Penal-substitution is the word that theologians use to succinctly define how God accomplished atonement for guilty sinners so that He could issue what is known as a principled pardon – one that upholds justice. The Bible clearly teaches penal-substitution as the only remedy for the dilemma of how a holy God can pardon sinners and remain just in the process. However, the opponents of penal-substitution declare that it is unjust and that the Gospel of penal-substitution is immoral and illogical.
This means that those who oppose and reject penal-substitution do so on the basis of its supposed foolishness. This is precisely the biblical record for those who oppose the Gospel – “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24).
However, as is evident from the biblical record and from sound reasoning, the Gospel of penal-substitution is both the power of God and the wisdom of God. It is the supposed superior morality and intelligence of the opponents of the Gospel that causes them to view the Gospel as foolishness. They do this to their own destruction and shame. All throughout their arguments, the opponents of penal-substitution violate the principles of sound logic (they are not so wise after all), confuse categories, and exalt their sense of morality as higher than that of God Himself.
So, is penal-substitution fact or fiction? Is it immoral and illogical or is it the highest expression of both morality and logic? In order to establish the morality and logic of penal-substitution we will look at both sides of the argument and see who is in violation of sound logic and who is exalting a superior sense of morality.
First, we need to deal with penal-substitution as the only law-upholding basis for the justification of capital offenders (sinners). When a person has committed a capital offense the law-upholding penalty is capital punishment. Any court that fails to uphold capital punishment for criminals that are capital offenders is unjust. Justice has not been served if a capital offender goes free without the law-upholding penalty of capital punishment being carried out. The court would be unjust and the law against capital crimes would be useless.
So we must ask and answer the question of how can a court justify capital offenders and remain just in the process. If the court declares the guilty, “innocent”, then that is fiction. If the court pardons the guilty without the penalty of the law being upheld then that is injustice and an unprincipled pardon. If the court executes an innocent man in the place of the guilty man then the court is guilty of the highest form of injustice (this is precisely what Pilate did when he released Barabbas and had Jesus crucified – Matthew 27:26).
Now it would have been something altogether different if Pilate and Jesus had entered into a mutual agreement where Jesus was willing to take the place of Barabbas and die in his place and Pilate had the power to raise men from the dead. If that were the case then Pilate could have executed Jesus in the place of Barabbas and then he could have raised Jesus from the dead which would have justified Barabbas, provided proof of the justness of Jesus, and maintained the justness of Pilate. But Pilate did not have and no court on earth has the power to raise men from the dead so the possibility of penal-substitution as a means of justifying capital offenders while maintaining the justness of the court does not exist among men.
So with men, justifying capital offenders is an impossibility; but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:25-26). There was a mutual agreement between Jesus Christ and God the Father where Jesus would live a sinless life under the Law; die a sacrificial death in fulfillment of the Law; and experience a supernatural resurrection so that God could be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
The common objections by the opponents of penal-substitution always fail to take into account the absolute necessity of the power to raise men from the dead in order for penal-substitution to be a moral and logical means of justifying capital offenders. When this happens then immediately categories have been confused and all sorts of unfounded objections arise which have no correlation to the subject at hand.
For instance, penal-substitution is declared to be a legal fiction by its opponents because they fail to take into account God’s legal transaction of transferring debt and payment of debt from one account to another. If a debt is actually paid by another who didn’t owe the debt then there is no fiction whatsoever as to the declaration of paid in full where the payment for the debt is credited to the account of the one who didn’t pay it. So if there has been a legal transaction by which an innocent party pays in full the debt owed on behalf of the guilty party, the declaration of justified isn’t legal fiction but is indeed legal fact!
This means that the certificate of debt that consisted of decrees of punishment against the capital offender has been cancelled and taken out of the way by a willing and able substitute that paid the debt (Colossians 2:13-14). There is now therefore no condemnation for the capital offender whose debt has been paid by another (Romans 8:1).
Does this mean that the capital offender can now commit as many crimes as he wishes? Absolutely not! His love for the One who paid his debt by dying in his place and being raised from the dead will move him to no longer live for himself but for the one who died for him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). So God’s declaration of justification on the basis of faith in Christ is not only a legal fact of righteousness; it is also the beginning of the process by which the guilty sinner’s righteousness is becoming a literal fact. This is known as sanctification where the forgiven man’s actions are transformed into righteous acts by his love for and obedience to the One who died and rose again on his behalf. The life that the forgiven man now lives, he lives by trusting and obeying the One who loved him and gave Himself up for him (Galatians 2:20).
Also, penal-substitution is declared to be immoral because its opponents say that the innocent cannot die for the guilty. Says who? Again this would be immoral only if the innocent man wasn’t raised from the dead and thereby righteously and justly vindicated. Again this view falls short because it fails to take into consideration that God can do this without it being immoral precisely because He has the ability to raise men from the dead. The opponents of penal-substitution exalt their own morality above that of God.
From there the argument goes to penal-substitution being contrary to every known system of justice in the world. Duh! I guess so! No court on earth has the power to raise men from the dead and so even if an innocent man were willing to die in the place of a guilty capital offender, the court still couldn’t carry out the transaction in such a manner as to be just. And not only that, finding an innocent man willing to die for capital offenders isn’t going to happen in this world because this world doesn’t have that kind of love. The love that God bestows on undeserving sinners is an out of this world kind of love. Penal-substitution is the highest expression of love that can or ever will be demonstrated (Romans 5:6-8).
Penal-substitution is the only law-upholding, mercy-giving, and principled-pardon that a holy God can offer and still maintain His righteousness and His justice.