Growing up a Christian in America, my understanding of the cross and effects of it is filtered primarily through a penal substitutionary lens. Essentially, this view holds that on the cross, Christ stood in as a “substitute” for us and received the punishment for our “penalty” of sin. We as humans our imperfect and sin, and sin has consequences due to the one who commits the sin, one of which is God the Father’s wrath on the sin. On the cross, Christ stands in our spot and takes on the wrath of The Father that is due to us. This is said to be done for all the sins of all humanity of all time. Given this, all God requires is that one acknowledges what Christ has done for us for us to receive forgiveness. In recognizing this act of grace, we accept God’s gift of forgiveness. By denying it, we reject God’s gift of forgiveness and don’t receive the forgiveness of our sins. This seems to make sense, but when you look deeper it brings up a conundrum. When Christ paid the price for sin, we are told he pays the price for all sins ever at that time. So, if all the sins are paid for at that time, then why does someone have to pay the price for their own sins later if they don’t accept Christ?
No matter the way you try to conceptualize the way Christ is paying for our sins, it still seems to be adding up to two payments of sin. I want to look at a couple common analogies that try to explain penal substitution and where they faulter. One attempt is to look at sin as a debt we incur and owe to God. The issue is sin ends up being a debt that we can’t pay on our own. So, Christ comes to our behalf and offers to pay the debt for us. All we need to do is take this payment that Christ offers us and give it to God and we are forgiven of our debt. Those who don’t take this payment from Christ are left to bear the burden of the debt on them self, which is usually equated to Hell. The issue with this is that the contention is that Christ already pays our debt and then we just need to accept this payment to not be subject to our debt. My question is why? If Christ already pays our debt, why do we need to accept that he paid it for the payment to be effective? The problem I’m seeing is that for those who don’t recognize Christ’s payment, they are then forced to pay the debt that is supposed to already be paid. If Christ pays God for the sins of someone, if someone doesn’t recognize Christ making this payment, why does God then demand them to make the same payment? Should it matter to God whether someone acknowledges that their debt has been paid in order for them to no longer owe it?
The other analogy, which is susceptible to the same sort of criticism can be formulated in many different forms but mainly deals in the realm of punishment. When you sin, there is punishment that is due to you. Christ steps in on our behalf and takes our position and receives the punishment that is due to us. Our response then is to acknowledge and thank Jesus for taking our punishment. Again, the question comes up, if Christ takes the punishment for someone, why do they end up having to bear it anyways? The implication is that if someone doesn’t recognize that Christ took their punishment, the crime wasn’t really punished. This doesn’t seem to fit with the proclamation that Jesus really took the punishment for all sins on the cross. If that did in fact happen, why then does someone have to acknowledge that their punishment has already been suffered by someone else on their behalf for them to not have to suffer the punishment? If you were supposed to go to jail for a crime but someone else stood in the place for you and took the punishment due to that crime, why must you acknowledge that this person is serving your sentence for you to not have to serve this sentence yourself? When it comes to the crime, it is being punished and so it seems strange that it would be punished again.
This post isn’t meant to be a refutation of penal substitution, but a call for us to be more careful and clearer in the way we talk about it and the way we talk about the event of the cross. If no change is done or nuance added, it seems like we are left to conclude an array of statements that seem undesirable. We may have to conclude that Christ’s death really wasn’t for the whole world but was only for those who he knew would accept him. So, God only attributes and punishes the sins of those who would accept Christ. This allows us to avoid the issue of double punishment. However, it brings into the question the notion that Christ came and died for the whole world. Another option is to say something to the effect of Christ death having the potential to pay for all the sins of the earth, but this doesn’t get actualized until someone actually accepts Christ. This would result in Christ paying the punishment for people’s sins throughout history instead of all at once on the cross. This definitely doesn’t seem to be the way things play out when we read scripture.
There are multiple other convoluted remedies we could come up with to make sense of this notion of double payment of sins. Instead of pursuing that route, I think the best pursuit of discovering truth would be to re-evaluate the way we conceptualize and speak about atonement and particularly penal substitution. I also think that it suggests that penal substitution isn’t the only model we should use. It definitely is useful and brings insight into the workings of salvation and justification, but it alone would give us the full picture. There are many other models out there and I think we would do good to find a way to reconcile them rather than forcing people to choose one over another.