The Problems with Reformed Theology’s Penal Substitution Teaching


Discussing theology with our Protestant brothers and sisters is often interesting, but it can also be quite frustrating.

For instance, many Protestants, particularly those from the Reformed traditions, passionately and firmly hold to the doctrine of penal substitution. This doctrine holds that, on the cross, Jesus was taking the place of all of mankind and was punished by God the Father. In so doing He endured the wrath and punishment we deserve because of our sins.

Reformed vs. Catholic Theology

Of course, as Catholics, while we hold that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, we do agree that it was substitutionary. But we firmly reject the idea of penal substitution. Since Jesus is God and God is perfect, how can God punish God? And assuming Jesus could somehow separate Himself from God, why would God punish a holy and pure being for our sins? Such an idea is entirely incompatible with our understanding of God.

In dialogue with Protestant friends, I have found that the essential elements in their belief in penal substitution seem to be that due to God’s wrath and perfect justice, Jesus had to be punished in order for us to be forgiven – there was no other option. But this doctrine is based on misunderstandings of the Incarnation, God’s “wrath,” and God’s perfect justice.

Why have you forsaken me?

When Jesus is on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). Those holding the doctrine of penal substitution, claim this shows that God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross and the relationship between God the Father and God the Son was severed. Additionally, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21, they believe Jesus literally took on our sins. Referencing Romans 1:18, they say that God’s wrath was poured out onto Jesus. So at this moment on the cross, Jesus is taking our place and enduring the punishment we deserve for our sins.

But if we examine our understanding of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, we can see that this view of penal substitution is incompatible with these doctrines.

In Light of the Trinity and the Incarnation

First of all, God has revealed that He is a Triune God. The three Divine Persons of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each Divine Person is distinct but not separate. Each divine person fully possesses the divine nature with the only difference being the relationship of the Persons. In the Godhead, these three Persons have no beginning and no end, and they are in eternal communion with each other.

In the Incarnation, God the Son, the Second Divine Person, while still fully possessing a divine nature, united himself to a human nature. This hypostatic union is real and not merely accidental. The two natures in Christ are distinct without commingling and Jesus’ divinity remained unchanged. Jesus was not simply a man with the indwelling of God but was both true God and true man.

Both Human and Divine

Therefore, when Jesus walked the shore of Galilee, spoke to the Apostles and was scourged at the pillar, it was God the Son who did these things. These experiences were possible because of his human nature. And when Jesus gave sight to the blind, calmed the storms and raised the dead, it was God the Son who did these things, because while having a human nature, He was still God the Son who fully possessed the divine nature. And when Jesus died on the cross, the Second Divine Person suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh.

So the Passion was endured by God the Son on account of the human nature He assumed while His divine nature remained unchanged. (See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 46, a. 12.)

With the doctrine of penal substitution, however, it is held that God the Father ruptured His relationship with God the Son on the cross in order to punish Jesus. But this element of the doctrine is contrary to the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. If it were possible for God the Son to be separated from God the Father, even for a moment, then he would not and could not be God.

Did Jesus literally take on our sins?

When we acknowledge that Jesus is God the Son, we also must reject any interpretation of Scripture that suggests that Jesus literally took all our sins onto himself. We can confidently do this because of the nature of sin.

Simply put, sin is an offense against God. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God to varying degrees. By committing grave sins, we completely sever our relationship with God. We are no longer in communion with God.

If Jesus literally took on all our mortal sins, we would have a situation where Jesus would be at enmity with God. But, as already pointed out, this is not possible because Jesus is God the Son.

Acknowledging what we know about the Triune God, the Incarnation, and sin, we must then examine Scriptures in their entirety along with all the revealed doctrines. Looking at Scriptures in their entirety requires us to reject any interpretations suggesting God the Son in any way lost communion with God the Father or was at enmity with the Father.

How is God’s wrath satisfied?

Protestants will often ask, however, if Catholics do not hold that God the Father poured out the wrath we deserve onto Jesus, then how is God’s wrath satisfied? They will also point to numerous texts in the New Testament referring to God’s wrath, such as John 3:36; Romans 1:18 and 12:19; and Ephesians 5:6.  But the key to understanding is in properly interpreting what Scripture is teaching us.

Anger (wrath) is a passion within human beings. God, however, is immutable and impassible. He does not have feelings as we know them. Nor does He experience passions. God also does not have a temper. And our sins do not provoke revenge in God. God is infinitely perfect, merciful, loving and just in all he does, so we must see what we call His anger in light of this truth.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, tells us that at times Scripture speaks of things in reference to God metaphorically. This is seen particularly when certain human passions are predicated of the Godhead. Aquinas says:

Hence a thing that is in us a sign of some passion, is signified metaphorically in God under the name of that passion. Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore, punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God.

In order to help us better understand God, Scripture uses metaphors, but we must take care to not hold that God can change, or that our actions cause emotions or passions to flare up in God.

Punishment as an expression of Wrath

Even though God does not experience the passion of anger, we say that we experience the consequences of sin as expressions of His “wrath.” But this must be understood metaphorically. When we sin, we rebel against God and turn away from him. God allows us to endure the consequences in this life and in the next. Those consequences include disorder, disharmony, pain, suffering and physical death. But these consequences/punishments are not the result of God actively willing torments. Rather, because of His love for us, God has given us a free will to make choices. If we choose to separate ourselves from Him who is Goodness itself and Love itself, then the inevitable outcome will be that we deprive ourselves of His goodness and love.

Another way of understanding “God’s wrath” is to recognize that our disobedience and rebellion do not causes any change in God by nature of who He is. Rather, we are changed by sin. If we reject God’s love and rebel, our hearts are hardened. Lacking God’s love, one will be tormented by the thought of God’s judgment and, as a result, will experience “God’s wrath.” But in both scenarios, what has changed is not God but us.

God’s Justice

The final point to keep in mind in regard to God’s nature is related to His perfect justice. Those holding to the doctrine of penal substitution believe that since the consequences of our sins are suffering, death and the pains of hell, justice requires Jesus to take our place and experiences these consequences for salvation to be possible.

But as posited earlier, how can God punish Jesus Christ who is completely innocent? It is also impossible to hold that God the Son could literally become a sinner in enmity with God. And it is at odds with justice that Jesus, perfectly pure, holy and innocent, would have to be tortured and crucified as punishment for what He did not do.

Christ’s Sacrificial Offering of Love

Jesus’ entire life was one of love, obedience and self-emptying (Philippians 2:8). He accepted his death on the cross freely, willing laying down his life for each one of us in love. Because of the Incarnation, God the Son performs a human act – one of freely offering Himself and sacrificing His life. He does this in our place.  And being God, his offering is one of infinite value. This act of humility, obedience and love was pleasing to God. And Christ’s sacrifice was of infinite merit for us.

As Aquinas writes:

. . . by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which he suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of his life which he laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion and the greatness of the grief endured…And therefore, Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race…” (Summa, III, 48, a. 2).

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

12 thoughts on “The Problems with Reformed Theology’s Penal Substitution Teaching”

  1. For those interested-
    There has been a question by someone linking to this article disputing my statement that there are no passions in God. This is not a novel teaching on my part. St. Thomas Aquinas (as well as others) held that there are no passions in God since God is immutable. This is a complex topic but you can read a quote from Aquinas where he says “there are no passions in God” in Summa Contra Gentiles (Book I, chapter 89)

    Aquinas also states in this same document that joy and love are in God and though passions in us “do not befit God as passions.”
    Read book I, chapters 90-91 in the same link above.

  2. Pingback: Gods Emotions

  3. Pingback: The Atonement – Isaiah 53

  4. Thanks for a fine article. It is a great consolation to be reminded that Christ’s sacrifice, which we witness before our very eyes at Mass, is a “Superabundant” atonement for all the sins of all men of all time. Our bloody sins are made as white as snow through the mercy of God.

  5. Franklin P. Uroda

    Perhaps the Protestant theologians have taken a lot of their assertions from the descriptions and implications of Isaiah 53.

  6. Thanks Allison for this outstanding piece on a topic that has confused me ever since returning to the Church in 2005 after 35 years as an evangelical Protestant. It is important for lots of reasons, not the least being the heretical idea of limited atonement. Further, I have heard some say that “God died” for our sins. Not the case. The human Jesus died, not the 2nd person of the Trinity. Nor did he go to hell. And yet mysteriously he suffered as if he did. Penal substitution does no justice to the paradox of God’s holiness and mercy here, both poured out on the redeemed through baptism. And to correct another post, it is there that the Holy Spirit came to be within us and then strengthened through the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist. Anything else is less than Catholic thinking. Last, I would share a link to an article I found that further illuminates your points so well. It is not written by Catholic Stand and should not be construed as such, but confirms your research and understanding of Catholic theology on this matter.
    We have so much more than penal substitution through the atonement. It only muddies the waters of salvation.

    1. Richard –
      Thank you for your comments. Firstly, as to the link you provided, I do not know the author but I have used him in the past and have found his articles to be a very good resource on penal substitution. (And he has quite a few articles that address this.) Another good resource is Dr. David Anders – search his name plus atonement and I have found a good article on his site and a different article on his other site

      I will make one comment on your post. We can say “God died.” However, we must understand what is meant by this. Jesus is the Second Divine Person become incarnate which means that God the Son with a divine nature united himself to a human nature. Jesus = 1 Divine Person, 2 natures. [To explain the concept of “person” I like to give the analogy of an “operator” and to understand “nature”, I like to explain this as the “operations” possible.] With Jesus, there is one operator and two operations possible. And with Jesus, we must take care in our expressions because we cannot say the human Jesus did this one thing and the divine Jesus did this other thing as this is similar to the heresy of Nestorianism. Nestorius argued that Mary gave birth to Christ but not to God and so the Church declared this an error stating there are not two persons in Jesus but only one and Mary gave birth to God [she is truly theotokos – the God-bearer].

      So when we say Jesus walked the shores of Galilee, spoke and ate, it was God who did these things – possible because of his human nature. When we say that in Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus walked on water, exorcised demons and raised the dead, it was God who did these things – possible because of his divine nature. When we say Jesus experienced pain, suffering and anguish, it was God who did these things – again possible because of his human nature.

      So then with death, death is the separation of the human body from the human soul. Because Jesus had a human nature (with a human body and human soul), in the Creed we say Jesus suffered, DIED and was buried. So we can and do say God died. BUT this does NOT at all mean that the Divine Person with his divine nature was at all changed (he remained impassible and eternal). He died on account of his human nature with no change to his divinity.
      Thomas Aquinas discusses this in his Summa. Part III, question 46, article 12:

      Christology is difficult to explain in a small comment box but hopefully this helps.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: