Atonement: How does Christ Save Us?

In my discussions with those who believe in Reformed Theology, one of the biggest fundamental theological difference we have is how did Christ save us? Reformed theology teaches the theory of Penal Substitution. Basically, it teaches that humanity offended the justice of God by sinning against Him, by the disobedience of Adam. God, in His love and mercy, wants to forgive us, by His justice demands that reparation be made, that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Knowing that humanity could not pay the price that was necessary, God sent His son Jesus to receive the punishment intended for sinners, so that we could be reconciled to God and join Him in heaven. Thereby, God spared us, by allowing Jesus to pay the price and take the punishment that would appease the wrath of God. God remains merciful without violating His justice.

However, those who believe this try to explain it like this: “God accepted Jesus’ “sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26) as reparation for our sins. The demands of divine justice were thereby satisfied, not by appeasing God’s wrath, but rather by taking on the punishment that was rightly ours, upon himself. In this way God’s wrath, instead of being appeased, was diverted toward Jesus. Jesus’ self-sacrifice was a propitiation, so that the demands of justice could be fulfilled. As for his mercy, this is what the elect received instead of justice. It is the flip side of the same coin. If Jesus gets the wrath, then because he does, we are shown mercy precisely because we have been spared the wrath that was otherwise our due.”

As I hear this I am just troubled by the inconsistencies and illogical conclusions that someone has to come to for this to make any sense. For instance, what are “the demands of justice?” The reformer will argue that “In order for man to be delivered from sin, the demands of justice had to be fulfilled. Blood had to be sacrificed, God’s wrath demands it. If God denies His justice He is denying Himself, which He can’t do. So if God’s justice required that man could only be redeemed by the satisfaction of Christ’s passion, then it would seem that this Atonement was necessary and inevitable.” There are a few problems with this theory though. Justice makes absolutely no demands on God, because He is Justice itself!

What did Thomas Aquinas say about this?

In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas addressed this very question. He posed this question like this: Whether there was any other possible way of human deliverance besides the Passion of Christ? 

Objection 3. Further, God’s justice required that Christ should satisfy by the Passion in order that man might be delivered from sin. But Christ cannot let His justice pass; for it is written (2 Timothy 2:13): “If we believe not, He continueth faithful, He cannot deny Himself.” But He would deny Himself were He to deny His justice, since He is justice itself. It seems impossible, then, for man to be delivered otherwise than by Christ’s Passion. (Summa Theologica, III, 46, art. 2, ad 3um)

This is essentially what the reformer says in his argument as stated above,

Let’s take a look at how Thomas responds:

Reply to Objection 3. Even this justice depends on the Divine will, requiring satisfaction for sin from the human race. But if He had willed to free man from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice. For a judge, while preserving justice, cannot pardon fault without penalty, if he must visit fault committed against another–for instance, against another man, or against the State, or any Prince in higher authority. But God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly. And so David exclaimed when he sought mercy: “To Thee only have I sinned” (Psalm 50:6), as if to say: “Thou canst pardon me without injustice.”

Again, let me emphasize what Thomas is saying here. If God had willed to free us from sin without satisfaction, He could have done so, and in doing so would not be acting against justice – that is to say, He would not be denying Himself or His nature. To illustrate this point, St. Thomas gives the example of a judge who in justice “cannot pardon fault without penalty” in the case that a fault committed against a third party. But if the fault is committed against the judge, then he can “pardon fault without penalty.” What is true in the case of this judge is even more so the case with God because there is no higher authority than the One True God, and He is the offended party. Thus, if He forgives a fault committed against Him (i.e. sin) He acts mercifully and justly.

Let me give an example. If someone does something to me, maybe a friend stole something that belonged to me, and he comes to me later and tells me he is sorry and repents of his crime (sin). I could demand that justice be served and have him arrested and punished, or….  I could forgive him. In forgiving him, I am in no way being unjust. But rather, it is my prerogative to forgive his crime and it shows greater virtue by showing him mercy. This is exactly how Thomas is explaining how God forgives us. Is this not also how God wants us to forgive?

Scripture even gives us an example of this. In the Parable of the Wicked Servant, Jesus teaches us the importance of forgiveness.

21 Then Peter went up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ 22 Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times. 23 ‘And so the kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. 24 When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; 25 he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. 26 At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet, with the words, “Be patient with me and I will pay the whole sum.” 27 And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt. ~Matthew 18:21-27

Was the master acting unjustly when he showed mercy and forgave the debt owed? Of course not, he was acting with mercy. He was indeed able to since the amount owed was to himself alone. The point of the parable is this is how we too are to respond, just as the king did. Who is our king? That’s correct, God! Jesus goes on to teach what happens if we don’t follow “His” example:

28 Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow-servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him, saying, “Pay what you owe me.” 29 His fellow-servant fell at his feet and appealed to him, saying, “Be patient with me and I will pay you.” 30 But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 His fellow-servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. 32 Then the master sent for the man and said to him, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. 33 Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?” 34 And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. 35 And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’ ~Matthew 18:28-35

Just as we are to follow the example of our king, we too will not receive forgiveness if we don’t show mercy to those who have offended us, or owe us a debt. The mercy we show to others are a reflection of the greater glory and mercy that God has shown us.

Then Why the Cross?

The question that remains then is why the Cross? If God could have just forgiven us and shown mercy without payment, then why was it necessary for Jesus to do anything? St. Thomas’ answer is that it was the most fitting way that we could have been redeemed. He writes (ST, III, 46, art. 3):

Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ’s Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man’s salvation. In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says (Romans 5:8): “God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners . . . Christ died for us.” Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): “Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps.” Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later (48, 1; 49, 1, 5). Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body.” Fifthly, because it redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): “Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will.

Let’s break that down…in other words, the Cross was the most fitting or best way to redeem mankind, but not just because justice demanded it, as Thomas shows that God could have pardoned us without any contradiction. The Cross was the best way to redeem us because it also showed in its immensity just how much God’s love for us actually is and thereby should ignite in us a love for Him in return. Second, Jesus showed us the perfect response for obedience to the Father and acting in humility when suffering comes our way, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” ~ 1 Peter 2:21. (This passage doesn’t make sense if the wrath of God was diverted to Jesus). Third, because Jesus merited for us, by His suffering and obedience the sanctifying grace that is necessary to reconcile man to God.  Fourth, because knowing the great sacrifice and act of love that Jesus made for mankind, if man understands the depth of this act of love and sacrifice we are all the more likely to hate sin and ask God for the grace to not sin and offend Him. Finally, since Jesus was also man, then by a man, the one who brought sin into the world, satan through a man, was defeated by a man. Jesus sacrifice on the cross brought about so much more than had God just overlooked our sin and forgave us, or if He had just taken our punishment.

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” ~John 15:13

The Big Problems with Penal Substitution Atonement

There are two big problems with the idea of Penal Substitution Atonement. The first is that it ignores what the punishment for sin actually was. The Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), or eternal separation from God in hell. If Christ received this punishment in our place, then Christ (who is God) must have been eternally separated from God for Him to truly take on our justly deserved punishment. However, God cannot be separated from God, nor was Christ’s death eternal, because He was raised from the dead.

Secondly, the bigger problem is that punishment and forgiveness cannot co-exist. Either penal substitution is true, or forgiveness of sins is true – but not both. The word “to forgive” can be defined as “to grant pardon for or remission of”, “to cancel an indebtedness”, “to give up all claim on account of”. In other words, to forgive a debt means that the debt does not have to be paid any more – by anyone. But penal substitution says that the debt had to be paid by someone, and that Christ became that someone.

If Christ took our punishment for us, then God did not forgive us. We weren’t forgiven because there was no longer a debt to forgive. Likewise, if we have been forgiven, then there would be no punishment for Christ to take on Himself. These two ideas are antithetical.

Let’s go back to the Parable of the Wicked servant. In the parable, the servant owes his lord a sum that he will never ever be able to repay. When condemned to be sold in order to help repay the debt, the servant begs for mercy. In response, the lord forgives the debt. There is no one else paying the debt. He does not demand that the debt be repaid by someone, he cancels it, he forgives it. Seeing his servant’s actions, however, the lord rescinds his forgiveness and again demands that the debt be paid. Notice that the payment and the forgiveness do not coexist – only one of them is possible at a time. Also notice that we too, if we don’t forgive others that we also will not receive God’s forgiveness, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12

The Difference between Punishment and Satisfaction

There is a very important distinction that needs to be made between punishment and satisfaction. St. Thomas’ writings on punishment reveal a stark contrast with penal substitutions idea of punishment (i.e.the Father’s wrath being poured out upon the Son, or the Son taking on the wrath due to man, however you want to word it.). Thomas writes that

“the disorder of guilt is not brought back to the order of justice, except by punishment: since it is just that he who has been too indulgent to his will, should suffer something against his will, for thus will equality be restored” (ST, III, 86, 4).

Earlier in the Summa he also writes that “punishment is essentially something against the will,” (ST, I-II, 87, 2). So if Christ willingly laid down his life for mankind, as both Scripture and the passage from St. Thomas says, and the Reformed theology adherents will say to the effect that “God the Father did not so deliver up Christ, but inspired Him with the will to suffer for us”, then it can’t properly be called punishment.

Properly speaking, for punishment to be punishment it has to be against the person’s will; in other words, punishment is inflicted on a sinner as long as he is unrepentant (i.e. doesn’t make satisfaction for the wrong he is guilty of, like in the parable above). Thus, for penal (punishment) substitution to be correct, the Father has to pour out His wrath on the Son, against the Son’s will, which Reformers will try to explain away.

Again, St. Thomas explains it best (ST, III, 14, 1, reply 1):

The penalties one suffers for another’s sin are the matter, as it were, of the satisfaction for that sin; but the principle is the habit of soul, whereby one is inclined to wish to satisfy for another, and from which the satisfaction has its efficacy, for satisfaction would not be efficacious unless it proceeded from charity, as will be explained (XP, 14, 2). Hence, it behooved the soul of Christ to be perfect as regards the habit of knowledge and virtue, in order to have the power of satisfying; but His body was subject to infirmities, that the matter of satisfaction should not be wanting.

St. Thomas teaches that the distinction between satisfaction and punishment is twofold: Firstly, in the willingness of the one to offer satisfaction, and secondly in that for satisfaction to be effective it must proceed from charity. Put another way, the suffering one undergoes is the material principle of satisfaction, whereas the charity from which it proceeds is the formal principle. It is an act of love to forgive, even if, or especially if I suffer. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” ~1 Peter 4:8

The Catholic View

The Catholic view of atonement is called the Satisfaction view. Instead of taking our punishment on Himself, Christ offered up something else that God would accept instead: Himself, a holy, perfect, blameless sacrifice, freely offered for all sinners. This offering was worth so much more than our punishment, and in offering this sacrifice, it was pleasing to God. Who inflicted the suffering on Christ, not God’s wrath, but the sin of all mankind. In fact it was directly inflicted by his executioners, but universally to all mankind. “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'” ~ Luke 23:34

Unlike penal substitution, satisfaction is certainly found in Scripture. One of the most obvious accounts comes from the incident of the golden calf at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32 / Deuteronomy 9:15-21). While Moses is with God on Mount Sinai, Aaron and the Israelites make a golden calf to worship. God sees this and is angry, intending to destroy them. Moses asks the Lord to have mercy, and goes down the mountain. After dealing with the situation, Moses says to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Ex 32:30). Later, he says, “I fell down before the LORD, as at the first, forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sin which you had committed in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke Him to anger” (Deut 9:18). Moses tried to make atonement, not by taking God’s anger for himself, but by making an act of love through fasting, and was successful. Many died, but God did not destroy the nation of Israel.

There are other examples of this satisfaction, such as Phinehas (Psalm 106:29-30 / Numbers 25:1-13). Israel began to worship the false god Baal, again stirring the Lord’s wrath against Israel. Phinehas, in his zeal, killed an Israelite and his Midianite wife, and thereby “turned back” God’s wrath (Numbers 25:11). Though all Israel sinned, Israel was not destroyed. Like Phinehas and Moses, Jesus offered up something else to God so that we wouldn’t be punished. He offered Himself, completely and fully as an act of pure love.

Let me give another example. Let’s say I offend my wife. I said something that was hurtful that I shouldn’t have. Maybe at the time I thought it was justified but later came to see that I was wrong. In order to make amends and show her that I am truly sorry, I may go and buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers, not as a bribe or to appease her anger, but as an act of reparation. To say, I’m sorry. Now, I don’t think my wife would take that bouquet of  flowers at get mad at it, throw it to the ground and take out her wrath at me upon it. That is not the expected behavior. If she did that, I would have doubts as to whether she forgave me or not. But in essence, this what reformed theology is saying that God does. But as has been shown above, punishment and forgiveness cannot logically exist together. My wife would not be showing me she forgave me if she reacted like that. Neither did God.

Unlike penal substitution, satisfaction and forgiveness are compatible. Something that wasn’t owed to God was given so that what was owed would not be demanded (compared to penal substitution saying that something that was owed to God was given by someone else). Thus, God’s justice is satisfied, but forgiveness still occurs through His love and mercy.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Very clarifying, thank you.

    5 years ago I was still in a pentecostal / evangelical church where I’d been for 25 years. A new minister arrived and set us all reading John Piper’s 50 Reasons for the Cross: a chapter a day. For the first time, I ran explicitly up against reformed theology, and in particular penal substitution, and every basis of my faith and relationship to God, recoiled against it. I created a blog, Light and Reflections (still online, as a sort of archive), responding each day. Looking back, I didn’t do too badly – but if only I had known St Thomas!

    Anyway, with wonderful rapidity thereafter I fell into the One True Fold of the Redeemer. God has had such mercy upon me, reserving the best wine for my last decades of life.


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