Is the Cross a Satisfaction? 2: The OT prophets

Posted: August 21, 2015 by J in Bible, Church, Theology
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court-gavelI have realised over the years that Satisfaction Theory jars for me. I’m ready to make my confession: when I sing those songs (see previous post), I feel my heart cringe inside me for a moment. I find the whole idea more of a hindrance than a help.

Why is that? Is it because I’m a closet liberal and want to secretly undermine the idea of God’s wrath? Hard to say, but meanwhile, I’d like to re-examine the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement (ST), take a critical look at it, and see if I can crystalise my concerns.

There are many ways we could come at critiquing ST. One is to ask, why is this theory of the atonement popular among evangelicals? I think in fairness we should come back to this sociological issue at the end.

So let’s start with biblical concerns, then move on to theological ones. And finally address sociological/political issues.


The most obvious objection to satisfaction theory from a biblical standpoint is that it’s very difficult to find it taught in any particular place in Scripture. The bible frequently asserts the more general truth that Christ died for our sins, but rarely does it get more specific. In particular, it never uses a term meaning ‘satisfaction’ in relation to the Cross. I hear it taught so often, but never with convincing textual support.

In fact there is no place in the Bible where God’s wrath or justice is said to be ‘satisfied’ or requiring satisfaction (in spite of the NRSV’s dodgy translations in Ezekiel, it’s not there in the Hebrew or the LXX).

Lack of satisfaction terminology is not a knock-down argument against ST. But it should definitely give us pause.

A much more serious objection relates to biblical theology. Put simply, ST does not seem to have arisen through reflection on the story of salvation history. Rather, it developed in a more abstract theological setting. Reading Anselm or Calvin, they are simply not starting from this place: the questions they are asking are worked out in a much more logical, systematic environment. “How might this atonement thing work? How can we make sense of it? Let’s collect some texts that address this. Let’s reason it out from first principles. How does it fit with other doctrines we believe?” That sort of approach.

What is notably lacking is biblical theology. I.e. there is little or no attempt to approach the atonement from the point of view of the narrative of God’s works as recorded in Scripture. And this is a real concern. All kinds of theories can be made to sound plausible, biblical – but without this discipline of biblical theology, the potential for introducing foreign ideas and distortions is great. It’s so easy to set up questions using imported categories foreign to Scripture, and deduce answers that make sense in those same categories, all with apparent Scripture backing from proof texts – but without ever connecting with the themes or narrative of Scripture.

And in fact this concept of ‘satisfaction’ would seem to fall down at this very point: it’s not easy to see how it is congruent with the bible’s meta-story.

Think about this: in ST, the great obstacle to be overcome is one located in God himself, or in an abstract universal standard like ‘honour’ or ‘justice’ – rather than a problem down here on the ground. Once we had sinned in Adam, the problem was entrenched, and nothing we did would have made any difference to it. Though (hypothetically speaking) every human from then on had been repentant and obedient, the great obstacle would have remained. Once Israel had sinned and turned away from God, his wrath would have been invoked, the justice of the law would have laid down its demand for punishment, and nothing Israel did after that would have made the slightest difference. After all, “What satisfies the law? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

In this view, the problem from the Fall onwards has always been God’s justice. For God to establish his kingdom and salvation a way must be found to avoid his justice: we must escape from the judgement of God. We evangelicals often find ourselves talking like this.

ST and the Old Testament 

If we compare this with the Old Testament, ST would lead us to expect laments in the prophets of this sort:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people, 

when I would heal Israel,

the guilt of Ephraim is revealed,

and the righteous demands of my justice which cannot be silenced.


I want to redeem them,

but my wrath will not be turned back.


How can I pardon you?

Your children have neglected my honour,

and it must be satisfied.

But in fact we never do find such sayings in the prophets. No, the story they tell goes like this:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people,

when I would heal Israel,

the corruption of Ephraim is revealed,

and the wicked deeds of Samaria;

for they deal falsely,

the thief breaks in,

and the bandits raid outside…

Now their deeds surround them,

they are before my face.          Hosea 6:11-7:2

I want to redeem them,

but they speak lies against me.     Hosea 7:13

It’s a pretty consistent story throughout the prophets:

How can I pardon you?

Your children have forsaken me,

and have sworn by those who are no gods.     Jeremiah 5:7

Here the problem is located firmly on earth. The barrier that hinders God’s blessing and salvation is in man, not in God or in an abstract sphere. God is willing: his people are unwilling. God is offended and angry, yes. Yet Yahweh is ready to forgive: but his people are not ready to repent.

Moreover, this is the way the prophets always talkThis is the story they consistently tell, the story of Israel, the story of mankind. “All we like sheep had gone astray”. The name Israel means ‘struggled with God’, and that correctly describes the nation. They are the ones who always turn away:

You shall say to them, “Thus says the LORD:

‘When people fall, do they not get up again?

If they go astray, do they not turn back? 

Why then has this people turned away

in perpetual backsliding?

They have held fast to deceit,

they have refused to return

I have given heed and listened,

but they do not speak honestly;

no one repents of wickedness,

saying, “What have I done!” ‘”          Jeremiah 8:4-6

That’s the story. That’s the meta-problem of the OT narrative: stubborn, persistent rebellion. That’s what needs to be overcome in order to bring salvation and the fruition of God’s purposes.

ST suggests that once we have sinned there is nothing we could do that could possibly fix things. Judgement must be enacted. But the prophets insist that if Israel turns, there really is forgiveness and healing:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,  if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,  then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.   Jeremiah 7:5-7

Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts…Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. Malachi 3: 7-10

There is something Israel could do: she could renew her relationship with Yahweh if she would turn. But she will not.

It is true that for reconciliation and at-one-ment to take place, there must be forgiveness on God’s side also. He is the rightly offended party. But in the prophets this is not identified as the sticking point. In fact, the God of justice is already overflowing with mercy. From the beginning He identified himself by this quality.

The LORD, the LORD,

a God merciful and gracious,

slow to anger,

and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.          Exodus 34:6

God is sovereign in his mercy: he forgives when and where he likes. This is fundamental to his lordship. More than once, Moses finds that Yahweh the just can be successfully persuaded to forgive.  The problem then that creates the drama of the OT narrative is not the intransigence of God’s judgement. The prophets never long to dodge God’s justice. The change they long for lies elsewhere, in the hearts of men.

Can you see the problem with Satisfaction Theory?

When we come to the gospel story and ask, ‘How does God save us at the Cross of Jesus?’, surely the answer must be in the same categories that the prophets used? If the OT functions like a great question, with the gospel as the answer, then must not the answer relate pretty closely to the question? If the NT gospel provides the final and climactic chapter of the long Scripture narrative, we could be forgiven for expecting that it might resolve the main dilemmas in that story.

If the problem has centred around the abiding presence and power of sin in mankind, then it is reasonable to look for a solution, a salvation, that also centres on this problem. To put it simply, we are looking first and foremost for a way of release from our sin problem, a means of escape from our slavery. We need God’s forgiveness, yes, but the sticking point is our sinful hearts and lives.

But ST turns up an answer which pushes these issues to the periphery, and centres instead on acquital. However, as we have seen, acquital was never the main issue in the story. ST switches the discourse to a different category – the legal one. It gives an answer to a different question, not the one the OT centred on. The solution it offers does not meet the problem. Put simply, ST derails the narrative of redemption, distracting attention from its big issues. It tells a story, but not the Bible’s story. It dislocates the gospel from salvation-history. In particular it makes the whole history of Israel an irrelevance. (You can see this in many ‘gospel presentations’ based on ST: they routinely omit Israel, and don’t even miss it!).

It seems that ST doesn’t sit very comfortably with God’s revelation of himself in the OT prophets. In my book that’s a pretty serious objection to the theory.

Tomorrow: ST and the New Testament

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