A Narrative Theology of Penal Substitution

One common objection to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement is that it cannot be found articulated in the gospels. I find this claim to be unpersuasive, not least because of Jesus’ declaration that he came to offer himself a ransom in place of the many (Mark 10:45). Further, the account of Jesus taking the place of Barabbas strikes me as a rather straightforward narrative describing how the innocent Jesus took the penalty of the guilty criminal, who walked away with his life a free man. Do not the gospel writers intend their readers to understand that what is true of Barabbas is also true of all, that the Son of God has taken our penalty in our place? This is precisely what is argued by Adam Hamilton in his book, 24 Hours that Changed the World, as he reflects on the depiction of this event in the film The Passion of the Christ:
“For an instant, Barabbas seemed to comprehend that this innocent man would be nailed to the cross in his place. Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died. This is one small picture of the substitutionary work of atonement Jesus performed with his death; for we, like Barabbas, have been spared, with Jesus suffering the punishment we deserve” (67).
This is not to say that penal substitution is the only way to understand the atonement. And it is true, the gospel writers do not give a systematic exposition of the doctrine of penal substitution, but what they do give us is, in some ways, more telling and more powerful. They show us through their narratives what it looks like for Jesus to bear the punishment of a single sinner. And they invite us all to place ourselves in that story. Jesus not only died in place of Barabbas, he died in place of us all.

4 thoughts on “A Narrative Theology of Penal Substitution

  1. The penal element shows up with the Barabbas narrative in that an innocent goes to the place where the guilty should have been. The cross that was to have been carried by the brigand was instead carried by the Son of God. Of course it's not explicit; it's narrative theology. It's just under the surface. The gospels say it without just coming out and saying it. It is subtle, which is what makes it so interesting.

    I've not seen Flood's critique. Thanks for the link. I'm not necessarily sure that I want to press the passover quite as far as the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions, but I don't think they are altogether off base either.

    Thanks for the interaction.


  2. But isn't it vital to point out that there are various forms of substitutionary atonement? What about Barabbas' account makes it particularly resonant with penal substitution and not the other models of substitution? The element of God's retributive justice and the necessity for appeasing God's wrath are central to the penal model, right? Yet those elements don't seem (to me at least) to be as explicit in the Gospels, even the Barabbas example. I'll have to read that section of _Pierced for Our Transgressions_ and see if I'm convinced.

    Out of curiosity, have you read Derek Flood's critique of _Pierced for Our Transgressions_? http://therebelgod.com/AtonementFathersEQ.pdf


  3. Thanks for your comment, Rudy. I wouldn't want to press it into an either/or with regard to Exodus vs. substitution. Without defending the point, the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions argue that the passover lamb in Exodus 12 functions as a penal substitute (pp. 34-42). They argue that the exodus itself carries a sutstitutionary theme and that the gospel writers carry this theme into their accounts of Jesus' passion and crucifixion.


  4. Thanks for sharing this, Matt! While the example of Barabbas perhaps gives us a picture of the notion of substitution, the narratives of Jesus' death in the Gospels seem to have much more resonance with the story of the Exodus, which has little, if any, trace of what might be considered 'penal substitution.' Though my reading it this way may have something to do with my being in the midst of reading Aulen's 'Christus Victor.' :^)


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