Author: Kevin George
This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!
If there is one book where we should be able to find Penal Substitutionary Atonement, it should be the Book of Acts. This book spans the first 40 years of the early church and records interactions with both Jews and Gentiles. These people groups needed to know that Jesus is the Messiah and that he had died, risen again, and ascended to the right hand of God. Neither of these groups knew anything about a Messiah dying to pay God for their sins so they could be declared forensically righteous and have Christ’s righteous works imputed to their accounts. This would have been a completely new idea which would have required a careful explanation and a rebuttal to any objections that might have been raised.
For Jewish audiences, the death of Jesus and God’s forgiveness of sin must make sense within the context and framework of Old Testament expectations, or a demonstration of how those expectations and beliefs have now been set aside. Instead, what we find in this book is a continuation and affirmation of the Old Testament teaching of God’s forgiveness for those who repent. The idea of Jesus paying for their sin is totally absent, as if there is a 40-year failure to teach Penal Substitutionary Atonement. If PSA is the core of the gospel message, without which there is no gospel, then this fact should be abundantly clear throughout this book as this new gospel message was spread far and wide. Let’s make a fast journey through the book to see if or where we can find any unequivocal reference to this atonement doctrine.
Acts Chapter 1: This is the final teaching of Jesus, his last forty days of instruction regarding the coming Kingdom, and then his ascension. There is not a word about PSA in this chapter.
Acts Chapter 2: This chapter is Peter’s preaching at Pentecost as thousands join the church. The closest statement is in verse 38 when Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [or release] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”, and this has no PSA content leading the listener to believe that Jesus died to pay for their sin. On the contrary, remission, which is to release or stop sinning, according to Peter is based on repentance and baptism, not the death or payment of Jesus.
Acts Chapter 3: Now Peter heals a lame man and preaches another sermon. Peter again teaches contrary to PSA with the following statements in verses 19 and 26: “Repent therefore and be converted, [so] that your sins may be blotted out” and, “God, having raised up His servant Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” There is nothing here about Jesus paying for their iniquities, which is a huge omission if this is a new doctrine that must be proclaimed and believed.
Acts Chapters 4-6: Here Peter and John are arrested and released, Annanias and Sapphira die, and there are more arrests, releases, and threats. We do have Acts 5:31, “God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness [aphesin] of sins.” Again, repentance, turning from sin occurs first, leading to “aphesin”, which is literally “release”, but figuratively can be “forgiveness”, which God grants to those who stop sinning and turn to Him. Verse 29 says that this is what “Peter and the apostles answered”, so it is not just Peter’s claim, and again nothing is stated regarding some “good news” that Jesus had paid for the sins of humanity. Instead, we have the consistent warning that humanity must to repent of their sin, which is to stop sinning. PSA is not being proclaimed by “Peter and the apostles” in these chapters.
Acts Chapters 7-8: In these chapters, Stephen is stoned, and Philip meets the Ethiopian who asks about Isaiah 53. What an ideal opportunity to bring up PSA in Isaiah 53, not only to the Ethiopian but also to all the future readers of the book of Acts. But not a word was said about it! This silence should be shocking!
Acts Chapter 9: Here we read of Saul’s conversion and Peter raising Dorcas from the dead. A key point to note here is that when Saul is converted, he begins to preach the gospel message, but instead of proclaiming the good news of Penal Substitutionary Atonement we read that, “he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (verse 20), “proving that this is very Christ” (verse 22). Paul’s preoccupation was about proving that Jesus is God’s Son, the awaited Messiah. He was not trying to get his fellow Jews “saved” by having them pray and believe in Jesus as their payment for their sin.
Acts Chapter 10: Now Peter tells Cornelius about Jesus, and the closest statement regarding atonement is in verse 43, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness [aphesis] of sins through his name.” This statement says nothing about it that involves penal substitution. The word translated as “remission” or “forgiveness”, depending on the translation, is the Greek “aphesis”, which is literally a sending away, a letting go, a release. It is only forgiveness in a metaphorical sense. The point of the statement is that those who believe in Jesus would release their sin, which is to stop sinning, and thereby be reconciled to God.
We see “aphesis” translated as “liberty” and “release” in Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty [aphesin] to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release [aphesei] the oppressed.”
The word “aphesis” is correctly translated as forgiveness if the text specifically involves two individuals dealing with an offense, such as in Mark 11:25, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” But when the context is the individual himself doing the “aphesis”, then it is the individual releasing himself from the bondage of the subject, in this case of Acts 10:43 and others, the bondage of sin.
Acts Chapters 11-12: In these chapters, the Jerusalem church accepts Gentiles as genuine believers, persecution scatters the brethren, James is killed, and Peter is rescued. PSA is absent.
Acts Chapter 13: Saul, now Paul, preaches in a synagogue in Antioch. The relevant atonement statements come in verses 38-40, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man the release of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and from all things which you could not be freed [set right/justified] by the law of Moses, in him all that believe are freed [set right/justified]. Therefore beware lest the [judgment] thing spoken of in the Prophets come upon you.” There is nothing about PSA here. Interestingly, some translations use the word “justification” in verse 39, but many versions use “free” instead, as they recognize that when reading this verse in context with the prophetic warning of verse 40, this is not about justification as typically used in PSA doctrines. The Old Testament prophets all warned that God would bring judgment upon those who would not stop their sin.
A Bible passage that relates to Acts 13:38-40 is Hebrews 10:3-4 “But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The Greek word for translating “take away” is “aphairein”, which means “to remove.” The reason the blood of bulls and goats does not take away or remove sin from the offerors’ lives is because slaughtering animals for food was a common practice and it was too easy to dismiss the animal and its blood as something common. It gave little motivation for the offeror to stop sinning, to remove sin from his life. In contrast, the blood covenant of Jesus is far more sacred, and for those who understand what a blood covenant means, it is far more powerful. (You can read about the blood covenant in Hebrews 10:29 and Chapter 6 of this book.)
Acts Chapters 14-15: These chapters record Paul’s missionary journeys, the first Church council in Jerusalem, and Paul’s second missionary journey. No PSA is found here. Furthermore, we read in 15:9, “And he made no distinction between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], having cleansed their [Gentile’s] hearts by faith.” Notice that the hearts of the lawless Gentiles were cleansed (some translations say, “purified”) by their faith. This new and active faith changed their hearts, and their way of living, thus setting them right (justifying them) in God’s righteous ways and removing the primary distinction that separated the two groups. This faith was life-changing, not a mental acknowledgment that caused God to grant them a new legal status.
Acts Chapter 16: Here Paul and Silas are imprisoned in Philippi. The frightened jailer is told in verse 31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, and your household.” No unique PSA claim here, as this applies to all atonement views.
Acts Chapter 17: Now Paul preaches in Thessalonica, Berea, and then in Athens where he speaks on Mars Hill. Instead of giving the typical modern gospel message that Jesus died to pay for your sins, he warned them that “God now commands all men everywhere to repent because He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has appointed. He has given assurance of this unto all men, in that He has raised him from the dead” (verses 30-31). Paul said nothing about a sinful nature, a sin payment, or any other PSA doctrinal claim.
Acts Chapter 18: Paul travels to Corinth, back to Antioch, and on to a third missionary journey. Aquila and Priscilla meet with Apollos and explain to him that Jesus is the Messiah. Apollos then “mightily and publicly refuted the Jews, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ” (verse 28). The Jews needed convinced that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Messiah. They did not need convinced of penal substitution atonement because there was no such doctrine in the early church.
Acts Chapters 19-21: Paul ministers in Ephesus, Macedonia, and Greece, then travels to Jerusalem. There is one verse that some PSA advocates use in chapter 20, but they must use it out of its intended context. It contains the phrase “purchased with the blood of his own” in verse 28. Here is the passage in its greater context: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore, be on the alert…” The proper translation of the phrase is highly debated, as it literally says, “He purchased with the blood the own”, “periepoiēsato dia tou haimatos tou idiou” but that is not relevant to the immediate PSA question. The purchase with blood is the part that PSA advocates point to, claiming that the blood was a literal purchase. However, the context intends for the reader to understand that it relates to a matter of ownership in contrast to bad teachers who will lead disciples away, thus also “purchasing” or “getting” their own followers. The phrase is about figurative ownership and is not used with any payment for sin intention.
In Acts 20:28 the Greek word “periepoiēsato” translated as “purchased” seems to be a stretch, as it probably should have been “acquired”, “got”, “gained”, or “preserved”. 1 Timothy 3:13 has the same Greek word “periepoiēsato” translated as “gain”, “reward”, “acquire”, “obtain”, “good step” (YLT), and yes, also as “purchase”. The problem with using the word “purchased” here is that when it is understood literally it results in absurdities. What exactly was literally bought, and from who? Why? Even 1 Timothy 3:13 shows that “purchase” is absurd, as the position of a deacon is not something that should literally be purchased. (Acts 20:28 is studied in more detail in Chapter 10 of this book.)
Acts Chapter 22-25: Here Paul defends himself in court. As part of his courtroom testimony, Paul mentions that at his conversion, Ananias told him, “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (verse 22:16). Instead of having Jesus pay for his sin, Paul was told to wash his own sins away, which is to repent and commit to stop sinning, be baptized, and follow after the authority of Jesus. PSA does not fit.
Acts Chapter 26: Paul continues his defense, now before Agrippa and Festus. Paul retells his conversion experience and mentions that at that time Jesus told him that he would be used “to open their eyes to turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness [aphesin/release] of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (verse 18). PSA advocates may read their claims into this statement, but so can all other atonement theories, so PSA has no unique claim to this passage.
We also have Acts 26:20, “But declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.“ Many PSA believers think that doing righteous deeds is works, and works are contrary to believing by faith that Jesus has already paid for all our sins. But here we have Paul teaching plainly that works are expected. We ought to do righteous deeds that are proof of genuine repentance. According to PSA, these deeds are entirely optional, and maybe even dangerous, lest we get the idea that we are earning our own salvation.
Acts Chapter 27-28: In these final chapters Paul is shipwrecked and eventually arrives in Rome. Once there he contacts the local synagogue and attempts to give them the good news about Jesus. Here is the core of his message, in verse 23, “When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.” The book of Acts concludes with Paul proclaiming the great news of the coming kingdom and its Messiah, King Jesus, not a gospel about Jesus paying for sin.
The conclusion one must draw from reviewing the book of Acts with the PSA doctrine in mind is that there is nothing there to support it. This should be shocking to those who insist that the core message of the gospel is to believe that Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. No, the book of Acts shows that the gospel circles around the message of God’s coming Kingdom and Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah who is God’s judge and ruler over that Kingdom, and that forgiveness is available for those who turn from their sin. There is no deviation from the pattern of the Old Testament in this regard. The claim of Jesus paying God to propitiate Him and having his righteousness credited to believers’ accounts is completely absent!
In the end, none of the four gospels nor the book of Acts lends any solid substance to the PSA claims, especially when the very few relevant atonement texts are translated and understood within their textual, historical, and grammatical context. The final conclusion is that nobody from the announcement of John the Baptist until the end of Acts, approximately 75 years, had ever heard of, or taught, any of the PSA claims.