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Penal Substitution in the Old Testament

David Emery | April 1, 2019 No Comments

MeganElizabeth asked a question about Penal Substitution in the Old Testament on our old discussion forum and received some insightful answers from the Coming Home Network community. We’ve curated the topic for you here. Feel free to continue discussion in the comment box below.


So I’m listening through the audiobook of Lord, Have Mercy by Scott Hahn (great book, highly recommend), and there’s a section in the book discussing how the penal substitution theory of atonement, as many Protestants teach it, is fundamentally unjust (i.e. God punished Jesus, who was innocent, for the sins of mankind.) He argues that in the courtroom analogy, Jesus is more like our legal representative to God, not there to exempt us from suffering for our sins, but by his suffering to endow our own suffering with redemptive value.

I’ve heard this from Catholics in several places and it makes a lot of sense to me from a purely theological perspective and answers a lot of questions about God that I’ve struggled with in the past. However, this runs up strongly against the way I was taught to interpret Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, where it seems like there is often an emphasis on God’s wrath and punishment for sin. Isaiah 53:4–6 comes to mind (He was “smitten by God,” “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all”), as well as Exodus 12, when God institutes the Passover meal (God smiting the Egyptians), Jonah and the repentance of Ninevah, and any number of incidents where Israel “fell off the wagon,” so to speak. It seems to me like there is clear evidence in Scripture of God’s righteous anger being appeased by sacrifice, and the rejection of substitution theory leaves that evidence unanswered.

Is there some other explanation for this? Am I missing some key element of these passages because I’m reading with the wrong interpretive lens? I don’t think the theologically correct conclusion can violate Scriptural principles, but if that’s the case, what is Scripture actually getting at?


Hi Megan,

I hope that I can offer you some insight. Lets start with the Old Testament first. In Leviticus we learn how something had to be offered to God after confessing your sins. What is offered back is not killed or burned so that God has something to punish. It is offered back to God in atonement for the sins committed. It is not penal substitution; it is recompense for sin. When we offend someone, we should apologize and do something to heal the rift in the relationship. This is what the Israelites do by giving something back to God. When God’s Chosen People asked for a king, God granted it but warned them there would be problems. Sometimes the Israelites were faithful, but sometimes they turned away from God and followed other gods. When they did not follow Him, God sent Prophets to guide them back. Most of the Prophets were stoned to death. When the Israelites persisted in not following God, He would send other nations to conquer them. Isaiah has many predictions of the coming Messiah and what He would suffer. All of these things did happen to Jesus, but not so that He could take our punishment. All sins offend an Infinite God, so an infinite sacrifice had to be offered back to Him in reparation. Jesus, being the Son of God, was that infinite sacrifice who offered Himself back to God the Father in reparation for our sins. God did not kill Jesus to punish Him for our sins. That would be a divine injustice. Instead, Jesus offered His life in atonement for our sins. Jesus’ sacrifice was infinite and capable of atoning for all of our sins. His death and resurrection provide sufficient Grace to save the whole world. Protestants and Catholics have two different views on how this is applied to us Christian believers. First, the Protestant teaching. Martin Luther taught that we are like dunghills covered by the snow of Jesus’ righteousness. John Calvin went a step further and taught that Jesus only died for the Elect, and that the Elect get imputed righteousness from Jesus’ death because Jesus took their punishment. Both of these theologies allow a Christian to still be a sinner, but God only sees the righteousness of Jesus. They think that they can fool God. Now, the Catholic side. The Catholic Church does teach that when an adult comes to believe in Jesus, they receive imputed righteousness and are saved, even though their sins have not yet been forgiven. When a person is baptized, all previous sin is washed away (Acts ch 2 & 22, 1 Peter ch 3, Titus ch 3). For babies, this is also the moment of salvation. Through Baptism, we are made actually righteous and holy but still have our sin tendency. When we sin later, we lose that righteousness and have to be restored to our post-baptismal righteousness. This is done through repentance, confession and penance. Penance is what we do for God out of justice for offending Him. Usually it is a few prayers. In the early years of  Christianity, it could be years of sackcloth and ashes and asking faithful Christians to pray for you. However, Polycarp wrote in 115 AD for priests to forgive those who are sick and dying, so that they would be reconciled to the Church and able to enter Heaven. For a Catholic, our state of justification (salvation) can change at any time through sin or confession. It is up to us to turn back to God every time we sin, just like the Jews did. God always wants us back, but we have to turn back to Him like the Prodigal Son (Luke ch 15). We have up until death to turn back to God. All penance due to sin that is not completed here on earth is competed in Purgatory.


Hello Megan,

I read your question and was so happy to come to the post and find that KenL had provided so much good information! Thank you, Ken!

Yes, the difficulty is that, while Jesus did suffer for us, was wounded for us, took our place, bore our sins in his own body, and all of these statements can be understood in terms of penal substitution (the Protestant view: our sins were legally credited to him on the cross and he was punished for them), they can also be understood in terms of vicarious sacrifice (the Catholic view: Christ offers his life in reparation for our sins, as Ken said).

Imagine I break in and rob you, and you catch me running away across your front lawn. You can demand punishment — call the cops, make sure I “pay.” Or you could accept restitution. I could repent, apologize, give you back the things I took, maybe even promise to mow your lawn for a year. You could accept this. This could “appease” your anger and sense of justice, and you could “forgive me.” This is how Catholicism views the atonement.

In your question, you mention Jonah, a passage read just this morning in Mass. And it struck me that when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s message, the king commands that everyone repent of their sins, put on sackcloth and ashes, refuse to eat or drink. He says, “Who knows, God may repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” and then, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.” Notice that in this account no one was “punished.” It’s not like punishment is the only way that sin can be forgiven. In this case, the Ninevites made restitution and God’s heart was softened and he relented.

I think of the times when the Israelites sinned and Moses threw himself on the ground, interceding, and God relented. I think of how God accepted sacrifices of grain as well as animals. Clearly, the emphasis in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was not on someone or something being “punished,” but on the sinner offering up something valuable in reparation for sins committed.

The Protestant position assumes that for sins to be forgiven, SOMEONE must be punished. This isn’t the Catholic view, and of course we don’t think it is the biblical view.

Also, the Protestant view creates the problems you refer to Hahn as talking about. The Reformers all spoke of God “pouring out his wrath on his Son” and so forth. How are we even to imagine how one Person of the Trinity, existing forever in perfect love, can turn against another Person of the Trinity and pour out “wrath” on Him? And if Jesus was paying the full “penalty” of our sins, why didn’t he go to hell forever? How is that, even before he dies, he’s saying, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”?

I’ll let someone else contribute, but the section on the atonement in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma is good on this.


This is a link to the Called to Communion website that has an article on the atonement. It may be helpful for you as well. Link


Thank you both so much! That clarifies a lot for me. I think I was struggling to tease out the distinction between punishment and reparation, or a penalty inflicted versus something offered in restitution, but that does seem to fit better with the Old Testament concept of sacrifice. Now that I think about it, the “scapegoat” practice of Israel on the Day of Atonement (to the extent that I understand it) might even make more sense in this model, because the goat that actually had Israel’s sins spoken over it wasn’t the one that was killed. The goat that fell by lot to be “for the LORD” was killed, and the one bearing the sins of the people was sent into the desert to represent Israel’s sin being removed from them. Although maybe I’m reading too much into that one.

I think it’s also difficult (as it often is) to unwrap the question of initiating action when it comes to the Trinity. It’s not entirely illogical to look at the statements “Sin is an offense against God” and “Jesus offered Himself to the Father as reparation for sin” and fill in the space between with the idea that the Father demanded that His Son specifically suffer and die to provide that reparation, but that leads to denying, or at least rhetorically setting aside, other things God has revealed to us about Himself (loving, self-giving, just, etc.)


I believe it was Athanasius who said that Jesus had to assume a human nature so that He could redeem mankind. His combination of divine and human natures allows us to re-establish the pre-fall nature of Adam and Eve with God. Jesus is the new Adam, and Mary is the new Eve. It takes a good understanding of the Old Testament and the New Testament to try and make sense of it all. Pray to the Holy Spirit for wisdom that it may all come to be clear. 🙂

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