Penal substitution has been a cardinal doctrine of the Church since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. What is penal substitution? Is it an important doctrine? Is it a biblical doctrine? Today we will begin a study on penal substitution and attempt to answer these questions. To start, here is a good definition that will aid in our discussion:
“A view of the atonement that stresses Christ’s death as a perfect payment for the penalty of human sin that is accepted by God, whose wrath and judgment are satisfied by this work of Christ, the sinner’s substitute.” (Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, McKim 1996, WJK Press)
The human race got off to a good start in the Garden of Eden, but unfortunately messed it up real quick. Once Adam sinned he introduced a virus into the human race, and not just any virus, a virulent pathogen that is present at conception. This virus’ nom de plume is sin, and its effects have ravaged all of creation. Sin is anything that is contrary to God’s will. God’s expressed will excluded Adam from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We all know the story. Adam knowingly, and with full volition, ate of the forbidden tree and thus brought the first human sin to completion. Adam acted as sort of a legal representative of the human race. As soon as Adam sinned, death (physical and spiritual) entered into the world.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread, to all men, because all have sinned —(Rom. 5:12)
If Adam had walked in obedience to the command of God, he would have lived forever. God’s covenant with Adam was conditional. If Adam did not eat of the forbidden tree he would not die. Adam would remain in the Garden of God (Eden) perpetually, and enjoy intimate fellowship with his Creator. Adam’s posterity – his descendants – would enjoy the same blessings. But instead of handing down a legacy of blessing, through his sin Adam bequeathed a legacy of cursing.
Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:17-19)
The practical effect of sin is that it severed the intimate relationship that God and man enjoyed. The human race actually became God’s adversary since sin is rebellion against God.