Dabney, R.L. – Christ Our Penal Substitute

Christ Our Penal Substitute

by R. L. Dabney

In this 11 chapter work, Dabney (Presbyterian) looks at the legal-judicial aspect of salvation, and Christ’s work on the cross as a penal substitute for us. His chapters are an explanation of the biblical doctrine and its teaching on punishment in general, and then seeks to answer objections to this doctrine.



Table of Contents of Christ Our Penal Substitute

1. The Rationalistic Objections to Penal Substitute
2. Definitions and Statement of the Issue
3. Objections Examine
4. The Utilitarian Theory of Punishments
5. Retribution not Revenge
6. The Witness of Human Consciousness and Experience
7. Our Opponents’ Self Contradiction
8. The Ethical Objections Considered
9. What Scripture says of Substitution
10. The Testimony of Christendom
11. Conclusion



Christ Our Penal Substitute

Excerpt 1 – Chapter 2 Definitions and Statement of the Issue

The standard which distinguishes between righteousness and sin is the preceptive will of a holy God. This legislative prerogative belongs to him by right of his moral perfections, omniscience and righteous ownership of us as our Maker, Preserver, and Redeemer. Our righteousness is our intelligent and hearty compliance with that will. Our sin is our conscious and spontaneous discrepancy there from. (1 John iii. 4: The badness or evilness expressed in any sin (and usually increased by it) is the attribute or subjective quality of the sinning agent. “Potential guilt” is the ill-desert, or merit of punishment, attaching to the transgressor by reason of his sin. This concept is not identical with that judgment and sentiment of disapprobation which sin awakens in the conscience, though it springs immediately out of it. Where we judge that an agent has sinned, we also judge that he has made himself worthy of penalty; that his sin deserves suffering, and this is a necessary and universal part of the moral intuition whose rise he occasions in us. Such is potential guilt. Actual guilt (reatus) is obligatio ad poenam ex peccafo, the debt of penalty to law arising out of transgression. It is the penal enactment of the lawgiver which ascertains and fixes this guilt. Hence, under a lawgiver who was less than omniscient and all perfect, there might be sin, evil attribute and potential guilt, while yet the actual guilt was absent, because the penal statute defining it did not exist. It thus appears that while evilness or sinfulness is an attribute, actual guilt (reatus) is not an attribute but a relation. It is a personal relation between a sinning agent and the sovereign will which legislates the penal statute. Now, when the Scriptures and theology speak of penal imputation or substitution, it is this relation only which is transferred or counted over from the sinning person to his substitute. We do not dream of a similar transfer of personal acts, or of the personal attributes expressed in such acts.

Now let none exclaim that these are the mere subtleties of abstraction. They are the most practical distinctions. They are recognized, and must be recognized, in the civil and criminal laws of men as much as in the government of God. Readers must observe that in sacred Scripture the word “sin” is often used by metonymy where the concept intended is that of actual guilt. Thus a prophet exclaims (Jer_1:20): “In those days, and in that time, saith the Lord, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none.” The exact meaning of the word “iniquity” here must be actual guilt, else we should make the prophet contradict himself utterly by first charging on Israel very great sins, and then declaring that no sins of theirs existed, which is, moreover, a statement impossible to be true of any of Adam’s race. In a multitude of places, God’s mercy is said to “remit sins.” But actual guilt is what is meant. For God’s act of forgiveness only removes our actual guilt from us; not sinfulness, as is proved by our own subsequent, most hearty confessions of unworthiness and sinfulness whenever God really forgives us. Or let us add another instance, since this distinction is so vital and so much overlooked. A thief steals a horse of a neighboring benefactor, sells him beyond recovery, and loses the money at the gaming table. These acts of the thief give expression to much meanness or vileness of character. The market price of the horse was one hundred dollars. These acts have infected upon the good neighbor a pecuniary loss (damnum) of that amount. They have also laid the thief under the penal obligation of five years or more in the penitentiary, as fixed by statute law. The good man, learning that the thief and his family are still suffering destitution, exclaims: “Oh! I freely forgive the fellow.” What he means is that he, at the prompting of charity, remits to the thief his damnum, his lost hundred dollars, and suppresses the anger at first naturally and properly felt. The good man dreams of no such folly as that he can remove from the thief his attribute of vileness or release him from his legal debt of penal servitude; he knows he has neither the power nor the right. The distinction between potential and actual guilt is found, perfectly real and solid, in numerous secular cases; as where the cunning manipulators of business corporations so juggle with the property of creditors and fellow-stockholders as to inflict on them what is mere theft in the sight of God. But the sapient American legislatures, while recklessly creating such corporations, have forgotten to enact any statutes fixing the legal penalties for these juggleries. Hence these men go unwhipped of justice, although the judges of the courts may be thoroughly alert and righteous. Abundant potential guilt is there, but for want of statute law the debt of actual guilt does not exist.

The distinction between sinfulness as an attribute and as a penal obligation often receives more practical concrete application. Here is a treasurer who has given an official bond upon which a friend goes security. The treasurer commits the felony of embezzlement, and by flight escapes the clutches of the law. Thereupon the Commonwealth forces the security to pay the official bond; that is to say, it exacts from him the legal obligation which is made his by imputation. And this exaction is, to the good man, a heavy penalty, a mulct, inflicting, perhaps, much suffering on him and his family. Does anybody dream that a shadow of the embezzler’s meanness or sinfulness is transferred to, or infused into this generous friend, who suffers for another’s crime? Not at all. All honor the unfortunate man for the generous friendly help which prompted him to go security, and for the honesty with which he makes good society’s loss. Yet the Commonwealth acts with perfect justice in exacting the money from him. Here is the clearest distinction between actual guilt and sinfulness; nobody is so stupid as to pretend not to see it. Let the vital proposition be repeated, that, in the penal substitution of Christ, it is the actual guilt of sinners as above defined, and nothing else, which is transferred from them to him. And the whole question between us and the objectors is this: May the sovereign Judge righteously provide for such a substitution, when the free consent of the substitute is given, and all the other conditions are provided by God for good results? This issue is cardinal. As the church of all ages has understood the Scriptures, the whole plan of gospel redemption rests upon this substitution of Christ as its corner-stone. He who overthrows the corner-stone overthrows the building.



Excerpt 2 – Chapter 4 The Utilitarian Theory of Punishments

Our opponents virtually adopt the utilitarian ethics, for on it they found a famous objection to the gospel doctrine of substitution. They proceed thus: God is love. But a ruler whose single consummate moral attribute is benevolence can punish one of his creatures only from a benevolent motive. They find this motive in God’s desire to administer a healing medicine to the spirit of the creature whom he loves, which he perceives is suffering from the disease of sin; and also the benevolent desire to deter the other thoughtless creatures from sinning. They suppose that God in his punitive providence regards sin only as a natural mischief, injurious to the welfare of creatures, and not a moral evil incurring his righteous displeasure, and carrying an inherent ill-desert. They suppose that the sentiment of the loving God in view of sin is only compassion, and not moral resentment, just like the feeling of the good, kind mother towards the sickness of her amiable child. This mother, prompted by love alone and prudential expediency, imposes restraints upon the sick child quite irksome to it, and administers remedies which afflict the sufferer with additional nausea, gripings, and burning pains. But in all the treatment, there is nothing vindicatory; her sole object is to deliver the child from the greater miseries resulting from unremedied disease. Exactly such, say they, is God’s punitive policy toward sinners; it is only to be explained as remedial. And on this theory of punishment they found a famous objection against penal substitution. The sick child must swallow his own physic himself. It will be no remedy for him to have it swallowed by a healthy comrade. So, the punishment of a substitute is utterly futile for any medicinal result, and, therefore, foolish and cruel. The shallowness of this boasted argument is revealed by a simple question: Do not our opponents claim for Christ’s sufferings great medicinal or remedial effects?

And according to them, were not the sufferings borne by one person, Jesus, and the benefits received by others, converted sinners? Here, then, we have the same case which they pronounce absurd: the healthy person drinking the medicine, and the sick persons healed by it without tasting it. But this explanation of God’s punishments is notoriously that of the utilitarian ethics. The famous book of Dr. Wm. Paley, his Moral and Political Philosophy, with those of Hobbes, Locke, Helvetius, Hume and other advocates of the “Selfish System,” once gave currency to the ethics of expediency in New England. To all sound philosophers, that sorry system is dead, slain by the unanswerable logic of Bishop Butler, Dr. Richard Price, Cousin, Jouffroy, Kant, and indeed, a great host in America, Britain, France and Germany. This theory of punishments is an integral part of that utilitarian system of ethics; since the parent stock is dead, this branch must be but rubbish, fit only to be burned. The recital of the general refutation would lead too far away from our special object in this discussion. Such refutation ought to be needless for well-informed men. For the demolition of this remedial theory of punishments, these remarks are sufficient.

We were about to say that it finds no support in the Holy Scriptures; but we remember that this old book may carry little authority with our opponents. While the Scripture often describes God as administering medicinal chastisement to his reconciled children for their good, it nowhere ascribes to him such a motive for his retributions upon the condemned and reprobate. His objects here are always different, the satisfaction of his own moral indignation, the meetings of the claims of justice, the vindication of his law.

In order to hold this remedial theory we must adopt very degrading views of God’s omniscience, not to say of his sagacity; and we must conclude that as a moral governor he is very much a failure (absit blasphemia)! For even our creature experience has shown us that the temporal miseries visited upon sin by divine providence mostly fail to reform sinners. The prodigal usually goes on, in spite of the evils of poverty, to repeat his sins of waste and idleness. The drunkard experiences the miseries of disease, but returns again to his strong drink. The miseries of pagan life are more severe than those experienced in Christian lands, and they are mostly traceable to their idolatries; but we do not see that they convert any pagans. In truth, whenever we see instances of sanctified affliction, that is to say, of the temporal penalties of sin reforming the sinners, the good result is accounted for, not by the operation of the mere pain, but of the word and Spirit of God, employing it as a timely occasion for the sanctifying impressions. If God is infinitely knowing and wise, does not he also see this? If he is infinitely benevolent, why does he continue to employ this pretended remedial policy when he sees it futile, and therefore cruel? It may be added that if this theory of remedial penalties is relied on to justify the criminal laws of states, then it shows their punitive policies to be wretched and contemptible failures. What felon repents in a Penitentiarium? We demand, then, of our rationalistic and humanitarian opponents, why they permit their boasted commonwealths to continue civil punishments if they believe that penalty can only be justified as a benevolent remedy for transgressions?

But a more fatal objection is found in every case of those moral creatures of God who are punished, but not for their restoration. If there is any authority in the Bible, it makes known to us two very numerous classes of such culprits, reprobate men and the fallen and condemned angels. Their punishment cannot be designed to be remedial; because for them there is to be no remedy, but perdition. Of course, therefore, God does not design the penal sufferings of these creatures as benevolent; they simply are retributive, or they are inexplicable.

This theory is utterly inapplicable to an infinite heavenly Father. Human parents seek to cure the diseases of their children by using distressing remedies. They know that their remedies are as real natural evils as the disease itself, although smaller and briefer evils. They know that their curative policy is, after all, “a choice of evils.” Why do they not employ some relief for their beloved children which is no evil at all? Because they cannot help themselves; their knowledge and power are quite limited. Were they omnipotent their love would surely cause them to prefer another remedy. They would complete the curative work upon those they love by their simple word of power: “Be healed!” But the heavenly Father is sovereign, and infinite in wisdom and power. If benevolence were his sole motive in punishing, why did he not choose some other painless remedy? When we add that, being omniscient, he must have foreseen the complete failure of the distressing remedy in multitudes of sufferers, and that, being almighty, he must have felt himself able to use any other remedy he chose, equally painless and potent, our question becomes crushing. The theory of the remedial policy, as applied to God’s government, stands exposed as equally shallow, thoughtless, and worthless.

It breaks down equally when tested in another way. If the ruler’s motive in punishing were only remedial and deterrent, without any eye to retributive justice, then every consideration should decide him to punish where the punishment would be most effective for these ends. Upon this plan many cases would arise in which it would be more politic, and therefore more just, to punish some innocent person, without his consent, closely connected with the real culprit whose reform is designed. For instance, here is a fallen reprobate woman, guilty of frequent disorders, and several times chastised for them by law. But she has became so callous and desperate that the legal penalties fail to influence her. In this arid heart there is yet one green spot; she still has one daughter, the child of her better days, who is innocent and charming. The mother still loves this child with all the passion which centers upon a sole remaining object. The magistrate punishes this child with stripes. As the hardened mother witnesses her torments and her screams, she relents; she resolves to reform, and her mother love keeps her to her resolution. Do we therefore say that it was more wise and just to scourge the innocent child than the guilty mother? This is abhorrent to every right mind. But according to the theory we combat, it should be entirely acceptable to our consciences.



Excerpt 3 – Charter 9 What Scripture says of Substitution

Much of our argument has been run into the field of rational discussion, because our opponents are rationalists, and they, by their attacks on God’s truth, have made it necessary to follow them to their own ground. But the reader must not infer from this that we think that human philosophy is the superior, and Scripture the inferior source of evidence. Our comparative view of the sources of authority — a view taught by a long acquaintance with the contradictions, mutations, and vagaries of the most boastful human philosophies — may be truly expressed in the apostle’s words: “Let God be true, but every man a liar.” What saith the Scripture? When that is carefully and honestly ascertained, it should be the end of controversy. Therefore, the main thing which we have to allege in support of our thesis is this: that the doctrine of Christ’s substitution under our penal obligations, and the imputation of his satisfaction for guilt to be the ground of our justification, is, either implicitly or expressly, taught throughout the Scriptures. It is so intertwined as an essential part of the whole warp and woof of the fabric that it can only be gotten out of it by tearing it into shreds. This we shall now evince; First, By a brief array of the scriptural assertions of substitution; and, Second, By showing how many other heads of doctrine which are cardinal in the Bible system are vitiated or impugned when that doctrine is rejected. Decisive proof-texts are so numerous that all cannot be recited; all that can be here done is to classify the several groups of texts, giving sufficient examples under each group to show how they apply. This is also thoroughly trodden ground in Christian theology. All of its great teachers discuss the doctrine with sufficiency, and several of them with triumphant and exhaustive demonstration. Among these we will commend a purely biblical discussion, now too much out of fashion, Magee on The Atonement. He who will follow the Scripture citations and searching criticisms and expositions of this old book will be compelled to say that the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitution, whether reasonable or not, is certainly taught in “Holy Writ.”

We find our first argument in the meaning of the Old Testament sacrifices. These were first instituted by God in the family of Adam, before the gate of the lost Eden. They were continued by God’s authority under every dispensation until the resurrection of Christ. Moses gave perfect regularity and definiteness to the ordinances of bloody sacrifice in the Pentateuch, which he did by divine appointment. Ancient believers knew that “the blood of bulls and of goats could not take away sin” by any virtue of its own. What, then, did the sacrifices mean? They were emblems and types, teaching to men’s bodily senses this great theological truth, that “without shedding of blood is no remission,” and its consequence, that remission is provided for through a substitute of divine appointment; for fallen man is “a prisoner of hope,” not of despair. Next, the antitype to this ever-repeated emblem is Jesus. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!” (John i. 29; 1 Cor. xv. 3; 2 Cor. v. 21; Heb. viii. 3; ix. 11 — 14.) Now let us add the indisputable fact that these bloody sacrifices were intended by God to symbolize the substitution of an innocent victim in place of the guilty offerer; the transfer of his guilt to the substitute; satisfaction for it by the vicarious death, and the consequent forgiveness of the sinner. (Lev. i. 4; xiv. 21; xvii. 11, ed passim.) The very actions of the worshipper and the priest bespoke these truths as strongly as the words. The guilty worshipper laid his hands upon the head of the victim while he confessed his trespasses. Thereupon the knife of the priest descended upon its throat, the life-blood was sprinkled upon the altar and upon the body of the worshipper, and the most vital parts of the animal — representing its living body in those cases where it was not a holocaust — were committed to the pure flames, pungent emblem of divine justice. Now, when the types so clearly signified substitution and imputation, how can the great antitype mean less? Can it be possible that the shadow had more solidity than the substantial body which cast it before?

But the great truth is expressly taught in Scripture, in the following various forms and in many places, of which we cite only a few: Christ died “For us,” “for the ungodly.” (Rom. v. 6, 8; 1 Peter iii. 18, huper adikon), and for our sins. Socinians say, “True, he died, in a general sense, for us, inasmuch as his death is a part of the agency for our rescue; he did die to do us good, not for himself only.” The answer is, that in nearly every case the context proves it a vicarious dying for our guilt. Romans v. 9: “We are justified by his blood.” 1 Peter iii. 18: “The just for the unjust.” Then, also, he is said to be antilutron for many. This preposition (anti) properly signifies substitution, see Matt. xxvi. 28, for instance. “Himself bore our sins;” “He bare the sins of many,” and other equivalent expressions are applied to him. (1 Pet. ii. 24; Heb. ix. 28; Isa. liii. 6.) The verb used by Peter is bastadzein, whose idiomatic meaning is to bear or carry upon one’s person. And these words are abundantly defined in our sense by Old Testament usage. (Compare Num. ix. 13.) An evasion is again attempted by pointing to Matthew viii. 17, and saying that there this bearing of man’s sorrows was not an enduring of them in his person, but a bearing of them away, a removal of them. We reply that the evangelist refers to Isaiah liii. 4, not to liii. 6. And Peter says: “He bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” The language is unique.

Another unmistakable class of texts is those in which he is said to be made sin for us, while we are made righteous in him. (See 1 Cor. i. 30; 2 Cor. v. 21.) A still more indisputable place is where he is said to be made a curse for us. (Gal. iii. 13.) The orthodox meaning, considering the context, is unavoidable.

Again, he is said in many places to be our Redeemer, i. e., Ransomer, and his death, or his blood, is our ransom (antilutron). (Matt. xx. 28; 1 Peter i. 19; 1 Tim. ii. 6; 1 Cor. vi. 20.) It is vain to reply that God is said to redeem his people in many places, when the only meaning is that he delivers them; and that Moses is called the redeemer of Israel out of Egypt, who certainly did not do this by a vicarious penalty. In these cases, either the word employed or the context proves that the deliverance was only a metaphysical redemption, not like Christ’s, a ransoming by actual price paid. Christ’s death is a proper ransom, because the very price is mentioned. In Bible times the person ransomed was either a criminal or a military captive, by the rules of ancient war legally bound to slavery. The ransom price was a sum of money or other valuables, paid to the master in satisfaction for his claim of service from the captive. This is the sense in which Christ’s righteousness is our ransom.

It has been shown in a previous chapter at what deadly price our opponents seek to escape the patent argument, that if Christ did not suffer for imputed guilt, since he was himself perfectly righteous, he must have been punished for no guilt at all. But this argument should be carried further. Even if we granted that the natural ills of life and bodily death are not necessarily penal, but come to all alike in the course of events, the peculiar features of Christ’s death would be unexplained. He suffers what no other good man sharing the regular course of nature ever experienced, the spiritual miseries of Divine desertion, of Satanic buffetings, let loose against him, and of all the horrors of apprehended wrath which could be felt without personal remorse. (Luke xxii. 53; Matt. xxvi. 38, and xxvii. 46.) See how manfully Christ approaches his martyrdom, and how sadly he sinks under it when it comes. Had he borne nothing more than natural evil, he would have been inferior to the merely human heroes; and instead of recognizing the exclamation of Rousseau as just, “Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ as a God,” we must give the palm of superior fortitude to the Grecian sage. Christ’s crushing agonies must be accounted for by his bearing the wrath of God for the sins of the world.



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Date:April 1, 2019