Today, Christians celebrate Good Friday, recalling the Death of Christ on the Cross for our sins. Virtually all Christians agree that Christ’s Death is an atoning Sacrifice for our sins. But Catholics and Reformed Protestants understand the nature of that Sacrifice very differently. Is Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross the outpouring of the Father’s wrath upon His innocent Son? Or is it the Son offering up the perfect Sacrifice of Charity? Why do we think that Christ’s Death is capable of atoning for our sins, anyway?
The penal substitution view taken by many Protestants (primarily Calvinists) is that on the Cross, God the
Father pours out His hatred and wrath upon Jesus. Here’s how Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll explains (and defends) this view of the Atonement:
God’s wrath begins in this life as He simply allows us to live out of our sin nature without stopping us (Rom. 1:18, 24, 26). God’s wrath continues to burn against us, forever (Deut. 32:21-22; John 3:36; Eph. 5:6; Rev. 14:9-11). The place of God’s unending active wrath is hell, which Jesus spoke of more than anyone in the Bible as an eternal place (Matt. 25:46) of painful torment (Matt. 8:11-12), like taking a beating (Luke 12:46-48), getting butchered (Matt. 24:50-51), and burned (Matt. 8:29; 13:49-50; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 16:19-31) by Jesus (Matt. 8:29; Mark 1:24; 5:7; Rev. 14:10). Because God’s angry wrath is just, God is not obligated to lovingly forgive anyone, as is the case with fallen angels who have no possibility of salvation (2 Peter 2:4).But, because God is loving, merciful, and kind, He has chosen to save some people. Furthermore, salvation is defined as deliverance by God from God and His wrath (Rom. 5:9-10). To both demonstrate His hatred of sin and love for sinners, Jesus averted the wrath of God by dying on the cross as a substitute for sinners.
So sin arouses the Father’s wrath, and He can either justly pour it out on the sinners who deserve it, or “mercifully” pour it out upon Jesus, who is innocent. Let’s consider some of the problems with this view:
It means that God isn’t just. Wrath for the wicked is just, but wrath for the innocent is unjust. If a
judge imposed the death penalty on the defendant’s brother, we wouldn’t herald him for his mercy to the defendant. We’d recognize that he was acting unjustly. God’s Mercy cannot act contrary to His Justice, so this view can’t be right.
It means that God isn’t all-good. Imagine an enraged man so furious over some offense that he’s swinging wildly: he doesn’t care who he hits, he just wants to hit somebody. Penal substitution risks reducing God to that sort of madman. Don’t get me wrong: there’s no merit to that “A loving God would never punish the wicked” line. But it’s certainly true that “A loving God would never pour out His wrath upon an innocent victim.” As Bryan Cross put it, “One problem with the Reformed conception is that it would either make the Father guilty of the greatest evil of all time (pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man, knowing that he is innocent), or if Christ were truly guilty and deserved all that punishment, then His suffering would be of no benefit to us.”
It would seem to require Christ to be damned. If the Atonement is about the outpouring out of God’s “unending active wrath” upon His Son, this would seem to require the damnation of Christ. Certainly, that was John Calvin’s view:“Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. […] Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.” But the notion that God can go to Hell is incompatible with everything we believe about Hell; the notion that God can damn God is incompatible with the Trinity and the innocence of Christ.
It makes no sense of the Trinity. God’s Triune nature works something like this: the Father gives everything (but His Fatherhood) to the Son, as Lover and Beloved, Begetter and Begotten. This communication of Persons is the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Penal substitution introduces a rupture into the Trinity, in which there’s a divorce between the Father and the Son. That sort of rupture isn’t possible, if we properly understand the Trinity as eternal, simple, and unchanging. Cross again: “If God the Father was pouring out His wrath on the Second Person of the Trinity, then God was divided against Himself, God the Father hating His own Word. God could hate the Son only if the Son were another being, that is, if polytheism or Arianism were true. But if God loved the Son, then it must be another person (besides the Son) whom God was hating during Christ’s Passion.” And since the Persons of the Trinity are in complete union, “if the Father has wrath for the Son, then the Son must have no less wrath for Himself.”
It reduces Christianity to human sacrifice. The Aztecs offered up human victims to appease the gods. Abraham was willing to do the same with Isaac, but was stopped by God. Jews and Christians rightly reject this sort of human sacrifice as barbaric, and contrary to the will of the God of Abraham. Penal substitution ultimately reduces Christianity to something akin to human sacrifice: we kill Jesus to appease the Father.
It doesn’t require repentance. A former professor used to say, “You can speed all you want. You just have to be willing to pay the penalty when you get ticketed.” Likewise, in this penal substitution view, we can do whatever we want, knowing that Christ will pay the penalty.
The penal substitution view is all about paying the Father with blood: the emphasis is on the offering of a sacrifice, rather than the turning of hearts. That’s exactly the wrong view, according to several parts of Scripture. For example, Hosea 6:6 says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.” And Hebrews 5:5-7 applies this passage to Christ’s relationship to the Father: “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’ as it is written of me in the roll of the book.” And Christ twice sends His hears to go learn the meaning of “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13; Matt. 12:17).
|Simon Vouet, The Crucifixion (1622)|
Catholics more or less agree with the Reformed on the first half of the equation. By willingly sinning against God, we merit the “wages of sin,” death (Romans 6:23). We fall short of the glory of God, and God could justly condemn us for our rebellion.
But we disagree with how Christ solves this problem. We view the Incarnation and Passion of Christ as a manifestation of the Father’s love rather than His wrath, as John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This view of the Atonement better accounts for the Justice of God, the Goodness of God, and the relationship between Persons of the Trinity. Bryan Cross provides this helpful chart:
How does this work, exactly?
Imagine that your neighbor reckless crashes into your car, damaging or destroying it. In justice, you can demand that your neighbor compensate you, and repair the damage. But perhaps your neighbor can’t do that: he can’t afford to repair the damage that he’s done (just as we can never merit to repair the damage done by sin).
|Michaelangelo, Crucifixion (1540)|
This creates quite a conundrum. In justice, you can hold this debt against your neighbor forever, but it’ll never get paid. But imagine that a mutual friend comes along on behalf of your neighbor and gives you a newer, nicer car. This satisfies the debt: you don’t need to hold out for your neighbor to pay. And your friend isn’t being punished. You’re not pouring out your wrath on your friend. You’re not furious with him for crashing into your car (which he didn’t do). Instead, he voluntarily offers a gift to you on behalf of your neighbor, reconciling the situation. If anything, such a selfless gesture should draw you closer to your friend: and it should certainly draw your neighbor closer to this selfless friend.
So it is with Christ, the Friend who reconciles us to the Father. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains:
A sacrifice properly so called is something done for that honor which is properly due to God, in order to appease Him: and hence it is that Augustine says (De Civ. Dei x): “A true sacrifice is every good work done in order that we may cling to God in holy fellowship, yet referred to that consummation of happiness wherein we can be truly blessed.” But, as is added in the same place, “Christ offered Himself up for us in the Passion”: and this voluntary enduring of the Passion was most acceptable to God, as coming from charity. Therefore it is manifest that Christ’s Passion was a true sacrifice. Moreover, as Augustine says farther on in the same book, “the primitive sacrifices of the holy Fathers were many and various signs of this true sacrifice, one being prefigured by many, in the same way as a single concept of thought is expressed in many words, in order to commend it without tediousness”: and, as Augustine observe, (De Trin. iv), “since there are four things to be noted in every sacrifice–to wit, to whom it is offered, by whom it is offered, what is offered, and for whom it is offered–that the same one true Mediator reconciling us with God through the peace-sacrifice might continue to be one with Him to whom He offered it, might be one with them for whom He offered it, and might Himself be the offerer and what He offered.”
Christ offers the perfect Sacrifice to the Father through His total self-sacrifice, and it is critical that it is done out of love. Using charity, rather than wrath, as the lens through which to understand sacrifice is crucial. It explains how we can “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb. 13:15; 1 Macc. 4:56), a concept that wouldn’t make sense if we understood a sacrifice as an object of God’s wrath. This is also how David explains God’s desire for sacrifice in Psalm 51:16-17:
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
So a penal sacrifice intended to satisfy some sort of imagined Divine bloodlust doesn’t please God. Charity and repentance does, and the epitome of charity is Good Friday. In love, Christ reconciles us to the Father. In love, the Father delights in His Son’s selflessness on the Cross, and accepts it as a satisfaction of the debt incurred by our sins. This reconciliation is where the word “atonement” comes from. Once we are reconciled, we are “at one” with each other. And that is why Good Friday is so Good.
This view also explains why salvation is offered to men, and not fallen angels, but that is a conversation for another time (in short, our intellects operate in time, theirs do not, and so their choice is permanent, as ours will be at death).