Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus"
(2 Timothy 1:13, NASB)
Introduction to PENAL SUBSTITUTION THEORY
There are many theological theories on how atonement works on God's end. Though we most commonly dispute with denominations on man's individual part in salvation, this particular topic focuses on the role of Jesus, His death on the cross, and how God deals with our sins. Penal substitution theory has three parts:
1. PENALTY. Sin incurs a penalty, as God has justly decreed. The penalty for sin is death.
2. SUBSTITUTION. The idea that Jesus took the place of the sinner (all sinners) by dying on the cross, and that Jesus took the full penalty upon Himself.
3. THEORY. A conclusion proposed by humans...it falls short of being fact.
Penal substitution theory (PST) falls apart upon close examination of the Scriptures. Let's briefly examine the three parts of PST and why it is a false doctrine.
First, what is the penalty? Is the penalty physical death or spiritual death or eternal damnation in hell? By physical death, I mean the end of life in the mortal flesh (Hebrews 9:27; James 2:26). By spiritual death, I mean the separation that occurs when a person who is physically alive is spiritually dead (separated from God) as a consequence of sin (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1; Isaiah 59:2). By eternal damnation in hell, I mean the final condition and location of the person who is forever exiled from God's presence in a place of unending torment (2 Thessalonians 1:9; Matthew 25:41). If Jesus died to prevent man from physical death, then He failed, for men have continued to die even to this day, including His Own apostles and prophets. If Jesus died to prevent man from spiritual death, He failed, for men still sin and die spiritually in doing so. The only remaining option is that Jesus went to hell and suffered the eternal damnation for a while. But the Scriptures teach clearly on this matter that this option is also wrong.
Spiritual death is a consequence of sin, but it is not the penalty due for sin. Physical death is a consequence of mortality, and sometimes results when one engages in dangerous sins, but physical death is not the penalty that God decreed for sin in the covenant of Jesus Christ. God did not punish Jesus nor place upon Jesus the "penalty" of man's sins. Before Jesus died on the cross, He knew that He would go to the Paradise (Luke 23:43) of the realm of hades, where His soul was not abandoned and He did not undergo decay (Acts 2:27). PST defenders sometimes say that Jesus went to hell where He suffered for three days at the hands of Satan and the demons, and that the full wrath of God was poured out on Jesus, but the Bible says He was "put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus found comfort and protection and life in Paradise when He died...not the wrath of God. In fact there is not a single Scripture that teaches that God punished Jesus or that Jesus took the eternal penalty upon Himself. The penalty for sin is eternal destruction...but this penalty did not fall upon Jesus Christ. The penalty will rightly and justly be exacted upon those who are not saved.
Second, the substitution part of PST is equally erroneous. PST supporters say that when Jesus died, He took man's place, as a substitute, in our stead...all of which means vicariously. And yet again there is not a single Scripture that says so. There are many Scriptures that say Jesus died for our sins, and many that teach that Jesus died for our benefit and for our sakes. But there simply is no scripture that says Jesus died in my place or in your place. In fact, the Bible declares substitution to be a sin: Deuteronomy 24:16; 1 Kings 14:6; Exodus 18:19-20; Isaiah 5:20. Of course those Scriptures pertained to the old covenant, the Law of Moses. Do they apply to the new covenant of Jesus Christ? The prophets of the Old Testament said they would (Jeremiah 31:27-34; Hebrews 8). For Jesus to have died literally "in my place" it would first have to mean that "my place" was the cross. It would then have to mean that physical death (since He did not die spiritually or eternally) is the full penalty that I deserved. But the Scriptures teach that the cross was always, and only, Jesus' place...not man's. Before God created the world, He purposed and planned, and the cross of Calvary was part of that plan...and the plan could only - ONLY - be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Jesus did not do man's work on the cross...He did God's work on it. He came to do, and did, what only God could do, what man could not do for Himself. Man didn't need a substitute...man needed a sacrifice that only God could provide!
Third, we find that the entire PST doctrine is a theory concocted by men. Its foundation originated with "Ransom Theory" of the third century AD...a doctrine that suggested that God traded Jesus to the devil in exchange for the devil relinquishing control of the world. In the eleventh century AD, Anselm of Canterbury proposed Satisfaction Theory, in which Jesus purchased God's favor and then gave God's favor to mankind. In the sixteenth century AD, Hugo Grotius offered his governmental theory, which suggests that God accepted the lesser penalty of the physical death of Jesus to satisfy the requirements of justice; many Methodists and Nazarenes hold this doctrine today. But it was John Calvin in the 16th century who took Anselm's Satisfaction Theory and evolved it into a judicial system of atonement in which God's supreme justice could only be satisfied if His full wrath was poured out, and that this happened to Jesus Christ who, in the place of all mankind, vicariously took all the world's sins upon Himself, made Himself abhorrent in God's sight, caused God to forsake Him, and incurred the penalty of hell upon Himself in our place. PST is essential to Calvin's theory of salvation (TULIP). Most preachers today for churches of Christ readily refute Calvin's TULIP, but they do not reject his PST as well. Restoration preacher Barton Stone once chastised Alexander Campbell for continuing to teach PST, and today the struggle continues with brethren who cannot set aside these man-made theories that cannot be found in the actual words of the Bible.
The best illustration for PST is of one person firing gun at another person, but a third person jumped in front and took the bullet. Penal substitution theory says that God poured out His wrath at man, but Jesus "took the bullet" in our place. He took the bullet, but left us with our burden of sins, still guilty, still condemned, yet somehow exempted from hell on the theory that justice was already served and the gates of hell are therefore closed and its fiery furnaces shut down. The scriptures do not support this theory. Rather, the Scriptures teach that, before God "pulled the trigger," Jesus died to forgive our sins (Matthew 26:28; Acts 5:31; Ephesians 1:7), so that God no longer had cause to be wrathful at those Jesus saved. God has not yet "pulled the trigger." Judgment Day has not yet come. Jesus is still forgiving sins. And man today still has the opportunity to stand forgiven, righteous, and justified in God's sight, so that the just God has no wrath toward him. Take careful note now of the order of things in Romans 5:9 "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him." The believer is justified when the blood of Christ is applied to him, and because the believer is justified, he shall be saved from the wrath of God. Our salvation from God's wrath is not predicated on the PST doctrine that God's wrath has already been poured out and extinguished; rather, our salvation from God's wrath is founded squarely on the saving power of Jesus Christ's blood which washes away our sins so that we stand justified and therefore protected from wrath.