Why Jesus Sacrifice Isn’t About Satisfying God’s Wrath

//Why Jesus Sacrifice Isn’t About Satisfying God’s Wrath

Why Jesus Sacrifice Isn’t About Satisfying God’s Wrath

On the Kentucky election day in 1882, Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud McCoy stabbed Ellison Hatfield 26 times who then lingered near death for several days. The boys were arrested by the local constables who were to bring them to jail in Pikesville, Kentucky. However along the way, Ellison’s brother William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, along with other members of his clan, intercepted the party and took the prisoners forcibly to West Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Ellison died, and Anse Hatfield tied the young McCoys to Pawpaw bushes and told his clan to harden their hearts as they shot the boys. Over 50 shots were fired, riddling the boys with nearly 20 bullets apiece until the wrath of Anse Hatfield had been appeased over the death of his brother.

The technical term for appeasing Hatfield’s wrath is propitiation. Webster’s Dictionary defines propitiation as 1. The act of appeasing wrath and conciliating favor of an offended person. 2. In theology, the atonement or atoning sacrifice offered to God to assuage his wrath. Propitiation is first and foremost about wrath. As is commonly taught in Evangelical churches, “Humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t. God had to punish them but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they now go to heaven instead.”1

This conclusion is actually based on the work of Anselm of Canterbury in his treatise Cur Deus Homo written some time between a.d. 1094-1098. Anselm was the Archbishop of Canterbury, England from a.d. 1093 to 1109. He was a Benedictine Monk who was as much a philosopher as a theologian, if not more. In addition to the neoplatonism brought into catholic doctrine by Augustine, Anselm was heavily influenced by Aristotelean logic though the ideas of a Roman Senator, Boethius whose famous Consolation of Philosophy became one of the most popular works of the middle ages. Drawing also on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Anselm sought to take the Christian faith from the gray area of revealed truth to the clarity of a rational system.2 For the first 1000 years or so of the church Christ’s work on the cross was interpreted under the less precise Ransom Theory of early Church Fathers or the Recapitulation Theory particularly in the work by Irenaeus, Against Heresies as well as the earlier work of Justin Martyr. In the Ransom Theory, Jesus ransomed the human race from the power of Satan and death through his death on the cross. The problem with this theory was the debate over who the ransom was paid to. Was it Satan? Many thought this. Was it to God the Father? Some thought this, though how that actually worked was puzzling. Or was it paid to death itself or something else? In the Recapitulation Theory, Jesus is seen as a new Adam who succeeds where the first Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong the first humans committed through his faithfulness unto death, and because of his union with humanity, leads humankind to eternal life, the theory goes. But the exact mechanism for this is not clear.3 The questions left unanswered by these theories were never really resolved and this was unacceptable to Anselm. But however we look at it, for the first thousand years of church history, this is what church leaders and theologians thought. The idea of satisfying God’s wrath was not. There isn’t a hint of it in Irenaeus whom historical evidence demonstrates to be the disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna. Tradition has it that Polycarp was the disciple of the Apostle John. It seems odd that the spiritual grandson of the closest apostle to Jesus would not have included in his writings the idea that Christ’s work on the cross satisfied God’s wrath if that was what the Apostle John believed and taught.

Anselm in many ways started the whole thought process over by incorporating Aristotle’s idea of God. Aristotle believed that if God did exist, he would be an Unmoved Mover. This Unmoved Mover must not be subject to any change or that change would lead to degrading of Himself. He could give no thought to humans for he would degrade himself by thinking of something less than perfect, i.e. humans. Whatever he was thinking about had to be eternally the same. Aristotle suggested that God was always thinking about thinking.4 Though many have thought of this line of reasoning as exquisite nonsense (suggesting the danger of pure logic, especially when missing pertinent information), Anselm picked up on the necessity of maintaining the unchangeability of God to protect God’s glory. Should God simply forgive sin out of hand, He would become complicit in evil and His glory marred. Therefore, for God to forgive us He had to have a place where sin was fully punished in order for justice to be upheld. He could punish the human race and be fully just in doing so, but that would render His whole project of creation a failure, something else that would diminish His glory. Therefore God sent His Son as a substitute for us, taking on the full punishment for sin and thereby assuaging God’s wrath and at the same time saving His project of creation. To put more crassly, Jesus became the McCoy brothers to God’s Anse Hatfield and his wrath infused bullets. Still, the theory is nearly a miracle of logic. There isn’t a hole in it. But what most philosophers know is that a system of thought can be perfectly logical and at the same time be false because it does not have a basis in reality. But when its truth is assumed, it becomes the grid people try to force reality into. Much of the time this isn’t too hard because the terms identifying the problem reality poses can usually be redefined to cohere with the system. Though Aristotle was wrong about much of reality5 his rules of logical reasoning seemed irrefutable. To this day Aristotle’s rules of logic govern our discourse. The Medieval church saw this as inspired and baptized Aristotle’s logic into the their theological methods. However, along with the method, Aristotle’s ideas would also dramatically influence the high middle ages in the teachings of Dun Scotus, William of Ockham, Peter Abelard, and the greatest of them all, Thomas Aquinas, in what would later be called Scholasticism.

Despite the rather grim picture that satisfying wrath presents, the theory holds together in such tight logic that since its inception, Christianity never really looked back. The belief that Aristotelean Logic was the God-given tools for theological formulation became as forgone a conclusion as evolution is now the starting point for all science today. Curiously though, in the 16 Century, the reformers railed against the use of Aristotle in the church6 but left untouched Anselm’s Aristotle inspired Satisfaction theory. Their uncritical acceptance eventually closed the matter for orthodoxy but discomfort with it engendered criticism two centuries later. Calvinistic communities preaching salvation by grace but behaving in harsh and judgmental ways would eventually gave rise to liberalism in the late 18th century and dominate the 19th. In the twentieth century, reaction to liberalism came first in the publication of nine essays known as The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth7 which reasserted the theological formulations of the sixteenth century and their acceptance of Anselm’s theory. What resulted was the modern fundamentalist movement and later modern evangelicalism under Billy Graham. This was the strain of Christianity I was brought into and was how salvation was explained to me when I trusted Christ nearly 50 years ago. It was the theory I learned in Bible School a couple years after that. The position of the evangelical seminary I attended later had nearly no doubters. I was completely convinced of the Satisfaction theory. I taught it in churches for over 35 years. But as I read the bible, several nagging problems with the theory not only wouldn’t go away, their dissonance intensified. Some of the problems I came across on my own in reading the bible; others were pointed out to me in secondary reading. The usual answers to these questions not only did not satisfy, then tended toward obfuscation.

The first problem I encountered early on. As I studied Calvinism in Bible School, five areas were considered. We learned the acronym TULIP, which, for those who haven’t studied it, references the supposed five points of Calvinism.8 They are: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement (also known as Definite Atonement), Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints. My schoolmates and I had little trouble with four of the points, but most of us had trouble with the idea of Limited Atonement. Limited Atonement postulates that Christ only died for the elect. In other words, Christ didn’t die for everyone, only those God called to heaven. Those not elected to salvation were just left to die in their sins. So many passages in the New Testament seemed to go against that idea like “God so loved the world”9 and “whosoever shall call upon the Lord shall be saved.”10 The most strident in the Calvinist opinion developed by Calvin’s disciple, Theodore Beza even believed that God actively chose the unsaved for hell. This seemed enormously unjust or at least unfair, but the caveat offered was that God did this all in perfect righteousness though how that is true never seemed to be satisfactorily explained. We were simply told that God is not under obligation to save anyone. All are guilty and deserving of hell. Therefore if he choses some to go to heaven while leaving the others for hell (or even choosing some to go to hell), he is acting in a perfectly fair and just way. But the logic falls apart when we consider the human race is born without God in the world as Paul put it11 and like sheep without a shepherd as Jesus put it,12 blind and ignorant and incapable of finding God on our own. Only if God intervenes will we have any chance at all of knowing him. We were told that God could save everyone, but simply chooses not to. Some say they don’t really know why he doesn’t save everyone, but others will say that God allows or chooses people to go to hell to demonstrate his justice so that his glory may be magnified. To people unacquainted with these ideas, it seems like a pretty degenerate way to show off. But even if we are trying to be generous, consider that our legal system will charge a person with manslaughter who has the means to safely save someone from drowning but who instead just chooses to watch him drown. Under our system of justice, if God could save someone but instead just lets him die, he would be considered guilty of a crime. God is, of course, more than our justice system, but it is hard to justify something, that for any other person, would be less. And simply to say, “But when God does it, it’s not wrong” reminds us of the time when Richard Nixon tried to use the same tactic in an interview with David Frost, “When the president does it, it’s not a crime.”13 The world was rightly shocked.

Most of those in my circle recoiled from its seemingly unjust and arbitrary nature. And many others recoil the moment they are confronted with this doctrine. But if we buy the second point of Calvinism, i.e. Unconditional Election, we are sort of in a bind. If God chooses for salvation apart from anything any one does, the conclusion that, at least by default, He is choosing some for hell becomes unavoidable. Our school however thought they got around this by employing the idea of preterition or “passing over.” The saving work of Christ on the cross is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect. The elect for whom Christ’s saving work is efficient requires God to draw them irresistibly by His grace to believe while leaving rest of those whom Christ died for simply to continue on their path to hell. On what basis is this choice to draw them made? Nothing more than the good pleasure of God’s will, we are told.

At this point, we do not have space to enter into a discussion on election. That discussion has already filled whole libraries. Briefly, however, election is taught in the bible, but election of specific individuals for salvation is, in my opinion, difficult to establish and can only be assumed. Ephesians 1 can just as convincingly be shown to refer to the predestined election of the Body of Christ as the place where humanity would be restored as much as speaking of the specific persons elected to it, if not more. Romans 9 has been successfully argued to be speaking of predestined election to privilege-that of being the people through whom the Messiah would come-not salvation.14 The Reformed notion of election requires mental gymnastics to get around the arbitrariness of God’s choice or what is left is simply to say that when God does it he does it justly. But the fact of the matter is that the whole system of thought makes Limited or Definite Atonement irrefutable. My school’s attempt to get around what it saw as the capriciousness of Limited Atonement while keeping the basic Calvinistic doctrines failed at the very point it tried to save itself. The advocates of Limited Atonement argue very convincingly, “If Christ died for the those who are going to hell and paid the penalty for sin, and that penalty is fully paid, then how is it just that God the Father would require that payment be made again by sending the unbeliever to hell?” This question has been countered albeit in a murky sort of way by saying that God requires faith in Jesus for Christ’s atonement to be counted in their favor. On the surface this looks as though it might fly, but on closer inspection the problem deepens when we employ the idea of propitiation. Now the argument goes, “If Jesus absorbed the wrath of God for all the sins of the world, how is it there is still God’s wrath?” If after all, God’s wrath has been exhausted toward Christ, does the Father drum up new wrath? If so, on what basis? It could be argued that this new wrath is drummed up on the failure of the unsaved to believe in God’s Son, but in John 8:24, Jesus says failure to believe in the Son simply leaves a person in their present sin. This suggests that they are subject to the old wrath. If they are subject to the old wrath, then Christ did not absorb it for them. If he did not absorb God’s wrath for the unbeliever but did so for the believer, then Limited Atonement is proven to be the only logical conclusion.

In addition to this, if Jesus absorbed the wrath of God on the cross, why does Paul speak of God’s coming future wrath? In Romans 2:3-8 and in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 Paul seems to suggest that God’s wrath hasn’t even arrived yet, let alone to have been exhausted at the cross. If the doctrine states that Jesus paid for all the sins of the world––past, present and future––how can there be any future wrath? So either this is not true, i.e. that Jesus propitiation for all the sins of humankind is not complete propitiation, or we must postulate that there is some new wrath apart from sins on the basis of unbelief. But we have seen in John 8:24, unbelief does not create some new wrath but rather leaves the person subject to the old wrath. Again, the conclusion must be that Christ did not die for everyone.

These problems forced me back to Sproul and others who effectively argue that Limited or Definite Atonement is not logically refutable.15 They point out that if Jesus atonement is real atonement, not just potentially but actually satisfies God justice, and if Jesus provided propitiation and expiation for all human beings and for all of their sins, then clearly, all persons would be saved. “Universal atonement, if it is actual, and not merely potential, means universal salvation.”16 Some have gone down this line.17 But since, I find the case for universal salvation unsupportable in the New Testament, I had to agree with Sproul’s assessment but, here’s the caveat, only as long as we assume Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory is correct. However, if the death of Christ is not about a transaction in heaven where Jesus trades His righteousness for our sin by absorbing God’s wrath, but rather an act of love on the part of the entire Godhead––Father, Son and Holy Spirit––the problem, from the point of view of logic, virtually disappears.

Of course all this exercise in logical reasoning is not the same as a Biblical argument. This is not to say that logic has no place, but the “givens” in any logical argument must have a foundation that can be demonstrated to be true. The rules of logic (ironically given to us by Aristotle) state that in any logical formulation there can be No Contradiction. If you find a contradiction, check your premises. One of them is false.18 When it comes to the “givens” regarding the cross of Christ, that foundation is built on the length and breadth of the case the whole Bible is presenting. A true Biblical argument does not just string together a series of proof texts but demonstrates clear exegesis of the whole bible’s intent regarding an idea, including seeing each passage referenced in its surrounding context as well as how it fits into the whole bible. We must see and understand the whole story the Bible is telling from Genesis to Revelation, not just a few isolated verses scattered throughout the Pauline corpus. And even there, we must do the hard work of understanding the meaning of Paul’s terms as he uses them in the first century not how they were understood in the 16th century. A Greek word or term, for instance, understood in the 16th century after hundreds of years of Platonic and Neoplatonic influence could (as we should expect) carry quite a different meaning or nuance from how the word or term was used in the first century under 2nd Temple Judaism. And, we must also take into account James Barr’s insistence that words by themselves do not carry meaning. The meaning of any word or term is determined by its role in the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book it’s found in, the general use that writer employs over all his writings, how it was used in the literature of the day, and lastly, how it fits into the story of the Bible as a whole.19

In order to understand how Paul and the New Testament writers understood their own terms, we must look to the ground they were standing on, and that is the Scriptures we now refer to as the Old Testament. It is not possible in a short article to evaluate every passage in the New Testament were Paul is drawing on the Old, so we will look at a significant example in Romans 4. Much of what follows, I owe to the scholarship of N. T. Wright.20 It is usually understood that Paul is speaking of salvation by faith in Romans 3:21-31 and simply using the life of Abraham as an example of that in Romans 4. However this misses the entire point of the argument that runs from Romans 2:17-4:24. In Romans 4, Paul quotes Genesis 15 regarding the covenant God made with Abraham promising that he would become the father of many nations and would inherit (as Paul puts in in 4:13) the whole world (Paul is reading Genesis 15 in light of Psalm 2 and 72). This is not just a side issue or a mere example but central to Paul’s discussion of faith. The Jews failed to accomplish the task that God gave them in the Abrahamic covenant because they lacked faith that God would accomplish it through them. Paul asks the question in Romans 3:1-2 “What advantage is there in being a Jew or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.” These two verses are glossed over in most discussions of Romans 3 in order to get to the real meat of the passage in vs. 21-26. But this is a mistake. For the very context of justification by faith is the Covenant God made with the Jews. How do we know this?

Verse 3 in Romans 3 poses a revealing thought. After saying that the Jews were given a special place in God’s program, Paul asks, “What if some of them were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness?” Interesting. What “faithfulness of God” is Paul talking about? If we just postulate faithfulness in general, why does the question follow the special role of the Jews? What special role? Does the context give us any clue? Leaving aside verses 9-20,21 Paul asks in verse 29, “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles too?” Then looking ahead to chapter 4, Paul picks up on Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15. The promise God gave Abraham that “he believed and was credited as righteousness” was that he would have descendants greater than the stars in the heavens. Paul expands on this by quoting God from Genesis 17:5, “I have made you a father of many nations.”22 Genesis 15 is the reaffirmation of the covenant in Genesis 12. There God promised that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”23 And looking back one chapter from there, we have the story of the tower of Babel where all the families of the world had been broken up into competing nations.24 The purpose of this division was to prevent the world from uniting against God to their detriment. The purpose of calling Abraham was to reunite the world again into one family, this time under God. In other words, Abraham’s family was to be a light of God to the Gentile nations, not just a people unto themselves.25

Paul has this entire scheme in mind in Romans 4. The faith of Abraham, not the law, was what would accomplish this uniting of the families of the earth under God in Abraham’s day and in ours. Abraham’s faith was in the God who raises the dead, says Paul.26 Our faith is in the God who raised Jesus.27 Paul is trying to point out that Abraham’s faith is the same as ours. What was that faith? It was faith in the faithfulness of God to fulfill His promise to create a single worldwide family under the rule of God. Back to our questions from above. What faithfulness of God is Paul referring to in Romans 3:3? If we take the context seriously, it is God’s faithfulness to the Covenant he made with Abraham. The Jews however, Paul said, were unfaithful to fulfill their end of the covenant God made with them to be a “guide for the blind, a light for those in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants …” Romans 2:19-20. Jesus makes a similar case in the Sermon on the Mount when calling the Jews He is speaking to “the salt of the earth, the light of the world” 28

So what does God’s faithfulness to the covenant have to do with the problem of propitiation? The problem becomes clear when we correctly identify the content of “God’s Righteousness” (Greek: dikaiosyne) as Paul is using it. The content of “God’s righteousness” in Romans is God being faithful to His promises. In Romans 1:17 Paul says the gospel “reveals God’s Righteousness from heaven” because it proves that God is faithfully fulfilling his promises to Abraham even though the Jews failed on their part. Romans 3:21 begins with “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been made known to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” The term “righteousness” in this passage is not some general measure of moral goodness that God has or is planning to give to us. This righteousness of God here is God’s faithfulness to His covenant.29 A good way to translate this might be “covenant faithfulness” or maybe more accurately “covenant justice.”30 Here we are immediately faced with another problem. The next verse is usually translated “this righteousness was given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Most translations put a footnote here that average readers ignore. The Greek here does not say “faith in Jesus” but “faith of Jesus.” It is in the genitive case not the dative case. Additionally the Greek word for “faith” (pistis) is just as often to be translated as “faithfulness.” The words “was given” in the English translation are not in the Greek sentence but added by translators to support a particular reading. The Greek sentence simply reads: “The covenant justice (normally translated “righteousness”) of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe.” This is not about us who have “faith in Jesus” but rather about “the faithfulness of Jesus” bringing about what God had promised to all of those who believe in Him.31 Paul is putting the emphasis on what Jesus has done to accomplish what the unfaithful Jews did not.

But what exactly was it that Jesus accomplished and what the Jews failed to do? To answer this question we need to go back to Romans 1. In verse 18, Paul points out that wrath of God is revealed from heaven but it is not exactly against what we normally hear when we read the passage. God’s wrath is not revealed against sin, but against ungodliness. It is a mistake to assume ungodliness is just a synonym for sin. Paul tells us that sin is the result of ungodliness32 and goes on to define ungodliness as idolatry: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened … and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like [created things.]”33 In Romans 3:23, Paul says that all have sinned and fell short of the glory of God.” Notice the parallel construction. Falling short of the glory of God is not a euphemism for sin, but rather a reference to idolatry. The human race did not honor God as God, and a cursory look at Israel is they didn’t either. They abandoned covenant God for the Baals as the prophets would say. Jesus on the other hand was faithful to worship the One God only.34

Now we get to the word that is translated “propitiation.” The greek word is hilasterion. The King James Bible translated this word and its cognate hilasmos as “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 and in 1 John 2:2 to be a single word rendering the idea of “atoning sacrifice,” which is what hilasterion came to exclusively mean in the 16th century (partly due to Anselm). But is this how the word would have been used by Paul? In the century before Jesus, the people of Israel were losing their ability to speak or read Hebrew. The spread of the Greek language under Alexander the Great created a need to translate the Hebrew Scripture into Greek in the second century B.C. The result was known as the Septuagint or LXX referring to the 70 elders who translated the text. The word hilasterion was used by these translators to translate the Hebrew word kapporeth that referred to the lid on the ark of the covenant,35 which is regularly translated into English as “the Mercy Seat” or “the place of Mercy.”36 It is interesting to note at this point that the only other place hilasterion appears in the New Testament is in Hebrews 9:5. There it is regularly translated “mercy seat.”37 Though the idea of propitiating God’s wrath is possible, it takes a theological presupposition to get there. However, the sense that earlier translators got of the word is rather the “place in which God and Man would meet” and those earlier translations were made during the time “propitiation” was in theological currency.38 It is interesting that this meeting place would be known as the place of mercy not wrath. Seeing that Paul would be very familiar with this use of the word hilasterion and more importantly the significance of the ark of the covenant and “the mercy seat,” it seems strange that he would choose to give it a different meaning. Furthermore, since Jesus claimed to be the new temple of God,39 where the new community of God would be reorganized around him, the mercy seat, the meeting place between heaven and earth fits very well. If we bring this understanding into the equation, instead of translating hilasterion as “propitiation” we would read “the place of mercy.” Now, the previous verses make more sense. N.T. Wright translates the entire passage as:

“God’s covenant justice [dikaiosyne] comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory40––and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right [dikaioumenoi] through the redemption which is found in Messiah Jesus. God presented Christ as the place of mercy through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice [dikaiosyne], because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. The was to demonstrate his covenant justice [dikaiosyne] in the present time: that is that he himself is in the right [dikaios], and that he declares to be in the right [dikaioutai] everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus.41

When we see this in light of the problem expressed by Sproul above, we note something else that arises. Sproul pointed out that if Christ’s atonement was for all people, and it was a truly effective payment for sin, then all people would have to be saved. To say that it is only effective for some means that the death of Christ as a payment for sin had only the potential for atonement but not the effectiveness without faith. He argues that in one way or another atonement must be limited, and then concludes the best way of seeing this is that Christ only died for or a maybe better way of saying it, Christ only atoned for the sins of the elect. The logic is very sound. However, this runs into a different sort of problem. Romans 3:21-26 (and indeed the whole gospel message) is steeped in grace given freely42. Now if Jesus absorbed the full wrath of God and fully paid for our sins as our human representative, then grace is eliminated. If sin is fully paid for, it’s not grace but simply what is due. The usual retort goes something like this: “It is grace because the payment is freely applied to me and my sins,” but what a minute. If the just punishment for my sins has been meted out and fully paid for whether by me or by a surrogate, isn’t my redemption earned? I of course didn’t earn it. My substitute did, but the fact remains, this wasn’t an act of mercy but an act of payment. Grace assumes that forgiveness is granted apart from any payment. It could be argued that Christ’s offer to save me is grace but the Father demanding payment isn’t. Now we start messing with the trinity. More on that shortly.

Sins simply forgiven, without any payment, is the definition of mercy and the concomitant of grace. But if that is true, why did Jesus have to die? Here is a huge topic and there is no space here to answer that fully, so a brief answer will have to suffice. Taking the covenant theme mentioned above and the faithfulness theme, Jesus was faithful to trust the faithfulness of the Father even unto death. The result was that Jesus was raised from the dead. Paul argues that our faith enters into the same death with Jesus trusting in the faithfulness of God to keep His promises to create and include us in His world-wide family that even death cannot prevent.43 In doing so the problem of Romans 1 is solved as we give up our idolatry and return to glorify the one true God. What God has promised, is that if we will place our faith in Jesus faithfulness, God the Father will count that as our faithfulness, freely forgive our sins, and make us covenant members of His family.

In addition to the above problems with propitiation, there are the teachings of Jesus to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the shirt with the coat, and love our enemies and he tells us to do these things because that is what God does.44 Jesus certainly acted exactly this way. What is more, Jesus said he did what he did because it was what he saw the Father doing. In fact, Jesus says he could only do what he saw the Father doing and “whatever the Father does, the Son does too.”45 If God doesn’t turn the other cheek or only does so for a little while until he punishes, we are faced with a contradiction. Or worse, we are beginning to undermine the doctrine of the Trinity. If the Father is pouring wrath from heaven on Jesus at the cross, have we not postulated two separate beings? If there is only One God and Jesus is God, wherever Jesus is, is where the Father is also. Doesn’t Paul say, at the cross “That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself?”46 It is true that the Bible says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay”47 but it never equates God’s vengeance with the methods we use. God’s judgment on humankind is merely his letting rebels go their own way because they have insisted on it. Life without God is the punishment, and a horrible punishment it is, but it is what they have demanded. Eventually the wrath of God is the permanent sealing for all eternity into rebellion those who have rejected His offer of grace. No other punishment could equal it. C.S. Lewis made this devastatingly clear:

St. Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (I Cor. viii. 3). It is a strange promise. Does not God know all things at all time? But it is dreadfully re-echoed in another passage of the New Testament. There we are warned that it may happen to any one of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words: “I never knew you. Depart from Me.” In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside––repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored.48

During this life rebels fall into the very traps they set for others.49 In eternity, they are left completely on their own to a system where only “might makes right.” Imagine an eternity under the rule of a Hitler, a Stalin or a Mao. Think of what these monsters could have accomplished if there was no one to stop them for all eternity.

The last problem I will address here with propitiation is that it is the concept that pagans understood in their idolatrous practices.50 Pagan worshippers sacrificed to placate an angry deity. Paul’s point in Romans is that the human race exchanged the glory of God for images to look like created things. This distorts what God is like. God forbade any image to be made, because any image would distort. And God forbade any copying of pagan practices.51 The worst of these was the worship of Molech whose cult required the sacrifice of innocent children to placate the god’s anger and earn his favor. The notion that Jesus propitiates God’s wrath takes on too similar a form. Jesus, the perfectly innocent one, is punished unjustly (since he committed no sin) and we, the guilty, are acquitted unjustly (since we are guilty of sin). Proverbs states, “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent––the Lord detests them both.”52 It would seem odd that the Scriptures could be so against these things and at the same time establish them as the basis of our salvation.

At this point, it might be asked, but didn’t Jesus cry out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”53 Isn’t that when the “sins of the world” were placed on Jesus and the Father turned his back? Wasn’t that when the Father poured out his wrath on human sinfulness? Notice how much is being read into this one unadorned statement of Jesus. This interpretation would not be possible without first believing the satisfaction theory and using it as an overlay on the passage. All that is really going on here is that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1 in obvious anguish. It is helpful is to understand that when New Testament writers quote a verse in the Old Testament, they are not proof texting as we might be doing. Quoting a verse is shorthand for invoking the content of a whole story, discourse or in this case, a whole psalm. Just a cursory reading of Psalm 22 will show that everything happening to Jesus at the cross is prefigured in the psalm: the taunts by the religious leaders “He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him;”54 that his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth prefiguring thirst;55 that they have pierced his hands and his feet;56 that his garments are divided and lots are cast for them.57 Jesus, by quoting the first verse of this psalm, is invoking the similarity of his troubles to those of David in order to show the similarity of David’s confidence in God’s deliverance also in Psalm 22:

I will declare your name to my brothers
in the congregation I will praise you
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
… For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.58

Jesus is acknowledging that he will trust in God even at his darkest moment. And this is exactly what Peter writes about the whole scene: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself (or kept on entrusting himself) to him who judges justly.”59

There are, of course, weak points to any line of argument and this one is no exception, but it has far less problems with the whole story the Bible is telling and reads more cleanly than Anselm’s Theory. Propitiation is the child of the satisfaction theory of the atonement which is at best the result of a Platonic conception of God and Heaven and the logical reasoning Aristotle, and at worst the secret cousin of pagan idolatrous worship practices. If God is love, and John says he is,60 then every act God undertakes must be a reflection of that love. There is never a moment God the Father doesn’t love the Son or any of us. It is true that all his acts are equally just as well, but here there is no conflict. God has the right to absorb the pain caused by rebellious fallen people and forgive them without exacting any punishment and without diminishing his glory. In fact, responding to sin with grace is a demonstration of his glory since the result brings sinners back to the place of true worship of God. And his act of letting people go into eternal darkness is also an act of love, albeit a sad one. God will not force anyone to surrender to his authority. He has given them the choice, and though he does everything to convince them to return to him, he will let them go.61 The Hebrew concept of retribution for sin was that within the very act of evil is the seed of its own punishment. When we habitually lie or cheat or steal, we lose the ability to trust others, which in turn isolates us. When we pursue pleasure over love, we lose ourselves in addictions. When we turn our backs on God, we lose the very source of life and joy. Out of love, God forgives; out of love God pronounces final judgment. There is no fear in love62 because love covers a multitude of sins.63 And God calls us to live this way because this is who He; this is how He lives.64


  1. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p.265
  2. See Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light, Chapter 12 (esp. Kin loc 3712-3733)
  3. Irenaeus’ idea was expanded on by the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulen in his book Christus Victor, 1935. He brought much clarity to this position while adding a dimension of his own. It still does not equal the tight logic of Anselm’s theory but runs into far less trouble with New Testament theology as a whole.
  4. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book XI
  5. He believed the earth was the center of the universe, ridiculed the atom theory postulating that there were only 4 elements (earth, water, air and fire), that the planets moved but not the stars, etc.
  6. Particularly by Martin Luther who criticized Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s “Accidents and Essence” concept of material reality to form the doctrine of transubstantiation.
  7. Usually just known as The Fundamentals today, published between 1910 and 1915 by the Testimony Publishing Company of Chicago in quarterly installments over twelve volumes. It was republished in 1917 by The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today known as BIOLA) in a four volume set and is available by Baker Books in a two volume set
  8. This acronym was not formed by Calvin of course. He wrote in Latin and informally in French. In fact the 5 points were not laid out by Calvin in this simple construction (and it has been argued that this simple construction somewhat distorts what Calvin intended). They were formulated and affirmed at the Synod of Dort in 1618, 63 years after Calvin’s death.
  9. John 3:16
  10. Romans 10:13
  11. Ephesians 2:12
  12. Matthew 9:36
  13. Frost/Nixon interviews broadcast, May 4, 1977
  14. Tom Holland, Romans: The Divine Marriage, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2011, p. 310-320
  15. See R.C. Sproul, Chosen By God
  16. R. C. Sproul, “Biblical Scholasticism,” ligonier.org//learn/article/biblical-scholasticism
  17. Most notably the recent book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, 2011
  18. Aristotle, Metaphysics IV (Gamma) 3-6, especially 4
  19. See James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 1961
  20. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 299-321
  21. Though they are important to Paul’s line of thought, I don’t exegete these verses in this article because they don’t add to or subtract from my basic point. But briefly, Paul is saying that although the Jews were privileged they faired no better than the Gentiles in worshipping and serving God.
  22. Romans 4:17
  23. Genesis 12:3
  24. Genesis 11:5-9
  25. Isaiah 49:6, Though the referent in this passage is the Servant which we tend to equate with the coming Messiah, it was understood by Jews as the call of all Israel as Paul points out in Acts 13:47.
  26. Romans 4:17
  27. Romans 4:23-24
  28. (Matthew 5:13-14)
  29. This would make the sense of the verse read, “But now apart from the Law (which was part of the God’s faithful plan for the world), the covenant faithfulness of God is being shown (separately) which was that very thing that the Law and the Prophets proclaimed was true about God.”
  30. Wright’s term for it. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 305
  31. This makes more sense of the verse. Otherwise you have a tautology in the phrase “faith in Jesus to all who believe.” Isn’t “those who have faith in Jesus” the same as “those who believe?”
  32. Romans 1:23-24 because of their idolatry, “Therefore God gave them over to sinful desires …”
  33. Romans 1:23
  34. Matthew 4:10 Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 6:13 here is no small thing but part and parcel to the mission of Jesus to fulfill what the Jewish nation failed to do.
  35. The NIV in a footnote to Romans 3:25 acknowledges this is well.
  36. See Exodus 25:17,18, 19, 20, 21, 22; 26:34; 30:6; 31:7; 35:12; 37:6, 7, 8, 9; 39:35; 40:20, Leviticus 16:2, 13, 15; Numbers 7:89; 1 Chronicles 28:11. It is interesting to note that the older English translations such at the King James and the RSV translate this word as “mercy seat” whereas the newer translations such as the the NIV translates this word as “cover” meaning “lid” and the NASB translates this word as “atoning cover.” These translations are more known to be moved by theological considerations than either the KJV or the RSV.
  37. Again with the exception of the NIV and the NASB, however in the NASB, a footnote includes the alternate translation “mercy seat.”
  38. The KJV was published in 1611 a.d. whereas Calvin’s Institutes was first published in 1536 a.d. with the definitive Latin version in 1559 a.d. and the French version in 1560 a.d. Additionally, Anglicanism of the early 17th century (which produced the KJV) was heavily influenced by Calvin.
  39. John 2:19. Also, if we look at Hebrews 4:16 where Jesus is the “great high priest” we are told to approach the “throne of grace” where we might find “mercy.” The high priest in this example is associated with the cover of the “ark of the covenant” and here it is associated with “grace and mercy.” It could be argued that this is because Jesus “satisfied God’s wrath” with the sacrifice of his blood, but this falls victim to the argument that the “throne of grace” belongs to Jesus and not to God the Father. See above.
  40. Glory here is reference to “right worship.” See Romans 1:21-23
  41. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 305-306
  42. Romans 3:25 “… and all are justified freely by his grace …”
  43. Romans 6:1-10, Romans 8:38-39
  44. Matthew 5:38-48
  45. John 5:19
  46. 2 Corinthians 5:19
  47. Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19
  48. C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (New York: Macmillion, 1949), p. 12
  49. Proverbs 1:19
  50. There are other concerns such as Isaiah 53:4-6 with “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” and “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” which would almost take an article as long as this one to address. But a brief note is that the word for “for” in these passages is almost always translated “from” in Hebrew which would dramatically change the meaning above to “He was pierced from our transgressions” i.e. it was our sinful violent behavior toward him that pierced him, and the Lord allowed the full weight of our violent awfulness to be laid on him. The idea that God is pouring out his wrath here is partly the understanding the translators put on it and partly our expectation to “see” it this way. Other verses that seem to speak similarly have similar problems.
  51. Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; 1 Kings 11:33; see especially Jeremiah 32:35
  52. Proverbs 17:15, see also Exodus 23:6-7, Psalm 94:21, Proverbs 18:5, Isaiah 5:23, 29:20-21, Lam 3:34-36
  53. Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34
  54. Psalm 22:8, c.f. Luke 23:35
  55. Psalm 22:15, c.f. John 19:28-29
  56. Psalm 22:16, c.f. Mark 15:34 and parallels, John 20:25, 27
  57. Psalm 22:18 c.f. Luke 23:34, John 19:23-24
  58. Psalm 22:22-24
  59. 1 Peter 2:23
  60. 1 John 4:16
  61. This of course tears at the fabric of the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. No space is available here to discuss this except to say that those who say that the doctrine of Irresistible Grace as is presented in the Calvinist framework exists without negating human free choice is a statement without meaning. To say that our choice is real even though we couldn’t have decided against it either in turning toward Christ or turning away from Christ defies the laws of logic. However, that a person must be drawn by God to come to Christ is stated clearly by Jesus in John 6:35. Therefore the basic Roman Catholic doctrine in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2008 in my opinion gets it right, i.e. “God takes the initiative in establishing faith in the believer but requires the free collaboration on the part of humans to complete it.” In this sense, there is something God cannot do, but it is out of his own choice that he can’t. He has limited himself to allowing our choice. For those who would say this puts salvation entirely in our hands fail to understand that God can, and I believe did, arrange the whole sweep of human history and choices to place the greatest amount of people in a pathway to find his grace irresistible, but it is the same grace offered to everyone. Some find it irresistible because of where God allowed their choices and the choices of all people of all human history to put them. People in a place of great need are more likely to respond to God’s grace. “Didn’t God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5) and “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3)
  62. 1 John 4:18
  63. 1 Peter 4:8
  64. 1 John 4:16-17

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