The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Penal Substitution passages: 2 Corinthians 5:21

So a while ago, I thought it’d be good to have discussions on different passages that people use to support this doctrine of penal substitution. I started a thread on the first four verses of Romans 8 a while back and so I thought it would be good to continue with this and look at some other passages.

2 Corinthians 5:21 is possibly one of the most frequently cited passages in support of PS and it seemed as good a passage as any to make a new thread about.

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Now the support for it would probably be related to two points. First the description of Jesus becoming sin for us, certainly quite a strong expression. The other one would probably be the parallel within the sentence - that Jesus, without sin, becomes sin, so that we who aren’t righteous, become righteousness. That would the notion of imputation.

As someone who very much disagrees with the doctrine of PS, I can see maybe a couple of ways round this interpretation but I’m not quite sure how I’d try and explain it to be honest. Any thoughts on how this passage is best interpreted?

Hi Jonny
I’d like to get my head around this atonement business but I get addled too soon.
I may be way off but I don’t see this text as necessarily in favour of psa. I just read it as Jesus ‘bridging that chasm’. God had to experience that damnable condition humanity has found itself in, in order to redeem the situation. God experienced humanity (in all its dreadful fullness) in order that humanity could experience God. So I don’t see any substitution here in the sense of one man being hanged (regardless of guilt) because the law requires a man to be hung. Rather it was only God who had the power and purity required to bridge that gap, to become a second Adam.
If the above means psa, then I have misunderstood what psa is.
Not being a fan of psa (as far as I understand it) then it is the Romans text which gives me more concern or those texts which use the word ‘ransom’.
I hope this thread takes off so that I might learn something about this business. But what are we to make of the ‘ransom’ texts? Has that word been translated correctly?


I think I’d pair this with some things from Romans – also written by Paul – to explain it more fully. Paul describes Jesus as the second Adam, and Jesus describes Himself as the Son of Man (or the prototype – the representative human being). According to Paul, sin leads to death. Paul never calls the death a result of anything God does. It’s the result of what Adam did and secondarily of what we do. Even those who didn’t sin according to the sin of Adam still die – little babies, for example. So it’s a sort of family curse or sickness. Jesus gathered together in His flesh the children of Adam. The only way out of the enslavement to sin we were born into was to die, and Jesus did that for us – not so that sin could be punished, but so it could be destroyed in His flesh. I realize there are many different pictures and many useful and valid ones – but this is the picture I see in Romans.

The sin is in our flesh and Jesus puts that flesh to death in Himself. If that was all He did though, it wouldn’t help much. We can all die to sin by dying physically, but then we’re dead. It was Jesus’ resurrection that capped the deal. In so doing, He became the Firstborn from among the dead ones. So right now, today, we can live by the life of God – the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. No small thing.

Jesus took sin into Himself. He took the condemnation of the commandment that was against us. He took US – within His own flesh – and put the whole mess to death by dying Himself on the cross. I guess maybe a decent picture here would be that of a serviceman falling on a live grenade to save his buddies. He followed up on this with (according to the EOx, and I like to believe them) the harrowing of hell, leaving nothing there (in hell or probably more accurately ‘the grave’) but the Old Man. Now we are free to follow Him. But Jesus’ taking sin within Himself and becoming the representative human having within Himself Sin Itself (among other things) in that sense, BECAME sin for us in order to deal with sin in His flesh and set us free.

Therefore, while I can see how PSA advocates might take this and attempt to use it to support their doctrines, it doesn’t work unless you ignore pretty much everything else Paul said on the topic. Even then it’s iffy.

I have NO doubt that someone else is going to come in here and say this more accurately and better and more comprehensively than I have. (Or at least I certainly hope they are), but at the moment, this is the best I can do for explaining my understanding of this passage. I’ll be eagerly reading all the good and helpful things others are certain to contribute. :slight_smile:

Love, Cindy

Passing through quickly (sick and busy at work today): I’d argue it has a strong relationship to Hebrews 9 and Galatians 3 (via Hebrews 10, where the author talks about Christ sacrificing Himself as a sin offering), which is itself a major (though not well known) set of evidence for God’s intention and eventual success at universal salvation from sin. (Not even counting the immediate and local contexts of 2 Cor 5:21 itself, which are no small exegetical testimony to the scope and assurance of universal salvation.)

To try to put it shortly (though Cindy put it very well in another thread about PSA recently, and I hope she’ll repost that here), the Son voluntarily dies when any descendant of Abraham (which is every rational creature thanks to the Son Who creates and sustains all creatures incarnating as a descendant of Abraham) sins against the purpose of the covenant which is to bring all Abraham’s descendants to righteousness – any sin at all breaking that covenant of total eventual righteousness, of course – but since the Son stands in authoritative responsibility for us, He submits to death because He is righteous (so doesn’t shirk His responsibilities) and also because He is determined to keep the covenant between Himself and the Father to bring us all to righteousness eventually. He’ll go that far, as far as possible and as far as necessary, to keep it and bring it to successful completion.

This has relevance to language about the blood of the cross, too; not only how it reconciles all things to God whether in the heavens or on the earth, but also how if anyone has been reconciled to God by the blood of His Son, how much more surely shall we be saved into His life. (Col 1 and Rom 5 respectively, which Cindy was also referencing above.)

Thus He Who knows no sin becomes a sin offering, and even (within the terms of the covenant) could be said to become sin (and even rebellious creatures are made from nothing less or other than the self-sacrificial creational action of the 2nd Person of God, I’d argue as a trinitarian theologian), in order that we might become the righteousness of God.

This has always been a difficult passage for me to understand.
Being given as a ‘sin-offering’ makes all kinds of sense to me, and is a humbling and yet glorious thing to know.

Being ‘made sin’ - does this mean:

  1. God the Son became SINFUL? His nature became sinful?
  2. And if not His nature, what DID become sinful?

Indeed that option cannot be true, right?
So being ‘made sin’ - is that a useful fiction, or…well I don’t know what it means, which is why I stick with ‘sin-offering’ which fits very well with the context.

I see this in light of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory and scapegoating. Girard explores how societies build up aggression and eventually choose a scapegoat - an outcast of some sort, or even a group of people who share characteristics that set them apart from “normal” society. The society then releases all of its aggression upon this scapegoat. This releases the tension that society has been storing up for some time, and results in a brief catharsis - thus, the scapegoat ritual is sacralized, as it seems to have been effective. But alas, it is only a temporary result - new scapegoats must be found later on, and the ritual repeats itself.

I wrote in a blog post on atonement of how I came to notice a parallel between the “Azazel” goat (sometimes translated “scapegoat”) and Jesus. What I think is so fascinating is that the atonement ritual that is outlined in Leviticus 16:1-28 involves two goats - one which represents God, and whose blood is poured out for us, and one which carries the sin of the people when it is driven out of town and thrown off of a cliff. But if you pay attention to Jesus’ death on the cross, you might notice something peculiar: there is only one atoning sacrifice. I attempt in my blog to show how Jesus represents both the goat which represents God and the Azazel goat - the one which was driven out of the city and bore the sins of the people. Because when Jesus was crucified, it was done outside of the city in order to symbolize how he was cast out of the societal structures. But when the curtain in front of the Holly of Holies was torn, it revealed that God was not there - because God was the Scapegoat.

God allowed his representative to be seen as the representative of sin, so that He could reveal to us the truth - that scapegoating itself is empty and meaningless. Because without a completely innocent victim, we’d never have seen this - we’d always excuse our violence by pointing out the sin of the victim. I wrote in my blog:

At Jason’s suggestion (and thanks for the kind words, Jason :slight_smile: ), here’s the relevant part of my post over on A.Guy’s thread concerning atonement theories:

Those are excellent replies, some of which I wholly agree with.

Can I ask this again?


Ok I’ve done a lot of what for me is ‘research’ - in other words, I’ve googled a bunch of different sources :smiley: , including some Muslim sources. Muslims are very interested in the question 'Did God die on the Cross?".
I’m really asking Christological questions - who ‘became sin’ , who ‘died’, who ‘suffered’. In short, I’m questioning Chalcedon’s two-natures concept.

Quite frankly there is a lot of intramural disagreement on the question, and a number of subtle sub-questions need to be asked as a preliminary to a fuller answer.
However, that is not to everyone’s taste, so what I’ve done is copy a short answer from William Craig’s site; I don’t know if he is right or wrong about the two-natures concept (I tend to think he’s wrong), but in any case here is his answer:

"Your question is one that also troubles our Muslim friends and is therefore very urgent. Fortunately, the historic Christian church has addressed this question clearly.

The Council of Chalcedon (451) declared that the incarnate Christ is one person with two natures, one human and one divine. This has very important consequences. It implies that since Christ existed prior to his incarnation, he was a divine person before taking on a human nature. He was and is the second person of the Trinity. In the incarnation this divine person assumes a human nature as well, but there is no other person in Christ than the second person of the Trinity. There is an additional human nature which the pre-incarnate Christ did not have, but there is no human person in addition to the divine person. There is just one person who has two natures.

Therefore, what Christ said and did, God said and did, since when we speak of Christ we’re talking about a person. For that reason the Council endorses speaking of Mary as “the mother of God.” She bore the person who is a divine person. Unfortunately, this language has been disastrously misleading because it sounds as though Mary birthed the divine nature of Christ when in fact she birthed Christ’s human nature. Mohammed apparently thought that Christians believed that Mary was the third member of the Trinity, and Jesus was the offspring of God the Father and Mary, a view which he rightly rejected as blasphemous, though no orthodox Christian holds it.

To avoid such inevitable misunderstandings it is helpful to speak of what Christ does or how he is relative to one of his two natures. For example, Christ is omnipotent relative to his divine nature but he is limited in power relative to his human nature. He is omniscient with respect to his divine nature but ignorant of various facts with respect to his human nature. He is immortal with regard to his divine nature, but mortal with regard to his human nature.

You can probably see now where I’m headed. Christ could not die with respect to his divine nature but he could die with respect to his human nature. What is human death? It is the separation of the soul from the body when the body ceases to be a living organism. The soul survives the body and will someday be re-united with it in a resurrected form. That’s what happened to Christ. His soul was separated from his body and his body ceased to be alive. He became temporarily a disembodied person. On the third day God raised him from the dead in a transformed body.

In short, yes, we can say that God died on the cross because the person who underwent death was a divine person. So Wesley was all right in asking, “How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” But to say that God died on the cross is misleading in the same way that it is misleading to say that Mary was the mother of God. So I think it better to say that Christ died on the cross with respect to his human nature but not with respect to his divine nature."


Let me know what you think?

Just musing here, Dave . . .

First off, just because this made me think of it – GMac said something to the effect that God was always man. God could never have become man if He hadn’t always been man. Which makes sense if you consider that God doesn’t change, and that mankind was created in the image of God. That doesn’t mean God has always had a human body, but there is apparently more to man than a human body (if GMac is right) and this more must be the reason that man can be said to be created “in the image of” God. Jesus did say to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection, “God is the God of the living (meaning Abraham, Isaac & Jacob), not of the dead.”

Scripture is always a bit iffy to me as to what is meant in any particular place by “living” or “dead.” Jesus said of Jairus’ daughter that she wasn’t dead but asleep. He preferred this terminology with regard to Lazarus, but when the disciples just weren’t getting it, He said, “Lazarus is dead.” From the context it would seem He only said it this way as a concession to communication with his dull human followers. :laughing: Before He was pressed, He said, “Lazarus our friend is sleeping, but I go that I may awaken him from sleep.” Jesus apparently didn’t consider Lazarus to be dead, nor Jairus’ daughter.

What implications does this have for Jesus dying on the cross? Would Jesus have said of one of the antagonistic Sadducees, “He’s not dead, but sleeping?” I don’t know. If NDE’s mean anything at all (which I also don’t know), it would seem that unbelievers at least see themselves as being conscious beyond death. It was in His body that Jesus dealt with sin according to Paul in Romans:

I think maybe there’s good justification for saying that those who are not ‘in Christ’ are dead (spiritually) while they live (physically). That is, for saying that actual genuine DEATH is separation from God, while physical death which seems to us so great and terrible is really just a type of sleep. And of course when we sleep we dream. Could it be possible to dream of a world that is truer than the world in which we live? Most of us when we dream don’t know we’re dreaming. Is the dream world real? In a quantum sense, the dream world COULD be in some sense real though not perhaps in the same way the waking world is real. Maybe we’re even now in a dream world from which we wake when we “die?” I suppose that for infants, this is a bit like a dream world – disconnected and strange and hard to understand and remembered if at all, only in bits here and pieces there. As their consciousness wakens gradually with physical maturation, they mentally emerge into a world different from what they dimly perceived as infants. When we die, is that just the next stage of maturation? Do we really cease to exist? I don’t think we do.

And as someone else here said (sorry – I’d have to look back to make sure who it was), waking in a timeless place is of necessity a timeless event, so to say there’s a period of non-existence (if this view of eternity is right) really wouldn’t have any meaning. I don’t know what such a “place” would be like, and if I did know, I undoubtedly couldn’t describe it, but that’s to be expected from a person who has known nothing but classical passage of “time.”

I believe that Jesus did die – that is, with regard to this world, He fell asleep. I believe that He went on to do battle with the “strong man,” to bind him and plunder his house and harrow hell and set the captives free. I don’t see any problem with His actually “dying” in this sense, because it was in His physical body that sin was dealt with. I don’t think we can even begin to say that His physical body didn’t die. Maybe the problem for us with regard to ‘sin leading to death’ isn’t that sin leads to the death of the physical body, but that it leads to death in the sense of separation from God. And when we die physically and pass from this earth, this realm of grace (however painful) in which God causes His rain to fall and His sun to shine on the just and the unjust – that when that happens, then we are stuck. We’re prisoners of the adversary and we can’t get away into life because that would mean to go to the Father – which we can’t do so long as we’re enslaved by sin – not because He prevents us, but because we would have to let the sin go, and it is our master and IT prevents us.

Maybe (probably!) my understanding is lagging behind, but I’m not sure why we need the whole two natures thing. If I imagine an interracial marriage between an earthling and a martian, in which children are born, I would see the children not as having two distinct natures (Terran and Martian), but as being both together, unified. Maybe that’s a silly example, but Jesus is the unification of the purely human and the purely divine and as such, the natures wouldn’t (as far as I can see) be separable. Jesus died, I think, just as you and I will die and cross over. Because He died and defeated death in His death and in His resurrection, we know that we also will live (spiritually and physically).

But for Him as for us, dying doesn’t mean cessation of existence. It means (I believe) that we can no longer stay in our bodies. Our bodies are a part of us, but they are not US. I can continue to live physically if I lose a leg, but that doesn’t mean the leg is an optional part of my body. We were made to have a body, and if we don’t have that body, then we’ll miss it I think. I would miss my leg acutely. Continued existence after physical death doesn’t negate the value of a physical resurrection.

I’m getting off track though. My point here is that Christ could die physically and condemn sin in the flesh without ceasing to exist. Because of that I don’t see the need to decide which of His natures died. I think His body died and that this doesn’t mean He ceased to exist or became unconscious or whatever. He went where prisoners went and He overcame the strong man and set the captives free and rose from the grave. He did this as Himself – as the God/Man. And that’s my (overly wordy) take on it. With which I fully expect you to have some issues, Dave, but as always, that’s perfectly okay. Just the way I see it. :wink: And a big thanks for making me think this through!

Thanks Cindy, there’s a lot of good gospel in that response!

What I’m aiming at, and will try to develop in a separate thread, maybe , is the illogicality of the two-natures/1 person formulation from Chalcedon. I don’t want to be contentious here, because just as with the supposed Trinity, the Incarnation is also, perhaps, a difficult to explain concept where language falls short.

Thanks again.

Pretty sure most (all?) of us agreed, it’s sin-offering, especially by context.

A non-trinitarian Christology still wouldn’t fit well with Christ the sinless actually ‘becoming sin’ somehow.

Super-busy at ‘work’ work this week, so don’t have time/energy to work on long replies (by my standards of long anyway. :wink: ) You may remember from my earlier related discussions that I think the divine 2nd Person can and does die (though not physically, but in the relevant sense of submission) even in the ontological economy of the Deity. And dies a somewhat different way to create any not-God reality. And dies again in the kenosis (pouring out) of the Incarnation. So, on the particular trinitarian theology I work with, dying on a cross is not an uncrossable chasm (so to speak).

However, without that theological connection going back to the typical action of God self-begotten in always choosing to surrender in loyalty to God self-begetting – a connection which trinitarian theologians have usually not made, unfortunately, though Lewis and GMac both approached it – you’ll get answers like William Lane Craig’s, where the divine nature doesn’t die on the cross only the human nature. When followed out, however, this leads to the schism between the natures attributed to Nestorius, and I expect he doesn’t want to affirm that.

(If I recall correctly, WLC goes the route of privative aseity, too – God statically self-exists, not actively self-exists – which has a connection to his answer about the divine nature not dying on the cross.)

Just been reading back through this thread and wanted to say that I thought this was a really great post Cindy. Really great way of summing it up and I found it really helpful to think about so thank you very much :slight_smile:

Interestingly enough, I was reading through Romans 3 and 4 last night, trying to get a good grasp of them and was a little amused by Romans 4:25 which says:

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Under the often-held theory of PS and, sprung from that, their idea of justification, we are apparently justified by God because Jesus is punished instead of us - so we are justified when He dies because it is He who receives the condemnation from God rather than us, and we therefore are treated as innocent. With this doctrine in mind, we might expect the verse to say “He was delivered over to death for our sins and for our justification

Yet it doesn’t say that; rather it says that he was raised to life for our justification. So our justification doesn’t come in Him dying; it comes in Him living so that we may have faith in Him and therefore become/be called just. He, as the source of our life, is the source of all justice.

I don’t quite understand specifically what you mean by the phrase ‘sin offering’. Can you explain it a bit further?

Wow, that’s fascinating, thanks for that! I’ll have a further look through that blog post, it sounds really interesting.

A sin offering was a commitment to putting away sin, with the offering representing the sin to be destroyed – but without an intentional commitment by the person to sending away sin the offering would be worse than useless. As FLTL points out, all the relevant sacrifices (including the two goats) represented in distinct ways the coming single sacrifice of Jesus.

So the sin-goat becomes a representation of sin and is driven out and destroyed, even though the goat itself is innocent; but that’s only the selfish murder of an innocent animal, sacrificing it instead of one’s self, unless the person commits to putting away his own sin. And even then, it’s only a representation: no amount of goats or bulls or whatever can clean a person from sin, but by doing so they were cooperating (before the fact, historically speaking) with the Messiah Who, unlike us, can offer Himself to die for sin and rise again.

So in effect the sin-goat instead of being an irrational animal, or even a rational creature who can die but isn’t eonian life in Himself, voluntarily dies to keep the covenant between Himself and the Father in effect, to bring all rational creatures (descendants of Abraham by means of the Creator of all rational creatures incarnating as a descendant of Abraham) to righteousness: committing Himself to the sending away of sin, even though (like the sin offering) He had no sin Himself to send away.

And there, by the way, is the connection to the baptism of Jesus unto the sending away of sin. The term ‘after-mind’ which we translate ‘repentance’ there would apply to us, who actually have sins to repent of, but still applies to Jesus for the same reason any repentance of our is true instead of a sham: the intentional commitment toward sending away sin out of us and destroying it. The only difference is that we’re committed to sending sin away out of us ourselves as well as out of other people; Jesus Who has no sin (like the sin offering) commits (which the sin offering can’t do, not being a rational person) to sending sin out of other people: commits even to the death, but unlike any mere creature He can raise Himself again (in communion with the Father of course, which the scriptures talk more about, but John reports Jesus affirming that He also raises Himself by His own power, being Himself the Resurrection and the Life.)

Consequently we’re baptized into the death of Jesus (cooperating with His commitment unto the sending away of sin), so that we may rise with Jesus into His life: cooperating with the voluntary submission which the Son is always doing (even in the self-existent Trinity) for anything, including any creation, to exist at all. But the Son also thereby voluntarily accepts and bears the sin we do in transgression against the source of our existence, graciously keeping us in existence anyway. He doesn’t wait for us to cooperate with Him in sending away our sin, but selflessly and continually sacrifices Himself for our sake as the foundation of the world.

That fundamental ongoing sacrifice of the Son in any case is what the whole process runs on, so to speak. When that’s ignored (even though trinitarians of all theologians shouldn’t ignore it), then you get the radical injustices implied by standard PSA theories, where an innocent person is punished instead of the guilty allowing the guilty to go free (for a while, or forever – ultra-universalists tend, though not always, to have gotten there from standard PSA theories: Jesus already bore all punishment of all sinners, instead of all sinners, so God won’t punish any sinner. Ultra-u’s don’t have to go this route however.)

Note that if typical versions of PSA are true, we couldn’t possibly be baptized into the death of Jesus nor in any way cooperate with it, Jesus being the mere substitution for us. He wouldn’t be reckoned with transgressors, but only instead of transgressors.

By context? The immediate context tells ME that it’s NOT a sin-offering.

Are not “sin” and “righteousness” used in parallel construction? Jesus becomes SIN; we become RIGHTEOUSNESS.
SIN contrasts with RIGHTEOUSNESS. I’m still struggling with my attempt to fully understand the meaning, but whatever it means, the parallelism doesn’t work if we substitute “sin-offering” for “sin”.

I know that ‘nobody follows links’ BUT here is a good one, to a concise and readable essay ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’ that is actually worth reading. (It would be cool if those of you that know enough Greek, and had the time, would read it and give a report on what you think. ) … usness.pdf

Thank you, Dave, for that link. I have downloaded Wright’s article and have saved it in my folder of theological writings.

I found the article mind-expanding, although I have not been convinced by Wright’s conclusion.

I tend to agree with those who see “the righteousness of God” as referring to the righteousness which becomes ours, but has its source in God, and is in that sense “the righteousness of God”.

So yesterday, on Easter Sunday, Tim Keller actually tweeted this exact sentence:

If you don’t have Twitter or you don’t follow him on Twitter, Keller tweets stuff about penal substitution quite often, obviously wanting to push it forward as a doctrine; whether that’s because he sees it being looked upon more sceptically in recent years I don’t know but he tweets quite a bit in relation to it. There have been a few times where I’ve read something from him and thought how untrinitarian it seemed but just left it (there have also been a couple of times where he’s tweeted something and I’ve picked him up on it, which led to him replying to me a couple of times as well, which was cool).

This tweet however genuinely astonished me. Even the most ardent of PSA proponents don’t generally go as far to say that Jesus lost the love of the Father. Where he’s picked this up from I don’t know.

It did amuse me though that just a day previously, he had tweeted this:

Now quite apart from the obvious contradiction between that and his Calvinist beliefs (‘relationships of love are what life is really all about, apart from with those people whom God has sovereignly chosen to never even be able to have a relationship with Him and predestines to always be separated from loving relationship with Him’), it gives him just as big a problem with the first tweet as well - that God has to withdraw loving relationship in order to be able to have loving relationship is clearly very problematic for Keller. Not that he’s probably realised that.

Keller’s idea that Jesus lost the love of the Father may have originated from the way He understood Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

He may not have considered the possiblity that Jesus only FELT forsaken by the Father, but in actuality was not forsaken.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (Hebrews 5:7).

How was Jesus heard? The Father didn’t save him from death, did He?

No, but God saved Jesus OUT OF death by raising Him to life!

The preposition in the Hebrews 5:7 text is not “from” but “out of.”

Interestingly the Peshitta renders it… “My God, my God, for this I was spared!” – meaning – this was my destiny.