Ursinus and the Mechanics of Substitution

In debates about penal substitutionary atonement, one of the occasional charges against the doctrine is that it fails to serve justice. Guilt, some argue, is not transferable. If an innocent man takes the punishment for someone who actually committed a crime, the result is not justice. The criminal hasn’t paid his due. That the innocent man has suffered, even with the intent of substitution, cannot actually absolve the criminal. What good has it really done if an innocent man is now dead and the criminal is still a criminal, and indeed will never have to account for his actions? C. S. Lewis, for example, famously raised this issue in Mere Christianity to explain why he once found penal substitution absurd.[1]

One common reply to this objection (at least in more popular presentations) is to cast the legal metaphor in financial terms. While it may not be as clear why, say, if I take a beating for your crime, you should be free, it is very clear that if I pay the fine for your crime, then the fine is paid (a response which Lewis also noted).[2] You then owe nothing.

There is some biblical support for this. The guilt of sin is occasionally cast in terms of a debt owed to God (e.g. Matt. 6:12, 18:21-35). However, with the possible exception of Colossians 2:14, the Bible makes very minimal use of financial metaphors for the atonement. Moreover, with respect to the reality of the matter, it is quite uncertain that guilt before God does actually operate in a quasi-financial sense.

While there are several possible alternative lines of response, a particularly striking option appears, to my knowledge, only in Zacharius Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. In expositing the answer to the 37th question in the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus arrives directly at the topic of substitution. He first raises the objection with the observation that, according to divine justice, “the innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty.”[3] As a response, he provides a list of five conditions by which substitution can be morally justified, which follow below:

We reply to the major proposition, that the innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty, 1. Unless he willingly offer himself in the room, and stead of the guilty. 2. Unless he who thus voluntarily suffers, be able to make a sufficient ransom. 3. That he may be able to recover himself from these sufferings, and not perish under them. 4. That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend. 5. And that he be of the same nature with those for whom satisfaction is made.[4]

Ursinus here gives five conditions necessary for an innocent man to satisfy justice for someone else. Many of these are straightforward and intuitive. He must make a voluntary choice, have the ability to satisfy the due punishment, be able to recover from any suffering endured (a topic worth looking into another time), and have the same nature as the offending party. All of this seems straightforward enough. Most interesting is the fourth criterion, “That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend.”

This seems a genuinely striking and creative insight. One of the conditions Ursinus specifies for the just efficacy of the atonement is that the innocent party, in this case, Christ, is able to stop the criminal from continuing to be a criminal. In other words, the guilt is still there unless the substitute can lead the criminal to repent.

This idea seems to have the great virtue that we get it. While penal substitution in the abstract can often feel counterintuitive, adding the note that repentance must be a necessary effect makes it intelligible at a gut level. It is easy to see this in the stories we tell ourselves, often of villains who become heroes and jerks who turn a new leaf. Imagine a story in which a good man dies for the sake of a bad man, and the bad man changes. Who among us will continually insist that the bad man should suffer for his former crimes? The criminal is no longer really a guilty party. Because a good man suffered what he deserved, he came to repentance. He is, in a meaningful and intuitive sense, a new man, therefore the old man’s guilt is gone.

There are perhaps other benefits to explicating this criterion. For example, it seems to create some continuity between penal substitution and Lewis’ own explanation of the atonement, along with the views of John McLeod Campbell, or even the old moral influence theory of the atonement. Jesus is able to stop the elect from ultimately offending again. This itself is something he has done by dying for his people. So his death really does serve justice. When he unites us to himself and we repent of our sins, there is legitimately no more condemnation. We were buried with him through baptism into his death, the old man has passed away, and we are dead to sin. He who has died has finished with sin. Christ has died for us, and he has changed us. We are new people, free from the debts of our old selves.

Interestingly, this also seems to connect, however indirectly, to debates over limited atonement. One way some early Reformers distinguished between the sufficiency and efficiency of the atonement was this: the atonement includes within itself the purchase of repentance for the elect, but not for the reprobate.[5] In one sense, the atonement can be said to cleanse the sins of the whole world. However, it also includes an element designed specifically to guarantee that the elect repent and receive the benefit, a specific purchase of faith for the predestined. How this works is somewhat beside the point, but of noteworthy effect is taking this distinction together with Ursinus’ unique criterion for just substitution. However Jesus’ death brings about repentance in the elect, the fact that the reprobate do not repent makes Christ’s death of no avail to them. Their guilt remains, for this vital fourth criterion for a just substitution does not hold in their case. Christ does not bring them to repent. They are still their old selves. They still, therefore, must be judged, as their old selves have not died in Christ.

It would perhaps be too much to claim that this observation alone suffices to explain all moral complications in formulating, or at least explicating, a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, but it is, I suggest, an excellent example of the clarifying riches still to be found in retrieving the work of our predecessors.

Caleb Smith is an M.Litt student with Davenant Hall. A native Floridian, his wife and six children are his chief business. He blogs, but not often, at Theology Without Warranty. He tweets, but too much, at @CalebDixonSmith.

  1. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperOne, 2009), Ch. 9, ¶ 7.

  2. Lewis, Mere ChristianityI, Ch. 9, ¶ 7.

  3. Ursinus, The Commentary of Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Rev. G. W. Williard (Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 397.

  4. Ursinus, Commentary, 397.

  5. See, for example, the Canons of Dort, and Michael Lynch’s discussion of John Davenant’s view in “Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith.” In Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition, edited by Littlejohn W. Bradford and Jonathan Tomes. Davenant Trust, 2017.


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