The concept of penal substitution has been the orthodox view of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross from the beginning. However, it periodically comes under attack. It is under attack now
What is penal substitution? It is the idea that Christ’s sacrifice, his sacrificial death on the cross, was offered in payment for our sin. The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) Christ died in our place, so that we would not die but live eternally
The New Testament teaches us this doctrine.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)
When the New Testament says “Christ died for us”, it means “in our place” or “as our substitute”. This is not mysterious language: we use it today. A wife might say she was supposed to do some onerous task, but her husband did it for her. She meant he did it in her place. Someone else might say I was supposed to be in that meeting, but someone else attended for me. That means the person appeared as a substitute for the one who was supposed to attend the meeting.
Paul included this concept in his definition of the Gospel. He wrote: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins…” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
John taught this doctrine as well. He wrote: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” (1 John 3:16)
We have memorialized this doctrine in our music as well. For example, in the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross”, written by George Bennard, the first stanza says “and I love that old cross where the dearest and best (Jesus) for a world of lost sinners was slain”.
Although it uses metaphor, William Cowper’s hymn “There is a Fountain” carries the same message. It says “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
It is important that we defend and maintain this important doctrine. If Jesus was willing to bear the suffering of the cross, bearing the penalty of our sin, we should not let anyone belittle or deny penal substitution without our vigorous protest and defense.