The Kiss Between Justice and Grace

Theories of the Atonement

Understanding what happened on the Cross is a key aspect of understanding the work of Christ and what He actually achieved through His death and resurrection. As such, theories of the atonement are numerous and they can vary greatly in their theological implications. For the vast majority of those who consider themselves Christians the work done by Christ on the cross works directly into their soteriology, which is a fundamental issue for any religion. In this series we will explore different theories of the atonement. As a side note, all quotes from scripture will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

Penal Substitution Theory: A Brief Introduction And Defense

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory that I personally, as well as many other evangelicals, embrace. Therefore, in dealing with this theory up front the reader maybe informed of my personal leanings, therefore, understand both my perspective and my bias.


The first aspect of this theory is the Penal aspect. The term penal represents the natural mans’ guilty state before God and the belief that man is in need of a savior because he is guilty or depraved enough that saving himself is not an option. The penal aspect also dictates that God is justified in his condemning all men and women to be subjected to his wrath.

Romans 3:10-12

“…as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’”

Romans 3:23

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

Ephesians 2:1-3

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived the passions of our flesh carrying out the desires of the body and the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

1 John 1:8

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”


The second concept of this theory is solely the grace and doing of God. God, for the sake of demonstrating his glory, sent His only begotten son to die on the cross serving as a substitute for us. Christ received the punishment that the Church rightly deserved and took it on Himself.

2 Corinthians 5:21

“For our sake God made him who knew no sin to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Isaiah 53:12

“…because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

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’”

1 Peter 3:18

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…”

Romans 4:24

“…It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

The Old Testament makes many references to blood sacrifices for atonement of sins, both on an individual and national level. Christ is the completion of this Old Testament sacrificial system (Romans 10:4, Matthew 5:17, and Luke 24:27). Atonement for sin and reconciliation takes place as a result of the penal substitution of Christ. This theory enables God to require holiness and justice for crimes committed against Him, while at the same time, making Him loving in that He died for the Church as a substitute while still sinners (Romans 5:8). Some have said that this theory makes the cross the place “where justice and grace kiss.”


Divine Child Abuse?

Critics have described this theory of the atonement as “divine child abuse.” I would argue that this critique has two main problems: 1) it perverts the doctrine of the Trinity. I do believe in a hierarchy within the Trinity, however, I do not believe that this hierarchy is tyrannical or oppressive. For example, I do not believe that God the Father simply orders and dictates the actions of the other two persons of the Trinity (whether the hierarch is permanent or temporary is not the point of this paper). The three persons of the Trinity are in unison with each other working to glorify the others as well as justify, sanctify, and glorify the Church even though they work towards this end in different ways (for example see Romans 8:26, 1 Timothy 2:5, and John 6:44). The passage from the Gospel of John also helps us to see both the unison in purpose as well as a hierarchical nature in the Trinity.

John 10:17-18

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (Emphasis mine)

2) This position also lacks an understanding of Christ’s love for His bride—the Church. The Bible clearly uses very intimate language to describe Christ’s relationship to the Church.

Ephesians 5:25-27

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

The book of Revelations ends with the groom (Christ) being presented with his glorified bride (the Church) in which a massive celebration commences for all eternity (Revelations 21:1-4).

Penal Substitution Makes God Unjust

This argument states that God acts unjustly by placing the sins of other people on Christ, who is without sin. God, however, clearly and repeatedly demonstrates that He is for His own glory. Deuteronomy 6:14-15 says…

“You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.”

That is a pretty heavy passage. What can this section of scripture tell us about the character and nature of God? He wants praise and worship. The Bible attacks idols throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the theme becomes clear. God desires no confusion over who deserves praise and worship and who does not. All praise and worship be to God because He is the only deserving one since all good things come from Him (James 1:17).

Ephesians 1:4-5

“…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”

The Spirit revealed through his servant Paul in this passage that God has selected those who will be saved from before the creation of the world. With that established, we can reason that God foresaw the fall from Eden and still decided to create man knowing before he did so that they would need a savior. He could have changed it even before it started, however, He chose to humble Himself by coming down in flesh, work a manual labor job, be rejected by his hometown and members of his own family, and travel around for three years with 12 guys who were pretty dense, and finally die on a cross. All for people he loved even when they were still in rebellion against him (Romans 5:8). If that doesn’t warrant the greatest amount of praise and worship from humanity, I’m not sure what does.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement allows God to have justice for the wrongs committed against him by His image bearers while at the same time demonstrating love and a way of salvation for his church. God does not lower His standards or ignore crimes, if anyone

deserves justice, it is God, sins are real and someone will pay. If we had a judge who simply threw out all the cases that came before him how many of us would actually call him good? Once we establish from scripture that all men have turned away from God we can easily began to see our need for a savior. Scripture, as I have tried to demonstrate, teaches that the atoning work of Christ made the cross the place where righteous judgment, love, and grace met, all for the glory of God.

Ray Noble attends Grace Covenant Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. He has a BA in classical history from Shawnee State Universityand will begin working on an M.Div. at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois this August.

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