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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Why Did Jesus Die? Part 2: In Our Place

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

This is Part 2 in a 6-part Lent/Easter series on Jesus' death. See Introduction, Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, and Conclusion.

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He was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

~Isaiah 53:5 NRSVA~

Penal substitution is, perhaps, the most familiar atonement model in contemporary Christianity, at least in Protestant, particularly Reformed, circles. It is found in Presbyterians' Westminster Confession: "Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father's justice in their behalf" [1]. It is also found in the Reformed Tradition's Heidelberg Catechism: "Q. Why did He suffer 'under Pontius Pilate' as judge? A. So that He, though innocent, might be condemned by an earthly judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us" [2]. It is even found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "[Christ's sacrifice] is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience" [3]. I mentioned in the Introduction to this series that, as a "Young, Restless, and Reformed" teenager, I was influenced by, and struggled with a version of penal substitution that took its cues from 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours [4].

Such language about God's wrath easily lends itself to the caricature that penal substitution is a furious God "blowing off steam" on Jesus so He can get His anger out of the way before loving us. The good news is that, biblically defined, penal substitution is not a God flying off the handle and blowing off steam before He loves us, and who might fly off the handle again at any moment. It is a model of God fully loving us and giving Himself to us while taking our sins and the harm we inflict on others He loves seriously at the same time.

Our primary conversation partner, Josh McNall, offers a simple definition of penal substitution. "Mere" penal substitution includes three concepts: substitution, penalty, and divine sanction [5]. In Part 1, we talked about how Jesus, as our archetype and head, is not distinct from us. We are united to Him and included in Him. So He can act on our behalf. In penal substitution, this is not a distinct innocent party experiencing the punishment of a guilty party. Instead Jesus, as our head, accepts the responsibility for dealing with our sins. Now introducing the language of substitution does not do away with that framework. We still need to remember we are united to Jesus and He can act on our behalf. What "substitution" explains is that Jesus, as our Head and on our behalf, experienced the crucifixion and we did not. He underwent suffering while we did not. He acted in a way we did not. Substitution explains that we do not experience what He experienced and do not play an active role in it, even though we are included in Him through this process [6]. What He experienced was a punishment for sin (which we will talk more about in a moment) that was sanctioned by God [7]. Mere penal substitution claims that Jesus took the divinely sanctioned punishment for human sin on Himself for our sake. So let's dive into the Scriptural background that undergirds the penal substitutionary model.

We must begin by seeing the idea of sacrifice as rooted in a covenant relationship. A covenant is a legal framework guiding and sealing a new binding relationship [8]. In the Bible, covenants sealed the relationship between a king and a newly conquered king who agreed to submit and serve the victorious king. The practice for creating a covenant was to cut animals in half and then walk between the separated halves to say, "If I fail to uphold my end of the bargain, may I be like these dead animals" [9]. God uses this very practice with Abraham in Genesis 15. Yet only God goes through the pieces, not Abraham. When God established the covenant relationship with curses for violating the relationship, God always promised to bear the consequences for both parties' failings, His and all human failures. That was always the intention [10].

Sacrifice played a central role in Old Testament worship. Leviticus 16 gives a key image for penal substitution.

Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin-offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel [11].

Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness [12].

In this passage, they place the sins of the people on one goat sent from the camp, the primary penalty in Leviticus. They sacrifice the other. These two goats function as a pair. They highlight the same concept from different angles. The people of Israel are incorporated in the actions of the goats (think the logic of recapitulation from Part 1), but the goats also undergo something the people do not. They experience something instead of Israel. This action highlights an animal enduring the people's penalty in their place [13].

Another key Old Testament passage is Isaiah 52:13-53:12 which in prophetic poetry speaks of a Suffering Servant who brings restoration to Israel. Isaiah 53:5, in particular, plainly describes penal substitution: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed." The rest of the poem draws on the sacrificial imagery of Leviticus. "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" [14]. He is "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter" [15].

The New Testament will explicitly identify Jesus as the Suffering Servant in various passages. Jesus quoted Isaiah 53:12: "For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled'" [16]. Philip makes the identification in Acts 8:32-35. The Apostle Peter does so in 1 Peter 2:22-25. Another key statement from Jesus is His prayer the night before He was crucified: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want" [17]. The cup is a common image of God's judgment on evil, such as in Psalm 75:8. "For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs" [18]. Just before going to the cross, Jesus confirms in His prayer that He is enduring God's judgment on evil.

To round out our focus on Scripture before endeavoring to put these together and answer some particular questions, St. Paul writes:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of 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 to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit [19].

Because of Jesus' death, Christians are not condemned. Jesus dealt with the condemnation against sin in His death. There are a few other interesting points to notice in these verses. While penal substitution is present (Jesus undergoes a divine penalty from the Law for sin instead of us), there is no talk of God being angry with Jesus. Jesus is not condemned; sin is. Christians, as a result, are not condemned [20].

Many in the Reformed tradition of the present day emphatically emphasized that the Father punished Jesus, putting a break between these two persons in the Trinity and setting the Father against the Son. An example of this is R. C. Sproul's classic declaration that, on the cross, the Father turned to the Son and said, "God damn you, Jesus!" [21]. Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem wrote, "Jesus became the object of [God's] intense hatred" [22]. Such statements are not biblically warranted and run the dangerous risk of splitting the Godhead against one another. They overemphasize the themes of God's wrath for sin and Jesus' penal substitutionary death and turn it into the Father being personally and directly angry with the Son. John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology and teacher of penal substitution, rejects this unbiblical breaking of the Trinity.

We do not...insinuate that God was ever hostile to [Christ] or angry with him. How could he be angry with the beloved Son, with whom his soul was well pleased? or how could he have appeased the Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself? But this we say, that he bore the weight of the divine anger, that, smitten and afflicted, he experienced all the signs of an angry and avenging God [23].

After looking at Scripture, we have a couple of issues to consider. The first is, why can't God simply forgive, like the father in the Prodigal Son story, without demanding a penalty? The simple answer is that, even in the Prodigal Son parable, the father absorbs the cost of the younger son's actions and gives him gifts above his allotted inheritance to celebrate his return. The father absorbs the loss of his son's actions without asking the son to pay him back. So with God. God's forgiveness means He absorbs the cost accrued by human sin, which is what happens on the cross [24].

Second, what is the deal with God's wrath? If it isn't God being angry and vindictive, what is happening? First, God's anger is not ours. His is not tainted by the same irrationality or disproportionality [25]. Instead, God's wrath is rooted in His love in two ways. First, He is angry on behalf of the victims of sin. He loves the people we sin against and is angered by what has harmed them. We experience this too. A lack of anger for how someone is hurt is a sign of apathy, the opposite of love [26]. The second way His wrath is rooted in His love is, out of love for those of us who sin, he issues punishment to correct us, teaches us exactly how our sins have hurt others, and redirects us away from them. "Divine punishment aims to communicate to offenders the censure they deserve for their sins, but this punishment is an expression of God’s severe mercy, internally directed towards bringing repentance, reform and reconciliation for those who are willing to receive the message of punishment" [27]. We also must remember that love is basic to who God is; wrath is not. Wrath only arises from God's love in response to the destruction it inflicts on His creation. Scripture says, "God is love" [28], but it never says, "God is wrath". Scripture also refers to acts of judgment as foreign or alien to God. "For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work!" [29]. It is not, at core, who He is or His desire, but is the response of His love to our foreign works of sin, the works we were not made to do. God's wrath is not about His hatred or desire to crush human beings, as I had so often heard or as Jonathan Edwards preached. It is justice born out of love for victims and correction born out of love for perpetrators.

The third issue is if penal substitution can justify abuse. There are a couple of things to say about this. First, in Trinitarian theology, the Father and the Son are in an equal relationship. The Son is not subordinate. Both persons agree to this plan of action. The Father does not inflict it on Jesus. He takes it on Himself [30]. "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" [31]. Scripture itself regularly speaks against abuse. God's love for abuse victims leads to wrath for abusers. "You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans" [32]. The only passage that could be read as encouraging abuse victims to passively endure abuse is 1 Peter 2. "If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps" [33]. St. Peter then quotes the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah, already given as a biblical foundation for penal substitution. There is a lot to wrestle with in this passage. For now, notice that St. Peter writes to people in specific situations that they cannot escape, in this case, slaves. In our context, no one should ever use this passage to manipulate or encourage an abuse victim to stay in an abusive situation when they have the means to escape, just as St. Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid injustice [34].

After our detailed discussion of penal substitution, perhaps the most controversial of the models, we will integrate it with the other models. In his mosaic of Christ's body, McNall identifies it with the heart that rests on the feet of recapitulation and supports both Christus Victor and moral influence. From it, the blood flows to the body [35].

Jesus' victory does not come by merely reliving the human story (see Part 1). It comes by the cross. Penal substitution focuses on freeing humans from the curses brought on by breaking the covenant. Christus Victor (as we will see in Part 3) focuses on freeing humans from bondage to sin, Satan, and death. With that said Christus Victor, on its own, cannot explain the achievement of victory. It usually needs to appeal to the resurrection to highlight Christ's victory. The resurrection certainly is Jesus' victory, but Scripture also speaks of the cross alone as Jesus' victory [36]. Some early Church fathers who taught Christus Victor stated His victory came about in His death alone when His eternal life touched death, but that does not explain the means of death. If it was simply about His eternal life touching death, He could have died of natural causes at an old age. It doesn't explain the violent crucifixion [37].

Penal substitution and Christus Victor are connected in Col. 2:13-15:

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Satan, meaning "the Accuser", prosecutes the case against humanity. As long as we are guilty, he has a case. We have an IOU (a "cheirographon" in Greek) which gives Satan a hold over us. Colossians 2 shows that Jesus' death fulfilled the demands of the law (penal substitution) removing all rights Satan may claim over us and setting us free (Christus Victor). Jesus' victory comes by stripping Satan of his power by defeating the case against us through His substitutionary death. And Jesus can do so because we are incorporated with Him, as we learned in Part 1 [38].

As for moral influence (Part 4), it is not sufficient to deal with sin. It simply gives us an example to model our behavior after. It does not show a defeat of sin and Satan [39]. For it to be an act of love that influences us, it also must accomplish something. Violence and death is not an act of love but manipulation unless it is an act of self-sacrifice that achieves something. Penal substitution explains what the cross accomplishes, how it is an act of love [40]. A sermon illustration I once heard for this idea was that while walking by a river, a friend turning to us and saying, "Let me show you I love you" before throwing himself into the river and drowning is an act of folly. But if one of us had fallen in and a friend dove in with us to save us but drowned while rescuing us would be an act of self-giving love. Penal substitution shows us how Jesus stepped into the river of sin we were drowning in and saved us but gave His life in the process. Penal substitution explains the act of love in a way moral influence cannot on its own. We will learn more about moral influence in Part 4.

So to sum it up, our sin harms the creation God loves. God provides penalties to defend the victims and to correct the perpetrators. Yet Jesus on the cross bears the penalty for our sin on our behalf as our head and takes away any accusation against us. Now we will need to delve more into how Jesus' act does not just pay for sin, but defeats sin, evil, suffering, and death.

In the comments below, how does this model comfort you? What are elements you still find challenging? How does it deepen your understanding of Jesus' death and Jesus' love for you?


[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.3.

[2] Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 38.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Liguori: Liguori Publications, 1994), 159.

[4] Edwards, Jonathan. "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God", Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed March 1, 2023,

[5] McNall, Joshua M. The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), p. 101.

[6] Ibid. pp. 101-103.

[7] Ibid. pp. 104-107

[8] Ibid. p. 153.

[9] Ibid. pp. 129-130.

[10] Ibid. p. 130.

[11] Leviticus 16:8-10 NRSVA.

[12] Leviticus 16:21-22 NRSVA.

[13] McNall, pp. 131-134.

[14] Isaiah 53:6 NRSVA.

[15] Isaiah 53:7 NRSVA.

[16] Luke 22:37 NRSVA.

[17] Matthew 26:39 NRSVA.

[18] See also Isaiah 51:17 and Jeremiah 25:15-38.

[19] Romans 8:1-4 NRSVA.

[20] McNall, pp. 145-146.

[21] Sproul, R. C. "The Curse Motif of the Atonement," in Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology, ed. Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and C. J. Mahaney (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), quoted in McNall, p. 168.

[22] Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 575, quoted in McNall, p. 168.

[23] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 2.16.11.

[24] McNall, pp. 150-152.

[25] Ibid, p. 154.

[26] Lane, Tony, “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God,” Union Theology, accessed February 25, 2023, Thank you to Josh McNall for pointing out this article in personal correspondence.

[27] Wessling, Jordan. “How Does a Loving God Punish? On the Unification of God’s Love and Punitive Wrath.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 19, Issue 4: 421-443. Thank you to Josh McNall for pointing out this article in personal correspondence.

[28] 1 John 4:8 NRSVA.

[29] Isaiah 28:21 ESV.

[30] McNall, pp. 157-158.

[31] John 10:18 NRSVA.

[32] Ex. 22:22-24 NRSVA.

[33] 1 Peter 2:20-21 NRSVA.

[34] Acts 22:25

[35] McNall, pp. 172-174.

[36] John 3:14; 8:28; 12:23-32; Col. 2:14-15.

[37] McNall, pp. 174-180.

[38] Ibid. pp. 180-182.

[39] Ibid. pp. 184-185.

[40] Ibid. pp. 187-188.

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