Objection #5: The penal substitution theory is supposed to be about satisfying justice, but how is it just to punish an innocent man and let the guilty walk free?
Scripture uses two analogies that I think are helpful to understand how justice is served in Christ’s death for us. One is that of the Church being the bride of Christ and the other is that of the Church being the body of Christ. If I were to take a wife who had thousands of dollars in debt, those debts would then also become my responsibility. It is because of our union in marriage that I am taking on the debts that she owned. This idea of union is also expressed in the analogy of the Church as Christ’s body. Many times Scripture speaks of us being united with Christ in His death, and because of this union, we have access to His righteousness and life. (Rom. 6:5-11) It is because of our union with Christ that He can be said to “become sin” or to “take on sin” because He has no sin of His own.
Objection #6: Jesus taught us to forgive and to love our enemies but under this theory God doesn’t forgive without first demanding punishment. Why am I asked to do something that God doesn’t do?
The issue here is one of just authority. God has authority to exact punishment. We don’t. What are we to make of Rom. 12:19 “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” This verse shows that in exacting vengeance the standard is not the same for us and for God, why would we expect issues of punishment and forgiveness to be different?
Objection #7: Penal Substitution is boring and to some people even offensive. Christus Victor is a much more engaging and interesting story. Why don’t we just focus on the better story?
I like the Christus Victor model. There are many good points that it emphasizes. And you know what, everything that it teaches is also taught in the penal substitutionary model. The Substitutionary model teaches that the whole creation was affected by the curse and subjected to futility. It teaches that we are in bondage to sin and death and the ruling powers of darkness in this present age. It teaches that Christ, in His death, gloriously defeated and triumphed over every power that held us captive. But it teaches more.
The Christus Victor model doesn’t tell us how Jesus’ death was able to defeat death. It doesn’t tell us why it was necessary for His blood to be shed in order for the prisoners to be set free. If all you have to work from is the Christus Victor model it is unclear why Jesus even needed to become a man, why didn’t God defeat Satan and release the captive while never leaving His thrown in Heaven?
If the Bible were silent on these questions then we would have to be content with our best guess and admit that we cannot know with certainty the answers. But the Bible is not silent. We do know the answers to these questions because the word of God tells us.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor. 15:54-57
“God made [us] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Col. 2:13-15
See how closely the language of triumph and victory is tied to the fulfilling of the law and the canceling of our debt. The reason we suffer death is because of sin and sin is transgression of the Law, so if the Law is fulfilled, satisfied, paid, and completed then sin can no longer exact it’s punishment of death. Death, lacking the power given it by sin, no longer has any hold on one who is united with Christ in His death. The penalty is paid and the prisoners go free. Hallelujah! Death is swallowed up in victory! If that is not a good story, I don’t know what is.
There are other objections that I could have addressed but these are the most common. One thing that struck me as I was doing research on this topic was that among those who rejected penal substitution, there was almost no one who said that this doctrine can not be supported by Scripture. Rather, their objection and rejection of the doctrine boiled down to some form of “I don’t like it”. It saddens me to see so many people overtly allowing their likes and dislikes to determine their beliefs rather than being a faithful student of the Scriptures and embracing all that it teaches. It is in plumbing the depths of Scripture and seeking to grasp all its truths, even those we might consider hard truths, that we find we will be transformed by what we learn. If we stay in the shallows of our own natural preferences, we will never discover the pearls that await us in the unfathomable depths of His richness. Those that allow their lives to be shaped by the hard edges of truth will find that they are being sculpted by the hands of the Master Potter into the very likeness of Christ.