The centrality of Isaiah 53 to the doctrine
of the Atonement
by George Sidney Hurd
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 is the last of four servant songs in which Christ is portrayed as the sin-bearing servant. It is by far the most referenced passage in the New Testament, being directly quoted 9 times, once by Jesus Himself (Luke 22:37; Matt 8:17; Mark 15:28; John 12:38; Acts 8:32-33; Rom 10:16; Rom 15:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 Peter 2:24). Apart from these direct quotes, it is alluded to some 75 times. For example, the writer of Hebrews says of Christ:
“...but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. 27 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, 28 so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Heb 9:26-28, cf. Isa 53:12).
Here the author of Hebrews presents Christ as being the vicarious sacrifice, bearing the sins of many in His first coming, alluding to Isaiah 53:12, “And He bore the sin of many.” He then goes on to say that, having put away sin once and for all by the sacrifice of Himself (Heb 7:27), when He comes the second time, it will not be as the sin bearer in which He became sin for us as our substitutionary sacrifice. Rather, when He comes again, He will come bringing salvation or deliverance to His people.
A more subtle allusion to Isaiah 53 is where Paul says: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). While it is not a direct quote, the only place in the Old Testament Scriptures where Christ the Messiah is seen to die for our sins as a sin offering is in Isaiah 53 (Isa 53:10). The New Testament is impregnated with many such allusions to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant passage, applying it to Christ and His vicarious sacrifice of Himself for our sins.
In the next blog I will demonstrate that the terminology throughout Isaiah 53 is penal and substitutionary in nature. However, since many who oppose the doctrine accuse us of reading Isaiah 53 through the lens of Anselm and Calvin, in this blog I will be citing specific references to Isaiah 53 made by numerous Early Church Fathers which clearly demonstrate that they understood Isaiah 53 to be penal and substitutionary in nature, just as the Reformers did after them. This differs from my previous blog, The Early Fathers and Penal Substitutionary Atonement, in that here I will only be siting their specific references to Isaiah 53 which contain penal substitutionary connotations.
Epistle of Barnabas (70 to 135 AD)
“For to this end their Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption (καταφθορά, kataphthora, ‘death, destruction’) that we might be sanctified through the remission (ἄφεσις, aphesis, ‘pardon, remission of penalty’) of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it was written concerning Him… ‘He was wounded for our transgressions (ἀνομία, anomía ‘illegality, lawlessness’) and bruised for our iniquities (ἁμαρτία, hamartia ‘sins’): with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer.” 
According to Clement of Alexandria and Origen, the Epistle of Barnabas was written by Barnabas, the companion of Paul (Acts 9:26-27). Here Barnabas makes reference to Isaiah 53 and employs clear penal substitutionary language. He presents Christ’s suffering and death as dying in our place, connecting it with the animal sacrificed on the Day of Atonement when its blood was sprinkled in order to make atonement/expiation for all the sins of the people (Lev 16:15-16, cf. Heb 9:13-14; 12:24; Isa 52:15). He then further demonstrates the substitutionary nature of His death by quoting Isaiah 53:5, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities.” He clearly understood “for” here in the substitutionary sense, as in “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for (huper)  us” (2 Cor 5:21).
As to the penal aspect of His death, we see him presenting Christ as having suffered the penalty for our transgression of the Law. The word anomía, or lawlessness, is a legal term, and John states that all sin is anomía (1Jn 3:4). The penalty for sin or transgression is death (Gen 2:17; Ezek 18:20; Rom 6:23; Rom 5:17). Therefore, if Christ had not suffered the due penalty for our sin on the cross as our substitute, we would have been doomed to an irreversible state of death; there could have been no resurrection. The good news is that “Christ died for (ὑπέρ)  our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day” (1 Cor 15:3-4). Paul then says that, “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Why? Because His resurrection was the demonstration that, through Christ’s substitutionary death, our sins have been remitted and death’s penalty, which was hanging over us, has been lifted. Another legal or forensic term Barnabas uses is “remission” (aphesis), which refers to “a legal pardon or remission of penalty.”  Therefore, Barnabas clearly understood Isaiah 53 in a penal substitutionary sense.
Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century)
“He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for (huper) transgressors (ἄνομος, anomos), the blameless One for (huper) the wicked, the righteous One for (huper) the unrighteous... For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors (ἄνομος, anomos)!” 
Here reference is made to Isaiah 53:11, “My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.” That the author of this epistle understood the single righteous One as bearing the transgressions of the many in a substitutional sense is clear, considering, not only his use of the preposition huper, which expresses the idea of substitution, but also his reference to the sweet exchange in which Christ took our own sins upon Himself and covered us with His own righteousness, thereby justifying many transgressors. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21).
Additionally, the word he uses for “transgressors” is anomos which is a forensic term used to refer to those who violate God’s law. The law could not simply be set aside as some argue. As the writer of Hebrews says, according to the law, “every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty” (Heb 2:2). We are justified only because Christ bore in Himself the just penalty due to us for our sins and transgressions.
Also, here in the epistle to Diognetus, the justification being referred to is the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us, just as the Reformers taught, rather than it being an infused righteousness, as held by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The author says that our sins have been covered by His righteousness – that our wickedness is hid in the righteous One, resulting in us having been justified. To speak of infused righteousness is to confuse justification with sanctification. As ungodly sinners, we were justified by faith in Christ the moment we believed, in spite of the fact that we are still in the process of being sanctified or set apart from sin by the indwelling Spirit of Christ (Rom 4:5-8; 5:18-19; 2Cor 5:21). Although we are still in a process of sanctification, our sins have been covered by His righteousness (1Cor 1:30-31; Gal 3:27).
Justin Martyr (100 to 165 AD)
“For Isaiah did not send you to a bath, there to wash away murder and other sins, which not even all the water of the sea were sufficient to purge; but… by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death, who died for this very reason, as Isaiah himself said, when he spake thus:.. He bears our sins, and is distressed for us; and we esteemed Him to be in toil and in affliction, and in evil treatment. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. With His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. Every man has turned to his own way; and the Lord laid on Him our iniquities.... And He shall bear our sins.” 
“For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is everyone that continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them’… If then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that after He had been crucified and was dead He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God.” 
Justin Martyr here cites Isaiah 53, showing that it was the Father’s will to lay our sins on Christ that He might bear them instead of us. He also alludes to verse 10 where it says that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin.”
If the opponents of Penal Substitutionary Atonement mention Isaiah 53 at all, they will usually only cite the portion of verses 4 and 5, where it says: “we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions.” They then interpret it as though it said: “We thought He was stricken by God, but we were wrong. It was us who wounded Him.” However, if one continues reading the chapter, as Justin Martyr does, it becomes evident that, while He wasn’t stricken of God for His own sins, He was stricken by Him for our sins (v. 10). The Lord laid on Him our iniquities (v. 6). When Jesus cried out in Gethsemane “thy will be done,” He was referring to the Father’s will that He give His life a ransom for all. When Jesus said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only unique Son,” He knew that meant Him giving His life for us. This is clear, considering that He had just told them that He had to be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life, referring to Him being lifted up upon the cross. This is made even more clear later on when He said: “If I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (John 12:32-33). He also said that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28).
These Apostolic Fathers lived in a time when the Church was under great persecution. For that reason, their focus in their epistles written to believers was more upon Christ’s victory over Satan than the forgiveness of sin. Observing this, in 1931 Gustaf Aulén concluded that Christ’s atonement is not about expiating sins but overcoming Satan. Based upon that, he came up with the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, claiming that the Fathers never understood Christ’s atonement to be penal and substitutionary in nature. However, as we have seen, that is patently false. Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement is clearly stated by them multiple times.
Clement of Alexandria 150 to 215 AD)
“He Himself suffered for us, whom he might have destroyed for our faults’. ‘The Lord has assigned Him to our sins.”  (Isa 53:6)
“Mistake is a sin contrary to calculation; and voluntary sin is crime; and crime is voluntary wickedness. Sin, then, is on my part voluntary... Addressing those who have believed, he says, “For by His stripes we were healed.” 
Clement makes only passing allusions to the atonement of Christ, and for that reason some have concluded that the doctrine of Penal Substitution is totally absent from his writings. However, he does make a few statements which are sufficiently clear. Here I include two which allude to Isaiah 53. When he says that Christ “suffered for us” in the sense that “the Lord has assigned Him to our sins,” it is clear that he sees the suffering and death of Christ in Isaiah to be penal and substitutionary in nature, rather than Him simply suffering at the hands of wicked men (cf. Isa 53:5-6). In the second quote he uses forensic terms, referring to voluntary sin as a crime, and seems to connect release from the penalty for sins to Christ’s passion, quoting Isaiah 53:5 where it says, “by His stripes we are healed.”
Origen (184 to 254 AD)
“And since Celsus, although professing to know all about the Gospel, reproaches the Saviour because of His sufferings, saying that He received no assistance from the Father, or was unable to aid Himself; we have to state that His sufferings were the subject of prophecy, along with the cause of them; because it was for the benefit of mankind that He should die on their account, and should suffer stripes because of His condemnation... He was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; by His stripes we were healed.” 
“And I asked to what character the expression would be appropriate, ‘This man bears our sins, and suffers pain on our behalf;’ and this, ‘But He was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities;’ and to whom the expression properly belonged, ‘By His stripes were we healed.’... For if the people, according to them, are the subject of the prophecy, how is the man said to be led away to death because of the iniquities of the people of God, unless he be a different person from that people of God? And who is this person save Jesus Christ, by whose stripes they who believe on Him are healed...?” 
Origin originated what later became known as the Ransom Theory of the atonement in which he speculated that Satan was tricked into accepting the death of Christ as a ransom for mankind, thinking that He would remain in Hades under his power. But Christ rose from the dead as our representative head, thereby destroying Satan’s dominion over those who believe. This is similar to the Christus Victor view, except that most who hold to the Christus Victor theory would reject the idea that a ransom was paid to the devil.
While Origin’s primary focus was upon his Ransom model, he in no way denied that Christ bore the penalty for our sins as our substitute. His quotes cited here from Isaiah 53 present Christ as bearing our sins on our behalf.
Commenting on Romans 3:24-26, Origin clearly presents Christ’s shed blood as making propitiation/expiation for our sins before God in order that He might forgive our sins without violating His own immutable justice:
“For above Paul had said that Christ had given his very self as the redemption price for the entire human race so that he might redeem those who were being held in the captivity of their sins... Now he has added something even more profound and says, ‘God pre-determined him as a propitiation through faith in his blood.’ This means of course that through the sacrifice of himself he would make God propitious to men and through this he would manifest his own righteousness as He forgives them their past sins.” 
The opponents of penal substitution would have us believe that the Fathers who emphasized other benefits resulting from the atonement/expiation did so to the exclusion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but such is clearly not the case.
Eusebius of Caesarea (275 to 339 AD)
“So it is said: ‘And the Lord hath laid on him our iniquities, and he bears our sins.’ Thus the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, became a curse on our behalf: Whom, though he knew no sin, God made sin for our sake, giving him as redemption for all, that we might become the righteousness of God in him... And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us.” 
“He bears our sins, and is pained for us, and he was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities, so that by His stripes we might be healed, for the Lord hath given Him for our sins. So, as delivered up by the Father, as bruised, as bearing our sins, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. With this the apostle agrees when he says, “Who spared not his own Son, but delivered him for us all.” 
“Psalms 88 and 69, again speaking in the Lord’s own person, tell us further that He suffered these things, not for His own sake but for ours. Thou has made Thy wrath to rest upon me, says the one; and the other adds, I paid them things I never took. For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses.” 
Here Eusebius cites Isaiah 53 verses 6 and 12 to show that Christ, as the sin bearing servant, bore our sins, the Lord Himself having laid them upon Him. According to the Law, everyone must bear their own sins, referring to bearing the guilt and just penalty for sin (Lev 5:1; 7:18; 24:15). However, Eusebius correctly understands Isaiah 53 to be saying that Christ bore in Himself the just punishment due to us as our substitute.
We have seen that, in the New Testament, Isaiah 53 is the most cited passage from the entire Old Testament. We also saw how the Fathers frequently quoted from it, and how they understood it as affirming Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement in a manner amazingly similar to that of the Reformers.
In marked contrast to this, over the past few years I have read numerous popular titles opposing Penal Substitutionary Atonement, including, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd; A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak; That All Shall be Saved by David Bentley Hart; Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald, and Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulén. What stood out to me was that, as far as I was able to determine, none of them even mention one phrase from Isaiah 53. In the Monster God Debate, Brian Zahnd did mention Isaiah 53 once, admitting that he found it to be a difficult text.  However, it was obviously not considered problematic by any of the New Testament authors or the Early Fathers.
The only exception was Gregory Boyd’s two volume book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. I will consider some of his arguments in the next blog. However, his objective in writing his two-volume set wasn’t specifically to contest the belief in Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but rather to argue that God’s love is non-violent or cruciform. In a recent debate he had with William Lane Craig on the atonement, Did God punish Jesus on the cross?, he even seems to be in agreement with William Craig on some aspects of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
Considering the centrality of Isaiah 53 in the New Testament and in the writings of the Early Fathers, any theory of the atonement that must bypass Isaiah 53, or nuance the plain sense of the text to fit one’s model of the atonement, should be considered suspect. In the next blog we will examine the entire passage to determine what is actually being communicated to us through Isaiah.
 Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 5:1-2,
 The preposition huper (ὑπέρ) in this context speaks of substitution, “instead of” (cf. 1Cor 15:29; 2Cor 5:15; 2Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; Philemon 1:13).
 The preposition huper (ὑπέρ) in this context speaks of substitution, “instead of” (cf. 1Cor 15:29; 2Cor 5:15; 2Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; Philemon 1:13).
 Kittel’s 10 volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says the following concerning the forensic nature of aphesis: “To be emphasised is the legal use much attested in the papyri
aphenei tina, ‘to release someone from a legal relation,’ whether office, marriage, obligation, or debt, though never in a religious sense. In the sense of ‘to pardon’ it is construed with the accusative of person and genitive of object.
 Mathetes, The Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 9
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 13
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 95
 Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus 1:8
 Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus 2:15
 Origen, Against Celsus, Chapter 54
 Origen, Against Celsus, Chapter 55
 Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 2.8.1
 Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangélica, Chapter 10.1 trans. W.J. Ferrar,
 Ibid., 10:1
 Eusebius, Letter to Marcellenius
Brian Zahnd said: “I don’t shy away from Isaiah 53... It’s a difficult text, I get that.” 1:06.55 min.