For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…

-Romans 8:3

This is strongly penal language. However, Paul does not say either that God punished Jesus or that God punished Jesus for ‘my sins’… What Paul says is that God punished sin in the flesh, that is the flesh of Jesus.

N.T. Wright: Redemption from the New Perspective? Towards a Multi-Layered Pauline Theology of the Cross

While penal substitution is nowadays the favourite whipping boy of sophisticated Christians, it still commands widespread assent among the Evangelical Christians. It remains to this day one of the most popular explanations of the work of the atonement, matchless in its simplicity and resonance among the average Christian.

In response to increasingly sophisticated and strident attacks on the teaching of penal substitution, Evangelical philosophers and theologians have marshal an impressive array of arguments, biblical, historical, philosophic and systematic, to answer these charges. Pierced for our Transgression here remains the definitive text on this.


My purpose in this post however is not so much to defend penal substitution but to reframe penal substitution in a non-retributive setting and more along what I shall call “eschatological” or “teleological” lines. Christ suffers our punishment to put an end to our sin, condemnation, and guilt. Some terminology is in order. By “sin” one refers to the wrong-doing (or being/feeling) itself, by “condemnation” one refers to judgement or verdict that one has in fact sin, “guilt” may refer to the subjective conviction and feelings of that condemnation, and by “punishment” one refers to the actual physical sentence carried out upon the condemned.

What I will argue is that the condemnation and guilt put to an end by Christ is the condemnation of our own conscience rather than that of God’s. God can forgive and doesn’t need to punish anyone, however it is the condemnation of our own conscience which needs to be silenced. As such, by bearing our punishment on the Cross unto death and then rising back again, he puts an end to the condemnations of our conscience. Our conscience is silenced when we see that that the sentence of our condemnation has been carried out in Christ and brought to its full course and final end in the punishment of death. Having brought sin to its final goal, Christ then creates a new hope and future for us beyond that end by rising again from the grave and offering us a new life and future from beyond our condemnation.


Thus in effect, God has “condemned” sin itself, he has punished sin and taken away the power sin has over our conscience to accuse us, by carrying out its sentence in Christ, and the power which sin has over our lives to draw us away from God. By suffering through sin’s greatest punishment, death itself, and then rising again, sin itself is condemned and silenced, it can no longer accuse us, the sentence have been carried out in Christ, and it can no longer stop us from communion with God, having a new risen life given to us from beyond sin’s greatest power and final end. Perhaps in the process of altering the retributive background I may have transformed penal substitution itself. However, even if it suffers from such radical change, I would argue that it is still recognisably the penal substitution preached, taught, and known by millions of Christians all over the world.

Retributive Penal Substitution

The majority of defence or explanations of penal substitution would locate the doctrine in a retributive context. The retributive premise states categorically that God must punish sin. Various explanations have been used to justify the retributive premise, it ranges from God keeping his word that sinners will be punished to retributive divine justice mandated such a move. No matter how the retributive premise is justified, the point remains that it is necessary, and from this necessity, comes the divine response to sent Jesus Christ as a penal substitute to take or suffer our punishment that the justice of God maybe satisfied and divine retributive needs met.


There are several problems with this line of reasoning in that firstly, it isn’t all clear that God must punish as if compelled by a necessity, whether it flows out of his just nature or as bound by his own word. We can say that his word to punish sin at most gives him a good reason to punish sin, but these reasons can be weighed against other considerations which decides against it. There is also the logical problem that if one’s sins were punished in Christ as a complete satisfaction to the divine justice then obviously there is no penalty or punishment to forgive since it would be now perfectly just for God to simply not punish the person, his debt or penalty having been erased.

However these maybe somewhat quibbling compared to what I consider to be two graver problems. One, at a systematic level, I would argue that the claim that God must punish sin and so he sent Christ to do so would make it seem like it is God who needs the sacrifice of Christ rather than man. It is part of the problems of “upward traffic” theories of the atonement (which I’ve explain in this post), where something must happen “down here” in the temporal realm in order to affect changes “up there” in God’s accounting books or wrath. The sacrifice, as it were, satisfy a need of God and that the problem of sin is primarily a problem which God, rather than man, has. It would imply that the impediment for the reconciliation of God and man is in God rather than in man, he’s the one blocking it and he needs Christ to pave the way.

Most of all however, I would say that the Bible does not enunciate such a strong claim of the necessity of divine retribution. God does punish people for their sins, certainly, and it is asserted and maintained that it is just for God to do so, and sometimes God is determined to do so. But for the further claim that God must do so goes beyond the text. It could be said to be inferred at some level of abstraction from the general contours of the Bible, but there is no explicit word for this.

The Root of Condemnation and Judgement

If God does not need to punish us then why the need to transfer that punishment to Christ on the Cross? The fact is that even if God doesn’t need to punish anyone, whether it is to maintain some righteous nature or order of his, it is us who would feel the need to have our own sins punished by a properly formed conscience as Romans 2:15 puts it:

They [the Gentiles] show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them

-Romans 2:15

While God can forgive, our own conscience will not let us get off so easily. Our conscience, which occupies the seat of judgement in our own soul, will still accuse us of our sin.


Now it maybe argued that this whole introspective conscience navel gazing thing is merely a Western thing and not really a Bible thing. Furthermore it can be pointed out that not everyone subjectively suffers such agonies of conscience or guilt. While it is entirely true that not everyone subjectively suffers such torments of guilt in their conscience, that is only because people are generally not aware of the gravity of their sin, and their effect upon others. People are also generally unaware of the state of their own soul as well as the depths of its corruption. Once we are awakened to the truth and facts of our own self, in all its sin and flaws, our own conscience will pass its unrelenting judgement.

Upon St Peter’s accusation that they have crucified the Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36), the Jews “were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Thus when the truth of ourselves are revealed to us, our conscience will pass judgement, we would be “cut to the heart”, and that judgement cannot simply be wished away without doing grave violence to the integrity of our souls and conscience. We can deny or dull our conscience, but that would be dulling ourselves to the truth and impairing our capacity to love or fellowship with others when we attempt to stifle our sorrow at the sorrow we have caused in others. As such when the truth about our own sin is revealed to us, whether in this life via the preaching of the Law, or at the General Resurrection before the Judgement Seat of Christ himself, our greatest accuser will not be God but our own conscience which would itself assent and praise the judgement of God when the truth is revealed.


In effect, if one may put it crudely, the effect of a full disclosure of our own sins to ourselves would drive us to despair and suicide. Acknowledging the gravity of our sins, we ourselves would wish to end our lives, viewing the depths of corruption of our souls, we would despair that we can ever have fellowship with a pure being of love and goodness.

To prevent our suicide and the judgement of our own conscience, the condemnation of our conscience must be answered, but yet without doing violence to our knowledge of the truth of ourselves nor numbing us from the sorrow and anguish we must feel for having caused anguished and sorrow in others when perfect communion and reconciliation is attained with those whom we have wronged.

Carrying our Griefs and Sorrows

Let’s restate the problem. Once knowledge of our sins are attained, our conscience will condemn us. On the Day of Judgement when the full truth of our sins and the state of corruption of our souls are known, that condemnation would drive us to suicide. Thus, we need to be freed from that condemnation. However, simply numbing ourselves to the ugly truth of our actions and lives and silencing ourselves to our conscience’s condemnation will not do as such denial will do violence to the integrity of our souls as well. As such, we need a way whereby we can acknowledge the truth of ourselves and yet be saved from its suicidal death-wish.

We can get a clue of this from the Old Testament Day of Atonement ritual. In Leviticus 16:6-10 contains an interesting ritual involving two goats. Lots will be drawn and one goat will be for the Lord and the other for “Azazel”. The high priest will

lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)


John Walton in his Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentaries helpfully explains this in the following terms:

Azazel’s nonsacrificial “tote” goat… served as  a ritual “garbage truck” to purge the Israelite community of moral faults through a process of transfer and disposal.

There has been several interpretations of what “Azazel” could refer to including the Second Temple rabbinic tradition that it means a “cliff”, derived from the Semitic root ‘zz which means “jagged rock/precipice”. Other Ancient Near East words suggests the “divine anger” or even the proper name of a demon who dwells beyond the uninhabited region.


The point I would like to focus on however is how sins are transferred from Israel to the goat in question via a confession and the goat will bear the sins of Israel away from it, thereby cleansing Israel of its sins.

If we see this as a type of Christ’s sacrifice, then it is clear that Christ bears away our sins via our acknowledging and confessing of it to him. Christ receives in his own soul the judgement, and condemnation, of our own conscience of our sins when we confess it to him. However Christ doesn’t merely know that condemnation in the mere propositional sense. He knows that condemnation and guilt experientially as well as so beautifully articulated by the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4-6

Surely he has borne our griefs

    and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

    smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

    he was bruised for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,

    and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have turned every one to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.

It would not be a stretch to say that the “griefs” and “sorrows” borne by Christ are the griefs and sorrows over our own sin. In some ironic sense, even though the sin is ours, yet it is only the Holy and Righteous one who can gaze into the abyss and truly know the depths of the horror of those sins. Only he can truly know experience the force of the condemnation of those sins. The prophecy says later on in verse 10-11:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.

What is interesting is that this passage describes how Christ shall “bear their iniquities” and that is through his “knowledge”. But knowledge of what? Although the passage doesn’t say directly, but again it is a fair inference from the immediate context to say knowledge of the “anguish” and “grief” which he soul experiences of our guilt. This seems to be confirmed in 2 Corinthians 5:21 which says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Thus Christ being made a sin-offering is contrasted with Christ’s ignorance, in the experiential sense, of those sins, suggesting that being made into a sin-offering or “to be sin” involves precisely acquainting him experientially with the knowledge of sin and its consequences.

It is important to note that there is more “transferred” over to Christ than mere subjective feelings of guilt or condemnation. Remember that this condemnation must take its full course. Christ must not only know our condemnation, feel our guilt, but he must also experience the final fruition of sin, its physical punishment of death. He must be “made to be sin”  including the final end project of sin, death.

What about the “substitutionary element”? One can argue that by transferring our sins, condemnation, guilt and punishment over to Christ, we are freed from its crippling death-dealing and life negating burden and we are freed to repent and live a life of love and service in this world. Thus, Christ does suffer “in our place” instead of us while we are freed from the condemnation, guilt and punishment of those sins and able to turn to the world to serve and do good there instead of being consumed by our own sins.

The Condemnation of Sin itself; A Life Beyond the Grave

I think at this juncture it is important to note N.T. Wright’s point that God did not punish Christ himself. Christ suffered our punishment, but he was not punished for anything he did, nor was there any wrath of God directed against him personally. The Father can’t possibly direct any wrath against Christ for there is nothing about Christ for him to be wrathful about. What God did was to condemn sin itself in the flesh of Christ, but he never condemned Christ himself. This is an important and vital point made by the New England Calvinists and what is correct about their governmental theory of the atonement, that Christ himself was condemned for no sin of his own nor did he experience any divine wrath directed against him personally. What Christ did experience was our guilt and the wrath of God against that guilt of ours in his own soul and flesh.

However if this account is not merely to be an exposition about how we spread the misery of our guilty conscience to Christ and drag him down with us to the grave, it is necessary after he has taken our sin and all its consequences down to the grave, he must rise again to proclaim the end of sin, it’s power and its consequences. He must show and exemplify a hope beyond our sin, condemnation and death, in his new and risen life beyond the grave. Therefore as we will die in Christ, following him who have taken on our sin and death, so shall we rise with him in newness of life, to a new life beyond our sin and death. It is in this sense that God has condemned sin itself, he has ended it, placed a limit on its effects and consequences, in its hold over us. It’s power extend only to Christ’s grave, and no further. It is instead overcome and cast aside come the Easter morning, and we who see our sin, condemnation, guilt and death in Christ, can look beyond the image of the Cross to the Easter Resurrection and our new life in Christ which awaits us beyond that condemnation which itself has been condemned to the grave, to be buried there and to be silent and speak no more accusation against us.

So even now we who have yet to be raised again can look to the cross, seeing our sin, condemnation, guilt and punishment there, knowing full well that Christ has condemned all those to the grave and buried it there, and that beyond the grave he stands at the right hand of the Father, calling us to our new risen life in him with him on high.


This account I trust, despite its lack of retributive moorings, can still be recognised as a penal substitution account for its firm affirmation of Christ suffering our condemnation and punishment and the fact of its transfer over to Christ who experiences the full depths of its horrors and consequences in our place.

I believe that several advantages of this account commends itself, not least the fact that it preserves what many Evangelicals feel to be right about penal substitution, that our sins, in all its horror, is truly borne, by Christ and he does take it away from us and he does suffer as our substitute. However while preserving these advantages, my account avoids some of the more problematic philosophical and systematic pit fall of postulating some necessary retribution justice on God’s part or Christ as something given for God’s own benefit, to make him feel better about himself for having satisfied his own just nature as it were, rather than as primarily and wholly directed towards our good.

Futhermore I think one additional benefit my account possesses is that it does make the atonement a subjectively intimate event, it is our sin, condemnation, guilt and punishment subjectively felt by us which is shared subjectively, experientially and intimately by Christ too. I hope in that sense that it would go someway towards making the Cross a subjectively intimate event for us.

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