The Wikipedia article on Penal substitution states in its opening paragraph:

Penal substitution (sometimes, esp. in older writings, called forensic theory) is a theory of the atonement within Christian theology, developed with the Reformed tradition. It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus' death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment. (italics added)

In the final paragraph of the Overview section, it states further:

While penal substitution shares themes present in many other theories of the atonement, penal substitution is a distinctively Protestant understanding of the atonement that differs from both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understandings of the atonement. Many trace its origin to Calvin, but it was more concretely formulated by the Reformed theologian Charles Hodge. Traditionally a belief in penal substitution is often regarded as a hallmark of the evangelical faith and is included as an article of faith by many (but not all) evangelical organizations today. (italics added)

These quotes place the development of penal substitution firmly within the Protestant tradition. However, they, and the article as a whole, are not very conclusive about exactly where and when penal substitution theory originated. Its formulation is attributed to figures as distant from one another in time as John Calvin (1509-1564) and Charles Hodge (1797-1878).

Manwe Elder's answer to my earlier related question, "When and where does the statement, "Christ paid the penalty for our sins" first appear?" does a fine job of briefly tracing the history of the idea of Christ paying the penalty for our sins, and showing that it was not present among major theologians before the Protestant Reformation. It also provides some examples of early Protestant theologians who spoke of Christ paying the penalty for our sins.

A related question of mine also asks, "Did Martin Luther teach penal substitution?"

Given that penal substitution is a distinctly Protestant doctrine (this question is not about earlier foreshadowings or bases of the theory):

What Protestant theologian or theologians first clearly formulated the doctrine of penal substitution?

Whatever other sources an answer may use, please provide direct quotations from the relevant theologians' own writings to support the answer.

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    I think the answer is going to heavily depend on what you mean by "clear." Some people argue that Calvin wasn't "clear." Others will argue that Luther was "clear." For example, there's a difference between accepting penal substitution as a legitimate theory and believing that it is the best or most appropriate theory. And some will argue that the "clearest" penal substitution includes not just the idea of my sin being applied to Jesus but his goodness being applied to me, but that might not exist in the earliest writings. So I think this would benefit from a clearer criterion than "clear". Oct 27, 2016 at 20:21
  • @Nathaniel I understand that "clear" might not be entirely clear. However, I would like to allow some latitude for answers. Defining "clear" too clearly might disallow answers that would be valid and of interest to me. Oct 27, 2016 at 20:26
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    @Nathaniel In general, though, I'm looking for theologians that stated the principle of penal substitution clearly enough that it couldn't reasonably be mistaken for a different theory, such as ransom theory, which some point to as a parallel or predecessor to penal substitution theory (See: "What is the difference between “ransom theory” and “penal substitution”?"). Oct 27, 2016 at 20:27
  • @Nathaniel If a theologian made statements that sorta maybe could be interpreted as meaning penal substitution, that's not what the question is asking for. Oct 27, 2016 at 20:29
  • These comments do help. I still suspect that our standards for "sorta maybe could" and "clear" won't quite align, but hopefully they are close enough for a historical question like this. Oct 27, 2016 at 20:34

1 Answer 1


Hard to choose, but probably Martin Luther. Your linked answer has the clearest example, from Luther's Works, Volume 26 (Lectures on Galatians Ch. 1-4).

He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of men upon Him, and said to Him: "Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them....Whatever sins I, you, and all of us have committed or may commit in the future, they are as much Christ’s own as if He Himself had committed them.

However, this is from a 1535 lecture, and so it's not the earliest instance, per se.

In 1530, penal substitution was officially proclaimed as part of the Lutheran faith by the Augsburg Confession at the Diet of Ausburg. (Note the similar phrasing.)

Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.

Luther approved a draft of the confession, so it's likely that he supported this view of the of atonement by this time, if not earlier.

Around the same time, John Calvin wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was published in 1536.

He offered in sacrifice the flesh which he took from us, that by expiation wought he might destroy our guilt and appease the Father's just anger.

It's hard to say who had the idea first. Given that Protestantism relied especially on Paul's works, and this interpretation is best supported by him ("For he hath made him to be sin for us"), it's not surprising that Protestant theologians arrived at this doctrine readily.

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    Thanks for the effort. However, Luther and Protestantism generally inherited Satisfaction theory from Catholicism. Mention of making satisfaction or even appeasing the Father's anger does not necessarily connote Penal substitution, which is a specific variation of Satisfaction theory developed within Protestantism. I am looking for the first clear formulation of the variation of Satisfaction theory that holds that the satisfaction took place by Christ paying the penalty for our sins. Jul 11, 2017 at 14:57
  • While the wording "You pay and make satisfaction for them" in the quote from Luther's commentary on Galatians might refer to penal substitution, it does not actually mention paying the penalty for our sins, so absent further evidence that Luther was thinking specifically in terms of penal substitution, it still looks like a near miss. Jul 11, 2017 at 14:59
  • @LeeWoofenden, penal substitution is rather difficult to distinguish from Anselmian satisfaction theory. In any case, while the Diet of Ausburg probably falls short of your criteria, Luther's exposition of "Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor" and "they are as much Christ’s own as if He Himself had committed them" shows it to be very clearly substitution, i.e. Christ taking the place of each sinner in punishment for sin. Jul 11, 2017 at 15:55
  • It's not a long jump from Aquinas's view of satisfaction (which is now official Catholic doctrine) and the Protestant view. However, it is still a jump. A basic way of putting it is that Anselm's satisfaction theory focused on satisfying God's honor, Aquinas's focused on satisfying God's justice, and Protestant penal substitution theory focused on satisfying God's wrath. Also, Aquinas thought that the punishment aspect satisfied Original sin, but not the sins we individually commit, whereas Protestants believe that the punishment aspect satisfies all sins, both Original and individual. Jul 11, 2017 at 16:11
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    On the distinction between Catholic and Protestant satisfaction theory, Catholic theory does not hold that Christ paid the penalty or took the punishment for our sins. Only for humankind's collective sin, or Original Sin. It teaches that we must still pay the penalty for our individual sins through penance and Purgatory, and also satisfy God's justice through participating in the sacraments and other ritual acts. Protestant penal substitution theory holds that Christ paid the penalty for our individual sins, making complete satisfaction for them with no need for further action on our part. Jul 11, 2017 at 16:20

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