John Calvin wrote that Jesus Christ was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them” (Institutes 2:16.10).

Varying theories of Christ’s atonement.

So, there are three things that constitute the theory of Penal Substitution:

1. Men accumulate transgressions that deserve punishment.

For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).

2. Christ was made a substitute in the place of sinful men, so that He bore their punishment.

[T]he Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Is 53:6).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree (Gal 3:13).

3. This substitution had the effect of satisfying God’s wrath, so that God exacted justice by literally punishing all the accumulated sin of men in Christ’s place.

But the Lord was pleased to crush Him…if He would render Himself as a guilt offering…As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
(Is 53:10-11).

The Scriptural proof would seem like enough to settle the matter. So, what’s the big deal?

Well, it some people claim that no one taught this idea, nor seen in in the Scripture, for 1500 years! There are both anti-PSA Protestants and Catholics that make this claim. For the purposes of this article, we will be comparing and contrasting with the Satisfaction theory of atonement, because it is the doctrinal view of Catholicism.

According to Theopedia:

Penal Substitution states that Christ bore the penalty for sin, in place of those sinners united to him by faith. Anselm, by contrast, regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, gives God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honour instead of us. But that substitution is not penal; his death pays our honour not our penalty…For Anselm, Christ obeyed where we should have obeyed; for John Calvin, he was punished where we should have been punished.

So, the key difference is that for Reformed thinkers Christ satisfied the Father by placating His wrath by acting as our substitute, while to Catholics Christ was our substitute for our lack of obedience. In RCC doctrine, by faith in Christ and taking part in the sacramental life of the Church, the merit of Christ (and the Saints with excess merit) is credited to our account, thereby satisfying God’s demand of righteousness on our behalf.

Or, in short, Catholics do not affirm point #3, and instead replace it God’s demand for merit in place of God’s demand for justice.

Now, these are gross generalizations (Reformed thinkers also believe in Christ’s merit being credited to the account of sinners as an essential part of soteriology), but for the sake of space we will stick with them.

Is the Reformed view of PSA justified in the Scripture? Well, we have already showed that. Does the Scripture speak of a treasury of merits? Well, not really. But in RCC theology that does not matter, because of RCC “tradition” attests to it.

So, for the sake of satisfying the wrath of Catholics who claim PSA did not exist for 1500 years of church history, we are going to examine the claim and see if it is true. We are going to use the colors from the three points above to highlight when each separate idea is invoked.

Evidence #1: Cyril of Alexandria’s Lengthy Discussion in Book XII of his Commentary on John

He had undergone, for our sakes, though innocent, the sentence of death. For, in His own Person, He bore the sentence righteously pronounced against sinners by the Law. For He became ‘a curse for us’, according to the Scripture: ‘For cursed is everyone’, it is said, ‘that hangeth on a tree.’ And accursed are we all, for we are not able to fulfill the Law of God: ‘For in many things we all stumble’; and very prone to sin is the nature of man. And since, too, the Law of God says: ‘Cursed is he which continueth not in all things that are written in the book of this Law, to do them,’ the curse, then, belongeth unto us, and not to others. For those against whom the transgression of the Law may be charged, and who are very prone to err from its commandments, surely deserve chastisement. Therefore, He That knew no sin was accursed for our sakes, that He might deliver us from the old curse. For all-sufficient was the God Who is above all, so dying for all; and by the death of His own Body, purchasing the redemption of all mankind.

The Cross, then, that Christ bore, was not for His own deserts, but was the cross that awaited us, and was our due, through our condemnation by the Law…He took upon Himself the Cross that was our due, passing on Himself the condemnation of the Law, that the mouth of all lawlessness might henceforth be stopped, according to the saying of the Psalmist; the Sinless having suffered condemnation for the sin of all (John 19:16–18).

For God’s anger did not cease with Adam’s fall, but He was also provoked by those who after him dishonoured the Creator’s decree; and the denunciation of the Law against transgressors was extended continuously over all. We were, then, accursed and condemned, by the sentence of God, through Adam’s transgression, and through breach of the Law laid down after him; but the Savior wiped out the hand- writing against us, by nailing the title to His Cross, which very clearly pointed to the death upon the Cross which He underwent for the salvation of men, who lay under condemnation. For our sake He paid the penalty for our sins. For though He was One that suffered, yet was He far above any creature, as God, and more precious than the life of all (John 19:19).

Conclusion: All three major points are addressed, including point three which mentions that God’s wrath was satisfied by causing Chris to suffer in man’s place. “God’s anger” was made to cease when “He paid the penalty for our sins.”

Evidence #2: Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus

And Psalm 22…They pierced my hands and my feet- what else can that mean except the cross? And Psalms 88 and 69, again speaking in the Lord’s own person, tell us further that He suffered these things, not for His own sake but for ours. Thou has made Thy wrath to rest upon me, says the one; and the other adds, I paid them things I never took. For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses. So in Psalm 138 we say, The Lord will make requital for me; and in the 72nd the Spirit says, He shall save the children of the poor and bring the slanderer low, for from the hand of the mighty He has set the poor man free, the needy man whom there was none to help (Letter to Marcellenius).

Conclusion: Athanasius affirms all three key ideas including explicit penal language. Athanasius explores the same idea in On the Incarnation (Chapter 9) but for the sake of space we move on.

Evidence #3: Jerome’s Commentary of Isaiah, excerpts from Chapter 53 (The following are from the Aquinas Study Bible where the original Latin is available. I put it through Google translate.)

He was put to death by God for their sins, who was humbled for us.

For that which we owed to us according to our crimes bear it, so He suffered for us, having made peace [with God] through the blood of His cross… (Sorry, couldn’t resist underlining the penal language in red and making clear that the reference to peace obviously pertains to an dire situation with God, who demands there to be justice.)

[B]ut the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all, for our sins, or the Lord delivered him; so that what we could not because of the weakness in their numbers to bear, he would carry for us, which will be offered, because Himself willed it. (It is worth noting that Jerome in exegeting Is 53:6, the purple here is an inferred understanding because it shows that God desired laying onto Christ our iniquity, but there is no explicit mention of His wrath.)

In order to show that I am not purposely taking Jerome out of context, I am going to include the two other explicit theories of atonement I found in my reading of the chapter–the Ransom and Moral Influence theories of atonement:

…so did he suffered is, in will, in order that he might destroy him who had the power of death.

Peter…said, For to this you were called in ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that ye should follow His steps.

Conclusion: Jerome in his discussion of Is 53 covers all the essentials of PSA. Christ was specifically “put to death by God,” suffering “for us,” in order to bear what was “owed to us according to our crimes.”

My challenge to Catholics:

Now, there are more examples such as Augustine (Contra Faustum, Book XIV, Chapter 4) Eusebius (in his book Proof of the Gospel), Hilary of Poitiers (who called Jesus “a victim to God the Father” in his homily on Psalm 13), Gregory the Great (Book of Morals, Book III, Chap 26), and Chrysostom (Homilies on Galatians, Gal 3:13) but we’re over 1600 words already so you can click on the links to read up more on them. The point is, can you come up with a few explicit mentions from the Early Church Fathers of the theory of Satisfaction Atonement, including all three points from your own perspective? Further, can you find it in the Scripture?

While the majority of Early Church Fathers ascribed to the ransom and Christus Victor theories, these are not the positions of modern Catholicism. So, it is not up to me to show that the majority of Church Fathers adhered to PSA. They didn’t. However, as we have shown more than a few expressed that Christ died as a substitute to satisfy God’s justice/wrath. Can we find any Church Father adhere to the theory of Satisfaction that the RCC presently espouses? Did a single Church Father say that Christ died as our substitute in order that He would in our place render the works and achieve the merit demanded by God in our place?

And, if not, then who exactly is really safeguarding “true Apostolic tradition?”

There is only one thing we can’t debate: the authority of the Scripture. Men of all persuasions claim that their the ones that preserved Apostolic doctrine which existed from the beginning. Their competing claims make it where we have no real certainty. Who is telling the truth, if anyone?

However, this we know: We can go right to the horse’s mouth and read what the Apostles actually wrote…it’s called the Bible! As long as a doctrine is taught in the Scriptures, then it is true. They “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:16). And, if there is supposedly anything missing from the Scripture that is necessary to believe to do for salvation, wouldn’t that turn God into a liar?

Perish the thought. May Jesus Christ be praised. Amen.