March 11, 2007 - Third Sunday in Lent
The Atonement as Satisfaction
As Christian theology developed, some reacted to the earlier idea that a ransom was paid in Jesus blood to the devil, thus buying back sinners for God. The thought that God was required to pay anything to the devil did not sit well. So in the fourth century, some Latin church fathers began to speak of Christ’s work not as a ransom, but as the satisfaction of legal requirements, as fulfillment of the divine law.
The easiest way to explain the Atonement to a child is to say that Jesus took our punishment for us. Ask her to imagine doing something wrong and being about to receive discipline—say a time out or loss of privileges. Then picture a brother or sister stepping in and asking to receive the punishment in her place. That, we say, is what Jesus did for us, taking upon Himself the penalty for everyone’s sins.
In theological terms, that image of accepting vicarious punishment is understood as the satisfaction of divine law and justice. God is perfectly good and holy. By the very nature of that goodness, God cannot tolerate sin and leave it unpunished. That would be unjust. It would violate God’s own being. Each wrong that is done cries out to be made right, to be balanced in the scales of justice. God would cease to be God if He did not punish sin. The moral law which is part of who He is must be satisfied.
There were various formulations of the Satisfaction view, but by far the most famous and influential was Anselm’s extended explanation found in his book entitled Cur Deus Homo, “Why the God-Man.” Anselm reasoned that our offenses against God were an injury to God’s honor. Because God is infinite, the injury is infinite and demands an infinite satisfaction, an infinite reparation. The only one who could make an infinite reparation (pay an infinite price for the wrong done) is God. But genuine reparation for an injury must be paid by the guilty party. So human beings must pay the price for sin. Our dilemma is that justice can only be satisfied if humanity pays, but only God is able to pay the infinite price.
The only answer to the dilemma, said Anselm, is One who is at one and the same time both God and human. God so that He has the capacity to pay an infinite price. Human so that He can truly represent and stand in the place of the guilty parties. Divine and human. The God-Man. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God Himself in human form.
Jesus the God-Man thus stood in our place, satisfying God’s justice by dying the death we should have died, and suffering the judgment of God we should have endured. His death on the Cross was an incredible substitution. Every bit of punishment that should be poured out upon us for our sins, was instead poured out upon Jesus, who died in our place, suffering under the weight of everyone’s sins. Jesus took our penalty for us. So this view of the Atonement is also often called the penal substitution view. Isaiah 53:6 says, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Was justice satisfied last year on May 3 in Alexandria Virginia? On that day the jury returned with its verdict in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged and tried for participation in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The United States government had argued strongly for the death penalty. The jury instead came to the conclusion that Moussaoui should be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The judge sentenced him to that punishment the next day.
Was justice satisfied? Some of you might still disagree with the jury’s verdict. Moussaoui admitted his complicity in the 9/11 plot. Every chance he got, he proclaimed his hatred and defiance of the United States. He was completely unrepentant, and shouted that he had “won” when the jury chose not to give him a death sentence.
On the other hand, Judge Leonie Brinkema spoke to the defendant saying,
“Mr. Moussaoui, when this proceeding is over, everyone else in this room will leave to see the sun… hear the birds… and they can associate with whomever they want… You will spend the rest of your life in a supermax prison. It’s absolutely clear who won.” She went on, “Mr. Moussaoui, you came here to be a martyr in a great big bang of glory, but to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, instead you will die with a whimper.”
So perhaps justice was satisfied in Moussaoui’s trial. But the story would be completely different, would have aroused outrage and anger and perhaps even violence if there had, against all likelihood, been a completely different sort of verdict. What if the jury had found Moussaoui “not guilty?” What would we say about justice then? What would the families of those who died in the twin towers say, after they told their stories with tears streaming down their faces in that trial? If he had been set free, would they feel justice was satisfied? Would they feel that Moussaoui had paid a just price for his lies which prevented the government from learning of the terrorist plot in time?
When wrong is done, justice demands a price to be paid. From ancient times, the symbol for justice has been that figure of a woman wearing a blindfold and holding a balancing scale in her hand. In the United States, we often focus on the blindfold, remembering that “justice is blind” toward who is on trial, and treats everyone equally. But the scales remind us that justice is to weigh its decisions, and give to each person exactly what is due. When wrong is done, the punishment balance the crime.
One of the great themes of the Bible is that God is our Judge. Near the beginning, in Genesis 18:25, Abraham called God, “the Judge of all the earth.” As Moses was ending his life and his leadership of the children of Israel, he reminded them in Deuteronomy 32:36 that “The Lord will judge his people.” Job pleads with God as his Judge. The Psalms constantly proclaim that God will judge the world. In Isaiah 33:22, the prophet says confidently, “the Lord is our judge.”
You might think that the New Testament and Jesus soften that judgment theme down a little, and in a way you’re right. But in John 12:48, after saying He has not come to judge, Jesus said plainly, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words.” He means God the Father. And by the time we get to the preaching of the apostles at the beginning of the church, in Acts 10:42, they are saying what we still recite in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus Himself will come to judge both the living and the dead.
God is our Judge. That’s what Scripture says. He is an absolutely just Judge. He treats everyone equally and His verdicts are always in perfect balance with the offense. And that is just our problem. God is a fair judge, and we are guilty.
Throughout Scripture, that’s our story. Human beings rebel against God and break His laws, even at the very beginning when Adam and Eve had only one law to obey. Just read the Book, and it’s a roller coaster of ups, but mostly downs, as people over and over fail to do what’s right and are judged for it. Isaiah 53:6 says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray.” Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s basic truth about us. We are sinners. And God is just.
If God judges us, if He holds us accountable and punishes us for our sins, He is just. He is just as just as any jury sentencing a murderer. After David committed adultery he spoke to God in Psalm 51:4, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
We are guilty. God is just. That’s our situation. We can and often do try to deny it or at least not think about it. We compare ourselves to a Zacarias Moussaoui or a Sadam Hussein or a child molester or a drug addict or a bank robber, and we think, “I’m not that bad. I haven’t done those things.” And we conveniently overlook what we have done, the condition of our own hearts.
Last week I recited the Ten Commandments to remind us of how we’ve broken God’s laws. I won’t do that again, but how about the list of sins our youth have been studying? The “Seven Deadly Sins” are conditions of the heart and soul which Christians down through the centuries have understood as the roots of why we break God’s laws: Pride. Anger. Lust. Greed. Sloth. Envy. Gluttony. Ponder your heart only a little and you and I must plead guilty to most of them, if not all.
So David is right. God is just when He judges us. According to justice, we deserve His punishment, the penalty for our sins. It’s just as true for us as it was for the Jewish people. And they experienced the just punishment of God over and over. But it’s not the end of the story.
Our text today is a neglected little scene from John’s Gospel. Just before, in the rest of chapter 11, Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. We read the result in verse 45, “many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in Him.” Here’s a man who raises the dead. Who wouldn’t believe in Him?
The Pharisees and chief priests did not believe in Jesus. Just the reverse. His power and its effect on others only made them jealous and angry. They were afraid that, as they say in verse 48, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Jesus was too popular. In a country controlled by a foreign army, popular heroes are dangerous. They were afraid Jesus would bring down the wrath of Rome, ruining both their country and their own political status. They were frightened of Roman law, Roman justice. What was to be done?
The high priest came up with a solution. As the rest of the group sat moaning and groaning, wondering what to do about Jesus, Caiaphas applied what he thought were the scales of justice. Weigh the needs of the many against the needs of the few. Put the life of a single man on one side of the scale and the welfare of the all the people on the other side and see which way the scale tips. It was so obvious to him, that he shouted out in verse 49, “You know nothing at all!” and continued in verse 50, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
Caiaphas thought he had arrived at justice. Balance many lives, his whole country, against one life, and one troublemaking man loses. But there is wonderful irony here, because his words had meaning far beyond his conception of justice. Verse 51 says that he did not say this on his own. As high priest he spoke prophesy. When he said that Jesus would die for the people, it was God Himself speaking through Caiaphas.
Justice must be satisfied, God’s justice more than any other. God cannot simply overlook our sins, cannot just wave His hand and pretend they did not happen. Judge Brinkema could not overlook the jury’s verdict for Zacarias Moussaoui. In fact, she was legally bound to hand down the sentence they decided on. They found for life in prison. Brinkema couldn’t change that to a death sentence and she couldn’t let him go free. If she tried, she herself would break the law. It would end her career. She would be impeached. She would cease to be a judge. If God fails to judge sin, if He does obey His own law, then He ceases to be God. As Abraham said, “Will the Judge of all the earth not do right?”
From Adam and Eve until now, the penalty for sin has been death. Romans 6:23 says “The wages of sin is death.” The prophet Ezekiel in chapter 18 verse 4 said, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” That’s God’s law. It’s God’s justice. Not even God Himself can change it.
But in those unwitting words of a high priest who had long forgotten God, was the promise of a deeper law, of a more wonderful justice. Justice would be satisfied, but not by us, not by the people who had sinned, but by God Himself. In Jesus Christ, God balanced the scales of justice with His own life. He took your place, He took my place, He took, as Caiaphas unknowingly implied, the place of all people, of every sinner. As we said in our call to worship, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus died for you. He took your place beneath the awesome and terrible justice of God. He satisfied God’s law when you could not. He paid the price you couldn’t pay. If you believe and trust in Him, then you are forgiven and guiltless. Isaiah wrote, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds, we are healed.”
Sometimes we end the story there. Believe in Jesus Christ who died for you and you are forgiven, cleansed, judged righteous and just in God’s court. God’s justice has been satisfied and you and I can expect and hope not for eternal death, but for eternal life. The penalty has been paid and we may go free. That’s all there is to it. But not quite all.
If God has paid such a price for us, if He Himself, in the person of His own beloved Son, hung on a rough wood beam and bled out His life through nail holes, then there has to be more. You and I can’t just accept such a sacrifice, such an amazing substitution, and go on unchanged. If Christ died for us, then we must do all we can to live for him.
Many of you saw the Tom Hanks film, “Saving Private Ryan.” It was the moving story of a military operation in World War II aimed at bringing home alive and safe the last of four sons left to a mother. The other three had already died in the war. The fourth son, Private Ryan, is saved at terrible cost. Most of a platoon is killed in the effort to bring him home. In the key moment of the move, Captain Miller played by Hanks lies mortally wounded. He says to Private Ryan, “Earn this, earn it.”
The scene shifts to a cemetery years later. Ryan as an old man is standing before Miller’s grave. Overwhelmed with remembrance and gratitude, he begins to cry and says to his wife, “Tell me that I am a good man, that I lived a good life.”
“Saving Private Ryan” is not exactly the Christian Gospel. The whole point of Jesus’ sacrifice, of His substitution for you and me, is that we cannot earn it. Jesus died for us just because we could not pay the price for our sins. We can’t earn His salvation. It has to be a gift. It has to be grace.
Yet in his humble gratitude, in his deep sense of what it cost to save him, Private Ryan feels what you and I should feel as we come to the cross of Jesus. Just accepting His salvation is not enough. That gift, that matchless, infinite gift beyond earning, calls us to change. What Jesus did for us calls us to be something new, something good, something better than what we are now. To believe in Jesus Christ and receive His salvation is not just to be forgiven, it’s to be made new. That’s the real power of His Cross. He didn’t just die to take away the penalty for our sin. He died to take away our sin, and to make new people. He died, we read in verse 52, “not only for the nation, but for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.”
Jesus died to make you and I into children of God, to gather us together into a new people, into a community of friends who live together in a new way. It’s almost not quite right to say that He died for you or died for me, as if our Lord went to the Cross in the place of one person here, another person there. Jesus did not pay the price He paid for you and me as individuals. He died for His Church. He died for this community, this assembly, this wonderful, amazing gathering of God’s children. And so we are called together to respond to that gift in gratitude and faithfulness.
So the sacrifice of Jesus for you is not exactly like the sacrifice made for Private Ryan. It does not so much call you to be a good man or a good woman, as it calls us together to be a good people, to be His people, His children. The call for you and me is not so much to be good in our own individual lives, although we should. The great call placed upon us by the Cross is to be good parts of His Church, to live up to the place Jesus made for us as God’s children, as members of His own Body.
This morning I pray that you will accept what Jesus did for us, did in our place. Accept His justice and accept the satisfaction of justice that He paid. “By his stripes we are healed.” Let us accept that healing. Then let us be grateful. We can’t earn it. But we can live gratefully, gratefully enough to let His love change us into true children of God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj