Orthodox Problems with Penal Substitution

by Alexander Renault

Reconsidering Tulipfrom his book “Reconsidering Tulip”

The penal substitution view was completely absent from the church for over 1,000 years. It was only in the 11th century that Anselm of Canterbury began to introduce the groundwork for this kind of theology to the West. Nor was it fully developed into the doctrine we now know as penal substitution until the 16th-century Reformers came along. To this day it has never been accepted in the east (nor has it ever been fully accepted by the Roman Catholics).

1. Penal substitution compromises the deity of Christ and puts a rift in the Trinity

If Christ died for, and is our solution to, our sins against god the Father, then what about our sins against Christ? He’s just as god as the Father is. or our sins against the Holy Spirit? With penal substitution, God is pitted against God, either dividing God (and thus destroying the Trinity) or saying that Christ isn’t fully god.

2. With penal substitution, God is bound by necessity

If god’s justice demands that He punish sin, then there is a higher force than god—necessity—which determines what God can and cannot do. Calvinists will be quick to argue,

“No, justice is an aspect of God’s nature. There is no necessity laid on Him from outside His nature.”

The problem, though, is that if I do “A” then God must do “B.” If I sin, God must punish. He does not have the freedom to do otherwise. Thus God’s actions are bound and controlled by some- thing outside of Himself, i.e. my actions. This becomes even more confusing if we add in the Calvinistic notion that God foreordained my sinful actions in the first place, thus forcing Him to respond to them. Furthermore, it is often argued by the Reformed that God is sovereign and doesn’t have to save anyone if He chooses not to. On the other hand, He does have to punish sin. So God has to punish sin, but He doesn’t have to save sinners. It’s very interesting that justice (or at least what the Reformed see as justice) becomes the defining characteristic of God rather than love. Justice forces God to respond to our actions, but love does not.

3. Penal substitution misunderstands the Old Testament sacrifices

The Old Testament sacrificial system was not a picture of penal substitution. God was not pouring out His wrath on the animals in place of the Israelites. He didn’t vent His righteous judgment on the animals, sending them to hell in place of the Israelites. On the contrary, they were killed honorably and as painlessly as possible. Their life (i.e. their blood) was offered to god as a sweet smelling aroma. The resulting meat was good and holy—not just worthless carrion fit for dogs and vultures. Such is also the case with Christ’s sacrifice: it is a holy offering of blood to the Father, not a means whereby god can vent His wrath.

4. Penal substitution misunderstands the word “justice”

A quick perusal of the psalms and prophets will reveal that the word “justice” is usually coupled with “mercy.” Justice really means to show kindness and deliverance to the oppressed, and to right the wrongs done to them. True justice is destroying our oppressors—sin, death, and Satan—not punishing us for the sins to which we are in bondage.

5. Penal substitution misunderstands the word “propitiation”

Propitiation should not be thought of in the classical pagan sense, as if our god were some angry deity who needed appeasing and could only be satisfied through a penal sacrifice. It’s really quite different. Propitiation (Greek hilasterion) is also translated “mercy seat.” The mercy seat covered the ark of the covenant, which contained a copy of the ten commandments—the law. While the law cried out against us and demanded perfection and showed us our shortcomings, the mercy seat covered those demands and our failure to live up to them. Was the mercy seat punished for our sins? of course not. Likewise, Christ’s blood was not the punishment demanded by justice, but rather the ultimate mercy seat, covering and forgiving our sins. This is why “propitiation” is sometimes more accurately translated as “expiation” in some versions of the Bible. (“expiation” implies the removal of our sins, while “propitiation” implies appeasing an angry deity.)

6. With penal substitution, God does not show unconditional love

With penal substitution, god Himself does not show the unconditional love that He commands us to show one another. There is a big condition attached: god must have an “outlet” to vent His wrath. His “self-giving” love is only made possible by His “self- satisfying” justice.

7. With penal substitution, God does not truly forgive

With penal substitution, the debt is not really forgiven; it’s just transferred. But we are commanded to forgive as god forgave us. If my brother offends me, should I demand justice and vent my wrath on someone else? Should I beat myself up? No, obviously we are to simply let it go and graciously accept the offense.

8. With penal substitution, God changes

According to penal substitution, god is angry with us because of our sins. But once He expresses His wrath in His Son, He is no longer angry with us. Now He loves us as He loves His own Son. In other words, He changes. First He’s angry with us, then He changes His mind and decides to love us. But how can this be if god is love? How can a God who is infinite, self-giving love ever vary in His degree of love towards us? Besides, not only is God love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), but He’s also unchanging (Mal 3:6) and doesn’t change His mind (Num 23:19).

9. Penal substitution makes the resurrection unnecessary

According to penal substitution, salvation is made possible only by a legal exchange. We are counted “just” and “forgiven” only because god’s wrath has been poured out on Christ instead. Since hell is said to be a punishment for sins, and since our sins have already been punished in Christ, we are free to go to heaven. The resurrection then becomes simply a nice bonus, nothing more than a “proof” that Christ is divine.

10. Penal substitution makes the incarnation unnecessary

Was it Christ’s physical suffering or spiritual suffering which atoned for our sins (according to penal substitution)? If physical, then anyone who has suffered physically more than Christ (and there have been plenty in the history of our race), is exempt from hell, since they already paid for their own sins. If it was Christ’s spiritual suffering that counts, then He didn’t need to be incarnate. (After all, the demons will be punished without needing bodies.) The incarnation becomes just an “add-on” to help us out a little more.

11. One person cannot be punished for another

Contra penal substitution, the Bible tells us that one person can- not be punished for another. each one shall die for his own sins:

In those days they shall say no more:

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

But every one shall die for his own iniquity. (Jer 31:29-30) Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deut 24:16) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek 18:20)

12. Penal substitution makes death a punishment rather than a result

God said,

“In the day you eat the fruit, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17).

He did not say “I will kill you” but rather “you will die.” To walk away from God (i.e. to sin) is by definition, death. death is the realm of “Not God.” likewise, if I pull the plug on my own life support system, the result is death. No one else is killing me. If I jump off the roof, after being warned by my mother not to, and I end up breaking my leg, does that mean that my mother broke my leg? No, that was simply the result of my own choice. Christ gave Himself up to death. If death is an active punishment from God, then Christ was punished by His Father (per penal substitution). But if death is the result of sin, then it is an outside enemy, and not God’s own wrath.

13. Penal substitution undermines union with Christ

If death is a punishment for sin rather than a result of sin (continuing with the last point), then it makes little sense to speak of being united with Christ. St. Paul says that we were united together in the likeness of His death (Rom 6:5). He also says

“I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20).

If death is a punishment, then St. Paul is saying

“Christ and I have been punished together.”

But again, why would two people be punished for one person’s sins? Perhaps it makes more sense to say that Christ, in union with our humanity, experienced the consequence of death, and through His death, defeated death for all of us. Besides, if we really believe that Christ defeated death, then we certainly can’t say that death is a punishment sent from god, or else we’d be forced to say that Christ defeated something that god willed for us. But Christ and His Father are not at war with each other. on the other hand, I will certainly confess that there is a substitution as well. Christ experienced the consequence of sin (i.e. death), as a substitute for us, so that we don’t have to experience the ultimate consequence sin (i.e. eternal death). But note that Christ is taking on the consequence of sin in our place, rather than the punishment for sin in our place.

14. Penal substitution was absent from the entire Church (both east and west) for at least 1,000 years

To quote from the Theogeek blogsite,

“If the apostles taught penal substitution as a central part of their gospel, then it seems almost entirely inconceivable that the generations that came after them and spoke the same language had, worldwide, managed to universally forget the major and central part of the gospel and replace it with something else entirely.”

So what was Christ’s death for, if not to satisfy god’s justice? The purpose of Christ’s atonement was to defeat death and forgive us of our sins. It was the presenting of Christ’s blood, His humanity, to the Father to restore the unity that we had broken. It was a sweet-smelling aroma, a sacrifice acceptable to God.

The depth and purpose of His sacrifice is far beyond the scope of this little book, but one thing is for sure: it was not about punishment. And when punishment is taken out of the equation, things look much different. We can no longer say that Christ was punished in place of John but not in place of, say, Judas. But we can say that Christ defeated death for both John and Judas, both of whom will be resurrected regardless of their acceptance or rejection of Christ…

HT: Orthodox Christian Faith

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  1. Cameron says:

    Thank you for this. I have three questions I would be grateful for help in answering.

    On something of a tangent:

    1) In light of the present discussion, how do we rightly understand the seemingly punitive acts of God in the Old Testament, especially the instances of what we would now call genocide (e.g. 1 Sam. 15)?

    2) I assume the previous questions has something to do with an appropriate Orthodox view of the Old Testament as a whole. How should we approach the Old Testament, especially as lay people with limited education in Old Testament studies?

    3) When we look at some of Christ’s language in the gospels surrounding the final end of those who do not know Him, the outcome seems not only the result of one’s life choices but to be active work on the part of God (e.g. Matt. 8:12, “they will be thrown out”).

    I have read Alexander Kalorimos’s essay “The River of Fire,” and I understand that God’s wrath and His love are seen to be the same thing–the righteous and the wicked simply experience His love differently, either as torment or paradise. Yet, I still have difficulty in answering my Protestant friends’ hangups with biblical language, which often does strike a juridical note, and how the Orthodox interpretation seems to diverge from that language.

    I’d appreciate any help you could give.

  2. Great article! Penal sub is a scary/silly doctrine that can be used to justify all sorts of terrible things. Glad to see people fighting the good fight!

  3. What a wonderful article! I just have one question about the last paragraph; is there a word or two missing from the last sentence about John and Judas? Even though I have a good idea about what you were going to say, I would really like to know what your thought was about their resurrection.

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful, thought provoking article! May God continue to bless you and help you to keep up the great work!

  4. Now where have I seen this before?

    Well done, Zander!

  5. Thank you!

    I am very greatful for all of the blessed articles presented here.

    I am blessed and continually amazed at the incredible depth and array of what is presented here, especially at the rate at which it is produced.

    I mention the following only in the spirit of constructive criticism.

    Almost every article I have read has some miss spelled words or as Glenda points out above a missing word or two. Obviously one word can completely change the meaning of what is being expressed.

    When talking about the Persons of the Holy Trinity or the Holy Trinity as One, God should always be capitalized.

    The spelling is “Saviour” not Savior or some other variant.

    May the love of God the Father, and the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, be with you always!

    Forgive me and pray for me a sinner

    • Cameron says:


      The spelling of “Saviour” is dependent upon which side of the Atlantic one calls home. In American English, “Savior” is correct–just as “color” trumps “colour.”

      • I would tend to agree with Christos, even though I live outside NYC. I think “Saviour” just looks more correct to me, of course it could be due to my years in a Fundie Christian School copying lines from the KJV. I must have re wrote the entire bible by hand. I still use and spell words differently. Thank God I am Orthodox now though. Also we also use “Glamour” and it doesn’t come up on spell check as “wrong”. Great article btw.

        • Fr. John A. Peck says:

          It may ‘look’ more correct to you, but it is wrong in American English – and either way is fine with me, but we, as Americans, default to the American standard.

  6. Thought provoking ideas. As a former Calvinist I look forward to exploring this in depth. Thanks. (Btw, is this Alexander Renault the same author for the other, um, interesting books listed on Amazon, or is it someone else with the same name?)

  7. Aarrgh! No, that other Alexander Renault is most decidedly NOT me. In fact, I don’t think that’s even his real name. (A strange cross to bear, though. Perhaps a homo-erotic Calvinist will stumble upon my book and find Jesus).

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments. I hope this is helpful.

    Glenda: The comments about John and Judas at the end actually tie into a reference which come before the above-quoted section on penal substitution. It’s in the chapter on Limited Atonement. It reads as follows…

    - – - – - – - – -

    The most common western view of Christ’s atonement today is often referred to as the “penal substitution” theory of atonement. It essentially states that God’s holiness demands that He punish sins. Because of His love for us, however, He pours out His wrath on His Son on the cross instead of on us, which enables Him to forgive sinners without compromising His Holy standard. Christ is the great Substitute, taking on Himself the punishment that we deserved. Given these presuppositions about Christ’s atonement (presuppositions shared by both Calvinists and Arminians), Limited Atonement makes far more sense, and in fact, if anyone holds to the penal substitution theory of the atonement, then logically they must believe in Limited Atonement. Consider: If Christ was punished in place of say, John, then John cannot be punished for his own sins. The punishment is transferred. But if Christ suffers for John’s sins, and John also ends up suffering eternally in hell, then both John and Christ are being punished for John’s sins. There is no substitution or transfer of guilt. Two people are punished for one person’s sins, one of whom is innocent—the ultimate affront to true justice. Thus penal substitution would necessitate Limited Atonement.

    But as I dove into my studies of Church history, I was surprised to learn that the penal substitution view was completely absent from the Church for over 1,000 years….

    – Zander Renault

  8. Peter Chopelas says:

    Excellent essay in defense of Orthodoxy. However I disagree with point five; Substitutionary atonement does not “misunderstand” the word propitiation, it misunderstands the Greek word “hilasmos” (expiation) or “hilasterion” (place of expiation). The word appears hundreds of times in both the New and Old Testaments, yet is only (mis)translated as propitiation three times, in the NT only. Substitutionary Atonement only makes sense if you believe the sacrifice of Christ was done to appease an angry god, to change Him from wrath towards us, to favor us. The object of the act of propitiation is God, to change Him (as if that were possible). Yet the object of the Greek word is us, it means that we are the ones changed, our sins are expiated (or removed) so we may experience a joyous union with God.

    When our sins are wash away, who is changed? God, or us?

    As Orthodox we should never use the word propitiation to describe the sacrifice of Christ, it only confuses the non-orthodox and I think clouds the issue to claim that the Orthodox understand Propitiation to mean something different. As Orthodox we should all reject the blasphemous use of the word propitiation, but rather use the more accurate word expiation (more accurately I think the Greek word also implies joy, so “joyous expiation” would be more complete).

    It is blasphemous to believe that our loving God would take His innocent Son and punish Him instead of the sinners, so satisfy His own “wrath”.

    For example, see 1 John 4:10

    “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the “appeaser” for our sins”?

    Or “sent His Son to be the expiator for our sins”.

    In the context of God’s love, using propitiation, or appeaser, is totally out of place. Clearly the author intended the reader to understand the sacrifice of Christ as an act of a love.

  9. Wow, how amazing is that!
    I come from a protestant evangelical background and so have not heard of most of this stuff before. I love the concept that God is offering us a gift of reconciliation! (But of course now I think about it it makes sense with other parts of scripture, especially “we are God’s ambassadors, pleading with you on His behalf, be reconciled”). How beautiful and wonderful and more noble a picture of God that is.
    Thank you for this post and the comments also, so much to think about, and a whole new world is opening up to me through blogs such as this one right now.
    Pray that God may show me His truth and bring me into the fulness of His joy.

  10. Delwyn X. Campbell says:

    So are those who end up in the lake of fire being punished for their refusal to believe in Christ or are they just being changed? I don’t think many people with whom I associate are worried over much about “why” Christ died, they just want to make sure that “they” don’t go to hell.

    • Fr. John A. Peck says:

      Delwyn, neither – they have refused to be tranformed by God’s love, and now exist in the river of fire (the love and grace of God, undiluted), and remain outside of it’s illuminating properties. They are surrounded by the love of God they rejected, and suffer hellishly in the midst of it because they refused to repent, and to forgive.

  11. I am not Orthodox by either the Eastern or western Fundamentalist definitions of the term, but I greatly appreciate this excellent post. To expand further on your point #3, I would add that the Old Testament does not portray a transactional forgiveness for sins…a sort of quid-pro-quo of blood for forgiveness as portrayed by Penal Substitutionists. Rather, sacrifices are usually portrayed as being acts of thanksgiving and worship to God.

    Further, I find it interesting how many Protestants seem to see penal substitution in every occurrence of blood in the O.T. Jesus is linked by N.T. writers to the Passover lamb…and the blood of the paschal lamb is portrayed throughout history as a sign of identification, not a sacrifice for sin. In fact, the concept of sin is absent from the Passover narrative.

    Finally, the New Testament is clear that Jesus had authority to forgive sins on the basis of his identity alone, with the evidence being his miracles. He didn’t have to die to gain that authority.

    I might quibble with a few of your details, but in the main I find your objections to PSA to be soundly Biblical and I appreciate them.

  12. I also found it interesting, when I was brought to Orthodoxy, that, looking back on my view of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, that to have the view I had as a non-denominational/evangelical Protestant, there were some really weird results. Many of them were just as so excellently described by the author hereinabove. Another one was that I had to view God as a blood-thirsty, nearly pagan-like “god,” who needed to commit a sort of cosmic suicide to satisfy his own blood lust. (This is probably part and parcel, a subset if you will, of a couple of the points made so well here).

  13. The question to all orthodox faithful to ask is why Christ gave his holy blood on the Cross and why did he suffer?

    1) The blood of the Lamb of God is the profusion of God grace and mercy for his people. God covenant and reconciliation are signified by the Blood of the Covenant where his protection is fully manifested by his life-giving Spirit. The holy blood is rightly called the drink of the Holy Spirit where true orthodox commune to receive the grace of love increased by our desire to be more and more conformed to God through Christ in the Spirit.

    2)The suffering of Christ on the Cross was the consequence of the totality of our sins being expiated or burned to make us whole and pure to a new Innocence the innocence of Christ Himself.

    Therefore the protestant view of Christ Sacrifice is negative and lacking the grace of union where the orthodox and apostolic view is positive and cause of great thanksgiving being true partakers of the divine nature… Christ Sacrifice is the real Passover from death to life eternal to the promise land of the heavens… Who is like God marvelous in his works of mercy and loving justice!!


  1. [...] between these two views of Jesus. You can read more about them in Alexander Renault’s article Orthodox Problems with Penal Substitution and [...]

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