Atonement Demands a Payment

The Scriptures seem to be fairly clear in their teaching about the death of Christ – something like the concept of a payment is involved in Christ’s death for our sins. It is this concept that is at the center of almost every debate on the atonement I know, both historic or modern.

Take the moral influence theory of Christ’s death. This view, originally advocated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) agreed with Anselm in his rejection of the idea that a ransom was paid to Satan. (We should realize that this notion of paying Satan was a development that grew out of the teaching of early church fathers about Christ’s ransom but it was not the clear and consistent teaching of most of them.) Abelard believed Anselm’s version of satisfaction portrayed God as angry and vengeful. (This concept seems to me to be retained by much of the conservative Reformed community, though it is rejected by most mainstream modern Reformed writers such as T. F. Torrance, etc. )

Abelard’s view was that human beings needed to see the full extent of God’s love so Christ died to reveal the love of God. Quoting a contemporary scholar we can hear this view in the following sentence: “The divine love which is exhibited in the death of Christ provokes a response of love in the sinner which overcomes his contempt of God” (J. Patout Burns, “The Concept of Satisfaction in Medieval Redemption Theory,” Theological Studies 36 [1975]: 290).

A number of other theories developed throughout the medieval period of church history but most historians believe that each of these was ultimately a variation on one of the three classical views of Christ’s atonement: Christus Victor/Ransom, Satisfaction and Moral Influence. The great Thomas Aquinas, and the mainstream Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, embraced (on the whole) the Satisfaction Theory of Christ’s atonement. In the nineteenth century revivals this theory was openly challenged. These writers rejected what they believed to be a view of God that was too exacting and thus led to the understanding that God had to be “bought off” by the death of Jesus. This caused more than a few writers to suggest that the atonement had nothing to do with the wrath of God. The problem with these views is that while they make God more approachable the idea of payment, which seems to pervade the theme in the Scripture, is lost.

imagesWhat if there is in fact a payment that is made but it is not made to Satan, to God or even to human beings? What if, asks my good friend James P. Danaher, “the payment [is one that] forgiveness requires” (James P. Danaher, Eyes That See, Ears That Hear. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Triumph, 2006, 98). Here is how Danaher expands this question:

With forgiveness there is certainly a payment, although not necessarily a payment to any specific person (or deity). When one person does harm to another, the relationship between them is damaged or destroyed. Someone must pay for the harm that has been done. There is, however, an option concerning who will pay for the offense. It could be, as in the case of civil justice, that the guilty pay for the harm they have done to the innocent. In some cases, justice merely brings closure, and not restoration. The other option is for the innocent, who has suffered no harm, to be willing to absorb that hurt and not demand retribution. The harm the innocent willingly suffers is able to restore the relationship insofar as harm terminates with the innocent’s willingness to suffer the offense. Thus the victim “pays” for the harm that has been done, and the relationship is restored between the innocent and the offender. A payment is made, but it is not made to a specific person (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 98).

I’ll say more about this view tomorrow but I urge you to consider it. It takes serious the “offense of sin” against God and it takes seriously the need for sin to “be paid for” in real sense. If a person is harmed, by a great offense, justice must be served. But what if the guilt is too great to pay for the offense by granting justice. The only way the family of a murder victim can ever begin, or hope to restore, a relationship with the perpetrator of the crime is to truly forgive the offender. The guilty party cannot pay back for their great harm. But forgiveness goes far beyond justice. The innocent person can choose, through the power of divine forgiveness rightly understood and given, to have a relationship of love with the very person who has done so much harm to them.

In our case we are vile and condemned sinners who deserve justice but God forgives us because of his great love. The payment he makes to do this is the death of his own son.

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