Part Four of The Atonement
Not long ago I was speaking to someone about a court case that had come to completion. The verdict had been delivered, and the family commented that they were “satisfied” with the decision.
The language struck me – to be satisfied with the verdict is something that we get from the Bible. While the word “satisfaction” or “satisfied” rarely occurs in connection with the cross, the idea is prevalent. At the cross of Christ, God’s wrath was satisfied.
Many have objected to this language, making it seem like God is a blood-thirsty, vengeful deity whose rage has boiled out of control. But that is not the picture of Scripture. So what is this satisfaction that the cross accomplishes?
Throughout church history, various suggestions have been put forward. For much of the first millennium, many Christians held that God satisfied the devil. In passages like 1 John 3:8 (he destroyed the works of the devil) or Hebrews 2:14 (he breaks the power of the devil), many assumed that sin had caused humanity to be under the rights of the devil. Therefore, God had to pay a ransom to the devil to free us, and that payment was the blood of Christ. But many believed that God tricked the devil! But the reality is God did not use deceit nor did he owe the devil anything.
Others thought that the law had to be satisfied. When the law is broken, there is a penalty that the law demands. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4), and we have to be redeemed from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10, 13). But the law isn’t personal, and satisfaction to the law sounds very impersonal, as though the moral order is some machine.
Still others thought that honour, justice, and the moral order had to be satisfied. Sin dishonours God. This rightly understands the gravity of sin, the holiness of God, and the perfection of Christ. But honour, justice, and the moral order can sound like they stand apart from God, as though they are distinct from him and need satisfaction..
So what was satisfied at the cross? It was God himself. God cannot deny himself (1 Tim 2:13) because he never lies (Titus 1:2). He is faithful and does no wrong (Deut. 32:4). But evil provokes him (Deut. 32:16), and God will consistently act according to his nature and his name (Ezek. 20:44). He does not fly off the handle. Rather, God’s settled disposition is against sin. Therefore, sin must be dealt with to satisfy his justice and his name. His anger is spent and poured out (Ezek. 5:13; 6:12; 20:8, 21). And so God himself must be satisfied. Justice, honour, and the moral order are part of who God is.
So at the cross, justice and mercy meet. The cross is the perfect display of God’s love and justice. In this way, when we confess our sins, he is faithful AND just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
As we approach Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, consider how God loved us and gave his Son for us, so that we might come to him!
Thankful that mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13),