Subscribe to the CompellingTruth.org Newsletter:


What is the doctrine of penal substitution?

The word penal means "relating to punishment" and substitution means "the act of taking the place of another." The doctrine of penal substitution refers to Jesus substituting Himself in humans' place taking the punishment for their sins. Penal substitution is the teaching that Jesus' death on the cross takes the place of the punishment mankind deserves for his sin.

The principle of a substitutionary death being used to satisfy God's requirements for justice began in Genesis 3 when sin first entered the world. Genesis 3:21 records that after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God slaughtered an animal and used its skin to cover the nakedness of which they were now ashamed. Leviticus 14:19 records God's call to priests to "offer the sin offering, to make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness." Hebrews 9:22 says, "Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." Paul explained in Romans 6:23 that "the wages of sin is death." When sin is committed, a death must occur; and God has allowed a substitutionary death to fulfill this requirement from the beginning.

Isaiah 53:5 prophesied that the Messiah "was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement [or punishment] that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed." First Peter 2:24 confirms that Jesus "himself bore our sins in his body on the tree [the cross], that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." In other words, Jesus took on the sin of mankind and died in humans' place in order to take on the punishment humans deserve and instead allow them to be reconciled to God by fulfilling the requirements of God's justice. Paul explained it this way to the Colossians, "He [Jesus] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him" (Colossians 1:22).

Of course, penal substitution is not the only way to view Jesus' work on the cross. Jesus' death on the cross also defeated the power of sin and death, setting humanity free from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). First Corinthians 15:55–57 says, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." This view of Jesus defeating death, the Devil, and sin through His death on the cross is called the Christus Victor theory.

Another view of Jesus' death on the cross is as a cure for the disease of sin. Jesus explained in John 3:14–15, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." During their time in the desert, God's people complained against Him and were then afflicted with poisonous serpents in response to their sin of ingratitude. When the people repented of their sin, God commanded Moses to raise a bronze serpent on a pole to which the people could look and be healed from the snake bites. Jesus compared Himself being raised on the cross to this bronze serpent raised on a pole who healed the people from the consequences of their sin.

Other views of what Jesus' death on the cross accomplished exist as well. However, the doctrine of penal substitution where Jesus took, in mankind's place, the punishment humans deserve is certainly biblically supported both in the Old Testament and the New Testament and cannot be denied as one of the accomplishments of Jesus' death on the cross.


Related Truth:

What are the different theories of the atonement?

Why did Jesus have to die?

What is the meaning of substitutionary atonement?

What is the meaning of Romans 6:23, "the wages of sin is death"?

Spiritual death - what is it?


Return to:
Truth about Theology



THE TRUTH ABOUT: