Penal Substitution and Other Atonement Theologies


For the month of April, Crossway Books has graciously allowed our readers to freely download The Cross by Martin Lloyd-Jones. This book is a collection of excellent sermons from one of the foremost preachers of the twentieth century.

Trying to state all that our Lord Jesus achieved in his glorious work is difficult given its multi-faceted aspects. John Calvin sought to grasp the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work by the munus triplex—Christ’s threefold office as our new covenant head and mediator—prophet, priest, and king. What Calvin sought to avoid was reductionism, the “cardinal” sin of theology. Yet, although there is a danger in prioritizing one aspect of our Lord’s work, Scripture does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt. 1:21; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). And given the centrality of Christ’s cross, it is crucial that we explain it correctly.

However, one problem we face is that, throughout church history, there have been a number of atonement theologies. Unlike the ecumenical confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon that established orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, there is no catholic confession regarding the cross. From this fact, some have concluded that no one view best explains what is central to the cross—a conclusion I reject. The truth is that despite an ecumenical confession, all Christians have agreed that Christ’s death “is for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3) resulting in our reconciliation with God.

While conceptual clarity of the doctrine occurred over time, similar to other doctrines, clarity and precision was achieved, as various atonement debates occurred. Specifically, it was during the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, building on the work of people like Anselm, that conceptual clarity occurred in the articulation of penal substitution as the best theological explanation for why the cross was necessary and what it achieved.

Recently, however, some have challenged the claim that penal substitution best explains what is central to Christ’s cross. We are told repeatedly that penal substitution does not account for the richness of the cross. What is needed is not one view but multiple views. Is this correct? My thesis is that it is not, and for at least two reasons. First, views other than penal substitution fail to grasp the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God. Second, from another angle, other views stress various legitimate results of the cross, but without penal substitution as the foundation, the results alone cannot explain the central problem of our sin before God. Before developing these two points, let me first describe the basic atonement views set over against penal substitution.

Atonement Views in Historical Theology

Over the centuries, five main atonement theologies have been given:


First, there is the recapitulation view, often associated with Irenaeus and Athanasius. This view interprets Christ’s work primarily in terms of his identification with us through the incarnation. By becoming human, the divine Son reversed what Adam did by living our life and dying our death. Adam’s disobedience resulted in the corruption of our nature and the deprivation of Godlikeness. Christ reverses both of these results in his incarnation and entire cross-work. Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality and reconciliation with God is restored to us. This view captures much biblical truth. Christ’s work is presented in representational and substitutionary terms. But its central focus is on sin’s effects on us and Christ’s restorative work, not on our sin before God and the need for Christ to satisfy God’s own righteous demand against us by paying for our sin.

Christus Victor (Or Ransom)

Second, Christus Victor is another view of the cross, often associated with the ransom theory to Satan. The primary object(s) of Christ’s death is (are) the powers which he liberates us from, namely, sin, death, and Satan. Like recapitulation, this view captures a lot of biblical truth, especially Christ’s defeat of the powers (Gen. 3:15; John 12:31–33; Col. 2:13–15; Heb. 2:14–16; Rev. 12:1–12), but unlike penal substitution, God is not viewed as the primary object of the cross.

Moral Influence (or Example)

Third, the moral influence view was promoted within non-orthodox theology. It had its roots in the theology of Peter Abelard (1079–1142), but came into its own with the rise of classic liberal theology (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries). It taught that God’s love is more basic than his justice and that God can forgive our sins without Christ satisfying divine justice. God is not the primary object of the cross. Instead, Christ’s death reveals God’s love and sets an example for us.

The Governmental View

Fourth, the governmental view arose in the post-Reformation era and it is identified with Hugo Grotius, John Miley, and the Arminian tradition. Against penal substitution, this view denies that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him. Instead, as the moral Governor, God can choose to relax the demand of the law (since it is external to him) similar to a human judge, thus forgiving us by his mercy. Yet, God cannot completely overlook our sin; he governs the world justly and sin is a serious miscarriage of justice. So, Christ’s cross upholds the moral governance of the world allowing God to forgive us without a full payment of our sin, while it also simultaneously reveals God’s hatred of sin thus motivating us to repent and believe in Christ.

Penal Substitution

Fifth, there is penal substitution. It had precursors in the early church and Anselm, but came to full-bloom in the Reformation. Penal substitution does not minimize the multi-faceted aspects of Christ’s death. Instead, it contends that central to the cross is God the Son incarnate acting as our new covenant representative and substitute to fully satisfy God’s righteous demand against us due to our sin. And apart from this central achievement of the cross, there is no restoration of humanity, defeat of the powers, or revealed love.

Why? For this important reason: central to penal substitution is a specific understanding of the God-law-sin relationship, or better, a specific doctrine of God. Penal substitution takes seriously the fact that the triune God is alone independent and self-sufficient. Specifically, in relation to the moral law, this entails that God does not adjudicate a law external to him; instead, he is the law. This is why, in relation to sin, God cannot tolerate sin (Hab. 1:12–13; Isa. 1:4–20; 35:8); he must act in holy justice against it (Gen. 18:25) because God cannot deny himself.

Yet, how does God demonstrate his holy justice and covenant love, given his free decision to redeem us (Gen. 3:15; Hos. 11:9)? In this regard, in the Bible’s unfolding story a tension results that is rooted in who God is in relation to our sin—and which is central to the why of the cross. Since God is the Law, he cannot forgive us without the full satisfaction of his holy demand (Rom. 3:21–26; Heb. 9:15–22). To justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), the triune God must take the initiative to provide a Redeemer who can act in perfect covenantal obedience for us and pay for our sin. Christ must not only be our victor and substitute, but our penal substitute. Ultimately, this is what is central to the cross, and other views of the atonement fail to stress this vital point.

Evaluating Other Views of the Cross in Relation to Penal Substitution

Let us now return to my thesis. Various atonement theologies emphasize many biblical truths and entailments of the cross, but unlike penal substitution, they fail to grasp the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God.

Every view of the atonement stresses something true about the cross. Recapitulation rightly grasps the Adam-Christ relationship across redemptive history (Rom. 5:12–21). In the first Adam, God demanded covenantal obedience, yet sadly, Adam disobeyed and brought sin and death into the world. What is needed is the incarnation of God’s Son, the last Adam, to live and die for us, and thus restore us to the purpose of our creation (Heb. 2:5–18). Yet, this view does not emphasize enough that God requires perfect covenantal obedience from us, and the need for Christ to be our representative in life and penal substitute in death. It rightly stresses many biblical truths but fails to grasp adequately the God-law-sin relationship.

Similarly, Christus Victor emphasizes many glorious truths. It underscores the need for the Son to become human to crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15) and to defeat sin (Heb. 9:26) and death (Rom. 6:9). Yet, this view does not make central the God-law-sin relationship. In Scripture, the powers of sin, death, and Satan are only over us because of our sin before God (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23; Heb. 2:14–15). After all, why did the divine Son have to die to defeat the powers? Why not simply exert his divine power to defeat them without the cross? Scripture’s answer is clear: it’s only when our sin is paid for that the powers are destroyed (Col. 2:13–15; 1 Cor. 15:55–57). This is why our greatest problem is not the powers against us, but how we can stand justified before God. Christus Victor without penal substitution hangs in mid-air.

Scripture also presents Christ and his cross as the supreme moral example of love, obedience, and suffering (John 13:12–17; Eph. 5:1–2, 25–27; Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Pet. 2:18–25). But the cross only functions this way because of who dies and what he achieves, namely the full satisfaction of God’s holy demand against our sin, which is the very demonstration of divine love (1 John 4:7–10). Also, it’s never enough for Christ merely to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live. Solidarity is not atonement; it is only the prerequisite. We need more than an example to redeem us. What we need is for the divine Son to live and die for us. Our problem is not that we need a great teacher to show us how to live. Our problem is sin before the triune holy God, and this problem requires the enfleshment of God’s own Son to live for us and to die for us as our penal substitute. It is only as our propitiatory sacrifice that God’s own righteous demand is fully met, and only in Christ do we receive all the glorious benefits of his new covenant work.

Of all the atonement views, only penal substitution best captures the God-centered nature of the cross. The alternatives either minimize or deny 1) that God’s holy justice is essential to him, 2) why our sin is first against God (Ps. 51:4), and 3) why Christ as our penal substitute is central to the cross. Before we can speak of the horizontal results of the cross (e.g., moral example, inter-personal reconciliation, etc.), we must first speak of the vertical: namely the triune God, in his Son, taking his own demand on himself so that we, in Christ, may be justified before him (Rom. 5:1–2). The other views miss this point. For them, the object of the cross is either our sin (forms of recapitulation), or Satan (ransom theory), or the powers (forms of Christus Victor). But what they fail to see is that the primary person we have sinned against is God, and as such, the ultimate object of the cross is God himself.

The Bible’s presentation of the cross is rich and multifaceted. It is like a beautiful gem that can be looked at from many angles. Yet, the explanation of the cross’s central means is that Christ Jesus has come as our mediator and new covenant head to offer himself before God on behalf of sin. Penal substitution best accounts for why the divine Son had to die, and why he alone saves. With Paul, may we alone glory in and preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23).



  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).