On the logic of penal substitution

Packer, J. I., 1974. What did the cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution. Tyndale Bulletin 25:3-45.

The text of J.I. Packer’s 1973 Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture (reference above, accessible here) is an exposition of his view of the atonement. It is a remarkable piece of writing by an extraordinarily widely read author, historically well informed, closely argued, written with conviction, and dealing with timeless truths that haven't changed since 1973. English usage, however, has changed in forty odd years, and Packer's diction is strange to the modern ear.

The published version is 43 pages long, and the notes below are perhaps a little less than a fifth of this length. Could I have summarised the text in fewer words? Maybe, but too much would have been lost. Packer’s argument is at times so dense that I often quote him verbatim. To do otherwise would be an injustice to him in a matter at the very centre of Christian faith.

(The headings below are mostly Packer's. The page numbers refer to the published text, not to the downloadable version.)

Mystery and model

If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remain a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably. (p11)
This quotation comes at the end of this first section of the text. It is a good summing up, and it also lays out a subsidiary theme of the text.

Packer starts with some history, to save us, he says, from ‘narrow eccentricity’. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and other leaders of the Reformation ('Reformers') were the pioneers in putting forth penal substitution. Going back to the Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) in his Cur Deus Homo? ('Why [was] God a man?') regarded Jesus' satisfactio ('satisfaction') for our sins as compensation for dishonour done to God. The Reformers, however, reinterpreted it as the suffering of punishment (poena) on our behalf to satisfy the claims of God's holy law and His anger (i.e. his punitive justice) against sin-laden human beings. This was the theory of penal substitution.

The theory did not go uncontested. A leader of the Polish Brethren, the Italian Fausto Sozzini (Faustus Socinus 1539–1604), attacked the theory of penal substitution in his 1578 polemic De Jesu Christo Servatore ('On Jesus Christ the Saviour'). I quote Packer’s summary of Sozzini's argument:
Giving pardon… does not square with taking satisfaction, nor does the transferring of punishment from the guilty to the innocent square with justice; nor is the temporary death of one a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and a perfect substitutionary satisfaction, could such a thing be, would necessarily confer on us unlimited permission to continue in sin.
In Packer's opinion, theologians have too often reacted defensively to Sozzini's attack on penal substitution rather than arguing for penal substitution on independent grounds, as Packer clearly intends to do.

Sozzini's  own account of the atonement was inconsequential and Packer does not go into it. But his argument was distinctly rationalist, and he viewed of God as a 16th- or 17th-century king, head of both legislature and judiciary but bound to respect existing law and judicial practice. Sadly this rationalism and anthropomorphism have also infected the arguments of his opponents.

Because of this, Packer invites us to consider two methodological questions that would underlie a fresh theory of the atonement (p6):
  • What sort of knowledge of Christ's achievement on the cross is open to us?
  • From what source and by what means do we gain it?
The rest of the section is devoted to answering the first question. Packer says that, as well as historical knowledge, Christians have faith-knowledge, that is, what we know by faith, for example that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. In Packer's words,
It is a kind of knowledge which makes the knower say in one and the same breath both 'whereas I was blind, now I see' (Jn 9:25) and also 'now we see as in a mirror, darkly . . . now I know in part' (1 Cor. 13:12). For it is a unique kind of knowledge which, though real, is not full; it is knowledge of what is discernible within a circle of light against the background of a larger darkness; it is, in short, knowledge of a mystery, the mystery of the living God at work.
Packer then explains what he means by ‘mystery’, using the words of Charles Wesley:
’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
‘Mystery’ in this (traditional theological) sense is a reality separate from us which ‘in our very apprehending of it remains unfathomable to us.’ Paul uses the Greek word mustērion ('mystery') in a somewhat different way, for the open secret of God's saving purpose. Packer's use of 'mystery', he says, corresponds to Paul's prayer that the Ephesians would 'know this love that surpasses knowledge'  (Eph. 3:19) and to the closing words of his deepest presentation of the cross (Rom. 11:33, 36, NIV):
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord? . . ."
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. 
The topic of this paper, the atonement, is a mystery in this sense. Penal substitution is not a problem-free theory, but the presence of problems does not condemn the theory; 'true views in theology', Packer writes, 'also entail unsolved problems, while any view that was problem-free would certainly be rationalistic and reductionist' because it misses the mystery (p8).

Since human ideas are expressed in words, talking about the mysteries that surround God makes us stretch ordinary language, as when we talk of the Trinity as ‘three in one’, or of the seeming contradiction of man’s free will vs. God’s sovereignty, or the apparent irony of God’s wisdom when Christians are starving or dying of cancer. If such statements were made about human beings, they would be paradoxical, but made about God, they are true. ‘Ordinary language is thus being adapted for an extraordinary purpose when we use it to speak of God' (p9). Packer writes,
Language about the cross illustrates this clearly: liturgies, hymns and literature, homiletical, catechetical and apologetic, all show that Christians have from the start lived by faith in Christ's death as a sacrifice made to God in reparation for their sins, however uncouth and mythological such talk sounds (and must always have sounded), however varied the presentations of atonement which teachers tried out, and however little actual theologizing about the cross went on in particular periods, especially the early centuries. (pp9–10)
In Packer's view ‘the verbal units of Christian speech’ resemble ‘the thought-models of modern physics’ (p11),[1]  as both are analogical. But we cannot use any old analogy to talk about God. Historically, Christians have taken biblical models (e.g.'Son of God', 'Kingdom of God', 'word of God', 'love of God', 'body of Christ', 'justification', 'redemption', 'new birth', and so on) as their starting point and their ‘control’. Especially in the early centuries of Christianity dogmas were crystallised out of scripture (homoousion [the ‘one being' of the Father and the Son], 'Trinity' 'hypostatic union' [the union of divine and human natures in Jesus], 'sacrament', 'supernatural', and so on). Between the controls and the dogmas lie the interpretations of various theologians (penal substitution, verbal inspiration, divinisation, Barth’s das Nichtige) (p12). Sozzini's mistake was to use 16th-century kingship as an analogy for biblical kingship, and some of his opponents have tended in the same direction.

Bible and model

This brings us to Packer’s second question, Whence and how do we gain knowledge of Christ's achievement on the cross? The answer, of course, is through the thought-models of the Bible. Here Packer draws on belief in the divine inspiration of biblical content, if not of form, which he has written about elsewhere (Packer 1958, 1965). He writes here (p13):
the Bible consists of occasional documents, historical didactic and liturgical, all proclaiming in various ways what God has done, is doing and will do. Each document and each utterance within that document, like Jesus Christ and each of his utterances, is anchored in a particular historical situation—this particularity marks all the Christian revelation--and to discern within these particularities truths from God for universal application is the interpreter's major task.
The language of the Bible provides us with revealed models. The question is, how do these models instruct us? Importantly, the models interact with and qualify each other. A presupposition is that the Holy Spirit that inspired the biblical writers has continued to be active in teaching Christians through these writings. This has been happening for 2000 years, so much of our listening to the Bible will take the form of reviewing past theological interpretations. We should approach earlier theologians respectfully but critically, seeking to evaluate and elucidate each historical line of biblical interpretation, especially since its clarification by the Reformers.


The theological model of penal substitution has also emerged over a long period of time. The model itself has two logical parts. First, Jesus’ death is declared to be substitutionary. Second, the substitution is penal, i.e. it involves punishment.’ This section deals with the first part, substitution. Paul clearly says that Jesus' death was substitutionary when he writes that ‘Christ died for us’ (hyper, on our behalf, for our benefit) (Rom. 5:8), and ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us' (hyper again) (Gal. 3:13), and that Jesus  came 'to give his life a ransom for many' (anti, which means precisely ‘in place of’, 'in exchange for') (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45).[2] 

Broadly, Jesus’ death has been explained by the church in three kinds of way.
  1. The cross has its effect entirely on human beings, whether by revealing God's love to us, or bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or setting us a supreme example of godliness, or blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. Our basic need is Godward motivation and openness to the divine life, and ‘as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once.'
  2. The cross has its effect on hostile spiritual forces external to us, defeating them and setting us free from them.
  3. The cross had its effect first on God, whose anger against human sin was propitiated (or who propitiated his own anger), and because of this the powers of darkness were then overthrown, revealing God's seeking and saving love. This view ‘grounds man's plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God's daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God's rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever.’ (p20) 
Packer says that (1) essentially rejects the concept of substitution, and that (2) sees Jesus’ death as representative in the sense that David was the Israelites' representative when he killed Goliath. Any version of (3), on the other hand, sees Jesus’ death as a kind of personal substitution.

And what of the resurrection? Explanations (2) and (3) see it as reflecting Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness, but (3) also sees this victory as a consequence of God’s propitiation.

Packer concludes this section:
We identify with Christ against the practice of sin because we have already identified him as the one who took our place under sentence for sin. We enter upon the life of repentance because we have learned that he first endured for us the death of reparation. The Christ into whom we now accept incorporation is the Christ who previously on the cross became our propitiation—not, therefore, one in whom we achieve our reconciliation with God, but one through whom we receive it as free gift based on a finished work (cf. Rom. 5:10[3] ); and we love him, because he first loved us and gave himself for us.
Packer notes that this really is substitution. The idea that Jesus is only our representative is too weak,
and our solidarity with Christ in 'confession and praise', so far from being a concept alternative to that of substitution, is actually a response which presupposes it.

Penal substitution

Adding the word ‘penal’ anchors ‘the model of substitution … within the world of moral law, guilty conscience, and retributive justice.’ (p25). It expresses the notion that
Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory
Rather than relying on other theologians, Packer constructs his own account of penal substitution. He does this for three reasons: because inherited accounts are sometimes ‘crude’, because he wants an account that declares the atonement’s meaning (not its mechanics), and because older presentations have been criticised as less than personal, since retribution is essentially impersonal. He presents his account under the five headings below.

Substitution and retribution

Penal substitution, as an idea, presupposes a penalty (poena) due to us from God the Judge for wrong done and failure to meet his claims.
Although the worlds of moral reality and divine judgment don’t always coincide in human judicial systems, in the Bible they do. Packer writes that 'the objective wrongness and guiltiness of what we have been is always "there" to touch and wither what we are and shall be.' In the words of Emil Brunner, 'Guilt means that our past—that which can never be made good—always constitutes one element in our present situation.’ [Brunner 1934] (p29) When we further sense God's displeasure at this, 'this sense of things is the start of hell' (p30). This is the context of the theory of penal substitution, and it helps us to focus on four insights of the theory.
  1. The retributive principle has God’s sanction, and death is the rightful sentence against us.
  2. We are helpless to undo past sin and to avert sentence.
  3. Jesus, the God-man of John 1:1-18 and Hebrews 1-2, took our place and experienced all the dimensions of our death sentence.
  4. Faith believes 1-3, but also that all our sins, past, present and future, have been covered by Calvary, that we have received the free gift of being right with God, and that we are to live henceforth ‘for’ the one who died and rose again (2 Cor 5:14-15[4] ).

Substitution and solidarity

Rationalist critics of penal substitution have said that guilt is not transferrable and substitution is therefore immoral. Packer counters this with Paul’s description of Jesus as the second Adam ‘who involved us in his sin-bearing as truly as Adam involved us in his sinning’ (1 Cor 15:45–49, Rom 5:12-19). In other words, guilt and sin-bearing are not transferred to Jesus. Instead, I the sinner am crucified with him; he carries my identity. This is a mystery, says Packer—and one I find it difficult even to begin to comprehend. Packer designates four ‘moments’ in the mystery.
  1. The incarnation, when the Son of God came into the human situation, 'born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law…' (Gal. 4:4–5).
  2. The cross, ‘where Jesus, as Luther and Calvin put it, carried our identity, and effectively involved us all in his dying—as Paul says, 'one died for all, therefore all died' (2 Cor. 5:14).’ (p32) ‘We who believe have died—painlessly and invisibly, we might say—in solidarity with him because he died, painfully and publicly, in substitution for us.’ (p33) In Packer’s words (p34), ‘what Christ bore on the cross was the Godforsakenness of penal judgment’.
  3. Faith and God's gift of the Spirit, whereby ‘we become “the righteousness of God” and “rich”—that is, justified from sin and accepted as heirs of God in and with Christ—by virtue of him who became “poor” for us in the incarnation and was “made sin” for us by penal substitution on the cross (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21, 8:9).’ (p33)
  4. The return of Jesus to “fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (cf. Phil. 2:5–11, 3:21).[5] 
Packer concludes,
The appropriate formulation is that on the cross Jesus' representative relation to us, as the last Adam whose image we are to bear, took the form of substituting for us under judgment, as the suffering servant of God on whom the Lord 'laid the iniquity of us all'. [6] 

Substitution and mystery

The penal substitution model is not an explanation of what lies ‘behind’ Jesus’ atoning death but ‘a pointer to fundamental features of the mystery… the transcendent and not-wholly-comprehensible divine reality—of Christ’s atoning death….’ (p34): the mysterious divine love, the mysterious necessity of the cross (Rom 8:32), the mysterious solidarity whereby our answerability was imputed to Jesus (he was ‘made sin’) and we are ‘made righteous’ before God through faith because of his faithfulness (Rom 5:17-19,[7]  2 Cor 5:2[8] ). Not to mention the mysteries of the triune loving God, the incarnation itself, and ‘God’s predestining the free acts of his enemies’ (p35). It is hardly surprising that more mysteries cluster around the atonement than anywhere else, as it is central to God’s work in the New Testament.

Substitution and salvation

Packer writes that all conservative Protestants have held that penal substitution is the sole ground for the restoration of our relationship with God. Jesus’ substitution is a one-to-one relationship between him and me (Gal 2:20b[9]). Because this substitution is the sole ground, it is also ‘decisive for our salvation’ (p36). But if this is so, then it also guarantees that I will be brought to faith (John 6:44,[10]Phil 1:29,[11]), and through faith to eternal life. But, argues Packer, logically this gives us a choice only between salvation for all ('universalism', as Jesus' substitution was for everybody) or a view that Jesus' substitution was only for some people (as not everybody receives salvation). I found the argument of this subsection hard to follow, but Packer continues:
The only coherent alternative is to suppose that though God purposed to save every man through the cross, some thwart his purpose by persistent unbelief; which can only be said if one is ready to maintain that God, after all, does no more than make faith possible, and then in some sense that is decisive for him as well as us leaves it to us to make faith actual.

Substitution and divine love

The critics’ picture of ‘a kind Son placating a fierce Father in order to make him love men, which he did not do before’ (p39) is, says Packer, inept, as the model of the Trinity makes the ‘motivational unity of Father and Son’ axiomatic. God’s love preceded the cross (John 3:16a,[12] Romans 5:8[13]) and carried over to the Son (John 15:13,[14] Gal 2:20b[15]). The penal substitution model shows this love more vividly than any other, as the Son stoops to the lowest point that a human being can sink to. But the Son underwent even more than this. Packer quotes Denney (1917:262?): ‘… in that dark hour He had to realise to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race.’


Packer finishes the section with a summary which I quote verbatim:
  1. God, in Denney's phrase, 'condones nothing', but judges all sin as it deserves:[16]  which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.
  2. My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God's presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.
  3. The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.
  4. Because this is so, I through faith in him am made 'the righteousness of God in him', i.e. I am justified; pardon,
    acceptance and sonship become mine.
  5. Christ's death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. 'If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.'
  6. My faith in Christ is God's own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ's death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.
  7. Christ's death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.
  8. Christ's death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.
  9. Christ's death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.


Brunner, Emil, 1934. The mediator, tr. O. Wyon. London: Lutterworth Press.

Packer, J.I., 1958. ‘Fundamentalism' and the word of God. London: IVF.

Packer, J.I., 1965. God has spoken. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Davies, R. E., 1970. Christ in our place—the contribution of the prepositions. Tyndale Bulletin 21:72ff.

Denney, James, 1917. The Christian doctrine of reconciliation, London: Hodder and Stoughton.


  1. [^1]  Part of Packer’s footnote: The pioneer in stating this was Ian T. Ramsey: see his Religious Language, SCM, London (1957); Models and Mystery, Oxford University Press, London (1964); Christian Discourse, Oxford University Press, London (1965).
  2. [^2]  Packer’s reference is Davies (1970).
  3. [^3]  ‘For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’ (NIV)
  4. [^4]  ‘For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.’ (NIV)
  5. [^5]  Missing between 3 and 4, it seems to me, is the ‘moment’ of life in the Kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’.
  6. [^6]  Packer’s footnote (part): Is 53:6. J.S. Whale observes that this Servant-song 'makes twelve distinct and explicit statements that the Servant suffers the penalty of other men's sins: not only vicarious suffering but penal substitution is the plain meaning of its fourth, fifth and sixth verses.’
  7. [^7]  ‘For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’
  8. [^8]  ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (NIV)
    ‘The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant.’ (KNT)
  9. [^9]  ‘The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (NIV)
    ‘And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (KNT)
  10. [^10]  ‘“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”’ (NIV)
  11. [^11]  ‘For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, …’ (NIV)
  12. [^12]  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,…’ (NIV)
  13. [^13]  ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (NIV)
  14. [^14]  ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (NIV)
  15. [^15]  ’The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (NIV)
  16. [^16]  Cf. Deuteronomy 30:17–18a: ‘But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.’ (NIV)


Brian Medway said…
This is very interesting Malcolm. For those of us who have grown up with no other view than "penal substitution," it is as important for us to understand the best reasons for people adopting that as the majority view. I like the way NT Wright says that the elements of various views on the atonement can be included as minor aspects but retains the victory over the power of evil (i.e. Jesus becoming King) as the overarching story that gives more consistent context for the other views.
Greg Boyd has also contributed to this view by his constant reference question: "If such and such is true, does that reveal a God who is fully known only through Jesus - especially his commitment to the cross."

Great work mate.