Is the Cross a Satisfaction? Part 5: Why do we love it?

Posted: August 29, 2015 by J in Bible, Church, Pastoral issues, Theology

The-Return-of-the-King-Smeagols-BirthdayIt’s time to ask the question, why have evangelicals been so attached to this medieval theory for so long? It’s not exactly leaping off the page of Scripture demanding to be noticed. Why do we give such airtime to an idea that has so little exegetical backing?

Here we are into the realm of opinion. I can only offer my impressions. I used to hold to this satisfaction stuff. Why did I?

1. ST has become an identity marker

As liberal Christians rejected the idea of the wrath of God and everything that went with it, this area became more important for evangelicals’ sense of identity. We have long defined ourselves over against liberals. We have wanted clear ways to signal who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. God’s wrath has become a handy identity marker for us. This being so, it is appealing to have an account of God’s wrath that is as hard-core as possible. Satisfaction theory absolutises the demands of wrath. It helps us maintain our polar opposition to liberal compromise. At the political level, it works well for us.

In other words, ST has become so closely identified with our movement, that it’s hard for us to imagine letting it go. If we stopped teaching ST, who would we be then? It’s a scary thought.

2. ST provides a simple explanation

The cross is fundamentally mysterious. But the church in the West has always had a leaning towards processes, laws and mechanics. It comes out of Roman culture. We want things analysed and explained. They aren’t like that in the Eastern church: they’re more comfortable with mystery. But we want clarity.

So we want a clear simple account of the mechanics of the cross. We want to know how it works. ST offers a very simple explanation that claims the be complete and adequate: the cross is a satisfaction. We feel like we really need this. It needs to be logical so we can explain it to people.

We want something you can draw as a diagram, put in a pamphlet and train people to recite. It needs to be reducible to a few boxes. It needs to be simple and clear!

We don’t want to be saying ‘The cross is a mystery that saves you’. We want to be able to say ‘Here’s what it’s all about.’ Scripture doesn’t say much about the mechanics of the cross, but the logic of ST covers the gaps and gives us the simple explanation we require. That’s hard to resist, and hard to give up even though we might have doubts about Scripture backing.

3. ST is a powerful and compelling idea.

Necessity. Implacable wrath. Unstoppable justice. Terrible danger. God’s grace wrestling against his anger. A great escape.

It’s hot stuff. It’s a high energy story. Luther more than anyone sensed the dramatic potential of the story and brought it out.

Satisfaction Theory makes the gospel seem urgent and important. We are ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’, dangling over the pit, liable at any moment to be dropped into the fire. For anyone who buys this picture, it provides a strong motive for turning to Christ.

We have a kind of feeling that without this the gospel would lose its cutting edge, its forcefulness and immediacy.

4. ST is less personally confronting than other atonement theories.

Because Satisfaction Theory locates the main problem outside of us, it can leave our sense of self intact.  ST’s focus on our legal status takes the spotlight off our moral condition, our heart-trouble.

It works like this. I can acknowledge that I have sinned, fallen short of perfection, and yet maintain my sense of superiority and pride towards others. I might be guilty, but I’m basically a decent person. I’ll admit I’ve infringed God’s law (who hasn’t!), but I don’t have to admit that I’m greedy or blind or full of hatred. I’m willing to say I’m a sinner, but this is more a comment on my record than on my character. I have sinned in the past, but that doesn’t mean that sin defines me. In any given situation I can take it or leave it. This is much less confronting than the idea of sin as slavery or a kind of heart-disease characterised by stubborn rejection of God, which we’ve seen pervades the Bible story.

ST gives us, in fact, a comfortable middle-class version of sin that does little to challenge our lifestyles or the godless structures of our self-centred consumerist society.


Well that’s how it looks from where I’m standing anyway. Seems to me those are the main reasons evangelicals are attached to this medieval theory, in spite of its weak attestation in Scripture. The very suggestion that ST may not be biblical feels like a threat, an assault on Who We Are, an undermining of our simple certainty. That’s why even after being shown the exegetical problems (see previous posts), many evangelicals will still cling to ST with a kind of reverent loyalty.

What do you reckon? Have I missed anything? There may be other reasons I haven’t noticed.

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