Penal Substitutionary Atonement

by Lauren Dyck

Charles Spurgeon says of the atonement:

“Those who set aside the atonement as a satisfaction for sin also murder the doctrine of justification by faith. They must do so. There is a common element which is the essence of both doctrines; so that, if you deny the one, you destroy the other.”


“We shall not cease, dear brethren, in our ministry, most definitely and decidedly to preach the atoning sacrifice; and I will tell you why I shall be sure to do so. I have not personally a shadow of a hope of salvation from any other quarter: I am lost if Jesus be not my Substitute.”

Shockingly, the vital doctrine of substitutionary atonement is being questioned and even attacked by those within the church. This post will not deal with the differing theories of the atonement but focus on the Biblical view as declared by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2:24.

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24

Here we get to the heart of the gospel; the essence of the “Good News” is that Jesus did something for us. In 1 Peter 2:21 we read that “Christ…suffered for you.” He suffered for us setting an example or pattern that we are to follow in unjust suffering, but not only did He set the standard we see in verses 21-23, but He suffered as our substitute, He took our place.

Isaiah writes of the substitutionary death of Christ in chapter 53:4-5, 11, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed… Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

We see the similar language Peter uses here in our text as did Isaiah, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

MacArthur comments on this verse,

“Here, again, I say is the heart of the Christian gospel, the great doctrine of substitution.  That is, that Christ was our substitute in dying is basic to our faith.  In fact, we could safely say that all other elements of salvation merely surround this great core truth.”

He then goes on to quote Leon Morris,

“Redemption is substitutionary, for it means that Christ paid that price that we could not pay, paid it in our stead and we go free.  Justification interprets our salvation judicially.  As the New Testament sees it, Christ took our legal liability, took it in our stead.  Reconciliation means the making of people to be at one by the taking away of the cause of hostility.  In this case, the cause is sin and Christ removed that cause for us.  We could not deal with sin,” says Morris.  “He could and did, and did it in such a way that it is reckoned to us.  Propitiation points us to the removal of the divine wrath and Christ has done this by bearing the wrath for us.  It was our sin which drew it down.  It was He who bore it.  Was there a price to be paid, He paid it.  Was there a victory to be won, He won it.  Was there a penalty to be borne, He bore it.  Was there a judgment to be faced, He faced it.”

MacArthur then goes on and states,

“What Leon Morris is saying is whether you’re talking about redemption, justification, reconciliation; whether you’re talking about the removal of sin and transgression, whether you’re talking about propitiation or covering – all of those are corollaries in a sense to the great truth of substitution, that Christ took our place on the cross.”

The apostle Paul also makes this plain in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

You see, Peter said, “He bore our sin” meaning that Christ carried the massive weight of our sin, He suffered the penalty for all the sins of all who would ever be forgiven by receiving the wrath of God that we deserved upon Himself, “He became sin who knew no sin,” and “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”

When we trust in Christ alone, our sin is transferred onto Him and while He was on the cross, the wrath of God was poured out onto His only son, Jesus Christ, and the righteousness of Christ is transferred to us. We see this again in Romans 3:23-26, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Jesus Christ, God the Son, became a willing and sufficient sacrifice for all who believe. He turned aside the wrath of God; this is what the word “propitiation” speaks of, that He [Jesus] turned aside the holy and just wrath of God that was meant to destroy our sin, He turned it aside by taking our sins upon Himself on the cross, then the wrath of God was poured out on Him, and in this single act, in the death of Jesus Christ, the wrath of God was satisfied, and for us who trust in this work of Christ, “Since…we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).

Peter goes on in verse 24 that Christ bore our sins “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”

The word translated as “die” here means “to be away from, depart, be missing, or cease existing.” Christ’s substitutionary death separated believers from the penalty of their sins and the condemnation thereof. Paul explains this for us in Romans 8:1-4, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

The record of sins that condemns us has been removed, the apostle Paul tells us that “…you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossian 2:13-14)

Jesus paid our debt by taking the penalty of our sins upon Himself, freeing us to “die to sin” to be separated from our sin, not only from the punishment of our sin but to die to sin and live to righteousness. Our justification is accomplished through His substitution and our sanctification is made possible because of His substitution. We are changed. We are made new creations. We have been transferred from sinner to saint, no longer slaves of sin, but rather, slaves of righteousness to do that which pleases God. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Paul also reiterates this in his letter to the church in Rome (cf. Romans 6:3-12, 16-22).

We are no longer identified as sinners, but now we are saints… our sin imputed to Christ, His righteousness imputed to us.

The Westminster Confession of Faith sec. 11.3 summarizes:

“Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those what are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice on their behalf.”

Peter continues in verse 24, “…By his wounds you have been healed.” As we saw already this morning, Peter is here quoting Isaiah 53. This text is often used as a proof text for those who proclaim that it is always God’s will to heal. This quite simply—and provably—is a wrong understanding and application of this verse. R.C. Sproul notes on this verse,

“If we were to do an exhaustive study of the word heal using a theological dictionary, we would see that the primary reference has nothing to do with being cured of physical diseases or ailments. It has to do with being healed of the consequences of sin. When the Suffering Servant ws put before the lash in our stead, the beating left grizzly welts on His back that looked like stripes. Those were stripes of punishment, and by those stripes, we escape punishment for sin. The passage does not offer a blanket promise of healing for sickness.”

The healing we experience now because of the atonement is the healing of our souls, the removal of sin’s penalty. The physical healing of our bodies will be realized in eternity, when our now healed souls depart from this mortal, sin-laden body and we receive our new immortal bodies.

This is what Christ accomplished as our substitute and to deny such an important doctrine is an attack on the gospel and the work of Christ. Rather, we must embrace this glorious truth and be caused to worship Christ, the Suffering Servant, for His perfect and willing sacrifice for our sin!

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