There are many theories of the atonement, explaining how Jesus’ death (and possibly resurrection) achieves salvation. Of all of them, the one I find perhaps the most problematic is the one I keep encountering in my own evangelical tradition: the idea of satisfaction.
It’s in so many of our songs:
In our place He pays our ransom
Satisfies the law – Rob Smith
What satisfies the law
Nothing but the blood of Jesus – Lowry/Morrow
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied – Stuart Townend.
Your justice has been met
And holy wrath is satisfied
Through one atoning death – Bob Kauflin
‘Satisfaction’ theory goes like this: our sin creates a demand, which must be met. Until it is met there can be no salvation. The atonement is then the story of how God meets the demand, and thus makes our salvation possible. He meets it through the death of Jesus his son. Jesus’ death satisfies the demand on our behalf so that there is no longer any claim on us.
An unspoken addition or assumption within this theory is often: not even God can save us until satisfaction has been made.
So what is the demand which must be met or satisfied? There are a few different versions of satisfaction theory, which give different answers to that question:
Satisfaction theory was first developed by Anselm in the 10th century. For a thousand years before him, the church did not teach this idea: the dominant view of the atonement was of a ransom.
Anselm saw sin as dishonouring to God, robbing him of the honour he was due. Christ’s death however is the ultimate act of obedience, and so honours God greatly. In fact, by going beyond the call of duty, it renders more honour than was needed! So Christ’s death is a work of supererogation: it has virtue to spare which can be shared with us. His death renders to God the honour we owed him but withheld.
Why was this so important? Because God could not forgive sinners until his honour was satisfied:
So then, if it be not fitting for God to do anything unjustly, or out of course, then it does not belong to his liberty or compassion or will to let the sinner go unpunished who makes no return to God of what the sinner has defrauded him. Cur Deus Homo I.12
This statement is important: God has no liberty to release sinners until the demand of honour has been met. God himself must satisfy honour before he can achieve his goal of salvation for man.
From this unpromising start, the doctrine went on to be developed further by the c.16th Reformers.
Calvin (the lawyer) transferred this theory into legal categories. He taught that it is God’s justice that must be satisfied. For God to forgive sin would be unjust, and so he is restricted in his action. He must find a way to save sinners that at the same time satisfies the demands of justice. And what justice demands, is punishment. Jesus was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them.” (Institutes 2.16.10)
This is often expressed in terms of God’s law, which is generally identified as the law of Moses. Since the law prescribes punishment for sin, it must be enforced. The law, then, makes demands – and even God is obliged to satisfy them.
In this model God’s justice or law functions as the real problem. Let man be repentant, let God be willing to forgive: no matter. Nothing can be done until justice has been appeased through a full punishment. For justice is an absolute.
The cross of Christ then is explained as an act of punishment: the Father inflicts the punishment and the Son endures it. It must be enough punishment to cover the sins of the whole world (or if you’re a five point Calvinist, the sins of the elect). The quantity of the suffering is vital here to make the model work. Jesus in some way suffers enough, and so justice is done. Mankind can be released.
From this idea of implacable justice, flows all the talk about escaping God’s judgement, which we hear so often in our evangelical tradition. You don’t hear, say, Greek Orthodox theologians speaking like this. It developed in the West.
Luther emphasised the closely related idea that demands are made by God’s wrath. Wrath is an angry force which must be reckoned with – even by God himself. It must be appeased or propitiated. It literally cannot stop until it is satisfied. Not even God can stop it – the most He can do is to turn it aside and exhaust it in some way. If it can do enough damage, eventually it will be spent – kind of ‘burnt out’.
Thus there is an actual conflict within God’s person, between wrath and mercy. This conflict is focussed at the cross where Jesus becomes the sponge who absorbs God’s wrath until there is none left – notice that quantity is important again here. He does it by his death at the cross: “And on that cross where Jesus died/ the wrath of God is satisfied”. In Jesus God overcomes wrath with mercy.
On this account we are implicitly invited to side with God’s mercy and against his wrath: wrath is to be avoided and mercy embraced. Wrath is bad and mercy good. Since God has turned on himself in this way, we inevitably do also.
Satisfaction theory: I don’t know how you feel about it. Some people love it, others hate it. Personally my concerns are biblical and theological. From those points of view I find it extremely problematic.
Tomorrow we will try to understand why this theory has become so popular in the West, and how it relates to the teaching of the NT.