Penal Substitution Atonement vs. the Gospel

On a mid-summer day in the German city of Graz, Johannes Kepler experienced what he thought was a moment of discernment in 1595. While presenting an astronomy lecture, he noticed a geometric fluke associated with the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Jumping to conclusions on what he saw as God’s perfect geometric design of the universe, he soon extrapolated this happenstance relationship to 3-dimensional space, conceiving a model of planetary orbits involving the 5 geometric solids of Plato.[1]

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The idea that PSA or JBF are the gospel is a problematic understanding of the gospel itself. While I like many of the thoughts of this article and believe they are good observations about Jesus and what he did, I don’t think they explain what the NT says the gospel actually is. Without a clear picture of the gospel itself, other related imagery in the NT will also be skewed.

The euangellion in the first century empire was a proclamation of the emperor’s victory in battle, his birthday, his ascension to the throne and assumption of authority, and the public good that he did for his subjects. The usage of the term in the NT is against this background. It is also against the background of its usage in Isaiah in the LXX, where the gospel was YHWH’s victory over the foreign gods of the pagans. It was the proclamation that the one true lord of the world was YHWH himself…Israel’s God.

This is all behind the proclamation of the gospel in the NT. It is the royal announcement that God has become king through his messiah…Jesus, Israel’s king, the one who is the true son of David. Except, Jesus’s assumption of authority and power, and his victory, happened not through military might, but through the paradox of his shameful death at the hands of the powers that be, and then by his resurrection from the dead on the third day, by which he was appointed lord of the world and of all. Jesus, as opposed to Caesar, was and is the world’s one true lord, bringing the kingdom/rule of God on earth as it is in heaven…a rule of love, peace, and justice for all who receive and join up by faith with Jesus as lord. He and his kingdom are akin to the stone hitting the feet of the image in Daniel 2, blowing away the oppressive regimes it represents, and filling the earth with the gracious and just rule of God, bringing freedom, healing, and restoration for all who join by faith.

This gospel of king Jesus is then the framework within which other issues can be explored…such as Atonement imagery, JBF, etc.


Frank- The imagery of kingly power and glory and the claim that oppressive regimes are blown away and that the “faithful” are now living in a restored, healed, free world somehow doesn’t ring true for me. It seems like whistling in the dark. I am sincerely happy that you can see things this way. For me understanding the metaphor of the prodical son and his reconciliation with his dad or simply adopting values espoused in the sermon on the mount is a lot to chew on.


Atonement theories have provided an endless source of heated debate for many years. I grew up living in constant fear of a deity looking over my shoulder every second, scrutinizing and criticizing my every move, word and even thought. I came to hate such a god, yet could not even admit that out of subconscious fear of even great retribution should such a thing be caught by the narrow eyes of divine justice.
It took God many years to even pry my mind open enough to begin asking questions and challenging the status quo of my beliefs about God and how He viewed me. At the same time I could not help but see glaring incongruities in all the contradictory explanations of the cross fed to me by pastors, teachers and parents. They could never give me sensible answers without resorting to cliches that made little sense but permeates religion. I begged God for many years to allow me to see the real truth about why Jesus died on the cross, and Laurence has done a good job of summarizing some of the reasons that drove me to such begging.
It has not been until the last twenty or so years that it finally began to dawn on me that the truth was far different than what religion promotes, but it also takes a lot of time to absorb and acclimate one’s thinking to be able to embrace truths that threaten and even enrage those who feel their power and authority is threatened by questions. Thank-you Laurence for an excellent and simply treatise on why penal substitution is simply nonsense. I have been know to go much further and insist it is outright blasphemy. But each has to wrestle with it for themselves, and some of us take much longer to come around to seeing light than others.


I never said that this is what we presently see in fullness. We obviously don’t live in a restored world. We live in a hurting one in need of healing and rescue. We live between the times, where the kingdom of God was inaugurated by Jesus, but not yet fully realized.

The gospels say that Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom. He told his followers to pray, "Your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Acts concludes with Paul teaching about the kingdom of God. While I agree that a parable such as the prodigal son or the teachings of the sermon on the mount are a lot to chew on, they both point to bigger realities… what it looks like when God becomes king in Jesus. It looks like what the Sermon on the Mount teaches. It looks like the prodigal coming home to a celebration, even in the midst of the anger of the religious elder sons standing outside.

Iow, the gospel is about something larger than ourselves and our personal salvation, which is what an article on atonement theory seems to focus on, and is the focus of so much Christian teaching and preaching today. It call us to participate in the restorative project that God wants to bring fully to this world…what the NT calls the kingdom of God. The upside down kingdom, I would add. The liberating kingdom. We await its consummation.

This, I think, is what the gospel of the kingdom, what Jesus preached and modeled in his day, means…we can update the language and imagery.


What Lawrence Ashcraft articulates makes such good sense. Once one grasps the evidential reality, most who do, say, I’ll never go back to the life-long notion of the penal substitutional model. Why? Because it just doesn’t make sense.
What Lawrence is suggesting can best be described as, “The Larger View.” This larger view encapsulates the biblical cosmic warfare, Satan’s erroneous claims about the Father, the claims that expelled him from the courts of heaven. Jesus’ sole purpose in condescending was to reveal the truth about the Father. Jesus’ earthly revelatory, including His death at the hands of His created beings, bears witness in totality to one of trust healing. It should put to rest, forever, Satan’s claims. To trust Jesus to heal the damage sin does is the ultimate reality. It’s the good news in verity.


“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” 1 Cor 15:3

Is not the fact that Jesus “died for our sin” a “substitutionary” event? Due to his resurrection we are “justified,” that is declared righteous on account of the merits of Christ. Who does Jesus offer his substitutionary death before? God.

“He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Rom 4:25

Therefore, since we have now been justified [declared free of the guilt of sin] by His blood, [how much more certain is it that] we will be saved from the wrath of God through Him. Rom 5:9 AMP


What is holding us all back from getting all this is the language of “religion” we are saturated with + a lot of surmising and misinformation. The idea of the TRINITY doesn’t help either, which is based on God, the white-bearded law maker exacting obedience, and Jesus his Son being sent to earth to pay the price the intransigent Father is bent on exacting, and the HS divides itself into billions of sections, begging each individual to listen to His pleadings. Doesn’t work for me either.

Issues that need to be settled:
1- “You have seen me, you have seen the Father”. In what sense?
2 - Is Christianity a monotheistic religion or not?
3 - Who/what is God angry with - the sinner or the sin?
4 - Is the Gospel a project, or a done deal?
5 - How do we differentiate “Son of Man” vs. “Son of God”?

I seems to me the gospel is presented in several different analogies - as a kaleidoscope, as Ford describes it in a little book, Kaleidoscope of Diamonds. The colours in a kaleidoscope create many various designs depending how the pieces fall inside.

For the legalist, the only way he can make sense of it is in legal terms - so Colossians tells him Jesus (in whom the fullness of Deity dwells in body form - Col 2:9) removed the penalty for our sins ( 2:14).

For Paul it was a lifelong race, against himself, as he makes a distinction between what his “inner man” wants and his sinful nature - culminating in Rom. 8 - "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ" (what the inner man wants).

I especially like the idea that the cross changed our thinking about God - not God’s attitude about us.

Thank you for a meaningful article.


You’re right on, Frank. This article ignores these texts, as if the idea of Jesus’s death in our place isn’t in the NT. It is. These texts reveal as much. I’ve heard people also try to explain these away with poor linguistic explanations. They don’t holds water.

While all the implications of PSA might not be in the NT, the idea of Jesus dying for our sins is there. The NT writers lived with the reality of sacrificial culture. People offering sacrifices to appease the gods was not alien to them. It is to us in the modern west. The twist the NT writers place on this idea was that it was God in the person of his son who made the ultimate offering out of self giving love, it wasn’t effected by human beings appeasing him. This totally reversed the telescope!

But, it also reveals that there was something bigger in terms of justice than just our personal forgiveness that God was satisfying through the death of Jesus. It is why Romans 3 says that though God passed over the sins committed previously (under the former covenant), through Jesus’s death God could be just and be the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. Somehow, Jesus’s death met this larger condition of God’s justice.

Whether one wants to frame this in terms of the great controversy theme, which is sketchy from the Bible, or a larger term framework of the justice of God needing to take care of such issues, Jesus’s death seems to be the central way in which God did. Somehow, God put sin to death through the death of Jesus, and raised him to life victorious over it, so that all who have faith in him are set free from the power of sin and death. Jesus did what we couldn’t do, taking the judgement of sin, neutering its death dealing power, and leaving it all in the grave. Our faith rests in that and in him.

We don’t like to talk about the justice and judgement of God either in our grace oriented church culture. They are there in the Bible. Substitution is there in the NT. I have no problem if one thinks that this is an ancient, outmoded way of looking at God and Christ. Just don’t use the Bible to support such a view.

It doesn’t.



If Jesus was the human manifestation of God, himself, then God became one of us (second Adam). If humans rejected God in the garden, what do you think we would do after centuries of sin. Sin (self-centredness) is the all - encompassing condition we all have in common. Christians know this is a problem. Humanly speaking, we all want justice (fairness). We wouldn’t know how to accept unconditional forgiveness. We are the ones who need a redeemer, not God. How else would you know you were forgiven?

I think the story of Thomas not recognizing Jesus until he saw the nail marks might be more significant than we have thought. Without those marks we, too, would not recognize forgiveness.

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I’m not disagreeing with anything you said. There are many aspects of Jesus’s death, impacting us in a variety of ways. The NT uses a variety of images to capture all of these strands.

All I’m saying is that there is plenty of support in the NT for Jesus’s substitutionary death…even if we don’t buy into all the ramifications of PSA. If one rejects this view based on the idea that that this was tied to the world view of the NT writers, and that it seems outdated or barbaric, I get it. Just don’t say the Bible doesn’t teach it. It does.



That’s very true. The Bible, even the NT, comes from a Hebrew viewpoint which, in turn, is based on the sacrificial system.

If you want a longer treatment of the history and failures if the PST with an alternative atonement theology (Christus Victor), check out the small book by David Takle called “The Lamb of God” (2018). Well worth the read. Takle followed up with a book titled “copernicus 2.0” (2021) where he shows how the Christus Victor impacts our view of forgiveness, sanctification, gospel, etc. zin Lamb of God, Takle lists like 30 failures of PST.

I agree with your thoughts. I know in our grace oriented culture it is hard for us to even consider the idea of the wrath of God. Perhaps they could consider the words of Moses in Ps. 90.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
6 In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

7 We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.


Sounds like “moral influence” to me. Nothing wrong with this but it’s one facet of atonement.

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Thank you Larry for your views about the gospel of the atonement. It is reassuring that there are many of us (like in Elijah’s experience) who see the death of Christ as the most sublime evidence before the whole universe of the truth about the character of God and the way He runs His government -the “Larger View” (right on Bud) and answer to the Great Controversy.


Yes Joselito, but Avelard’s Moral Influence Theory never considered the questions of the Great Controversy about the truth of the character of God and the way He runs His universe!

A few observations:

  1. the writer quotes Ellen White on a number of occasions which support his viewpoint; however there are also numerous statements that Ellen White makes regarding Christ as our substitute and surety. I would be interested in his response to the statements. How does he view them? It appears that he sees her as somewhat authoritative, as he does use statements that she’s made; then why not accept these statements?

  2. Why not look at the atonement as a multifaceted diamond and use different biblical motifs to understand it? Fleming Rutledge does this very well in her Magnus opus: “The Crucifixion - understanding the death of Jesus Christ.” In this book she devotes eight chapters to eight different motifs: the Passover and the exodus, the blood sacrifice, Ransom and redemption, the great assize, the apocalyptic war/christus Victor, The descent into hell, the substitution, and recapitulation. Each one helps us in gaining a thoroughly biblical understanding of what happened on the cross.

  3. Reading through the article, I was reminded of a statement by Emil Brunner in his classic work on the atonement, The Mediator. He writes, “It is evident that theologians of this type are anxious to understand the meaning of the Cross of Christ. But it is just as evident that they have completely failed to understand the cross.”
    He makes a strong case that the subjective approach to the cross simply does not adequately deal with the seriousness of the situation. He goes on, “Thinkers of this type have no idea that this fact represents an actual objective transaction, in which God actually does something, and something which is absolutely necessary.” Describing the subjective view: “Man, quite wrongly, regards God as an enemy, as a judge who wishes to punish him. At the cross man becomes aware of his error; here the idea that God is love conquers the idea of his anger. Thus here the only gulf which separates man from God is illusory, namely, it is that which human error has placed between itself and God. Reconciliation simply means the removal of a religious error.” This, in contrast to, the real barrier of sin and guilt, which only God is able to remove. And if one takes the scriptural narrative seriously, only he himself can do this in the person and death of his son.

  4. Karl Barth, writes simply in his dogmatics in outline, “Reconciliation means God taking man’s place.” And he is of course also known for his phrase “The judge, that is God, judged in our place.”
    There are, as others have already mentioned, numerous scripture passages that speak to the idea of substitution (I’m not sure the word penal is helpful or necessary here). It seems clear that is one aspect of the atonement, along with the others that were previously mentioned.
    Ministry magazine published, about 30 years ago, an excellent article about the attraction and inadequacy of the moral influence theory. It is a biblical presentation that clearly points out its shortcomings. It is still worth reading. Ministry Magazine | The moral influence theory


In the spirit of the present culture, is anyone/Spectrum/theologian going to flag this article as misinformation? Does the author need to be doxed? Does the author need to be de-platformed off Spectrum? It is clearly misinformation? Misformation kills does it not? Just politely asking.

From Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p 119

“God himself in Jesus Christ his Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgment is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God’s Son stands for all others. Such is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands for us before God, by taking upon himself what belongs to us. In him God makes himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in his Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way he makes an end of the curse.”

I’m very grateful for the contributions of Barth, Brunner, Berkouwer, Stott and others in helping to present a thoroughly biblical understanding of the atonement.