What is Penal Substitution? – A Defense of Penal Substitution Part 2

This article is part two of a six part defense of the Christian doctrine of penal substitution (see Part 1). Below I explain what is penal substitution, introduce a superficial objection to it in the form of a courtroom analogy, and then clarify that on the cross Jesus was in a real sense guilty rather than purely innocent.

But in order to adequately understand what is penal substitution, we must first understand its theological context. A rough sketch of this context goes as follows:

The Theological Context of Penal Substitution

Theological Context of Penal SubstitutionGod exists as a Trinity consisting of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that are each divine yet share the same substance. When God (the Father) created the world, he made humans in his image and commanded them to love and serve him. However, humans have been sinful (i.e., disobedient) towards God, incurring moral and legal guilt before him. They thus deserve punishment in the form of physical and spiritual death, understood as the separation of body and soul and relational separation from God (who is the source of everything good), respectively.

But God loves humans and does not want them to bear this punishment themselves, so he provides another alternative. God the Son becomes incarnate in the man Jesus Christ (being truly God and truly human), lives a morally perfect life, and then offers himself to take our punishment in our place.

Penal Substitution Defined

The core claim of penal substitution, then, is the following:

Penal Substitution: Christ willingly gave himself up to suffer on the cross, bearing the punishment due to humanity in their place, thereby removing the guilt of those united to him by faith and causing them to be reconciled with God.

This core claim is a statement of punishment that is primarily retributive in nature. Retributive views of punishment hold that justice demands that humans receive proportional suffering in light of their wrongdoings, or in other words, that wrongdoing merits or requires punishment. (Contrasting views hold that wrongdoing does not merit punishment, but that punishment is justified in light of the beneficial consequences it might bring about.)

While penal substitution upholds the retributivist view of punishment, it differs from standard instances of retributive punishment since it holds justice is satisfied in this case through suffering being exacted, not on the persons who committed the wrongdoing, but on an appropriate third party who did not perform the wrongdoings.

The Superficial Objection from Human Legal Theory

This leads many to object to penal substitution in light of what they take to be an analogue to this statement of punishment in human legal courts. It goes as follows:

Superficial Objection from Human Legal TheoryImagine that there is a person guilty of extreme wrongdoing (e.g., murder) that is sentenced to receive extreme punishment (either life in prison or death). Now suppose that the judge has a son who volunteers to take the place of the wrongdoer, and that the judge allows this, punishing the son and letting the wrongdoer go free. Or suppose that some other person more closely related with the wrongdoer, such as their mother or a close friend, takes their punishment instead of them.

The response to such a case would be moral outrage, however moving the sacrificial nature of the son’s (or mother’s or friend’s) action may be. The reason for such moral outrage stems from two facts about this case: first, that an innocent person is punished, and second, that a guilty person is left unpunished. Both of these acts, according to our moral intuitions as well as retributivist theories of punishment (which hold that the guilty and only the guilty should be punished), are manifestly unjust.

But penal substitution claims that they both acts can be morally justified, so the objection goes, because it holds that Christ was our innocent substitute (and yet was punished) and that we the guilty are thereby spared punishment. Hence, penal substitution is legally and morally absurd.

Clarifying Penal Substitution: Christ Was Guilty on the Cross

This objection crucially depends on penal substitution including the claim that Christ was an innocent substitute. Many authors who discuss penal substitution characterize it in this way, including some who object to it on the grounds just given, some who object to it on different grounds, and even some who defend it (Lewis; Williams and Smail (cited in Jeffrey, Ovay, and Sach); Kyle; Porter).

This objection is superficial, however, because penal substitution when properly construed does not hold this, holding rather that our guilt was imputed (or legally transferred or credited) to Christ on the cross in virtue of our legal union with him by faith, and is subsequently absolved through his punishment, making us become innocent and no longer deserving of punishment.

What is Penal SubstitutionAs Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach put it, “as we are united to Christ by his Spirit through faith, our sin and guilt are imputed to Christ, and we are credited with his righteousness and receive all the other benefits of his atoning work” (p. 147). John Calvin, a protestant reformer and defender of penal substitution, agrees: “the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God” (cited in Kyle, p. 211). Finally, 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that “he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Christ], so that in him [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God,” which seems clearly to imply that our guilt was imputed to Christ.

Therefore, the proper construal of penal substitution seems to be that Christ was guilty upon receiving punishment as our guilt was imputed to him.

But Should Penal Substitution Say This?

One might conclude, instead, the Bible leaves room for either understanding of penal substitution. But even in this case, whether we are advocating penal substitution or charitably criticizing it, we should prefer the construal that says that human guilt is imputed to Christ – rather than saying that Christ was innocent in every sense – so that it is not committed to the implausible claim that there are cases in which it is morally justified to punish the innocent.

Some object to this understanding, pointing out that penal substitution is also committed to the claim that Christ was not only innocent but morally perfect, as this is necessary for him to be a fitting substitute (Kyle). It would then be committed to the claim that Christ both was guilty on the cross and innocent on the cross, which is inconsistent.

But the defender of penal substitution can affirm both claims without inconsistency by distinguishing between intrinsic guilt and imputed guilt. Christ was intrinsically innocent in that he himself committed no blameworthy actions; he thus had no intrinsic guilt, and so was a fitting substitute. But he did have imputed guilt in that he was made to become responsible for the blameworthy actions of others.

Penal substitution can therefore consistently hold that Christ was intrinsically innocent but became guilty by the time of his crucifixion in virtue of having our guilt imputed to him.

Imputation of Guilt and Christ as Our Representative

Defense of Penal SubstitutionThis concept of imputation of moral and legal responsibility is closely related to another concept used by defenders of penal substitution, which is the concept of representation. Representative unions in a legal context roughly refer to cases where one person (the representative) acts on behalf of another (the represented) in a way that affects the moral or legal standing or responsibility of the latter.

Such unions include weaker unions in which the representative does not himself take on the standing or responsibility of the represented (such as in an attorney-client representative union), and stronger unions in which he does take on such legal standing or responsibility in virtue of entering into the representative union. In Christian penal substitution Christ is construed as a representative for humanity in this stronger, latter sense, which creates a legal union which allows for our guilt to be imputed to him.

Clarifying penal substitution with the concepts of imputation of guilt and strong representative unions, then, is sufficient to make it immune from the superficial objection as it does not hold that the innocent is punished, but rather that Christ bore the guilt for our sins in himself.


Jeffery, Steve, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach (2007). Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

Kyle, Brent G. (2013). “Punishing and atoning: a new critique of penal substitution.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 74: 201-218. doi: 10.1007/s11153-012-9382-1

Lewis, David (1997). “Do we believe in penal substitution?” Philosophical Papers 26 (3): 203-209. doi: 10.1080/05568649709506566

Porter, Steven L. (2004). “Swinburnian Atonement and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution.” Faith and Philosophy 21 (2): 228-241. doi: 10.5840/faithphil20042126

The defense of penal substitution continues in Part 3.

Do you agree or disagree that our guilt was imputed to Christ on the cross? Do you have any questions about the doctrine of penal substitution? Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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2 Commentsto What is Penal Substitution? – A Defense of Penal Substitution Part 2

  1. Barry says:

    Hi Kiefer,

    The trinity doctrine in itself is sometimes hard to understand.The concept of the innocent receiving punishment for the guilty is controversial, at least.

    Then again Jesus Himself said paraphrasing there is no greater love than……you know the rest.

    If Jesus was sinless but was guilty on the cross wasn’t that in itself sin. The thing is I guess it all depends on faith.

    There are many differing views on many aspects of Biblical teaching and unfortunately most people get their beliefs and doctrine second hand. I don’t think it’s possible to understand Biblical teachings and doctrine without getting it straight from the Bible, Do you.
    In my opinion the Bible has different meanings and lessons for each individual reader. You have to know what is happening before you try to get clarification, wouldn’t you say?

    Many things that were considered Divine not long ago are now understood scientifically.
    How does science play into faith is a loaded question. I don’t think anyone can be asked to follow blindly. Do you? What was the point of crucifying Jesus at all? Why the Crucifixion ordeal when God can do whatever He chooses?

    I think these thing will be talked about for along time and opinions always vary. Sorry I ran on and on.



    • Kiefer says:

      Thanks for all of your questions, Barry! I’ll do my best to succinctly respond to each of them.

      1. I wouldn’t say that Jesus being guilty on the cross was itself a sin committed by Jesus. Sin can only be constituted by actions or failed actions, or perhaps a bad will, whereas the property of being guilty is none of those. To willingly take on that property is not sinful but loving and sacrificial.

      2. I do think it is possible to understand biblical teaching apart from reading the Bible directly; many in history have had only this means available and understood biblical teaching well-enough to be saved and know God, at least. But certainly having access to the Bible directly is much better!

      3. I’m not sure if the Bible has individual things to say to each individual or not, to be honest, but I’m inclined to say that it does not. Presumably when people speak of what a certain passage means to them, that meaning is subjective, influenced by their own experiences applied to the text (though not necessarily illegitimate). But the text itself has objective meaning.

      4. I don’t know if anyone can be asked to follow the Christian faith blindly, but I’d say either way that no one is in fact asked to do that. Even if someone is unaware of all of the arguments and evidence for the Christian faith, they still have the general witness of the Holy Spirit to them personally (Romans 1-2).

      5. Finally, why did God need to crucify Jesus? The answer to this question deserves a much longer treatment, one that you may hopefully find throughout this Defense of Penal Substitution series.

      Feel free to follow up or ask any more questions, Barry!

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