Good Friday: A Superabundant Atonement (Part I)

Guest author Matthew Nagle

How does Christ’s death on the Cross save us from our sins?

Several months ago, I wrote a piece arguing for the Catholic “satisfaction” understanding of the Atonement (in which Christ lovingly pays for our debt) and argued against the Calvinist “penal substitution” model (in which the Father pours out His wrath at sins upon His Son). Michael Taylor, a Calvinist blogger at Fallibility, responded with a two-part post (part I, part II) critiquing my original post, and defending penal substitution. It was thoughtful and well-written response that got some important things wrong: about the Catholic view, about the implications of the Reformed view, and about the nature of God.

Fortunately, one of my brother seminarians, Matthew Nagle, is writing his thesis on a closely-related issue involving Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Hans Urs von Balthasar’s soteriology, and his understanding of the Atonement. As a result, he knows this topic intimately, and he volunteered to set the record straight. I’ve broken his response into two parts: Part I (today) will address the themes of justice and punishment; Part II (tomorrow) will address the Holy Trinity and hell. Without further ado, here is Part I:

A few days ago Michael Taylor over at Fallibility wrote a two part response to what he termed an “anti-Reformed hit piece” by Joe Heschmeyer entitled “How Does Good Friday ‘Work,’ Exactly?” Taylor begins his piece by claiming that Joe Heschmeyer is setting up a false dilemma: the Redemption was either penal substitution or the sacrifice of charity. Instead Taylor counters that these are simply two aspects of a larger reality. There is a sense in which he is right, in that the Redemption is a mystery admitting of several aspects, however, one of those several aspects is not penal substitution. In what follows I propose to look at several inconsistencies in the penal substitution model (and in Taylor’s response). More specifically, I see penal substitution as admitting of inconsistencies with regards to justice, punishment, hell, and the Trinity.

I. Justice

With regards to justice and the Atonement, Taylor writes:

Here is how we think he did it: As for his justice, he accepted Jesus’ “sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26) as reparation for our sins. The demands of divine justice were thereby satisfied, not by appeasing God’s wrath, but rather by taking it upon himself. In this way God’s wrath was averted toward sinners. In this way Jesus’ self-sacrifice was a propitiation. I would also say that instead of appeasing or averting divine wrath, he instead diverted it toward himself, so that the demands of justice could be fulfilled. 

As for his mercy, this what the elect received instead of justice. It is the flip side of the same coin. If Jesus gets the wrath, then because he does, we are shown mercy precisely because we have been spared the wrath that was otherwise our due.

Now the important thing to highlight here is the problematic phrase “the demands of justice.” In short, justice makes absolutely no demands on God, because He is Justice itself. Taylor, in a later section, will basically say as much (and seemingly contradict the above paragraph) when he writes, “I think you’ll agree that there is no standard of justice that [is] higher than God.” Yet later on, he seemingly contradicts himself again when he writes that “because God is just, sin has to be punished. To be true to his own character, God can’t simply forgive sin, which would indeed would [sic] be mercy without justice.” Therein lies the first of many problems with penal substitution: God could have forgiven our sins without denying His justice and he would have still been “true to his character.”

Let’s turn to St. Thomas Aquinas (who Michael Taylor refers to as “Tommy Aquinas”) for clarification. Thomas raises the following objection, which he will, in turn, answer (ST, III, 46, art. 2, ad 3um):

God’s justice required that Christ should satisfy by the Passion in order that man might be delivered from sin. But Christ cannot let His justice pass; for it is written (2 Timothy 2:13): “If we believe not, He continueth faithful, He cannot deny Himself.” But He would deny Himself were He to deny His justice, since He is justice itself. It seems impossible, then, for man to be delivered otherwise than by Christ’s Passion.

In other words, the objection argues in a similar manner to Taylor: In order for man to be delivered from sin, the demands of justice had to be fulfilled. If God denies His justice He is denying Himself, which He can’t do. So if God’s justice required that man could only be redeemed by the satisfaction of Christ’s passion, then it would seem that this Atonement was necessary and inevitable. .

Fra Angelico, Christ the Judge (1447)

I also want to point out that there is a very important distinction between punishment and satisfaction which we will get into shortly, but for now let’s look at St. Thomas’ response to the objection:

Even this justice depends on the Divine will, requiring satisfaction for sin from the human race. But if He had willed to free man from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice. For a judge, while preserving justice, cannot pardon fault without penalty, if he must visit fault committed against another–for instance, against another man, or against the State, or any Prince in higher authority. But God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly. And so David exclaimed when he sought mercy: “To Thee only have I sinned” (Psalm 50:6), as if to say: “Thou canst pardon me without injustice.”

The key point is this: if God had willed to free us from sin without satisfaction, He could have done so, and in doing so would not be acting against justice – that is to say, denying Himself. To illustrate this point, St. Thomas gives the example of a judge who in justice “cannot pardon fault without penalty” in the case of a fault committed against a third party. But if the fault is committed against the judge, then he can pardon fault without penalty. What is true in the case of this judge is even more so the case with God because there is no higher authority than the One True God, and He is the offended party. Thus, if He forgives a fault committed against Him (i.e. sin) He acts mercifully and justly.

Let’s return to Taylor’s argument about the demands of justice and the Cross. Taylor claims that, “The demands of divine justice were thereby satisfied, not by appeasing God’s wrath, but rather by taking it upon himself…he instead diverted it toward himself, so that the demands of justice could be fulfilled.” Moreover, in order for Jesus to fulfill the demands of justice he “gets the wrath” that otherwise was our due. If Jesus didn’t “get the wrath” then God would be denying Himself, because He is justice. On the contrary, St. Thomas would respond that it wouldn’t be unjust for God to simply forgive us our sins without satisfaction.

But of course, God didn’t just simply forgive us. The question then is why the Cross? St. Thomas’ answer is that it was the most fitting way that we could have been redeemed. He writes (ST, III, 46, art. 3):

Guercino, Christ Crowned with Thorns (1622)

Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ’s Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man’s salvation. In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says (Romans 5:8): “God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners . . . Christ died for us.” Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): “Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps.” Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later (48, 1; 49, 1, 5). Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body.” Fifthly, because it redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): “Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will.

In other words, the Cross was the most fitting or best way to redeem mankind, but not because of strict justice (because, as we have seen, God could have pardoned us without any contradiction). The Cross was the best way to redeem us because (in addition to redeeming us) it also manifested the degree of God’s love for us, as well as the gravity of sin, and gave us a perfect example all a multiplicity of virtues, and on and on.

Now I am not saying that justice was in some way absent from the Cross – far from it (and we’ll get to how justice is properly at work in the Redemption). But another major problem with the penal substitution model’s conception of justice is that it sees God’s justice solely as retributive (at least in relation to the Passion). Why can’t retributive justice be exercised by the Father on the Son? Well, there are numerous issues here, but let’s take one that is often used against penal substitution: the Innocence of Christ.

It also happens to be a passage from the Summa quoted by Michael Taylor (albeit in the laughable context of trying to suggest the Angelic Doctor was promoting penal substitution), St. Thomas writes (ST, III, 47, 3, reply 1):

It is indeed a wicked and cruel act to hand over an innocent man to torment and to death against his will. Yet God the Father did not so deliver up Christ, but inspired Him with the will to suffer for us. God’s “severity” (cf. Romans 11:22) is thereby shown, for He would not remit sin without penalty: and the Apostle indicates this when (Romans 8:32) he says: “God spared not even His own Son.” Likewise His “goodness” (Romans 11:22) shines forth, since by no penalty endured could man pay Him enough satisfaction: and the Apostle denotes this when he says: “He delivered Him up for us all”: and, again (Romans 3:25): “Whom”–that is to say, Christ–God “hath proposed to be a propitiation through faith in His blood.”

Now St. Thomas does use the word penalty, but that doesn’t mean he is positing a soteriology based on penal substitution. Read in light of the entire article it shows us that “Christ suffered voluntarily out of obedience to the Father” (remember that for when we speak on punishment). St. Thomas then goes on to list three respects in which God the Father delivered Christ up to His Passion [ST, III, 47, 3 corpus]: “In the first way, because by His eternal will He preordained Christ’s Passion for the deliverance of the human race…Secondly, inasmuch as, by the infusion of charity, He inspired Him with the will to suffer for us… Thirdly, by not shielding Him from the Passion, but abandoning Him to His persecutors.

The Harrowing of Hell (14th c.)

Moreover, I would say that from reading this passage in the context of Thomas’ larger corpus we know he didn’t view the passion as the Father’s punishment on the Son because in other places Thomas clearly outlines the wickedness and injustice of punishing an innocent man in place of a criminal.

For example, in his commentary on 2nd Corinthians he writes, “it is obvious that if we were to punish the innocent, we would be standing against the truth and against justice” (Comm. in 2 Cor. 13, lect. 2, n. 531). Or in the Summa, St. Thomas writes (concerning the Descent): “It was fitting for Christ to descend into hell, not because he was liable to punishment, but in order to free those who were” (ST, III, 52, art. 1, ad 1um). So if something is wicked and unjust, can God do it? Of course not. That would be absurd, because He is Justice. If punishing an innocent man is wicked and unjust, and God is not wicked and unjust, then it follows that God won’t punish an innocent man.

Taylor does, however, try to answer this objection (my comments are in black):

First, the Roman Catholic model cannot explain how a loving, good God would permit the death of an innocent at all, even if his death were not a penal substitution [if you are speaking about the Passion, there is satisfaction (which we will get to soon); if you are speaking in general, then God permits evil to bring some greater good out of it]. Consider the problem by way of another imperfect analogy. If it were within your power to prevent unjust suffering, and you chose not to do so, then you could be liable to the charge of negligence. Now surely the all-knowing, all-powerful sovereign of the universe could have arranged matters in such a way as to spare Jesus the crucifixion [Yes…that is what St. Thomas says]. So it amounts to this: What really is the difference in the mind of the Roman Catholic between actively causing Jesus’ death and passively allowing it to happen when it could have been avoided? Is a sin of omission somehow more noble than a sin of commission?

Now who is trying to frame the debate as a false dilemma? But to answer the question, we’ve already outlined the Father’s role (He preordained the Passion by His will; by an infusion of charity He inspired Christ to suffer for us, and He permitted the Passion to take place – meaning He “did not shield Christ from the Passion). Moreover, Christ Himself tells us that He lays down His own life: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

However, Taylor has a second objection which revolves around Christ’s corporate solidarity and the imputation of guilt. In short, his argument is that in virtue of the faithful’s union with Christ, “our sins are his.” Therefore it follows that God wasn’t punishing an innocent man but a guilty one, because our sins are Christ’s. Thus, Taylor writes:

Therefore we conclude that God shows both mercy and justice precisely because sin is punished. It is punished when Christ bears our sins and accepts the consequent wrath due to sin. Because he is one with his people, there is a sense in which he is his people, and so in that representational and substitutionary sense, individual Israel (Christ) bears corporate Israel’s (our) sins. And thus mercy is granted while justice is satisfied. This is Penal Substitutionary Atonement in a nutshell.

In other words, in virtue of Christ’s union/identification with sinful mankind, He takes our guilt upon Himself in such a way that it makes the outpouring of the wrath of God justified.

Then the question becomes: is this what St. Paul meant when He said that Christ “became sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21)? I would argue that St. Paul is referring to Christ’s making satisfaction for sin when he speaks of Christ becoming sin – that is He redeemed us by himself being both the priest and the victim of the perfect atoning sacrifice. I would say this: St. Paul’s teaching on Christ “becoming sin” can’t mean both a penal substitution model and a satisfaction model because of the distinction between punishment and satisfaction that we will explore momentarily (it will also help explain how justice and mercy are at work in the Passion). Nevertheless, in an effort to shorten what is turning into a monstrous blog post I’ll suggest a good blog post concerning this topic.

II. Punishment and Satisfaction

St. Thomas’ writings on punishment reveal a stark contrast with penal substitutions idea of punishment (i.e.the Father’s wrath being poured out upon the Son). Thomas writes thatthe disorder of guilt is not brought back to the order of justice, except by punishment: since it is just that he who has been too indulgent to his will, should suffer something against his will, for thus will equality be restored” (ST, III, 86, 4). Earlier in the Summa he also writes that “punishment is essentially something against the will,” (ST, I-II, 87, 2). So if Christ willingly laid down his life for mankind, as both Scripture and the passage from St. Thomas quoted by Michael Taylor (“God the Father did not so deliver up Christ, but inspired Him with the will to suffer for us”) attests to, then it can’t properly be called punishment.

Maarten van Heemskerck, Man of Sorrows (1532)

Properly speaking, for punishment to be punishment it has to be against the person’s will; in other words, punishment is inflicted on a sinner as long as he is unrepentant (i.e. doesn’t make satisfaction for the wrong he is guilty of). Thus, for penal (punishment) substitution to be correct, the Father has to pour out His wrath on the Son, against the Son’s will (something Taylor wants to explicitly avoid when he qualifies that the Father’s wrath is poured upon but not against the Son).

To understand satisfaction, let’s take a quick look at what St. Thomas has to say about it (ST, III, 14, 1, reply 1):

The penalties one suffers for another’s sin are the matter, as it were, of the satisfaction for that sin; but the principle is the habit of soul, whereby one is inclined to wish to satisfy for another, and from which the satisfaction has its efficacy, for satisfaction would not be efficacious unless it proceeded from charity, as will be explained (XP, 14, 2). Hence, it behooved the soul of Christ to be perfect as regards the habit of knowledge and virtue, in order to have the power of satisfying; but His body was subject to infirmities, that the matter of satisfaction should not be wanting.

St. Thomas teaches that the distinction between satisfaction and punishment is twofold: Firstly, in the willingness of the one to offer satisfaction, and secondly in that for satisfaction to be effective it must proceed from charity. Put another way, the suffering one undergoes is the material principle of satisfaction, whereas the charity from which it proceeds is the formal principle.

In vicarious satisfaction, a person satisfies for the sin of another: the suffering undergone is the material principle and the procession from charity is the formal principle which makes the material principle efficacious. Moreover, there are two points pertaining to the solidarity of the guilty person and the person making satisfaction that need to be enumerated. To do this, I will appeal to an excellent book by the theologian Philippe De La Trinite OCD. In short, there must be a “natural or moral link between the guilty person and the person making satisfaction” and “this solidarity of the two together must be accepted by the person offended” (What is Redemption, 81). Now if Christ willingly endured the Passion, it can’t be seen through the prism of punishment qua punishment, but it can be understood through the prism of satisfaction, which fits nicely with St. Paul’s teaching on Christ “becoming sin,” because of the necessity of a “natural or moral link” between the guilty and the person making satisfaction. Finally, vicarious satisfaction shows how justice and mercy are united in the Passion, because vicarious satisfaction “envisage[s] the fulfillment of justice in virtue of merciful love while ensuring that he who makes it should not be liable to an infliction of retributive justice by the person offended” (What is Redemption, 80-81).


So that’s Part I of Nagle’s response. I’ll post the rest of his response (addressing questions related to the Trinity and hell) at 8 AM CST tomorrow. For now, feel free to add your reactions and questions in the comment box below: thanks!


  1. I note that none of these theories about atonement are a matter of defined doctrine. As long as a Christian believes that Christ’s sacrifice really effected our salvation, dissenting from a particular theory of how this came about is not problematic.

  2. Mary,

    I believe you are correct, as far as I know the Church has never formally defined one theory of atonement as true, but I wouldn’t say that penal substitution and satisfaction theory stand side by side as say the Jesuit and Dominican position in the De Auxiliis controversy.

    I argue that penal substitution is problematic but not because it dissents form infallibly defined teaching, but becuase of the theological ramifications of holing penal substiution – such as the punishment and execution of an Innocent man – Christ by God the Father. Two more problematic ramifcations will be discussed in the next post (Trinity and hell).

    1. One’s holding to one explanation or the other — or indeed holding them to be somewhat limited analogies that both have points of failure — can indeed stem from sin, but that is a consequence of one’s reasoning or failure to. It’s not merely holding the doctrine that’s problematic.

  3. Penal substitution is wrong because it removes the entire historical understanding of Christianity itself. If penal substitution is correct, then Christianity is a made up religion. Why do I make such bold claims? Because penal substition removes any need for a priest and/or mass. Christianity is historically (and scripturally) built upon the Mass. Luther came up with this ridiculous doctrine in order to allow people to feel like they were okay leaving the Church and rejecting the Mass. Penal substitution is man’s way of creating a new form of Christianity off the back of Catholicism without any of the requirements of Catholicism. Christ took God’s wrath for you and you are saved simply by thought and without any works necessary. (Works themselves DO NOT save someone and good works are only through the grace of God. This has been taughted repeatedly by Rome. However, if you have no good works are you truly a Christian? NO). Only Lucifer himself could influence man to come up with a lie where you think you are following Christ but in reality you are not. If there is no need for a priest and everyone is their own pastor, then penal substitution might have a shot. But such worldivew isn’t congruent with history or scripture. You will never get very far arguing with a Protestant over interpreting scripture on doctrines such as penal substitution. Where you can help them is by asking them why they believe the priesthood should have been dismantled and how Protestantism closely resembles rabbincal Judaism. That one will throw them for a loop since the Protestant mind cannot conceive of Judiasm as a sacrificial religion. Why? Because there is no longer a temple for animal sacrifice to take away sins in Judaism.

    1. cwdlaw223,

      I think you are on to something with an argument from the Mass. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is just that…a sacrifice. Sacrifice is utterly incompatible with punishment becuase for it to be a sacrifice involves the will (i.e. the willingness of Christ to lay down His life). Thus we can unite our sacrifices now to the One True Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, mystically presented again at every Mass and, in a sense, participate in that Perfect sacrificial offering of Christ (and thus a perfect act of worship) to the Father. If penal substitution were true, what woudl it mean for the Mass? Would it mean that we think of the Mass and our participation in it as a participation in the punishment of the Mass? That is absurd.

      Moreover, it feeds into your historical argument – the Mass has always been understood in terms of Sacrifice. Certainly I think there is ample historical evidence (i.e. the Fathers and the Scholastics) to show that penal substitution has no historical grounding, and the fact that the Mass has always been understood in terms of Sacrifice is another piece of evidence in favor the Church’s understanding of soteriology.

  4. If penal substitution were true then there wouldn’t be a need for the Mass itself. However, the Mass itself predated a fair amount of the New Testament which Protestants are using to disprove the need for the Mass. (I used to be Protestant). Luther didn’t want to comply/submit to Rome and only wanted to comply/submit to his version of Christianity. He, as well as Calvin, created a form of Christianity whereby people could break free from Rome and not feel like they were doomed to hell. There was nothing like this new form of Christianity ever in history and the reformers picked and chose certain half truths to make up their new form of Christianity. There is simply no historical AND universal whole of Protestantism. It is quite simply man’s attempt to put himself front to create his own Christian world without regard to any Church that was founded and created by Christ himself. If Christ failed with Rome he is a failure by his own words and not God. Man does NOT want God on God’s terms, he wants God on his terms. Life is so much easier if we can ignore history and make up our own world out of thin air. The rabbinical jews did the same thing as Protestants. Both looked to a book, after removing what books they didn’t like, and then tried to create a new form of worship from their interpretation of said book. The Bible wasn’t put together solely as a teaching document and yet that’s how Protestants view their incomplete Bible. The Bible was first and foremost put together to PRESERVE THE WORD OF GOD. That’s a big, but subtle difference. The Bible isn’t a cook book and to properly interpret it without regard to any holy Tradition is impossible. There are substantial epistemological issues at play that should be examined with Protestants before engaging in any type of exegsis with them. If your lens is crooked you will never see straight.

  5. Matt – Enough preaching on my part!!! I enjoyed your response and am not against exegesis with Protestants. I just find their worldview is often so skewed that it’s impossible for them to believe another interpretation could exist. History beat me down and helped convert me to Catholicism. I either close my eyes and live in fantasyland or else I submit to Rome. Christianity was much easier when I could make everything up myself. 🙂

  6. Nowhere in the O.T. do we see a lamb, bull, goat or dove whipped, spat upon or crowned with thorns prior to being immolated. The death of the brute was necessary only to get its blood. In the case of the Passover lamb, the animal was taken into the home and treated like a pet for four days before being killed. Even in the case of the scapegoat, there was no penal substitution.

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