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The CrossPunished in our Place

A Reply to Steve Chalke on Penal Substitution

by Dr Garry J. Williams

In March 2004 Zondervan published a new book by Steve Chalke with Alan Mann under the title The Lost Message of Jesus. Various aspects of the book have provoked criticism from evangelicals, in particular the comments on the meaning of the cross, and a debate in which Chalke will speak has been organized by the Evangelical Alliance. In order to spell out his views, Chalke has written a new piece entitled Redeeming the Cross (cited below as RTC) available online at the Oasis Trust website, together with a shorter summary (RTCS). In this article I set out the arguments in these new papers and respond to them, challenging Chalke’s claim that penal substitution is ‘no orthodoxy at all’ (RTC, p. 2).

Chalke cites only a few phrases from the criticisms which have been made of The Lost Message of Jesus and presents none of his critics’ main arguments. He is trying not to reply to these arguments, but to offer further reflections on the cross. This is not necessarily a negative comment: often it will be appropriate to respond to criticism by stating one’s views more fully. It does mean that the substantive criticisms remain unanswered.

Chalke asks some interesting questions. He is concerned that people almost universally think of ‘certain elements of the Church as judgemental, guilt inducing, bigoted and self-righteous’ (RTC, p. 1). He fears that these perceptions arise from what we believe about the cross, since how we behave inevitably stems from what we believe. If our society dismisses the cross, perhaps that is because we have misrepresented it in our lives. In particular, perhaps we have failed to grasp the wider significance of the cross. Here Chalke has social and political concerns. He wants to know what the cross means not just for individuals, but for the creation and its life as a whole: ‘Has Christ’s death on the Cross got any relevance or meaning beyond the individual eternal destiny of his followers?’ (RTC, p. 2). What, for example, does it mean for foreign policy or for the present terrorist threat? Chalke does not in so many words say that he thinks that the doctrine of penal substitution is to blame for our neglect here, but he implies it. The pieces raise a set of problems, and the only finger pointed as they unfold is aimed at penal substitution.

As he moves on, Chalke is keen to affirm ‘a clear substitutionary element’ in his understanding of the cross (RTC, p. 2). This is of course distinct from a penal substitutionary element, since it implies only that Christ did something in our place, not that he bore punishment in our place. For Chalke, this substitutionary element is part of a ‘multicoloured rather than monochrome’ theology of the cross (RTC, p. 2). That said, the ‘centre point of this biblical mosaic’ is the idea that by both his death and resurrection Jesus Christ is victor over the forces of evil and sin (RTCS, p. 2).

By contrast, Chalke introduces penal substitution: ‘a righteous God is angry with sinners and demands justice. His wrath can only be appeased through bringing about the violent death of his Son’ (RTC, p. 2). This, he says, ‘is a totally different matter’ (RTCS, p. 2).


A wrong definition of penal substitution

Chalke does not here accurately state the doctrine of penal substitution. Note that he does not say that ‘some people express the doctrine like this’ or that people often mangle it when they explain it, which may be true. Rather, he explains the ‘concept’ itself (RTCS, p. 2). Perhaps he has heard this account of the doctrine or been taught it somewhere, but the inaccuracy remains, and it comes from a leader who wishes to explain how we should think about the death of Jesus and who presents himself as competent to give a potted summary of the history of the doctrine.

The problem is simple. Penal substitution, rightly understood, does not teach that ‘God […] brought about the violent death of his Son’ (RTCS, p. 2). It teaches that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit together purposed that the Son should become a man and as a man bear on the cross God’s just punishment for sin in the place of sinners. Chalke’s phrasing makes it look as if party A (God) ‘brought about’ the death of party B (his Son), with the overtone being that this was something inflicted by A on B. I do not infer unfairly: this implication emerges clearly when Chalke speaks of such a God as a ‘cosmic child abuser’ (RTCS, p. 2).

This is not penal substitution, since the Son lays down his life of his own accord. Indeed, the great reformed theologians of the seventeenth century taught that the Father and the Son in eternity covenanted with one another that the Son would lay down his life. This is obvious from reading John Stott: ‘We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners’ (The Cross of Christ, 2nd edition, p. 151). The difference between Chalke’s caricature and Stott’s careful statement is Trinitarian: Father and Son act together, not as two separate agents with their own plans. This problem of a mistaken explanation of penal substitution is grave, since if Chalke cannot rightly explain a doctrine there is little chance that he will critique it accurately.

Moving on to his actual criticisms of penal substitution, we come first to the claim that it ‘isn’t as old as many people assume’ (RTC, p. 2). Chalke gives us a brief genealogy: the doctrine ‘first emerged’ in ‘draft’ in the work of Anselm in the eleventh century (RTCS, p. 2), though he did not teach it explicitly (RTC, p. 2). It was then ‘substantially formed’ by John Calvin in the sixteenth, before being settled by Charles Hodge in the nineteenth (RTC, p. 2).


Penal substitution in the church fathers

Chalke’s version of penal substitution is recent indeed, but the doctrine itself is in fact ancient. The claim that it did not exist until Anselm is simply wrong. There is extensive evidence that a wide range of church fathers taught the doctrine of penal substitution. This is not to say that this one view dominated the rest. There is no need to claim that it did; it is simply necessary to find that some significant Christian thinkers stated a version of the doctrine before Anselm. Among others, it can be documented that penal substitution was taught by Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, and Gelasius of Cyzicus. I will give just four clear examples and reference the rest.»1

An early example is found in Justin Martyr’s second century Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Justin’s Jewish interlocutor objects to the idea that the Messiah could be crucified, since ‘whosoever is crucified is said in the law to be accursed, so that I am exceedingly incredulous on this point.’»2 Justin’s answer to Trypho is an unequivocal affirmation of penal substitution. He asks why, if Christ bore not his own but our curse, Trypho resists: ‘If, then, the Father of all wished his Christ for the whole human family to take upon him the curses of all, knowing that, after he had been crucified and was dead, he would raise him up, why do you argue about him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?’»3. Justin here speaks plainly of the curse due to all Jews who do not keep the whole Law (quoting from Paul’s paraphrase of Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10), and of the curse against the idolatrous nations, both of which are curses from God himself. He denies that Jesus was cursed for his own sins, but affirms that he took upon himself the curses due to others.

Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century explains how the sentence of God on sin has been upheld even though sinners have been saved by the removal of the curse. Jesus ‘took up death that the sentence might be fulfilled and satisfaction might be given for the judgement, the curse placed on sinful flesh even to death. Therefore, nothing was done contrary to God’s sentence when the terms of that sentence were fulfilled, for the curse was unto death but grace is after death.’ »4

At the end of the century, Augustine offers a penal explanation of the cross at various points in his works, for example in Book 14 of the Reply to Faustus the Manichaean. Faustus denounced Moses for pronouncing Jesus accursed in Deuteronomy 21:23, failing to grasp the significance of the Apostle Paul’s argument in Galatians which shows that the curse was our curse. Augustine vindicates the belief that Jesus bore the curse deserved by human sin: ‘as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as he was, ever living in his own righteousness, but dying for our offenses, he submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as he died in the flesh which he took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in his own righteousness, he was cursed for our offenses, in the death which he suffered in bearing our punishment.’»5 Augustine summarizes, distinguishing between guilt and punishment: ‘Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that he might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment’.»6

Gregory the Great, writing at the end of the sixth century, hopes to vindicate the just government of God in the light of the fact that the innocent Jesus has borne punishment. He uses penal substitution to show how the punishment of the innocent Jesus was necessary: ‘if he had not himself undertaken a death not due to him, he would never have freed us from one that was justly due to us’. He goes on: ‘for the sake of sinners he condemns him who is without sin, that all the elect might rise up to the height of righteousness, in proportion as he who is above all underwent the penalties of our unrighteousness’. In a striking statement he asserts that ‘the rust of sin could not be cleared away, but by the fire of torment’.»7


Anselm: drafter of penal substitution?

We note ironically that Anselm, identified by Chalke as the drafter of penal substitution, did not actually teach the doctrine at all. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm explains that punishment and satisfaction are alternatives, whereas penal substitution holds that it is punishment which satisfies God’s justice. Anselm is quite clear that it is either punishment for the sinner or satisfaction by another (i. 13). Crucially, the satisfaction is made not when another takes the punishment in the place of the sinner, but when he dies an obedient death and thus compensates for God’s lost honour. Anselm is the great exponent of satisfaction by substitutionary obedience, not of penal substitution. The New Testament teaches both views (e.g. Rom. 5:15-21, 8:3): Anselm taught only one, and not the one that Chalke ascribes to him.


The doctrine of God and the ethics of punishment

Beside the historical criticism of the doctrine, Chalke levels one central theological charge amid his various asides. The ‘real problem with penal substitution’ is that it is incompatible ‘with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God or genuinely Christocentric worldview’ (RTCS, p. 2). The debate surrounding it ‘is about the very nature of God’ (RTC, p. 1). Penal substitution rests on ‘violent, pre-Christian thinking’ (RTC, p. 3). It ‘presents us with a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution flowing from his wrath against sinners’ (RTC, p. 2), whereas Jesus taught that God welcomes back the prodigal with no price (RTC, p. 3). Jesus urged forgiveness without punishment, but penal substitution makes punishment necessary for God. Chalke asks: ‘wouldn’t it be inconsistent for God to warn us not to be angry with each other and yet burn with wrath himself […]?’ (RTC, p. 3). Thus penal substitution makes God a hypocrite: ‘If the cross has anything to do with penal substitution then Jesus teaching becomes a divine case of “do as I say, not as I do”. I, for one, believe that God practices what he preaches!’ (RTC, p. 3).

This is a long-standing criticism, proposed at least as early as 1578 by the anti-Trinitarian Faustus Socinus. That said, it cannot be dismissed simply by the bad company it keeps. Rather, there is a clear biblical counter-case which suggests a quite different construal of the operation of divine justice. Unlike Chalke, the Apostle Paul distinguishes sharply the different spheres of justice which operate within creation and between God and creation. At the end of Romans 12 he follows Jesus in teaching that we must not take revenge. But the striking thing is that Paul there explains that individuals must not take revenge precisely because God is going to do so: ‘Do not take revenge my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord’ (12:19). From here Paul moves to argue in 13:1-7 that God has given a limited remit to the state to implement this final justice in the present time by the power of the sword. Paul could therefore deny vengeance in the sphere of human personal conduct, and at the same time ascribe retribution to God, shared in part with the ruling authorities. Where Chalke would have us infer that God would never do what he tells us not to do, Paul argues exactly the opposite. God would have us not do what he does precisely because he does it. God’s work, including his work in the atonement, is not to be measured by his injunctions to us. God says precisely ‘do as I say, not as I do’, and justly so, since he is God and we are not.

Paul’s teaching answers one of Chalke’s concerns. While as Christians we are no doubt often judgmental and condemning, we cannot use penal substitution to mandate that kind of behaviour. A Christian who holds to a proper biblical view of the spheres of punishment will recognize that the one thing he cannot do as an individual is to claim that he has the authority to judge others, since that is the authority God reserves to himself.


Personal not social or cosmic?

This leaves Chalke’s other concern, that we have reduced the significance of the cross from the social and cosmic to the merely personal. Let it be said that we must affirm the personal: every individual’s greatest need is reconciliation with God. But clearly the merely personal is inadequate. Despite Chalke’s apparent concern, penal substitution explains very well the cosmic effect of the cross. The narrative of Genesis 2-3 shows that the fall disordered the whole creation, with the serpent seeking to rule Eve, and Eve Adam, and Adam God. Man warred against God and was shut out from his presence. Male-female relations were distorted, and the ground was frustrated. Even the process of life itself, of a new human being coming into the world, became painful. This whole complex of woe was the death threatened in Genesis 2:17. The serpent said that man would not die, but he was wrong. Though he did not die bodily at once, he died spiritually, and then faced an eternity under the wrath of God. The curse of perpetual hostility with God and a disordered cosmos came on the day sin came.

To put the entire creation right, to reverse the effects of sin, to reorder all of the different relations, something had to be done with that curse of spiritual death. Humanity needed to be put back in its right place, under God and over the creation. The restoration of humanity was the key to putting all of the other relationships back in place. Penal substitution teaches that on the cross the Lord Jesus Christ exhausted the disordering curse in our place. It is thus that there can be resurrection and new creation, because the curse, the punishment of the old which rested on men and women and thus on the world, has been spent. Penal substitution, against Chalke’s suggestion (RTC, p. 3), is therefore the prerequisite for a strong doctrine of the resurrection as the beginning of the new creation, not a detractor from it. The old is done away with, the new can begin. Hence indeed the scope of Christ’s work is cosmic: he reconciles all things to himself (Col. 1:20), because he deals with the curse on Adam which affected all things. The new creation has begun with the resurrection, and it is the death of Christ which exhausted the curse which held the old creation in spiritual death. This is no merely personal or individual doctrine. As he bore our punishment in our place and put us right with God, Jesus secured the risen life of the entire new creation.



Steve Chalke expresses concerns about the message and relevance of our preaching, and these concerns combine with his historical and theological criticisms to move him to reject penal substitution. His concerns are valid, his criticisms are not, and neither need lead anyone to abandon this biblical doctrine of the catholic church in favour of what is truly ‘no orthodoxy at all’.


  1. Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica, x. 1; Athanasius, Oratio contra Arianos, i. 60; Hilary of Poitiers, Tractatus super Psalmos, lxviii. 7; Gregory of Naziansus, Orationes, xxx. 5; John Chrysostom, 2 Cor. Hom., xi. 6; Cyril of Alexandria, De adoratione et cultu in spiritu et veritate, iii. 100-102; Gelasius of Cyzicus, Church History, ii. 24.
  2. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, lxxxix; ANF, 1:244.
  3. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, xcv; ANF, 1:247.
  4. De Esau sive de fuga saeculi, c. 7; FC, 65:314-315.
  5. Contra Faustum, xiv. 6; NPNF1, 4:209.
  6. Contra Faustum, xiv. 4; NPNF1, 4:208.
  7. Moralia in Job, iii. 14; LF, 18:149.

* An earlier version of this paper appeared in Evangelicals Now in 2004. It may be reproduced only in full and with due attribution (with this note included).

Gary WilliamsAbout the Author

Dr. Garry Williams teaches Church History and Doctrine at Oak Hill College, London. He is engaged in long-term research for an exposition of penal substitution.