has been transferred, as death is penal. Sin offerings are therefore obviously symbolic substitutions of penal-death for sin under the law, to be employed ceremonially by believers of the old covenant. (when the Law did not already prescribe capital punishment for the sin in question). These symbolic and ceremonial substitutions of penal death for sin, had a primary purpose above that mere ceremonial cleansing allowing worshipers to continue temple practice: They were a ‘type of Christ’ prophesying the future role of the Messiah who would absorb the penal death of Adam’s curse under God's eternal threatening Law. This great sacrifice would take away even those sins that could not be cleaned under the ceremonial system such as murder.(Acts 13:39)

It is worth noting that under the question of ancient sacrifices, one can’t logically avoid thinking of Christ in his bloody, guilty and painful punishment, to deliver those under the penal Law. One can't be accused on adding something additional to the subject. Everything in the Old Testament is somewhat cloudy and vague in comparison to the bright light of the gospel. Therefore the clarity of the old shadows are not fully understood but through the lens of the gospel. So the interpretation of 'if the sacrifices under the Old Testament are penal' or not, is actually just casting one’s view of 'if Christ's death was penal' or not. The type and ant-type must match and be used to interpret each other. If death is penal from Adam, and Christ carries that penal death, then the symbolic sacrifices that pointed to him must be penal. However, even before Christ came a good theologian would have to have understood the penalty in the symbolism associated with penal death. A good theologian must recognise death is penal even before the New Testament was written.


Comment 1. One person said he did not think that the death that Adam was punished with for sinning against his law was 'punishment' but merely a 'consequence'. The soul that sins shall die, is just a bad consequence.

Answer 1: A sinner who is under the compulsion of a sinful nature commits adultery is strangled to death under the punishment of God's Old Testament Law. Yet Adam, whose sin is the greatest ever, as he ushered all humanity into death by his sin without even being under the compulsion of a sinful nature to temp him inwardly, only 'consequentially' suffers death? That is backward.

  • Hebrews 10 offers support to Mike's reasoning. It is the heart of the argument that the Jewish sacrificial system was a symbol or type of the only truly sufficient sacrifice to come - Jesus. Commented May 31, 2016 at 19:00
  • Oh! now from your big intro and opposing beliefs, I finally understand why I could not comprehend your many demands. I did not realise that some people actually do not understand 'death' as being penal. I have added 'part 2' to argue what those of use who hold the penal theory think is not necessary to argue and is almost never made mention of even when explaining reformed beliefs about the sacrificial system. Also fyi, there may be slight modifications of this argument by other people today. You might tell from those I quote I am argueing the traditional one (16th to early 19th century).
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 7:33
  • @Mike you say: "Death is obviously penal." As I read the account in Genesis I don't read it as God giving out death as a result of eating the forbidden fruit, but of death being a consequence of the disobedience. For death to be penal and given out by God it would need to say something like: "If you eat of the tree I will surely kill you" or "I will make sure you die". But it doesn't, rather it says: "if ... you will surely die." Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 12:30
  • @Mike Let's say "alternative" and not opposing- there are a number of theories of atonement besides penal substitution. I look forward to reading your edit.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 12:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .