Substitutionary atonement has fallen on hard times in some Christian circles, which is in one sense understandable and in another sense unfortunate. It's understandable because too many Reformed evangelicals have emphasized penal substitution at the expense of the broader meaning of atonement as well as at times given shoddy accounts of exactly what penal substitution entails. In another respect, it is unfortunate that too many have rejected penal substitution because it is found in the New Testament, and if one is to begin to understand the depth and richness of Christ's work on the cross, penal substitution is necessary.
Scot McKnight writes,
There are plenty of attempts to find atonement theories that avoid the barbarisms of some penal substitution (PSA) proponents, but avoiding PSA altogether is unavoidable. Here’s what it claims:
1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.
There is only one way to avoid the necessity of penal substitution, and it involves these claims:
1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.
If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins?
Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.
That is called penal substitution.
The problem I see many addressing is not penal substitution but propitiation, namely, the belief that on the cross Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin. In other words, penal substitution includes propitiation (for many) but it cannot be limited to propitiation. To reduce penal substitution to propitiation is a mistake.
Well said, Scot.