Where is Justice in the Atonement?

This is an edited version of a longer paper on atonement, reposted here as an exploration of how justice functions in one broad theory that the church has developed as an attempt to be faithful to the metaphors given to us in Scripture which refer to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.


History is written by the victors. The proof of the “victory” of penal substitutionary atonement theory is the fact that to most people it is simply incomprehensible as a theory. It is, for most Christians, a foundational explanation of what we believe about what Christ has done for us – he was, as Paul puts it in Romans 4:25, “handed over to death for our trespasses.”[1] The authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions concisely define penal substitutionary atonement as the teaching that “God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.”[2] There does not seem to be much in that definition for most Christians to dispute. Why then has there been such a strong reaction against this atonement theory, even in evangelical circles? By examining the historical and cultural contexts in which this theory has developed, and by analyzing its full narrative scope as well as its specific claims and emphases, this paper will try to give an account of what is helpful about penal substitution, what has historically been problematic, and to suggest possible alternatives that might allow us to benefit from the good.

J.I. Packer traces the history of penal substitutionary atonement from the “satisfaction” theory developed by Anselm. This theory “saw Christ’s satisfaction for our sins as the offering of compensation or damages for dishonour done,” which was the baseline for the reimagining of atonement during the Reformation, during which it was seen as “the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice).”[3] One way to understand this development is as a shift in contextual understanding – the “honor system” of feudalism which guided Anselm’s thought made less sense in the time of the Reformation, during which Europe (the center of Christendom) was undergoing a massive shift in governmental structures with the development of modern nation-states. This development brought with it (or was brought on by) new conceptions of sovereignty that reformulated what it meant to be a “citizen.” In this new situation, “honor” was not the primary motif individuals used to understand their relationships to governing bodies.

The shift from feudalism towards the nation-state also coincided with the rise of capitalism. While the exact reasons for this economic shift are beyond the scope of this paper, it is clear that this was a deeply unsettling time for Europe, and in particular Western Europe (the site of the Reformation and some of the earliest penal substitutionary theories). Capitalism brought with it drastic changes to the fabric of community life, not least of which was the shift towards mechanization, technologization, and the transformation of bodies, materials, and relationships into commodities. This shift had a transformative effect on theological metaphor. Even the word “substitution” meant something different in this historical moment, given the shifts in “use value” and “exchange value.”[4]

Out of this situation, it was natural for theologians to reimagine Anselm’s theory through the lens of the legal, penal, and economic situation that western Europeans were experiencing. The first piece of penal substitutionary theory which lends itself to this kind of analysis is its definitions of – and its claims regarding the relationship between – justice and punishment. What Packer describes as the “claims” of God on us can be directly correlated to the givenness of the “rule of law” which emerged in post-feudal Europe. Packer does not seem just to be describing the situation Paul lays out in Romans 1-3, of man’s inadequacy before God. Rather, the notion of a “claim” here resembles the emerging claim of sovereignty during the time of the Reformers. Citizens in this social vision are under certain obligations to the sovereign, in order to exist as citizens. If they fail, the sovereign is obligated to expel or punish, otherwise citizenship (and indeed the larger governmental order) will be called into question. Justice is mechanized and contractual – essentially serving as the enforcer that perpetuates the state. It is important to note here that this does not say anything about the character of the sovereign – the sovereign may well be merciful, but cannot be merciful in a way that delegitimizes his own reign. In fact, for this sovereign to be good is for him to fulfill his contractual obligation to the citizenry; to perpetuate the state.

While the Reformers were explicitly working with Anselmian notions of satisfaction, it is worth asking whether their concerns were in real continuity with his. For Anselm, God’s justice was not an abstract principle but a revelation of goodness. Anselm tells God “you are just, not because you give us our due, but because you do what is fitting for you who are supremely good.”[5] God’s goodness and justice here are intertwined. In contrast, Packer claims that “justice, as Aristotle said long ago, is essentially giving everyone their due, and whatever more God’s justice (righteousness) means in the Bible, it certainly starts here, with retribution for wrongdoing.”[6]

This is a nuance in the definition of atonement that must be made clear. Whether or not one believes that God’s justice means that God must punish sin, advocates of penal substitutionary atonement tend to reduce justice to punishment. For God to be just in this particular way, God need not also be good. This is not to claim that Packer and other advocates of penal substitutionary atonement do not understand God as good. Clearly they do. It is just that their conception of justice seems to be grounded in a priori philosophical claims rather than in the goodness of God. Because of this, the punishment that justice requires takes on a particular characteristic: it is retributive, and Packer says that “this retributive principle has his [God’s] sanction, and indeed expresses the holiness, justice and goodness reflected in his law, and that death…is the rightful sentence which he has announced against us, and now prepares to inflict.”[7]

Certainly for many Christian thinkers over the centuries, punishment has had a role to play in conceptions of justice. For advocates of penal substitutionary atonement, however, punishment is central to justice, and justice is defined through punishment. This punishment is the punishment of the state – not towards reconciliation (as if reconciliation is a possibility for the state), but towards the restoration of order. God is, in this, just like any other sovereign, and God’s goodness is displayed in that God does not shirk His responsibilities as a sovereign, but restores order. Packer says “God is not just – that is, he does not act in the way that is right, he does not do what it proper to a judge – unless he inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves.”[8] Now, because Jesus has died, “our sins have been punished; the wheel of retribution has turned; judgment has been inflicted…God is just.”[9] The death of Jesus is God’s justice, because, as it says in Hebrews 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” To hear the story of atonement told this way, God’s hand was forced. If punishment is the controlling metaphor in the atonement, the tail is clearly wagging the dog.

Now, the obvious question is, if justice is simply a matter of people getting what they deserve, was not the punishment of Christ (and the non-punishment of humanity) fundamentally unjust? Wayne Grudem’s response is worth quoting at length:

Some have objected that it was not fair for God to do this, to transfer the guilt of sin from us to an innocent person, Christ. Yet we must remember that Christ voluntarily took on himself the guilt of our sins, so this objection loses much of its force. Moreover, God himself (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the ultimate standard of what is just and fair in the universe, and he decreed that the atonement would take place in this way, and that it did in fact satisfy the demands of his own righteousness and justice.[10]


Grudem here provides a tiny window of liberative possibility for understanding the atonement. Maybe abstract or philosophical notions of sin, or punishment, or justice, do not have the final word? Maybe God reserves the right to define justice differently than Aristotle? Unfortunately Grudem has no interest in seriously allowing God to define justice; rather he is confronted with a problem. By the definitions of justice which undergird penal substitutionary atonement, God punishing Jesus was unjust – and thus Grudem simply retreats into the shadows of divine mystery, towards the “unknowable God.”

The economic metaphor finds its clearest expression in the essential fungibility of victimhood here, which is the root of the second issue with penal substitutionary theory. Justice is not that the right people are punished, but that punishment occurs. Victims can clearly be substituted for one another, given the right ratio and value. God does nothing for humanity as a whole, but does something for each individually constituted subject. Packer puts it this way: “should we not then think of Christ’s substitution for us on the cross as a definite, one-to-one relationship between him and each individual sinner? This seems scriptural, for Paul says, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20).”[11] Presented this way, each human is assumed to be an individual rational actor, each one who might be understood as under contract. Paul Fiddes notes that this kind of construction “reduces the event of the cross to a factor in an equation, formulated by a divine mathematician; a death is needed to balance the cosmic sum, and a death is provided.”[12] So while the relationships between God and humanity are individualized, they may not be understood strictly as “personal.”

The main reason for this individualization seems to be the resistance to universalism. If Jesus really did take our punishment, then shouldn’t we all be safe? Packer says no, that “if we are going to affirm penal substitution as an effective saving act of God we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, restrict the scope of the substitution, making it a substitution for some, not all.”[13] In order for this substitution to be effective, something is required from each individual. Since each human being is understood as a rational economic actor, it makes sense that, as Douglas Campbell puts it, salvation can be understood as “a commercial arrangement: a deal.”[14] Campbell goes on to claim that this is fundamentally not what Paul’s soteriology focused on: that “Paul is more interested in a shift of realities, than a shift of moral capital.”[15] Daniel Bell Jr. unpacks this idea further:

God became human not in order to meet the demands of an implacable justice before which even God must bow, nor to overcome a conflict within God between justice and mercy, but so that humanity might be restored to the place that God from the beginning intended for humanity, namely, participation in the divine life.[16]

This is a work that the state cannot do, and thus conceptions of God in which God mirrors the actions of human sovereigns are completely inadequate. There are salvific possibilities, when justice is understood as God’s self-revelation in Christ, that do not appear when justice is interpreted using philosophical schema projected back onto the reality of God.

The justice of God as revealed in Jesus encompasses not just Jesus’s death but his resurrection, and it is fundamentally a relational justice which proceeds from the Triune God. Certainly, many advocates of penal substitutionary atonement affirm the resurrection and affirm the Trinity, but these doctrines tend to do very little work in the salvation equation. A quick scan of books on atonement by John Piper, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, and other penal substitutionary advocates finds scant mention of the resurrection. The justice of God was revealed in the death of Jesus, in his taking on our punishment. If the cross is the focus of atonement, and specifically the idea of God punishing Jesus (not the only way penal substitution is understood, but a common enough idea), it is difficult to conceive of this work as Triune. Certainly for atonement to be Triune it must not only include the persons of the Trinity but include them in ways that are faithful to their (God’s) character. When the crucifixion is the center of atonement, it can appear that we are saved by an eruption of violence within the Triune life. When the resurrection is centered, God raising Christ through the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:11) can take its place within the logic of atonement.

T.F. Torrance offers a few points of clarification on this point that may allow us to “redeem” the substitutionary metaphor, while avoiding some of the traps into which it appears many penal substitutionary advocates have fallen. First, he makes it clear that “we are not saved by the atoning death of Christ … but by Christ himself who in his own person made atonement for us.”[17] For Torrance, salvation does not come through the completion of an equation that exists outside of the reality of God. Hebrews 9:22 is followed by Hebrews 10:5: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” There is continuity in the death of Christ and the priestly system of Israel. This is a relationship that does not exist in abstraction, but in the free, gracious work of God.

Torrance goes on to say, “satisfaction has been understood mainly as the fulfillment of a legal requirement in making amendment for wrong and meeting the demands of justice. In the New Testament, satisfaction is the ‘good pleasure’ of God in the obedient self-offering of the incarnate Son.”[18] While we might find penal metaphors appropriate (and Paul seems to, at times), Torrance gives us a way to understand the work of God in Christ the way it is revealed to us in Scripture, rather than through an a priori scheme into which God’s self-revelation is shoehorned. Torrance also points out that, “a purely forensic doctrine of justification bypasses the resurrection, and is empty without an active sharing in Christ’s righteousness…if we think of justification only in the light of the crucifixion as non-imputation of sins because of what Christ has borne for our sakes, then we have mutilated it severely.”[19]

So much ink has been spilled defending the idea of penal substitution, and the metaphor of non-imputation of sins, that whether intentionally or not, these have become the controlling ideas for Protestant soteriology. Barth attempts to open a wider view of salvation, writing that:

The decisive thing is not that He has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, and therefore the punishment which we deserve. This is true, of course. But it is true only as it derives from the decisive thing that in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in His own person He has made an end of us as sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the One who took our place as sinners. In His person He has delivered up us sinners and sin itself to destruction.[20]

This is the revolution that has happened in Christ: something new has been accomplished. Packer’s “wheel of retribution” is not the universe’s controlling force. In Christ’s person there has not just been a shift of punishment and guilt, but an effective change in creation; new creation has come forth. As Paul says in Romans 8:3, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”

This work is, as Scot McKnight puts it, “the creation of a community where God’s will is done.”[21] This definition of atonement helps us avoid the two major pitfalls that we have seen in penal substitutionary frameworks; First, that God is beholden to abstract notions of justice and wrath, and is made quite un-free. Against this view we can see that the cross is God doing creative, liberative work. The second major shortcoming of penal substitution is the tendency to individualize the work of salvation, leading to strange conclusions like limited atonement (that Christ’s death was not effective for all), righteousness as legal fiction (we are seen as righteous, but not truly made righteous), and a lack of teleology or ecclesiology. If the work of God in Christ really creates a community, individualized forensic metaphors will not be enough.

Reading Barth, Torrance, and the modern penal substitutionary authors left me wondering: how can we take the biblical metaphors of substitution and punishment seriously, while not overemphasizing or losing their value as metaphor? If economic or legal metaphors are still appropriate in late capitalism, can we make use of them to unsettle injustice, to call into question the givenness of debt and punishment, rather than painting God as the prosecutor, or God as Citigroup? Perhaps penal substitutionary atonement is like a predatory species that had been introduced to hunt pests, and ended up overwhelming the habitat. A good deal of damage has already been done, but if we are going to be faithful witnesses to what God has done in Christ, we might be open to the restoration of even disfigured biblical metaphors.

Nathaniel Grimes

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture is taken from the NRSV

[2] Steve Jeffrey et. al., Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 21.

[3] J. I. Packer et al., In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 54.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2011), 41-105.

[5] Anselm and Thomas Williams, Proslogion, with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001), 12.

[6] Packer, In My Place, 23.

[7] Packer, In My Place, 83.

[8] Packer, In My Place, 35.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Zondervan, 1994), 574.

[11] Packer, In My Place, 90.

[12] Paul S. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 83.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Douglas A Campbell, “The Atonement in Paul,” Anvil 11, no. 3 (1994): 238.

[15] Ibid., 237

[16] Daniel Bell Jr., “Justice and Liberation” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, eds.,. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 203.

[17] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 73.

[18] Ibid, 215.

[19] Ibid., 223.

[20] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1956), 253.

[21] Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007), 13.

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