The Problem with Penal Substitution

Set to appear in the “Forum” section of the next edition of SBJT. Posted here with the editor’s permission.

“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10). 

The problem with penal substitutionary atonement isn’t the idea that God could be wrathful. Anyone who believes the Bible—and reads it—will see that. Nor is it that penal substitution is dependant upon an outdated, unbiblical cultural framework that has been imposed on the text of Scripture. God gave the sacrificial system. He spoke of atonement being made and his wrath being appeased. He revealed all this. Penal substitionary atonement is in the Bible. Woven all through seamlessly. But if these things aren’t the problem with penal substation, what is? 

The problem with penal substitution is that we have not sufficiently realized this doctrine. We have not yet considered the depths of our own sin. We have not yet considered the holiness and majesty of God. We have not seen the enormity of the fury of his righteous indignation. We have not yet considered what torments we deserve. We have not yet considered the worth of Christ. We have not sufficiently pondered the fact that for us and for our salvation the Pure One was defiled, the First Born forsaken, the One who knew no sin was made sin, the Righteous One was put forward as a sacrifice of propitiation, all so that we might be cleansed, that we might be adopted, that we might have his righteousness, that we might be forgiven. He was broken that we might be healed, slain that we might live. You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, “I have thought through all these things before,” and yet there remain depths that cannot be sounded. 

We think we know all this. We act as though we have it in our back pockets. We assume it. But go to most “churches” and the infinite wealth of these riches of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will not be sung in the songs and preached in the sermons. It is not because there are no songs that sing these truths, nor is there a shortage of relevant passages from the Bible that could be preached. That is not where the problem lies. 

The problem lies with us. We are the problem with penal substitution. 

Going to some of these “churches” can only lead to the conclusion that we think that other things are better to sing about in “worship” and that other things are more relevant for the “sermon.” Listening to some of these “preachers” certainly leads to the conclusion that what the Bible teaches doesn’t matter very much. If it mattered, they would preach it. But it doesn’t matter, and the fact that it comes in a book is problematic, since they have no time to read and they can’t be bothered with things like genre, or context, or the progress of redemptive history, or the grand story the Bible tells, or, for that matter, the ineffable glory of God, the righteousness of his justice, his commitment to his name, and the awful unmixed wrath of the full fury of his holiness that is being stored up against those who do not honor him as God and give thanks to him. 

All this is irrelevant. And since all this is irrelevant, it matters little that Jesus was and is fully God and fully man, that the Father granted him to have life in himself, that only one of infinite worth could satisfy the infinite, just wrath of the Father against our sin.   

None of this counts for very much—at least, that’s the impression you’ll get by going to most “churches.” What they care about is having more people in the pews, and if those people aren’t interested in all that God stuff, and if they have no desire to study an old boring book like the Bible, they’ve come to the right place. What these “churches” seem to care about involves more campuses, more hype, more technology, more humor, more of all the stuff you might see on TV—minus the violence, nudity, and profanity. 

That’s the problem with penal substitution. 

In order to care about it you have to care about God. You have to believe in the authority of the Bible, so that if it tells you that God is wrathful against sin, you conclude that wrath is not beneath God. So that if it tells you that God put forward his Son to propitiate his own wrath, you marvel that this expression of the almighty wrath of God is simultaneously a display of mercy. Wonder of wonders. Salvation comes through judgment. God shows himself just, and he has devised a way to be justly merciful. A mercy so great it leaves us stammering about unsearchable ways, untraceable paths, depths of wisdom and knowledge, about all things being from him and through him. And in the end, we exclaim, “Glory to him, forever! Amen.” 

If you come to care about all this, it will be because you know that your biggest problem is that one day you have to stand before God and account for yourself. In fact, you will know that this is everyone’s biggest problem. This, of course, will re-order your reckoning of relevance. 

You might begin to think that the Bible has relevant things to say after all. You might begin to think that reading is important since God has been pleased to reveal himself in written texts. You might begin to think that since God has revealed himself in these texts, they’re actually worth preaching. You might begin to think that since God has revealed himself in the words and statements made in this old book, it’s actually not boring, its genres are worth learning about, and understanding context and redemptive history really does matter.  

And if you begin to think all this, don’t be surprised if you start preaching and teaching quite a lot about penal substitutionary atonement. It’s all through the Bible, and if you methodically work your way through the whole thing (all of it is, after all, inspired)—avoiding the temptation to skip from hobby horse to hobby horse—you will come up against it. 

The set of concerns the Bible will give to you—concern for God’s glory and holiness, concern for people’s souls as they show boldness against God when they sin, concern for God’s own faithfulness to what he has said he will do, concern for people to be duly astonished at the free mercy of God in the Gospel—all this will make the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement” a set of precious words. Not for the words themselves, but because you love the Gospel. And you will have ceased to be the problem with penal substitution.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you, Dr. Hamilton, for your post. In a day where it is not popular to say that Jesus fully accomplished my righteousness and the Father graciously imputed it to me, I find your words piercing. It is more than about semantics– it is about the very glory of God in the Gospel!! I can tell that you are a shepherd that dearly cares for the health of your flock. O may more of our pastors and churches embrace the true Gospel, and join with Paul in calling any other “gospel” anathema (Gal. 1:6-9)!

  2. “The problem lies with us. We are the problem with penal substitution.”

    Amen! Just as I figured. (Jer. 17:9)

  3. Amen, brother! I have long pondered the recursive nature of practical theology. I wonder at the revival that might ensue if we turned our gaze inward and honestly evaluated ourselves in light of Scripture. It seems at times that our lives deny the very truth we claim to hold, even the glorious gospel.

  4. It’s even more basic a problem than a biblical ignorance of Christ’s atoning work. As Jim said so well, modern-day “Christians” and “churches” suffer from the same malady that cults do–a misunderstanding of who God is and who man is.

  5. RE. Penal substitution what’s wrong with it? See Wikipedia “Penal substitution”

  6. So God needs blood to accept us. This is no different from any other pagan religion.

    Does it mean that I can be better that God, because I can forgive without asking blood from somebody. Even Jesus himself forgave sins before he was sacrificed. What about Enoch, Moses and Elijah who went to heaven before the Christ. They shouldn’t have gone to heaven because they couldn’t be forgiven because Jesus has not died yet. Can God really bend his own rules.

    Anyone wants to discuss these questions?

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