The Satisfaction for Sin

These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.

The way different theologians have developed the concept of satisfaction depends on their understanding of the obstacles to forgiveness which first need to be removed.

  1. What demands are made which stand in the way until they are satisfied?
  2. Who is making the demands?
  3. Is it the devil? Or is it the law, or God’s honor or justice or the moral order?

Stott argues that the primary obstacle is to be found in God himself. He must satisfy himself in the way of salvation he devises. He cannot save us by contradicting himself.

Satisfying the Devil: this teaching was widespread in the early church. It comes out of declaring the devil with power and the cross deprived him of it. Mankind had been in captivity not only to sin and guilt but to the devil. They thought of him as the lord of sin and death, he is the major tyrant from whom Jesus came to liberate us. Here are two mistakes:

  1. They credited the devil with more power than he has. They speak as if he had acquired certain rights over man which even God himself was under obligation to satisfy honorably.
  2. They thought of the cross as a divine transaction with the devil; it was the ransom-price demanded for the release of the captives, and paid to the devil in settlement of his rights.

The value in these theories is that they took seriously the reality, malevolence and power of the devil (the strong man fully armed). We must deny that the devil has rights over us which God is obligated to satisfy. Any notion of Christ’s death as a necessary transaction with the devil is ruled out.

Satisfying the Law: this theory assumes that mankind incurs the penalty of their law-breaking. They simply cannot be let off the hook. The law must be upheld and defended, and its just penalties paid. The law is therefore satisfied. An Old Testament example is when Darius sought to find a way to save Daniel. The law could not be tampered with. God longs to save us, but he cannot do so by violating his own law, which has just condemned us. He cannot just abolish the law he has established. The Bible says that every law-breaker is cursed and that Christ came to redeem us from the curse (Galatians 3:10, 13).

Satisfying God’s Honor and Glory: Anselm (the 11th century) declared the relationship between the incarnation and the atonement (in Cur Deus Homo?). He agreed that the devil needed to be overcome, but rejects the ransom theories on the grounds that God owed nothing to the devil but punishment.

Instead, man owed something to God, and that is the debt which needed to be repaid. Remember that believing God can forgive sin as we forgive others does not consider the seriousness of sin. So what can be done? If we are to be forgiven, we must repay what we owe. We are incapable of doing this for ourselves or others. There is no one who can make satisfaction for sin except God alone. It is essential that the God-Man make this satisfaction. He gave himself up, not as a debt he needed to pay, but freely for the honor of God.

God Satisfying Himself: these interpretations all represent God as subordinate to something outside and above himself which controls his actions, to which he is accountable, and from which he cannot free himself.

  1. The language of provocation: God is provoked by Israel’s idolatry to anger or jealousy or both. But God is never provoked without reason. It is evil alone that provokes him and God must behave like the holy God that he is. If evil did not provoke him to anger, he would forfeit our respect, for he would no longer be God.
  2. The language of burning: this depicts God as burning in his anger; kindling, quenching and consuming.
  3. The language of satisfaction itself: basically that God must act as himself; what is inside must come out.

God is provoked to jealous anger over his people by their sins. Once kindled, his anger burns and is not easily quenched. He unleashes it, pours it out and spends it.

The Holy Love of God: what does this have to do with the atonement? Just as God chooses to forgives sinners and reconcile them to himself, he must first be consistent with his character. How can God express his holiness without consuming us? How can he love us without condoning our sin? How can God satisfy his holy love? How can he save us and satisfy himself? In order to satisfy himself, he sacrificed or substituted himself for us (which is the next chapter).

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