Theories of Atonement: Penal Substitution

The substitution theory of atonement views the death of Christ as something that happened in the place of sinners.  By dying Christ took the place of those that sinned against God, and through his death sins of the sinner are expiated[1].  Since he died in our place his righteousness is then imputed to us when we believe by faith.  Regarding this John Bunyan wrote, “Now, if thou wouldst inherit righteousness, and so sanctification possess in body, soul, and spirit, then thou must to Jesus fly, as one ungodly first; and so by him crave pardon for thy sin which thou hast loved, and hast lived in; for this cannot at all forgiven be, for any righteousness that is in thee.[2]”      The theory itself has a great deal of biblical support as Christ is mentioned as substitute in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  1 Peter 2:24 speaks of Christ bearing the sins of others on the cross.  This idea is mentioned again in Hebrews 9:28.  The prophet Isaiah spoke off the Messiah’s death as being substitutionary in nature (Isa. 53:4-6).  The words of Christ himself in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 speak of the fact that he came to die for sinners.  To take this theme a bit further the Apostle Paul uses specific Greek verbs in his writing.  The preposition used is huper and means “for’.  This specific verb is used in Galatians 3:13, 1 Timothy 2:6, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and 1 Peter 3:18 to signify that Christ died on behalf of sinners[3].

There is no shortage to the theories of atonement that have been developed over the ages.  The ones contained in this essay just scratch the surface, but it is vitally important to understand just what the atonement is.  The mission of Christ to save his people can be best be summed up with the Penal Substitution theory.  This theory has the most biblical support, and the exegesis of the supporting passages lend credence to the conclusion.  The atonement tells the story of the second person of the Trinity becoming man, walking among us, being tempted as we are, and dying in place for us.  To understand it is important to know just who He is.

[1] John D. Berry, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Substitution.”

[2] John Bunyan, One Thing is Needful (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2014), 741.

[3] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 337.

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