The notions of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’ in relation to atonement are often seen as crude and primitive. Indeed, the idea that God would need to be appeased by the cruel sacrifice of his Son is frequently thought to be inconsistent with the character and teaching of Jesus himself.
But, in fact, such ideas, carefully stated, lie at the heart of the church’s worship and witness. Cranmer, for example, at the beginning of his Prayer of Consecration in 1549 described Jesus as having made on the cross, by his ‘one oblation of himself once offered’, ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’.
But who, or what, was satisfied?
Was it the devil who was satisfied? Some of the early Greek Fathers of the church (including Origen) mistakenly viewed the cross as a ransom paid to the devil. In doing so, they (a) credited the devil with more power than he has; (b) therefore tended to think of the cross as a kind of transaction between God and the devil; (c) even viewed the cross as a kind of bait to catch Satan, who in his arrogance over-reached himself in killing the Son of God.
Was it the law which was satisfied? This view was held by some of the early Latin Fathers. According to this view, God loves us and longs to save us, but cannot do so without violating his own law, which has justly condemned us. Therefore, he satisfies the requirements of the law in the obedience of his sinless Son. There is truth in this approach, but we must be careful not to subordinate God to his own law. The law is authoritative precisely because it is the expression of the moral character of God himself.
Anselm, in the 11th century, argued that satisfaction takes place, not in relation to the devil or the law, but in relation to the honour of God himself. It is God who has been offended by our sin, and it would be against his very nature to overlook this. His own honour and integrity are at stake. We cannot save ourselves. It is man who ought to offer satisfaction. It is God who can offer satisfaction. The provision is in the form of the unique God-man, Jesus Christ. The strengths of Anselm’s approach are that it recognises to seriousness of sin and the majesty of God. Its weaknesses are that it relies too heavily on scholastic reasoning and that it reflects a feudal rigidity with regard to social status and the protection of ‘honour’.
Although Abelard promoted a ‘moral influence’ theory, Anselm’s approach became the dominant one, both among the Thomists and the Scotists, and continued to be reflected in the teaching of Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers.
Hugo Grotius (d 1645) taught that God’s concern was to satisfy the ‘moral order’. This idea is related to, but broader than, the notion that it was God’s law that was satisfied. But God is seen, in this view, not so much as the offended party, as moral governor of the world, whose concern is to uphold the rule of law. Elements of this approach can be found in Forsyth, Warfield and Brunner.
There is some truth in all the above explanations. But we should not divorce law, honour, justice, and moral order, from God himself. The necessity of the atonement arises out of God’s very nature, not out of anything external to him. It is God himself who needs to be satisfied.
To be sure, ‘self-satisfaction’ in fallen human beings is a particularly unpleasant phenomenon…Since we are tainted and twisted with selfishness, to say ‘I must satisfy myself’ lacks self-control, while to say, ‘I am satisfied with myself’ lacks humility. But there is no lack of self-control or humility in God, since he is perfect in all his thoughts and desires. To say that he must ‘satisfy himself’ means that he must be himself and act according to the perfection of his nature or ‘name’.
God, by his very nature, must be self-consistent; he must be true to himself. He is ‘provoked’ to anger by our sin. He ‘burns’ with indignation against it. He must be ‘satisfied’ with respect to it. He must be true to his ‘name’.
We, in our imperfection, are taught to ‘deny ourselves’ – to repudiate all that is false to our true humanity. God, being perfect, cannot deny himself, because he has nothing that is false that needs to be repudiated. He is always self-consistent. He is always himself.
Therefore, if God is to forgive sin, it must be in a way that is consistent with his own unchanging nature. The Bible is even willing to express (metaphorically, of course) a ‘conflict’ within God, as he contemplates his love for his rebellious people (Hos 11). And Paul can speak of the ‘kindness and sternness of God’. It is in the cross that God’s justice and love are simultaneously revealed (and satisfied).
It is only against a background of God’s inflexible hostility against sin that we can begin to appreciate the true splendour of his love. As P.T. Forsyth wrote,
‘If we spoke less about God’s love and more about his holiness, more about his judgment, we should say much more when we did speak of his love.’
The cross is, indeed, a ‘trysting-place, where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet!’
Based on Stott, The Cross of Christ, 111-132.