Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution? (Part 1 of 2)

For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a book on the atonement. And since that’s where my research has been, I thought that Holy Week would be a good time to start an ongoing series on the subject. Toward that end, this first installment (part 1 of 2) involves a parable and penal substitution.

Without question, the parable of the prodigal son, or the two sons (Luke 15), is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.

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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

It is the gospel itself. And even leaving aside questions of meaning and application, the arrangement of the narrative is simply brilliant.

This is true right down to the open-ended final scene. Here, the screen fades to black just as the father invites the elder brother to join the party, and the hearers are left wondering which path he’ll choose: the way of nature, or the way of grace (Cue that beautiful scene from the movie “Tree of Life”). The question is made all the more pointed when we realize that Jesus is telling the story to a room that is literally divided between the elder and younger brothers (Pharisees and tax collectors). For this reason, it was likely a rather tense transition to whatever came next that day.

So here’s what may seem like a strange question: Does this parable really discredit the idea that our forgiveness hinges upon Christ bearing the divine penalty for human sin?

Since the query may seem unrelated to Jesus’ story, I begin with some context.

The above understanding of the cross—in which Jesus freely takes the punishment that we deserved—is often referred to as penal substitution.

Amongst modern evangelicals, it is arguably the most common model of atonement, and it is also highly controversial. As stated above, it centers on the idea that Jesus suffered a divinely sanctioned penalty (whether damnation, divine wrath, god-forsakenness, etc.) “in our place,” and “instead of us.” For this reason, God’s justice is seen to be maintained in that he punishes sin, even while divine mercy is displayed in that God forgives repentant sinners.

As one might expect, there is a mountain of scholarly literature surrounding penal substitution. Whole rives of ink have been spilled and entire forests slain.

Thankfully, almost none of that concerns us here.

For now, the only question I am interested in is the one above: Does the story of prodigal son discredit penal substitution?

Interestingly, several scholars think so.

Take, for instance, the Oxford theologian, Paul Fiddes.

As Fiddes argues, penal substitution wrongfully places a law of necessary punishment above the character of God. In so doing, it wrongfully claims that God could not forgive apart from Christ bearing our punishment. Fiddes, rejects this notion, and he finds support for this rejection in the story of prodigal son.

In the parable, the father freely forgives his repentant son without the need to punish anyone. This, after all, is what forgiveness is. And if this is how it works with the father in the story, then why not with our heavenly Father? Why must Christ be punished in order for God to forgive his wayward children? Clearly the parable does not depict forgiveness like this.[1]

In recent years, evangelical scholars like Mark Baker and Joel Green have made similar statements about the implications of the parable.[2]

To add some color to such claims, Robin Collins even offers a creative reworking of the story to show how it might have gone if the presuppositions of penal substitution were in place.

Think of this as a an alternative history, Reformation re-mix:

Here, the father “cannot simply forgive” the returning son, for “it would be against the moral order of the entire universe.” As he states:

“Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.”

In a twist, the elder brother then speaks up, as the Christ figure, with an offer to endure the father’s wrath on behalf of his guilty sibling (as you can see, this brother is quite different from the one in Jesus’ story). As he states:

Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.” … And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.[3]

The retelling is ingenious, but does it really show that the actual parable invalidates belief in penal substitution?
While this post (part 1) has merely sought to introduce the charge, the next one (part 2) will provide my own thoughts on this question.

In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts. What say you?



[1] Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 101–103 esp.

[2] Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 174.

[3] Robin Collins, “Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory,” (accessed Mar. 16, 2016).

11 thoughts on “Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution? (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Great question! So good to ponder and think about these things, especially in regards to it’s timing, both socially and for me personally. Please forgive my biblical ignorance as I have so much yet to learn. I will try to express what I am thinking and try to say so as to have a better understanding.

    I guess my question, in relation to the question posed would be: Does it make a difference that the context of Luke 15, being the lost sheep, the coin that was lost and of course the prodigal son, have any bearing on the question you have posed? I guess what I am trying to say is, in relation to having been a sheep and then lost, having a coin that was owned then lost, and actually being a son who goes away, do these have the implications of a Christian who has fallen into sin, verses a person who is still dead in their sins and still unconverted? The reason I ask this is, does the story of the prodigal son have more to do with penal substitution for the still unconverted man, ie. the goat, the coin never owned, the man who has not yet been adopted as a son, or is this really about Christ taking on the full weight and guilt of our sin? I see that the prodigal son has a time of awakening/repenting, conversion if you will, but is he here being saved at this time or is he a man who, having already been the son of the father, a man who feel into sin and is repenting?

    Not sure if this makes any sense or not. I guess for me to dive even deeper into the question, I have yet 10 more questions I must understand – haha.

    Thank you for challenging those of us who have a desire to learn more and do not have the ability to attend seminary. May the Lord do a good work in us and center us yet further unto Christ.

    Thank you brother.



  2. Great thoughts Josh!
    Here’s my micro response: I don’t think that the Prodigal Son parable discredits penal substitution and here’s why: in the parable, the father reinstates his son into the family. This implies that he gets a new inheritance which would come from the father’s estate. The father also gives him the best robe, sandals, and a ring which all have their own unique symbolism signifying the son’s place in the family, and all coming with their own expense paid for by the father. The younger son surely didn’t earn or deserve the merit he received, and it all did come at an expense. I think that’s enough support for penal substitution.
    Here’s my macro response: Jesus was the one who went to the cross and brought this theological idea of penal substitution into existence. Jesus was also the one to share this parable. I don’t think Jesus contradicted Himself. I think Jesus tells parables for several reasons, one of them being to get his listeners to ask more questions and wrestle with the tough issues which is what we are doing now. It worked! So thank you for opening this can of worms…I can’t wait to read more responses!


  3. Reading this, I find it rather odd…I can easily accept that this parable is suggested as a model for us to follow with one another, for with us, Jesus does not teach us to demand substitution for wrath we may feel as necessity. Though, I can then see how a scholar, or simply another, could approach my contribution by stating that I’m suggesting that, like us, God does not need Jesus’ death as justice for the sin we are responsible for. Still, in practicing faithful, biblical hermeneutics, one must approach these assertions with caution because the context, both narrow and broad, of Luke 15 suggests other teachings than those of the scholars claiming penal substitution as not necessary.

    What I see is that Jesus was teaching them that God, represented as a Father, is ready to welcome us home to Him. Even if we’ve been lost, beyond what any may deem unsavable. Still, there is a change within the Son one can infer. In the same way, we come to God with a change. My issue with the comments of the scholars is the issue of sin. Within the entire biblical narrative, God has required sacrifice for sin. I’d be interested to see what they say of that.


  4. I read your post a few hours ago and couldn’t stop thinking about it so I came back to participate!

    It would be so much easier for us if the figures in Jesus’ parables had an obvious one-for-one translation. For example:

    Is the younger son in this parable supposed to be:
    a) You and Me
    b) Jews
    c) Gentiles
    d) All of the Above

    “a” makes sense if this story is about our personal salvation. But that seems a bit simplistic (and maybe egocentric). And then who is the older son supposed to represent? Bitter Christians?
    “b” is how N.T. Wright would likely answer. He’d say that Jesus was dramatically retelling the story of Israel’s return from exile. But, again, what are we to make of the older brother who had no need for repentance?
    “c” is how I am inclined to answer. All the pieces seem to fit: Younger Brother = Gentiles, Older Brother = Bitter Jews. Makes sense to me.
    “d” is why Jesus stressed the importance of having ears to hear and eyes to see. Parables can be equivocal.

    But to try and answer your initial question, maybe it’s not as important that we know who the sons are as it is that we know who the father is.

    The way I see it is the father in this parable is distinctly Jesus. And I don’t mean to say that in the way of modalism, I mean to say that in the way of Philippians 2:

    [Jesus] “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…”

    Jesus, as the father in this parable, exhibits the love, forgiveness, inclusion and humility of the Triune God.

    Theologians come up with neat phrases like “penal substitution” that make the greater world think God is angry and he won’t stop being angry until he finally takes it out on someone.

    The father in this parable shows us that atonement is made through love, not penalty.


  5. Great comment Chris. I especially appreciate your point of the difficulty of assigning a strict one-for-one allegorical match-up for the various characters in parables. I’m going to reference some similar points regarding context in my response.


  6. This is an interesting question, and I think context is really important, along with who the father and the older son represent. Since the context is that Jesus is talking about lost sheep and lost coins, he could be talking about people who were already “owned” by God and have fallen away, or is he talking about people who have not yet become Christians? It also depends on who you see the father and the older son as representing. If the father is God and the older son is Jesus, then I think you could argue that the older son was technically punished for his brother’s waywardness because he had to work harder when his brother was gone. Then this parable could affirm penal substitution. I’m still thinking about this, but I think that interpretation could be a possibility.


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