Is the Cross a Satisfaction? Part 3: The New Testament

Posted: August 24, 2015 by J in General

20-parable-vineyardWe’ve seen that the demand for legal satisfaction is not at all prominent in story of the OT, at least not the way the prophets saw it. What about the New Testament? Does a concern for satisfaction come to the fore in Jesus and the apostles?

In John 8 there is a revealing argument about Israel’s history. Jesus tells the Jews, “If you continue in my word…the truth will set you free.” They respond, “We are Abraham’s children and have never been slaves of anyone!” Here are two rival views of the nation and the challenges it faces. These Jews see themselves as fundamentally free people. But for Jesus their great problem is slavery to sin: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” And this situation of enslavement jeopardises Israel’s place in God’s kingdom: “the slave does not have a permanent place in the household.”

By setting up this slavery-freedom paradigm, Jesus is basically reaffirming the point of view of the prophets: Israel’s main threat is her own corrupt heart and refusal to turn. But notice what is downplayed in this model: issues of guilt and wrath are not the presenting problem. There is no justice-imperative in view here, or demand of offended honour. There is a suggestion of the wrath of God, but indirectly. Nowhere in John’s gospel does Jesus set up a guilt-wrath paradigm for understanding Israel’s predicament. Rather, judgement will be the final result only if Israel persists in rejecting the one God has sent. In other words the obstacle is not on God’s side, but on theirs. Eventually they are going to reap what they are sowing, and miss out on their place in the kingdom. Jesus tells this same story throughout John’s gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (3:19)

In the synoptics, when Jesus tells the story of Israel, God’s wrath is more prominent. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down!” Once again Jesus connects with the viewpoint of the prophets: he is retelling the story Isaiah tells in song, in Isaiah 5:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill… 

he expected it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

For Jesus, as for Isaiah, the problem here is the long-term failure of Israel to respond to God. There is no satisfaction-demand in view. In fact Jesus makes the point that God’s judgement is not at all inevitable. The tree is not to be chopped down now, but given one last chance. Judgement will only fall if the nation fails to turn.

In fact, in the synoptics the story is never ‘Israel’s guilt has made it liable to God’s inescapable wrath’ – as it so often is in our evangelism. No, the message is always ‘Israel’s stubborn rejection will lead finally to judgement’. Guilt or even sin as such is not the problem highlighted in any of the gospels: the problem is always people rejecting Messiah.

Once again we are seeing that in his discussion of the meta-narrative of salvation history, Jesus locates the problem firmly in man, not in God or in an abstract universal principle such as ‘justice’ or ‘honour’. The sticking point, the thing that needs to be dealt with, is us. “Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

In Romans 2, when Paul reflects on the story of Israel, he is even more explicit about God’s wrath than the gospels are. But once again we find no idea of a demand for satisfaction. Rather Paul has the same emphasis we have seen before on the problem of ongoing wickedness: “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Israel has possessed the law but has never been faithful to it. What is it that activates God’s judgement? Is it the smallest infringement of the absolute requirements of the law? Is it a failure to achieve perfection? No, “By your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath” (Romans 2). The decisive factor that is going to make or break the nation is their own hearts, their ongoing godless behaviour.

Paul also insists that if only those hearts could change, God would be very happy to come to the party. “ Circumcision indeed is of value if you keep the law…if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? … for real circumcision is a matter of the heart… Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.”

When we turn to the evangelism of Acts, do we find the apostles telling a story of the Satisfaction-type? “All have sinned at least once, no one measures up to God’s standard of perfection. Therefore justice demands that we be punished.” That sort of thing? The answer is nope. That is not the picture the apostles paint of the human predicament – not anywhere. Think about how Paul explains to the Athenians their own story (Acts 17):

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

Paul tells them, You Greeks have been idolators since forever. God has overlooked this, treated it as ignorance. But now times have changed. God is fixing the world through the man Jesus. He’s calling you to turn back to him. 

What about their past sin of idolatry? What needs to happen about that? Satisfaction? Someone has to pay? Paul could have said, “you guys are in big trouble. Do you realise the weight of wrath that is stored up to your account? Now, how do you think you’re going to deal with that?” But he doesn’t go there at all. He says the opposite: God has overlooked your sins in the past – now you need to sort out the future. 

“You guys need to change”. It’s the same story as the prophets, as Jesus, as Paul in Romans 2. The story has the same central themes we’ve seen all along, even though the audience is now Gentile not Jewish. The issues to be sorted are not in God but in man.


That’s the story. It’s pretty consistent isn’t it. The meta-story from the OT prophets is continued through the NT. The same meta-issues are foregrounded throughout. God is very willing to forgive and be reconciled. The problem has always been our unwillingness and foolish idolatry. The obstacle is in us, not in God.

Now if we turn once again to Satisfaction Theory – the idea of the cross as a legal satisfaction, a rendering of the demands of offended honour, or as the exhausting of the fullness of God’s wrath – the thing that stands out is how little this theory connects with the story Jesus, Paul and Luke were telling. ST fails to answer the main questions the meta-narrative of Scripture raises. It provides an answer for a question that was never on centre stage.

We earlier made the point that when you look at how Anselm, Calvin and others developed their ideas about Satisfaction, you can see that they weren’t starting from the Bible story. And now when we look at that story, Satisfaction Theory doesn’t seem to be a good fit with it. It is not actually a very helpful concept from the point of view of biblical theology.

That’s a pretty serious flaw for any idea wanting to be accepted as a Christian doctrine.

  1. dan says:

    This is interesting stuff brother. I’ve certainly been schooled in and preached satisfaction.

    To combine but alter two statements you made, would you affirm that, ‘Israel’s stubborn rejection will lead finally to judgement’ where they will be found guilty and objects of God’s wrath?

    And hey, can you do a 4th post? Do some construction for us!

    • J says:

      Dan, I too have been schooled in and preached this medieval theory.
      Yes I would affirm what you suggest re Israel.
      More posts coming. I’m not sure about constructing though. It’s one thing to assert that a theory of the atonement is a bad one. It’s another thing to come up with a better alternative.

      I have my own views, but as C S Lewis said, the thing Christians have always agreed is that the cross ‘works’. How it works has been less clear. If my posts achieve anything I hope it might be to discourage us from spending so much of our time on theories, and stick with the facts!

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