Atonement Series: Satisfaction / Substitution

Satisfaction Theory
The satisfaction theory was first articulated by Anselm. Anselm rejected the idea that the Satan had a legal right to humanity that God must pay (as the ransom theory argues). Anselm proposed instead that that humanity owes a debt to God because of our sin. To appease God’s honor, this debt must be repaid. However, humanity is unable to pay it. Understanding this, Jesus fully paid the debt on our behalf through his suffering and death on the cross. Jesus was able to fulfill this role because he became human as us, yet lived a perfect life. Thus he was uniquely able to satisfy God’s demand.

Penal Substitution Theory
The penal substitution theory is similar to satisfaction theory. It was proposed by John Calvin and other Protestant reformers. Instead of focusing on God’s honor, it focuses on God’s justice. This theory states that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for mankind, taking our place. God imputed our sin to Jesus, and imputed the righteousness of Jesus to us.

Most conservative Christians hold to the satisfaction view. This includes Catholics, Reformed, and many Arminians.

Criticisms of Satisfaction / Substitution

  • Some think that God ought to be able to forgive without requiring repayment.
  • It seems counter intuitive to punish the innocent and release the guilty.
  • If our debt has already been paid, does this give is a license to continue sinning?

Verses Used to Advocate

  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. –2 Corinthians 5:21
  • Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” -Galations 3:13
  • God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:25,26
  • We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. -Isaiah 53:6

Examples in music and literature:

  • Nothing but the Blood of Jesus (Robert Lowry) What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
  • Peace Child (Don Richardson) A missionary tells a story about a primitive tribe where the chief gives his son to his enemies to bring peace.


Filed under atonement theories

12 responses to “Atonement Series: Satisfaction / Substitution

  1. I too am enjoying this series. I hope to post some thoughts when you’re finished.m

  2. I was kind of hoping you would spend some time with the OT sacrificial system. Do you have any thoughts about how atonement worked within ancient Judaism and what that means for the crucifixion?

  3. Hi Martin, I neglected a lot for the sake of brevity. There is a very close tie between the OT sacrificial system and the atonement of Jesus. There are the parallels of innocence and substitution. In the OT system there is a forshadowning of the role of Jesus. As John the Baptist stated, Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I think the OT system also parallels the substitutionary view much better than the rasom view. IE the animals were obviously sacrificed to God, not to Satan.Your thoughts?

  4. I concur, though I am not sure whether it matches up to Anselm’s particular theory. For me, understanding the NT is primarily based in understanding the context provided by the old, and my primary understanding of atonement is based upon Christ being sacrifice. Still, I’ve found very little helpful material interacting with the Israelite sacrificial system.

  5. Jim

    I came to an understanding of Jesus dying for us, and became a Christian based on a study in high school Old Testament Bible of the Jewish sacrificial system.

  6. Great series. I agree with penal substitution as well. I suppose that if we started talking about how that substitution on the cross is delivered to us…the brevity of your series might be lost, Pizza Man.

  7. Hi,I agree with the criticisms you post, but the biggest is that Penal-Sub has no basis in Scripture.I’m finishing up a debate with a Calvinist on this issue: know some Arminians hold to P-Sub, but really only the Reformed side is systematic about it.

  8. Nick, That’s a pretty bold statement to simply say and move on. Do you not see a degree of Biblical support in the nature of the OT sacrificial system?

  9. JC:That’s a pretty bold statement to simply say and move on. Do you not see a degree of Biblical support in the nature of the OT sacrificial system?Nick: Sorry if it came off too bold, but I stand by what I said re P-Sub. I’d be happy to go into more detail if you or others would like.Regarding seeing Penal Substitution from a OT sacrificial view, a significant chunk of my debate with the Reformed apologist consisted in me showing clear Biblical evidence that the OT sacrifices did not use a P-Sub framework. For example, the Passover Lamb had nothing P-Sub about it, God’s wrath was never on the Israelites (Ex 11:4-7) nor was the Lamb an object of wrath, as far as the Scapegoat goes the fact is it was kept alive, which is the last thing one would expect if P-Sub was the system, lastly in Lev 5:7,11 says if someone cannot afford a lamb for their sin offering then they must bring a sack of flour (something that cannot be killed), which is very shocking if Penal Substitution was the system. Trust me, I’ve looked into this to try and follow the Scriptures as closely as possible. It is wrong to project a Penal Substitution on the OT (esp the sacrifices), but sadly that is what many have done. You are in for a big surprise once you dig deeper into Scripture on this issue.

  10. Hi Nick, thanks for stopping by. I do hold to the penal satisfaction view, but see value in the other theories as well.You are right that Arminians as a rule are less committed to the PS view than the Reformed are.I took a quick look at your blog, and will peruse it further when I’m not at work. It is nice to see a Roman Catholic with a high view of scripture (that is meant as a compliment). :)God bless,Kevin

  11. Pingback: Book Review: Arminian and Baptist, Explorations in a Theological Tradition by J. Matthew Pinson | Wesleyan Arminian

  12. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | Book Review: Arminian and Baptist, Explorations in a Theological Tradition by J. Matthew Pinson

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