Without Penal Substitution there is Despair in Morality

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Doug Wilson nails the issue,

I want to spend a few moments on why the penal substitution of Christ is the only possible ground of human happiness. My point is not to defend the doctrine here — that has been ably done by others — but rather to show one of the many glorious outworkings of the doctrine. In our life together, whether that life is being lived in family, church, or town, the substitutionary death of Jesus is the only thing that can keep us from becoming scolds who are impossible to live with.

If Jesus was just setting an example, or just doing some other thing external to us, then our imitation of this will tend toward the bossy and censorious. How many moral examples are crushing examples? How many things done for us, outside of us, designed to make us grateful, are actually burdens that are being tied on our backs by Pharisees? But Christ’s example and Christ’s gifts to us are not like that at all. They are true liberation. Why? Because He died in our place, and only because He died in our place.

If we take that away, then morality ceases to be liberation, and becomes what little we learn in lectures full of scolding and hectoring, and finger pointing. It becomes the kind of righteousness that the devil loves to go on about.

Penal Substitution is the only answer because it is the only explanation that adequately deals with the reality of sin. Of course, that’s why many deny penal substitution; because the idea that there is sin that God is angry at is repulsive to them.

When you think about it, denying the reality of sin and God’s judgement is really the homeopathy of atonement. Total wishful thinking that causes us to suffer terribly and never seek the proper cure.


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  1. Fr Jeremy

    David – I think you’re right on the money with this: “When you think about it, denying the reality of sin and God’s judgement is really the homeopathy of atonement. Total wishful thinking that causes us to suffer terribly and never seek the proper cure.”

  2. Terry Gallagher

    I have been reading Eusebius of Caesaria’s “Proof of the Gospel” recently
    and in this work written about 315 AD he sets out his view on subsitutionary atonement several times,
    including this:

    With regard first to the words which are apparently said in
    the Person of our Saviour: “Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,”
    you will notice in Symmachus[‘s translation] they are not so rendered, but thus:
    “Heal my soul, even if I have sinned against thee.”

    And He speaks thus, since He shares our sins.
    So it is said: “And the Lord has laid on him our iniquities, and he bears our sins.”
    Thus the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, became a curse on our behalf:
    “Whom, though he knew no sin, God made sin for our sake, giving him as redemption for all,
    that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
    But since being in the likeness of sinful flesh He condemned sin in the flesh, the words quoted are rightly used.

    And in that He made our sins His own from His love and benevolence towards us,
    He says these words, adding further on in the same Psalm:
    “You have protected me because of my innocence,” clearly shewing the impeccability [inability to sin] of the Lamb of God.

    And how can He make our sins His own, and be said to bear our iniquities,
    except by our being regarded as His body, according to the apostle, who says :
    “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members?”

    And by the rule that “if one member suffer all the members suffer with it,”
    so when the many members suffer and sin, He too by the laws of sympathy
    (since the Word of God was pleased to take the form of a slave
    and to be knit into the common tabernacle of us all)
    takes into Himself the labours of the suffering members, and makes our sicknesses His,
    and suffers all our woes and labours by the laws of love.

    And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf,
    and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins;
    and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins,
    because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults,
    and the dishonour, which were due to us,
    and drew down on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us.
    And what is that but the price of our souls?

    And so the oracle says in our person: “By his stripes we were healed,”
    and “The Lord delivered him for our sins,”
    with the result that uniting Himself to us and us to Himself, and appropriating our sufferings,
    He can say, “I said, Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,” ….

    [From Eusebius of Casesarea, Demonstratio Evangelica [Proof of the Gospel] Book 10, Chapter 1,
    written about 315 AD, in WJ Ferrar’s 1920 translation; I have updated a “hath, a “taketh” and a “thou hast”]

  3. Terry Gallagher


  4. Terry Gallagher


  5. Grant H

    Bishop Eusebius was an opponent of Athanasius and backer of Arians, which puts him on the side of egregious heresy. Is belief in PSA effective for salvation if one is committed to an Arian (or other heretical) view of Christ’s nature? Is it even, properly, PSA anymore?

    1. David Ould

      An excellent question. I think my normal answer is that the more people concisiusly reject the truth about Jesus the more likely it is they do not truly trust Him. I don’t think, however, it destroys the force of the argument which is that he had a clear PSA view of the cross, even if undermined by his other error.

  6. Grant H

    How could Eusebius have a “clear PSA view of the cross” if he understood that the one crucified – the lamb of God – was a creature of God? Is not the Trinity – properly understood – essential to PSA? Surely, if the Son is not very God of very God, then there is no Atonement.

    A Trinitarian modern reader, unaware of Eusebius’ Christology, will simply project his own doctrine of God onto the bishop’s PSA summary, assuming no conflict. But imagine for a moment the view of Christ that informs Eusebius’ words here. When he refers to “the lamb of God” and “the Word of God”, he does not mean a co-equal trinitarian hypostasis, but a subordinate being, God’s firstborn of all Creation. Read the passage over again, holding that Christology in mind, and reconsider what Eusebius was actually driving at. Is his Arian-inflected “lamb of God” still the same as your Athanasian Son?

    Can a bad (doctrinal) tree produce good fruit? Or is a correct doctrine of the Trinity, after all, relatively less important than a correct theory of the atonement?

    1. David Ould

      Is not the Trinity – properly understood – essential to PSA?

      In one sense yes – it is. But in terms of understanding what a penal substitution is it’s not since the OT people of God clearly understood it with every sin offering made while they may not have had clarity on the Trinity.

      But it’s a good question to ask and I agree with you about some of the issues raised

  7. Mike Waliczek

    Spot on, minus the homeopathy comment. Vaccines use the same principle, yet we’re supposed to believe they solve everything.

    1. David Ould

      Don’t think so, Mike. They work on very different principles and with obviously different recorded results.
      Plus I don’t hear anyone saying “they solve everything”. Let’s be known for measured sensible responses to our current issues.

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