One often hears that penal substitution is merely one model or theory of the atonement and thus should not be elevated as central to defining the way in which we are saved and reconciled to God.
One author appeals to an analogy with golf. Just as Phil Mickelson, for example, would never think of playing in the U.S. Open with only a putter or a nine-iron, neither should we portray the saving work of Christ as if penal substitution were all there is to his sacrifice on the cross. Depending on where one is on the course (whether on the tee box, in the fairway, behind a tree in the rough, or in a sand trap), one selects the most appropriate club to advance the ball toward the green and ultimately into the hole.
Likewise, depending on the circumstances, the personality of the individual to whom we are witnessing, their needs, the cultural influences to which they are subject, their vocabulary and religious background, etc., we select the most appropriate model or theory of what Jesus accomplished to secure the reconciliation of sinners. It may even be that we end up appealing to a multiplicity of explanations for what Jesus did, just as Mickelson during the course of 18 holes of golf will likely use every club in his bag.
However, in most instances where I’ve heard this proposal the motive eventually becomes clear. In conceding that penal substitution is “a” legitimate model for the atonement, but not the central or controlling one, while simultaneously pointing to a variety of theories, it soon becomes evident that the purpose is to minimize the wrath of God, the concept of propitiation, and the idea that in order to redeem us Christ voluntarily endured the penalty that sin incurred. It’s almost as if Mickelson concedes that he indeed carries a one-iron in his bag but in the course of competition rarely if ever uses it. In fact, he likely thinks it dispensable. It would better suit his game to carry a hybrid or an extra sand wedge.
Whenever I’m asked about this question I immediately agree that all of the many theories or models of the atonement are in some sense, and to some degree, true and relevant. But my reason for agreeing to this point is different from those just noted.
Yes, the death of Jesus exerts a “moral influence” on us insofar as his selfless sacrifice in the face of unjust suffering motivates us to endure the same (1 Peter 2:21ff.).
Yes, the voluntary suffering of Jesus is an “example” of God’s love for fallen mankind and devotion to the purpose of peace, as well as a paradigm for the way we should identify with the weak and oppressed. Yes, we see in the death of Jesus his humble submission to weakness and concern for the outcast and marginalized of society.
Yes, God is the supreme “moral governor” of the created realm whose commitment to the interests of public law and order was vindicated and displayed in the death of Jesus (cf. Romans 3:25-26).
Yes, the death of Jesus conquered evil and was designed to undo the works of Satan (cf. 1 John 3:8) and liberate those held captive by him.
Yes, the death of Jesus was designed to restore in mankind the imago Dei (image of God) so horribly defaced (but not destroyed) by the fall into sin.
But all of these things are true only because his death was preeminently a dying in the place of sinners, enduring in himself (body and soul) and thereby propitiating (1 John 2:1-2; Romans 3:25) the wrath of a righteous God.
Satan was defeated and his power vanquished because the guilt of mankind by which he held us in his clutches was imputed to Christ and its penalty endured and exhausted by Christ (Colossians 2:13-15). We are profoundly moved and stirred by the example of his sacrifice becausetherein “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The imago Dei is restored and the effects of Adam’s fall were reversed and God’s righteous rule was vindicated (Romans 3:21-26) because Jesus, as an expression of the incomparable love of God for sinners (Romans 5:8), voluntarily suffered the penal consequences of the law of God, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18), and died our death “by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
So long as the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus is retained as foundational and fundamental to what happened on Calvary, we should joyfully celebrate and give thanks for all else that it accomplished. But without penal substitution, or even if it is merely marginalized or placed on the same plane of importance with these other theories, nothing of any benefit is obtained.
If Christ did not suffer and satisfy the wrath of God in the place of sinners, I simply have nothing to say to a lost and dying world that could even remotely be regarded as “good news” (gospel). I can offer them spiritual therapy, wisdom for living, and a measure of psychological and emotional encouragement. But I have nothing to say that will serve them, much less save them, when they come to stand before the Great White Throne of God (Revelation 20:11-15).
Praise be to God that Christ “suffered once for sins . . . that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18)!