The Heresy of Penal Substitution

Making God bound by necessity

The heretical doctrine of penal substitution was completely absent from the Church for over 1,000 years, and was only introduced by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. This false teaching of penal substitution was ultimately developed as seen in the West today, by 16th-century Reformers, but is a doctrine that has never been accepted by the Eastern Church, and not completely accepted by Roman Catholics.

The major problem with this teaching can be seen in the fact that had Christ died for our sins against God the Father, thus causing a division of God, with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity laid waste, with God pitted against God. This heretical doctrine divides God by implying that Christ isn’t fully God. It also suggests that there is a higher force than God, thus making, God Himself ruled by a “higher force”. In other words, God has no choice but to punish. By this notion, justice forces God to respond to our sin with His wrath, with love becoming secondary.

A close examination of the prophets and the Psalms of David, reveal that the word “justice” is linked to the concept of “mercy.” Justice is not penal in nature, but refers to a show of kindness and deliverance to those who are suffering oppression. It means that God’s justice destroys our oppressors, which in this case is sin, death, and even the power of Satan’s oppression.

To look upon propitiation in the classical pagan sense, we are forced to view our God as some sort of angry deity needing to be appeased by a blood sacrifice. This is completely different than the Old Testament view of a loving God whose Mercy Seat covered the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments. While the law given to us by God demanded perfection and revealed our shortcomings, the Mercy Seat covered our failure to live up to the Ten Commandments.

From the viewpoint of the Ancient Church, Christ’s blood was the ultimate Mercy Seat. Christ covered and forgave our sins, and Himself showed the unconditional love that He commanded us to show one another. The Western churches would have us believe that God was angry over our sins, but the death of His Son caused Him to change His mind, and decide to love us. Yet the Scriptures tell us God is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16) from the very beginning, and is unchanging (Mal 3:6) and doesn’t change His mind (Num 23:19).

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

Saturday July 8, 2017 / June 25, 2017
5th Week after Pentecost. Tone three.
Apostles’ (Peter & Paul) Fast. Fish Allowed

Virgin-martyr Febronia of Nisibis (304).
Venerable Nikon the Confessor of Optina (1931).
New Hieromartyrs Nicholas and Basil priests (1918).
New Hieromartyr Basil priest (1940).
Prince Peter (1228) and Princess Febronia (tonsured David and Euphrosyne), wonderworkers of Murom.
Venerables Leonis, Libye, and Eutropia of Syria.
Venerable Symeon of Sinai (5th c.).
Venerables Dionysius and Dometius (1380) of the Monastery of the Forerunner (Dionysiou), Mt. Athos (Greek).
New Martyr Procopius of Varna and Mt. Athqs, who suffered at Smyrna (1810) (Greek).
New Martyr George of Attalia (1823) (Greek).
Martyr Gallicianus the Patrician in Egypt (362).
St. Adelbert, archdeacon (740) (Neth.).
St. Theoleptus, metropolitan of Philadelphia (1322).
St. Moluac of Lismore (592) (Celtic & British).

The Scripture Readings

Romans 8:14-21

14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

From Suffering to Glory

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Matthew 9:9-13

Matthew the Tax Collector

9 As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.

10 Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

About Abbot Tryphon

The Very. Rev. Abbot Tryphon is Igumen of All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington. Situated in the heart of a beautiful forest, surrounded by the Salish Sea, the monastery is reached by ferry from either Seattle, or Tacoma, Washington.


  1. Dear Brother Tryphon:
    This may be a silly question. Should every Orthodox believer read Philokalia and which one? There are 5 or 6 volumes of Philokalia. Which is preferable? Where can I find one? I hope you can help, God bless you, go with God.
    Yours in Christ Jesus,
    Victor B. Olshansky

  2. Where can I find the right Philokalia and which one? There are 5 or 6 volumes or is one one just good enough? What do you prefer for reading and learning Orthodoxy, or just read the Holy Bible if sufficient? Thank you for your help. God bless you, go with God.
    Yours in Christ Jesus,

    1. The Philoklia is not recommend for new Orthodox Christians. Best read under the guidance of a spiritual father or mother. Any of the books by Timothy (Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware, are a good introduction to Orthodoxy.

    2. Victor, I knew a holy priest (Roman Cath) whose advice was: Pray. And go to church.

      I recommend “A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, published by the Antiochian Church. It has a red cover. Read through the text of the Divine Liturgy, including the priest’s prayers, and that will introduce you to the Orthodox mindset. The Philokalia was written for monks advanced in deep spiritual struggle. It can sound a bit harsh to ” newbies” and could make you neurotic and discouraged if you’re not ready for it. The best way to experience Orthodoxy is through the Liturgy. So, “Pray. And go to church.”

    1. Our friend Ben Holloway, an Evangelical theologian in the making, and one that seems to have been disturbed enough by my article on the Heresy of Penal Substitution as to take me to task on his blog, misses the really core issue of the nature of our redemption, which is from death, not from the anger or ‘justice’ of the Father. We don’t have to saved by Jesus from the wrath of the Father but from the consequences/wages of sin, which means death. The hymnody of Holy Saturday clearly explains the Orthodox understanding of redemption, and it is not about ransoming us from the wrath (or justice or judgement or anger or love or whatever) of an angry and offended Father.

      I find it interesting that even this is all about feelings and passions, which God doesn’t experience, in whom is no change, neither shadow of turning (could this be the earliest manifestation of the feminisation of Western Christianity and Western culture?) So, how could Jesus ’satisfy’ the Father (i.e., change His opinion or judgement of or His attitude toward us and our worthiness), when He is already eternally, immutably and completely satisfied, ever unchanging and eternally the same? If anything needed to be changed in God, it would mean that He is not perfect as He is. Hmmm…, there’s another angle to think about.

      This idea of a passionate and changeable god is simply a pagan concept which projects human passions upon the deity. Norse, Germanic, Slavic, Roman, Greek mythology, to mention only those closest to our culture, all contain numerous examples of this kind of deity.

      In Western Christian culture. Divine Justice has been supplanted with pagan Frankish justice (i.e., If you hurt someone, the Crown is going to hurt you back. It good for ya’, so there!). From the Orthodox Christian perspective, Divine Justice is ever about redemption and restoration. That is something the Western Christians (especially the Calvinist minded) don’t seem to be able to understand. But then, again, lacking the Holy Spirit and the grace of the Holy Mysteries in their communities, they are at a tragic disadvantage. How can you know what it is to live in the life of Holy Orthodoxy when you are outside of it?

    1. No where do these texts mention a debt owed to the Father or the necessity of a sacrifice to appease the wrath, anger, vengeance or justice of the Father. The answer to the question is found in the Paschal troparion: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’ When we’re baptised into Christ, we become partakers of the restoration of communion with God that was disrupted by sin our sin, not as a punishment from the Father who now has to be convinced by the death of His Son to overlook our sin, but by the ransoming of us, through union with the Theanthropos, which destroys the power of sin and its consequence, death, over us. No Western idea of penal substitution is inherent in the Orthodox teaching.

  3. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

  4. Bravo to your condemnation of penal substitution. The best writing on this is by Stephen Finlan.

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