The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 7): The PSA Model

Sacrificial Lamb better“Conditions that are both necessary and sufficient are rare, and therefore deserve our attention.” It was a comment that struck me and has stuck with me. I have for months now been wrestling with the idea that there is a singular “heart” to the doctrine of the atonement. Within the theological circles in which I run it has long been argued that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model is at the very heart of the atonement. What this has often amounted to is either downplaying or completely ignoring other models. I have tried to argue throughout this series that when we look at the atonement like a beautiful jewel we can see its glory from a myriad of angles. Thus, we need to embrace all the models that have a thorough Biblical support. But as I have thought about this particular phrase regarding conditions that are “necessary and sufficient,” I have come back to embrace the PSA model as the “heart” of the atonement. While all the models are important, the penal substitutionary model of the atonement is the only one that is both necessary and sufficient, and thus it may be rightly called the “heart” of the atonement.

It’s best that we start by defining precisely the PSA model. There are three terms that make up this model and help clarify its distinct qualities: Penal, Substitution, and Atonement. Penal deals with the issue of punishment for offenders under a legal system. Substitute, obviously, refers to one who takes the place of another. Atonement refers to the reparation for wrong, it is used in theological language to refer to the reconciliation of God and man. So the PSA model is a form of vicarious punishment. To use the language of Scripture we can say that Jesus is a “propitiation” for us.

Propitiation refers to the removal of wrath. The concept is found throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament it lies underneath the prescribed rituals for sin offerings, and guilt offerings, and particularly the Day of Atonement. We see it very vividly in Numbers 16:41-50. In the New Testament the term is found only four times (Rom. 3:21-26; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:1-2; and 1 John 4:8-10), but again it is part of the larger structure of much of the New Testament’s language of the cross and of atonement. I won’t here embark on a full defense of PSA. It is hotly contested and debated in modern theological discussions, but there are plenty of available resources that have, I believe, thoroughly defended the doctrine as indeed Biblical (see, John Stott, The Cross of Christ; J.I. Packer, “The Logic of Penal Substitution;” and Steve Jeffery, et. al. , Pierced For Our Transgressions, to name a few).  Ultimately the point of Penal Substitution is that God himself rescues us from His own wrath. Jesus takes the wrath of God in our place. That’s what Paul means when he writes about such things in Romans 3:21-26:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Paul is clearly communicating that Jesus pacifies the wrath of God in our place. When we read this passage within its context that point is more clearly seen. So in Romans chapter 1 Paul argues that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). He goes on to describe the present out working of that wrath in our world, talking about God “hardening hearts” and “giving them up” to their sinful desires (vv. 24-26, 28). In chapter two he warns his readers of the certainty of a day of judgment that is coming (v. 1-16). He applies this to all men, Jews and Greeks, in the fist part of chapter 3. But now, peace and pardon are ours because of the “propitiation” of Christ. Those who were “wicked” (4:5) and “God’s enemies” (5:9) have been “justified by his blood,” and will be “saved from the wrath of God through him” (5:9).

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is important because it assures us of two important things: (1) God is just, and (2) sinners can be right with Him. We see the justice of God clearly on display here in that he does not allow sin to go unpunished. Yes, plenty of people have suggested that it is not in fact just to punish an innocent party for the offenses of another. I cannot explain that justice, but in God’s economy he has long-held the possibility of substitution for offenses (the sacrifices of the temple being one evident example). The point being, however, that sin is punished! But we also see here that because Christ takes our punishment for us we are offered a clean slate, we are made right with God through Christ’s death on the cross. These are truths we cannot do without, and in fact they lie underneath all the other models of the atonement.

Many years ago French theologian Roger Nicole described the import of the PSA model by showing the shallowness of each other model apart from it. So he argued that, (1) Christus victor is not much of a victory, if Christ has not paid the penalty of sin. (2) Christ’s example is only an example of suicide, if it is not also penal and substitutionary. (3) Christ’s death does not demonstrate the inviolability of God’s government if the penalty of sin remains unpaid, etc. etc. No view apart from Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice is sufficient, and PSA is necessary for every other model to effectively achieve what it claims. Thus, we come back to that important quote from my friend, “Conditions that are both necessary and sufficient are rare, and therefore deserve our attention.”

There is much, much more that we can say about PSA. Much more has been said, and by more competent and brilliant theologians than myself. Yet, this simple equation has convinced me that I can’t separate PSA out from all the other models. It, in fact, must be at the heart of the atonement for the atonement to achieve any of the myriads of benefits it does for those who are children of God. So while I don’t particularly like the diminished importance placed on the other views, I concede that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is in fact the heart of Bible’s doctrine of the atonement.


  1. PSA does not satisfy the criteria of “necessary and sufficient.” Even if God never responded to sin in wrath, Jesus would still need to die on the cross and rise from the dead to rescue humans from sin. For even if God never lifted a finger to punish sin, sin itself would still destroy sinners. To deny that is to deny the seriousness of sin. I am not arguing that God does not actively punish sin, clearly He does, I am arguing that God’s wrath was not the reason Jesus died on the cross, and therefore PSA mislocates the central problem of sin.

    So why does Jesus need to die on the cross and rise from the dead? I think it is a matter of justice, but penal substitution advocates have focused on the wrong priority of justice. In the Bible, justice requires both retribution for the guilty (that the sinner’s own sin return upon the sinner’s own head, Lev 24:17-22) but also restitution for the innocent (that innocent parties receive reparations for damages they have suffered, see Num 5:6). If we construct our atonement logic on the principle of restitution rather than retribution, we get a model that better represents what is going on in the Scriptures: Justice requires restitution for damages done to innocent parties. Humans have totally and severely destroyed themselves by their own sin (God is not the victim of our sin, and it is a low view of God that claims He is. In the case of sin against God, the offense is to the destruction of the offender, like punching a brick wall). God desires to enact restitution for humanity’s self-destruction, but humans are not innocent, they are guilty, so how can a just God enact restitution for guilty sinners? Answer: God becomes a human in the person of Jesus Christ and willingly suffers all of sin’s destruction at the hands of all humanity on the cross. Jesus therefore merits restitution for all of sin’s destruction, for he alone has suffered it as an innocent party. This restitution manifests in his resurrection, when “God raised our Great Shepherd from the dead through the blood of the eternal covenant (Heb 13:20).” So the correct response to the question “Why did Jesus die?” is: in order for all suffering and death to be repaired by God, all suffering and death had to be endured by a perfectly innocent and righteous person (for only innocent persons have the right of restitution for wrongs suffered) and only Jesus qualifies as that perfectly righteous person.

    Divine Justice is therefore satisfied in the Resurrection as the reversal and reparation of all the sin that Jesus unjustly suffered on the cross. Jesus dies under the unjust judgment of Humans, and is raised by the just judgment of God. Jesus’ reward, or inheritance, of the covenantal blessings applies to the rest of Humanity if by the power of the Holy Spirit we participate in His death (through remorse) and participate in His resurrection (through repentance). So the gospel is not that “God substituted Himself to satisfy His own wrath,” which is not Biblical terminology. The gospel is exactly what Paul says it is: “the good news that God has fulfilled His promises to our children in that He raised Jesus up from the dead (Acts 13:30).” The gospel is that God’s covenantal promises to restore the world from Adam’s curse (the subject of the Old Testament) are fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection (the subject of the New Testament).

    One final note on the idea of “paying the penalty for sin.” Payment and punishment are not the same thing. When I buy a cup of coffee, I am not punished $1.50. When someone pays my debt of $1000, they are not being punished $1000. Nor, if I smash someone’s car, they cannot pay to repair their car by smashing my car (they punished me, but they did not receive payment). Penal Substitution advocates often confuse Romans 6:23 that says that “The wages of sin is death.” For example, John Stott uses this verse to say that Jesus “paid sin’s wage (The Cross of Christ p.270)” on our behalf. Anyone who has ever had a job knows this makes no sense. Wages are not something that we pay; wages are something we earn. Owing and earning are opposite sides of the economic metaphor. Thus, we do not owe death to God. We earn death for our sin. And we all justly receive the death we have earned when we suffer our sin’s consequences in this life and finally when we physically die. Our suffering and physical death is not a payment to God for our sin, and does not atone for our sin. Our atonement is in this: Jesus has voluntarily interceded to receive the wages of our sin along with us by suffering and dying on the cross. But he, being without sin, has received these wages undeservedly and unjustly. Justice therefore demands that these wages be taken back, and that Jesus’ suffering and death be undone, reversed. Hence, Jesus’ resurrection.

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