The Justice of God and Penal Substitution

The centerpiece of Christian theology is the atonement. Various theories of the atonement have been put forth by theologians throughout Church History but the dominant one in evangelical circles is the Penal Substitution Theory. To emphasize this point, John MacArthur states:

"The doctrine Anselm articulated, known as the penal substitution theory of the atonement, has long been considered an essential aspect of all doctrine that is truly evangelical. Historically, all who have abandoned this view have led movements away from evangelicalism. "

In simple terms, the penal substiutionary view states that Christ suffered the penalty for sin in man's place by dying on the cross. His death satisfies the holy wrath of God against sin and allows God to justly forgive sinners.This view seems at its root to be unjust. How can it be considered justice for an innocent party to suffer the penalty due a guilty party? This seems to run contrary to the basic idea of justice; yet we are told that it is precisely because of God's unswervable justice that the death of Christ was necessary.


Paxton said...

An interesting twist to consider:

John chapter 5 says that "the Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son absolute authority to judge..."

This picture is slightly different. Instead of a judge declaring us not guilty and punishing an innocent volunteer, the judge himself volunteers for the punishment. He is both the judge and the judged =)

Former_Fundy said...

I understand that is the model but it still doesn't answer the basic question of how it is just to punish the innocent (even if he is the judge) in the place of the guilty. We would not allow this in our human court system.

DagoodS said...

“Justice” means in accordance with a law. (“Fair” means impartial.) What law was God following that required a death of a god? And what law was God following to impute that punishment from (some) humans to that god? And if God didn’t follow that law, what would it have looked like? Is it possible for God to do an unjust action?

Zachary Moore said...

Christian atonement doesn't make sense because it is patently illogical. The Christian god is infinitely just- therefore every instance of a transgression will result in a prescribed punishment, without exception. But he is also infinitely merciful, which means every instance of a transgression will be excepted from punishment. Imagine the task of a judge who is told that he must be infinitely just AND merciful- he'd go crazy. Penal substitution seems to cover both the bases, but why does it seem so wrong? The reason is because it tries to satisfy both conditions, but logically it can't do both at the same time. So, for those who are saved, God is merciful, but not just. For those who are unsaved, God is just, but not merciful. Christians may be willing to overlook God's inconsistency because they're on the receiving end of his mercy, not his justice... I don't know.

Bruce said...

In simple terms, the penal substiutionary view states that Christ suffered the penalty for sin in man's place by dying on the cross. His death satisfies the holy wrath of God against sin and allows God to justly forgive sinners.

I still don't get it. So God sends Jesus (which, as I understand it, Jesus is really a part of God, the whole trinity thing) to earth to die for our sins so that God will be able to forgive us for our sins. Why would God need to sacrifice himself (or a part of himself) in order to forgive us? Why couldn't he just forgive us in the first place? I don't understand the need for a middle man.

How does sacrificing a god-human hybrid somehow magically allow God to forgive us humans? Was God not able to forgive us before Jesus' death? And if so, why not?
I thought God could do whatever he wanted? Were is actions somehow restricted until Jesus' death? And if so, by who/what were they restricted?

streetapologist said...

Finally something we can agree on:

Zach says:

"I don't know"

All kidding aside, I am not sure what your driving at here Zach. I mean afterall if you believe in a historic fall (which you don't) and you believe that man is inherently sinful (which you don't)and that God is just sending everyone to hell (which you don't) then this makes perfect sense to the believer and to the atheist is completely mindboggling. Not because it is illogical but rather because you are playing a semantical game here. You are using the word *infinite in a sense that renders it meaningless.
Further you fail to understand the imputation of righteousness. Human beings as sinners still deserve the punishment, God witholds his judgement because of the righteousness of Christ.

streetapologist said...


You said:

"Why couldn't he just forgive us in the first place? I don't understand the need for a middle man."

Well of course he could if that were his plan. This however was not his plan, why did he permit the fall? Obviously sin and its redemption through Jesus Christ is the good and righteous plan of God.

Anonymous said...

Zach, God's "mercy" is through Jesus Christ. His mercy is for those who believe. His justice will be for those who don't. I don't believe that God extends his mercy to unbelievers. So this is not a conundrum as some may insist.

evanmay said...

I love how Zach and Fundy's comments simply completely ignore the concept of imputation: the imputation of sin to Christ and the imputation of Christ's righteousness to man.

"Sure, let's show that their belief is illogical. But let's completely ignore major components of the beliefs."

This post simply comments the same errors that were shown in my first of many responses to John Loftus.

It wants to go after mercy and justice, but it ignores forensic justification.

Fun stuff.

Former_Fundy said...

Evan May--I fully understand the concept of imputation but I fail to see how that solves the problem. Are you saying that Jesus deserved the punishment he received because man's sins had been imputed to him? If so, you fly in face of the Scripture which always presents Christ as pure, innocent and unworthy of death.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Why impute sin on the sinless? For the sake of those who seek the unearned. "His pain, our gain" is a formula which sanctions injustice and victimizes the innocent; it explicitly teaches that one should expect to gain as the result of someone else's suffering and loss. This is precisely what the Christian "message" symbolizes: the sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal.

Zachary Moore said...

Imputation is not the solution, it is the problem. As Dawson commented, "why impute sin on the sinless?" To do so would be both unjust and unmerciful. To argue that the sin of man and the righteousness of Christ were somehow swapped is to admit that God's nature is self-contradictory. You can't solve the problem of being simultaneously just and merciful by also being simultaneously unjust and unmerciful. By doing so, the Christian god negates himself from existence.

apples to oranges said...

ZM said "The reason is because it tries to satisfy both conditions, but logically it can't do both at the same time. So, for those who are saved, God is merciful, but not just. For those who are unsaved, God is just, but not merciful."

Why do you say God is merciful, but not just, for the saved? I don't see the contradiction here. The Bible tells us that those who accept Jesus will be forgiven. It would be "unjust" for God to lay out the conditions of his mercy and then not honor them. Likewise it would be required of God to lay justice on those who do not accept his mercy. To not do so would be a contradiction in the conditions he requires.

Zachary Moore said...


To be just is to enforce the same consequence for each instance of an action, without exceptions. For example, "If you steal an apple, you will spend one day in jail." Different actions may have different consequences, for example, "If you steal an orange, you will spend two days in jail."

Any deviation from these proscriptions is definitionally unjust. So, for example, if I steal an apple but am sentenced to two days in jail, that is unjust.

To be merciful is to not enforce the same consequence for each instance of an action. For example, if I steal an orange but am sentenced to one day in jail, or no days in jail, that is merciful. But it is also unjust, because we see that the consequence does not follow from the action according to the proscribed law.

Thus, justice and mercy are mutually exclusive states.

apples to oranges said...

ZM There is no difference in stealing an apple or stealing a ferrari. It is the act of stealing that God hates, not what you stole. Therefore God's punishment is the same for both. There is no deviation! This may seem unjust to you, because you place value on the object stolen. God places value on the way you treat others.

Websters defines mercy as: Kind and compassionate treatment: clemency. So, if you accept God's mercy(Belief in the Lord Jesus) then He will grant you clemency for your actions. If you refuse His mercy(which is your position)how can He force His mercy on you, without interfering with "your" freewill? Again I fail to see the contradiction!(I might add that He would also have to know who you are to extend His mercy to you! Mt7:23/Mt25:12/Lk13:25-27) The problem seems to be that you fail to accept that your observations may not be the limitation to conscious reason. I on the other hand believe that there is an absolute truth, and one day I will meet this truth face to face.

Zachary Moore said...


I was just trying to make a point- it doesn't matter what the consequence for an action is, the fact is that justice demands that the same consequence be applied universally.

You make the point that God does not force mercy on people. This does not solve the problem. If the Christian god exists, he can do what he chooses, but he cannot be both infinitely just and merciful. An infinitely merciful deity wouldn't, and in fact couldn't give the option to reject mercy.

apples to oranges said...

ZM. I too am making a point in saying that God’s mercy in not infinite. The Bible says God’s mercy is great, but I’m not familiar with where it says that it’s infinite. See Ne 9:31, Da 9:18, 1Pe,1:13

Ex 33:19 says;
And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

So God’s mercy is not universal for all humans. It is confined to those who accept it. For God to force His mercy on you would be unjust.

I realize that this doesn’t make sense to you, because yours is a confounded view of the scriptures, whereas mine is a search for the truth.

You know I’m sitting here watching the Japanese Gold Medalist skate for the audience and it is simply artistic grace that she is blessed with. The beauty that is in this is absolutely astounding. The fluid motion that the ice allows for the skater to move along her graceful course is evidence of the power of God.

Zachary Moore said...


It seems you have a unique perception of "infinite." If an infinite entity has any attribute, that attribute is infinite also.

It also seems that your perception of "mercy" is unique. Mercy is not something that someone can refuse. If a judge decides to be merciful to a criminal and give him probation instead of jail, the criminal can't refuse that decision and insist on being sent to jail!

apples to oranges said...

ZM You also have a unique peception of an infinite entity.

You said; "If an infinite entity has any attribute, that attribute is infinite also."

Who says? Prove it! By what logic do you use to say that your finite perception of an infinite being is absolute and mine is questionable?

Mercy is not something that "has" to be offered! If it was it would negate justice. God will not give mercy to those He does not know or has not recognised His covenant.