Today morning I listened to Cross: God Dies, a sermon which draws some material from The Cross of Christ. Warning: if you found The Passion‘s depiction of violence over the top, this sermon isn’t for you. It may be easier to skip over the icky bits in the sermon notes. Especially insightful is the last section in the notes under the title Doesn’t the cross contradict God’s love?
Back to the task at hand… Chapter five.
5. Satisfaction for sin
It is hard to understand why God needed some kind of ‘satisfaction’ before he was prepared to forgive, and that Jesus Christ acted as our ‘substitute’ and endured the punishment we sinners deserved. How do we reconcile these two ideas without smearing God? For starters, one’s view of satisfaction depends on the understanding one has of the obstacles to forgiveness that need to be removed. Stott identifies four “types” of satisfaction that have been held to throughout church history:
a. Satisfying the devil
This position, widespread in the 3rd and 4th centuries, holds that the devil had acquired certain “rights” over man which God was under obligation to satisfy. Thus the cross was a ransom-price demanded by the devil for the release of his captives. Further, the transaction was seen in terms of a deception of the devil. To its credit, this view takes, quote, “…the reality, malevolence and power of the devil” quite seriously. But Stott affirms:
“We deny that the devil has any rights over us which God is obliged to satisfy. Consequently, any notion of Christ’s death as a necessary transaction with, let alone deception of, the devil is ruled out.”
b. Satisfying the law
This view says, “…God loves us sinners and longs to save us, but cannot do so by violating the law which has justly condemned us. Hence the cross, in which the penalty of the law was paid and its sanctity vindicated.”
However, we shouldn’t think of God “as caught in a technical legal muddle of this kind”. Stott also offers this quote from a book by a Nathaniel Dimock (which I have shortened):
“There can be nothing… in the demands of the law, and the severity of the law, and the condemnation of the law…which is not a reflection (in part) of the perfections of God. Whatever is due to the law is due to the law because it is the law of God, and is due therefore to God himself.”
c. Satisfying God’s honour and justice
This position dates from the 11th century, and states that man owed something to God. Sin dishonours and insults God, and he cannot overlook this. So if we are to be forgiven we must repay what we owe, and yet are incapable of doing so. No one can make this sacrifice except God. No one ought to make it except man. Thus, it is necessary for a God-man to make it.
This teaching prevailed, and can be seen in the Protestant Reformation all the way up to the present.
d. God satisfying himself
All previous considerations, while true to varying degrees, suffer from a limitation: they represent God as being subordinate to something outside himself, from which he cannot free himself. We do need to remember that it is God himself being satisfied, and not something outside of him. Stott explains this by saying, “To say that God must ‘satisfy himself’ means that he must be himself and act according to the perfection of his nature or name.”
In short, God must be self-consistent. The Old Testament gives us a picture of this. Stott again:
“…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, spends it… Indeed, only when Yahweh’s wrath is spent does it cease.”
He adds that God is never aroused to anger without cause. Sin and evil ‘provoke’ him. If evil did not provoke him, he would not be worthy of our respect as God. Also part of God’s self-consistency is his acting “for the sake of his name” (Ezekiel 20:44, 36:22 )
The holy love of God
So the way in which God chooses to forgive sinners and reconcile them to himself must be fully consistent with his own character. Every aspect of his being, including both his justice and his love, must be satisfied. In the cross of Christ, God make known his holiness and his love simultaneously. He neither compromises his holiness in order to spare us, nor does he suppress his love in order to crush us.
How can he save us and satisfy himself at the same time? In order to satisfy himself, he substituted himself for us.