Brad Littlejohn presents a number of criticisms of my account of penal substitution in Delivered from the Elements of the World. I won’t attempt to address all of them, but focus—at once too briefly and at tedious length—on Brad’s central substantive question, which concerns guilt and Jesus’ guilt-bearing.

First, a point about the motivations behind my treatment of the topic. My main aim was to present an account of penal substitution that could withstand recent and long-standing criticisms, among which are: penal substitution imposes an alien framework on the gospel events; it ignores the resurrection; it violates basic Trinitarian convictions. In a fit of over-acceptance, I attempted to show that penal substitution is defensible, perhaps unavoidable, even on the assumptions and with the tools of critics of penal substitution.

That was behind my claim that penal substitution is a “plot summary.” Sticking close to the Gospel narratives, you confront the fact that Jesus is an innocent man suffering for the sins of those who condemn Him; they condemn Jesus for crimes they themselves have committed. Brad worries that I’m saying it’s “nothing more than” a plot summary, and that “nothing more than” is revealing. It might imply that there we can get to some more comprehensive or foundational account of the atonement by moving out of the Gospel plot into some other framework.

I argue the contrary. As the climactic act of Israel’s tumultuous history with God, the Gospel narratives provide the fundamental atonement theory, of which references in the epistles are short-hand summaries. The atonement was an historical event and had historical causes. Our most basic way to theorize about it is to do what the Evangelists did: Tell, and comment upon, the story. Penal substitution is not merely a plot point; the plot is the point. (That doesn't mean, of course, that the only actors are human actors. As the Gospels make clear, the central human actor is the incarnate Son, and His Father and Spirit are fully engaged. “Historical” doesn’t mean “immanent.”)

The discussion of guilt and guilt-bearing was part of my effort to address Trinitarian questions and objections: Did the Father treat Jesus as guilty? How can He, when the Son is not guilty? To put it sharply: Whose side is the Father on—Jesus’, or Pilate’s and the Jews’? Did the Father take the side of Jesus’ accusers?

After quoting a footnote from my book, Brad summarizes my position: “Jesus bears the consequence, the legal penalty of Israel’s guilt, but without bearing the legal guilt. This, he says, is inadequate. It leaves human beings still in their sins: “if Jesus paid the legal penalty that Israel deserved, and yet without bearing the legal guilt, then it may have been noble, it may have been inspiring, but it would not change the fact that Israel, and all mankind, stood condemned.Citing Robert Dabney, he distinguishes between “sinfulness” and guilt, arguing that while the Father doesn’t treat Jesus as personally guilty, He does treat Him as “federally and forensically guilty.”

When Brad refers to “the tradition,” I assume he means the Reformed tradition, since there has been a fair bit of dispute about guilt and the guilt-bearing of Jesus in the wider Christian tradition. Medieval theologians commonly distinguished between reatus culpae and reatus poenae. In the medieval system, Christ’s work dealt with the first but not the second, so that “persons could have liability to guilt [reatus culpae] removed” but “still have the liability to punishment that is not remitted by Christ’s work and might . . . lead them to be punished for their sin in purgatory” (Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity, 100). Crisp (100–1) observes that the Reformed orthodox replaced this medieval distinction with one between reatus potentialis, “the intrinsic desert of punishment that is inseparable from sin and is non-transferable,” and the reatus actualis, “that aspect of guilt that is transferable and can be remitted by divine mercy.” Note: For the Reformed orthodox, there is “guilt” that can be transferred and removed, and other guilt that cannot be.

This is the distinction Dabney has in mind in the passage Brad quotes, though Dabney uses “sinfulness” instead of “potential guilt.” Dabney argues that “in the penal substitution of Christ, it is the actual guilt of sinners . . . and nothing else, which is transferred from them to him” (emphasis added). But he defines “actual guilt” as “obligatio ad peonam ex peccato, the debt of penalty to law arising out of transgression.” That is, actual guilt is precisely the liability to suffer the consequence and penalty of sin. That is the only sort of guilt that, according to Dabney, can be transferred to another. Dabney, then, doesn’t support Brad’s claim that both “legal guilt” as well as liability to punishment are imputed to Jesus. There may be Reformed theologians who agree with Brad (if I’ve understood what he means by “legal guilt”), but Dabney isn’t one of them.

Charles Hodge agrees with Dabney in saying that only actual guilt is imputed to and borne by Jesus: “To impute sin, in Scriptural and theological language, is to impute the guilt of sin. And by guilt is meant not criminality or moral ill-desert, or demerit, much less moral pollution, but the judicial obligation to satisfy justice. Hence the evil consequent on the imputation is not an arbitrary infliction; not merely a misfortune or calamity; not a chastisement in the proper sense of that word, but a punishment, i.e., an evil inflicted in execution of the penalty of law and for the satisfaction of justice” (Systematic Theology, 2.194–5). Bavinck defines guilt in a similar fashion: “Guilt is an obligation incurred through a violation of the law to satisfy the law by suffering a proportionate penalty. It binds the sinner, immediately after the violation of the law, to its demand for satisfaction and punishment. . . . Guilt is an ‘obligation for the purpose of enduring a fair punishment,’ ‘the subjection of a sinner to a penalty’” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3; emphasis added).

Yet there are (at least) two complications. First is the question of whether guilt is intrinsic to a morally wrong act or a sentence imposed by a judge. Bavinck argues for the first: “Inasmuch as we are the active cause of the violation, we are under indictment . . . ; the act is imputed to us. We must account for it and are obligated to satisfy the law; we are liable to punishment. . . . At the very moment when they position themselves outside the law (i.e., outside love), it strikes them with its curse and binds them to its punishment.”

Dabney, by contrast, argues that actual guilt—liability to punishment—is always assigned by a sovereign or judge: “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.”

On Dabney’s account, guilt is always imputed or reckoned, whether to the person who actually committed the wrong or to another who can pay the penalty that guilt demands. The guilt that can be transferred is guilt determined and assigned by a judge. (I have suggested elsewhere that Leviticus supports something like Dabney’s view, and I think this position deals more elegantly with the issue of transferability than the alternative.)

The second complication is more troublesome: If guilt is intrinsic to a wrong act, and yet if that guilt-as-attribute is not transferrable, we are left in the very position that Brad worries about: Still guilty even after Jesus died for me.

This is not a hypothetical danger. It is where Hodge explicitly leaves us: “The word guilt, as has been repeatedly remarked, expresses the relation which sin bears to justice, or, as the older theologians said, to the penalty of the law. This relation, however, is twofold. First, that which is expressed by the words criminality and ill-desert, or demerit. This is inseparable from sin. It can belong to no one who is not personally a sinner, and it permanently attaches to all who have sinned. It is not removed by justification, much less by pardon. It cannot be transferred from one person to the other. But secondly, guilt means the obligation to satisfy justice. This may be removed by the satisfaction of justice personally or vicariously. It may be transferred from one person to another, or assumed by one person for another. When a man steals or commits any other offence to which a specific penalty is attached by the law of the land, if he submit to the penalty, his guilt in this latter sense is removed. It is not only proper that he should remain without further molestation by the state for that offence, but justice demands his exemption from any further punishment” (2.476).

Note: Guilt in the first sense is “not removed by justification, much less by pardon.” What can be removed is the obligation to pay a penalty or debt. In Hodge’s view, then, we are not only justified people who continue to sin (simul iustus et peccator); we are justified people who are still guilty of our sin (though no longer liable to punishment). The “potential guilt” we still bear even after we are delivered from actual guilt is, perhaps, simply a fact: We have sinned and forgiveness doesn’t undo the past. But Hodge describes potential guilt as a subset of guilt, which is “the relation which sin bears to justice . . . to the penalty of the law.” It is a legal status and not merely a fact. For Hodge, we appear to be subjects of a double verdict—both guilty and justified. That formula leaves existential and pastoral problems in its wake, the inverse of the existential and pastoral problems left in the wake of the medieval system. The medievals removed guilt but retained punishment; Hodge leaves us free from punishment but still guilty.

One way to handle this is to say what Brad suggests: Both potential and actual guilt are imputed to Jesus. But this runs against the Reformed position outlined here, which insists that only actual guilt is imputed and borne (though, as noted, Brad may be able to cite Reformed theologians who agree with him). And it runs up against objections to the transferability of potential guilt from both advocates and opponents of penal substitution.

My proposal is this: Guilt is liability to punishment; guilt in this sense is transferable, since someone else can pay my debt to the law. When Jesus dies, He bears my liability to punishment, and that is the only guilt there is. He can do that because He is not merely a guy paying my debt, but the true Israel and Last Adam, united to those whose guilt He bears. The past is not undone; I remain the person who did this and that evil act, and I continue to sin. But that factual sin isn't guilt. Guilt has to be assigned by a judge, and the Judge doesn't find me guilty. Jesus has borne all the guilt because guilt simply is my liability to satisfy the penalty imposed by the court (my exclusion from Eden and the tree of life, and all that entails). Trusting in Jesus, I am not justified and guilty, but simply justified. This also departs from the Reformed tradition (as summarized), but it seems to resolve the pastoral and existential tensions that Hodge’s position creates.

In my book, the discussion of guilt-bearing is part of an argument about the Trinitarian setting of penal substitution. The Father does not regard the Son as if in fact He had committed our sins. How could the Father pretend that the Son had murdered Abel, or committed adultery with Bathsheba? The Son didn’t do those things, and God is true, though every man is a liar. That would a legal fiction to end all legal fictions, and opponents and proponents of penal substitution rightly reject any such suggestion.

What the Father does is to subject the Son—who willingly subjects Himself—to the punishment due to sinners, the curse of God-forsakenness, exclusion from the garden and the tree. The Son does His Father’s will, proves Himself Son precisely in His willing entry into our Godforsakenness, demonstrates His Sonship - and hence the Father’s Fatherhood - precisely in the moment when He cries the cry of dereliction. The Son bears the burden of our sin for the sake of the joy set before Him. The Father hands the Son over to His accusers and murderers, the Son bears their sin, and the Father overturns their accusations and verdicts by raising the Son from the dead. Peter's Pentecost sermon states it precisely: “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again” (Acts 2:23–4).

Even when the Son enters into our Godforsakenness and submits to wrath, the Father doesn’t take the side of Jesus’ enemies; the Father does not turn accuser; God doesn’t become Satan. If defenders of penal substitution don’t think this needs to be said, they haven’t been giving their critics a fair hearing.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart