For some reason, Catholics reject Penal Substitution. I am not exactly sure why. It was taught by some early Church Fathers (unlike the Satisfaction view) Further, it is the other side of the Satisfaction view. After all, Christ not only satisfied on our behalf God the Father’s need for due honor and righteousness, He also paid the penalty for our sins, which likewise separates us from God.
Not so to Catholics. One Catholic text writes dismissively, “Again, on the theory of substitution, the slaughter of the victim must have been the most important part” to Protestants. However, “[n]othing can be inferred by the laying of hands” because “had the victim been laden with sin, it would have been impure.” This means, the whole Protestant idea of our sins being transferred to the sacrifice would be invalid. “The sin was not transferred to the victim: much less did the latter undergo punishment instead of the sinner.”
This is why Catholics and Protestants differ upon the use of the terms of Expiate and Propitiate. For Catholics, sin is not really ever punished but it is passed over and forgotten, hence the term expiation. The sacrifices of the Old Testament simply prefigure Christ in the way that they are a pledge of a good conscience towards God, something that Christ has done perfectly for believers.
However, this is incorrect in light of what Leviticus says about the sacrificial system. According to Leviticus, the animal sacrifices did bear sin so that sin isn’t merely passed over and forgotten because of the sacrifice, but it is punished in the sacrifice.
There is an episode where Aaron refuses to eat the sin offering in the sanctuary, likely because two of his sons were just killed for offering “strange fire” to the Lord. Moses says, “Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? For it is most holy, and He gave it to you to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord” (Lev 10:17). This directly contradicts the Catholic belief that the sacrifice was not “laden with sin.”
Now that we know a bearing of sin was taking place, what can we gather from the Scripture about the transferring of sin onto the animal? Many Protestants point to the scapegoat in Lev 16:21 because it explicitly speaks of the laying of hands transferring sins onto the scapegoat. Hence, sin is transferred when the believer places his hand on the animal.
Among the early Church Fathers, Justin Martyr recognized that the scapegoat and the other one which was sacrificed in Lev 16 “were similarly declarative of the two appearances of Christ, the first [the scapegoat], in which the elders of your people, and the priests, having laid hands on Him and put Him to death” (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 40). The Epistle of Barnabas, in Chapter 7, makes the same claim. We may then infer with some level of confidence, that sins were transferred onto Jesus Christ who “bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).
However, the Scripture never explicitly makes the same connection with animals that are actually sacrificed. Catholic Nick writes, “Though there is talk of placing hands on the head of sacrifices, there is no mention of this involving the (symbolic) transfer of guilt, nor does this even make sense in regards to sacrifices not involving sin (Lev 3:1-2).”
The problem with Catholic Nick’s argument is two fold:
First, peace offerings make peace with God. In what way are we not at peace with God? Obvious answer: we sin. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the laying of hands on the sacrifice transfers sin. In 2 Sam 24:25 it says that “David built there an altar to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. Thus the Lord was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel.” If we remember the whole episode, because David conducted a census, God gave him a choice pertaining what punishment he would want. After God started smiting the people of Israel because of David’s sin, we have this episode at the future location of the temple where David offers both burnt and peace offerings in conjunction with a prayer. Afterward, God is moved to withdraw His hand. Obviously, the offerings with heartfelt prayer had the effect of turning Gd’s disposition towards the sinful people of Israel.
Second, we have Lev 19:5-8 which states that those who do not partake in the peace offering properly still bear their own iniquity:
Now when you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten the same day you offer it, and the next day; but what remains until the third day shall be burned with fire. So if it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an offense; it will not be accepted. Everyone who eats it will bear his iniquity, for he has profaned the holy thing of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from his people.
From the preceding, we may infer that the peace offering bears iniquity, because the iniquity would have been transferred to the sacrifice such as in Lev 10:17 if the peace offering was conducted properly. Hence, peace offerings literally bear iniquity, even though Catholic Nick would have you believe they have nothing to do with iniquity.
Being that the only time the significance of the laying of hands as it pertains to sacrifices is explained in Lev 16:21, the simplest explanation in light of the preceding is simple. The laying of hands transfers sins. The sacrifices, according to Lev 10:17 bear the iniquity of the people. Those who sacrifice improperly according to Lev 19:8 do not benefit from the sacrifice and bear their own iniquity.
Hence, what we see in the Levitical sacrificial laws are rules that pertain to penal atonement. There is no escaping it and it makes the reading of Leviticus an increasing joy because it helps the book make more sense. It brings the reality of what Christ did for us front and center, and silences critics who wish to rob Christ the our sins in Himself bodily even when we were His enemies.