June 26, 2016

Should We Think of Christ’s Death in Juridical Terms?

Dr Craig

First and foremost, I would like to thank you for the significant impact that your ministry has had in the life of my family. My wife and I have been encouraged to share our faith with confidence knowing that we can provide a rational response to many of the objections that Christians face.

I have been a Christian for a majority of my life. However, my new found interest in apologetics has highlighted my considerable lack of knowledge with respect to the basics of the faith that I attempt to defend. As a result, I have started to study theology.

The question I have for you arises from my recent study on the atonement. Howard Marshall's Aspects of the Atonement (2007), was very helpful, and provided a solid defence of penal substitution. However, I have since developed doubts regarding this atonement metaphor.

These doubts arose from my studies of Romans 3:25, 4:25, and 5:18. There appeared to be a clear movement between cultic language and judicial language that seemed to represent a cause and effect relationship between Christ's death and resurrection. For example, Romans 4:25 uses a cultic metaphor to describe the reason for Christ's death (for our sins) and a judicial metaphor to define the beneficial effects of his resurrection (for our justification) for those who put their faith in him. What really struck me was that this movement between metaphors was unidirectional.

This differentiation and movement between the cultic and judicial metaphors appeared to be supported by other New Testament authors. I have been unable to find any examples from the New Testament that link the judicial language of punishment, penalty, judgment, or condemnation to Christ on the cross.

It is at this point that my doubts about penal substitution arose. This metaphor appears to drag the cross of Christ into the courtroom. Instead of his death being the way of making his blood available to purge the stain of sin, it seems to turn it into an act of judicial punishment. I'm certainly not swayed by 'divine child abuse' or 'whipping boy' critiques for various reasons, but I can't help but think that dragging the cross into the courtroom contributes to this misperception.

So here is my question: I understand that Christ was literally condemned and executed as a criminal, but is there any scriptural support for viewing Christ's death as the judicial action of the Father against the Son? I know that Christ condemned sin in the flesh, but does that mean that he himself was condemned on the cross as well?

I would really appreciate and value your thoughts on this matter as I see penal substitution as an important metaphor in the evangelical toolbox.

Thank you for your time.

Kind regards.


New Zealand

I applaud your increased interest in theology, Jonathan! I am currently wrestling with the same sort of questions that trouble you.

Let me caution you first about the use of language. You talk about “cultic and judicial metaphors,” including the “metaphor” of penal substitution. Although there are metaphors used in the New Testament in connection with the atonement, principally “ransom,” I see no reason at all not to take literally the language of sacrifice and punishment. Don’t acquiesce uncritically to the fashionable habit of speaking of all these categories as metaphors. With respect to the language of cult, that is, the ritual associated with worship and sacrifice, it seems to me that Christ’s death was literally a sacrificial offering to God that served, like the Old Testament sacrifices, both to propitiate God’s wrath and to expiate our sins. Nothing metaphorical about that! As for judicial language, an atonement theory of penal substitution holds that Christ died in our place, as our substitute and representative before God, so that we are freed from the penalty of our sin. Nothing metaphorical about that either!

Moreover, to use expressions like “drag the cross of Christ into the courtroom” is pejorative and will prevent an objective assessment of the evidence. In truth, there is no importation of atonement theology into a foreign setting going on here at all. Far from dragging the cross into the courtroom, the use of judicial terminology with respect to man’s relation to God is deeply Jewish.[1] In the Old Testament God is addressed with the legal title “Judge” (Genesis 18.25) and acts rightly in that capacity. Moreover, He is not only the Judge; He is also the lawgiver. The heart of Old Testament Judaism was the divine Torah (law) that governed all of life and man’s relationship to God. Of the 220 uses of tôrah in the Old Testament only 17 are clearly not about God’s law. Of the 127 occurrences of hōq (statute), 87 are linked with the Lord; another word for statute is huqqah, which is similarly linked in 96 out of 104 cases. Mishpāt, which is linked with the Lord about 180 times, is the usual term for judgment and in its participial form is used to refer to God as Judge. It may also mean law. According to Morris, the Old Testament writers often prefer legal to any other imagery when they are referring to what God does (e.g., Micah 6.1-2; Is 41.21; Is 3.13). The use of legal categories with respect to God “is frequent, so frequent indeed that it is plain that it corresponds to something deep-seated in Hebrew thinking. Law and the Lord went together.”[2] It would be hard to imagine a religion more wedded to legal categories than Old Testament Judaism!

So the New Testament is filled with judicial language reflective of its Jewish background.[3] For example, Paul blends cultic and judicial terminology in characterizing Christ’s death:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3.21-26).[4]

The Greek word translated here “righteousness” (dikaiosynē ) can also be rendered as “justice.” The expression “expiation by his blood” is cultic, bringing to mind the Day of Atonement sacrifices, and has reference to Christ’s death on the cross. Paul’s final sentence corrects the misimpression that God, in leaving the sins of previous generations unpunished, is not just; rather, Paul says, Christ’s atoning death proves that God is just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus. The implication is that Christ has borne the punishment due for those sins.

Keep in mind that the problem which forms the background to the above passage is Paul’s disquisition on the wrath of God, which is the result of people’s disobedience to God’s law. They deserve, Paul says, to die, when judged in accordance with the law. The justification pronounced in Romans 3 requires some resolution of that problem. Moreover, the succeeding chapters in Romans also imply some resolution of the problem. Paul contrasts Adam with Jesus:

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous (Romans 5. 18-19).

Justification and condemnation are contrasting legal terms used with respect to God’s judgement. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Christ’s death fulfilled a judicial function: it won our acquittal and right-standing before God. I’m therefore puzzled when you say that “I have been unable to find any examples from the New Testament that link the judicial language of punishment, penalty, judgment, or condemnation to Christ on the cross.” I see no reason to think that the language of Romans 4.25 “was delivered up on account of (dia) our trespasses” is cultic, not judicial. Not only is the context judicial, but these words sound to me like the description of a legal sentence (compare Barabbas, who was “thrown into prison for (dia) insurrection and murder” Luke 23.19).

Maybe what bothers you is that you don’t find an explicit statement that God punished Christ. That statement, however, is controversial even among proponents of penal substitution. Some would prefer to say something like “God afflicted Christ with the suffering that was the penalty (or punishment) for our sins.” That is to say, Christ bore the suffering that, had it been inflicted on me, would have been the punishment of my sins. That still counts as penal substitution.

What comes closest to the statement that Christ bore the punishment for our sins are passages like 1 Peter 2.24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” The language of “bearing sins” in the Old Testament means “to bear either the guilt or punishment for sin.”[5] The passage here is a reflection on the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. There we read:

Surely he has borne our griefs
  and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
  smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
  he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
  and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
  we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
  the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.4-6).

The contrast between the Servant and the people referred to by the first-person plural pronouns shows that the Servant suffered in their place for their sins. This looks for all the world like substitutionary punishment. The New Testament authors (not to mention Jesus himself), think of Jesus as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (e.g., Acts 8.26-35). Thus, we have pretty strong grounds for thinking of Christ’s death in terms of vicarious punishment.


[1] See Leon Morris’ The Atonement (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1983). In addition to chapters on sacrifice, Passover, Day of Atonement, and so forth (all cultic categories), he also includes a chapter on justification, which underscores the importance of judicial language and categories with respect to the atonement.

[2] Ibid., p. 181.

[3] By Morris’ count the New Testament has 92 examples of the noun dikaiosynē (justice or righteousness), 39 of the verb dikaioō (to justify or reckon righteous), 10 of the noun dikaiōma (ordinance or sentence of justification), 81 of the adjective dikaios (just or righteous), and five of the adverb dikaiōs (justly or righteously).

[4] On this passage see D. A. Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives, ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 119-39.

[5] See the detailed discussion by J. Alan Groves, “Atonement in Isaiah 53,” in The Glory of the Atonement, pp. 61-89.