Penal Substitution in the Church Fathers


Here are voices from both the East and West over the course of the 4th to 7th centuries. In my opinion, it is clear that the Fathers believed that the penal consequence of our sin, namely,  the curse of death, was visited by God upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ our God had no sin of his own, and yet he faces the penal consequences of having sinned. This does not entail the straw man which posits the Father got emotionally disturbed and poured out His holy and undiluted fury upon the Son, but it does mean more than merely a positive righteousness which merited salvation. There is also the matter of satisfying divine justice by allowing Christ to pay off the debt of death precisely by dying.


Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

Death comes upon man as the punishment of sin, and so is itself called sin; not that a man sins in dying, but because sin is the cause of his death….So sin means both a bad action deserving punishment, and death the consequence of sin. Christ has no sin in the sense of deserving death, but He bore for our sakes sin in the sense of death as brought on human nature by sin. This is what hung on the tree; this is what was cursed by Moses. Thus was death condemned that its reign might cease, and cursed that it might be destroyed. By Christ’s taking our sin in this sense, its condemnation is our deliverance, while to remain in subjection to sin is to be condemned…..What does Faustus find strange in the curse pronounced on sin, on death, and on human mortality, which Christ had on account of man’s sin, though He Himself was sinless? Christ’s body was derived from Adam, for His mother the Virgin Mary was a child of Adam. But God said in Paradise, “On the day that you eat, you shall surely die.” This is the curse which hung on the tree. A man may deny that Christ was cursed who denies that He died. But the man who believes that Christ died, and acknowledges that death is the fruit of sin, and is itself called sin, will understand who it is that is cursed by Moses, when he hears the apostle saying “For our old man is crucified with Him.” The apostle boldly says of Christ, “He was made a curse for us;” for he could also venture to say, “He died for all.” “He died,” and “He was cursed,” are the same. Death is the effect of the curse; and all sin is cursed, whether it means the action which merits punishment, or the punishment which follows. Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that He might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment….Exemption from Adam’s curse implies exemption from his death. But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offenses, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offenses, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment….The believer in the true doctrine of the gospel will understand that Christ is not reproached by Moses when he speaks of Him as cursed, not in His divine majesty, but as hanging on the tree as our substitute, bearing our punishment… If, then, you deny that Christ was cursed, you must deny that He died; and then you have to meet, not Moses, but the apostles. Confess that He died, and you may also confess that He, without taking our sin, took its punishment. Now the punishment of sin cannot be blessed, or else it would be a thing to be desired. The curse is pronounced by divine justice, and it will be well for us if we are redeemed from it. Confess then that Christ died, and you may confess that He bore the curse for us; and that when Moses said, “Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree,” he said in fact, To hang on a tree is to be mortal, or actually to die….He knew that the death of sinful man, which Christ though sinless bore, came from that curse, “If you touch it, you shall surely die.” Thus also, the serpent hung on the pole was intended to show that Christ did not feign death, but that the real death into which the serpent by his fatal counsel cast mankind was hung on the cross of Christ’s passion. The Manichæans turn away from the view of this real death, and so they are not healed of the poison of the serpent, as we read that in the wilderness as many as looked were healed.” (Contra Faustum, Book XIV)

In another place:

“First of all it is the Lord Christ, of whom the apostle Peter says, Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we might follow in his footsteps (1 Pt 2:21); and of course, he didn’t have any sin, and he died for our sins and shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins. For our sake he took upon himself what he did not owe, to set us free from debt. He ought not to have died, we ought not to live. Why not? Because we are sinners. Death was no more his due than life is ours. He accepted what was not his due; he gave us what was not ours.” (Sermon 114; citation from Saint Augustine: Essentials Sermons, New City Press, 2007, pg. 183).


St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386)

And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf. Moreover one man’s sin, even Adam’s, had power to bring death to the world; but if by the trespass of the one death reigned over the world, how shall not life much rather reign by the righteousness of the One? And if because of the tree of food they were then cast out of paradise, shall not believers now more easily enter into paradise because of the Tree of Jesus? If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in eternal life, being Himself the Life? If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind? (Catechetical Lecture XIII)

These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth.  For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree” (ibid)

My commentary – How does Cyril understand God preserving both his penal sentence of death against mankind and cancel the sentence? It is because Christ came in our place, as our substitute, and bore our sins and the sentence of death due to us.


Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)

“And Psalm 22…They pierced my hands and my feet- what else can that mean except the cross? And Psalms 88 and 69, again speaking in the Lord’s own person, tell us further that He suffered these things, not for His own sake but for ours. Thou has made Thy wrath to rest upon me, says the one; and the other adds, I paid them things I never took. For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses. So in Psalm 138 we say, The Lord will make requital for me; and in the 72nd the Spirit says, He shall save the children of the poor and bring the slanderer low, for from the hand of the mighty He has set the poor man free, the needy man whom there was none to help” (Letter to Marcellenius)


Saint Hilary of Poitiers (310-368)

“For next there follows: ‘I will sacrifice unto Thee freely’. The sacrifices of the Law, which consisted of whole burnt-offerings and oblations of goats and of bulls, did not involve an expression of free will, because the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law. Whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse. And it was always necessary to go through the whole sacrificial action because the addition of a curse to the commandment forbade any trifling with the obligation of offering. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed.”

-St.Hillary of Poitiers, Homily on Psalm 53

“For the Only-begotten Son of God was not cut off by death. It is true that in order to take the whole of our nature upon Him He submitted to death, that is to the apparent severance of soul and body, and made His way even to the realms below, the debt which man must manifestly pay: but He rose again and abides for ever and looks down with an eye that death cannot dim upon His enemies, being exalted unto the glory of God and born once more Son of God after becoming Son of Man, as He had been Son of God when He first became Son of Man, by the glory of His resurrection.” (ibid)


Eusebius of Ceasarea (260-340)

“He then that was alone of those who ever existed, the Word of God, before all worlds, and High Priest of every creature that has mind and reason, separated One of like passions with us, as a sheep or lamb from the human flock, branded on Him all our sins, and fastened on Himn as well the curse that was adjudged by Moses’ law, as Moses foretells: ‘Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.’ This He suffered ‘being made a curse for us; and making himself sin for our sakes’. And then ‘He made him sin for our sakes who knew no sin’, and laid on Him all the punishments due to us for our sins, bonds, insults, contumelies, scourging, and shameful blows, and the crowning trophy of the Cross. And after all this when He had offered such a wondrous offering and choice victim to the Father, and sacrificed for the salvation of us all, He delivered a memorial to us to offer to God continually instead of a sacrifice.” (The Proof of the Gospel, Book 1.10)

“And any Jews, of course, who have taken refuge in Christ, even if they attend no longer to the ordinances of Moses, but live according to the new covenant, are free from the curse ordained by Moses, for the Lamb of God has surely not only taken on Himself the sin of the world, but also the curse involved in the breach of the commandments of Moses as well. The Lamb of God is made thus both sin and curse—sin for the sinners in the world, and curse for those remaining in all the things written in Moses’ law. And so the Apostle says: ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us’; and ‘Him that knew no sin, for our sakes he made sin’.” (ibid)

“And the Lamb of God…was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were die to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us” (ibid)


St. Ambrose of Milan (337-397)

“And so then, Jesus took flesh that He might destroy the curse of sinful flesh, and He became for us a curse that a blessing might overwhelm a curse, uprightness might overwhelm sin, forgiveness might overwhelm the sentence, and life might overwhelm death. He also took up death that the sentence might be fulfilled and satisfaction might be given for the judgment, the curse placed on sinful flesh even to death. Therefore, nothing was done contrary to God’s sentence when the terms of that sentence were fulfilled, for the curse was unto death but grace is after death”

(Flight from the World, in the Fathers of the Church, Vol. 65, pg. 314-315; taken from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, page 175)


St. Cyril of Alexandria (378-444), credit to Wikimedia

He had undergone, for our sakes, though innocent, the sentence of death. For, in His own Person, He bore the sentence righteously pronounced against sinners by the Law. For He became ‘a curse for us’, according to the Scripture: ‘For cursed is everyone’, it is said, ‘that hangeth on a tree.’ And accursed are we all, for we are not able to fulfil the Law of God: ‘For in many things we all stumble’; and very prone to sin is the nature of man. And since, too, the Law of God says: ‘Cursed is he which continueth not in all things that are written in the book of this Law, to do them,’ the curse, then, belongeth unto us, and not to others. For those against whom the transgression of the Law may be charged, and who are very prone to err from its commandments, surely deserve chastisement. Therefore, He That knew no sin was accursed for our sakes, that He might deliver us from the old curse. For all-sufficient was the God Who is above all, so dying for all; and by the death of His own Body, purchasing the redemption of all mankind.” (Commentary on John, Book XII)

“The Cross, then, that Christ bore, was not for His own deserts, but was the cross that awaited us, and was our due, through our condemnation by the Law. For as He was numbered among the dead, not for Himself, but for our sakes, that we might find in Him, the Author of everlasting life, subduing of Himself the power of death; so also, He took upon Himself the Cross that was our due, passing on Himself the condemnation of the Law, that the mouth of all lawlessness might henceforth be stopped, according to the saying of the Psalmist; the Sinless having suffered condemnation for the sin of all.” (ibid)

“And the title contained a handwriting against us—the curse that, by the Divine Law, impends over the transgressors, and the sentence that went forth against all who erred against those ancient ordinances of the Law, like unto Adam’s curse, which went forth against all mankind, in that all alike broke God’s decrees. For God’s anger did not cease with Adam’s fall, but He was also provoked by those who after him dishonoured the Creator’s decree; and the denunciation of the Law against transgressors was extended continuously over all. We were, then, accursed and condemned, by the sentence of God, through Adam’s transgression, and through breach of the Law laid down after him; but the Savior wiped out the hand- writing against us, by nailing the title to His Cross, which very clearly pointed to the death upon the Cross which He underwent for the salvation of men, who lay under condemnation. For our sake He paid the penalty for our sins. For though He was One that suffered, yet was He far above any creature, as God, and more precious than the life of all.” (ibid)
“The only-begotten was made man, bore a body by nature at enmity with death, and became flesh, so that, enduring the death which was hanging over us as the result of our sin, he might abolish sin; and further, that He might put an end to the accusations of Satan, inasmuch as we have paid in Christ himself the penalties for the charges of sin against us:’For he bore our sins, and was wounded because of us’, according to the voice of the prophet. Or are we not healed by his wounds?”

(De Adoratione et cultu in spiritu et veritate, iii, 100-102, in J.P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graeca, Vol. 68 (Paris, 1857-), pp. 293, 296; English trans. from Garry  J. Williams, ‘A Critical Exposition of Hugo Grotius’s Doctrine of the Atonement in De Satisfactione Christi (unpub. doctoral thesis, University of Oxford, 1999), all taken from Pierced for our Transgressions, pg. 180)

“Wherefore he says in the Psalms, too, offering himself as a spotless sacrifice to God the Father. ‘Sacrifice and offering you would not, but a body you prepared for me. In burnt-offerings and offerings for sin you took no pleasure: then said I, “Lo I come (in the chapter of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God, was my choice”.’ For since ‘the blood of bulls and of goats and the ashes of an heifer sufficed not unto the purging away of sin, nor yet would the slaughter of brute beasts ever have destroyed the power of death, Christ himself came in some way to undergo punishment for all. For ‘with his stripes we were healed’, as says the Prophet, and ‘his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree’; and he was crucified for all and on account of all, that if One died for all, all we might live in him.”
(Commentary on John; Greek text PG 73.560-605; citation from Andre Hamman, OFM, The Mass: Ancient Liturgies and Patristic Texts (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1967),128-29)

File:Proclus of constantinople.jpg

St. Proclus of Constantinople (390-446)

“Listen to the reason for his coming and glorify the power of the one who became flesh. The human race was deep in debt and incapable of paying what it owed. By the hand of Adam we all signed a bond to sin. The devil held us all in slavery. He kept producing our bills, using our suffering body as his paper. There he stood, the wicked forger, threatening us with our debts and demanding satisfaction. One of two things had to happen: either the penalty of death had to be imposed on all, because ‘all had sinned,’ or else a substitute had to be provided who was fully entitled to plead on our behalf. No man could save us; the debt would have been his liability too. No angel could buy us out, for such a ransom was beyond his powers. One who was sinless had to die for those who had sinned; that was the only way left by which to break the bonds of evil.”

(1st Homily on the God-bearer; citation from Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 141)


St. Gregory the Great (540-604)

“For ‘he was destroyed without cause,’ who was at once weighed to the earth by the avenging of sin, and not defiled by the pollution of sin.  He ‘was destroyed without cause,’ Who, being made incarnate, had no sins of His own, and yet being without offence took upon Himself the punishment of the carnal.  For it is hence that speaking by the Prophet He says, Then I restored that which I took not away.  For that other that was created for Paradise would in his pride have usurped the semblance of the Divine power, yet the Mediator, Who was without guilt, discharged the guilt of that pride.  It is hence that a Wise Man saith to the Father; ‘Forasmuch then as Thou art righteous Thyself, Thou orderest all things righteously; Thou condemnest Him too that deserveth not to be punished.’ [Wisd. 12, 15. Vulg.]… But we must consider how He is righteous and ordereth all things righteously, if He condemns Him that deserveth not to be punished.  For our Mediator deserved not to be punished for Himself, because He never was guilty of any defilement of sin.  But if He had not Himself undertaken a death not due to Him, He would never have freed us from one that was justly due to us.  And so whereas ‘The Father is righteous,’ in punishing a righteous man, ‘He ordereth all things righteously,’ in that by these means He justifies all things, viz. that for the sake of sinners He condemns Him Who is without sin; that all the Elect [electa omnia] might rise up to the height of righteousness, in proportion as He Who is above all underwent the penalties of our unrighteousness. What then is in that place called ‘being condemned without deserving,’ is here spoken of as being ‘afflicted without cause.’  Yet though in respect of Himself He was ‘afflicted without cause,’ in respect of our deeds it was not ‘without cause.’  For the rust of sin could not be cleared away, but by the fire of torment, He then came without sin, Who should submit Himself voluntarily to torment, that the chastisements due to our wickedness might justly loose the parties thereto obnoxious, in that they had unjustly kept Him, Who was free of them.  Thus it was both without cause, and not without cause, that He was afflicted, Who had indeed no crimes in Himself, but Who cleansed with His blood the stain of our guilt.” (Morals on the Book of Job, Book III.26-27)


St. John Chrysostom (349-407)

Him that knew no sin He made to be sin, for you. For had He achieved nothing but done only this, think how great a thing it were to give His Son for those that had outraged Him. But now He has both well achieved mighty things, and besides, has suffered Him that did no wrong to be punished for those who had done wrong. But he did not say this: but mentioned that which is far greater than this. What then is this? Him that knew no sin, he says, Him that was righteousness itself , He made sin,that is suffered as a sinner to be condemned, as one cursed to dieFor cursed is he that hangs on a tree. For to die thus was far greater than to die; and this he also elsewhere implying, says, Becoming obedient unto death, yea the death of the cross. For this thing carried with it not only punishment, but also disgrace. Reflect therefore how great things He bestowed on you. For a great thing indeed it were for even a sinner to die for any one whatever; but when He who undergoes this both is righteous and dies for sinners; and not dies only, but even as one cursed; and not as cursed [dies] only, but thereby freely bestows upon us those great goods which we never looked for” (2 Corinthians, Homily XI)

“Let us therefore not fear hell, but offending God; for it is more grievous than that when He turns away in wrath: this is worse than all, this heavier than all. And that you may learn what a thing it is, consider this which I say. If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, (who was himself of no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation ; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude?”  (ibid)


Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457) credit to Wikimedia

“I will liberate all from death, not merely as an exercise of mercy, but in justice and mercy, and not in virtue of any arbitrary power, but as a legitimate exercise of power. I have paid the debt for human nature. Though not liable to death, I have endured it; though not subject to it, I underwent it; though not required to render an account, I was enlisted with those who so required; though free of debt. I was ranked with the debtors, I have then paid nature’s debt, and in enduring an unjust death I have freed those for whom death is deserved. By being unjustly detained, I release from prison those who are justly kept there. Oh! Harsh avenger of sin, look at the bill of nature effaced, look at it nailed to the cross and the decree of sin abolished. See how no trace of sin is entered. The eyes of this body have paid for eyes that looked on evil things ; those ears have paid for ears that were exposed to filth; this tongue for tongues that moved in transgression of the Law; those hands for hands that performed wicked deeds; those other limbs for limbs which perpetrated evil of whatever kind. Now that the debt is paid, it is fitting that those who were detained in prison on its account should be released, and should recover their former freedom, and should enter into their patrimony” (St. Theodoret of Cyrus, Divine Providence, Discourse 10, AD 433-437)

6 thoughts on “Penal Substitution in the Church Fathers

  1. Nice stuff, Erick. I agree that Penal Substitution, if understood correctly, is quite Patristic and not heretical. Christ did certainly suffer the punishment of sinners, though he himself was sinless. I think the error only comes in when people understand it in a sense which paints God as someone whose anger needs to be satisfied, that there can be no peace until “someone gets it.” The love of God preceded Christ’s coming into the world, but understanding the Father in that strawman sense flips it: Christ’s death is the basis of the Father’s love.

    One thing the Church Fathers seem to point out is not that

    I personally find that most atonement theories aren’t mutually exclusive, sometimes just different dimensions of the same reality. His bearing the punishment due to man doesn’t mean he wasn’t also conquering sin and death and healing our nature, nor does it mean his righteous self-offering was a gift more immense than our collective sins were an insult to God , nor that he ransoming us from the kingdom of darkness. I think it only becomes deficient when the penal substitutional aspect is exclusive at the expense of all other aspects.

    The atonement is a mystery, after all!

  2. Pingback: Substituição penal nos padres da igreja – Apologistas da Fé Católica

  3. Pingback: World Religions Part II: The Exclusive, All-Embracing Cross - Padre Peregrino

  4. Erick,

    Is there an official church statement that teaches penal substitution? I’m looking at the Council of Trent, who we’re aware of these Fathers, and I don’t see them saying anything about Penal Substitution. Help me out here.

    Also, the term “penal substitution” denotes paying the penalty for sin – which is not only physical death but eternal damnation. Did Christ ever pay with eternal damnation? If not, then how was he a penal substitute? I think a modification/clarification in terms is helpful.

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