No, but it is a biblical one.
Penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners (more specifically, the elect) and bore the punishment that should have been ours in order to appease the wrath of God, is an idea that has fallen on hard times, particularly within the heady realms of academic theology. To get a flavor for penal substitutionary atonement, here's a helpful bit from Martin Luther's lectures of 1535 on Galatians:
Gal. 3:13. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.
Paul guarded his words carefully and spoke precisely. And here again a distinction must be made; Paul’s words clearly show this. For he does not say that Christ became a curse on His own account, but that He became a curse “for us.” Thus the whole emphasis is on the phrase “for us.” For Christ is innocent so far as His own Person is concerned; therefore He should not have been hanged from the tree. But because, according to the Law, every thief should have been hanged, therefore, according to the Law of Moses, Christ Himself should have been hanged; for He bore the person of a sinner and a thief—and not of one but of all sinners and thieves. For we are sinners and thieves, and therefore we are worthy of death and eternal damnation. But Christ took all our sins upon Himself, and for them He died on the cross. Therefore it was appropriate for Him to become a thief and, as Isaiah says (53:12), to be “numbered among the thieves.”
In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body—not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins,. committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood. Therefore this general Law of Moses included Him, although He was innocent so far as His own Person was concerned; for it found Him among sinners and thieves. Thus a magistrate regards someone as a criminal and punishes him if he catches him among thieves, even though the man V 26, p 278 has never committed anything evil or worthy of death. Christ was not only found among sinners; but of His own free will and by the will of the Father He wanted to be an associate of sinners, having assumed the flesh and blood of those who were sinners and thieves and who were immersed in all sorts of sin. Therefore when the Law found Him among thieves, it condemned and executed Him as a thief.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 276–278.
The idea currently fashionable as an understanding of Christ's death -- that it was a representative act in which believers participate -- has become an uncontroversial axiom in biblical scholarship and Christian theology. But the idea of penal substitutionary atonement has become highly contested. In other words, that Christ died in our place, instead of us to satisfy the wrath of God has been hotly debated in the academic realm (though surprisingly not as much in the church, though liberal Protestants have paid more attention to this than others and some have eliminated hymns accordingly).
The Australian churchman Peter Carnley once wrote that the idea of Christ dying in our place is not part of the orthodox Christian faith. This view of the cross, he argued, leads to a picture of God "of a morally repugnant kind, whose Son becomes the hapless victim of his Father's righteous anger."
British thinker Steve Chalke emphasizes the point that the death of Christ has to do with a form of "cosmic child abuse" where God "suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son."
We have good reasons to reject such statements!
First, such theological criticisms neglect the obvious fact that the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the self-substitution of God.
Second, and in line with the first point above, Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice in line with His own will. To give two examples from the letter to the Galatians, the Son "gave himself for our sins" and "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 1:4; 2:20).
Third, and admittedly more subjective, is that argument that it is all very well and good to caricature penal atonement theory as cruel, violent, and unjust but this is not how millions and millions of Christians throughout church history have understood it. The message of penal substitutionary atonement has brought hope, forgiveness, peace of mind and heart, and power for living to multitudes of ordinary men and women.
Further, let us consider the biblical backgrounds and textual support for the doctrine (in as brief a way as possible):
The Old Testament Sacrificial System
Christ’s atoning death must also be seen against the background of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Before Christ’s atoning death it was necessary for sacrifices to be regularly offered to compensate for the sins that had been committed. These sacrifices were necessary, not to work a reformation in the sinner nor to deter the sinner or others from committing further sin, but to atone for the sin, which inherently deserved punishment. There had been offense against God’s law and hence against God himself, and this had to be set right.
The Hebrew word most commonly used in the Old Testament for the various types of atonement is כָּפַר (kaphar) and its derivatives. The word literally means “to cover.” One was delivered from punishment by the interposing of something between one’s sin and God. God then saw the atoning sacrifice rather than the sin. The covering of the sin meant that the penalty no longer had to be exacted from the sinner.
It should be noted that the sacrifice had an objective effect. Sacrifices were offered to appease God. Job’s friends, for example, were instructed to bring sacrifice so that God would not deal with them according to their folly. God had been angered by the fact that they had not spoken of him what is right (Job 42:8). Further, a sacrifice was offered as a substitute for the sinner. It bore the sinner’s guilt. For the sacrifice to be effective, there had to be some connection, some point of commonality, between the victim and the sinner for whom it was offered.
Several other factors were necessary for the sacrifice to accomplish its intended effect. The sacrificial animal had to be spotless, without blemish. The one for whom atonement was being made had to present the animal and lay his hands on it: “he must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.… He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him” (Lev. 1:3–4). This bringing of the animal and laying on of hands constituted a confession of guilt on the part of the sinner. The laying on of hands symbolized a transfer of the guilt from the sinner to the victim. Then the offering or sacrifice was accepted by the priest.
While the legal portions of the Old Testament typify with considerable clarity the sacrificial and substitutionary character of Christ’s death, the prophetic passages go even further. They establish the connection between the Old Testament sacrifices and Christ’s death. Isaiah 53 is the clearest of all. Having described the person of the Messiah and indicated the nature and extent of the iniquity of sinners, the prophet makes an allusion to Christ’s sacrifice: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). The iniquity of sinners is transferred to the suffering servant, just as in the Old Testament rites the sins were transferred to the sacrificial animal. The laying on of hands was an anticipation of the believer’s active acceptance of Christ’s atoning work.
The New Testament Teaching
The New Testament is much more detailed on the subject of Christ’s atonement. Consider first our Lord’s own testimony regarding the nature and purpose of his death. Although Jesus did not have a great deal to say about this death during the first part of his ministry, toward the end he began to speak about it quite explicitly and clearly. These teachings were not elicited by chance questions from Jesus’ disciples or challenges by his enemies, but were delivered purposely, at his own initiative.
Jesus had a profound sense that the Father had sent him to do the Father’s work. He declares in John 10:36 that the Father had sent him into the world. In John 6:38 he says, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” The apostle John expressly relates the sending by the Father to the Son’s redemptive and atoning work: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). The purpose of the coming was atonement, and the Father was involved in that work. The point in stressing that the Son was sent by the Father is to make it clear that the Son’s work is not independent of, or in contrast to, what the Father does. Nor was the death of Christ a punishment administered by an impassive judge on an innocent third party. The Father was personally involved, for the penalty fell on his own Son, whom he had voluntarily sent and who had voluntarily gone.
Jesus had a powerful conviction that his life and death constituted a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. In particular, he interpreted his own life and death as a clear fulfillment of Isaiah 53. At the Last Supper he said, “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37). He was citing Isaiah 53:12, thus identifying himself as the suffering servant. His frequent references to his suffering make it clear that he saw his death as the primary reason for his having come. He plainly told his disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the religious authorities, and be killed (Mark 8:31). Even early in his ministry he alluded to his suffering by speaking of the time when the bridegroom would be taken away (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19–20). And indeed, upon descending from the mount of transfiguration, at one of the high points in his ministry, he said, “In the same way [like Elijah] the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matt. 17:12).
Jesus saw his death as constituting a ransom. Without specifying to whom the ransom was to be paid, or from whose control the enslaved were to be freed, Jesus indicated that his giving of his life was to be the means by which many would be freed from bondage (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The word λύτρον (lutron—“ransom”) with its cognates is used nearly 140 times in the Septuagint, usually with the thought of deliverance from some sort of bondage in exchange for the payment of compensation or the offering of a substitute.
Christ also saw himself as our substitute. This concept is particularly prominent in the Gospel of John. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He was, of course, stating a principle of broad application; he was commending to his disciples that they show to one another such love as he had shown them. But inasmuch as he was speaking on the eve of his crucifixion, there can be little doubt of what was on his mind. Certainly he was thinking of the substitutionary death that he was soon to undergo.
There are other indications that Jesus saw himself in the role of a sacrifice. He said in his great high priestly prayer: “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:19). The verb here is ἁγιάζω (hagiazō), a term common in sacrificial contexts. C. K. Barrett says, “The language is equally appropriate to the preparation of a priest and the preparation of a sacrifice; it is therefore doubly appropriate to Christ.”
John the Baptist’s statement at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry carries similar connotations—“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The apostle John also records Caiaphas’s sneering remark to the Sanhedrin: “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:49–50). The point of interest is not the attitude of Caiaphas, but the deep truth Caiaphas had unknowingly spoken. Jesus would die not merely in the place of the nation, but of the entire world. It is noteworthy that John calls attention to this remark of Caiaphas a second time (18:14).
Jesus had a profound sense that he was the source and giver of true life. He says in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” The giving of eternal life is here linked to both the Father and the Son. We can receive this life through an especially close relationship to the Son, which he also symbolically referred to as eating his flesh.” In John 6 he speaks of “the true bread” (v. 32), “the bread of life” (vv. 35, 48), “the bread that comes down from heaven” (v. 50). He then makes clear what he has been talking about: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (v. 51). To have eternal life, we must eat his flesh and drink his blood (vv. 52–58). Jesus saw a definite connection between our having life and his giving his life for us.
To sum up what Jesus and the Gospel writers said about his death: Jesus saw a close identification between himself and his Father. He spoke regularly of the Father’s having sent him. He and the Father are one, and so the work that the Son did was also the work of the Father. Jesus came for the purpose of giving his life as a ransom, a means of liberating those people who were enslaved to sin. He offered himself as a substitute for them. Paradoxically, his death gives life; we obtain it by taking him into ourselves. His death was a sacrifice typified by the Old Testament sacrificial system. These various motifs are vital elements in our construction of the doctrine of the atonement.
The Pauline Writings
When we turn to Paul’s writings, we find a rich collection of teaching on the atonement, teaching that conforms with what the Gospels say on the subject. Paul also identifies and equates Jesus’ love and working with that of the Father. Numerous texts can be cited: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19); “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man” (Rom. 8:3); “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Thus, like the Gospel writers and Jesus himself, Paul does not view the atonement as something Jesus did independently of the Father; it is the work of both. Furthermore, what Paul says of the Father’s love, he also says of the Son’s: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14); “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2). The love of the Father and that of the Son are interchangeable. George Ladd comments: “The idea that the cross expresses the love of Christ for us while he wrings atonement from a stern and unwilling Father, perfectly just, but perfectly inflexible, is a perversion of New Testament theology.”
Having said this, however, we must note that the theme of divine wrath on sin is also prominent in Paul. It is important to realize, for example, that Romans 3:21–26, a passage about the redemption God has provided in Jesus Christ, is the culmination of a process of reasoning that began with the pronouncement of God’s wrath against sin: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). God’s holiness requires that there be atonement if the condemned condition of sinners is to be overcome. The love of God provides that atonement.
Paul frequently thought of and referred to the death of Christ as a sacrifice. In Ephesians 5:2 he describes it as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In 1 Corinthians 5:7 he writes, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” His numerous references to Christ’s blood also suggest a sacrifice: there was “a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25); “we have now been justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9); “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7); we “have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13); he has reconciled to himself all things, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20). Ladd has pointed out, however, that there was very little actual shedding of Christ’s blood as such. While there was a loss of blood when the crown of thorns was put on his head and when the nails were driven into his flesh, it was not until after he had died that blood (mixed with water) gushed forth (John 19:34). So the references to Christ’s blood are not to his actual physical blood per se, but to his death as a sacrificial provision for our sins.
The apostle Paul also maintains that Christ died for us or on our behalf. God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32); “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2); Christ became a “curse for us” (Gal. 3:13); he “died for us” (1 Thess. 5:10). Later in this chapter we will inquire whether Christ’s death was merely for our sakes, that is, on our behalf, or actually substitutionary, that is, in our place.
Finally, Paul regards Christ death as propitiatory, that is, Christ died to appease God’s wrath against sin. In fact, there are passages in Paul’s writings that cannot be satisfactorily interpreted if we deny that God’s wrath needed to be appeased. This is particularly true of Romans 3:25–26. In the past, God had left sins unpunished. He could conceivably be accused of overlooking sin since he had not required punishment for it. Now, however, he has put forth Jesus as ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion). This proves both that God is just (his wrath required the sacrifice) and that he is the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (his love provided the sacrifice for them).
The numerous passages that speak of the wrath (ὀργή—orgē) of God against sin are evidence that Christ’s death was necessarily propitiatory: Romans 1:18; 2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4–5; Ephesians 2:3; 5:6; Colossians 3:6; and 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9. So then, Paul’s idea of the atoning death (Christ as ἱλαστήριον—hilasterion) is not simply that it covers sin and cleanses from its corruption (expiation), but that the sacrifice also appeases a God who hates sin and is radically opposed to it (propitiation).
There is of course much more that could be said, but let me close with this: the implications of substitutionary atonement. The penal substitutionary theory of the atoning death of Christ, when grasped in all its complexity, is a rich and meaningful truth. It carries several major implications for our understanding of salvation:
1. The penal-substitution theory confirms the biblical teaching of the total depravity of all humans. God would not have gone so far as to put his precious Son to death had it not been absolutely necessary. Humans are totally unable to meet their own need.
2. God’s nature is not one-sided, nor is there any tension between its different aspects. He is not merely righteous and demanding, nor merely loving and giving. He is righteous, so much so that sacrifice for sin had to be provided. He is loving, so much so that he provided that sacrifice himself.
3. There is no other way of salvation but by grace, and specifically, the death of Christ. It has an infinite value and thus covers the sins of all humankind for all time. A finite sacrifice, by contrast, cannot even fully cover the sins of the individual offering it.
4. There is security for the believer in his or her relationship to God. For the basis of the relationship, Christ’s sacrificial death, is complete and permanent. Although our feelings might change, the ground of our relationship to God remains unshaken.
5. We must never take lightly the salvation we have. Although it is free, it is also costly, for it cost God the ultimate sacrifice. We must therefore always be grateful for what he has done; we must love him in return and emulate his giving character.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).