What is penal substitutionary atonement? It is a wonderful and practical doctrine because it answers the question, "Why did Jesus die?" or "What did the death of Jesus accomplish?"
If we break down the words "penal substitutionary atonement" we get a helpful look at what this doctrine is all about. First, we have "penal" or "penalty." In the very beginning, God gave our forefather Adam the command to obey him. Because God is good, just, and holy, his commands are good, just, and holy. If you disobey his commands, he tells Adam, "You will surely die," indicating that the penalty of sin is death, both spiritual and physical. Adam and every other man after him have sinned against God; we have rebelled. According to the just judicial system that God has created we stand guilty and deserve death. In God's mercy, he created a sacrificial system to indicate a substitute. In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system was brought upon by animals. These animals would serve as sacrifices to demonstrate that our sins deserve death. They served not as a full atonement of our sins but showed us that our sins could be paid for by a substitute. However, animals could never fully satisfy the penalty our sins demanded. In God's mercy, God tells us that he is going to send a servant to be a substitute. Isaiah 53 tells us that this servant is going to come and that he would be pierced for our transgressions, that he would be crushed for our iniquities, that the Lord would lay on him the iniquities of us all. Demonstrating that our sins would be paid for by another, our sins would be crushed by someone else being a substitute in our place, not an animal but a person. Now who is this person? It is the God-man Jesus Christ who Paul describes that for our sake, he made him to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). So when Jesus was going to the cross, he was going there to be a sacrificial substitute for our sins. He would take on the very penalty that our sins deserve. Jesus was killed on the cross, bearing the whole wrath of God to satisfy God's rightful punishment against sin. This brings us to "atonement". When Jesus went to the cross, he was atoning for sins; he satisfied what was the due penalty for our sins. Our atonement is satisfied by Christ's substitute for our penalty. Thus "penal substitutionary atonement." This great doctrine shows us why Jesus died, why he went to the cross, and, just as important, what did that death on the cross accomplish? It accomplished our atonement, Christian. It accomplished the atonement for any person who would place their faith and trust in Christ. Because we could never save ourselves, we could never be a perfect substitute, we could never be a perfect sacrifice, but there was one person who could — the God-man Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for the iniquity of us all.
Luke Wartgow (MTS, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; BA, University of Nevada-Reno) is a pastor at Carson Valley Bible Church in Minden, NV. He is husband to Gina and father of three.
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