“For an instant, Barabbas seemed to comprehend that this innocent man would be nailed to the cross in his place. Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died. This is one small picture of the substitutionary work of atonement Jesus performed with his death; for we, like Barabbas, have been spared, with Jesus suffering the punishment we deserve” (67).
This is not to say that penal substitution is the only way to understand the atonement. And it is true, the gospel writers do not give a systematic exposition of the doctrine of penal substitution, but what they do give us is, in some ways, more telling and more powerful. They show us through their narratives what it looks like for Jesus to bear the punishment of a single sinner. And they invite us all to place ourselves in that story. Jesus not only died in place of Barabbas, he died in place of us all.