The Nature of the Atonement: The Primacy of Penal Substitution

After last week’s good discussion on legalism, I want to return to the series I had been previously doing on the nature of the atonement. This post will lay out why the penal substitutionary view is central to a right understanding of the atonement. (Note: you can see part 1 which introduces this series here, or part 2 which explains the first two views here, or part 3 which explains the second two views here)

The primacy of the penal substitution model as the dominant theme of the Atonement is demonstrated by its capacity to intertwine four major motifs that permeate scripture: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.

The atonement represents the culmination of the sacrificial system outlined in scripture. According to John Murray, the Old Testament outlines a system in which “God is revealed in the sacrifices on the one hand as the Creator on whom man depends for his physical life, and on the other as simultaneously the Judge who demands and the Savior who provides atonement for sin.” The sacrificial system established in the Law points to a Messianic sacrificial hope (Isaiah 53) that is fulfilled by Christ on the cross.

The book of Hebrews drives home the idea that Christ is the culmination of the sacrificial system by demonstrating that the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 9:6-15), the burnt offerings (Hebrews 10:5-18), and the sin offering (Hebrews 13) are embodied and fulfilled by Christ. Christ’s atonement is better than the Old Testament system because it is a one-time sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:26). Since the theme of sacrifice is so pervasive in scripture and because it culminates in the cross, this elevates the primacy of the penal substitution model of the atonement.

The idea of propitiation goes hand in hand with the concept of sacrifice as a cornerstone for rightly understanding the atonement. What is propitiation? John Stott defines it this way, “Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.” The purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices was to serve as satisfaction of God’s displeasure with sin (Leviticus 4:35).

While this satisfaction was temporary and repetitive, the New Testament frequently affirms that Christ’s atonement is a final and sufficient propitiation for our sins. Because of the wrath of our holy God towards sin, propitiation is an essential component of the cross that is only captured by the view of penal substitution.

Reconciliation is at the center of what the atonement accomplishes between God and man. As Wayne Grudem describes, reconciliation is necessary in order “to overcome our separation from God…and thereby bring us back into fellowship with God.” Reconciliation restores the broken relationship that existed between God and man due to God’s enmity towards us (because of our sin) and our enmity towards Him (because of our sinful nature).

The central passage in understanding the relationship between the atonement and reconciliation is 2 Corinthians 5:15-21. In this text, Paul teaches that God not only reconciles us to Himself in Christ but also allows us to join Him in reconciling the world to Himself through our ministry of reconciliation. For real reconciliation to occur, a real payment had to be made for our sins. Through the cross, God overcomes the alienation established at the fall through the penal substitution of Christ.

Redemption is achieved in the atonement by God’s deliverance of us from the bondage of sin. This deliverance is more accurately described as a ransom in which God redeems us from captivity to sin. As John Murray notes, “The word of the Lord himself (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45) should place beyond all doubt three facts:

  1. That the work he came into the world to accomplish is a work of ransom
  2. That the giving of his life was the ransom price
  3. That this ransom was substitutionary in its nature.”

On the cross, Christ became a curse for us to redeem us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). In the atonement, Christ redeemed all of us who were under the law and adopted us as sons (Galatians 4:4,5). Deliverance from sin by the ransom of Christ is a pivotal component of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.


One thought on “The Nature of the Atonement: The Primacy of Penal Substitution

  1. Pingback: Fill Up » The Nature of the Atonement: Is it Necessary? Is it Fair?

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