Is Punishment the Right Word?

Isaiah 53:5 NIV …the punishment that brought us peace was on him….

A study of the word “punishment” suggests to me that English is weak in offering this word as a reasonable explanation why Jesus’ crucifixion was required as the means of our salvation. Yes, punishment can be a judicial term and those who by faith accept Jesus as their Savior, thanks to Calvary, will not be “condemned” Romans 8:1.  Jesus bore our punishment in our place. But is “punishment” the word?

And most certainly, the mystery of godliness is great: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. [CSB] 1 Timothy 3:16


Punishment is a criminal judgment as opposed to a civil one or, as an example of a civil judgment, a fine included in the repayment of debt [Leviticus 27:13]. When Jesus spoke of “debt” was He not talking about His forgiveness and our forgiving others. Forgiveness does not suggest punishment (Matthew 18:21-35). In fact, for some, they are mutually exclusive.

The understanding that “tetelesthai (John 19:30, It is finished) meant “paid in full” as well as the interpretation of Colossians 2:14 that the “handwriting of ordinances” was a certificate of debt—as scholars argue—does not point to our Savior’s crucifixion as a penal substitution …even though we know it was.

We sing “He paid the debt He did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay.” This reminds me of Anselm of Canterbury in Church Tradition who spoke of Jesus’ death in terms of debt, liability, compensation, satisfaction, honor, price, payment, merit. Jesus’ calling Himself God’s “Ransom” makes sense here (Matthew 20:28) Anselm was arguing for the truth that Jesus was both God and man:

“Our situation is compounded by the fact that in order to compensate God we need to give back more than we owed originally and … the debt we have incurred is of infinite proportion. So no one but God could pay a debt of such magnitude, but no one but man is obliged to pay it. It follows that our salvation requires God become man.” (Cur Deus Homo 2.6)


Conscious of Guilt

We also understand that repentance needs a consciousness of sin. Many believers ask God to forgive them of—they know not what—just in case.  They might be gently compared to the Athenians on Mars Hill that Paul preached to who erected a statue to “the unknown God.”  Many recognize the unknown sins of their past. A dearest friend now with Jesus felt this way; so, it is beyond me to speak ill of it! But think of our word punishment in light of this.

Early theologians argued that we were liable for original sin but not guilty of it, but Evangelicals see no such distinction (Romans 5:14; 1 John 1:9). C.S. Lewis argued,

“Punishment, however severe,  is deserved if the offender is to be treated as a responsible (conscious of sin) human person made in God’s image. “

Yet, from the Cross Jesus forgave those who did what they did unknowingly (Luke 23:34).   The “guilt offering” was the offering  for sins done in ignorance (Leviticus 5:15) This word is used in Isaiah 53:10.

This doesn’t say that it wasn’t a penal substitution for our sins. It was! Had Jesus not gone to Calvary, we all would be destined for a lost eternity without Him. But what is the word for this? Continued.

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