The atoning work of Christ Jesus is immeasurably deep in value. All orthodox theories of atonement, in diverse viewpoints yet a unified picture, disclose certain truths about what happened when Christ died on the cross. Penal substitution is one of the theory that fathoms Christ Jesus as vicariously suffering the judicial penalty, viz., the holy and righteous wrath of God, in the place of those He substituted at Golgotha.
This view, according to Paul S. Fiddes, was an outcome of John Calvin reworking of the atoning work on Christ Jesus through the lens of Anselm’s satisfaction theory (Fiddes 1989:98). Granting that the church fathers clearly taught substitutionary atonement, Derek Flood contended that they did not teach penal substitution”(Flood 2010: 142) Is it true that penal substitution was not taught by the church fathers? Is it true that they did not teach that the penalty of sin that we justly deserve from God has being borne by Christ Jesus in our place?
This series of articles answered both questions with a negative. Exploring some passages from ante-Nicene and post-Nicene church fathers’ writings, it is clear that they taught penal substitution atonement.
Clement of Rome and Penal Substitution
Commending the Corinthians to exemplify Christ mildness Clement of Rome, in circa 96 A.D., cited Isaiah 53’s prophecy and applied it to Christ Jesus. The servant of God was prophesied to bear our iniquities. “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.” And that it was God who “delivered Him up for our sins” and was “pleased to purify Him by stripes”. Clement understood Christ Jesus as making an offering for our sin. At Golgotha Christ Jesus carried our sins. Christ Jesus “bare the sins of many, and for their sins was He delivered.”(Cle 1 Cor. 16)
Using the salvation of Rehab the harlot when Joshua took over Jericho as an example to teach Corinthians the rewards of faith and hospitality Clement understood the sign, which Rehab was given to hang forth from her house as “manifest that redemption should flow through the blood of the Lord to all them that believe and hope in God.”(1 Cor. 12)
Expounding the nature of love, Clement wrote,
By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.(1 Cor. 49)
As Ninevites, in time of Jonah, repented “of their sin, propitiated God by prayer, and obtained salvation” Christians, commended Clement, are to “look stedfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world.”(1 Cor. 7)
Polycarp in The Epistle to the Philippians underlined that Christ Jesus is He “who for our sins suffered even unto death”(Poly Phil 1). Ignatius echoed Polycarp in The Epistle to the Smyrnæans when he argued that the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ “suffered for our sins”(Ign 1 Smyr 7)
From these passages I concluded that Clement viewed Christ Jesus’ atoning work as bearing death, our justly deserved penalty of sin from God, in our place. In his works we can deduce that Christus Victor was the goal of atoning work of Christ Jesus, which brought us victorious over sin, death, Satan. This victory was archived through the means of penal substation atonement. Going beyond the goal and means of atonement out-flowing outcome, Christ’s humbleness to the point of death, according to Clement, is also a moral exemplary attitude for Christians to mimic.
Clement, First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol.1 (1885) Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
Fiddes, Paul S. (1989) Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christan Idea of Atonement. Westminster/John Knox Press Lousiville, Kentucky.
Flood, Derek (2010) “Substitutionary atonement and the Chruch Fathers: A reply to the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions,” in Evangelical Quarterly, 82/2:142-159