Penal Substitution – Answering the Advocates (Addenda)

Below are a collection of questions and arguments put forward by various advocates of penal substitution. Answers follow:


‘What’s all the fuss about?’from the authors of ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’

Penal Substitution and Justice (extract from Chapter 10, ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’)

‘God’s Character’a reflection on statements made by the authors of ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’

Moral intuition v The authority of God’s Word (a view of R.L. Dabney)

The ‘Federal Headship’ fallacy

The Wrath of God


The sin of Achan

Two common questions answered

The Imputation of Righteousness‘How can this be just, if the imputation of sin to Christ is not?’


‘What’s all the fuss about?’ - from the authors of ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’


Quote: ‘Some who believe in penal substitution have replied by pointing out that Christ suffered willingly, or by noting that God gave himself in Christ to suffer in our place. But while these things are gloriously true, neither actually answers the objection. If guilty sinners are acquitted and an innocent third party is punished, then irrespective of his willingness an injustice has been committed, and it is unthinkable that God would do such a thing.

How are we to respond? The flaw in the argument is the unstated premise that Christ is unrelated to the believer, an unconnected third party. This is not true, for believers are in union with Christ — he is in us, and we are in him, indwelt by his Spirit (e.g. John 17:21; Romans 6:5; 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 1:27; Philippians 1:1). It is for this reason that the imputation of our guilt to Christ and his righteousness to us, his punishment and our acquittal, are just in the sight of God.’

‘What’s all the fuss about? A Brief Introduction to the Penal Substitution Debate‘ by Steve Jeffery, Andrew Sach and Mike Ovey (authors’ comment on the website for the book: ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’)

It is well that the authors recognize that punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty is an act of injustice. However, their argument is that Jesus was imputed guilt as a result of His relationship and union with believers.

Yes, believers are in union with Christ — He in us and we in Him. We are made at-one with God, indwelt of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason we are righteous — covered by the righteous life He gave as a sweet smelling offering and sacrifice for us at the cross (Eph.5:2). An impure offering God will not accept. This ‘oneness’ is the outcome of the atonement Jesus made. We share in His righteousness through faith and consent to the Law of the Spirit in Christ. We are atoned with God — reconciled to God in the righteousness of His Son.

It is not the other way around – that God became reconciled to us and that Jesus became atoned to sinners! For Jesus to have become legally guilty for the sins of believers, He would need to have consented to their crimes. Mere relationship to those who sin does not impart guilt: ‘The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son’ (Ezek.18:20, NKJ). The ‘union’ that is required of one to be imputed criminal guilt is that of complicity in the unlawful acts. Legally and biblically it was not possible for Jesus to have been made guilty for sin. The punishment He suffered was an act of injustice, as the Bible states: ‘His justice was taken away’ (Acts 8:33, NKJ). ‘He submitted Himself to Him who judges righteously,’ Peter wrote (1 Pet.2:23, NKJ). The resurrection was God’s act of justice – overturning the verdict of an illegal court, whilst proclaiming the righteousness of the One who died.

For those who truly repent God promises life, not death — forgiveness and healing, not wrath and punishment. Forgiveness is part of God’s Law; and, when God completely forgives, the beneficiaries are completely absolved from all the penal consequences of all past guilt and sin. In other words, when sinners repent and turn to Christ, condemnation is taken away. God’s response is to forgive, not to punish. The wrath of God remains for those who do not repent; it is not for those who do. Jesus did not die for the sake of the incorrigibly wicked — for whom God’s wrath is justly reserved.

Rather than upholding biblical truth, the doctrine of penal substitution actually contradicts it.


Penal Substitution and Justice (extract from Chapter 10, ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’)

Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent- the Lord detests them both. (Prov.17:15)

To see why penal substitution is not a travesty of justice of exactly this kind, we need to recall the doctrine of union with Christ we discussed in chapter 5. The believer is not separate from Christ, an unrelated third party. He is in us, and we are in him, indwelt by his Spirit. …

The doctrine of penal substitution thus does not propose a transfer of guilt between unrelated persons. It asserts that guilt is transferred to Christ from those who are united to him. In fact, ‘transfer’ may not even be the best term, since it could imply a separation between distinct persons. Instead, it may be better to say our sins were ‘imputed’ (i.e. ‘reckoned’, or ‘credited’, to use the vocabulary of Rom.4 and Gal.3) to Christ, while his righteousness was imputed to us. That Christ bore our sins willingly merely furthers the point: he was not forced or coerced into this union with us, but entered into it voluntarily. Luther uses the analogy of a marriage between two people, one of them a debtor. The other knows that legal union will bring debt upon himself, but in love nonetheless willingly enters into the marriage. …

Union with Christ explains how the innocent could be justly punished – he is judged for others’ sins, which by virtue of their union with him, become his. Conversely, it explains how the guilty can be acquitted – believers are one with the innocent Lord Jesus Christ, and so his life of perfect righteousness is rightly imputed to us. …

We are now in a position to answer the objection that penal substitution entails unjustly punishing an innocent person. This rests on the claim that our guilt cannot be imputed to Christ, which is in turn grounded on the assumption that we are entirely separate and distinct from him. But the reality is that believers are united to Christ by his Spirit. The imputation of our guilt to Christ does not violate justice, because he willingly consents to a real, spiritual identification with his people. In short, this objection to penal substitution arises from a failure to understand the significance of union with Christ.

(Pierced for our Transgressions, ch.10, pp.242-245; Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A.; IVP, UK, 2007)

So, ignorance of the spiritual union between Christ and the Church is a reason why penal substitution is not understood. There is a spiritual ‘marriage’ that Jesus enters into willingly, knowing that in doing so he will incur our guilt and our debts. These debts he gladly pays on our behalf, suffering the punishment that is owing to us, because of our sins. We, in return, receive his righteousness. Our guilt is imputed to Christ as a result of his union with us. It is because of our oneness with Christ that sins are imputed – it is not like transfering guilt upon another distinct person. That, it is said, is the understanding that opponents of penal substitution have failed to appreciate.

Well, firstly, I am thankful to the authors for having written what many regard as a definitive explanation. That is to their credit. It is a robust contribution to the debate. The flurry of recommendations from well-known figures, allow us to focus on the main arguments as representative of the many who uphold this view, although there have been critics, even amongst supporters. As iron sharpens iron, such a debate is helpful. Advocates tend not to be so critical of each others efforts, but rather tend to reinforce accepted views, without too much depth of critical evaluation. That is often left to others, who see our Lord’s atonement from a different perspective. A lack of appreciation, however, might not be due to a lack of understanding.

Let us first consider the analogy of marriage. A husband takes on the wife’s financial debt and pays it off. In marriage, wealth and financial burdens can be shared, but acts of sin on the part of one committed without complicity on the part of the partner cannot implicate the partner in the guilt or cause the other to justly suffer for the offence. Husbands and wives are not made guilty for the sins of their partners. It matters not that the partner might be willing to suffer for the crime of the other. Although there can be a marriage of wills to share certain responsibilities and burdens, there can be no marriage of wills where there is no complicity in the committing of a crime. We are each held responsible for our own sins.

So it is with Jesus. In marriage with the Church, there is no marriage of His will with the will of man regarding acts of sin – no complicity. Therefore there can be no imputation of guilt or sin. Rather, we read that He ‘offered Himself without spot to God’ (Heb.9:14, NKJ) and ‘gave Himself’ for the church, that he might present to Himself ‘… a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish’ (Eph.5:25-27, NKJ). It is written, ‘He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin‘ (John 3:5, NKJ). That is very plain. In Him is no sin – not any – not ours, not anyone’s. Yet, He was a sin-offering. He was certainly looked upon as ‘sin’ by those who maltreated Him at the cross. But, He was not this to God the Father.

However, with respect to the marriage of the Lamb. To whom is the world in debt, because of sin? Against whom have all sinned? – As both Man and God, the Word made flesh is the One against whom all have sinned. Mankind is in debt to Christ. He is our creditor – the One to whom we owe not just a debt of apology, but our lives – in complete and full repentance, if we are to be saved from the ultimate penalty of our sins. So, why should the Groom suffer punishment for the unpaid debt of the bride, when He Himself is the bride’s creditor? Only if we refuse to repent and submit our lives to the Lord, does our condemnation for sin remain. Those who yield their lives in faith to Him, He simply forgives.

Regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the Church: He does not let go of righteousness Himself, He covers us with His own. As members of His body, we consent to do what is righteous and God is pleased to judge us righteous in Him.

The idea that man’s sins can somehow be imputed to Christ does not work. Jesus does not consent to sin. The idea presented above suggests that by imputing our sins to Christ, we somehow are set free. Yet, Jesus retains His righteousness, though His righteousness is imputed to His followers. By the same token, we should retain our guilt and sin, though these be imputed to Christ. It simply does not make sense, nor can it be just. Those who consent to do what is righteous are righteous in Christ. That is how we, if we are His, are judged:

‘If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him’ (1 John 2:29, NKJ).

‘Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous’ (1 John 3:7, NKJ).

The Holy Spirit does indeed unite us in fellowship with God. Jesus prayed:

‘I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me’ (John 17:20-21, NKJ).

However, if our oneness in Christ means that our guilt for sins becomes His, as supporters of penal substitution claim, by this reasoning, our guilt for sin should be imputed also to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, with whom the Church is united. Advocates attempt a way around this obvious difficulty by claiming also that at the time of the crucifixion, Jesus was abandoned, by God the Father and the Holy Spirit, to suffer alone. (See here: ch.1, ‘When He cried to Him, He heard’ .) The reason why this cannot be a solution to the problem should also be obvious. The reason that Jesus can be imputed with our sins and guilt is said to be that it is because we are united with Him spiritually, through the Holy Spirit. Yet, at the time our sins are said to have been imputed to Him, the Holy Spirit is said to have left Him. Moreover, if our union with Him and the imputation of our sins are seen as outside of history, then this must be inclusive of our union with the Holy Spirit and the Father. If Jesus was alone at the cross, then He was not united with us through the Holy Spirit. If He was united with us through our union with the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit and the Father would also share our guilt for sins. This line of reasoning simply does not make sense.

What the authors advocate as an explanation that is ‘not a travesty of justice of exactly this kind’ (Prov.17:15, see above), is still a travesty of justice – perhaps even more so, when we consider the unintended implications.


‘God’s Character’ – a reflection on statements made by the authors of ‘Pierced for our Transgressions’

‘Some critics …argue, penal substitution implies that God requires punishment before offering forgiveness, and therefore depicts him as a hypocrite, settings standards for us that he fails to meet himself.’

‘However, the objections fail to recognize that the Bible does not urge us to imitate all of God’s actions or every aspect of his character. We are urged to avoid some things precisely because God has the right to them’ (PFOT, chapter 9.3, pp.233-4, IVP, 2007).

‘The standard of justice on which basis Christ was punished in our place is not external to God, but intrinsic to him; it is a reflection of his own righteous, holy character’ (PFOT, chapter 11.4, p.301, IVP, 2007).

In response to the criticism above, the authors argue that the Bible does not require us to follow the example set by God in all respects. They say that just because God is worshipped (Ex.20:1-6), this does not mean that we should be worshipped. Although God will avenge (Rom.12:17-19), that does not mean that we must also take vengeance. Of course, this is true. With these biblical examples, there are also clear commandments, which are given for our benefit, that we should not seek to act as though ‘God’ ourselves or disobey. We should not vaunt ourselves, anyone or anything else as an object of worship. God is above all. Foolish pride and vainglory are contrary to righteousness. God is also just and will exact punishment upon the wicked for their crimes in due time. We should not fret that wrongdoers appear to escape justice. The Bible encourages us to have faith in the justice of God.

Indeed, we should have faith in the justice of God. His justice reflects His character. That is the point in the criticism above. The doctrine of penal substitution, according to its opponents, is an affront to the character of God. That is a serious charge – denied, of course, by the advocates, who would argue that it is a matter of how we understand it: ‘Rather, penal substitution reflects the Bible’s teaching that God’s law is the expression of his own righteous, holy character, and that it was in accordance with this law that Christ was punished in our place’ (PFOT, chapter 11.4, p.303, IVP, 2007).

However, in response to the charge that penal substitution presents God as requiring punishment before offering forgiveness, the authors argue that this is in accordance with a standard of justice that is intrinsic only to Himself, not to mankind – a standard that He retains for Himself that we are not to follow. To the authors, therefore, God’s forgiveness is conditional on punishment. But if being punished pays what is owing, how can there be forgiveness? To this, the argument is that the triune God Himself, in the person of Jesus, pays the debt we owe (ibid, p.264). In other words, God pays the debt to Himself and so is still free to forgive. So, let us analyse this argument a little more. A family of three is owed a debt. Wanting to forgive the debt, one member is elected to pay that debt owed to the family. It does not make sense – no matter how one may try to reason that  because the Son is both distinct as a person and in union with God that it does. Penal substitution portrays God as needing to suffer His own wrath and punishment in order to forgive, because to inflict punishment for sin is intrinsic to His nature. He is compelled to apply punishment  for sin, even if He has to punish Himself. As humans, we don’t need to do this. This is just something that God must do! – Although one might consider this convoluted defence of the doctrine of penal substitution somewhat gallant, I am of the opinion that Franz Kafka could not have imagined a greater absurdity. Yet, one can understand the earnest desire to defend what one has believed to be the gospel truth. Nevertheless, there is an alternative. There is a Gospel that is logical, reasonable and biblical to be found in the teachings of Scripture, established upon the foundation of the apostles and Jesus Christ. Surely it is hard to kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5)?

Regrettable is the idea that what we owe to God for sin is both to repent and to be punished. It is not ‘both …and’, it is ‘either  …or’. What we are owing – if we wish to live – is our repentance. To God, we owe more than just an apology, we owe our lives. If we continue unrepentant, then we will pay the due penalty of the second death. Punishment is the penalty that one will receive (rather like the wages one earns) if there is no repentance. This punishment of God will be exacted upon all the unrepentant on the Day of Judgment. Moreover, we should realize that true repentance is the turning away from sin to live in righteousness. Jesus, in His humanity, accomplished the life that is owing of us unto death and that indeed He owes to Himself – the life of perfect righteousness.

So, what is the Law of God? There is a law of the conscience written into the hearts of all men, so that no one can rightly claim to be innocent before God (Rom.2:14). This law also provides man with a sense of justice. We are made in the image of God and this awareness of right and wrong comes from our Creator. The killing of Jesus was unlawful. We just know that. But if for want of reason we need evidence, the Bible provides it. He was ‘taken by lawless hands’ (Acts 2:23, NKJ). His crucifixion would be a sin, Jesus told Pilate (John 19:10-11, NKJ), but that those who delivered Him up for cruciifixion had the ‘greater sin’. ‘In His humiliation His justice was taken away’ (Acts 8:33, NKJ). Peter told the council of elders that they had ‘murdered’ the Just One, by hanging Him on a tree (Acts 5:30, NKJ). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, likewise accused them of becoming His ‘betrayers and murderers’ (Acts 7:52, NKJ). In dying, Jesus had set an example of how one should endure when suffering wrongfully, Peter declared (1 Pet.2:19-23). This was the teaching of the cross of Christ to the first converts who heard the good news that He now lives: ‘to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31, NKJ).

Those who heard Peter on the day of Pentecost were convicted of sin in their hearts when they heard the apostle declare that they had crucified the Anointed of God whom God had raised from the dead. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they were called to repent and receive forgiveness of sins. They believed that they had sinned against the Lord. What they heard was not that Jesus had suffered the wrath of God as He hung upon a tree. The message was not that Jesus had become the embodiment of sin and had suffered the penalty of God. The scourging and crucifixion were in no way justified in the preaching of the apostles at all. Quite the opposite. They preached the justification of the resurrection, for the trial and execution of God’s Son had been a mockery of law and justice – of which there could only have been one outcome for a just God. This occured on the day of the resurrection. Jesus was raised to heavenly glory as both Lord and Christ. He was declared the One in whose name would be remission of sins (Acts 2:38). The character of God was revealed through the righteousness of God’s Son and His glorious resurrection. The grave could not hold the Holy One of God. Though sinned against and cruelly treated by the ones He came to save, He remained God’s righteousness revealed. He accomplished all victory over sin in righteousness and faith and now calls upon all to join Him in newness of life, through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out to all who sincerely repent in faith.

In both the Old and New Testaments, we find the same message: ‘Repent and live.’


Moral intuition v The authority of God’s Word

R.L. Dabney, the famous Presbyterian theologian of the 19th century, quoted opponents of Penal Substitution as saying:

‘… just government, human or divine, cannot transfer one man’s guilt to another who is innocent, under any possible conditions, because punishment loses its moral significance, and becomes cruelty and wickedness as soon as it is transferred from the sinning person to another.’

To this ethical objection, he replied:

‘… they set their philosophy above all the authority claimed for God’s word.’ (Christ Our Penal Substitute, Ch.8).

According to Dabney, regardless of what we know by moral intuition, the authority of Scripture is paramount and must override all objections of conscience. Nevertheless, the obvious danger of this position is in the misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture to defend positions or actions that are either completely wrong or, at best, far from the ideal.

Clear examples include Dabney’s own defence of North American slavery; the German reformer Martin Luther’s use of Scripture to support anti-Semitism; and the doctrinal support given by Thomas Aquinas for the Inquisition and the use of the secular arm for the execution (normally preceded by torture) of those supposed guilty of schism or heresy (Summa Theologica, 2-2: 11, 3 & 4). Luther not only preached that the age-long sufferings of the Jews proved God’s hatred of them, but went on to advise the Germans to burn down the homes of Jews, to close their synagogues and schools, to confiscate their wealth, to conscript their men and women into forced labour; and wrote, ‘All Jews should be given the choice between either accepting Christ, or having their tongues torn out’ (Concerning the Jews and their lies, 1542). One could also mention the drowning of Baptists in Calvin’s Geneva besides giving many more instances where a God-given conscience and the moral intuition within man should have claimed precedence over man’s logic and his interpretation of God’s written word. This is biblical and we are without excuse:

‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things contained in the law … show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts either accusing or else excusing them’ (Rom.2:14, NKJ).

So now we have the ‘logic’ of penal substitution overriding the law of God in the heart of man. The Bible is the authority for doctrine, but we need to be very careful that we do not just rely on our own human logic for its interpretation. The Holy Spirit heightens, not quells, the law of God in man’s heart.


The ‘Federal Headship’ fallacy

A common question:

The Federal Headship of Christ enables Him to be the legal representative of all who are saved through Him. Doesn’t this imply that as the Federal Head, He must also be responsible for the sins of those He represents – and so suffer their due punishment?

The principle of Federal Headship in legal terms can easily be understood with reference to company law, where it is sometimes applied. The owners of a company are responsible for actions that happen within the company rules and consent of management. Corporate manslaughter is a good example. However, the company would need to be involved in the action. One employee murdering another in a fit of temper, for example, would not make the owners of the company guilty for the crime. It would have happened without their consent and certainly against company rules. However, drugs manufactured that later are found to cause death would make the company and its owners liable. Guilt would rightly be imputed – because of the company’s consent to the manufacture. Consent makes all the difference. God does not consent to sin. Mankind broke the rules – God is not implicated in our guilt.

On the contrary, at the cross, Jesus gave His life in complete righteousness and without any stain of sin whatsoever. Because of this, His offering was acceptable to God and so are we, whose lives are covered by His own. Thus, we are justified by the grace of God – not as a result of our own righteousness, but by reason of the righteousness of God imputed to us in Christ through faith.


The Wrath of God

Can it truly be said that Jesus endured the wrath of God in order to be just and the justifier of all who believe in Him?

No. That is the short answer. Here is an explanation, with a consideration of some key words and verses of Scripture that speak of atonement, propitiation and wrath:

Heb. 2:17: ‘Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in all things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people‘ (NKJ).

As High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek, Jesus made propitiaton for the sins of the people by His blood. In the Law, only by the shedding of blood could there be remission of sins (Heb.9:22). The sacrifices foreshadowed the Lamb of God. This much is clear. Now, we need to ask how it was, that the shedding of His blood could be the means of propitiation for our sins. In what way could the blood of the Son of God, poured out in death, propitiate for sin?

Let us first reason from what we know. Like the high priest, the animals had to be ritually pure and undefiled. The ‘blood’ was known to signify the ‘life’ of all flesh, and so was given for use in the rituals of the altar for propitiation (atonement), see Lev.17:11-12. The blood of Christ, signifying His life, was untainted by sin. As High Priest, He ‘was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb.4:15, NKJ). As Christians, we are redeemed ‘with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot’ (1 Pet1:19, NKJ).

Jesus, our High Priest, also ‘makes intercession’ and is ‘able to save’ all who come to Him in faith (Heb.7:25) -  ‘for such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’ …who, ‘offered up Himself’ as a sacrifice for the sins of the people (Heb.7:26-27, NKJ). It is written that: ‘with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all,’ (as foreshadowed by the blood offered on the Day of Atonement)  and that ‘having obtained eternal redemption’ (Heb.9:12, NKJ), He ‘… through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God’ (Heb.9:14, NKJ).

‘So,’ it is written: ‘Christ was offered once to bear the sin of many’ (Heb.9:28, NKJ). The word for ‘bear’, given in this verse, is derived from the Greek verb ‘anaphero’: ‘ana’ is a preposition prefix meaning ‘up’ or ‘upwards’, ‘phero’ can mean: ‘to bear’ (as a burden), ‘to carry’; ‘to bring’, ‘to lead’; ‘to move’, ‘to drive’ (Thayer, Gall). Combined, ‘anaphero’ can translate as: ‘to lift up’; ‘to bear up’, or ‘to offer up’. As what is ‘borne up’ in this context is ‘sin’, we can reason that Jesus, as intecessor and High Priest, in offering His blood for atonement, ‘offered up’, or ‘lifted up’, our sins. Peter adds that He ‘bore our sins in His body on a tree’ (1 Pet.2:24). As ‘the Lamb of God’, Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29, NKJ). He lifted up and took away our burden of sin. Again, we read that it was ‘not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Heb.10:4, NKJ). However, the blood of Jesus, does ‘take away’ sin. He has ‘put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’ (Heb.9:26, NKJ). In lifting up our sins from us and thus taking them away, we have remission – the forgiveness of our sins, and purification – through the ‘cleansing of His blood’ (Heb.9:14).

In all the above, we have the metaphors that speak of the means of our forgiveness and justification. Jesus is the One through whom our forgiveness and sanctification are made possible. The sins of man, borne in the body of God’s Son, are covered by His blood and blotted out. His perfect offering avails for all who come to Him with repentant hearts in faith. We are accepted with Him as His disciples, purified and cleansed by His ‘life’ (symbolized by the blood) that covers our own. He has clothed us with the ‘garment of salvation’ and the ‘robe of righteousness’ (Isa.61:10).

Against Jesus, as both Man and God, we have sinned. By assuming the flesh of man and suffering our sins, He is able to forgive all our sins both against man and God. As the the perfect Man, He was received as the acceptable sacrifice and means of propitiation for the chosen of God. His life, covering over our lives and sins, allows us to stand before the Lord God cleansed, forgiven and sanctified.

On the Hebrew word ‘kaphar’ (translated ‘atonement’ in most English versions):

Although the Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon makes the point that kaphar in the Bible most often has the meaning ‘to cover’, as ‘to cover over sins’, the word need not have sin as the object, although in most cases ‘sin’ is the object of the verb, as occurs in many places through Leviticus. By extension, as a figure of speech ‘to cover’ can apply to other things also – including anger or wrath. In English, the word is often translated with the sense of ‘atonement’ either being made, sought, or achieved by a certain action, and not necessarily that of sacrifice. In the LXX, derivatives of ‘hileoos’ translate kaphar of which ‘hilaskomai’ occurs three times and ‘exilaskomai’ eighty-three times. Mostly, the sense is that of seeking reconciliation through the forgiveness (covering) of sins; although in a few cases the idea is that ‘anger’ might be covered: Num.25:10-13 being such a case, where the zeal of Phinehas serves to ‘cover over’ the anger of God against the children of Israel. Genesis 32:21 is another example where ‘kaphar’ is used by Jacob to describe his hope of appeasing his brother Esau with gifts. Also, David handed over seven descendants of Saul to the Gibeonites for execution – who appear to have been implicated in a mass killing of which Saul had approved when still king. This was done to make atonement (kaphar) for the sin of Saul and his ‘bloodthirsty’ kinsmen (2 Sa.21:1-3, NKJ). In this action, appeasment was sought of both God and the Gibeonites. It would seem that the people of Gibeon were justified in wanting those most responsible and living free to answer for their crimes. I can’t imagine that the Lord could be ‘propitiated’ in the manner of a pagan god with the sacrifice of innocents.

In Romans 5:9, we read: ‘Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.’ However, salvation is a two way process – we have to respond to God’s act on our behalf. To a question asked of Peter, ‘What must we do to be saved?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent …’ (Acts 2:38). We must respond with belief and repentance to God’s call to believe and repent. Jesus ‘rescues us from the wrath to come’ (1 Th.1:10, NKJ). So, before conversion, all stand condemned to face the wrath of God in the Day of Judgment. After conversion, we are ‘not destined for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Th.5:9, NKJ).

From the above, we can see that it was not for the sake of those who refuse to repent that Jesus endured suffering and death. We can also see that the wrath of God is a penalty to be faced by all the unrepentant. The Bible is consistent with this. In all places where God’s wrath is mentioned, it is the wicked – refusing to change and repent – who stand condemned by it, not those who do. Therefore, how can it be imagined that Jesus suffered the penalty of God’s wrath?

Indeed, it is said today that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in the place of the repentant, so the repentant do not have to. But, God does not punish the innocent or the repentant. Quite the opposite. What then? Was it to satisfy justice? This is also said, but how? How can God get angry with Himself and suffer His own wrath? Impossible. So, let’s reason another way.

The ‘blood’ that justifies us is symbolic of His perfect life, acceptable to God in true righteousness. Touched by the blood (metaphorically speaking), we are cleansed and saved – covered by His righteousness. With Him, we are accepted as His disciples and raised up to new life in the Spirit (given to all who truly repent in faith). All that Adam had failed to achieve, Jesus fulfilled in His humanity. In Him, therefore, we can be received of God. In Him, we can receive  our inheritance and blessings forevermore.

We will be imputed the righteousness of Christ if we, in faith, consent to live our lives according to His commandments. Jesus cannot be imputed our guilt and sin because He never consented to sin. It is as simple as that. The wrath of God is turned away from all who repent with faith in Christ.



‘Hamartia’ is used over 170 times in the New Testament to indicate ‘sin’. In only one place do translators show it to mean ‘sin offering’ (Hebrews 10:6). Isn’t this usage compelling, suggesting that ‘hamartia’ can only mean ‘sin’ and not ‘sin offering’ in 2 Corinthians 5:21?

It would indeed be a strong argument in favour of the translation of the word ‘harmartia’ to mean only ‘sin’, in 2 Cor.5:21, if this usage were all we had to consider. However, to arrive at a clear understanding, we should know how the word was applied in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament – and realize that even the Hebrew word for sin, ‘chatta’ah’, was translated either as ‘sin’ or ‘sin offering’ according to context.

In over 170 instances in the New Testament, the context demands that the word should be translated ‘sin’. This is not surprising, for the need to discuss sacrificial offerings relates more to the Old Testament. However, in one passage, Hebrews 10:6, translators have no doubt about the intended meaning: ‘hamartias’ is translated ‘sacrifices for sin’ (NKJ) – the verse being a direct quotation from the Septuagint. It can be estimated that almost 80% of the quotes in the N.T. come from the Septuagint – and the letter to the Hebrews, especially, quotes from this version. In fact, it was the Bible most used by Greek speaking Christians and Jews of the first century. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, the context is that of the sacrifice of our Lord, so translators allow the possibility that the meaning can be ‘sin offering’.

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word, chata’aw’, which is translated ‘hamartia’ in the Greek LXX, is also used over 170 times with the sense of ‘sin’. Nevertheless, this word is also given the meaning ‘sin offering’ in 115 places where the context makes this requirement. The word could also be used with both meanings in the same passage, as in Leviticus 5:6: ‘…for his sin which he has sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin.’ This makes possible the dual meaning given to the word ‘hamartia’ in 2 Cor.5:21 in the translation by David Stern (The Jewish New Testament): ‘God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness.’

The Apostle Paul, being a very learned Jewish scholar, had full understanding of the dual meanings to be derived from this word; therefore, we should be aware of this also.


The sin of Achan

‘God …visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children …’ (Ex.20:5) and ‘Achan’ (Josh. 7): are not these examples of God imputing the guilt of one to another?

Ex.20:5: ‘For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.’ This speaks of households and hate towards God – possibly great grandparents, grandparents, parents and children. Achan died with his whole household. We don’t know how many were in this family, but we might reasonably surmise that what Achan did – rebelling with lust for silver and gold – received the approval of his children. Quite likely the family knew what was in the tent, but said nothing and may even have been secretly pleased about it. Just because they were not the ones to take the initial decision, in defiance of God’s command, does not mean that they had disapproved of Achan’s actions. Nothing is said, but God does not punish the innocent. If such punishment is brought upon the sons and daughters, then the children have been corrupted and complicit in some way in the crimes of the parents, perhaps by following their wrong example. We see that today – criminal activities can run in families. God is just; and if the children are punished for the crimes of parents, then it is because the children are wilful in acting criminally in like manner. God knows all. Members of a family are each judged by their own conduct (see Ezekiel 18). Children who are not implicated in the sins of parents and obey God do not share in their guilt: ‘ “Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?” Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live’ (Ezek.18:19, NKJ).

* Note: In ancient times, the punishment of individuals could extend to family or clan members, with or without culpability in an offence committed. Ezekiel 18, in speaking against this notion also affirms its practice – and at least the knowledge of this practice amongst the Israelites. In this regard, I see two possible explanations for such apparent recordings of ‘collective culpability’ or ‘guilt’, as that above, occuring in Scripture:

1) The account that we read is true, as far as the overall material details are concerned, but includes attempts on the part of the chronicler to justify the event – that might otherwise be looked upon as godless – with the defence that the action took place according to God’s command. In other words, the attempt was made to exonerate the perpetrators of an apparently criminal action with the claim that those involved were merely obeying orders – the orders of Yahweh. Where we read of such accounts, we are then called upon to use discernment with respect to the veracity of the biblical records that appear to implicate God in acts of what might otherwise be regarded as heinous crimes. Many Christians subscribe to this view and do not see it as detracting from the concept that God’s word in Scripture is inspired. This is not seen as ‘picking and choosing what to believe’ but that of listening to the Master’s voice speaking through the historical context of the writers. Such a position is not a denial of belief, of course, but an admission that the Bible is not devoid of its human element and that there are portions hard to accept on the basis of what is written. Subscribing to such a position should not be a deterrent to having faith in Christ.

Opponents of this view might see it as a dangerous attempt to de-God the Bible, allowing one to create God in an image perceived by man, with anything that is beyond man’s natural experience removed from the necessity of belief – such as the miracles. However, if one believes that there is a God and a purpose for our existence that he has created, then we should have no problem accepting that He can do far more than man can imagine. To doubt the miraculous birth, for example, or the resurrection of Christ would be unjustified, for it is wrong to perceive of limits for what an eternal God can or cannot do in His goodness.

2) That the events occured exactly as described and record correctly the will of God with respect to the actions carried out in His name. If this is true, then we can either a) judge God as having done evil, for having acted unjustly; or b) respond to these accounts with faith, knowing that God will not act unjustly or do anything contrary to His goodness. That an event appears unjust and contrary to the will of a loving God is merely that – only what appears, for we are lacking the information that makes the action that occured just. The overall view and understanding, including what will happen to the souls of those killed, is known only to God Himself. We might speculate on the reasons, but we cannot at this time know them. What we do know, that we can believe. That God is love and that He, in His divine wisdom, does nothing without good reason and always what is good – for reasons that are often beyond our comprehension.

Speaking personally, although I speculate on the possible reasons for the whole family of Achan being singled out (Joshua 7), I do so with reasoning that is based on my faith in the goodness and justice of God. The Person whom I know through Jesus is the God I trust. So, I would say I argue from a position of faith, not from silence. Even in a secular court of law, character witnesses can have a persuasive influence on the appraisal of evidence. In this matter, from the witness that I have received of God’s character, it is to me unthinkable that God would ever take an unjust decision or act unrighteously. This witness, for me, is not silent, but loud and clear. God is good, and though I may not understand – like Abraham being tested in faith – I am assured through Christ that He is.

Although I tend to subscribe to the latter position (2b), I have no difficulty accepting as fellow Christians those who, in faith, would subscribe to the first (1).


Two common questions answered

If God can impute righteousness to us, then why not sin to Christ?

It is all about consent. Sin cannot be imputed to Jesus because He never yielded to evil. He yielded His will to the Father. To be attributed sin, one must consent to sin. Those who give their consent to evil without repentance are condemned with the devil. By consenting to righteousness – to follow Christ in faith – God, in His grace and mercy, judges us righteous in His Son.

If God is unjust in punishing Christ for the sinful, then surely He is unjust in punishing mankind for the sin of Adam?

Regarding Adam’s sin … When Adam sinned, mankind was judged sinful and appointed to die. Was God wrong in His judgment? Certainly not, we are sinful. God, of course, judged correctly. Spiritually, we all answer for our own sins. This is biblical. It is unlawful to punish the innocent for the guilty. Therefore God did not punish Christ.

Justice is not upheld by punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty. You don’t need a law degree to see that. It is common sense.

Note: On the fall of Adam, please see here:

Man was created with a mortal nature, but was given the grace to live forever by reason of the tree of life. This is still true today, for the tree of life for us is Christ.

If God had made Adam subject to death, irrespective of whether he had sinned or not, then clearly God would have been the cause of bringing death upon mankind, but this He did not do. We are individually accountable for our own sins. It is not Adam’s sin that is imputed to man, but the consequences.


The Imputation of Righteousness – How can this be just, if the imputation of sin to Christ is not?

With ‘Penal Substitution’, the attempt is made to impute guilt to the Lord for the sins of man. This is unjust because sins are committed against the Lord’s will and certainly without His involvement or consent. On the other hand, it is by the free gift of God’s grace that He imputes righteousness to those who, in the faith, consent as Christ’s followers to obey His will. The righteousness of the Master is imputed to His servants, who seek to bring more glory to the Father. In this respect they are deeply committed in their walk with Christ. The servants of the Master look forward in faith to the time when they shall be like Him in holiness of life. They will to do good as He, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to His commands. As a result of this faith, there is no condemnation. As it is their earnest desire to be righteous in Christ, they are judged righteous. As it is His righteousness they seek, it is His righteousness that is attributed to them now – by God’s grace.

As Christians, God looks upon us not as we are, but as we shall be, in Christ. It is He who is the author and finisher of our faith. Amen.

Norman McIlwain