In his massive tome entitled, Systematic Theology , he deals with the apparent injustice of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement. He writes:
All those who advocate a subjective theory of the atonement raise a formidable objection to the idea of vicarious atonement. They consider it unthinkable that a just God should transfer His wrath against moral offenders to a perfectly innocent party, and should treat the innocent judicially as if he were guilty. There is undoubtedly a real difficulty here, especially in view of the fact that this seems to be contrary to all human analogy. We cannot conclude from the possibility of the transfer of a pecuniary debt to that of the transfer of a penal debt. If some beneficent person offers to pay the pecuniary debt of another, the payment must be accepted, and the debtor is "ipso facto" freed from all obligation. But this is not the case when someone offers to atone vicariously for the transgression of another. To be legal, this must be expressly permitted, and authorized by the Lawgiver. In reference to the law this is called relaxation, and in relation to the sinner it is known as remission. The judge need not, but can permit this yet he can permit it only under certain conditions, as (1) that the guilty party himself is not in a position to bear the penalty through to the end, so that a righteous relation results; (2) that the transfer does not encroach upon rights and privileges of innocent third parties, nor cause them to suffer hardship and privations; (3) that the person enduring the penalty is not himself already indebted to justice, and does not owe all his services to the government; and (4) that the guilty party retains the consciousness of his guilt and of the fact that the substitute is suffering for him. In view of all this it will be understood that the transfer of penal debt is well-nigh, if not entirely, impossible among men. But in the case of Christ, which is altogether unique, because in it a situation obtained which has no parallel, all the conditions named were met. There was no injustice of any kind (p. 376).I am pleased that Berkhof recognizes that the punishment of the innocent in place of the guilty is a formidable objection and a real difficulty. Many evangelical and Reformed theologians act as if there is no problem here at all. It is also good that he recognizes that a penal debt is a vastly different thing than a pecuniary (monetary) debt. Many evangelicals have attempted to explain away the problem by assuming they are the same. However, his attempt to justify penal substitution also fails in my opinion.
He states that there are 4 criteria that would allow a vicarious payment of a penal debt.
(1) The guilty party cannot pay the debt. But is that truly the case, according to the Bible, with regard to sinners and the penal debt they owe? Berkhof would admit that not all sinners will be forgiven on the basis of the atonement (he actually holds to a limited atonement, i.e., Christ died only for "the elect"). Those that are not forgiven will pay for their sins for eternity in hell. Granted, Berhof believes in eternal punishment, so in a since, the debt will never be paid off; however, that brings up the whole issue of time vs. eternity. Is a concept that is related to the realm of time, such as something coming to a completion, even applicable with regard to eternity?
(2) No innocent third parties are harmed. Well, in the case of the atonement the only innocent party is Jesus who, according to the Bible, has volunteered to pay the penalty. So, this principle does not seem to be violated.
(3) The substitute receiving the penalty does not himself owe a penalty. Since the Bible presents Jesus as sinless, then this principle would also not be violated.
(4) The guilty party is aware that someone else is paying his penalty. This criteria would also be met by the PST of the atonement.
So, does Berkhof have a case? I think not for the following three reasons:
(1) His four criteria are inventions of his own subjective sense of justice. Where are these criteria established in the literature of jurisprudence theory? It seems to me that his 4 points are merely an ad hoc answer, created out of his imagination in order to attempt to resolve the moral dilemma involved in the PST.
(2) He nowhere establishes how the just demands of the law are met by punishing a substitute. According to the retributive theory of punishment, which the Bible clearly teaches, justice is only accomplished when the guilty party is punished. The very essence of the retributive theory is that the one who has committed the crime must suffer for it. To say that a substitute can pay the penalty implies that it's just the act of suffering itself, regardless of who it is that suffers, that renders retribution. That contradicts the basic idea of the retributive theory. It is not just any suffering that accomplishes retribution but suffering inflicted upon a particular person, namely the guilty party. To say otherwise, makes it seem that God just wants to see somebody punished; it does not matter who. That portrait of God is certainly not consistent with the Bible's teaching that God is perfectly just and righteous.
(3) Berkhof does not elaborate but he implies that since God is both the Lawgiver and the Judge, he has the full authority to administer justice any way he deems appropriate. That might be correct under his scenario but God will still have to conform to just actions. If he acts in such a way that is counter to what is just, then his character is compromised and certainly Berkhof would not want that.
Thus, while Berkhof at least recognizes the injustice of the PST and attempts to provide an answer, in the final analysis is attempt fails. There does not seem to be anyway to justify the PST of the atonement, in my opinion.