Penal substitutionary atonement. What is it? Let’s start by looking at the definition of each of the three words:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines penal as “relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.” First, we know that penal substitutionary atonement has something to do with the punishment of someone who has broken a law.
The same dictionary defines substitution as “the action of replacing someone or something with another person or thing.” Second, we know that penal substitutionary atonement involves someone standing in as a substitute for another person.
Atonement is defined as “the action of making amends for a wrong or injury.” Third, we know that penal substitutionary atonement involves someone making amends to another who has been wronged.
Now that we have defined all three words, let’s look at them together and try to see what’s going on here. We need to understand that the words penal and substitutionary are both adjectives that describe the noun atonement. So, atonement is what we are discussing here. And the words penal and substitutionary describe the type of atonement taking place.
It appears that we have three persons involved in penal substitutionary atonement:
1. The Lawgiver
First, we have a person who have given a law that defines how a person should behave and defines the punishment a person will receive should they choose to break the law.
2 The Lawbreaker
Second, we have a person who is under the law who chose to break the law and is now under the punishment defined by the law.
3. The Substitute
Third, we have a person who has chosen to act as a substitute by voluntarily bearing the guilt of the lawbreaker and receiving the full punishment of the lawgiver, all for the purpose of making amends and bringing peace between the lawbreaker and the lawgiver.
That is a basic understanding of penal substitutionary atonement. Now, please take a moment to read through the following passage from Isaiah. In this passage you will find the most amazing example of penal substitutionary atonement. You will see the lawgiver, God. You will see the lawbreaker, yourself. And you will see the substitute, Jesus. Read through it carefully and try to find which phrases refer to the lawgiver, the lawbreaker and the substitute. What is said about each of them? What did each one do? You may have read this passage before, maybe many times, but have you ever really taken the time to truly absorb the truths found in it? Please, do that today. See the full beauty of the substitute that reconciles us lawbreakers to the great lawgiver!
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
― Isaiah 53:4–6 NASB