Jesus Didn’t Die on the Cross for Our Sins?

According to one writer at Beliefnet, Jesus didn’t die on the Cross for our Sins. She further added under the title of her articles that, “The idea Jesus ‘paid the price’ isn’t found in the Bible.”

The Beliefnet piece came across my path on a twitter feed. But it isn’t the first time I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in this way. The idea has been espoused by a number of Christians who often are self-proclaimed progressives. The author takes issue with the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. She claims that,

This theology was not part of Christian doctrine for the first 1,600 years after Jesus was crucified. The idea was originated and developed by human beings who were having trouble understanding what the Bible teaches about how Jesus Christ saved humanity. They worked with what they could to better understand Jesus’ teachings, but missed the mark. This lead [sic] to a creation of a belief that wasn’t really based on the Bible.

She says that Christians typically – when asked – will say that Christ died on the cross to “pay for our sins.” The quotation marks reflect her disagreement with this. Her assertion is that the teaching has become widely taught and deep-rooted; stated as fact, but not found in the Bible.

The article only cites three Bible verses (John 1:29, 15:13 and 1 Cor 15:3). And the writer says, “Dying for our sins is not the same thing as dying to pay the penalty for our sins.” Notably, other verses speaking of Christ’s death for our sins aren’t mentioned.

So what’s the problem?

Quite simply, the progressive Christian (for want of a better term) is uncomfortable with the idea of a punitive, wrathful God. For an example, read this statement:

The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed… . If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies… the idea that God was an angry deity, requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ. (Emphasis mine)

This quote is taken from a recommended-reading TGC article, written by a former denier who changed his mind and went back to believing in Substitutionary Atonement. You can read it here.

Actually reading the Bible

Under the above heading, the author of the TGC article observes that anyone can point to verses such as Isaiah 53:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. Unfortunately, people who deny Substitutionary Atonement attempt to argue around them. Yet when he studied more closely, he couldn’t ignore the clear Substitutionary Atonement,

… the animal skins in Genesis 3, the ram in Genesis 22, the Passover lamb and the firstborn sons, the darkness of judgment the night of the exodus from Egypt and the darkness that fell as Jesus died, all the undeniable language of propitiation and the blood on the mercy seat, and so much more… . Actually reading the Scriptures in their cohesive entirety, and seeing the Old Testament repeatedly preview the gospel, showed me that Jesus bearing our sin and its penalty is central—not peripheral, and not artificially imposed—to the story’s vast sweep.

Aside from my lack of qualifications, it would take too much space to explore this in-depth here. But the evidence against the progressive view of the Cross is overwhelming. I’m reminded of Luke 24:25-32, The Road to Emmaus. Christ had to suffer, and He did so willingly. Christ paid for our sins because it’s impossible for us do it. We cannot earn our salvation, or even stay saved without Christ.

  • For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Lev 17:11
  • …being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed… Rom 3:24-25 (see also Rom 3:21-22)
  • Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Rom 5:9-11
  • And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. Eph 5:2
  • …not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; Phil 3:9
  • And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. Heb 9:22
  • …knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. 1Peter 1:18-19
  • …and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” Rev 6:16-17
  • These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Rev 7:14

Doxology (Robert Murray M’Cheyne )

When I stand before the throne
Dressed in beauty not my own
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know –
Not till then – how much I owe.

Chosen not for good in me,
Waken’d up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Saviour’s side,
By the Spirit sanctified.
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my love, how much I owe.

Oft I walk beneath the cloud,
Dark as midnight’s gloomy shroud;
But when fear is at the height,
Jesus comes and all is light;
Blessed Jesus! bid me show
Doubting saints how much I owe.


Alf Cengia bio

Alf Cengia has a keen interest in politics (especially the Middle East), is a collector of books and dabbles in weight training. He is stepfather to Michelle, Sammy’s chief walker and his wife’s favorite coffee maker. He blogs at Zeteo316 and Thoughts on Eschatology.

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I wonder of some of the energy behind rejection of penal substitution stems from a faulty doctrine of sin. If one's view of sin and fallenness is weak, one doesn't see Jesus as having all that much to do on the cross. 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Mark_Smith's picture

Yes, there is a faulty doctrine of sin to deny penal substitution, but there is a deeper problem I think. There is a lack of understanding of the doctrine of God. Who is God? The OP here refers to "progressives" being uncomfortable with a wrathful God. Thinking God is not wrathful is the problem (theology proper). Thinking "wrath" from God is sin is another problem (hamartiology and theology proper).

Aaron Blumer's picture


There are other views of the atonement that still see sin as the central problem and Christ's death as the only solution, and faith as the only saving response... but they aren't "penal substitution." I'm remembering this from previous studies but don't recall the details. There were several views of the atonement that required no analysis, to speak of, before rejecting ("moral example" comes to mind... the atonement was just to sort of inspire us all to try to be better people). But there were a few that, after digging into them enough to understand them, went into my "well, I can see how they get there" column, but none answered to Scripture as a whole as well as good ol' penal substitution.

... which is far older than its name. It's just that, like many other doctrines, nobody systematized and named it for quite a long time.

Here's a summary that might be helpful. As soon as I glanced at it, a bunch of memory snapped back into place...


Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dan Miller's picture

I believe the energy behind it is spiritual - evil spiritual. It's a denial of of what Jesus did for us.

It closely impacts the doctrine of justification because if you don't have substitution, then you don't have a transfer of Christ's righteousness. Righteousness is infused, not imputed.

The ideas that come together in the idea of infused righteousness are seen throughout church history, but are developed most distinctly and precisely by Thomas Aquinas. 

The Council of Trent at times seems almost deliberately confusing. But it is an embrace of infused righteousness and a denial of imputed righteousness.

6th session, ch. XVI. ...For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified,-as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches,-and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God,-we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace: seeing that Christ, our Saviour, saith: If any one shall drink of the water that I will give him, he shall not thirst for ever; but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up unto life everlasting. Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own as from ourselves; nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated: for that justice which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

In doing so, the church of Rome cut off their own teaching of imputed righteousness. Why do I say imputed righteousness was their teaching? This post at gives a few instances of imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement in the church fathers. Bernard of Clairvaux also taught it.

Why did they do it? I believe it was because substitutionary atonement and imputed alien righteousness was a core teaching of the protestant reformers - and the church needed - for political reasons - to cut them off.


"Those whom, God effectually calls he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God" – WCF Ch 11

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