An overview of Protestant Penal Substitution Theology

With the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the understanding of the atonement undergoes a significant change in thinking.  This theology is generally referred to as “penal substitution.”  As with the Catholic understanding, in this view Christ is our substitute.  The foundational difference is in the way he is standing in our place.  As discussed in previous posts, as Catholics we see Jesus standing in our place to fight Satan, sin and death (Christus Victor).  We see him standing in our place offering his obedience in holiness to God and standing in Truth, regardless of the personal cost (Satisfaction).

Penal substitution as introduced by Protestantism instead sees Christ as our substitute in order to be punished by God for our sins.  In this view, when referring to Christ paying a “debt” he did not owe, that debt is not obedience as a Catholic would understand.  In penal substitution theology, the debt is the punishment God is required to give to all sinners in order to meet His justice.  While this view is often attributed to St. Anselm, you will find no such idea in his work.  If you remember, St. Anselm was clear that God did not desire the death or suffering of Christ.  He desired his obedience to maintain holiness.

I first encountered the view of penal substitution in my late teens when I read Hal Lindsey’s book “There’s a New World Coming.”  In it, he says this – “God’s plan for man’s salvation depended on Christ’s willingness to endure the wrath of a holy God against man’s sins.  Now the Gospel is fundamentally the same no matter what era it is preached in.  It’s the good news that Christ took the penalty for every sin that man would ever commit.  If you’ve received the forgiveness that God offers in His son’s death for you, God has already judged all the wrongs that you’ve done or will do; Jesus has already taken God’s wrath against those sins in your behalf.  As God looked at this blood His justice would be satisfied, for the penalty of man’s sin, which was death, had been paid.  He could then change His throne from one of judgment to one of mercy.”

As a Catholic, I knew that Jesus had indeed died for my sins.  At that point I don’t remember ever having any discussion in my religious education as to “why” Jesus had to die for my sins.  So I accepted what I read as truth, and absorbed the Protestant view of the atonement into my thinking without having a clue that it was not Catholic.  And I think this happens to many of us.  We live in a very Protestant culture.  Our thinking can be impacted by friends, family, the sermon we hear on TV, the web site we visit or the inadvertent book we pick up to read.  And because we use very similar language – “Christ is our substitute, Jesus died for my sins, Christ paid a debt we did not owe” – we can miss the very real difference between the two.

It will seem I’m sure that I have spent and will continue to spend a considerable amount of time on this topic of the atonement.  That is rooted in my opinion that this difference is such a foundational piece of theology in Protestantism that is contrary to Catholic belief that it is equal in importance to sola-Scriptura(Scripture alone) and sola-fide(faith alone).  It’s why Protestants often can’t understand many things in Catholic theology, especially the Catholic view of salvation, faith, works, the sacraments and most certainly Purgatory.  When the Catholic understanding of these topics is viewed through a lens of “penal substitution” they legitimately don’t make sense.  If we’re going to have reasonable discussions about these other topics we have to recognize that, and often start at a more basic level of how Christ’s death on the cross really saves us.

Over the next several posts I will discuss some of the more problematic aspects of penal substitution atonement theology and why as Catholics we cannot accept this view.  For now, I’ll start with something found in the quote offered above.  Lindsey said that “As God looked at this blood His justice would be satisfied, for the penalty of man’s sin, which was death, had been paid.  He could then change His throne from one of judgment to one of mercy.”

The glaring thing that stands out in that quote to me today that didn’t register decades ago is the idea that once Christ “paid the price,” then God could change his throne from one of judgment to one of mercy.  Today I would recognize that this contradicts one of the most foundational things we know about God, and that is He doesn’t change (immutable1, immutable2, immutable3).  The idea that some action could occur that would change God’s throne from one of judgment to mercy contradicts the great truth that God is immutable.

Here is a quote from another Protestant source that’s similar:

So where is the mercy of the cross?  All we see here is Christ experiencing all wrath and no mercy.  How can I say that wrath and mercy meet here?

Let me explain.  Christ has never sinned, so, why would a sinless man be suffering God’s wrath?  Because he walked into that courtroom, he stood between the judge and the guilty person, and said, “I will serve his sentence.”  He took other people’s sin upon himself.  He took upon himself sin to such an extent that he became sin.  He became vile and detestable in God’s eyes–the most vile and detestable thing that could ever exist–and God poured out the full measure of his wrath upon him.  He poured out his wrath upon Christ until that wrath was absorbed and exhausted, until every bit of justice was satisfied.

The courtroom analogy of Christ standing between the judge (God) and the guilty person (us) to receive our punishment is a common one in penal substitution theology.  It is rich with problems from the Catholic point of view that I will expand upon in future posts.  For now I will just remind us in Catholic thinking the person Christ engages in battle on our behalf is Satan.  He positions himself between us and the powers of Satan, sin and death, absorbing into himself the full onslaught of our enemy.  From the Catholic perspective Satan is who launches the attack on Christ, not God.  Satan uses his human instruments — those whom are enslaved to the powers of sin.  They carry out his work against the one God sends to save us.  Those who mock, torture and crucify Christ are not instruments of God in our view.  God does however permit their actions to allow for a greater good to come forth.

Both of the examples I’ve given show the difficulty within penal substitution theology of reconciling God’s justice and mercy, as they are presented as competing interests.  Within the Catholic view, this difficulty does not exist.  I wrote in my last post that if we have a correct understanding of God’s justice, meaning “right order,” we can only see God’s mercy at work in establishing His justice to return his creation to its original perfect order.

It is also important to remember that in the Catholic view, human emotions attributed to God are anthropomorphic language, just as physical human attributes.  They are not simply “bigger” versions of human emotions.  They also do not represent a change in state of God – moving from wrath, to justice, to mercy, to love.  In fact, I think one of the most interesting verses related to God’s wrath in Sacred Scripture is Isaiah 54:8 because it may be the only time in Sacred Scripture that God’s wrath is qualified – Isaiah speaks to God’s “overflowing” wrath.  And what does this passage reveal?  “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.”  Even in this passage we have to understand there was not a momentary change in God.  Rather it’s a statement to the lack of conflict that exists between God’s “wrath” and his compassionate redemption.

Rather than the Father seeing Christ as “vile and detestable in God’s eyes–the most vile and detestable thing that could ever exist” as cited above, the Catholic view is that there is never a time when Christ is more beloved by God than when on the cross, offering himself in a supreme act of love to save his people.

“We adore you oh Christ and we praise you.  Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

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